Monday, November 12, 2012

Bagpipes and Baseball, or Clash of the Tartans

This summer, I came across an absolutely fantastic image in the photo collection of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum:

National Baseball Library (BL-3270.71)

Pictured is a baseball team wearing what I believe to be the first (and likely only) all-tartan baseball uniform in professional baseball history. How great is that?

A number of questions came to mind and, in an effort to answer them, I eagerly researched the photo. Here are those questions, my research and the answers that I determined.

What team is pictured in the photograph?

Obviously, with "Ottawa" plastered across the front of each player's jersey, the team likely represents that city. Additionally, a previous owner of the photograph added a handwritten note at the bottom of the mount that reads:

Eastern League Team of Ottawa Canada 1897
Transferred from Rochester New York
Rochester's Eastern League club, sometimes called the Patriots, did indeed move to Ottawa, but as evidenced by this short article published in Sporting Life of July 16, 1898, the transfer occurred during the middle of the 1898 season, not 1897:

Apparently, the handwritten note on the photo mount was off by a year.

(By the way, while many sources refer to this short-lived Ottawa club by the nickname "Wanderers," I have yet to see this name in any contemporary sources.)

In order to confirm that this is indeed the 1898 Ottawa club, it may prove helpful to ask another question:

What players can be identified?

Seated fourth from left is a player identified with another handwritten note. Inked below the player's feet is the name "Joe Gunson." Since we've already determined the handwritten date on the mount is inaccurate, it would probably be best to double-check Gunson identification by checking other known images of the player. Here is an Old Judge cigarette card of Gunson with Kansas City of the minor league Western Association in 1888:

Compare the man identified as Gunson in the Ottawa photo with his image on the cigarette card:

Despite the nearly ten-year difference in age, there's no question that these fellows are one and the same, and that the identification of Gunson is correct. A check of his record reveals that Gunson played with Scranton in 1897, but with the Ottawa/Rochester club in 1898. Thus, the team photo is almost assuredly the 1898 Ottawa baseball club.

Gunson, a veteran of four big league seasons with five different clubs, would be a forgettable figure in baseball were it not for the claim that he invented the catcher's mitt back in 1888. Other individuals, such as Ted Kennedy and Harry Decker, have also been linked to the origins of the mitt, but Gunson's name is the one most often associated with the innovation.

The other relatively famous player on Ottawa in 1898 was Mike Kelley. Not to be confused with the Hall of Famer Mike "King" Kelly, the Kelley on Ottawa was a mediocre first baseman who played just one season of big league ball. But following his professional playing career, Kelley went on to make his name as a longtime manager and owner of minor league clubs in both Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Here's a photo of Kelley:

Minnesota Historical Society (negative no. 100206)

Compare this image of Kelley with the player standing just above Gunson in the Ottawa photo:

Once again, we have a match. There really is no question at all: We're clearly dealing with the Ottawa Club from Eastern League in 1898.

Where was this photograph taken?

A good first assumption is that the photo was shot in Ottawa, but there are other clues that should help determine the exact location.

In the background there is a storefront window adorned with the name "J.R. McNEIL." And to the left, above a door, is a street number: 203. Given this information, I was able to track down the following advertisement found in the final pages of a 1903 publication titled A Regimental History of the Forty-Third Regiment, Active Militia of Canada by Captain Ernest J. Chambers:

Indeed, upon further examination, we can see that inside the store, behind the name "J.R. McNeil" on the window, is a poster that confirms that the establishment is that of a tailor.

Though partially obscured, the poster reads:
According to the Canadian census of 1901, a gentleman named "James R. McNeil" was listed as a "merchant tailor," immigrated to Canada in 1885, and, though he was born in England, he listed his "racial origin" as "Scotch." Born on December 11, 1858, he was 39 years old at the time the photograph was taken.

A check of the 1898-99 Ottawa City Directory confirms that McNeil's tailor shop was indeed at 203 Sparks Street:

Now compare the image of the gentleman seen in the poster and the fellow wearing the vest posing with the club:

They are one and the same: James R. McNeil, the tailor.

So where is 203 Sparks Street in Ottawa? Here's a map (courtesy of Google Maps) that shows that the location (marked by the pin "A") is just a stone's throw from Parliament Hill, in what is now the Sparks Street Mall:


The Library and Archives of Canada has a wonderful online collection of photographs taken by William James Topley (1845-1930). In the collection is the following undated photograph is labeled "Sparks Street."

Library and Archives Canada (online MIKAN no. 3325937)

The photo was taken looking northeast up Sparks Street, with the first intersection being Bank Street.

At right, at the southeast corner of Sparks and Bank, is a distinctive building. While the structure has nothing to do with our tailor's shop (it wasn't even built until a year after the Ottawa team photograph was taken), it was a prominent landmark in the area and, as we shall see, some of the building still stands today. Here's a detail from the above photograph:

And here's another view of the building, from a different Topley photo at the Library and Archives of Canada:

Library and Archives Canada (online MIKAN no. 3318384)

This was the Sun Life Building, constructed in 1899. The structure was one of the first Beaux-Arts buildings in Ottawa and was designed by Canadian architect Edgar Lewis Horwood. Today, Horwood is perhaps best known as the designer of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in British Columbia, where their 72-inch telescope was supposed to have been the world's largest. However, the telescope failed to see first light until after the 100-inch Hooker telescope opened at Mt. Wilson Observatory. (Why include this rather tangential detail? Because I used to work at Mt. Wilson Observatory.)

As noted above, the Sun Life Building still stands today, though it has been significantly altered, lacking its distinctive dome and many of the other details that made it a landmark a century ago. Here's what it looks like today, as captured by Google Street View:

Returning to an examination of the location of McNeil's tailor shop, here's a detail from the first Topley photograph above, showing the buildings on the left (north) side of Sparks Street, just beyond the Bank Street intersection:

Note the partially obscured sign at the center of this detail reads "J.R. McNEIL" That is our tailor's shop: the location of the team photo.

As one might guess, J.R. McNeil is no longer at 203 Sparks Street. In fact, the building at that location is not the same one that was there when the Ottawa club posed for their photo. The Wellington Building, originally built in the 1920s and expanded eastward in the 1960s, lies atop the location of McNeil's shop. Today the Wellington occupies most of the western half of the block bounded by Sparks, Bank, Wellington and O'Connor Streets. In the current-day satellite image below, the blue arrow points to the Wellington Building, while the green arrow points to the approximate location where McNeil's shop once stood:

Who took the photograph of the Ottawa club?

At the bottom right-hand corner of the mount there are some markings. Here's a detail:

Generally, photo studios would place their name and location on each photo they mounted, but in this case the mount has been significantly trimmed. Though we are left with very little to go on, we can see that at the far right of what's left of the studio imprint there appears to be an apostrophe after a cursive letter "O, "C," or "G." The 1898-99 Ottawa City Directory has a listing of all photographic studios in the Ottawa area. Here's that listing:

(Hey, there's the Topley Studio! No doubt that is where William James Topley set up shop back in the day.)

Of all the studios listed, only one features an apostrophe: Sproule & O'Connor at 134 Bank Street. Could the markings on the mount be a small portion of the Sproule & O'Connor imprint? A search on the web uncovered the following photo that features the studio's full imprint at the bottom of the mount:

snap-happy1 photo stream at flickr

Here's a detail of the imprint:

And here's an overlay of the markings on the Ottawa baseball team photo and the full imprint:

It's a perfect match. Clearly, the Ottawa team photo was taken by the studio run by Henry W. Sproule and Nicholas R. O'Connor at 134 Bank Street, just a few blocks south of McNeil's tailor shop.

When was the photograph taken?

Since the club made Ottawa its home for just the last half of the 1898 season, we already have a fairly short span of time in which the photograph could have been shot. However, there are other clues to help date the photo.

According to a short note in Sporting Life of August 13, 1898, "The Ottawa Club has released pitcher Harper and catcher Joe Gunson." The pair was actually released on August 2, and since we've already established that Gunson is in our team photo, the shot had to have taken place before his early August departure.

The Ottawa club's first home game took place on July 15, 1898. Since we know the photo was taken in Ottawa, it could not have been done so before that date. We now know the Ottawa players posed for their team photo sometime during the fortnight between July 15 and August 2, 1898.

Thankfully, a fortuitous find allowed me to determine the exact date of the photo. Google News Archive contains numerous digitized issues of the Ottawa Citizen, a daily newspaper in the capital city. By reading coverage of the baseball club over the two week window determined above, I found the following paragraph in the issue of August 2, 1898:

Baseball Monday was ushered in with a grand flourish of bagpipes, the home team wearing for the first time their new home uniforms presented to them by Mr. McNeil, the tailor. The gathering of the Clans took place at the Grand Union Hotel from whence a march started, first to Mr. McNeil's, where they were photographed, and thence to the Metropolitan grounds, where the Scottish colors were dragged in the dust literally and figuratively by the heartless barons, the Ottawas being defeated by the score of 4 to 3.
... The appearance of the Ottawas will be quite a surprise to the slouchy ball players of the Unites States. The locals are the most stylish looking aggregation in the league.
Question answered: The photo was taken on Monday, August 1, 1898.

Incidentally, the Grand Union Hotel, where the day's festivities began, can be seen in this Topley photograph:

Library and Archives Canada (online MIKAN no. 3422795)

What's up with the tartan uniforms?

Take a close look at James McNeil:

His vest is made from the same tartan material as that used for the players' uniforms. As noted in the Ottawa Citizen, McNeil was the very man who outfitted the ball club. His choice for the pattern? Well, the good folks at the Scottish Tartans Museum were kind enough to alert me to the very useful Tartan Registry and help confirm that the players were wearing one of the historic McNeil family tartans. Here's that pattern:

It seems that without actually placing his name on the team uniforms, James McNeil managed to leave little question as to who made the outfits.

Who are those bagpipers?

Indeed! Well, according to their web site, the Sons of Scotland Pipe Band are Canada's oldest civilian organization of bagpipers, having first formed in 1896. Now take a look at this entry in the 1898-99 Ottawa City Directory:

The Sons of Scotland were formed five years before their pipe band, and seven years before the Ottawa baseball club came to town. I was able to determine that their meeting place at Workman's Hall was located at 181 Sparks Street, just a few doors down from McNeil's tailor shop. The bagpipers simply have to be members of the Sons of Scotland Pipe Band.

Here's a Topley photo of the Sons of Scotland's meeting place as it appeared in 1918:

Library and Archives Canada (online MIKAN no. 3504638)

... and here's what the building looks like today (though the address is now 183 Sparks Street):

After all of these questions, perhaps you are now wondering ...

Where can I purchase a quality reproduction of the Ottawa team photograph?

Glad you asked. Actually, there's only one place to get a copy of this photograph: The National Baseball Hall of Fame. I encourage you to contact John Horne in the Hall of Fame's Photo Department ( and he can help you obtain a copy.