Tuesday, March 31, 2015

"Greed for Gold" - Opening Day 1912

By definition a major league baseball club's opening day is a special occasion, even more special, not to mention historic, when it's also the opening of a new ball park.  To a lesser degree, the same can be said of the last opening day at a park marked for closure, if not demolition.  This depends, of course, on the age of the ball park and the number of opportunities fans had to collect memories of the first day of a new season.  As a result, the final opening day at the second incarnation of Washington Park in south Brooklyn was not an occasion for celebration or commemoration.  Built in 1898, the wooden structure had seen only 14 opening days by 1912 so that a 10 year old attending his first game with his father (and probably missing school to boot) was only 24 in 1912, hardly an age prone to nostalgia.  The Superbas' final home opener at 1st Street and 4th Avenue was still noteworthy, however, but not in a good way.  Fortunately, though, a bad situation didn't become worse and by the time of the historic opening of Ebbets Field, a year later, the "roaring farce" of the prior year was largely forgotten.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - April 12, 1912

Brooklyn's 1912 opening day opponents were their cross town rivals, the defending National League champion New York Giants, whose fans were understandably excited abut the prospects for the new season and another shot at playing in the World's Series, as it was called in those days.  Such thoughts were probably not even remotely on the mind of the average Superba fan, since their team was coming off another dismal second division finish.  Still, low expectations not withstanding, opening day always drew well, but Charles Ebbets and his employees clearly didn't envision the throngs determined to see the first National League game of 1912.  Reportedly the crowd began gathering about 10:00 for a game that wasn't scheduled to begin until some six hours later at 4:00.  By noon "a solid mass" of people was gathered on 3rd Street, doubtless including a large number of Giant fans.  When the gates finally opened at 12:30, the crowd quickly took all the available seats and then spilled out on to the field itself.  At the time it was customary to allow fans to stand beyond ropes in the far reaches of the outfield, but in little more than an hour, the mob covered almost the entire outfield, leaving insufficient space for the game itself.  At 2:30 the gates were closed keeping out frustrated and angry fans, some holding prepaid reserve seats, leaving "a solid black mass of fans" filling 3rd Street all the way to the "L" Station on 5th Avenue about three blocks away.

Far more of a problem than those on the outside, however, was the vast crowd within, far beyond the park's capacity.  According to Thomas Rice of the Eagle, the aisles in the grandstand were so crowded that any disturbance or alarm could have put "thousands in danger."  On hand for security purposes were an inadequate number special police, Rice called "a joke," plus regular police who declined to get involved because Washington Park was private property.  Equally dangerous and also preventing the start of the game was the number of fans on the playing field itself, occupying not just the outfield, but almost all of the foul territory.  Verbal appeals by Ebbets and Mayor Gaynor were ignored until finally, as Rice put it, the mayor "came out of his trance" and ordered the police to intervene.  However, Rice complained the officers acted as if they had no right to use force while a reporter from the Sun claimed "not a night stick was drawn."  The reality as the New York Times noted was that the police couldn't clear the field because the fans had not place to go.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - April 12, 1912

At one point some Brooklyn players took matters into their own hands, forming "a human chain, joined by bats" and began running across the field in an attempt to clear the playing surface.  While this opened up some space, it was not without human cost as an elderly man was hit in the head and a "little cripple" would have been trampled had not some friendly fans come to his rescue.  Finally enough room was cleared to allow the game to begin 1/2 hour late under extremely limiting ground rules.  As was typical for games played with fans on the field, any ball hit into the crowd was a ground rule double.  In this case, however, the fans were only about 60 feet beyond the base paths so as a New York Tribune reporter wrote, "any old fly" was a double.  All told 16 such extra base "hits" were recorded (12 for NY, 4 for Brooklyn), all of which the Times reporter claimed would have been outs under normal conditions.  That opinion might have not been entirely eye witness testimony since unless they stood up, the reporters view from the press box behind home plate was limited to sporadically being able to see the batter, pitcher and catcher.  Standing up, however, carried its own risks, provoking an aerial bombardment of "anything that was throwable, not excepting bottles."  At least they didn't have to pay for the privilege, like those who purchased box seats weeks ahead of time, but were only to get glimpses of the action.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - April 12, 1913

As the disparity in doubles suggests, the game itself wasn't close with the Giants taking a 5-3 lead after three innings and then erupting for 13 more runs to win 18-3.  Although some daylight still remained the umpire called the game for darkness after six innings, probably hoping to clear the field before it was completely dark.  Understandably crowd estimates varied widely, but there was a fair degree of consensus that there were 8-10000 fans on the field.  Equally understandably, the New York papers were relentless in their criticism of Ebbets and Brooklyn management with the Sun labeling it "gross mismanagement prompted by greed for gold."  Local writer Rice was more sympathetic, claiming the conditions were "abnormal" due to an crowd that couldn't have been foreseen.  Rice, a strong law and order advocate, saved his wrath for the refusal of the police to maintain order on private property, calling it "not a joke, but a crime."  Although Ebbets doubtless didn't like the criticism, he was equally upset about the lost revenue of the 20000 ticket buyers who couldn't be accommodated, telling the Sun, "I could just cry."  Preventing, or at least limiting the tears were the gate receipts of $18,000 (the equivalent of $446,000 in 2013).  It wasn't too shabby a day for the Giants either, who took home not only the victory but $7500 ($186,000 in 2013) as their share of the ticket sales

Rice had begun his account by noting that one game didn't make a season, but the pounding at the hands of the Giants anticipated another long season at Washington Park with another 7th place finish.  The Giants victory foreshadowed a second consecutive National League pennant for the New York club before their heartbreaking extra inning loss to the Red Sox in the last game of the World's Series.  If nothing else the Brooklyn owner learned from the experience as ample security was on hand for the gala opening of Ebbets Field a year later in an exhibition game with the New York Highlanders (Yankees).  Once again a large number were turned away (reportedly as many as 10000), but by day's end, Ebbets was happily counting quarters and anticipating equally large crowds in the future.

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