Monday, February 4, 2019

Talking Charles Ebbets

Claire Hall was kind enough to have me as a guest on her "Ask Claire" radio program to discuss my new book about Charles Ebbets.  The interview which lasts about 30 minutes can be found at

Sunday, December 16, 2018

"The Old Year Passes"

The last post about Charles Ebbets salary negotiations with Casey Stengel was the 300th since A Manly Pastime first saw the light of the Internet in February of 2012 and will be the final post for this calendar year.  Typically we take a break until January, but this year the hiatus will be extended.  At the latest we'll be back in April for the opening of the 2019 Neshanock season, but a March return is also possible.  The reason for the extended break is that I need to focus on the last stages of another big project - the upcoming baseball exhibit at Historic Morven in Princeton and the companion book.  Originally the exhibit was to cover New Jersey baseball - 1855 to 1880, but for a number of reasons, the period has been extended through 1915.  That will enable us to explore baseball in the Garden State from its earliest beginnings through the one season when New Jersey had a major league team - the short lived Newark Peppers in the equally short lived Federal League.  The companion book will still cover New Jersey base ball through 1880.

One of my goals when the blog returns is to anticipate the Morven exhibit by giving readers some sense of the different stories to be told and the topics to be covered.  In addition there will be plenty of coverage of the 2019 vintage base ball season, focusing, of course, on the Flemington Neshanock.  The blog seems to be fairly popular in vintage base ball circles which I greatly appreciate.  But regardless of whether a reader's interest is vintage base ball, the game's history or anything else, I sincerely thank everyone who has taken the time to read.  At this point in my writing career, my highest goal is to be read and for that I am truly thankful.  Best wishes to everyone for the holidays and all of 2019.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

"A laborer is worthy of his hire"

In today's game, salary negotiations can sometimes be a mind boggling mixture of players, agents, general managers and club owners arguing about amounts of money that seem almost incomprehensible.  A hundred years ago, when Charles Ebbets was a baseball owner, things were very different.  Players didn't have the combined advantages of free agency and agents while owners couldn't delegate the negotiations to skilled baseball executives working within a given budget.  And while the amounts of money may seem absurdly low to us today, they were to the average person as unimaginable as they sometimes seem today.  The last few chapters of my just published Ebbets biography devote a considerable amount of space to the Brooklyn magnate's handling of salary negotiations with three Hall of Fame players - Zach Wheat, Burleigh Grimes and Dazzy Vance.  In this post, however, I want to give a sense of the negotiating process by looking at Ebbets' dealing with another future Hall of Famer (although not due to his playing prowess), one Charles "Casey" Stengel.

Casey Stengel during the Dodgers 1916 pennant winning season, posing near the famous right field fence

Although Stengel wasn't as talented as the other three players, he took a back seat to no one when it came to salary negotiations.  As noted, players didn't have much of a bargaining position a century or more ago.  The hated reserve clause limited their choice to playing for their current team or not playing at all.  Trained to play baseball, players were often at an unfair disadvantage negotiating with owners who were more experienced at the process.  There were, however, a few brief periods when baseball trade wars, caused by new upstart leagues seeking major league status, not also gave players another option, but also a source of leverage with their current team..  Such was the case not long after Stengel joined the Dodgers in late 1912 when the Federal League burst on the scene tempting players and threatening existing owners especially Charles Ebbets who had just finished building an expensive new ballpark.  Fortunately, the Brooklyn owner had plenty of experience dealing with such threats and he knew the best, perhaps only strategy was to aggressively sign his own players even if it was at the expense of higher salaries and long term contracts.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - January 20, 1917

While Stengel may have been new to the major leagues, he knew how to take full advantage of this situation negotiating a salary that by 1916 had reached $5,300.  Looking at historical salary data for players of the Deadball Era compiled by Mike Haupert, a professor at University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse, Casey clearly did very well for himself.  During the Dodgers 1916 pennant winning season, Stengel received the same salary as Zach Wheat, who was without question a much better player and was also in the same range as Gavvy Cravath, Art Fletcher and George Burns all of whom had better career numbers.  By the end of the 1916 season, however, the baseball landscape had changed considerably.  The Federal League was dead and buried, removing that option for players and priming owners to try to cut salaries that had reached unprecedented levels.  Unfortunately, for Charles Ebbets, the timing couldn't have been worse for 1917 salary negotiations since he was in the position of trying to impose pay reductions on players who had just won the National League pennant.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - February 3, 1917

On the surface, Ebbets' position may seem more than a little unreasonable, but the 1916 Dodgers were built to win that year and there was little likelihood they would  continue to draw big crowds again in 1917.  According to Ebbets, a team that finished fourth or lower would lose money if its payroll exceeded $80,000, not a good situation when Ebbets claimed the Dodgers pay list was at $125,000 including bonuses.  Ebbets self appointed goal was to reduce the Brooklyn payroll to about $90,000 and perhaps understandably, he felt Stengel was an obvious candidate for a $2,000 pay cut.  Equally understandably Stengel didn't agree and voiced his displeasure publicly at the proposed reduction arguing that a pennant winning season should be rewarded with a "nice little increase."  Declining to deal through the media, Ebbets boarded a train for Kansas City where he met with his unhappy player.  In addition to what other arguments he used, Ebbets reminded Stengel that he had been paid his full 1915 salary even though he missed a good portion of the season due to illness - something Ebbets had no contractual obligation to do so.  Stengel, claimed Ebbets, left the meeting "somewhat chastened," but chastened or not the Dodger right fielder was absent when Brookyn began spring training.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - March 1, 1917

The deadlock was resolved in a way unimaginable today after Abe Yager of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, sent a telegram to Stengel on behalf of the sportswriters saying they wanted him at spring training and asked him to come to camp even without a contract.  Stengel quickly agreed and while Ebbets wasn't happy with third parties getting involved in the negotiations, he met with his discontented player and they reached an agreement at a $3,000 salary with a $400 bonus if Stengel hit over .300, a bonus the Brooklyn owner didn't have to pay.  After the 1917 season, Ebbets, who was no fool when it came to judging talent, decided Stengel wasn't worth a repeat salary squabble and included him a trade to Pittsburgh in return for, among others, Burleigh Grimes.  Grimes would become an ace pitcher for Brooklyn as well as a royal pain in Ebbets' neck at salary time, but he was at least a player worth the effort.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - March 18, 1917

While cutting a player's salary after the team won the pennant may seem to be an example of Ebbets cheapness, a charge he was tarred with somewhat unfairly throughout his career, he had every right to negotiate the new salary on the current market conditions, as unfair as they may have been to players.  Indeed at some level it was his responsibility to do so since an unprofitable Brooklyn club would never be competitive.  It's estimated that the 1916 regular season generated an operating profit of just over $73,000, but that was on attendance of about 448,000 and there was no reason to believe future crowds would be anywhere near that large.  Not only was Brooklyn unlikely to be as good on the field, the threat of World War I became a reality in April of 1917, dropping attendance to 221,619 that season and then an almost unimaginable 83,830 in the shortened 1918 campaign.  Even with whatever salary reductions Ebbets was able to negotiate, it was a financial blood bath that again put the Brooklyn club at the brink of ruin.  Fortunately, the end of the war and the advent of Sunday baseball in 1919, finally put the Brooklyn club on a sound financial footing.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Just another day at the ballpark

One of the goals of my soon to be published biography of longtime Brooklyn Dodger owner Charles Ebbets is to explore what it was like to own a baseball team in the first part of the 20th century.  The next few posts at A Manly Pastime will anticipate publication with brief looks at some of the challenges and issues faced by Ebbets and his peers.  Although being a baseball owner a century ago was a very different from today, there are some similarities beginning with the club owner's two primary responsibilities - providing an attractive venue and putting together competitive, if not championship teams.  Much, however, was different a hundred years ago beginning with the very nature of the baseball business. Professional baseball teams in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were very small businesses even within the context of the time.  In 1869, some seven years before the founding of the National League, railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt called the Harlem Railroad "a small thing" with "a little capital" of only $6 million.  Maybe so, but compared to the Brooklyn baseball club established 14 years later with capital of just $20,000, it was big enough.  Major league baseball teams were a mere drop of water on the vast ocean of American commerce.

National League Magnates - 1913 - Ebbets is in the second row sixth from the left

Small businesses owners typically have frequent contact with their customers and such was the case in major league baseball.  That was due not just to the relative small size of the business, but also because of the importance of the ticket buying patron.  Unlike today, there was no television or radio revenue so that the club's financial well being was almost entirely dependent on those who might or might not pay a few quarters to buy a ticket to a baseball game.  This greater degree of personal contact between owners and the fan base led to one very interesting experience for Mr. Ebbets late in his career.  Although Brooklyn's 1916 National League championship season was followed by three straight second division finishes, hopes were high for the 1920 season with Ebbets himself predicting a possible championship run.  And the Dodgers didn't disappoint getting off to a good start that had them in first place heading into a long home stand in late July. Hopes were so high, that Tom Rice of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, in what might have been a scripted interview, asked Ebbets his plans for World Series tickets.  It was an important question because Ebbets's handling of ticket prices for the 1916 Fall Classic had brought down the wrath of both the Brooklyn fans and the New York media on the Dodgers owner.

The Sun and New York Herald - August 8, 1920

Acknowledging past mistakes which he claimed had been a learning experience, Ebbets said he was planning on giving loyal fans the highest priority.  In practical terms that meant the prudent fan would be well advised to start saving ticket stubs from the upcoming home stand because the more ticket stubs, the greater the opportunity for World Series tickets.  Needless to say Ebbets knew full well the added incentive wouldn't hurt regular season gate receipts in the least, World Series or no World Series.   Unfortunately, the home stand didn't go well with the Dodgers doing no better than 5 - 7 for the first 12 games and an August 7th loss to Pittsburgh, a 7-0 whitewashing, was the last straw for some increasingly impatient fans.  It wasn't just the loss, but the nature of it that had the fans blood boiling.  Pittsburgh first five runs were not only unearned, they all scored due to Dodger errors on Pirate double steal attempts, twice with two out.  Offensively, Brooklyn suffered the ignominy of being shut out by 38 year old Babe Adams, the hero of the 1909 World Series.

Babe Adams

Today similarly disgusted fans would have been limited to using talk radio and social media to blast everyone from the owner on down.  The 1920 Dodger fan, however, had another alternative and, according to Charles Mathison in the New York Herald several hundred frustrated fans cornered Ebbets near the grandstand and peppered him "with pointed questions" for a half an hour, queries like:

"Why don't you get a catcher?"

"Why don't you hire a shortstop?"

And inevitably - "What's the use of us hoarding rain checks for a world's series?"

Somewhat surprisingly the sometimes short tempered Ebbets was more than equal to the occasion, answering each question to the best of his ability including offering fans a financial reward if they could tell him where to get a good catcher.  While the answers may not have been totally satisfactory, just paying attention clearly earned the Brooklyn magnate some credit with the fans.  Fortunately Ebbets was helped out at the end of the session by the "squeaky voice of a small boy" who wanted to know if he could ask a question.  Probably sensing what was coming Ebbets told the youngster to go ahead.  Predictably, the boy politely said he "would like to know if you will give me a pass for tomorrow."  Ebbets loathed giving out free passes (part of his somewhat undeserved reputation for cheapness), but he was also no fool so he joined in the laughter and granted the youngster's request.  Although doubtless still disappointed with their club's performance, the fans left in a better frame of mind and fortunately for everyone a 23-6 September spurt gave the Ebbets and his customers/fans the 1920 National League pennant.  On that August day, however,it was just one more, perhaps exaggerated example, of how hard Ebbets and his peers worked at keeping fans coming through the turnstiles.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

The World Series comes to Ebbets Field

When the modern World Series began in 1903 (or arguably 1905), a discerning Brooklyn fan could legitimately think that his or her beloved Dodgers (or Superbas) had missed the trolley car.  A World Series was only possible if there was a second major league to compete with the National League and the American League's success in doing so was at least partially because of its raids on National League rosters especially Brooklyn's. The City of Church's pennant winning teams of 1899 and 1900 had been decimated by the war between the two leagues and the Dodgers' remaining talent was so limited, an appearance in the new fall classic was a distant dream.  It's unlikely however, that fans at the time had any idea how distant those dreams would prove to be.  Peace with the American League was accompanied by a new order in the senior circuit where only three teams; the Pirates, Giants and Cubs would win the pennant for more than a decade.  The other five clubs including Brooklyn had little more to compete for than fourth place and avoiding a second division finish.

The Brooklyn club ready to defend it's home turf - The Evening World - October 10, 1916

Fortunately few things lasts forever and when the change came, it did so with very little warning in the middle of the 1914 season.  On July 4th, the Giants seemed well on the way to their fourth straight National League flag with the hapless Braves stuck once again in last place.  In one of baseball's most dramatic, not to mention improbable, turnarounds, Boston went 68-19 over the course the season to easily win the pennant and proved it was no fluke by sweeping Connie Mack's heavily favored A's in the World Series.  The door was now open for new pretenders to the league throne and while it took some time, Brooklyn's turn came in 1916 when the club held off three challengers to win its first National League pennant since 1900 and earn its first appearance in the modern World Series.  Fittingly, Brooklyn also had a new ball park, Ebbets Field that would be an appropriate home for the series with the defending champion and heavily favored, Boston Red Sox.  Unfortunately, loyal Dodger fans had to wait a little bit longer for their first World Series game since Brooklyn's late clinching of the National League pennant made it impossible to prepare the ball park in time for the first two games both of which were played in Boston.

Boston's fabled royal rooters arrive at Ebbets Field - Brooklyn Daily Eagle - October 11, 1916

Equally unfortunately, Brooklyn lost both contests in heart breaking style, first when a last ditch ninth inning rally fell one run short in game one and then a 2-1, 14 inning loss to Babe Ruth in the second contest.  The Dodgers had, however, proven to be a resilient bunch all season so Brooklyn fans still had plenty of reason to come out and cheer their heroes.  As loyal as the fans may have been to their team, however, there was also some real dissatisfaction directed toward club president Charles Ebbets for pricing reserved seats in the front rows of both decks at Ebbets Field at an unimaginable $5 up from $3 a year earlier.  The result was a below capacity crowd of about 21,000 with "yawning gaps" in the aforementioned sections demonstrating how strongly the fans felt on the subject.  Attendance also wasn't helped by temperatures below 50 degrees and strong winds from the northwest, conditions which according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle made Ebbets Field "as cold as the inside of a refrigerator."  Still when the Dodgers took the field,  they were greeted by a loud cheer from their fans.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - October 11, 1916

On the mound for Brooklyn was Jack Coombs who had been acquired by the Dodgers a few years earlier in what Tom Rice of the Eagle described as a baseball "speculation."  Not only was Coombs at the end of his career, he had also suffered through an illness that threatened not just his career but also put his very life in danger.  The veteran pitcher had however more than justified Ebbets' "speculation" by winning 25 games over two years including a crucial shutout win over the Giants in the last week of the 1916 pennant race.  Coombs was also not likely to be bothered by the big stage as he had a 4-0 life time record in the fall classic.  Coombs retired the first two Boston batters, but then allowed two singles before being bailed out by his right fielder, one Charles "Casey" Stengel who threw out a Boston runner at third.  The Dodgers then brought the home crowd to its feet by loading the bases against Boston starter Carl Mays with only one out only to see the Red Sox escape without giving up a run.  The Boston pitcher wasn't so fortunate after that, however, as Brooklyn scored single runs in the second and third and seemed to put the game out of reach in the fifth, when Ivy Olson tripled to give Brooklyn a 4-0 lead.

Casey Stengel

The Red Sox, however, had no intention of going quietly, scoring twice in the sixth before Coombs got out of the inning.  Brooklyn wasted a golden opportunity to get back a run when Jake Daubert hit one to the left field corner which Harry Hooper played poorly.  Daubert should have had an inside the park home run, but was out at the plate due to a poor slide.  Coombs managed to get the first Boston batter in the seventh, but Larry Gardner homered over the right field fence on to "Bedford Street" (sic) to cut the Brooklyn lead to one.  After already suffered two heart breaking losses, many Brooklyn fans had to feel that they were in for another disappointing finish this time right before their very eyes. However, Coombs wisely knew he was done, signaled for a relief pitcher and manager Wilbert Robinson brought in 25 game winner Jeff Pfeffer.  No manager ever made a better choice since not only did the big right hander get out of the inning, he retired all 8 batters he faced without allowing a single base runner.  When Stengel caught the last out in right field it set off a football like celebration as the crowd poured onto the field.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - October 11, 1916

As they left the park, Dodger fans could have been forgiven for hoping their heroes would tie up the series on the morrow as could Charles Ebbets for thinking that the victory and better weather would produce a larger crowd.  All such hopes proved to be in vain, however, since even through the weather was perfect, the crowd was no larger than the day before.  And while Brooklyn got off to a  quick 2-0 lead, another Gardner home run helped Boston take charge for a 6-2 win and a stranglehold on the series which they clinched the next day in Boston.  All the same the 21,000 in attendance at the third game could claim that not only had they seen a World Series game in person, a rarity at the time, they had seen their local club prevail.  Ironically the Dodgers would play their last World Series game at Ebbets Field 40 years later to the very day, this time losing the seventh game of the 1956 classic to the Yankees and, perhaps even more ironically, their manager Casey Stengel.  All told Brooklyn would play 28 World Series games at Ebbets Field including both great (Lavagetto's 1947 hit) and horrible (Mickey Owen's 1941 dropped third strike) moments in club history.  But there could be only one first game and those in attendance got their money's worth even if they forked out $5 for the supposedly over priced grandstand seats.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Season's End

The Neshanock rang down the curtain on the 2018 vintage base ball season on Sunday by splitting two matches with the Diamond State Club of Delaware, dropping the first match, 16-3, but then coming from behind in the second for a 13-10 triumph. Neither I nor official blog photographer, Mark "Gaslight" Granieri were present thus the absence of both photos and any detailed account of the matches.  Flemington, therefore, closes the season with a 18-9 mark, the team's fourth consecutive winning season.  The biggest difference between this season and any of my eight prior seasons as Neshanock score keeper is the relatively small number of games played.  The 27 matches played in 2018 is significantly less than the 42 played in 2017, a decline of just over 40%.  Typically Flemington plays about 40 matches a season so this is the fewest number played in some time and it could have been worse.  A review of the matches that were played indicated that 11, close to 50% were played in less than ideal conditions with the cold and rain at Long Valley actually worse than some of the games that were cancelled.  Things were especially bad in August when the Neshanock were only able to play on one weekend - fortunately that was the Philadelphia Navy Yard Classic so that Flemington was able to get four games in.

Season's end also means it's time to thank those who made another season of vintage base ball possible beginning with team founder and president Brad "Brooklyn" Shaw.  From scheduling matches to chasing down 20 or so players every week by social media, it takes a lot of work to make things happen from early April through mid October.   That "Brooklyn's" been doing this since 2001 provides all the evidence needed of his commitment to recreating the game the way it was played back in the 19th century.  Thanks also to everyone who played for the Neshanock at least once during 2018 - there have been a number of additions to the roster over the past few years giving the team a good blend of youth and experience.  A special thank you to "Gaslight" for resuming his official blog photographer position in July since without question the pictures that supplement game accounts had fallen off in his absence.

Photo by Mark Granieri 

It's also important to remember two groups without whom no matches would ever take place - opponents and umpires.  Whether it's renewing old rivalries and friendships or meeting and competing with new friends, vintage base ball is at its best when its competitive, but also with the highest standards of sportsmanship.  Umpires also play a vital role so thanks to all those who officiated at Neshanock matches, especially Sam "It ain't nothing' till I say" Bernstein, our "regular" umpire who objectively calls them as he sees them, but always with a sense of humor.  Finally, but certainly not least are the spouses, partners, significant others, parents and children who support the Neshanock in so many different ways particularly tolerating the time commitment almost every week for seven months.  The reality is that being part of the Neshanock means more than being on a team, it also means being part of a community.  All the cancellations in 2018 should remind us how much vintage base ball means to us and what we miss when it's not there.  Let's hope for better weather in five months time when once again the Neshanock take the field for another season of this great game.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Between Innings

A Manly Pastime is taking a brief break, we will be back no later than October 15th.