Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Flying the Flag

On July 7, 1937, long-simmering tensions between the Republic of China and the Empire of Japan boiled over into open conflict. A small skirmish at the Marco Polo Bridge soon engulfed both great powers in an extensive war, as Japanese forces launched a full-scale invasion of the mainland.

To citizens of Milwaukee, this war must have seemed impossibly remote. But the following May, the Cream City found itself facing a small but curious reverberation of that conflict from the other side of the globe.

Downtown Building Nearly Involved in Sino-Japanese War

Milwaukee property owners have international complications, as well as high taxes and local troubles, to worry about these days.

Joe Mallon, superintendent of the Plankington Building, Saturday received a protest from Milwaukee Chinese that the building was unduly favoring Japan in the current oriental war.

The Chinese, it seems, believed that the baseball flag, which flies above the building when the Brewers' team is playing at home, is the Japanese flag. The baseball banner has a white field with a red center, similar to Japan's "rising sun" flag. Mallon explained this to the protesters.

The polite Chinese apologized for their mistake.
Setting aside the regrettable dog-whistle language about "polite Chinese", it's a fascinating story. This is the flag that caused their confusion, the flag the Brewers would fly over their downtown office to announce home games:

A little confusion seems reasonable enough.

So how did this flag-flying tradition come about? It started in 1913, although the original "Game Today" flag looked a little different:

The flag was the brainchild of Brewer minority owner/business manager Bill Armour; who in the days leading up to 1913's Opening Day announced that a special flag would be flown over the Majestic Building on Wisconsin Avenue—"a white flag with a blue ball in the center"—on days when the Brewers were to play a home game at Athletic Park. No flag on scheduled game days signified a postponement. For fans a bit closer to Athletic park, he intended to line the grandstand roof with "a dozen or more" smaller pennants on game days.

This may have been a last-minute addition for 1913 (Armour had only taken over baseball operations the previous January); the day before the first scheduled game, the Milwaukee Journal reported that the flag might not be ready to fly.

Arrangements were made this morning by Business Manager Armour to keep the fans informed each day as to whether there is to be a game or not, by displaying a white flag with a blue ball in the center from the flagpole on the Majestic building. There is some question as to whether this flag with be ready for tomorrow, but after that it can be depended upon each day.
The Milwaukee Sentinel was especially positive, declaring that Armour's innovation "will prove of great convenience to the fan and will save many a fruitless journey to Athletic park during the season."

    The Majestic Building circa 1910
The Majestic Building was chosen not only for its towering presence as one of Milwaukee's first skyscrapers, but also because it housed the Brewers' headquarters; the club had kept its offices in Room 1300 of the 14-story Beaux-Arts building since its opening in 1908.

We may never know if the flag wasn't ready for the first game, as heavy rains settled in over Milwaukee and pushed the opening back two days. But when the rain stopped, the Brewers were prepared. Armour's blue-and-white flag went up for the first time on Saturday, April 12, 1913, telling fans all over downtown that the first Brewer game of the season was on.

The new flag on the Majestic Building, which will inform the fans when the Brewers are playing, did its first service yesterday.
I'm struck by the simplicity of the design, its abstraction.

It reminds me of a maritime flag, a symbol capable of conveying great import to people in the know while being utterly opaque to the uninitiated (like our Chinese-American friends). Had this flag been introduced a few decades later, I would expect the Brewers to have flown a slightly more on-the-nose design:

Then again, if Bill Veeck had been the owner behind it instead of Bill Armour, the flag might have looked more like this:

It's unclear when Armour's "Game Today" flag fell out of favor, but at some point its use was discontinued. That is, until June of 1934, when the Brewers moved their offices out of the Majestic and down the street to the seventh floor of the Plankinton Building.

With the new location came an opportunity to revive an old tradition, and the Brewers brought their flag out of mothballs.

Baseball Flag Flies Again

The white flag with its big round spot will fly again when the Brewers are at home and a game is to go on. The baseball flag used to fly over the Majestic Building when the club's office was there. Then the custom was abandoned for a time. The picture shows Mercedene Foster and Mavis Strehlow hoisting it on the Plankington Arcade flagpole Friday. (Journal Staff Photo)
This might also have been the point when the flag switched from a blue dot to red.

Flying a "Game Today" flag is a quaint tradition from an era before mass communication, when fans could look to the skyline to see if their club was playing.

Is this the Japanese Consulate,
or do the Brewers have a home game today?

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