Monday, June 1, 2015

Baseball over Three Centuries

Since the beginning of April, my base ball life seems like it's being lived in three different centuries.  Week days usually mean researching Charles Ebbets and the Brooklyn Dodger teams of the first quarter of the 20th century while at least some of the evenings include following the up and down fortunes of the 2015 New York Mets.  If that isn't enough,  a portion of almost every weekend involves helping the Flemington Neshanock recreate 19th century base ball.  Sometimes I almost forget which century I'm in and this past week took things to a new level as I spent Memorial Day with the Neshanock, the rest of the week with Charles Ebbets and the weekend at Citi Field for two Mets games.  Under normal circumstances, I would have spent Sunday in Elkton, Maryland with the Neshanock, but granddaughters out rank almost anything so I was pleased to help escort Sophie Zinn to her second and third Mets games.  Unfortunately for the Neshanock, it was another lost trip to Maryland with Elkton winning both games by the scores of 19-13 and 11-8.  My sources tell me that Flemington played well, but once again were undone by the big inning aided and abetted by defensive lapses.

Sophie lives outside of Boston so most of her major league experiences have been at Fenway Park and, understandably, she told me that she was glad to finally see some games without the designated hitter.  After witnessing a Marlins victory in the Saturday contest, Sophie held on long enough on Sunday to see the Mets take the lead in what became a 4-3 win, bringing Sophie's lifetime (three years) record at Citi Field to 2-1.  In terms of helping her team win though, she has a long way to go before she catches up to her mom, Sarah Kaufman.  It's not as well known as it should be, but Sarah was instrumental in ending the Curse of the Bambino, as I wrote in the introduction to our book, The Major League Pennant Races of 1916

                 The Boston Red Sox had not won a World Series since 1918 when Sarah and
                  Paul moved to Boston in 2002, and Sarah became a Red Sox fan.  Since then,
                  they have won three, and since baseball fans are nothing if not superstitious, we
                  can't believe this is a coincidence.

If that isn't proof enough, two weeks ago when I was just about to give a base ball history lecture, a Red Sox fan asked me to thank Sarah for her part in ending the Curse.  Only a cynic would want any more evidence than that.

As one would expect, the direct interaction between fans and players during both Marlins-Mets games was limited to pre-game autographs and balls thrown into the stands at the end of innings.  The latter practice was unheard of during the Deadball Era and would have appalled Charles Ebbets and his peers some of whom had fans arrested for not returning foul balls.  Baseball owners of the time, or magnates as they were typically called, sometimes also had to deal with different and very unpleasant dynamics between players and fans.  Fans didn't hesitate to heap verbal abuse on players and those in uniform were no less reluctant to take exception to remarks they considered inappropriate.  An interesting example, which put Ebbets in a rather unusual position, took place on June 11, 1912 at Washington Park, the Superbas last season at the wooden facility in south Brooklyn.

American League Park in New York 

The game in question took place less than a month after a far better known and far more infamous incident between Detroit Tiger great Ty Cobb and a fan at American League park in New York City on May 15th.  From the very beginning of that game, Cobb was mercilessly berated by one Claude Lucker (or Lueker), a Tammany Hall page.  Lucker had been calling Cobb everything in the book when he ventured into forbidden waters with allegations that pushed Cobb past the breaking point which probably wasn't too high a bar in the first place.  Egged on by teammate and fellow future Hall of Famer Sam Crawford, Cobb went into the stands and began pummeling the hapless and helpless fan who was virtually defenseless because he had lost all but two of his fingers in a printing press accident.  Not surprisingly Cobb was suspended indefinitely by American League President Ban Johnson which provoked Cobb's Detroit teammates to go on strike.  Rather than forfeit an upcoming game in Philadelphia, Detroit cobbled together a team that was on the short end of a 24-2 pounding, metaphorically similar to the one which Lucker received at the hands of Cobb.  Fortunately Cobb convinced his teammates to get back on the field and rejoined them only 11 days after the New York incident.

According to an article in Sporting Life (a sports weekly similar to The Sporting News), the Cobb incident led to a new rule or at least new guidelines allowing players to ask the umpire for "protection from abuse by a spectator" which came into play during the June 11th game at Washington Park.  According to accounts in Sporting Life and the Eagle, umpire Clarence "Brick" Owens told a man in the box seats to leave the ballpark because of his verbal abuse of Superbas third baseman, J. Carlisle Smith.  Brooklyn club secretary Charles Ebbets' Jr. came forward to enforce the umpire's order, but it wasn't necessary as the man got up and left of his own volition.  He was not, however, alone.  According to the Eagle, 29 men and one women also left the ball park in support of the ejected fan.  It turned out the departing fans, including the offending spectator, were members of the Brooklyn Elks who had attended the game as a group.

After the game, umpire Owens told reporters that Smith had earlier threatened to go into the stands after the heckler.  Understandably anxious to avoid a repeat of the Cobb incident, Owens told the Superbas third baseman that he would do no such thing and directed Smith to identify the offender.  At least in this case the language didn't resemble that of the Cobb incident.  Sporting Life's correspondent claimed the man yelled, "Smith, you're a big bum, go soak your red head," while Smith said he had been called a "rough necked stiff," neither of which seem likely candidates for the top ten insults thrown at baseball players.  More important than the specific language, however, was the reaction of the sportswriters sitting in the nearby press box, who according to the Eagle's Tom Rice were "astonished" at the umpire's action since they hadn't heard anything objectionable.  Owens was clearly a no-nonsense umpire.  Five years later on June 23, 1917, he ejected both Babe Ruth and his catcher when they excessively objected to a walk to the opponent's lead off batter.  The replacement battery didn't fare too badly as catcher Sam Agnew threw out the runner trying to steal second and new pitcher, Ernie Shore, then retired the next 26 batters in order.

Clarence "Brick" Owens

While Owens may have thought his ejection of the Washington Park spectator was an equally decisive action, the Elks had no intention of letting it end there.  Harry C. Harris, a 26 year old physician wrote to the Eagle saying that he had been sitting next to the man, now identified as Matthew Belford, a master plumber, and had heard nothing that merited ejection from the ballpark.  The groundswell of support for Belford from his fellow lodge members quickly led to speculation that the Elks were going to boycott Superba games.  Complicating matters for Charles Ebbets was the fact that he himself was an active member of the Elks so that he was now caught in a dispute between one of his players, the umpire and his fellow lodge members.

Wisely, and perhaps somewhat out of character, the Brooklyn owner refused to make any immediate comment saying that it was between the umpire and the fan and, therefore, not his affair.  Most likely, Ebbets instead reached out to both the fan and the player to work out the situation behind the scenes.  In any event, not only was there no boycott, the next day Belford was back at Washington Park where he admitted he "had been somewhat hasty and over-enthusiastic in his rooting."  When the game was over, Ebbets brought Belford on to the field to meet the Brooklyn third baseman who "bore no animus"and the two shook hands.  Belford, who the brother of a Roman Catholic priest, probably had no desire for bad publicity and was glad to put the matter behind him.

 In a way the story captures an important difference between Ebbets and his fellow owners.  While I still have a lot to learn about Ebbets contemporaries, it seems most of them like John T. Brush and Barney Dreyfuss came into baseball after working in some other business or like Charles Comiskety and Connie Mack after a successful on-the-field baseball career.  By 1912, Ebbets had been working for the Brooklyn club for almost 30 years during which time, he not only lived in Brookyn, but also had become heavily involved in many different social, sporting and political organizations of which the Elks were just one.  While we don't know what relationship, if any, Ebbets had with Belford, the Brooklyn's president's deep roots in the community led to strong relationships with many of the club's fans, relations that went beyond the ballpark.  It's not going too far to suggest that Ebbets wanted to resolve the player-fan quarrel not just because it was good for business, but also because it was in the best interests of a community of which he was very much a part.

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