Sunday, February 28, 2010

An Earthquake in Charleston

With the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, I thought I'd pass along the following brief story:

Nearly 125 years ago, on August 31, 1886, a 7.6 magnitude earthquake rocked Charleston, South Carolina. The devastation was widespread and though the loss of life was surprisingly low (some 60 people perished, though various accounts report a slightly greater total), a great many structures in the city were heavily damaged.

The U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Library has a collection of photos related to the disaster. Here's just one:

Earthquake damage to in Charleston, S.C., 1886Photograph by John K. Hillers courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey

(For those interested, the above photo was taken at the corner of East Bay and Cumberland in Charleston, looking west along Cumberland Street. The corner store at 205 East Bay was Wm. M. Bird & Co., a dealer in general building supplies.)

One structure that apparently escaped the effects of the temblor was a local ballpark. The following story appeared in the Chicago Herald soon after the disaster:

"I was down in South Carolina during all of the earthquake troubles," said a commercial traveler, "and I never again want to be a witness of such scenes as I saw there. I'll not attempt to describe the incidents to you—they have already been sufficiently touched upon in the daily papers. But there is one little phase of the thing which the newspapers have not even mentioned. You know business was suspended in Charleston. All of the stores excepting grocery and provision stores were closed. The banks were not open. The theaters closed their doors. Even the newspapers suspended publication for an issue or two. But the day after the first terrible quake I happened out by the baseball grounds, and I'll be durned [sic] if there wasn't two clubs in there a playing, and quite a crowd sitting on the benches cheering the players. I looked through a crack in the fence , and just then another earthquake shock came. The umpire motioned to the players to go right along, but the pitcher, who was then in the box, asked to have the game called for a few minutes because the home plate was wobbling so he couldn't put the ball in straight. The umpire acceded to this reasonable request, and after a delay of ten minutes I heard the umpire call out, 'play ball—batter up.' Then I left, satisfied that baseball is the one American institution which even an earthquake can't knock out."

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Rabbit Maranville Is Not a Nazi

In September of 2009, Paul Lukas, keeper of all-things uniform and editor of the invaluable and entertaining Uni Watch column and blog, alerted his readers to a photograph forwarded along by Bruce Menard:

The player is quite clearly Boston Braves shortstop Rabbit Maranville in a posed action shot in foul territory near third base. A quick check of the Dressed to the Nines uniform database confirms that Maranville is wearing a Boston Braves road uniform from either 1913, 1914 or 1915. The uniforms match perfectly save for one detail: a swastika on the front of the baseball cap.

Was Rabbit Maranville a Nazi? Should he be referred to as Herr Maranville, or better yet, "Hare" Maranville? What's the story?

Here's what Paul related in his blog entry:

That’s Rabbit Maranville, circa 1915, and Bruce says the cap was worn to commemorate the sinking of the Lusitania. I know the swastika has a lengthy pre-Nazi history, so let’s not rehash all of that, but I didn’t know about this Lusitania connection. Anyone know more?
Let's see if we can shed a bit more light on the photograph.

We've already established a window of possible years: 1913, 1914 or 1915. The latter season works well with the Lusitania theory, since the ship sank on May 7 of that year. Alas, beyond the possible year match, there are numerous problems with the theory:

  • At the time of the disaster, the Braves were in the midst of a nearly month-long homestand that stretched from May 6 to June 3. Assuming the club wore the special caps soon after the ship's sinking, why would they don road uniforms at home?
  • Alternatively, if the photo was taken after the Braves' homestand, why bother? The incident was a month in the past.
  • And why wear the "swasti-cap?" What does a swastika have to do with calling attention to the tragedy? Why not wear an armband or special pin?
No. The Lusitania theory just doesn't seem to add up. Rather than focusing on this theory, the best angle to research the photo is to see what other clues present themselves.

We have a date range. What about the location? Look at the area directly behind Maranville. Though it is a bit out of focus, the word "FATIMA" can be seen on the outfield wall, with light-colored lettering over a dark-colored background. This is an advertisement for Fatima cigarettes, a popular brand that was advertised at many big league parks. To the right of the cigarette ad there appears to be an outfield scoreboard, and above both the ad and the scoreboard it appears that the wall is generally white. These clues should help determine at what ballpark the photo was taken.

Examining numerous photos of ballparks found at the Library of Congress' Prints & Photographs Online Catalog, I came across a few that helped identify the park.

Here's a photo of Brooklyn pitcher Duster Mails wearing Brooklyn's special cross-hatch uniforms worn only in 1916:

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-22441

The style of the outfield wall and the position of the scoreboard match the Maranville photo perfectly. However, the "Fatima" advertisement has the wrong color scheme (dark lettering on a light background, rather than light lettering on a dark background) and the area above the ad and the scoreboard is not white, but rather has an advertisement for "Uneeda Biscuit" by the "National Biscuit Company."

Here's a photo showing more of center field at the same park in 1916. This time the picture features Otto Miller, the Brooklyn catcher who was tagged out by Cleveland's Bill Wambsganss for the final out of Wamby's famous unassisted triple play during the 1920 World Series:

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-22473

Though the quality of the image is poor, one can readily see the dark "batter's eye" in center field and a flag atop a flagpole.

Finally, the right field portion of the park is seen in this photo of Zack Wheat, also from 1916:

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-22484

So what park is this? It's a very "young" Ebbets Field! The signature "concave" wall in right field can be seen in the photo of Zack Wheat. What few people realize is that prior to the extension of the third base-side grandstand in the early 1930s, the wall in left field was similarly concave.

Now that the ballpark has been identified, we need to find an exact match for the "Fatima" advertisement with the light-colored wall above it.

A word of warning. Matching outfield wall advertisements is a great way to help date photos, but it is not an exact science. While ad space was generally sold in the off-season and new ads painted prior to the opening of the season, sometimes (though rarely) ads or other outfield wall features changed during the season. (A good example is discussed in my Take Me Out to the Ball Game Polo Grounds entry.) Additionaly, not all ad space changed from one season to the next, so an ad could last for multiple seasons without apparent change. In short, outfield wall ad matching is like a chainsaw. Both are great tools when you know how to use them, but without proper training, they can both be rather dangerous. (Of course, the chainsaw is slightly more dangerous, but you get the idea.)

Here's a photo of Braves second baseman Johnny Evers that matches the outfield wall in the Maranville photo perfectly:

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-15794

This photo also helps narrow down the possible years of the Maranville shot, because Evers didn't play with Boston until 1914, so 1913 can be eliminated as a possible year.

But wait. Take a closer look at Evers' cap:

He's wearing a "swasti-cap," too! The photo was almost assuredly taken the same day as the Maranville shot. After searching for other photos of Braves players at Brooklyn, I came across this one of Maranville:

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-15793

Amazingly, though it was taken from a slightly different angle, this photo was made at exactly the same time as the other Maranville image.

Using similar research methods as described above, I spent quite a few hours researching other photos from the Library of Congress, and was able to create "maps" of the outfield walls for Ebbets Field for quite a few years, specifically 1913, 1914 and 1915. From this work, I was able to conclude that the photo of Maranville (and Evers) could only have been taken in 1914.

Additionally, the latter photo of Maranville as well as the Evers photo have handwritten dates on the emulsion. Both read "4/16/14."

It's tempting to think that this is the date of the photograph, but I've researched quite a few photos from the George Grantham Bain Collection at the Library of Congress (where all of the above photos originate) and found that the handwritten dates do not necessarily correspond to the date the photo was taken. More likely, they represent the date that the photograph was developed. Nevertheless, they do approximate the correct date, which in this case points to mid-April of 1914. In fact, Brooklyn hosted the Boston Braves on Opening Day at Ebbets Field on April 14, 1914. It is my belief that this is the date of the Maranville photograph.

Still, we are left wondering why the Braves wore caps with swastikas. At this point, a little history of the controversial symbol helps.

The swastika has been around for thousands of years, the word coming from the Sanskrit "svastika" meaning "all is well." Up until its adoption by Nazi Germany, the swastika was known as a symbol of luck, and was often worn as a good-luck charm. Of course, the symbol's association with the Nazis has overshadowed this earlier meaning.

But in 1914, there was no stigma associated with the swastika. Well, at least very little. On January 26, 1912, the New York Times ran an article with the headline "'Jinxes' Have No Place With Yankees: Manager Wolverton Will Drive Superstitious Ideas Out of His Ball Team." The article goes on as follows:

Manager Harry Wolverton of the Yankees says that the day of the superstitious ballplayer is over. He doesn't believe in jinxes, good or bad omens, rabbits' feet, swastika signs, or all that ancient baseball lore.
Despite the best efforts of Harry Wolverton, the lucky swastika was and continued to be embraced by people around the world, including ballplayers. In fact, it is my belief that the Braves wore the special "swasti-caps" on Opening Day of 1914 as a good-luck charm ... or at least as an end-the-bad-luck charm.

The Boston Braves entered the 1914 season having finished in the National League's second division 11 straight years — dead last in four of the previous five campaigns. Opening the season in Brooklyn, it's not hard to believe that the exasperated club might choose to adopt a good luck symbol to help turn things around.

At first it appeared that the superstitious move was a failure. The club lost both games in Brooklyn and continued to slide downhill for nearly three months. After dropping both ends of a doubleheader to Brooklyn on July 4, the Braves found themselves with a record of 26-40, in last place and 16 games out of first. Then, things turned around.

The Braves won their next four games and, ultimately, 68 of their final 87. The turnaround was nothing short of incredible, as the club took sole possession of first place by early September and ultimately grabbed the pennant by 10.5 games over the second place Giants. In the World Series, Boston dismissed the powerful Philadelphia Athletics in four straight games.

Today known as the "Miracle Braves," Boston's celebrated comeback remains unparalleled in big league history. Who would have guessed that it all began with a superstition and a symbol that has long since become taboo?

Update of April 14, 2014:

Thanks to the great work of uber-baseball researcher Peter Morris, we now have a final confirmation that the Braves wore their special "swasti-caps" on Opening Day of 1914. The following paragraph comes from an article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of April 15, 1914, titled "Yesterday's Ball Game As a Woman Viewed It." Note the final sentence:

Thanks, Peter!