Sunday, December 23, 2018

Off-Season’s Greetings!

Actually, there never really is an off-season in baseball. The game’s “hot stove league” ensures that the national pastime is on our minds 365 days a year ... sometimes 366! But this is not a just modern-day phenomenon fueled by our 24/7 news cycle. It’s been going on a long time.

For example, did you know that the Alert Base Ball Club of Charleston (SC) played a match game against the host Forest City Base Ball Club of Savannah (GA) on December 25, 1868? Yes, you read that correctly. They played a game of baseball on Christmas Day, 150 years ago!

As was the custom at the time, the clubs played a best two-out-of-three format that year, the first team to capture a pair of victories winning the “home-and-home series.” As it turns out, the clubs had split their previous two meetings, so this late-December game was the so-called “rubber” game.

The nines first faced one another on July 4, 1868, the clubs apparently displaying a fondness for playing ball on major holidays. For this early summer contest, the Alert Club made the journey to Savannah and were generously and lavishly feted by the hosting Forest City Club.

According to an article in the Charleston Daily News of July 6, 1868:

The [Alert Club] was welcomed on the arrival of the [Steamer Fannie] at Savannah by a committee of the Forest City Club, escorted to and from the scene of [the] contest in omnibuses, and entertained by a handsome supper at the Screven House. In company with their antagonists of the Forest City, [the Alert Club was] photographed and afterward partook of champagne and punch at the Metropolitan Billiard Room.

Alas, I have been unable to track down that enticing photograph. If a reader manages to do so, please drop me a line. I’d love to add the 150-year-old image to this blog post.

As for the game itself, the Forest City Club topped the visiting Alerts Club, 27-16. Two months later, on September 7, the second contest of the series, known as the “return game,” took place at Charleston’s Citadel Green, now called Marion Square. This time around, the Alert Club emerged victorious, topping their Savannah opponents, 51-16 in seven innings, the game ending early due to darkness.

When the two clubs met for the third and deciding game on Christmas Day they did so back in Savannah. This was an unusual occurrence, as such winner-take-all finales were generally played at a neutral site. Despite this disadvantage, the visiting Alert Club ended up securing the victory, 45-42.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 3, 2018

An Important Moment in Baseball History Captured in a Panoramic Photo

This panoramic photograph, one that I had never seen until just a few months ago, captures an important moment baseball history, but it took some research to reveal its story.

In early September of 2018, Andrew Smith of Andrew Smith Gallery in Tucson, Arizona, contacted me regarding the photograph. He informed me that the original, a 14.5" × 47" gelatin silver print, came from a group of Detroit Publishing photographs he has owned for decades and was likely taken with a Cirkut panoramic camera. Other than the information written at the bottom left-hand corner, which reads “Boston Washington Opening Game,” basically nothing was known about the image. Andrew asked if I could identify the date and location the photo was taken. I set to work.

First, given the general appearance of the photo and the attire of the fans, there’s little doubt the shot was taken sometime during the first two decades of the 20th century.

A quick examination of the players’ uniforms reveals that the team in the field is wearing home whites, while the team at bat is clad in their road grays. A closer look at the uniforms allows us to learn even more. Here are details from the photo showing the center fielder (top) and left fielder (bottom):

Note that their uniforms are rather bland. The jersey and pants are solid white. The belt, stockings, and cap are dark. There do not appear to be any distinguishing marks on the sleeves.

As for the rest of the players in the field, every one (save the catcher, who is so far away as to be of no use for our research) is facing away from the camera, so any helpful markings that may be on the front of their jerseys are hidden.

Now let’s turn our attention to the team at bat. Take a look at the batter leading off first and his first base coach:

Even though they are far in the distance, we can see that the club’s jersey, pants, and cap are gray, the belt is dark, and the stockings are gray with a thick dark stripe. Additionally, the coach is wearing a dark sweater-jacket with a light-colored placket.

Working under the assumption that, as the title suggests, the game is between Washington and Boston, it quickly becomes apparent that the team in the field cannot be the Red Sox. Not only did the club not wear dark caps at home until 1933 (as noted above, this photo was clearly taken well before that time), but the ballpark doesn’t match either Fenway Park (which opened in 1912) or its predecessor, the Huntington Avenue Grounds (Boston’s home from 1901 to 1911).

Here’s what Fenway Park looked like in 1914, just two years after it opened:

And here’s a wonderful photo of Boston’s Huntington Avenue Grounds from 1903. (Incidentally, I blogged about back in 2011.)

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZC2-6131 DLC

As seen above, both of these parks featured a covered grandstand behind home, but our mystery photo shows a park in which not a single seat is covered. Indeed, it was this detail that confused me the most, as I was unaware of any big league park from this era that lacked a roof over at least some of its seats. As it turns out, however, this wholly “unprotected” seating would be the clue that ultimately solved this baseball mystery. But more about that later.

Having eliminated Boston as the home team, I looked for seasons in which Washington wore a home uniform as described above. Consulting the Hall of Fame’s Dressed to the Nines database, I found that the club’s duds in both 1907 and 1911 matched up well with what is seen in the photo. The Senators would not again wear such uniforms until the late 1930s, but (as previously noted) the photo was most certainly taken much earlier than that. Here are the home uniforms of the Senators for 1907 and 1911:

Note that while the 1911 Washington caps had thin vertical stripes, this feature does not show up in the panoramic photo. However, it is quite common for such subtleties to be “washed out” in images of this quality.

So what did Boston wear on the road in 1907 and 1911? Two very different uniforms:

Boston’s stockings from 1907 are solid colored, but their striped stockings of 1911 are a perfect match with the uniform worn by the team at bat in our mystery photo. Additionally, a different photograph, this one taken during Boston's 1911 spring training in Los Angeles, shows the club with beautiful sweater jackets:

Note how these jackets match what the first base coach is wearing in our panoramic photo, as it is also dark with a light-colored placket. Too bad we can’t see the left side of the coach’s jacket in the panoramic photo, but I am confident that it reads “RED SOX” as seen in the spring training photo.

So, with some fairly straightforward uniform research, it certainly appears that Andrew Smith’s photo was taken in 1911. Still, it would be wise to confirm this conclusion by a different means.

Recall that the caption stated that the matchup between Boston and Washington was the “Opening Game.” Perusing the American League schedules available at the web site, I carefully jotted down each season in which Boston was the visiting team for a home opener at Washington.

From 1901 through 1920, this occurred on five occasions:

  • April 23, 1902
  • April 22, 1908
  • April 12, 1911
  • April 23, 1914
  • April 22, 1920
Happily, of these dates, one matches years with our prior research: the opening day game of April 12, 1911. Here’s a box score from that game:

Note that the right-handed throwing Clyde Milan is playing center field for Washington. This matches nicely with the center fielder in our photo, who is apparently wearing a glove on his left hand. And the left-handed throwing Jack Lelivelt is manning left field. Again, this matches our photo, as it certainly looks as though the left fielder is wearing a glove on his right hand.

These small details are additional clues that help confirm that the photo was taken on April 12, 1911. But there is one significant problem. Washington’s opening game of 1911 took place at National Park, later and more familiarly known as Griffith Stadium. But the park in the photograph looks nothing like that historic ballpark. Here’s a quintessential image of Griffith Stadium in 1925:

Notice that, other than the bleachers, every section of the park has a covered grandstand. How can this be the same park that we see in the photograph? Here’s how:

On March 17, 1911, fire severely damaged Washington’s home ball park, at the time generally known as “American League Park.” A few photos of the conflagration show the extent of the disaster:

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-hec-00082

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-hec-00084

With opening day less than a month away, the club made the bold decision to rebuild the park at the same site ... and host the scheduled home opener on April 12 against the Red Sox. Working around the clock, they managed to pull off the incredible feat. As reported just a few days before the big game in the Washington, D.C. Evening Star of April 9, 1911:

Except for roof and superstructure, a splendid concrete grandstand—something better than Washington fans ever have had to support their energies when rooting for the home team—is ready at the base ball park for the opening game Wednesday.

A marvel of rapidity in construction has been accomplished in the few short weeks since fire converted into smoke the frame structure which provided in the past a vantage point for enthusiasts to view the performances of the Nationals and their adversaries in victory and defeat.

Day and night the chanting of the negro laborers has been heard in the vicinity. Like Aladdin’s palace, the structure rose as by magic. It is finished—all that is essential for that imperative occasion, the opening game.
And the day after the opening game, the Evening Star reported:

Every one who saw the new concrete stands will have a description to fit them by now. A complete stadium, that’s what the new stands are. They have a solid, well built, aristocratic appearance and inclose [sic] the field almost completely. They will have a better appearance, of course, when the roof is put on, and still better when the double-decker is completed next year.
So the park that rose from the ashes of “American League Park” and opened on April 12, 1911, was incomplete. It lacked the planned roofs and second deck (which were eventually completed), but it was good enough to host opening day. That is the park we see in our mystery photo.

The more completed park did not debut until late July, as noted in the Washington Herald of July 23, 1911:

Tuesday afternoon when the ump shouts. “batter up” at National Park, District fans will be quartered in one of the prettiest baseball grounds in the country.
A remarkable transformation has taken place while the club has been on the road, and while every minor detail will not be completed, the grand stand and two immense concrete bleachers will seat the patrons out of reach of the sun. The double-decker grand stand yesterday lacked only a few finishing touches, and the contractors state that all will be in readiness by Tuesday [July 25].

... The diamond has been shifted to its permanent place, and has been drawn considerably nearer the stand.
So, not only was the ballpark incomplete when the photograph was taken, even the final placement of the diamond was not at the same location within the park.

From 1911 through 1961, the ballpark was home to the Washington Senators ... actually, two different Senators clubs. The first was a founding member of the American League and the second was an expansion club that replaced the old Senators when they left to become the Minnesota Twins.

Though often ridiculed as “First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League”—sportswriter Charles Dryden’s quip actually dates back to mid-season of 1904—the Senators had some modicum of success at the ballpark, including winning Game Seven of the 1924 World Series on its diamond in one of the most exciting finales in the history of the Fall Classic.

Every U.S. president from William Howard Taft to John F. Kennedy tossed out a ceremonial first pitch from the ballpark’s stands. This was even true on that first Opening Day in 1911. Indeed, somewhere in our mystery photo, Taft is sitting in the stands, enjoying the ball game. Thankfully, his first pitch was captured in a different photo published in the Evening Star the following day:

In conclusion, Andrew Smith’s panoramic photo depicts the Opening Day game played between Boston and Washington on April 12, 1911. It was the first game played at what would eventually be known as Griffith Stadium, the historic site of half a century of Washington baseball history.