The Death of Charles Ebbets

When Charles Ebbets died on April 18, 1925, Brooklynites lost their remaining link to the genesis of professional baseball in their beloved borough.  Ebbets began his baseball career in 1883, when Brooklyn inaugurated professional baseball for its denizens from Coney Island to Canarsie.  Starting as a clerk in the Brooklyn team’s front office, Ebbets mastered the art of the tedious.  In his 1945 book The Brooklyn Dodgers, Frank Graham wrote, “He sold tickets, hawked scorecards through the stands, attended to all the little drudgeries in the business office that the other employees were glad to shirk, and made friends for the club by his good humor and his patience.”

Ebbets took to baseball like a woodpecker to a tree.  Rising through the front office hierarchy, Ebbets achieved sole ownership status after several years of gradually accumulating the team’s stock.  He presided over a team that had many monikers before it cemented the Dodgers label in 1932; Dodgers, Trolley Dodgers, Superbas, Robins, and Flock were entries used in newspaper reports.  Sometimes, a headline used one name while the story used another.  Whatever the label, Ebbets fought for his team.  Loyalty personified, Ebbets jettisoned half his ownership to contractors Steve and Ed McKeever for the necessary funds to complete his vision of a stadium suitable for Brooklyn’s baseball fans.  Ebbets Field débuted in 1913, atop a site known as Pigtown.  Its name derived from pigs feeding on the wretched garbage.

To reach his goal, Ebbets needed to consolidate disparate parcels.  No small task, this.  He kept the process secret, buying the parcels through a dummy corporation.  And he had every piece necessary, save one.  It was 20 feet by 50 feet.  Tracking the parcel’s owner was a worldwide affair—California, Berlin, Paris.  Finally, Ebbets located him in Montclair, New Jersey and bought the land for $500.  When Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley revealed plans to build a successor to Ebbets Field in the 1950s, Arthur Daley recounted the Ebbets story in his “Sports of the Times” column in the New York Times.  “No one ever received five hundred bucks faster,” said Daley.

When former manager and minority owner Ned Hanlon attempted to overtake the team through litigation, Ebbets could have resolved the dispute by selling Brooklyn players Tim Jordon and Harry Linley to the New York Giants for the funds needed to settle with Hanlon.

Even if Ebbets decided to fight Hanlon rather than settle, the money generated from a sale could serve as a financial cushion if Hanlon won his case.  Despite the practical appeal of selling Jordon and Linley, Ebbets declined the offer from the rival ball club.  In a 1912 article in the New York Times, Ebbets said, “I felt that if I had sold those two star players at that time the fans would run me out of Brooklyn.  To my way of thinking, it was my duty to Brooklyn fans to keep those players in spite of the fact that we needed money worse than we did players at that time.  it wouldn’t have been fair our patrons to sell those players.”

Brooklyn adored Ebbets, as did the baseball industry.  Reach Baseball Guide eulogized, “He never played baseball ‘politics,’ was without guide, and so universally popular that he may be truly said to have been the best, loved man, not only in his own league, but throughout the entire realm of baseball.  Ebbets was one of the comparatively few old time magnates whose interest in the affairs of the game never faltered.”

The New York Times obituary for Ebbets quoted Joseph A. Guilder, President of the Borough of Brooklyn:  “I am deeply moved to learn of the death of Mr. Ebbets.  It was my pleasure to know him many years.  His death is a distinct loss to the borough and to the national game with which he was so prominently associated.  At all times he exhibited a keen interest in Brooklyn affairs, and his advocacy of clean sport caused him to be held in high admiration by a host of friends.”  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle also highlighted the Brooklyn-Ebbets connection:  “Nothing could shake his conviction that Brooklyn was the best baseball community in the country and that it was deserving of the best he could give it in the way of a better playing field and good players.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 29, 2014.

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