Thursday, April 15, 2010

Playing in the Snow at Athletic Park

by Dennis Pajot

Eighty-nine years ago today, on Friday, April 15, 1921, the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Paul Saints appeared at Milwaukee’s Athletic Park at 8th and Chambers to play a game of baseball. Only 176 paying customers were in the park to watch the game. The majority of these were huddled in the east grandstand seats, to keep warm in the 20 degree weather, made worse by a frigid April wind. The Milwaukee Journal reported only 10 spectators were in the bleachers. To add to this, Milwaukee was in the beginning of one of the worst blizzards it could remember.

The next morning the Milwaukee Sentinel wondered if Brewer owner Otto Borchert was "planning to start a league among the Eskimos with Nome, Klondike, Frozen Dog and other Arctic points in the circuit." But, indeed, "an alleged game of baseball" took place. The paper thought that just the fact the game made it nine innings was "one for the book." The Sentinel's Manning Vaughan wrote the game was played "regardless of the health of high priced athletes and utter regardless of the poor down-trodden newspaper scribe."

It was reported that by the third inning the diamond was so thoroughly blanketed by snow that batted balls had to be dug out of the snow. All that was needed to make it a most festive occasion were "some sleigh bells and some mistletoes to have over Otto’s curly head." The paper's editors helped in this respect with a Christmas motif, when giving the score.

Milwaukee Sentinel—April 16, 1921

The game turned out to be a burlesque affair, with rain, hail and snow falling throughout the game. Running around in mud up to the player’s shoe tops, the Brewers won the game 7 to 4. Milwaukee’s "Unser Choe" Hauser went 4 for 4, and rookie pitcher Ray Lingrel relieved starter Nemo Gearin in the fourth inning, pitching scoreless ball and was credited with the win. About only 50 spectators were around at the end of the game.

The day after the game the Evening Sentinel was in a less jovial mood than the other Milwaukee newspapers:
There was absolutely no excuse for playing the game. There was about one hundred and fifty fans in the stands at game time, and they yelled "play ball" so loudly that it was finally decided to start. The job was then up to the umpires. They could have stopped it any time after the first ball was pitched, and they would not have been violating any rules.
The evening paper went on to say the St. Paul newspapermen said they had never seen a game played under such conditions, and the editor of the Milwaukee paper agreed. How bad were the playing conditions? According to a report years later every time a ball hit the oozy clay surrounding home plate it stuck tight and had to taken out of play. A St. Paul runner was thrown out at home when he became mired in the mud between third and home.

Milwaukee, indeed, was walloped with a snow storm that day and into the next. Nearly 15 inches of snow fell in 27 hours. 40 miles per hour winds caused drifts of ten feet. The newspapers reported the city was almost isolated from the rest of the world by the "most terrific blizzard in the history of the city." Within the city streetcars and trains were stalled, while streets were completely blocked by high drifts. Early reports placed damage in the millions of dollars.

A few years later an account of what happened was given in the Milwaukee Journal. Before the game umpires Bill Finneran and Buck Freeman called Otto Borchert to their dressing room and suggested he call the game off. Borchert’s reply was: "I'll call off games when I want to. Your job is to umpire. Now get out there and go to work." The game started at 3:05, five minutes late.

The Saints scored three runs off Gearin in the top of the first inning, and Borchert yelled down to the umpires from the press box: "Call off the game! I can’t see the ball!" Finneran yelled back: "You wanted to play a few minutes ago when we asked you to postpone the game. You told us that our job was to umpire. Well, that’s what we’re doing." In the 1939 obituary for Nick Allen, who caught for St. Paul that day, it was reported by the third inning the fielders could not follow the flight of the ball. Allen pleaded with the umpire to call off the game before someone got hurt. The umpire told him "Borchert insisted that we start the game despite the threatening weather. I'll go through with this no matter what happens to you guys."

The Brewers scored six runs in the bottom of the fourth inning—reportedly aided by the Saints' difficulty in finding the ball—to take a 6 to 4 lead and umpire Finneran asked the Brewer owner: "Do you want the game called off now?" Borchert roared back: "You'll finish this game if it’s the last thing you do." The Brewers scored one more run in the seventh to conclude the scoring. By the end of the game all the players except the pitchers were wearing their sweater coats.

As the snow continued, the next day's game—plus the entire next series with the Minneapolis Millers—would be cancelled. But the St. Paul players played another game the day after the "snowball game." All day they telephoned the Brewer office, asking "Will there be a ball game today?"


Milwaukee Journal April 15, 1921, May 3, 1935, October 18, 1939, April 4, 1971
Milwaukee Sentinel April 16, 17, 1921
Milwaukee Evening Sentinel April 16, 1921
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel June 7, 1998

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