Sunday, September 29, 2019

Tragedy and Comedy (and Beer) on the Diamond


On September 13, 2019, @TheSkimmers shared this wonderful photograph on Twitter.



First of all, if you love vintage (and often overlooked) baseball pictures, you need to follow @TheSkimmers on Twitter. Second, let’s see what can be learned about this particular image.

According to the caption on the photo mount, this picture was apparently taken on May 25th, sometime in the 1880s. A quick search of newspapers of the era turned up this note in the Boston Globe of May 25, 1886: “There will be a quaint game in New York today, when it is expected an enormous crowd will gather on the Polo Grounds to see the disciples of Thespia wrestle with the sphere for the benefit of Bartley Campbell.”



About a week earlier, celebrated American playwright Bartley Campbell, suffering from dementia, had been transferred from Bellevue Hospital to the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum. This exhibition baseball game was just one of a number of benefits that were organized in order to raise money for Campbell, his wife, and his two boys.

Poorly promoted and staged in uncomfortably cool and damp conditions, only around 500 patrons attended the contest. Still, the game raised $430.25 for the unfortunate Campbells.


Illustration from Harper's Weekly of May 8, 1886, depicting Opening Day at the Polo Grounds, April 29, 1886, just one month before the benefit game for Bartley Campbell

Stage actors and others who made their living in the theater formed two competing nines: the Tragedians and the Comedians.

George Boniface Jr. pitched for the Comedy Nine, while Burr McIntosh, who the previous August made his theatrical debut in Bartley Campbell’s “Paquita,” did the catching. Comic star De Wolf Hopper, a well-known baseball fanatic and the man who popularized the poem “Casey at the Bat” in August of 1888, manned first base. The rest of the infield included famed comedian Nat C. Goodwin at second base, theater manager Robert Hilliard at third, and Francis Wilson at shortstop. The outfield featured Charles Bowser, James T. Powers, and Victor Harman.


George Boniface Jr.


De Wolf Hopper


Nat Goodwin

Will Rising took the mound for the Tragedy Nine and theater manager G.W. Sammis handled the role of catcher. Randolph Murray, best known as the then-husband of well-known singer and dancer Pauline Markham played first base. Joseph Frankau (second base), R.E. Graham (third base), and Edwin Cleary (shortstop) filled out the infield. Italian actor Alexander Salvini (who had now idea what he was doing) played left field, H.S Hilliard manned center, and Paul Arthur stationed himself in right.


Will Rising


Joseph Frankau


Alexander Salvini

Many of the contestants donned theatrical costumes. For example, Robert Hilliard dressed as Romeo, Joseph Frankau as King Lear, and Alexander Salvini as Ingomar the Barbarian.

A few special rules were adopted for the game. Five innings, not nine, would decide the contest, and no team was allowed to score more than nine runs in an inning. Additionally, two (some sources say three) kegs of beer (humorously labeled “Arnica”) were stationed next to third base, with players reaching the base being rewarded with the refreshment.

Incidentally, this humorously innovative idea to encourage base runners to try for third base was not new. As far as I am able to determine, the gimmick was first introduced in a baseball game played on July 4th, 1882, in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. A notice about the game was published in the Philadelphia Times on July 6th, 1882:



The keg-of-beer-at-third-base gimmick was popular throughout the late nineteenth century. Sometimes the kegs even showed up at first and/or second base, as well. An illustration in the May 1896 issue of Judge, shows the practice in full swing (or, perhaps more accurately, full swig):


Later, well into the 20th century, the concept was twisted a bit, generally being seen in games of softball. Instead of rewarding a player with a beer for making it to third base (and/or second and first), the base runner was required to drink a beer before leaving the base. This form of the game is still played today.

But getting back to the Comedy vs. Tragedy contest of May 25, 1886 ...

From the moment the game began, chaos ensued on the field. Other than just a few of the participants, most had limited ability in playing baseball, and some had no clue at all. And with confusion and inebriation being the order of the day, umpire Gus Heckler and official scorer John Mackay had their work cut out for them. Sources differ on the final score (20-9, 20-10, 19-7), but all credited the Comedians with the victory.

A few weeks later, on June 11, another benefit baseball game was staged by actors for Bartley Campbell. The exhibition contest took place at the home grounds of the Philadelphia Phillies and this time some 1,000 spectators raised over $500. While these games and various other fundraisers no doubt helped the Campbells, the playwright never recovered from his illness and passed away in the summer of 1888.