Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Olympic Athletes at Hilltop Park and Baseball at the 1912 Olympics


The web site of the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library Congress features over a million items, the vast majority of which are photographs, prints, or drawings that have been digitized and made available to the public. Thousands of these images are related to baseball. But, as with any collection this vast, some image metadata is incomplete or erroneous. I recently stumbled across this photograph with the title of “Olympic athletes coming on field” and a summary at the Library of Congress web site that states “Photo related to the 5th Olympic Games, held in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1912.”


Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-12183
 

Something about this photo sure seemed familiar to me. Take a look at the distinctive building in the background:

Now take a look at this photo of Cleveland utility man Neal Ball shot in 1910 by famed baseball photographer Charles Conlon:

This latter photo was taken at Hilltop Park (also known as American League Park), home to the New York Yankees from 1903 to 1912, and, very briefly, to the New York Giants for some six weeks in the spring of 1911.

Recognize the building in the background at left? It is the same one that we see in the Library of Congress’s photo titled “Olympic athletes coming on field.” The building was New York’s Public School No. 169 located at 68 Audubon Avenue, between West 168th and West 169th Streets in the city’s Washington Heights neighborhood. Here’s a close-up view of the majestic structure as seen from Audubon Avenue:

As an aside, attending the school at this very time was one George Ranft. The young boy later simplified his surname to Raft and became a film star whom you might recall from such movies as “Scarface” (1932), “They Drive by Night” (1940), and “Some Like It Hot” (1959). I like to imagine that as a youth, Raft skipped class now and then, peered out a school window, and watched baseball stars such as Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, or Hal Chase play ball at the nearby park.

George Raft (left) with Jimmy Cagney, June 29, 1935, at Wrigley Field, Los Angeles

But back to our photo of “Olympic athletes coming on field,” we now know that the action took place at Hilltop Park. In this early 20th century era, ballparks generally changed outfield wall advertisements once a year. For the baseball picture researcher, these ads act as “ballpark fingerprints” and thus help date photographs. Many of the advertisements in this photo have been intentionally obscured with black ink so as not to give free ad space to companies when the photo was reproduced in newspapers. Happily, however, the process was done rather clumsily and enough of these ads are visible to match them with unobscured images of the park from known years. For this picture the ads match perfectly with those seen in other photos of Hilltop Park from 1912, the last season in which the park hosted big league baseball.

At far left is an ad for Vogel & Co. clothiers. Moving towards the right field corner we next see ads for Adams’ Pepsin Tutti Frutti gum, Young’s Hats, Coronet Dry Gin, Underwood Typewriters (“The Machine You Will Eventually Buy”), and a large sign for “Bull” Durham Tobacco.

Here are a pair of photos of Hilltop Park from 1912 that show these identical outfield signs:


We have a year and a location for the photo, but exactly when in 1912 did Hilltop Park play host to a bevy of Olympic athletes? Scouring old newspapers it becomes apparent that the date was June 12.

New York Times, June 13, 1912, page 9


The Yankees were out of town that day, nearing the end of a two-week road trip. The club was mired in seventh place in the American League and would eventually finish dead last with a record of 50-102-1. Their .329 winning percentage that season still ranks as their all-time worst.

Despite the gloom of intermittent rain showers, a sizable crowd flocked to Hilltop Park that June 12th. There they cheered on some 100 U.S. track and field athletes as they participated in a friendly intrasquad meet. It was the final competition for these Olympians as, just two days later, they boarded the Red Star Line’s SS Finland for their journey across the Atlantic to the Summer Games in Stockholm, Sweden. 

Between 5,000 and 10,000 fans attended the benefit event (newspaper estimates varied widely), with receipts to be split between two organizations: the American Olympic Fund, which helped finance the U.S. team; and the Newsboys’ Home Club, a building at Second Avenue and East 11th Street that served as a safe gathering place as well as a second (and sometimes first) home to the city’s large population of newsboys.

Now let’s take a second look at the “Olympic athletes coming on field” photo where an on-field entourage is marching across the field toward the ballpark’s grandstand. A detail of this picture allows us to identify a few of those individuals leading the parade:

The four athletes at left are:

1) Matt McGrath

Matt McGrath competed in four Olympic Games (1908, 1912, 1920, and 1924), earning a gold and two silver medals in the hammer throw. Dubbed the “Modern Hercules,” his throw of 179 feet 7.1 inches at the Stockholm Games remained the Olympic record for two dozen years. He was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 2006.

2) Emil Muller

A native of Paterson, New Jersey, Emil Muller burst on the national track and field scene just prior to the 1912 Olympics. The 21-year-old finished 12th in the men’s discus throw and sixth in the discus throw with both hands. As an Olympic event, this latter competition, which combined distances thrown from both the left and right hands, was held in 1912 only.

3) Ralph Rose

At 6’6” and 250 pounds, Ralph Rose was a giant of a man. His record as a shot-putter was also oversized. He won gold medals in the shot put in the 1904 and 1908 Olympics and a pair of medals in the 1912 Games: silver in shot put and gold in shot put with both hands. Like the discus throw with both hands, this latter event was held just this once in Olympic competition. In the same trio of Olympics, Rose also participated in other events such as discus (winning silver in 1904), hammer throw (bronze in 1904), javelin, and tug-of-war (which was sadly discontinued after the 1920 Summer Games). Rose’s shot put record of 51 feet set in August of 1909 remained unsurpassed for nearly 19 years. Rose died of typhoid fever at the age of 28, just 15 months after the 1912 Olympic Games. He was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1976.

4) Pat McDonald

Born in Ireland, Pat McDonald earned three medals for the United States in Olympic competition. In 1912 he took home gold in shot put and silver in shot put with both hands. And in 1920, at the age of 42, he won gold in the 56-pound weight throw, the last year this event was held in the Olympics. As such, he set a still-standing record as the oldest Olympic track and field competitor to take home a gold medal. McDonald was the U.S. flag bearer in both the 1920 and 1924 Olympic Games, though he did not compete in the latter competition. He was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 2012.

And in civilian clothes at right we see:

5) Matt Halpin

Matt Halpin, who was long affiliated with the New York Athletic Club, managed the U.S. Olympic teams in 1908 (London), 1912 (Stockholm), and 1920 (Antwerp).

6) James E. Sullivan

A co-founder of the Amateur Athletic Union in 1888, James Sullivan served as the organization’s president from 1906 through 1909. In his honor, the AAU established the James E. Sullivan Award in 1930, annually bestowing the prestigious prize to “the most outstanding amateur athlete in the United States.” He was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1977.

7) Gustavus T. Kirby

President of the AAU from 1911 to 1913, Gustavus Kirby was president of the United States Olympic Committee for the 1920 Summer Olympics and the chairman of the USOC for the 1924 Summer Olympics.

A careful inspection of the wealth of photographs at the Library of Congress’s web site reveals a number of other photos that were clearly taken at the same June 12th event.


Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-12184
 

The above photo was taken at the Hilltop Park grandstand after the athletes and officials completed their march across the field. There they were greeted by Colonel Robert M. Thompson, president of the American Olympic Committee, and a ceremonial exchange of flags took place. Gustavus Kirby presented Thompson with the U.S. flag that flew at White City Stadium during the 1908 Olympics in London, while Thompson handed Kirby a brand new U.S. flag.

In the foreground of the above detail we see: 1) Ralph Rose; 2) Matt Halpin; 3) James E. Sullivan; 4) Gustavus Kirby (partially obscured); 5) Colonel Robert M. Thompson.

Three photographs, taken in front of Hilltop Park’s right field wall, capture over two dozen of the U.S. Olympic athletes in attendance. Here are these photos and identifications of the Olympians seen in them:


Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-11775
 

1) Ralph Rose; 2) Pat McDonald; 3) Matt McGrath (name incorrectly spelled on image); 4) Emil Muller (misidentified as [John Paul] Jones); 5) John Nicholson (misidentified as [Abel] Kiviat and misspelled Kaviatt).


Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-11987
 

6) Jim Rosenberger; 7) Tell Berna; 8) Walter McClure; 9) Harry Grumpelt; 10) Ben Adams; 11) Platt Adams; 12) Harry Babcock; 13) Jim Thorpe; 14) Fred Kelly; 15) George Horine; 16) Hal Heiland.


Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-10947
 

17) Jim Duncan; 18) Jack Eller; 19) Alvah Meyer; 20) John J. Reynolds; 21) Jim Donahue; 22) Fred Allen; 23) Ted Meredith; 24) Ira Davenport; 25) Sam Bellah; 26) Peter Gerhardt; 27) Ira Courtney; 28) Eddie Fitzgerald.

A few other photos take on that June 12th feature Olympians such as ...


Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-11576
 

Clarence Childs and Simon Gillis


Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-11577
 

Tell Berna


Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-11296
 

Peter Gerhardt


Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-11295
 

John Reynolds


Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-12196
 

Ira Courtney

Just over a month after the Hilltop Park event, with the U.S. Olympic team still in Sweden, a pair of baseball games took place in Stockholm. While not a medal sport, the baseball games were considered official Olympic exhibitions. Many of the athletes seen in the above photos took part in these games.

The first game took place on Monday, July 15, at the Östermalm Athletic Grounds, where the Olympic equestrian events took place. The contest pitted U.S. track-and-field athletes against the Västerås’ Basebollklubb, Sweden’s first baseball club. The star-studded U.S. squad featured eight Olympic medalists: George Bonhag, Dick Byrd, Ira Davenport, George Horine, Frank Irons (1908 medalist), Fred Kelly, Abel Kiviat, and Larry Whitney. Additionally, in an effort to balance the competition, the U.S. supplied the Swedish club with a catcher and some pitchers, including Olympic medalists Ben Adams and Frank Nelson. Incidentally, the umpire for the game was none other than future Baseball Hall of Famer George Wright. Some photos of the game:



On Tuesday, July 16, the second baseball game was played. This one was an all-American affair, with the track-and-field athletes splitting into two teams dubbed the “Finlands” and the “Olympics.”

Track-and-field sensation Jim Thorpe (seen above) was unable to play in the first exhibition baseball game as he was still competing in the decathlon, one of two events (along with the pentathlon) in which he earned gold medals in Stockholm. But he did take the field in the second game for the “Olympics” team, helping them to a 6-3 victory.

In January of 1913, Thorpe was stripped of his amateur status and of his medals after admitting he played professional minor league baseball in 1909 and 1910. However, nearly 70 years later, the International Olympic Committee restored Thorpe’s amateur status and awarded his family duplicate gold medals, both struck from the original 1912 mold.

One final note about those baseball games at the 1912 Olympics: Participating in both of these exhibition contests was Howard Drew (seen above), often acknowledged as the first great Black sprinter. On July 6, Drew qualified for the 100 meter final, finishing first in his heat, but an injury kept him from competing for a medal the following day. No doubt the talented Drew was disappointed, but just over a week later he healed sufficiently so that he was able to play baseball with his Olympic teammates.

Here are the box scores from these exhibition games, the first baseball games ever played in the history of the Olympics:

For those interested in learning more about the 1912 Olympics, as well as Olympic athletes, events, and baseball games, I heartily recommend visiting the Olympedia web site.