Friday, April 29, 2016

218. Harry M. Stevens: The Visionary

Just as I did when I was a kid, the first thing I do upon entering a ballpark is to buy a scorecard. Not a program, nor a yearbook - a scorecard. Even if I choose not to score the game, I always write down the day's lineup, pitchers, the date, weather conditions and who went with me to the game. It's just a thing I've always done. To me, a scorecard is the one thing I can't live without when going to a ball game. Same with a hot dog. If I have enough left over after buying the scorecard, I'll slap my money down for a Cincinnati Brat, Dodger Dog, White Sox Italian Sausage, a Nathan's frank, etc., depending what ballpark I'm at. It's just what I've always done, just like my Pop and his Pop before him. Until recently it never dawned on me just how those two things became so synonimus with baseball. That's how I found out about a man whose name I've seen all my life but never gave a second thought to, Harry M. Stevens.

Never heard of him? 

Well, no person in history has had a bigger impact on the way Americans experience a sporting event than Harry M. Stevens...

Columbus, Ohio Summer of 1887
  Harry M. Stevens was tired. He'd spent the morning and afternoon lugging a leather suitcase door-to-door trying to get the residents of Columbus, Ohio excited about what he had to offer. No one, it seemed, was interested in a subscription set of the collected works of William Shakespeare. When the famous mid-west summer humidity got to be too much, Harry decided to take a break. Half the town, it seemed, was headed into the city's ballpark where the Columbus Senators were playing a game.

Stevens had not grown up playing baseball. He was born in England and moved his wife and son over to America when he was 27 years-old. Back in England he was something of a child-prodigy - not in music or academics - but as a street corner kid preacher. Harry was blessed with a set of booming pipes that could make the walls of Jericho crumble and he was charismatic well beyond his age. But, despite the promising beginning, so far he'd been unable to turn these abilities into a secure living. That's why he packed up his family and moved across the pond. He had family in Niles, Ohio and quickly secured himself a job in a steel mill. That gig quickly ended when the workers went on strike and owners shut the mill down. After a few dead-end jobs Harry took to the roads of the mid-west hawking volumes of The Bard. At the time subscription book series were very popular and salesmen like Harry went door-to-door offering books on every subject imaginable. Ulysses S. Grant's memoirs were a hot item as was the biography of the recently massacred General Custer. But Shakespeare, Harry realized while flipping through his empty order book, seemed to be a dud.

Now as he sat in the stands watching the Columbus Senators play ball, he found himself surrounded by opportunity.

Like everyone else entering the ballpark that afternoon, Harry had bought a scorecard. Inside the single sheet of folded card stock was a grid upon which a fan could use an intricate system of initials and symbols to record all the action that unfolded on the field. As Harry turned the simple piece of ephemera around in his hands he saw unlimited profit where no one else did. Using his people skills honed years before as the kid preacher, Harry offered the Senators owner the princely sum of $500 for the rights to supply scorecards to the ballpark. Columbus' owner figured he was not only getting an unexpected bonus check but also ridding himself of the extra job getting scorecards printed up and sold. Harry thought he'd just won the Irish Sweepstakes.

Withing days Harry had not only made back his $500 investment but turned a $200 profit without printing a single card. Harry's brilliant idea was to sell advertising space on the scorecards. It was a stroke of genius. Everyone who went to a ballgame bought a scorecard. It was a perfect captured audience and that's the way Harry sold the idea to Columbus' shop and business owners. When the scorecards were printed up and ready to sell, Harry reached back to his street corner days and pulled out all his showman talents. Dressed in a bright red suit complete with a silk top hat he held his scorecards high and called out the now famous slogan: "You can't tell they players without a scorecard!"

Withing a few years Harry expanded his scorecard operation beyond Columbus into Toledo and Wheeling, West Virginia. Then he went big league into Pittsburgh, Boston and Washington, D.C. In 1893 he became partners with Ed Barrow, a Pittsburgh hotel manager and baseball fan. The partnership did not last long as Barrow wanted to pursue a career in baseball management. The two men remained strong friends and it was Harry who supplied the financing when his friend bought the Paterson Silk Stockings team in 1894. While owner of the team Barrow discovered an awkward infielder from the coal mines of Pennsylvania named Honus Wagner. Barrow went on to run a succession of successful ballclubs and his relationship with Harry would come to full fruition when he later became general manager of the New York Yankees.  

Always wanting to be part of the action, Harry was right there in the ballparks with his employees selling his ubiquious scorecards, always on the make for more opportunities. His next area of expansion was culinary. Most ballparks had independent vendors that sold items like peanuts and lemonade. There was no fixed percentage that was kicked back to the ballclub and the quality of the items sold varied. Harry changed all that. His approach was to not only handle the scorecard responsibilities but to also bring all the food concessions under one responsible and professional umbrella. Teams were paid a fixed percentage for the rights to sell in the ballpark and in turn the fans could expect reasonably priced fare of a consistent quality. Harry's vendor stands not only offered peanuts and lemonade but soda water, ice cream and chocolate. When he saw the clouds of tobacco smoke wafting above the field he saw opportunity and added cigar and cigarettes to his repertoire of tempting offerings. When the game began attracting women and young children he branched out by selling small souvenirs that these new fans could purchase as a memento of their day at the park.

By the 1893 Harry's work made a day at the ballpark quite enjoyable and people noticed. Although baseball was the game of the land, it was only played in the warm months. To fill the gaps Harry introduced his concession ideas to boxing, bicycle racing and horse tracks - anything that attracted a crowd. 

For a recent immigrant, Harry was doing very well for himself and his growing family. Many men would have been quite happy to sit back and enjoy the fruits of his hard work, but not Harry. Boston, Washington and Pittsburgh were swell, but there was one place that so far eluded the Harry M. Stevens empire: New York City. That changed one day in 1894 when the New York Giants came to Pittsburgh for a series. "Scorecard Harry's" mug was by now familiar to the ballplayers and the affable Brit had befriended many of the game's top stars. The Giants manager John Montgomery Ward was one of his high profile pals and it was he who convinced Harry that his talents were sorely needed in New York.

As it is today, New York City at the time was the gleaming beacon of opportunity. With two major league and a dozen minor league teams plus countless other sporting venues all within a 60 mile radius, New York City was epicenter of American sport. Harry moved his base of operations to Manhattan and immediately secured the scorecard and food concessions for New York Giants and Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers. Then he secured the year-round contract for all the events held at Madison Square Garden and the other indoor sporting venues. Like a web, Harry's empire spread forth. Don't be mistaken, Harry wasn't getting these lucrative contracts because of a silver tongue presentation or well-placed bribes - he was offering a quality service that was greatly appreciated by the fans. The smart owners realized that a good experience at a game brought a fan back again and again. And those owners also knew that with Harry they were dealing with a man of strong character, a fair professional. For instance, in 1901 millionaire William Collins Whitney bought the Saratoga Race Course. The venue had long been neglected and Whitney wanted to remake the area into the country's premier horse racing attraction. When his horse Volodyowski won the English Derby, Whitney held court in the track's clubhouse. In celebration, the proud owner ordered champagne for everyone in the club. When it came time to present Whitney with the bill, the track's concessionaire took the opportunity to charge full market price for the expensive bubbly. A smart businessman would have given a thoughtful discount on the huge order, keeping this important client happy, thus likely to repeat the expensive gesture. But this concessionaire was not of the smart mindset. His big paycheck turned out to be his last - Whitney called in Harry M. Stevens to come take over the lucrative Saratoga concessions. 

And so it went all over the country. But again, while lesser men would have rested, Harry trudged forward, searching for opportunity. One day while working an event at Madison Square Garden he realized that in order to take a swig from a bottle, a fan had to take his eyes off the action for an instant - and the modern drinking straw was born. When he witnessed one fan too many become frustrated because he missed a great play because he left his seat to buy a snack, Harry dispatched his vendors into the stands to bring the food to them. As a true sports fan, Harry was able to recognize the different needs that fans of each sport desired. Boxing meant cigars and mineral water. Baseball was peanuts. Horse racing aficionados required a menu of heavy food. And while he provided tried and true staples, Harry was able to adapt when necessity and opportunity presented itself. This led to the invention of the one thing that is now indelibly intertwined with our National Pastime.

It was a cold day at the Polo Grounds, sometime in April of 1901. The crowd was bundled up trying to concentrate on the game. For several innings Harry watched as his vendors returned with their unsold consignments of lemonade and chocolates. No one wanted something that was cool and refreshing in this weather. As a sports fan, Harry thought about what he would want to eat if it was he who was sitting in the bleachers. He turned to one group of vendors and dispatched them to buy all the sausages they could find. He deployed a second group to purchase rolls and French bread. When they returned Harry had his men boil the sausages and put them into the rolls - a perfect hot sandwich that was easy to hold and eat. With his old street preacher flair he dispatched his men back into the stands and instructed them to call out "Get your red hots! Get 'em while they're hot!" And just like that an American culinary classic was born.

Granted, some food historians disagree that Harry was the first person to put a sausage and roll together, however he is the man who found the perfect venue for its consumption. And baseball being the most popular spectator event in the nation ensured that the hotdog's fame would quickly spread by word of mouth. The naming of the snack is a whole other story. The most popular one is that Harry named it a "Dachshund Sandwich" after the dog it resembles. Somehow it was shortened to "hot dog", some say because a cartoonist couldn't spell "dachshund", though the cartoon in question has never been found as far as I know. And as popular as the treat was with cold, hungry sportsmen it took a bit of reassuring before it became a staple outside the ballpark - many people took the name literally and  believed it was made from real dog meat!

Harry soon moved into opulent Manhattan hotel suites and circulated in the city's top sporting circles. As one of the most respected sportsmen in the nation, Harry became a trusted confidant to the athletes. Babe Ruth himself called Harry "his second Dad". Turns out that early in the Babe's Yankee career Harry convinced the slugger to invest a portion of his savings for the future. While many of his contemporaries found themselves struggling financially once their careers ended, the Babe led a life of luxury due to his wise investments. Sportswriters, too, flocked to the ebullient Brit who liked to quote Shakespeare at he drop of a hat. In the era before team owners got smart and provided a press club stocked with free food and booze, it was Harry's office that offered the scribes a much welcomed snack and drink after the game. 

In his private time Harry was a well-read man, specializing in his beloved Shakespeare whose works he was unable to sell back in the 1880's. Contemporary newspapers remarked on being well-versed in English literature and a keen amateur historian. He was also a very generous man for whenever baseball moguls were reported to have made donations to various charities, "Harry M. Stevens" was always listed along side the more familiar names. When his children came of age he brought them into the family business, learning the ropes from the bottom up.

After a few nasty bouts of pneumonia, Harry passed away in May of 1934, aged 78. More than 500 people turned out for his funeral service including Babe Ruth, Yankee skipper Joe McCarthy, Giants owner Charles Stoneham, National League President John Heydler and many other luminaries of the sporting world. By that time his sons had taken over running his company. In his absence the family took The Harry M. Stevens Company to new heights. Besides expanding the reach of his food, souvenirs and scorecard empire, the company operated fancier dining options, pioneering what today we call Stadium Clubs. When the Giants moved west in 1958, they brought Harry M. Stevens with them to handle their concessions. No sports victory was complete without the Harry M. Stevens people setting up a spread in the locker room. When I was going to Shea Stadium in the 1970's and 80's, the Harry M. Stevens people were selling more than 40,000 hotdogs at each and every Mets game. Every scorecard, beer cup and souvenir pennant bore the name of the man who embodied The American Dream. Remember that Saratoga contract inked back in 1901? It was renewed every season until 1994 when the company was finally swallowed up by the giant international conglomerate, Aramark.

Those who have met me in person know I'm not the kind of guy to toot my own horn. In fact, much to my detriment, I'm lousy about promoting myself. That's why it's hard for me to ask this, but this is something that needs to be done: if you bought a copy of The League of Outsider Baseball, can you please take the time to write a review of it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble or Good Reads? It would mean a lot to me and most importantly give future publishers an idea of what the book reading public thinks of my work. Almost all of the existing reader's reviews have been flattering, but every once in a while some crackpot writes a clunker out of jealousy or boredom. I for one often look at the reviews on those sites before I spend my money on a book. Reviews aren't the only thing I rely on in my purchasing process but it's certainly a factor, and that's why I'm asking you to please take the time to write your thoughts about my work.