Thursday, June 28, 2012

New Fangled Aeroplanes and Vaudeville: Things Were Different 100 Years Ago

by Dennis Pajot

Our moment in Brewer history "100 years ago" took place early in the month. The second day of June to be exact. It involved an event that we today would find commonplace, but was in its time rather unusual. But to let us know the nature of the man involved in the story, we will need a few extra lines. Both the incident and the man are clearly from a different era.

On June 2, 1912, the sixth-place Brewers played the final game of a series in Kansas City. On this day Brewer pitcher Cy Slapnicka was pitching masterful ball for 11 innings.

The 26 year old Cyril Slapnicka had been acquired by the Brewers shortly after the season began. Slapnicka, from Oxford Junction, Iowa, was purchased from Rockford of the Wisconsin-Illinois League, where he had posted a record of 26 and 7 the previous year. The right handed spitball pitcher had also been the second best fielder in that league, with a .977 fielding percentage, in addition to a batting mark over .250. Late in the 1911 season Slapnicka had been sold to the Chicago Cubs, posting a 0 and 2 record. Chicago later released him to Louisville of the American Association. The Colonels returned him to Rockford. The "Athenian prince" or "Grecian Blonde", as the local newspapers would often refer to him, would end up with a 12 and 13 record for the Brewers in 1912. He was also a fine hitter. The next season Cy was leading the league in hitting around Memorial Day (.370—10 for 27) and in the later part of August was hitting .295. Slap was used on occasion as a pinch hitter, his managers' confidence in his hitting was so high.

On this June 2 afternoon in Kansas City Slapnicka's spitball was working flawlessly, allowing the Blues only three clean hits and two scratch hits, while fanning seven, through 11 innings. However, the score stood tie at 4 to 4. The major damage against Cy was in the sixth inning. Kansas City first baseman Carr hit a long ball to left field and as outfielder Jimmy Breen turned to chase the ball, he wrenched his knee so badly he was absolutely helpless. The hit became a three run homer. In the last of the 12th Slapnicka walked a batter, who went to third on a double. Slap then uncorked a wild pitch, scoring the winning tally. Blues win, 5 to 4. The Milwaukee Journal's Brownie gave a little more detailed, and entertaining explanation of the inning.
Having exhausted all earthly forms of rotten, bone-headed ball playing, the Brewers sprang a new one which will probably go down into history as the first case of its kind, at least in the American Association, when, in the twelfth inning, they reached up into the skies and grabbed an alibi in the form of a passing aeroplane. Up to the appearance of the birdman in the sky, Slapnicka had been pitching wonderful ball. He had just fanned the first man up when the birdman was sighted by the crowd—who craned their necks until everybody was doing it, including Slapnicka. As a result, he lost the location of the plate, and the next man up walked. Nearer and nearer came the birdman, and Slapnicka became so interested that he slipped one straight to Schaller, who poked it up against the bull in right field, earning $50 and a two-base hit. By that time the bird man was right over the grounds. Probably jealous of the way the fellow handled himself and his craft while up in the air caused Slapnicka to do a little aerial stunt all of his own by cutting loose one which never stopped going until it had hit the grand stand and the winning run was allowed to score on a wild pitch.
I am fairly certain a low flying airplane over a stadium would be cause for "rubbernecking" even today (not to mention security after 9/11), so imagine what a scene it created a hundred years ago. And to let us think of how different the era was, let us take a look at what Cy Slapnicka did in the off season. There was no "Dancing with the Stars", or Made-for-TV movies, or guest appearances on sit-coms, so theater was the main form of this type of entertainment.

In the off-season Slapncika performed a vaudeville act. His act was juggling. He was booked into March of 1913, and was forced to cancel some acts so he could report to spring training on time. This does not sound too serious for a ball player, and little was made of it. But the act came to the Brewers' attention more carefully the following year; apparently Cy added a balancing routine to the show. He signed a contract to perform his "voodvile" at The Empress, located at 748 North Plankinton Avenue, just north of Wisconsin Avenue, in the heart of Milwaukee's downtown theater district.

Manager William Raynor of Empress Theater and Cyril Slapnicka
Milwaukee Journal January 29, 1914

Milwaukee Journal February 10, 1914—
Ad for Slap's show at the Empress

It was said he had a cane made to order for the new act. As the cane had a bonehead on the top, some mean-spirited person said that these canes were all the style with ball players. Before the show opened the Sentinel had this to say:
"Slapnicka is going to show the public that it is just as easy to balance chairs, lamps and tables with his good twirling arm as it is to strike out Minneapolis batters. Slap is successful as a pitcher, a saloonist, and a vaudeville actor. One of the local fight clubs will sign him up pretty soon". [This off season Slapnicka had opened a "thirst emporium" on North Third Street off of Wells Street [215 Third Street, later address 819 North 3rd Street]. Tom Dougherty, another Brewer pitcher, was employed in the off season "handing out wet goods to the patrons of Slapnicka's booze emporium".
Once the vaudeville act was actually seen, things became a little more serious for the Brewers and their fans. Reading the review of the opening night performance one gets a mental picture of Slapnicka's part in the vaudeville, titled "In Old New York".
Most ball players who break into vaudeville are disappointments as actors. Not so with Cyril Slapnicka, "Milwaukee's pennant winning pitcher", who is appearing as an added attraction at the Empress theater. Except that he appears in his ball uniform, Slap makes no confessions that he is not a really and truly an actor. The act consists of a series of equilibristic feats with kitchen chairs and tables. In one stunt he piles three tables and several chairs into a tower like structure, and balances himself on top of the rear legs of another chair. Life in New York's East side is well set forth in George Hoey's sketch, in Old New York….
The Milwaukee Sentinel did not think much of Slapnicka's stunts on the stage.
The hearts of the baseball fans are in their mouths this week. Some of them go so far as to say the management of the Milwaukee baseball club should obtain an injunction or take some kind of proceedings to prevent Cyril Slapnicka, "the pennant winning pitcher" from appearing in vaudeville. What right has he to endanger the pennant chances of the club next summer by putting life and limb in daily peril?

If he must go into vaudeville, to pick up an idle dollar or two, why couldn't he be content to follow in the footsteps of Mike Donlin and Rube Marquard, and tackle something safe and easy, like singing or dancing, even if he couldn't do it? Neither can they. Why, in short, must he pick out something so dangerous as his trick of balancing on the hind leg of a chair topping a pyramid of three other chairs and three tables? Not content with that, why must he give every one heart failure by that fall from his lofty perch? It may be a good climax to the act. No one disputed that, but it also raises a question or two for the fans to worry about.

What would happen to Milwaukee's chances next summer if Slapnicka were to fall and break that precious arm of his? It's a chance the he takes at least three times daily.
The show did its scheduled one week run, apparently to the delight all many, except the Brewer management. The Brewers were thinking of going to court to stop Slapinicka's act, being afraid he would injure himself permanently. However, management found it would be legally impossible to stop Slap. According to the Milwaukee Journal Slapnicka was much better on the stage than most ball players, commenting this was "about the first time that the fans have seen a real ball player that can do a legitimate vaudeville stunt. Slap is surely not getting the money on his baseball reputation, as he turns out an act that is worth the money".

One weeknight Brewer catcher Johnny Hughes appeared on stage as Slapnicka's assistant. When Hughes appeared on stage he looked nervous and missed his cues twice. "It was a cinch that Johnny would have felt a great deal more at home if it was bean balls that Slap was throwing at him rather than chairs." Brewer president A. F. Timme attended this show. As Cyril balanced himself on the top of three tables and as many chairs, the head Brewer was filled with fear for his star twirler. "But when Slap finished up his act with a smile and Johnny Hughes got off the stage without a miss, Timme breathed easy and said that he could now understand how Slap could be so cool in a pinch on a ball field".

At least in Milwaukee, Cy did not perform vaudeville after the 1913/1914 off season. On October 21, 1914, Slap married Miss Abbie Josephine Martinek at Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The couple honeymooned on the Pacific Coast and then made their home in Cedar Rapids in the off season. For the time being Slapnicka still owned the drinking/eating emporium in downtown Milwaukee and teammate Newt Randall "dishing out suds" in Cy's absence. However in the spring it was reported Slapnicka had disposed of his café and would devote himself entirely to baseball.

Slapnicka would pitch for the Brewers through the 1917 season, in total winning 78 games and losing 73. His best season in Milwaukee was the 1913 season, when he won 25 and lost 14.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

1945 American Association Trophy

This December 2, 1945 wire photo shows Brewers manager Nick Cullop posing with Chicago lawyer Oscar Salenger, new team owner, six weeks after Salenger bought the club from Bill Veeck. Together they hold the trophy Salenger's new club won in 1945.

Oscar Salenger (right), new owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, and Nick Cullop (left), team manager, admire American association trophy which was awarded to team today, for winning the American Association pennant in 1945. They both are attending the annual conference of minor league baseball clubs in Columbus, O., Dec 2.
Salenger and Cullop were in Columbus for the American Association's annual off-season convention. There was much business to be done at the meeting: players were bought and sold, the 1945 trophy was awarded to Milwaukee, and the club's sale to Salenger was ratified. Salenger didn't waste any time following his official welcome as Brewer boss; he personally nominated the Kansas City Blues' president Roy Hamey to fill the vacant Association presidency, a nomination which was unanimously ratified by the member clubs.

For a league championship trophy of a respected top-flight minor league, it isn't actually all that impressive. It's nowhere near as spectacular as the one Bill Veeck bought himself just to celebrate the 1942 season opener.

Still, it represented a momentous year in Brewers history, the third of three consecutive championships the Brewers brought home to the Cream City. I wish we could read the inscription.

All in all, that meeting in December of 1945 must have seemed an auspicious beginning to Salenger's ownership of the club. Veeck was gone, but a new owner was ready to step up to the plate.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Three Home Run Champions, 1943

Before the 1943 season, Milwaukee Brewers president Bill Veeck was looking to upgrade his club's offense. He stacked the lineup with sluggers who looked to send plenty of baseballs over Borchert Field's short fences:

Three home run champions got together on one team Tuesday when Ted Norbert from Portland, Ore., arrived in the Brewers' Waukesha training camp. Norbert (left) won the 1942 championship of the Pacific Coast league with 28 home runs. Merv Connors (center) won the title in the Texas league with 27. Will Norman (right) led the American Association with 24. Connors will play first base; the other two are outfielders.
1943 was the Milwaukee Brewers' second full season under Veeck. In June of 1941 he and manager Charlie Grimm purchased the moribund franchise, which the season before had limped to a 58-90 record (35 games out of first place!), and the two immediately began the work of turning it around. Within a year they had given Milwaukee a contender, as the Brewers finished 1942 with an 81-69 record, only a game and a half behind the pennant-winning Kansas City Blues. But they weren't done, not by a long shot.

As the Brewers opened 1943's Spring Training, Veeck and Grimm were hard at work shaping a new squad. Note the reference to Waukesha; wartime travel restrictions had forced the Brews to move their camp from Florida to the neighboring county. Note also that Connors has rolled up his sleeves, obscuring the soutache trim; baseball fashion of the time was changing and longer sleeves were out. Many players cropped or otherwise modified the sleeves of older jerseys such as these, which had been introduced in 1939.

As the season neared, the three posed together for a picture at Borchert Field with an oversized novelty bat to match Veeck's expectations:

BREWER POWERHOUSE—This trio of 1942 home run champions of three different leagues, from left to right, Bill Norman, Ted Norbert and Mervin Connors, will make their season debut at Borchert field Wednesday afternoon against the Millers. Norman led the American association, Norbert the Pacific Coast league and Connors the Texas loop. Norbert also won the coast batting crown.
Ted Norbert was every bit as good as his reputation. In 1943, he hit .293 with 25 dingers, good enough to win the American Association home run crown. His battery-mate Bill Norman came in second with 18. Their combined mark of 43 tied them with the entire Louisville Colonel roster and surpassed the combined team totals of the Indianapolis Indians, Kansas City Blues and Columbis Red Birds. Merv Connors wasn't so suceessful. He hit only 4 home runs before being sent down to the Memphis Chicks at the end of June.

The Brewers, led by their two remaining sluggers, finally got over the top in 1943. They battled their way to an 90-61 record, good enough to bring Milwaukee its first pennant in seven years.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012 - "'The Orchard' Rises Again - Online"

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of chatting with Milwaukee- and Houston-based writer and sports radio host Doug Russell for an article about this site and the old Milwaukee Brewers. That article was published today at
"The Orchard" rises again - online

By Doug Russell
Special to

You have visited the site of Milwaukee's most historic ballpark probably hundreds of times, and you probably never knew it.

No, I am not talking about the relatively recently-departed County Stadium, but rather its predecessor, gone without a trace for almost 60 years Borchert Field. Today, there is nothing to demarcate the former home of the American Association's Milwaukee Brewers other than a hard to find historical marker hundreds of yards away from where the actual ballpark was.

But then, a marker where Borchert Field stood would have been run over millions of times. Where a half-century of our city's baseball history took place is now Interstate 43 between Burleigh and Chambers Streets.

Borchert Field, known at the time colloquially as "The Orchard," was more than just a baseball park. It was also used in the early days of the NFL as the home stadium for the defunct Milwaukee Badgers from 1922-26, and then later the Green Bay Packers for part of the 1933 season. Boxing matches were held at the venerable old yard, as were track and field meets, fireworks exhibitions and even gymnastics competitions.

A temporary velodrome was constructed for cycling in 1936. International soccer matches were held in the summertime when the Brewers were on road trips in the 1950s.

In recent years the NHL has sanctioned one or two outdoor "Winter Classic" games at traditional baseball and football venues. Wintertime at Borchert Field this was commonplace.

Built in 1888 and simply named Athletic Park (the ballpark would not be named for Brewers owner Otto Borchert until after his death in 1927), the stadium was primarily for baseball, and several clubs called the park home. The Milwaukee Creams of the Western League opened the park up, but they would not last; nor would our lone entry in the Negro Leagues, the Milwaukee Bears of 1923.

But from 1902-1952, Milwaukee was in love with their minor league Brewers.

The stadium itself was nothing special and very much a product of its time. A single-decked angular horseshoe sandwiched within the confines of the neighborhood it inhabited, Borchert Field stood for more than 50 years as Milwaukee's cultural gathering place. Somewhat resembling a scaled-down version New York's famed Polo Grounds; home runs to the corners were quite easy, with only 268 feet to clear down each line. However, a poke to the power alleys would have to travel a Herculean 435 feet to earn a trip around the bases.

The stadium could charitably be called rickety. But it was all Milwaukee had. And for generations, it was our destination.

But the intimate atmosphere and quirky dimensions only tell a part of the story. In fact, that story is still evolving even today.

"I remember sitting in a George Webb in Wauwatosa in maybe 1984 or '85," Brooklyn, N.Y. resident Chance Michaels says today. "They had a picture on the wall of one of their old restaurants from the '40s. In that picture I could clearly see a placard on the wall that said 'George Webb predicts our Brewers win 12 games in a row.' I didn't realize there was anything before the Braves."

Michaels, a New York City native who spent his childhood in Southeastern Wisconsin, was hooked on baseball from that moment on. But who were these Brewers? Of course he knew of the American League Brewers, but the fact that there was baseball played in Milwaukee before the Braves arrived was an entirely foreign concept to the then 13-year old future off-Broadway producer.

In 2009, with the nagging desire to try to tell the exhaustive story of Milwaukee's first sporting cathedral, Michaels launched and developed, what is described as "the only online museum dedicated to the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association, 1902-1952, their ballpark, and the events it hosted."

"What we have tried to do is take advantage of the possibilities the internet has to offer for sharing an interest that in previous years that might have gone completely unnoticed," Michaels continued.

Unquestionably, Borchert Field's most colorful character was Bill Veeck, the legendary eventual owner of the Chicago White Sox, who was known as the P.T. Barnum of baseball. Veeck owned the Brewers from 1941-45, winning three pennants during his five years here.

One of the most infamous stories about Veeck's tenure with the Brewers was the tale that he had a movable screen in the outfield that was wheeled out when the opposing team was up and moved away when the Brewers were at bat. As the fable goes, the visitors were unable to hit home runs over the contraption. Veeck's telling of the story said that he did this because there was no rule against it – until the very next day after the rest of the teams in the American Association complained.

Research suggests that this may be nothing more than urban legend and Veeck's own vivid imagination, but those that knew him were never shocked that he might try to pull a stunt like that.

One of Michaels' initial challenges was to find images from Borchert Field, demolished almost 20 years before he was born. Amateur photography was still in its infancy during the stadium's heyday, with the enormously popular Kodak Brownie 127 model not being introduced until 1952.

Undaunted, Michaels sought out whatever he could find from the archives of the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel. (Impossible as it seems today, did not yet exist when Borchert Field was still standing.)

What he found was a rich tapestry that appeals not only to baseball fans, but to historians from all walks of Milwaukee life. Along the way he has been able to enlist collaborators who also share his passion for weaving narrative tapestries of a bygone era.

"It's not just my labor of love," Michaels says. "I've got some really great contributors who have allowed me to spread the breadth of our collective knowledge."

Among the writers that Michaels works with are lifelong Milwaukeeans Paul Tenpenny and Dennis Pajot, both of whom are active in the Milwaukee (Ken Keltner) Chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).

The story of Borchert Field is one that is ever evolving. After all, more than a half-century of our sports history was destroyed long before anyone thought about trying to preserve any of it. After all, as Michaels puts it, "because the interstate is sunk below where the ground was, they literally scooped the ballpark off the face of the earth."

But for Michaels, while the images of physical structure of Borchert Field are worth discovering, they are not what fuel his passion.

"We've done stories on the people that worked there," he concludes. "We've written about ticket takers and the organist. In some cases these were people who worked at the ballpark for decades. Those are the stories I love to tell."
What I try to do here, telling the story of the Brews, is what I try to do in my theatre work: find the human story. At its core, I'd like to think this museum is not about box scores, faded programs or old flannel uniforms (much as I love all that), but about the people who played at the Orchard, who prowled her aisles hawking peanuts and Cracker Jack, who sat in her rickety wooden stands. This is about the community they created and shared for that glorious half-century. As the chestnut goes:
"The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time."
Thanks again, Doug!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Milwaukee Tavern Scorecard - May 22, 1903

This is the oldest Milwaukee tavern card in my collection, and one of the oldest I've ever seen. It's an odd size - 17½ x 11½ inches.

The graphics aren't as strong as they would be in later years, but there is still plenty of visual interest.

Charles Burghardt's sporting goods shop is still in business, although they have long since moved from "near City Hall" out to the suburbs. I bought my high school letter jacket from them, many years ago. Charles Dewey's store, later renamed Dewey's Sporting Goods, supplied uniforms to the Brewers for a period in the 1910s.

Of course, while the ads are interesting to us now, the real purpose of this card was to chronicle the "Official Base Ball Results" of May 22, 1903.

The card contains box scores from the two major leagues. Note the spelling of "Pittsburg"; in 1890, the city lost its "h" as part of President Benjamin Harrison's attempt to standardize place names across the United States. The change lasted until 1911, when the city's original spelling was restored.

The card also gives the American Association scores, of course. The better to promote the hometown Brewers, who on this day had their game in Indianapolis called on account of fog.

And right underneath the AA scores is something interesting; a reference to Milwaukee's Western League club. They were playing in Colorado Springs, then too far away for reliable reports by press time.

Milwaukee in the early years of the 20th Century was a curious battleground in the war between competing minor leagues. In 1901 the American League had decided the Cream City couldn't support its one club (moving the eight-year old Brewers to St. Louis) but by the following year Milwaukee had two.

That war was short-lived, obviously won by the Brewers, and is a story for another day.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

1947 Team Photo

Ladies and gentlemen, your 1947 Milwaukee Brewers.

The reverse bears a photographer's stamp from "Sports Review", located at 1008 North 6th Street in Milwaukee. That address is across the street from Milwaukee Area Technical College, where my grandmother taught for decades, in a block that was swallowed up in the 1980s by the Bradley Center construction.

If those Brewer uniforms look somewhat familiar, they should. They represent a half-way point in the evolution of the Brewers' uniforms from the Bill Veeck era to the Boston Braves-inspired uniforms they would wear during their final seasons in Milwaukee.

Let's take a closer look, focusing on the Brewers' "tomato-faced" manager Nick Cullop front and center:

Although they don't look it in this photo, these uniforms were the first tailored to changing baseball fashion; in 1947, the Brewers' pants were cut slimmer, moving away from the baggier look that had defined the sport in previous years. The Brews' Opening Day opponents, the Minneapolis Millers, still wore the older style:

The "Brewers" script is essentially the same as it had been since 1942, although the color was darkened slightly to a midnight navy. The blue soutache was replaced with the Braves' signature navy/red/navy piping. The caps are navy with red brim and block "M".

Those caps would be the first thing to change, replaced with a white block "M" to match the parent club's "B". The script wordmark would be next, and by 1952, the Brewers' last year of existence, the uniforms' evolution was complete.