Thursday, April 12, 2012

A Benefit Game for Survivors of the Titanic

The Titanic, George M. Cohan, a celebrated murder, The Great Gatsby … and baseball, all come together in a pair of photographs available at the Library of Congress' Prints & Photographs Online Catalog. Here are the photos:

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-11218

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-11218

And here's the story:

Less than a week after the Titanic sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, a brief notice was similarly buried … at the bottom of sports page of the April 20, 1912 issue of The New York Times. It read:
Ball Game for Titanic Survivors

President Frank Farrell of the Yankees and President John T. Brush of the Giants have consented to have their teams play an exhibition game at the Polo Grounds to-morrow afternoon at 3 o'clock for the benefit of the destitute survivors of the Titanic.
The contest of April 21, 1912, the first Sunday game ever played at the Polo Grounds, attracted over 14,000 fans, an impressive total on such short notice. And while the ball game was a laugher (the Giants trounced a depleted Yankees squad, 11-2), the event was a serious effort to raise money for the hundreds who managed to escape with their lives. Various newspapers reported that the receipts from the game totaled a tidy sum of $9,425.25.

Making an appearance for the Giants that day was one Phifer Fullenwider, what Keith Olbermann says is "the greatest name in baseball history." More on Fullenwider (seen in another Library of Congress photograph below) can be found in Keith's blog written back in December of 2009.

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-10326

And, for those true baseball history aficionados, even Charles "Victory" Faust had a cameo role in the day's events. (For more on Faust, check out this brief biography or his amazing full-length story, both written by baseball researcher Gabe Schechter).

But our story began days before the game, when entertainer George M. Cohan contacted William Randolph Hearst with an idea. If Hearst would publish a special Sunday edition of his New York American newspaper, Cohan would pay $5,000 for the first copy. Additionally, the 33-year-old composer/singer/dancer (what couldn't Cohan do?) would personally pound the pavement in New York City, selling copies of the paper to benefit the Titanic survivors.

According to the New York Tribune, Cohan "covered the city from the Battery to The Bronx [and] netted a sum that will amount to nearly $20,000." In the afternoon of his Sunday paper route, Cohan stopped by the Polo Grounds for the special Yankees-Giants ballgame and it was there that he was captured in the pair of photos.

Scrawled into the emulsion of both photographs is the name "Geo. Cohan" and the event: "'Titanic' Benefit Game." But the young man seen trailing behind Cohan in the pair of images has not been identified … until now.

Who was this fellow? Well, according to the same Tribune article, "throughout his trip [Cohan] was assisted by Jack Sullivan, founder of the Newsboys' Home." Though images of Sullivan are few and far between, they match well with the "other" man seen in these photographs.

Jacob A. Reich, better known as Jack Sullivan, may have been nothing but an unidentified shadow behind Cohan that April day, but just three months after the Titanic disaster, the man who was called "King of the Newsboys" was in the limelight, playing a significant role in the murder of New York gambler Herman Rosenthal. The details of the brutal shooting are beyond the scope of this blog (you can learn more about it in David Pietrusza's book Rothstein: The Life, Times, and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series), but the case was quite a sensation. It even made an appearance in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby:
"The old Metropole," brooded Mr. Wolfshiem gloomily. "Filled with faces dead and gone. Filled with friends gone now forever. I can't forget so long as I live the night they shot Rosy Rosenthal there. It was six of us at the table and Rosy had eat and drunk a lot all evening. When it was almost morning the waiter came up to him with a funny look and says somebody wants to speak to him outside. 'All right' says Rosy and begins to get up and I pulled him down in his chair.

" 'Let the bastards come in here if they want you, Rosy, but don't you, so help me, move outside this room.'

"It was four o'clock in the morning then and if we'd of raised the blinds we'd of seen daylight."

"Did he go?" I asked innocently.

"Sure he went,"—Mr. Wolfshiem's nose flashed at me indignantly
"He turned around in the door and says, 'Don't let that waiter take away my coffee!' Then he went out on the sidewalk and they shot him three times in his full belly and drove away."

"Four of them were electrocuted," I said, remembering.

"Five with Becker." His nostrils turned to me in an interested way. "I understand you're looking for a business gonnegtion."

The juxtaposition of these two remarks was startling. Gatsby answered for me.
Ultimately, Charles Becker, a New York City Police lieutenant, was found guilty of the murder and, in the summer of the 1915, was sent to the electric chair at Sing Sing prison. Though Reich was released in 1913 on his own recognizance, he remained under indictment as an accomplice to the murder for over 20 years. The charges were not dropped until August of 1936, some two years before Reich passed away.

Funny how these various stories and characters all come together in a couple of pictures of a pair of "newsboys" at a ballgame. I suppose it's just another example of how a picture is indeed worth a thousand words.