A noted historian remembers his youth at Ebbets Field
By Harold Seymour, Ph. D.
“Wanna mind the bats for Cincinnati today?”
The voice was that of Babe Hamburger, a Brooklyn clubhouse attendant, who had just passed me with his hands full of food one Sunday afternoon about 1925 as I was standing near the Ebbets Field pass gate on Cedar Place.
Did I! Surprised the somewhat apprehensive but too eager to refuse, I immediately said “Sure!” Before I had a chance to get nervous I found myself in the midst of a crowd of Reds players inside the small, crowded visitors’ clubhouse under the stands in the extreme right-field corner of the ballpark.
Although I had never been in the clubhouse before, I was not entirely unfamiliar with Ebbets Field. I lived only a couple of blocks away, and, like other Brooklyn boys, knew many ways of getting in free, some legitimate, some not. Fifty-five cents for a bleacher seat and $1.10 for the grandstand were too steep for many boys or their parents. But we had ways of seeing a game: Sometimes we slipped into the park in the morning and hid patiently until fans started filling the seats and it seemed safe to show ourselves; sometimes we pried up an unused metal gate operated on chains, put a few bricks under it to hold it up, and squirmed underneath; sometimes we just darted past the special cop when the gate opened in the eighth or ninth inning, knowing he could not give chase with all the others flooding in.
There were other ways to get in, too. We could stand near the pass gate, as I was doing that memorable Sunday, and ask, “Extra pass, mister?” Quite frequently I was taken in on a politician’s extra season pass when his field failed to show up. One time I watched the game from a reserved seat back of the Brooklyn dugout as a “guest” of Mrs. Burleigh Grimes, wife of Brooklyn’s star spitballer, and her friend. They talked with each other all during the game and, thankfully, ignored me. One spring I watched a three-game preseason exhibition series with the Yankees on passes and saw Babe Ruth for the first time. In one of those games Ruth’s hard-hit line drive off the right-field wall ricocheted so fast that he got only a single. He left the games early, and during one of them he was making his way, all dolled up, toward an exit. As he came along I saw him from a ramp above. I leaned over the railing and hollered down, “What’s the matter, Babe, afraid of our Brooklyn pitchers?” Ruth looked up at me but made no reply, probably thinking, “Just another fresh Brooklyn kid.”
We could even work to get in, picking up papers in the stands before the park opened to earn bleacher passes. These were handwritten on strips of pink paper and handed out by one of the owners, Steve McKeever, as he sat on a camp chair holding his gold-handled blackthorn. We could also turn a stile for fifty cents and get a seat in the grandstand around the fifth inning, depending on the size of the crowd. We might even work up on the old-fashioned scoreboard in left field by pulling ropes weighted with bricks to post numbers while watching the game through one of the slots.
I had seen games in all these ways and performed all these jobs, but the job of jobs, so remote that I never dreamed of it, was that of batboy. The Sunday I was selected there was no time for second thoughts. The visiting clubhouse boy, an older fellow of 17 or 18 named Danny, put me to work at once.
A BALL A DAY
I made my debut with the worst possible team from the point of view of a batboy. The Reds carried about 90 bats on their road trips (including Ed Roush’s, the heaviest in the league), about twice the number other teams brought. Every bat meant work. The loaded batbags had to be pushed on a handtruck along a dirt runway under the stands all the way from the clubhouse in deep right field, past the entrance steps up to the Brooklyn dugout, and on around to the third-base side. Because the last 50 yards or so of the runway were too narrow for the handtruck, Danny piled bats across my outstretched arms and I had to make seven or eight trips lugging a dozen or so heavy bats each time through a narrow tunnel, staggering up the wooden steps and dumping them in front of the dugout. There was other equipment to carry, too: catcher’s gear, ball bag, pails, and towels. This sweaty job had to be repeated in reverse after the game.
After delivering everything I had to spread out all the bats in a neat, straight row on the ground in front of the dugout; there was no bat rack in those days. Sometimes I had to run to the clubhouse to deliver a message or get something a player wanted. Occasionally I had to hustle outside the park for Star Chewing Tobacco; that wasn’t too bad unless the game was about to start.
Once the game began, when “my” team came to bat I had to be ready to run up to retrieve the bat discarded by each hitter, return it quickly to its place, and get back in position kneeling next to the on-deck hitter. I especially tried to anticipate a possible play at the plate and make sure the hitter’s dropped bat was out of the way.
I managed to get through the first day and apparently did all right because I was told, “Come back tomorrow.” I stayed on for three exciting summers, two working for visiting clubs and the third as batboy for the Dodgers. I practically lived at the ballpark, and my mother told me wryly that I should take my bed over there.
I had no uniform except my own baseball cap, and I got no pay except for a baseball after each game. The first day I didn’t even get that, being so green I didn’t know I was supposed to. But the following day one of the more kindly players asked, “Did you get your ball yesterday, son?” When I said, “No,” he didn’t reply, but next day I received a ball, and I got one after each game thereafter. Danny didn’t try to hold out on me again. Twice I took home cracked bats, one from Cubs third baseman Howard Freigau and the other from Jake Flowers, a slightly built infielder who used a light stick especially suited to me. Tacked up and taped, they were better than store-bought bats because they had better wood in them.
A SPOT OF M’K’KM
Were all these jobs child labor and exploitation? Certainly, but none of us thought so at the time. My batboy job in particular provided many compensations. There were frequent opportunities to grab a glove and horn in on a pepper game with the players. Once in my third summer I actually warmed up a rookie pitcher brought up “for a look.” Another time I filled in for Watson Clark, a Brooklyn lefthander, when he was called away while hitting grounders to Harvey Hendrick, who was loosening up at third base during batting practice after being out with an injury. Clark looked skeptical when I offered to take his place, but because he was anxious to get away and no player was available, he entrusted me with the fungo bat and ball. I hit my hardest and sharpest grounders at Hendrick and was a little nettled at the ease with which he came up with my best efforts. Jake Daubert, who had once starred at first base for Brooklyn, showed me the proper care of my own first baseman’s mitt: oil the pocket, then dust with the resin bag.
I also became a bit of a neighborhood celebrity. In the evenings, youngsters would gather around to ask questions about the big leaguers or to say they had seen me on the field. Besides that, by listening to baseball talk and asking questions I picked up knowledge of “inside baseball” helpful in my own playing and in running the teams I organized and coached.
More important, as I realized fully only later, was daily association with grown men of various types and backgrounds and from different parts of the country talking in strange non-Brooklyn accents. I particularly remember Hughie Critz (rhymes with kites), a flashy Cincinnati second baseman with a thick Mississippi accent. One day he told me to get some “m’k’km” from the Brooklyn clubhouse. Not understanding, I said, “Some what?” and listened more closely. He repeated it. I still didn’t understand, but not wishing to appear stupid, I tried to remember the sounds he had made and rushed down to tell Dan Comerford, the major domo of the Brooklyn clubhouse, that “Critz wants some m’k’km.” Comerford said, “Mercurochrome,” and went looking for it, muttering his usual stream of expletives about Critz and Mercurochrome. I had never heard of the stuff, but at least Comerford pronounced it in classic Brooklyn English, much to my relief. I later learned that the concoction wasn’t much good anyway.
NO CROSSED BATS
Seeing other players so vividly close up, I grew to respect, more than I could have from the grandstand, the skill and guts these men required to face the daily demands upon them. Watching from only about 15 feet away I could better appreciate the courage it took for a batter to go up against a blazing fastball and a sharp-breaking curve—or, worse yet, a duster; the intensity of a runner rounding third, straining to score, his desperate slide, the tension of the catcher, who, flinging his mask off, had braced himself for the throw; the alertness of the umpire in position to call the play (the cloud of dust, the runner getting up, one leg of his pants pushed above his knee, dusting himself off); the exhaustion of a pitcher having to bear down on every pitch in a close ball game on a hot day, sprawled on the bench between innings, soaked with sweat, two players fanning him by snapping towels, and he exhorting his teammates, “Get me some runs, goddammit!”
Relief and pride often follow victory over pressure. With the bases full, two out, and the count three and two, the veteran southpaw Eppa Rixey crossed up the batter with a sweeping curveball and left him standing with the bat on his shoulder. “I sure broke off that sonovabitch,” exulted Rixey with a big grin as he triumphantly neared the bench.
At times fierce competition could cause angry outbursts or even fights among teammates. Once the Cardinals’ Bill Sherdel, a lefty and master of the slow ball, was pitching well and leading in a tight game when the left fielder and shortstop messed up a Texas leaguer that should have been an easy out. Some base hits followed this bad break, runs scored, and Sherdel was removed from the box. He was furious. Stalking into the St. Louis dugout he sputtered, “I know that ball would be f—ed up!” drew a glass of water (there were no fountains then), took a sip, then flung the glass against the wall of the dugout, smashing it to pieces. Another time during pregame practice there was a commotion at the far end of the bench when one player insulted another with an ethnic slur. Cincinnati infielders Babe Pinelli and Sammy Bohne were punching and pummeling each other while corpulent Jack Hendricks, the team’s manager, fluttered over the two players, pleading, “Stop it, boys, stop it–right out here in front of the public!” while other players quickly gathered in front to conceal the fight.
I soon learned that, like other people, many players harbored individual and collective superstitions. The handles of bats must never be crossed, for example, because it makes the bats impotent. Once, going into the last of the ninth with my team holding a big lead and the game sewn up, thinking to demonstrate my foresight and enterprise, I began gathering up the bats. Immediately there were loud cries, interspersed with curses, to “Let the bats alone!” Regardless of how big the lead and how sure the victory seemed, for fear of jinxing the team the bats must not be packed until after the final out. Still another time, having left the bench very briefly on some errand, I came back to find the bats scattered every which way all over the ground in front of the dugout. I had to rearrange them laboriously. Later I learned the reason: to help the team break out of its batting slump, the players had “shaken up” the bats!
Every team had its bench jockeys, and some were masters of the art. Although some “riding” was vicious, much was mind, even good-natured. (A call to a batter who was nearing the end of an outstanding career: “Base-on-balls and bunt man!”) In one game I recall, the St. Louis bench got on the umpire very hard. He finally decided he’d had enough, whipped off his mask, turned toward the bench, waved his arm and shouted, “Get out of there, Stuart!” only to be greeted with roars of laughter and shouts of “He’s not here!” Johnny Stuart, a pitcher, was out in the bullpen.
WITH THE HOME TEAM
After two summers as batboy for all visiting teams except the Giants, who brought their own in full uniform, I was promoted, if that’s the word, the manager Wilbert Robinson’s colorful incompetents. By then I had already become bilingual–English and profanity—but contact with Dan Comerford, the Brooklyn Clubhouse boss, who only occasionally lapsed into standard English, provided me a graduate course in my second language.
As for manager Robinson—Uncle Robbie, as he was called—he was often dismissed as an eccentric and even clownish manager, but he knew baseball and how to coax the most out of his men, a few of whom had been outstanding players—on other teams—and were now enjoying their last cups of coffee before entering the pipe-and-slippers league. Some were simply journeymen players.
Although he usually had a few good pitchers like Dazzy Vance and Jesse Petty and a first-rate hitter, Babe Herman, Robbie had his hands full trying to put together a winning team. Once during a team batting slump Robbie decided to revise his batting order. “The trouble is,” he told coach Mooney Miller, “nobody is on base when the Babe hits one.” After juggling names around in various combinations, Robbie gave up in disgust. “No matter where I put these guys,” he grumbled, “they’re still outs.”
At one point, with the pitching staff in disarray, Miller asked, “Who’s in the bullpen today, Robbie?” Robinson growled, “Bullpen my ass! I don’t even have a starter!” With that, Buzz McWeeney, an in-and-out righthander who had been knocked out of the box in several previous starts, rose from the bench and, squaring his shoulders, marched up to his manager and announced, “I’ll go in there today, Robbie, and stop the sons of bitches!” Robbie looked up, briefly registered scorn, which quickly faded into pity, and said, “For God’s sake, Buzz, sit down.”
Robbie was superstitious. When things went wrong, he would invariably declare, “We can’t win in this goddam park. It’s a jinx.” Near the end of the summer he left word that I was not to sit on the bench during games because I was jinxing the team. When Jumbo Jim Elliott heard of this he shook his head and said to me, “My God, Robbie’s getting more childish every day.”
A RICH EXPERIENCE
With the passing years my batboy stint became more significant to me, because like the outstanding historian Samuel Eliot Morison, I was fortunate in being able to combine my lifelong interest (his in sailing, mine in baseball) with research and writing. Thus the batboy job fit in with my other baseball experience as high school and college player; organizer, manager, and coach of sandlot and semipro teams; umpire; unofficial scout for two major-league clubs; and participant in two minor-league training camps. All pointed me to writing, at Cornell University, the first doctoral dissertation ever written on baseball, which was later revised and expanded into the first volume of my history of baseball.
Furthermore, I agree with Morison that the richer the historian’s experience outside the field of history, the better. Too many teachers and professors do not venture from their musty libraries and studies into the real world of people and work. I have accumulated experience in business as a marine contractor on the tough New York waterfront, as a teacher on all levels from junior high school through graduate school, as a union member, as executive and administrator, and as traveler and resident abroad. None of this experience remains more unforgettable than my youthful days with the major leaguers at Ebbets Field.
(Source: Sports Heritage, Spring 1988)