Sunday, January 25, 2015

Bushwicks Week at the Infinite Baseball Card Set

Last week artist Monty Sheldon "challenged" me on my Facebook page to show 3 of my works in 5 days. Since it didn't have any water buckets involved and I didn't have to take a sad-faced selfie holding a sign with some hashtag slogan on it, I agreed. The week of January 26 will be "Bushwicks Week" in which I will post not 3, but 5 stories and illustrations of interesting players who took the field for the greatest semi-pro team in the world, the Bushwicks.

For those who aren't familiar with the Bushwicks, they were a semi-pro team based out of the Woodhaven neighborhood of Queens, New York. They were founded by Austrian immigrant and cigar manufacturer Max Rosner around 1917. The team quickly grew from a moral-boosting club for his employees into a talented squad that beat all their neighborhood rivals. Originally based in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, Rosner relocated the team just over the Queens border in Woodhaven to take advantage of Dexter Park, a large entertainment complex along the lines of a miniature Coney Island. Rosner managed the team and stocked it with a nice mixture of young local tri-state talent and mercenary professionals. Many Yankees got their start with the Bushwicks including Hank Borowy, Whitey Ford and Marius Russo. At the same time many former big leaguers like Chad See, Jeff Tesareau, Waite Hoyt, Dazzy Vance and Otto Miller stretched out their career by playing with the Bushwicks. Quite a few guys who had a cup of coffee in the majors or decided the life of a traveling ballplayer wasn't for them found they could make as much or more by staying home in New York, working a job and playing with the Bushwicks on the weekend. Guys like Overton Tremper, Buck Lai and Eddie Boland, bonafide big league talents who didn't want to leave home, did just that. 

Besides playing against local semi-pro squads and industrial league teams, the Bushwicks attracted the best Negro League clubs of the 1920's through the 1940's. Crowds of 8,000 or more ensured any blackball team who ventured to Dexter Park would come away with a nice paycheck. Also, one odd aspect of Dexter Park was the crowd's usual cheering for the visitors instead of the home team. On any given Sunday in Woodhaven, lucky fans could see Satchel Paige, Chino Smith, Leon Day, or Cool Papa Bell take on the best white players found outside the majors, a virtual Outsider Baseball All-Star series that lasted for decades. The New York-New Jersey area was a hotbed of semi-pro baseball from the turn of the century up until 1950 when a combination of automobiles, television and growing popularity of other sports brought an end to one of the most interesting and unique parts of baseball history.

Although it is difficult to judge how talented the Bushwicks were, baseball archaeologist and author Scott Simkus dissected the 1931 and 1935 teams, and using a genius system of talent measurement all his own, put the needle of Bushwicks level of play at just below the AA level (today known as the AAA level). Since the Bushwicks squads consisted of so many former and future major leaguers, the Bushwicks are also an import part in what Simkus brilliantly calls "the missing link" in which it theoretically becomes possible to gauge the talent of the Negro League players of the 1920's though the 1940's. If you need to know more about this, I highly recommend Simkus' book "Outsider Baseball". I don't hesitate to call it the most important piece of baseball research in the past ten years. Not only has Simkus put together some great research into the talent level of the old Negro Leagues but he's also a very witty story teller and his book is a perfect storm of hard-core original research and good old school baseball yarns. I bought a stack of these to give as presents at Christmas this year and I think I've re-read the thing seven times since it came out less than a year ago!

For a straight-up team history of the Bushwicks you couldn't ask for a better one than Thomas Barthel's "Baseball's Semipros". Published a few years back, Barthel was the first baseball historian to piece together the entire history of the Bushwick and the New York semi-pro baseball scene.

Of note will be the illustrations accompanying each story. Since some of the players are not well known, these will be the first illustrations ever done of them. Also noteworthy will be the uniforms worn by the Bushwicks. As an artist I was always drawn to the Bushwick uniforms which changed fairly often. Owner Max Rosner was proud of his team and he made sure they suited up in big league quality apparel. The team colors were an eye popping navy blue and orange, their distinctive striped socks earning them the nickname of "The Kandy Kids". As I try to do in all my illustrations, the Bushwick uniforms I depict the players in are as close to authentic as I could research. My secret hope is that Will Arlt over at Ideal Cap Company sees some of the cap styles I found and replicates them in his magical, historically accurate way!

Anyway, please check back every day this week as I introduce five characters from the Brooklyn Bushwicks, each attempting to focus on a different aspect of why the team was quite unlike any other in baseball history.

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