Thursday, February 26, 2015

In Search of Charles Ebbets

Research for the Ebbets biography began in January by working through over 40 years of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.  The Eagle was a primary source for my other two Dodger books which, at the time, meant scrolling through microfilm at the Alexander Library at Rutgers.  The relatively convenient access at Rutgers was a plus, but the recent, highly user friendly online access to the entire run of the paper through the Brooklyn Public Library was a God send.  Working at rate of roughly a year per day, I was able to search for Ebbets and related references from 1883 to 1925 in just over a month.  The end result was a huge amount of material which will be the starting point for more specific research on the key issues of Ebbets life in baseball.  The process also led me to a wide range of interesting items including an account of a 1915 speech Ebbets supposedly made on the history of base ball.  I posted the below article on Facebook which led John Thorn (Official Historian of MLB) to comment that the quotes were like Alexander Cartwright's plaque in the Hall of Fame - they are all incorrect.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - Mary 28, 1915

For me, the article is somewhat indicative of the challenge in finding the real Charles Ebbets or, for that matter, any historical figure.  It's hard to understand how Ebbets got it so wrong, not just in comparison to what we know today, but even in relationship to the "knowledge" of his time.  Ebbets never claimed to be a historian and it's unreasonable to expect him to have known about the Magnolia Club, the match games of October 1845 or the reported formation of a base ball club in Brooklyn as early as 1846.  There is, however, every reason to believe Ebbets was well aware of what we now call the Doubleday myth as well as the Knickerbockers to take just two examples.  Just two years earlier in anticipation of the opening of Ebbets Field in April of 1913, the Eagle published a series of articles called "The History of Baseball in Brooklyn," supposedly written by Charles Ebbets and edited by Thomas Rice, long time Superbas beat writer.  Based on the style of the early articles, it appears Rice may have done some of the writing as well as editing.  But regardless of who actually wrote it, the Doubleday story is included without any mention of some unnamed civil engineer inventing the base ball diamond.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - July 6, 1846

While the Knickerbockers were also mentioned in these articles which Ebbets must have read, even if he didn't write them, he also had much more direct knowledge of the pioneering Manhattan club.  The Ebbets family dates back to about 1700 in New York City with multiple branches and deep roots in the city.  Two older cousins, Arthur and Edward Ebbets, were actually members of the Knickerbockers before leaving for California during the late 1840's gold rush.  Their father, Daniel Ebbets Jr., often mistaken for Charles father, was an officer at the bank where Alexander Cartwright worked.  Given his ultimate career path, it's almost impossible to believe the game wasn't one of Charles' childhood interests and that he didn't hear about the Knickerbockers from his family.  It's hard to know if Ebbets audience and those who read the Eagle account of the speech thought his comments as far off base as we know they are today, but for me what's important is that the difference between his probable knowledge and what the article says he knew/said is somewhat symbolic of what seems to be a gap between Ebbets' public image and the real person.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - January 3, 1913

From his "salad days" with the Brooklyn club in the early 1880's through his taking over as club president in early 1898, almost every mention of Ebbets in the Eagle stresses his competence and reliability.  He was popular enough that the club and players played a special benefit game in 1897 for Ebbets' financial advantage, an idea wholeheartedly endorsed by Henry Chadwick himself.  After 1898, however, a somewhat different picture emerges, one quite similar to how the Brooklyn owner is usually portrayed today.  Among other things Ebbets is consistently described as one of the period's cheapest owners.  The most common contemporary source for this characterization are anecdotes repeated in Fred Leib's Baseball as I Have Known It.  Lieb was a well known sportswriter of the Deadball Era who went on to write multiple club histories as well as serving as correspondent for The Sporting News.  Yet I've seen at least once instance where modern research called into question the factual accuracy of some things in Lieb's book.  While financial return was clearly important to Ebbets as shown by his frequent comments that he was not in baseball for his health, there is ample evidence of his generosity and a willingness to reward good performance.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - September 4, 1897

Ebbets is also portrayed as a kind of clownish bumbler, one of the best examples is a well known story about a speech he gave at a December 1909 dinner honoring Pirate owner Barney Dreyfuss for the club's World Series championship.  According to the account in Frank Graham's The Brooklyn Dodgers: An Informal History, during a long winded dissertation, Ebbets proclaimed that "Baseball is still in its infancy," a remark which reportedly provoked heckling followed by gales of laughter which infuriated the short- tempered, sensitive Ebbets.  Graham went on to say that the writers "in their stories of the dinner quoted Charley," and the quote was definitely attributed to Ebbets by the Eagle for the rest of his life. Yet in reporting on the dinner the next day, the Eagle made no mention of the comment, rather stating that Giants owner, John T. Brush was originally supposed to speak on "Prosperity," but for some reason never made it to the dinner.  Ebbets was a last minute replacement and while unprepared "made a valiant effort to do justice to the subject." A sampling of other New York newspapers shows the Sun attributing the quote to Gary Herrmann, Reds owner and chair of the National Commission while both the Herald and the Tribune make no mention of it at all.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - January 3, 1911

Here again, the point is not whether Ebbets made the statement, it sounds like something he would have said, but rather the differences between the various accounts.  A big part of the issue, I think, is that Ebbets has seldom been a primary research target or at least not for a full length biography.  Researchers focused on other aspects of Dodgers history and other Deadball Era topics use original sources for their primary subjects, but rely, as they must, on books like those mentioned above.  That's not a criticism, there's really no choice unless the researcher is working without a deadline.  Lieb and Graham were both contemporaries of Ebbets, but their books provide no sources so its impossible to evaluate their accuracy.  Graham, in particular, includes large amounts of dialogue which it is highly unlikely he actually heard in person.  The challenge of how to use these sources is real and one I will have to deal with, but since this time Ebbets is the primary topic, the research, God willing, will produce a portrait as close as possible to the real person.  Stay tuned.   

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