Sunday, October 15, 2017

Lillie Langtry at the Ball Game


In the summer of 2010, I had the pleasure of traveling to London to attend the opening of an exhibit at the Marylebone Cricket Club Museum. In touring the prestigious club, I entered a room dominated by a magnificent painting of a cricket match. It absolutely bowled me over (pun very much intended). What stunned me was not so much the image itself, but the feeling that I had seen it before, and yet I knew that I had not. After a brief moment, however, I realized why it looked so familiar. Let me start at the beginning. Or, rather, two-and-a-half years after the beginning ...

On a two-page spread in the August 31, 1889, issue of Harper’s Weekly you’ll find this gorgeous woodcut titled “A Collegiate Game of Base-Ball”:


"A Collegiate Game of Base-Ball"

Illustrated by Willard Poinsette Snyder, better known as W.P. Snyder, the image has been reproduced numerous times. But while the picture is a favorite of many baseball fans and historians (including myself), it has apparently never been researched to any extent.

Harper’s Weekly accompanied the illustration with an article by Charles Pike Sawyer, the sporting editor of the New York Evening Post. Titled “The Base-Ball Situation,” the article gave a brief synopsis of the baseball season through early August of 1889. Besides covering the major leagues and various minor leagues (but not college baseball), Sawyer devoted a paragraph to an organization known as the Amateur Athletic League (sometimes shortened to Amateur League), a mostly-forgotten association of four New York-area clubs: the Crescent Athletic Club, Orange Athletic Club, Staten Island Athletic Club, and Staten Island Cricket Club. (Yes, the Staten Island Cricket Club fielded a baseball nine.)

It should be noted that “amateur” did not mean that the players in the league weren’t talented athletes. Many were college athletes who could not accept remuneration lest they lose their amateur status. For example, the Orange Athletic Club featured a Yale pitcher named Amos Alonzo Stagg. Yes, the very same Amos Alonzo Stagg whose versatile and stellar career as both an athlete and a coach led him to enshrinement in the College Football Hall of Fame (both as a player and a coach) and the Basketball Hall of Fame. By the way, he also coached baseball at the University of Chicago for 19 years.


Amos Alonzo Stagg

According to Sawyer’s article, the Amateur Athletic League ...

is having a great battle for the championship, and the last game of the season will probably be played before a decision is reached. The two Staten Island clubs are having a contest for supremacy which is close and exciting, and as yet the winner is doubtful. That amateurs can play base-ball well was clearly shown when the two clubs met in a well-played game a short time ago. The day was clear and cool, and each man of the opposing nines was fit to do battle for his life. The grand stand was well crowded with people, and the cool bright dresses of the pretty girls, mingled with the light costumes of the cricket and tennis players, who had stopped their own play to watch the game, and here and there a bright blazer, and again dresses of a more sombre hue, all added to the beauty of the scene. Friends greeted friends as rivals on the ball field, and the merits of the players were discussed by both young men and maidens in a knowing way. For three hours the two nines struggled for supremacy, and when dark came neither side had been able to secure a run. The players fought well, and although neither team gained a victory, all had the satisfaction of knowing that they had taken in part in one of the best games of base-ball on record, amateur or professional.
This is the only paragraph in the article in which a particular game is discussed, and with Sawyer’s detailed descriptions of “the pretty girls,” the “blazers” and “dresses,” and the “beauty of the scene,” it seems safe to assume that Snyder’s woodcut was intended to depict this all-Staten Island contest. As such, it becomes clear that the word “Collegiate” in the title of the illustration was not meant to suggest that the scene portrayed a college baseball game, but rather a “collegial” match between amateur clubs. This particular baseball game between “the two Staten Island clubs” took place on July 20, 1889, with the Staten Island Cricket Club (SICC) hosting the Staten Island Athletic Club (SIAC).

An article in the November 1889 issue of Outing, a monthly sporting magazine, featured this photograph of members of the SICC:



Take a close look at the individual standing at top right. Now look at the young men in Snyder’s illustration who are standing near the grandstand, just below home plate. The cricket caps and blazers are remarkably similar. Could these be “the cricket and tennis players ... [who] had stopped their own play to watch the game?”

The September 1889 issue of Outing magazine covered the remarkable game between the SICC and the SIAC:

The most noteworthy event in the amateur arena up to August 1 was the remarkable game played at West New Brighton, Staten Island, on July 20, between the nines of the Staten Island Athletic Club and the Staten Island Cricket Club. The former had held a winning lead from the beginning of the season in the Amateur League pennant race, and they were regarded as sure victors on this occasion. To the delight of the Cricketers, however, after a battle lasting fifteen innings, the game had to be called on account of darkness, and during the contest not a run was scored on either side. We append the full score of this remarkable game, as it ranks among the best ever played by amateur nines, if not the best on record.

The 15-inning contest lasted just under three hours and both starting pitchers went the distance. Interestingly, both of these pitchers were Harvard men. James Alexander Tyng pitched for the SICC. A dozen years earlier, as a member of the Harvard nine, Tyng made his mark on the game by becoming the first player to wear a catcher’s mask. After making the switch to pitching, Tyng ultimately played a handful of games for the Boston and Philadelphia National League clubs. Pitching for SIAC club that day, Harry Wakefield Bates also twirled for Harvard, graduating in 1892.


James Alexander Tyng

Additionally, Henry Warner Slocum Jr., a Yale alum who played shortstop for the SICC, was a stellar tennis player, winning back-to-back titles at the U.S. National Men’s Singles Championships in 1888 and 1889. He is enshrined in the International Tennis Hall of Fame at Newport, Rhode Island.


Henry Warner Slocum Jr.

The All-Staten Island game took place at the grounds of the SICC, located between Bard and Davis Avenues, Delafield Place and Livingston Court in northeast Staten Island. The location is now called Walker Park and still serves as the home grounds of the club. This park should not be confused with the more familiar St. George Grounds on Staten Island where the American Association New York Metropolitans played their home games in 1886 and 1887.



As there are limited contemporary descriptions of the SICC grounds, it is difficult to determine how accurate Snyder’s representation of the July 20, 1889, scene might be.  However, while it is known that the SICC grounds featured a grandstand, it seems unlikely that it was as substantial as that seen in the illustration.

In fact, the grandstand pictured has more in common with one located over 3,400 miles east of Staten Island ... at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London! That is because Snyder’s illustration is clearly a “baseballized” version of the painting I saw back in 2010. It hangs in the Writing Room at the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) at Lord’s.


Writing Room at the MCC

Painted by artists Sir Robert Ponsonby Staples and George Hamilton Barrable in 1887 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the MCC, the approximately 5½ foot by 10 foot picture is known by several names. According to the MCC Museum, it is titled “Imaginary Cricket Match: England v. Australia.” But most contemporary sources referred to it as “An Ideal Cricket Match.” No matter the name, the painting depicts a fictional match between elevens from England and Australia, along with numerous spectators of note.



According to the Melbourne (Victoria, Australia) Leader of February 12, 1887, the painting was described as follows:

The Englishmen are in. W. G. Grace and W.W. Read are at the wickets, and the former has hit one of Spofforth’s to the off. The ball having been saved at the boundary by Garrett, cover point, the batsmen are evidently in doubt about the practicability of a third run. The field has been carefully placed for the purposes of the picture by Spofforth himself, and while he has chosen the Australian team in conjunction with Scott and others, the English Eleven has been selected on the advice of Lord Harris, Messrs. V. E. Walker, L. D. Walker and other competent English judges. Half life sized portraits of the two elevens are introduced at the base of the picture in the pridella [sic], a method adopted by the early Italian Masters. The idea of the picture is due to Sir Coutts Lindsay, Bart., who proposes to hold a series of exhibitions in the chief capitals of Australia and New Zealand, for which purpose the ideal match has been painted. The artists, in a comprehensive view of Lord’s—giving full prominence, of course, to the pavilion—have introduced among the numerous spectators H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, with most of the principal representatives of the colonies in England, as well as a number of the chief notabilities of the cricket world, including the Earl of Bessborough, Sir Ponsonby Fane, treasurer of the Marylebone Club, Mr. V. E. Walker and others. The animation of the scene is increased by the charming toilettes of the ladies, among whom will be easily recognised some of our most popular English beauties. The picture is a graphic representation of our national game.
The Prince and Princess of Wales (later King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) can be seen standing on the field at far right, the Princess carrying a white parasol. W.G. Grace, arguably the greatest cricketer of all time, is the bearded batsman at the wicket, looking on as his ball heads to cover point and is about to be fielded by Australia’s T.W. Garrett. All told, well over five dozen individuals, both on the field and in the stands, are identifiable. A key to the painting is in the collection at the MCC Museum.

Just when and how Snyder came to see the painting is a mystery. As noted in the story above, it originally toured Australia and New Zealand. Its whereabouts afterwards are a bit cloudy, but it was not until 1927 that the painting came to reside at the MCC. However, as a photogravure of the painting was produced by the international art dealer Goupil & Cie as early as March of 1887 (perhaps earlier), it seems likely that it was this version (titled simply "Australia v. England) that acted as the model for Snyder's work.


"Australia v. England" photogravure by Goupil & Cie

Clearly there are major differences between the Staples-Barrable painting and Snyder's illustration. Most significantly, Snyder has replaced the cricket pitch with a baseball diamond, he has eliminated Lord’s original pavilion (the large brick building seen at right), and he has removed the various buildings and stands in the background. However, the crowd in the foreground still contains many of the same individuals as seen in the cricket painting.



For example, in the original painting the woman at left who holds a note in her hand is Constance Gwladys Robinson, also known as Lady de Grey, close friend of the celebrated Australian opera singer Nellie Melba and the famous Irish writer Oscar Wilde. She is essentially identical to the woman in the Harper’s Weekly woodcut, though Snyder has added a pen to her hand, suggesting that perhaps she was keeping score.


Lady de Grey

Snyder also retained the woman in the extreme foreground at far right, Lady Hermione Wilhelmina Fitzgerald, the Duchess of Leinster. Note that her likeness in the cricket painting was almost assuredly based on a photograph taken at the studio of W. and D. Downey, who billed themselves as “Photographers by Special Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen.”


Lady Hermione Wilhelmina Fitzgerald

Of the dozen or so individuals who appear in both pictures, my favorite is the especially conspicuous woman wearing a yellow dress and red bonnet. Note that her attentions are far from the field of play, as she is practically facing the opposite direction.


Lillie Langtry

This woman is none other than Lillie Langtry, the celebrated beauty who went on to a successful career in the theater. She also happened to have had a three-year affair with Prince Albert ... the very top-hatted prince seen above and to the right of her in the Staples-Barrable painting. Perhaps she is deliberately looking away from him. Understandable, and yet it's too bad, because in either picture, she’s missing a heck of a ball game.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Babe Ruth Most Certainly Predicted That He'd Homer off Charlie Root at Wrigley Field


No doubt you’ve heard about Ruth’s “Called Shot” home run in the 1932 World Series. As a refresher, the Yankees faced the Cubs in that season’s Fall Classic and New York took the first two games at Yankee Stadium. At Chicago’s Wrigley Field for Game Three, New York and Chicago the Yankees came to bat in the top of the fifth inning with the score knotted at four runs apiece. With one out, Ruth stepped to the plate to face Cubs starter Charlie Root. After taking strike one, Ruth made some sort of gesture that even today remains the subject of much controversy. He then followed the motion with a homer to deep center field, giving the Yankees a lead they would not relinquish.



Just what was the gesture? Was Ruth pointing to the Cubs dugout, engaging with the Cubs players who had been riding him all game long? Was he motioning to Root, signifying that it would only take one mighty swing to break up the tie? Or did he point to Wrigley Field’s center field bleachers, claiming he’d deposit the next pitch in that very spot, and then make good on that promise?



Historians and fans have forwarded dozens of arguments for and against Ruth having called his shot. But what they (and you) might not know is that there is now definitive proof that the Bambino most certainly did predict he’d homer off Root ... some five years earlier. Here’s the story:

Following New York’s defeat of the Pirates in the 1927 World Series, Ruth and teammate Lou Gehrig spent the rest of October barnstorming across the country. During their tour, Ruth played for a team dubbed the “Bustin’ Babes,” while Gehrig starred for the “Larrupin’ Lous.” At each stop, local talent would fill out the rest of the two teams, a brilliant marketing and money-making concept devised by the headliners’ agent, Christy Walsh. The tour ran for 19 days, stopped in 20 cities, and staged 21 games. It remains one of the greatest barnstorming spectacles in baseball history and is the subject of an upcoming book by awarding-winning writer Jane Leavy and is due out in 2018.



Throughout the tour, Ruth and Gehrig generally played first base on their respective teams, but it was common for each of these sluggers to move to the pitcher’s mound when his counterpart came to bat. This way both stars were assured of getting good pitches to hit, which is what everyone at the park really wanted to see. It also helped avoid the risk of an overzealous local pitcher trying to upstage (or accidentally bean) a big league legend.

However, the second-to-last game of the tour, a much-anticipated October 30th contest at Los Angeles’s Wrigley Field, proved to be a bit different than most of the other tour games. For this contest, Gehrig would remain at first base, and Cubs pitcher Charlie Root (yes, that Charlie Root) would do the pitching for the “Larrupin’ Lous.” Root, a former pitcher with the Pacific Coast League’s Los Angeles Angels, had just completed his second major league season, winning a National League-leading 26 games for the Cubs. Now he was scheduled to face the Bambino in front of a Los Angeles crowd.

 

When Ruth learned that he would be facing Root, the Babe wired to local organizers of the game that he was “glad you signed Root to pitch against me. Tell the fans for me that I’ll hit two home runs off Root or be disappointed.” This boast wasn’t a gesture that remains unclear today. And it isn’t mere speculation by modern-day historians. It’s a cold, hard fact and was printed in the Los Angeles Times a full three days before the game took place:


Los Angeles Times, October 27, 1927

So did Ruth back up his prediction? Alas, he did not. Facing Root for the first six innings of the game and former major league southpaw Red Oldham for the final three innings, Ruth went 1-for-5 with a first-inning double. Ruth had boldly predicted he’d clout two home runs against Root ... and failed.

But while Ruth fell short, Gehrig (sans braggadocio) rose to the occasion. In front of a crowd of over 25,000 fans that day (some reports estimate 30,000), it was Lou who hit a pair of home runs, as well as a double, all off Pacific Coast League pitcher Dick Moudy.

Case closed: Babe Ruth did boast that he'd hit a home run (actually two) off Cubs pitcher Charlie Root at Wrigley Field ... only it happened in 1927, in Los Angeles, and the Bambino failed to homer even once.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Devil and Frank Chance


The baseball photographs at the Explore Chicago Collections web site are wonderful. This is one of my favorites:


Collection ID: DN-0051624

What the Hell?

I first saw the photo around five years ago and my initial reaction was “What the hell?” And that has basically been my reaction every time I revisited the photo, as I tried to solve the mystery behind just what is going on. It has taken me a while to crack this nut, but here's what I've determined ...

The description at the Explore Chicago Collections web site states the photo depicts “Frank Chance, Cubs baseball player, standing with a person dressed in a devil’s costume on the field of the West Side baseball grounds.” There’s no question that the player is Cubs first baseman Frank Chance. And, while I’m not overly familiar with the devil, the fellow at right seems to fit the bill. But the ballpark doesn’t look to me like West Side Park, the Cubs home field from 1893 through 1915.

The Devil is in the Details

Take a close look and you’ll see that the devil and Frank Chance are standing in foul territory near first base. You can clearly see the first base line and the nearby three-foot first base line. Thus, the packed stands in the background are in right field. But no such stands ever stood in right field at West Side Park. In fact, right field at West Side Park featured a large wall behind uncovered, outfield bleachers. Here’s an example from the Explore Chicago Collections web site showing the outfield at West Side Park from 1906:


Collection ID: SDN-004890

Additionally, Chance is wearing a jersey with the word “CHICAGO” arched across the chest. But this style only matches jerseys worn by the Cubs from 1905 through 1907 on the road, as found in the uniform database at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum's “Dressed to the Nines online exhibit.

1905:


1906:


1907:


All signs point to the photo having been taken on the road between 1905 and 1907, but where? The key clue is the seating area in the background. What park of this era featured this style of covered seating in right field?

The answer is Cincinnati’s League Park, often called “the Palace of the Fans.” Compare the photo of the devil and Frank Chance with this great image of the ballpark that the Reds called home from 1902 to 1911 (also found at the Explore Chicago Collections web site):


Collection ID: SDN-004288

And the same right field structure can be seen in the background of this postcard:



There’s no question that when Frank Chance met the devil, he did so in Cincinnati. But on what date did the get-together occur?

From 1905 through 1907, the Cubs played in Cincinnati a total of 33 times. But given the overflow crowd in right field, the only possible games are those in which the attendance numbered over 12,000: the seating capacity of the ballpark. Just four of the 33 games meet that criteria. Here are the dates and mentions of the attendance from reports in the following day's Cincinnati Enquirer:

  • April 30, 1905 – “It was another gorgeous crowd, officially announced by [Reds business Manager] Frank Bancroft as 13,658.”
  • April 12, 1906 – “Before 20,000 spectators, the largest crowd that ever attended the first game of the year in this city ....”
  • April 15, 1906 – “A lot of persons were more or less responsible for the sad ending of a very interesting struggle, which kept 13,000 people on the tip-toe of expectancy ....”
  • April 21, 1907 – “Yesterday's crowd, which was numbered close to 18,000 paid admissions, was by far the largest ever assembled at a ball game in this city.”

Speak of the Devil

A quick review of the newspaper coverage for these four games reveals the date the photo was taken: Opening Day in Cincinnati, April 12, 1906. As reported in the Pittsburgh Daily Post the following day:

When the Cubs came on the field, a party dressed as Mephistopheles rushed out on the diamond and presented Frank Chance with a magnificent floral star from his Cincinnati friends.
While I was able to determine the location (Cincinnati) and date (April 12, 1906) for the photo, I am left with one nagging question: For what possible reason did the “party” with the floral star dress up in a devil outfit?

Any ideas?