Friday, November 13, 2015

Ebbets Guards the Gate - the Free Pass Gate

Anyone familiar with Charles Ebbets lengthy stewardship of the Brooklyn Dodgers knows the squire of Flatbush had the reputation of being a cheapskate.  The stories told in support of this characterization are legion, from his arguing over the cost of laundering the team's uniforms to his claim he was the only owner unable to afford a car.  Another incident contributing to this Scrooge like image was an interview that appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle early in the 1907 season.  As was typical for the day, the article didn't carry a by-line so its impossible to know if the writer was as naive about baseball and its ways as he claimed.  In any event, the self-proclaimed baseball novice asked Ebbets about his primary responsibilities as team president.  The Brooklyn owner responded by claiming his three highest priorities were to "dodge people who want passes to the base ball games" or if unsuccessful in dodging to "look pleasant and say agreeable things," but above all to "restrain myself from giving the requested pass."  Beyond dealing with this weighty problem, Ebbets dismissed the rest of his responsibilities as "merely perfunctory," which "give me no trouble whatever."

Baseball Hall of Fame Library - A. G. Mills Collection

Elaborating probably far beyond what most Eagle readers felt necessary, Ebbets claimed that over the last 25 years, he had granted only one pass that was truly justified and which wasn't even solicited.  That situation involved a disabled boy unable to reach the ticket window who was victimized by a wolf in Good Samaritan's clothing, who offered to take the boy's money and buy his ticket, but then absconded with the ducat.  Learning of the dastardly and unmanly deed,  Ebbets not only gave the lad a pass, but "put the little chap in the best seat in the grandstand."  Otherwise Ebbets claimed, he was importuned by everyone "from United States Senators to elevator boys and bootblacks," with "rich men ask[ing] for passes because they are rich, poor men because they are poor."  Ebbets did admit that no red-headed man had ever asked for a pass based solely upon his hair color, but, said Ebbets, "there is time for him yet."  There is, however, evidence that Ebbets was no soft touch for those seeking an "Annie Oakley."  The papers of F. C. Lane, editor of "Baseball Magazine," in the Baseball Hall of Fame Library, contain two letters from the Brooklyn president declining requests for a season pass.


Baseball Hall of Fame Library - A. G. Mills Collection

Clearly having spent most of the interview with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, Ebbets finally admitted the club had "a regular free list of over 500 names," obviously a source of dismay and/or embarrassment to the supposedly tightfisted magnate.  If, however, Ebbets attitude toward free passes was evidence of his cheapness, it painted his fellow owners with the same miserly brush.  The pass issue was frequently discussed at owners meetings throughout the period and in no little detail.  Just one example is a proposal Phillies owner William Baker brought before the December 1915 National League owners meeting which was deferred for further consideration and action in February of 1916.  The debate on the proposal and the issue easily filled over 100 pages of the stenographic record with almost universal desire to reduce the number of "dead heads" going through "the sewer" of the pass gate.  Baker's proposal which provoked all the debate would have required the home team to pay the visitors their share of the base ticket price for free admissions.  Since the home club hadn't received any offsetting revenue, the possible net cash loss got everyone's attention which Baker indicated was the real purpose of his proposal.

                                        Baseball Hall of Fame Library - F. C. Lane Collection

Since the ensuing debate was recorded more or less verbatim and the magnates thought no one was "listening," they openly shared information that otherwise would likely have remained confidential.  Perhaps surprisingly the largest number of free passes were given not to politicians or business cronies, but to the local newspapers.  Ebbets refusal to issue passes to weekly and monthly publications was well justified by the apparently insatiable needs of the New York City press.  Brooklyn itself had four daily papers covering the Superbas which wouldn't have been so bad by itself, but he also had to provide for the hard to envision 16 daily newspapers in Manhattan.  Unlike the Giants and Yankees owners, Ebbets had to satisfy all 20 papers, a fact he never tired of sharing with his peers.  The problem was exacerbated by the fact that each publication got an average of 20 passes, not counting the reporters actually covering the game.  Nor was there much that could be done about it as the newspaper publishers considered the passes the only payment received for all the "free advertising" given to the baseball clubs.  One estimate was that theaters paid for 100 lines of advertising for every three purchased by the ball clubs.

                                        William Baker - owner of the Philadelphia Phillies

The second biggest group receiving free passes was also something of a surprise as the number of passes given to clergy also exceeded those given to politicians.   Ebbets didn't provide any figures, but the Cincinnati club reportedly gave out 300 passes to clergy which should have covered the complete ecclesiastical spectrum.  While the magnates might have been able to reduce the number in this category, there was unanimity that regular clergy attendance was worth the lost revenue.  Presumably clergy attending games was another form of free advertising, an endorsement that attendance at baseball games was a socially and morally acceptable activity.  Certainly Ebbets maintained good relationships with Brooklyn clergy including a Roman Catholic priest, a Rabbi and a Protestant minister who sometimes sat together in "clergy row" at Ebbets Field.  Ebbets also paid attention to elected officials as he felt local approval of Sunday baseball was on the horizon and he wanted the legislators on his side.  There were, however, limits in Ebbets largess in this regard as Phillies owner Baker and Boston owner, James Gaffney good-naturedly complained that Ebbets refused to give them passes when they held political office in New York City 

                             Typical Brooklyn Baseball Ad - Brooklyn Daily Eagle - June 1915

But for all the talk and complaining, how much did these lost admissions really cost Ebbets and his fellow owners?  Here again the meeting transcripts shed some light on the subject.  The Brooklyn owner told his peers that in 1915, non-paying individuals passed through his turnstiles some 24,361 times out of total attendance of about 300000.  If the average admission was 50 cents, that means total potential gate receipts were reduced by just over $12,000 or about 8% of total possible revenue.  It's not an insignificant amount, especially given the fact that 1915 was the height of the Federal League War and the Superbas in head-to-head competition with the Brookylyn Tip Tops of that circuit.  According to Ebbets, the Tip Tops were so desperate to be able to claim higher attendance than Ebbets' club that delivery trucks for Ward's bakeries (the owners of the Federal League club) were giving out free passes while delivering baked goods.  Ultimately, the National League owners adopted pass limits for 1916 with a maximum financial penalty of $500, but it certainly didn't end concern or debate over the issue.

Theater Ad - Brooklyn Daily Eagle - June 1915

Reading and thinking about the discussion, it appears the largest categories of passes were simply a cost of doing business that couldn't be avoided.  For the owners the real issue was passes the holder gave to someone other than the intended recipient.  Baker tried to solve this problem with some success by giving 40 game passes rather than the full 77, reasoning that no one person would use all 77, but if limited to 40 there would be less incentive to give the pass to another person who probably didn't merit free admission.   Was the attitude about passes and "dead heads" evidence that Ebbets and his brother (and one sister) owners were cheap?  The numbers above suggest it was a legitimate concern, reflecting once again how much the owners depended on gate receipts for revenue.  It's also important to note that when the issue is a large volume of quarters (small change to us today), each quarter lost is viewed not just on its own, but in multiples thereof.  All in all, it doesn't lead to definite conclusions about whether or not Ebbets was cheap, but it opens a window on his world and that of his fellow magnates.  


  1. Hey man, I just wanted to say that I loved your blog. I wanted also to ask you, whether you consider writing down some contemporary history of baseball? What would really interest me is your take on DFS and daily lineups websites and stuff like that.

  2. Thanks, glad you enjoy it. Unlikely the blog will ever move much past 1925.