Wednesday, March 29, 2017

We're Back!

I'm pleased to report the manuscript of my biography of Brooklyn Dodger magnate, Charles Ebbets went off to the publisher around the middle of February.  There's still a lot more work to do and it will be some time before the book is published, the best guess is the final product will see the light of day some time in the first quarter of 2018.   Richard Holmes, in his new book, This Long Pursuit: Reflections of a Romantic Biographer writes that biography "is a simple act of complex friendship."  I'm not sure I'd go so far as to call it a friendship, but trying to understand and describe someone who lived in a very different world and time, is, at the very least, a complex relationship.  It's a literary form, I've always wanted to try and I'm very grateful for the opportunity. The other good news, at least from my standpoint, is that A Manly Pastime is back.  I've missed the research and the writing and especially the much shorter time frame for publication.  Many of the initial posts will draw on material from the Ebbets research, but gradually the focus will shift back almost 50 years into the mid 19th century for reasons I'll share in the near future.  One interesting thing about the sabbatical is the blog has gained five new followers and enjoyed a much higher number of hits when I wasn't writing, less is supposedly more, but it's not an idea I'd like to take to its logical conclusion.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle anticipates the beginning of the 1920 World Series

Charles Ebbets' long career as Brooklyn Dodger club president spanned some 27 years encompassing the entire Deadball Era and even the first half of the Roaring Twenties.  Of special note in the latter period was the 1920 season when Ebbets' team won the National League pennant for the fourth and final time in his tenure.  Unlike 1916 there wasn't a lot of drama to the pennant race since the Dodgers went on a hot streak in September, gradually pulling away to finish seven games ahead of the second place Giants.  What was interesting about 1920, however, was the highly critical, almost hostile attitude of Dodger fans for most of the season, contrary to the popular image of Brooklyn fans being unfailingly loyal no matter how grim the outlook.  After one particularly poor home performance, in a scene unimaginable today, a crowd of fans cornered Ebbets to voice their displeasure, a situation, the Brooklyn magnate was fortunately able to defuse.  Things reached the point long time Brooklyn Daily Eagle writer, Tom Rice, warned the fans, that if they didn't mend their ways, it would cost Brooklyn the pennant.  It's a hard claim to accept, but fortunately better behavior by fans after the lecture from Rice and improved play on the field avoided putting the question to the test.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - June 13, 1920

Earlier in the season, perhaps trying to improve the situation through positive reinforcement, another Eagle writer, Frank Dunham, who was also an artist, did a series of drawings and descriptions of those he labeled "33rd Degree Baseball Fans," a takeoff on the highest honorary title in freemasonry.  The sketches have historical value because they give a sense of some of the people who were ardent baseball fans almost a century ago.  Of the ten or so that were published, what follows is a closer look at three chosen primarily because I was able to find more information beyond that provided by Dunham.  Leading off is the only one I had previously heard of Monseigneur Edward McCarty, a Roman Catholic priest who was part of what was referred to as "clergy row," an ecumenical group also including a Protestant minister and a rabbi.  McCarty may actually have been the inspiration for the series which began in July of 1920, not long after the priest celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood by throwing out the first pitch at a Brooklyn game.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - July 4, 1920

Born in Brooklyn in 1847, McCarty was the pastor of the Church of St. Augustine in Brooklyn, a parish with some 9,000 members including Brooklyn owner, Ed McKeever.  No matter how religious McCarty may have been as a young man, he still had time for one secular activity since he claimed to have followed baseball from when the game was "in its cradle."  The cradle claim has merit because McCarty would have been a boy about the same time organized, competitive baseball was getting started in the 1850's.  Nor was the Monsignor's role limited to that of a fan as he told the Eagle writer, he not only played the game, but did so "behind the bat" when catcher's wore no equipment, something that must have shocked younger fans in 1920.  McCarty and his fellow clergy's support was very important to Charles Ebbets, who recounted on one occasion how a kind word from the Roman Catholic priest at a difficult moment, helped him keep things in perspective.  Either McCarty's congregation were all Brooklyn fans or the pastor didn't care since he made no pretense of objectivity, telling Dunham "Not one of us will be satisfied until the pennant of the World's Championship flies from the flagstaff at Ebbets Field."  Sadly McCarty's 1925 death was a full 30 years before that dream was realized.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - July 14, 1920

Apparently clergy row wasn't strictly limited to the ordained as Colonel Franklin P. Sellers was also a regular member due to his position as the religion editor of the Eagle.  In spite of being called "Colonel,"Sellers' military experience was limited.  Recently on the SABR's 19th century email list, Richard Hershberger told of a newspaper account that called legendary sports concessionaire magnate, Harry M Stevens "Colonel," again apparently without any significant military experience.  I've also seen Ebbets and other base ball owners called "Colonel" especially late in their careers.   Although some states awarded the title as an honor, but New York was not one of them. Sellers wasn't without some military experience, however, as the Eagle reported he had been a drummer boy with the 40th New Jersey during the Civil War.  When the veteran newspaperman died in 1927, the august New York Times even reported he had taken part in a "forced march to join Sherman's army."  A review of the official records, however, indicates Sellers enlisted in the Union Army on March 6, 1865, just about a month before the war's end and was discharged in July, total service of about 129 days during which it's unlikely he did any significant marching, much less fighting.  The Eagle account also claimed Sellers played first base for an amateur team in Belvidere, New Jersey where his father was a newspaper editor.  A review of my files through 1870 shows no such name in any box score, but it's certainly possible.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle July 18, 1920

While McCarty and Sellers' actual playing experience was somewhat limited, there was another 33rd degree rooter who, although he never got to the majors, had experience at the college level, at a time when few people went to college much less played college athletics.  Judge James A Dunne, a member of the next generation of fans was supposedly the "cream of college catchers" at Brown during the 1890's and reportedly turned down several opportunities to play professionally to concentrate on his legal career.  If nothing else, Dunne was creative, having named the fingers on his right hand after the game in which it was broken, beginning with Holy Cross and Wesleyan with his middle finger earning two names (Harvard and Penn) because it was broken twice.  Even if he never played in the major leagues, Dunne didn't lack for exposure to high level players as two of his teammates, Dave Fultz and Daff Gammons both played in the majors.  Dunne was ultimately recognized by his school which elected him to its Hall of Fame in 1977 although his prowess at handball may have been an equally important factor.  Doubtless relying on legend, the profile on the Brown web site claims that in a game against Penn, the Quakers loaded the bases only to have Dunne pick off all three runners.  The profile did admit the future judge's strength was defense, not at the plate, which is confirmed by the 1897 Spalding Guide report of a .174 batting average.

Spalding Guide - 1897

It's to be hoped these and the other accounts of Brooklyn Dodger faithful provided sufficient positive role models for other fans, contributing to the supposed improvement in fan support and the Dodgers ultimate success in the 1920 pennant race.  From a modern perspective the sketches give a sense of the relationship between the club's fan base and Charles Ebbets as an owner.  In addition to the priest, newspaper man and judge portrayed here, the group also included politicians, a postmaster and some local businessmen suggesting the breadth and depth of support for Ebbets' club.  Prior to becoming club president in 1898, Ebbets served a long 15 year apprenticeship in what was a very seasonal job.  Early in that period he moved to Brooklyn and used his "free time" to immerse himself in Brooklyn life including other sports (primarily bowling), social and fraternal organizations and politics.  Politics mean running for office and the Brooklyn baseball man represented his new home town in both the state legislature and the city council.  The end result was a broad network of community relationships that served Ebbets well throughout his even longer tenure as lead owner.  Ebbets not only came up through the ranks, but out of the community building a relationship between Brooklyn and its team which lasted long after his death and may be his greatest achievement.