Sunday, April 12, 2015

Fan Fests and Spite Fences

Photo by Mark Granieri

Much in base ball has changed since the original Elizabeth Resolutes and Flemington Neshanock first took the field back in the 1860's and 1870's, but one thing that never changes is the game's ability to be surprise us.  On Saturday, the modern versions of the two clubs met for their annual match at the Somerset Patriot's Fan Fest in Bridgewater Township, New Jersey.  Historically these contests have been intensely played high scoring affairs reflecting the fact that it's very early in the season with neither club having much in the way of pre-season practice.  This year, however, while there were probably less practices than usual (zero in the Neshanock's case) the two teams played an equally intense, but this time low scoring, cleanly played game.  

Photo by Mark Granieri

After retiring the Resolutes in the top of the first, Flemington took the lead thanks to the base running of Chris "Sideshow" Nunn and a sacrifice fly from Dan "Sledge" Hammer.  A second Flemington run crossed the plate in the bottom of the second this time featuring the base running of Danny "Batman" Shaw and a key hit from "Jersey" Jim Nunn.  Elizabeth rallied in the top of the fourth, however scoring twice to tie the match at 2-2.  It didn't stay tied long as the Neshanock quickly countered with two more runs in the bottom of the inning for a 4-2 lead they held until the top of the eighth.  Elizabeth was far from done, however, as the Resolutes rallied for three aces to lead the match 5-4 going to the bottom of the eighth.  Once again the Neshanock answered as  singles by Rene "Mango" Marerro and Mark "Gaslight" Granieri put runners on second and third with only one out.  The term "productive out" probably wasn't used in the 19th century, but that's exactly what Danny "Batman" Shaw delivered with a line drive to right that the fielder caught one bounce as the two Neshanock runners crossed the plate.

Photo by Mark Granieri

Although up one headed to the ninth, the Neshanock still needed three outs to close out the match which given the history of this rivalry weren't going to come easily.  After the lead off batter singled to put the tying run aboard, Ken "Tumbles" Mandel, Tom "Thumbs" Hoepfner and Dave "Illinois" Harris turned what today would be a 4-6-3 double play (11-3-6 in 1864 scoring) for two out and no one on.  On the edge of the precipice, the Resolutes' resolve didn't falter as the next batter reached safely again putting the tying run on base.  Fortunately for Flemington after coming close twice, "Mango" came up with a foul fly to end the match for a hard earned Flemington win.  In addition to winning the match, Flemington welcomed back John "Hammer" Hepner who returned from a year's sabbatical devoted to building his Thai Food empire.   The match was intensely, but respectfully played by both clubs, a fine day of base ball any time of the year, but especially so this early in the season.  Next week the Neshanock visit Old Bethpage Village on Long Island to defend the New York - New Jersey Cup held by Flemington since 2013.  

Photo by Mark Granieri 

Playing 19th century base ball at a modern ball park is always something of a time warp experience and what stood our for me this time was how the locations of ball parks like TDBank have a lot to do with using a combination of adequate parking and good access roads to bring fans to the game.  Back in the 19th century, the situation was reversed as the game had to be brought to the fans whose transportation options were limited and usually inefficient.  It was a lesson the Brooklyn Base Ball Club's owners learned at great cost when as part of the merger agreement with the Brooklyn Players League Club in late 1890, they agreed to move their home games to Eastern Park in East New York.  It marked the beginning of seven long seasons in the financial wilderness at a location so remote that according to an article in Sporting Life, a fan traveling from Manhattan had to leave home before breakfast with no hope of arriving home for dinner.  

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - April 16, 1899 - note the canvass screens in right field

It was no surprise, therefore, that when Charles Ebbets took over in early 1898, his highest priority was moving the club to a more centralized location.  To Ebbets' credit, he was not only able to pull this off at little direct cost, but was also able to return to the south Brooklyn neighborhood the team had previously called home.  Especially impressive was the speed with which Ebbets accomplished this feat, even allowing for the fact that wooden ball parks could be built relatively quickly especially if the site itself was level and clear of obstructions.  By March 15, 1898, Ebbets had not only signed a lease with the Litchfield Estate for a new Washington Park adjacent to the old one, but had also arranged the financing through the help of local subway and trolley companies.  A ground breaking followed on March 24th and only a little over a month later, Washington Park hosted the club's home opener against the Phillies on April 30th.

Washington Park in its later years, showing the size of the adjoining apartment building 

A year later Ebbets freely admitted the whole thing had happened so quickly that not a great deal of attention was paid to many of the details.  As a result Ebbets may have been surprised to learn on opening day in 1898 that he had some silent partners, silent in terms of their financial investment, but not in getting a piece of the action.  Located directly beyond the right field wall was an apartment building where, according to the New York Times, tenants opened their windows and fire escapes to 200 fans at a cost of 10 cents each, less than half the price of the cheapest seat inside the park.  Ebbets was not one to let grass grow under his feet when money was at stake so while the club was on its first western trip, the Brooklyn owner had a line of poles "many feet in height," erected on the right field wall to which were attached large pieces of canvass.  The false fence was intended to achieve two financial goals, keep home run balls inside the park and put an end to the entrepreneurial tenants most of whom, according to the Eagle, were Italian immigrants doing such a land office business that they would shortly be able to retire to their homeland "to live in affluence."

Another view of Washington Park, showing the clear view the upper floors of the apartment building had of the field 

Apparently it wasn't a total success as in his seminal work, Ballparks of the Dead Ball Era, Ron Selter notes that the canvass screen was removed after the 1901 season.  However, as the club's finances began to deteriorate in the early 1900's Ebbets tried again, prior to the 1905 season, when the right field wall was raised 20 feet ostensibly to keep balls in the park, but more likely to limit the ticket selling opportunities in the apartments.  As can be seen in the accompanying pictures (click to enlarge them), the building was high enough to make it impossible to eliminate completely the lost gate receipts.  Casey Stengel's account of his first major league game at the end of the 1912 season (and the end of Brooklyn play at Washington Park) emphasized the fans watching from the fire escape either for free or at least without paying at least a quarter to the Brooklyn owner.

Shibe Park before the "spite fence"

In some ways this sounds like an example of Ebbets legendary "cheapness," but there are at least two other factors that merit some consideration.  Part of the reason these actions seem almost petty is the amounts involved are almost infinitesimal to us today.  It appears almost incredible that it would matter whether the base admission should be 25 cents or 50 cents, but that debate went on for years especially in Philadelphia.  The same is true of the amounts of fines, prices for acquiring players and the level of financial profits or losses. For example, total hotel and travel (railroad) expenses for an 1899 western trip were only about $1500.  A second factor is something, I've mentioned before, the absolutely crucial role that gate receipts played in a club's success or failure.  Friday I had the opportunity to go through the Superbas' financial records for 1899 (that's another story) and almost without exception the only sources of revenue were home ticket sales and Brooklyn's share of the gate receipts for away games.  200 lost admissions at 25 cents each is only $50, but it clearly wasn't what today we might call "chump change."

1935 "spite fence"

Ebbets was also hardly the only one to do this.  Connie Mack and the Shibes faced much the same problem when they opened Shibe Park in 1909, again involving the right field wall, although this time, the buildings weren't anywhere near as high, leaving the roof as the only alternative seating.  As the pictures above show, when it came to the World's Series, a fairly frequent occurrence in Philadelphia in those days, a lot of people opted for the alternative.  As attendance dipped during the depression, management had enough and added a 22 foot high sheet of corrugated iron on top of the existing 12 foot wall.  Quickly labeled the "spite fence," by the media, it probably didn't make that much difference at the gate as the A's never reached their pre-depression levels of success before moving to Kansas City.

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