Thursday, January 14, 2016

"The Lure of the Footlights"

When the Warren Club of Roxbury, Massachusetts decided to form a literary society for the 1860-61 off season, the members were making a decision about time, not money.  Although little is known about the team, it's certain the Warren Club members didn't earn their livelihood on the base ball field so devoting time to a literary society was simply substituting one spare time activity for another.  As professional baseball developed, however, the decisions players made about how to spend the winter had greater financial implications.  Although Rogers Hornsby claimed he spent his time looking out the window, lesser paid players needed some source of income and others were interested in using the off season to make money especially if they could put their baseball notoriety to advantage.  One way which became very popular during the Deadball Era was going into vaudeville.  According to Messers Zoss and Bowman in Diamonds in the Rough: The Untold History of Baseball, the first baseball/vaudeville act featured "Turkey" Mike Donlin in a skit with singing comedienne Mary Hite (the two would later marry) called "Stealing Home."  Another baseball/vaudeville marriage was that of Rube Marquard and Blossom Seeley.  Eventually a number of well known baseball names entered vaudeville in one way or another including some seemingly unlikely candidates like John McGraw, "Cap" Anson and Ty Cobb.  In fact, the first chapter of Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, Charles Leerhsen's interesting look at the controversial baseball immortal begins with Cobb applying makeup for a vaudeville performance.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - January 24, 1911

Vaudeville, which was very popular from the late 1880's until the early 1930's, tried to offer entertainment that would appeal to the broadest possible audience including women and children.  To that end many vaudeville producers banned sales of alcohol and forbid any kind of "vulgar" material, with entertainers dreading the receipt of a "blue" envelope directing them to literally clean up their act.  As Robert Snyder wrote in the introduction to his book, The Voice of the City: Vaudeville and Popular Culture in New York, the whole industry was based on a simple idea "stage shows with something for everyone" which in practice meant a series of unrelated acts in theaters that sometimes operated around the clock.  Snyder further points out that since it was "a hybrid form of theater," vaudeville drew on audiences from a large range of subcultures for whom "going to vaudeville meant being part of the show."  This to a large degree explains why vaudeville was such a great financial opportunity for baseball players, some of whom offered precious little to the audience beyond their presence on the stage.  This was enough, however, for baseball was the country's most popular sport and a large number of paying customers were more than willing to part with their money just to be in the same space, especially one more intimate than a ball park, with one of their heroes.

George Crable about 1910

Status as baseball players also opened the vaudeville stage door to a smaller group who, because they could not fall back on their base ball achievements, had to provide real entertainment.  A case in point is George Crable who although not "Moonlight Graham," could boast of a major league career of only two games as a pitcher with the woebegone 1910 Brooklyn Superbas who finished a mere 40 games out of first place.  On August 3, 1910, the left hander, formerly of the Texas League, started against the St. Louis Cardinals and in spite of the fact that he hit two and walked four in 5 2/3's innings. managed to come away with a 5-3 win in front of less than 1000 fans.  The game itself was noteworthy as the last pitching performance of St. Louis manager, Roger Bresnahan, who although he was a Hall of Fame catcher began and ended his playing career as a pitcher.  Crable appeared in one more game, in what appears to be a mop up relief effort and like most players probably left Brooklyn for his off season home.  By early January, however, Crable was back with three minor league players, Bill Gleason, Tom Dillon and George Robertson to put on a vaudeville skit that Crable wrote and staged.

Houston Post - January 27, 1920

As described by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the skit starts after the morning game of a doubleheader which ended disastrously for pitcher Crable and his team.  The game was the latest in a long string of defeats due not to Crable's poor pitching (he's the author after all), but "hard luck" especially some bad defense by Gleason at third base.  As the other three disgruntled players wait in the locker room, they hear Gleason approach singing, "I Don't Care," which is the last straw for Crable who threatens Gleason with bodily harm.  Fortunately, however, the two make up and await the end of a rain delay before Crable starts the second game.  The interlude gives the four men a chance to "sing a few choice selections," with the Eagle praising their singing voices.  This is followed by some baseball jokes, "clever and up to date," as well as "a little burlesque baseball" where Gleason hits a "sure home run" only to be thrown out at the plate "while making a sensational slide" on stage.  As the act ends, the four come together to sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" in a performance that was apparently well received based on the attention it got from the Eagle.  In fact, the article is free publicity for the theater where the men are appearing, all based on baseball even though the performers were hardly household words (in either the ball park or the vaudeville house.)

Loew's Metropolitan Theater in Brooklyn about the time Burleigh Grimes performed there with the Baseball Four

The writer concluded the article by mentioning that according to Crable, he had not received official word of an impending release to Nashville of the Southern League, but that he would accept the same with a view of returning to Brooklyn in the future.  While the left hander did return to the city of Churches many years later, it was not as a major league baseball player since he would labor in the minors for almost another decade without returning to the majors.  Having used baseball to get on the stage, however, the southpaw hurler was smart enough to see the earnings potential of staying on it.  For more than 20 years after his one major league season, Crable, with or without his associates, appeared in vaudeville houses across the United States and Canada ranging from California to Texas as well as Pennsylvania and New England.  It was also a career move with some financial reward as around 1910 performers could supposedly earn over $3000 a year, doubtless more than Crable made on the diamond.  The members of the quartet sometimes changed with two other former major leaguers joining the group at one time or another - Frank Browning, a pitcher for Detroit who like Crable had a brief 1910 major league stay and Hugh Bradley who played from 1910 to 1915 in the American and Federal Leagues.  Bradley was also the member of another baseball quartet and has the distinction of hitting the first home run at Fenway Park.

The Baseball Four performing in conjunction with the move "Broadway Babies," a sign vaudeville was nearing its end - Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle - July 5, 1929

A career of that staying power with no significant baseball reputation to fall back on required real talent and numerous newspapers gave glowing reviews to the skit with a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania newspaper claiming "what harmony those boys do have.  You must hear them." That the act had its own appeal was demonstrated by a review in a San Francisco newspaper which said the skit was "a departure from the average baseball stunt."  After 20 years of this, Crable not only was game for more, but approached a most unlikely candidate as a potential new partner, future Hall of Fame pitcher, Burleigh Grimes, who not only joined, but bought 1/2 of the production company.  In a December 16, 1930 article in the Eagle, long time sportswriter Tommy Holmes said that he would have voted for Grimes as the "least likely to succumb to the lure of the footlights" since at the end of every season the Brooklyn pitcher typically retreated to the solitude of the Wisconsin lake country coming out looking like a "wind-bitten old trapper with hair on this face down to here."  Not only did Grimes enjoy himself, but was also an asset to an act as the four sang old time ballads and negro spirituals with "vim and vigor" and enjoyed the opportunity to "clown to their hearts content."  Testifying once again that memory is a terrible improver, Holmes claimed that Crable "used to be quite a pro ball player himself."

Burleigh Grimes shares the spotlight with Cab Calloway - Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 16, 1930

Crable's return to Brooklyn came at the time that vaudeville was on the way out as movies supplanted the live on stage acts as the most popular form of entertainment.  In fact, the act with Grimes at Loew's in Brooklyn was only part of a show that featured a movie as the prime attraction.  By 1931 Crable had returned to his native Nebraska to settle in Fremont where he opened a cigar store, hoping to pitch that summer in the Elkorn Valley League.  Unfortunately only six months later, the store burned to the ground, costing Crable inventory that was supposed to go up in smoke, but individually, not collectively and his collection of pictures of athletic stars acquired over 30 years.  Interestingly Crable is one of the few major league players whose death date and burial location have never been determined.   Although Crable never achieved star status in either profession, he could justly claim to have been part of two of the most popular institutions of the first part of the 20th century.

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