SABR

Charles Byrne

This article was written by Ronald G. Shafer.

Why that’s Charley Byrne, a man who has done more than anyone else to give Brooklyn the position it occupies as the centre of professional baseball.” i

Charles H. Byrne, the co-founder and first president of the Brooklyn Base Ball Club, was one of the most influential baseball club owners of the 19th century. Among other things, the diminutive Byrne, known as the Napoleon of Base Ball, was the man who:

  • Created the franchise that would endure as the Brooklyn Dodgers and now the Los Angeles Dodgers.
  • Promoted Ladies Day as a way to encourage better behavior at baseball games in a time when rowdy fans and players threatened to undermine the game’s growth.
  • Established baseball’s first nonsmoking section at Brooklyn’s Washington Park.
  • Introduced the rain check to induce fans to attend games on days when the weather was threatening.
  • Created coaches’ boxes by pushing through a rule requiring base coaches to remain at least 75 feet from home plate.
  • Built the teams that won Brooklyn’s first two major-league pennants, in 1889 and 1890.
  • Moved Brooklyn into the National League in 1890.
  • Arranged major-league baseball’s first tripleheader, in 1890.
  • With Chicago’s Albert Spalding, helped kill the Players League, which threatened the National League’s existence.
  • Played a pivotal role in the 1891 merger of the major-league American Association into a 12-team National League.

So who was this little-known visionary who helped shaped the game of professional baseball in its earliest days? Charley Byrne was born in New York City, the son of Irish immigrants, on September 10, 1843. An intelligent young man, he graduated from St. Francis Xavier College, attended law classes and worked as a sportswriter. He took a job in the purchasing department of the Union Pacific Railroad in Omaha, Nebraska, where he also was elected deputy sheriff. After his term was up, he returned to New York, where he began dealing in the city’s booming real-estate market.

Byrne soon became one of New York’s most eligible bachelors. He was small in size but muscular with a “shimmering black mustache” and a quick, sarcastic wit. He was bright, talkative, and articulate. He was even-tempered, believed in honor and fair play, and most of all he had a persuasive manner that could win even opponents over to his point of view. He also was a snazzy dresser. “Charley Byrne would be immaculate if there was a frost in Hades,” one sportswriter observed.ii

Byrne loved the New York theater, especially opera. In those days, he was much more interested in La Bohème than baseball. Then in the fall of 1882, he met 30-year-old George J. Taylor, a man with a dream. Taylor’s doctor had told the chain-smoking night editor of the New York Herald that he should find a healthier occupation. The newsman decided that managing a baseball team in the great outdoors would be the perfect solution.

Brooklyn had been without a professional team since 1875, even though it was the nation’s third largest city. (Brooklyn wasn’t annexed by New York City until 1898.) New York City, the country’s biggest metropolis, didn’t have a team either. But in 1883 the New York Gothams (later the Giants) were slated to play in the National League and the New York Metropolitans in the major-league American Association. So Taylor decided to start his own team.

He found a financial “angel” on Wall Street and obtained a lease for property in south Brooklyn to construct a stadium. When the backer backed out, Taylor went to see a lawyer in Manhattan. There he met Charley Byrne, who rented a desk at the office. Taylor, like Byrne, was a graduate of St. Francis Xavier College. The two men hit it off. As a former sportswriter, Byrne was familiar with Brooklyn’s past glories as “the city of base ball” with great amateur teams such as the Atlantics. He also figured that the planned opening of a great bridge connecting Brooklyn with New York would boost the economies of both cities. Baseball could be a great business if it could attract the average Brooklynite.

Though Byrne was well off financially, he needed more backers to start a baseball club. So he brought in his brother-in-law, “Uncle Joe” Doyle, who owned a casino on Ann Street in New York. Doyle in turn recruited millionaire Ferdinand “Gus” Abell, who owned casinos in Newport, Rhode Island, and a house in New York City. But Charley Byrne clearly was the man who ran the club. If a reporter asked about the team, Joe Doyle would point to his brother-in-law and say, “You will have to go to him, he is the Brooklyn talking-machine.”iii

The Brooklyn Club president had a clear idea of what was needed to succeed in this growing game of baseball. First, work began on constructing a state-of-the art baseball park, in the Red Hookiv neighborhood of Brooklyn. Byrne named it Washington Park because a stone house in the area was used by General George Washington as his headquarters during the Battle of Long Island in the Revolutionary War.  (Byrne originally used the old stone house as a ladies restroom and then as the Brooklyn dressing room.)The park cost $32,000, a huge sum in those days.

Next came finding players for the team. Baseball at that time was a rough-and-tumble game. Both Byrne and Taylor were determined to raise the level of play to attract a higher class of fans. They placed an ad for players in the New York Clipper, seeking temperate “men of intelligence and not corner-lot toughs who happen to possess some skill as a player but whose habits and ways make them unfit for thorough team work.”v

Finally, the club needed to join a league. In March of 1883, Brooklyn was accepted into the minor-league Interstate Base Ball Association, joining teams from small towns in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. In less than nine months, Byrne and his colleagues had given birth to a ballpark and a team, and had joined a professional league. A new era in Brooklyn baseball was about to begin.

The new Brooklyn team played its first home game at Washington Park on May 12, 1883, two weeks before the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. The minor-league game against Trenton, which Brooklyn won, drew more than 6,000 fans, exceeding the 5,000 at the opening game of the major-league New York Gothams at the original Polo Grounds. That same day, Byrne hired a young assistant and ticket-taker. His name was Charles Ebbets, and he would become an iconic figure in the history of the Brooklyn club.

The Brooklyns (the team had no nickname – not Grays or Atlantics as is sometimes written) were in the middle of the pack when the first-place Camden Merritts disbanded. Byrne quickly made a move that would become his trademark. He swooped in and snapped up Camden’s best players at top dollar and generous salaries. With the influx of the Camden players, Byrne’s team won the Interstate Association pennant in the club’s first year in existence.

Byrne’s eye was on the big leagues, though, and in 1884 he was able to move his club into the American Association, then a major league along with the National League. The team, with co-founder George Taylor as manager, was a financial success but finished far down in the standings. Clearly, better players were needed for the big leagues. But as 1885 dawned, Byrne seemed to be doing nothing. Then the news broke that at 1 a.m. on January 5, 1885, Brooklyn had signed the top players of the National League’s Cleveland club, which had been disbanded. Under baseball rules there was a ten-day waiting period before any team could sign released players. With co-owner Gus Abell bankrolling the purchase, Byrne had hidden the players in a Cleveland hotel until the deadline passed.

Other owners were furious. “The outraged and outwitted delegates from elsewhere discussed Messrs. Byrne and Abell in a manner that made the swearing of the army in Flanders sound like a Sunday school address – but that was the good it did them,” said Charley Ebbets.vi The New York Times called the surprising signing “the biggest sensation ever made in baseball.”vii Brooklyn also signed the Cleveland manager, requiring George Taylor to move to the front office as club secretary. Taylor eventually turned the job over to Ebbets and returned to the newspaper business.

The big move didn’t pan out because of quarreling between the new Cleveland players and the old Brooklyn players. It may have been at this point that Byrne first said, “Baseball players are like eggs. Sometimes they aren’t what they are cracked up to be.”viii Early in the 1885 season, he fired the manager, Charlie Hackett, and eventually made himself field manager as well as club president.

Byrne treated his players as if they were his sons, calling them his “lambs.” He took them as a team to cultural events, such as a showing of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. He had players open savings accounts. “When the cold winds come blowing, gentle Annie, my boys will be enjoying their hard earned money, while other ball players that I know will be living on snow balls and wishing that summer was at hand before the winter has fairly commenced,” he said.ix

Byrne was making an even bigger mark as a baseball executive. He was the first proponent of regular Ladies Day games and in 1885 expanded the free entry for women to every home game. “We have found by experience that where there is an assemblage of ladies at our matches we get more orderly gatherings,” Byrne explained.x Many of the ladies came to see Brooklyn’s handsome young pitcher Bill “Adonis” Terry.

Byrne’s policy was influential. “The good effects of the move were at once noticed, and he has been wise enough to keep up the practice,” The Sporting News reported. “The spectators are now more respectful and careful about the style of language they use in addressing the players and the umpires. … If other managers would follow in Brooklyn’s footsteps and admit the fair sex to their grounds, it would not only have a good effect on the game generally but it would increase the attendance and enlarge the dividends of the club at the end of the season.”xi

To protect the ladies from odorous cigar smoke, Byrne created baseball’s first nonsmoking section. “It will be a relief to numbers of the patrons to get rid of the smoking annoyance in the grand stand,” the Brooklyn Eagle commented.xii

After he noticed that the threat of bad weather kept fans away from the park because they feared paying to see a rained-out game, Byrne invented the rain check. A Philadelphia paper noted that the wisdom of the rain check “introduced by Mr. Byrne was made very evident last week at the Athletic grounds. Threatening and rainy weather prevailed all week, yet large crowds were present at each game. But for the rain checks not half the people would have taken the risk of seeing but a few innings and losing their money.”xiii

Byrne also was concerned about unruly play, which he feared attracted the wrong kind of fans and turned off respectable customers. Rowdy play was the style of the champion St. Louis Browns (now the Cardinals), who were the original Rough House Gang under its owner Chris Von der Ahe and player-manager Charles Comiskey. Commy was not averse to slugging his own players, and he constantly berated umpires in the foulest of terms. If things weren’t going well, he would pull his team from the field and refuse to continue. While coaching at first base, Comiskey and his third-base coach would yell insults at the opposing pitcher and run up on each side of the catcher to shout obscenities in his ears.

In 1886 the American Association called a special meeting in Columbus, Ohio, to deal with the issue, with Byrne as the presiding officer. The Brooklyn president pushed through a resolution banning “offensive coaching” and a rule requiring that base coaches stay at least 75 feet from home plate. Thus, Charley Byrne effectively created coaches’ boxes.xiv In 1887 Byrne also won a rule imposing a $1,500 fine on a team if it refused an umpire’s order to continue play.

Because of his intelligence and attention to detail, Byrne became the most influential owner in the American Association. He was named the sole Association member, along with two National League owners, on baseball’s Arbitration Committee, which resolved disputes in both leagues. “The one man of the Association who has shown himself capable of successfully meeting the League diplomats on their own ground, appears to be Mr. Byrne, of the Brooklyn Club,” Sporting Life wrote.xv The Brooklyn president also was named to a three-member Association committee overseeing the umpires as well as head of the scheduling committee.

“Mr. Byrne has become the ruling mind in the affairs of the Association,” Sporting Life concluded. “In fact, MR. BYRNE IS THE ASSOCIATION. As a natural sequence of superior general abilities, he is president, secretary, board of directors and all the committees. He is ‘Captain, cook and all the crew on board the Mary Jane.’ The other members of the ring fondly delude themselves with the belief that they are participating partners, and their thinking so is one of the greatest tributes to the peculiar abilities of Mr. Byrne. Either by study or by intuition this admirable diplomat becomes thoroughly conversant with the subtlest governing characteristics of his colleagues, and he manipulates this knowledge so delicately, and yet so skillfully, that there is responding result without even the manipulation or the true product being observed by the objects of it.”xvi

Byrne’s critics in St. Louis took a darker view of the Brooklyn club president’s rise. “His smooth, oily ways are captivating and his glib tongue wields a power to manipulate at will,” said the St. Louis Post Dispatch.xvii But the “Little General” clearly was having a big impact on the national game.

Charley Byrne’s record as a field manager failed to match his prowess in the front office. After a losing 1887 season, Byrne fired himself and hired baseball pioneer Bill “Gunner” McGunnigle to be the club’s manager for the 1888 season. Byrne finished his managerial career with a respectable record of 174 wins and 172 losses.

In his job as club president, Byrne again made history with the most spectacular dealings in baseball history to that point. First, in late 1887, he and his partners paid $25,000 for the entire New York Mets club, which had moved to Staten Island. Brooklyn kept the cream of the players, including big first baseman Dave Orr and scrappy outfielder Darby O’Brien, and sold the rest for a new American Association franchise in Kansas City.

Next, Byrne pulled off a historic deal with St. Louis owner Chris Von der Ahe, acquiring three St. Louis stars for a record $19,000. They were catcher Doc Bushong, outfielder Dave Foutz, and pitcher “Parisian Bob” Caruthers, who also signed a contract for a record pay of $5,500. The stunning deal made Byrne the talk of the baseball world. “Certainly, if pluck and energy, combined with liberal outlays of money, can achieve success in securing first-class players with which to improve his team, Charley is going to get it,” wrote legendary sportswriter Henry Chadwick.xviii

Before the 1888 season began, several Brooklyn players married, prompting sportswriters to give the team its first nickname: the Brooklyn Bridegrooms. The Bridegrooms turned out to be the bridesmaids that year, finishing second behind St. Louis. But Charley Byrne was determined. He opened the club’s pocketbook to acquire star outfielders Pop Corkhill and Oyster Burns as well as second baseman Hub Collins and pitcher Tom Lovett.

The result: In 1889, Brooklyn battled St. Louis down to the final day of the season. After winning the last game in Columbus, Ohio, Byrne and his Bridegrooms headed home by train not knowing the outcome of the St. Louis contest. When the train arrived, the team got word that St. Louis had lost, giving Brooklyn its first pennant. When Byrne heard the news, “his worried face relaxed into a contented smile, and his entire nervous system underwent a change,” Sporting Life said. “The strain had been long and severe, and the reaction was immediate.”xix

The Brooklyn club president quickly arranged the team’s first “World’s Series” with the National League champion New York Giants. The Giants were a heavy favorite with a lineup that featured six future Hall of Famers: Buck Ewing, John Montgomery Ward, Tim Keefe, Roger Connor, Mickey Welch, and Jim O’Rourke. No Brooklyn player would make the Hall of Fame. Nevertheless, Brooklyn roared off to a three games to one lead before losing the Series six games to three. Byrne’s consolation was that his moves to draw average fans to Brooklyn games resulted in a regular-season attendance of 336,000, the highest for any baseball club in the 19th century.

Charley Byrne then played a key role in a baseball revolution in 1890. First, when St. Louis owner Chris Von der Ahe moved to install his own anti-Byrne candidate to head the American Association, Byrne took Brooklyn into the National League. Fellow owners immediately made him a member of the league’s board of directors. They also relied heavily on Byrne and Chicago White Stockings owner Albert Spalding in coping with a development that threatened the League’s very existence: a revolt by the leading players of the day.

The players, led by Brotherhood president John Montgomery Ward, had formed the Players League as a third major league, with teams in every National League city. The champion New York Giants and most other National League clubs were decimated by defections. Brooklyn was one of the few teams to retain nearly all of its players, thanks to Byrne’s history of fair treatment. Speaking for many of his teammates, Brooklyn’s Hub Collins said, “Mr. Byrne treated me like a king, and I never hesitated about signing my contract for next season.”xx

With its team intact, Brooklyn swept to the National League pennant in 1890, making it the only team in baseball history to win consecutive championships in two different major leagues. Along the way, Byrne also made history by holding baseball’s first tripleheader, on September 1, 1890. Byrne heard that the rival Brooklyn Players League team, managed by Monte Ward, planned a Labor Day doubleheader. So he scheduled three games with visiting Pittsburgh. The Bridegrooms won all three games and outdrew the Players League twin bill. There have been only three tripleheaders in baseball history.

The pennant race was overshadowed by the battle between the National League and the Players League. The National League formed a war committee headed by Chicago’s Spalding, who vowed to crush the rebel league. He scheduled National League home games to directly compete with the home games of the Players League. This was a two-edged sword, especially for teams like the Bridegrooms, who had to compete in Brooklyn not only with the Players team but with a new American Association club.

The slash-and-burn strategy worked, destroying the Players League after just one season. Though Byrne had a soft spot for players, he was a team man who not only supported but also helped lead the battle by Al Spalding against the rebel league. “There is no dodging the statement that Mr. Spalding and Mr. Byrne accomplished the downfall of the Players League,” concluded Sporting Life.xxi But many baseball observers agreed that if Byrne had been in the National League sooner, he might have tempered some the league’s high-handed treatment of players that helped lead to the revolt. Brooklyn manager Bill McGunnigle, Sporting Life reported, said that “if the National League was run by such a man as the man he worked for on the Brooklyn team, there would be no Brotherhood, there would be no cause for one, and it would be impossible to form one.”xxii

After Brooklyn’s second pennant in two years, Brooklynites hailed Byrne as a conquering hero. At a postseason celebration at the Grand Opera House, “the mention of Byrne’s name was like putting the match to a dozen cannons,” Sporting Life reported. “As the little president stepped from the wings he faced a cheering, shouting gathering that sent their combined greeting at him like a cyclone. He looked wonder-eyed over the foot-lights, his legs wobbled and it was evident he was suffering a slight stroke of stage fright. But he had lots of time to get over it for the cheering was taken up again and again, lasting several minutes.”

Byrne struggled to regain his composure as he began to read his prepared remarks. The words of the usually articulate baseball man seemed stiff, and then a page of his written speech fell to the floor. Byrne, according to Sporting Life, “colored up” and continued talking as he stooped down to try to retrieve the paper, never taking his eyes off the audience. Finally, as he got to the end of a sentence, he managed to grab the missing paper. After only the slightest pause, he crumpled the paper up in his hand, stuffed the rest of his speech in his pocket, and began speaking from the heart.

“Like a born orator, he started in and electrified his hearers,” Sporting Life wrote. “There was no limit to his eloquence and the good, solid English he hurled at the big gathering worked all to a pitch of enthusiasm that burst bounds when he told them in language unmistakable that he was in a position to say that Brooklyn had in all probability seen the last of the base ball war and that next season would mark a return to old principles, and that Brooklynites would have only one club and one championship, and interest being undivided, another good spell of times would be quite a surety. This declaration was the windup of the night, and was received with a general and united shout.”xxiii

But Byrne, like nearly every other major-league baseball owner, was facing huge financial problems. Squabbling between the three leagues in 1890 had turned off baseball fans and attendance had fallen sharply. National League clubs rushed to woo investors from the disbanded Players League clubs, and Brooklyn was no exception. Byrne brought in investors from the former Players League Brooklyn team, Ward’s Wonders, but at a price.

First, he agreed to move the Bridegrooms’ games from Washington Park to the more distant Eastern Park, which had been built for the Players League team. Second, the investors demanded that John Montgomery Ward be made manager of the Brooklyn Bridegrooms. Byrne agreed, and Gunner McGunnigle was replaced despite two straight pennants.

In 1891 the American Association also folded. Byrne played a major role in merging some of the Association’s teams into a 12-team National League and drawing up a new National Agreement for baseball. He became a champion of the minor leagues. “These smaller clubs are absolutely necessary for the good of baseball,” he said, “and they must be encouraged.”xxiv

Byrne’s club struggled in the 1890s, and he never won another pennant. Attendance dipped at remote Eastern Park, where fans had to dodge trolley cars to get to the park. For a while the team became known as the Trolley Dodgers. The struggles took a toll on Byrne’s health. The Brooklyn club president, who never married, took leave from his post and went to Hot Springs, Virginia, to try to heal. But he couldn’t keep his mind off baseball. He had the Brooklyn team supply bats, balls, and uniforms for the employee team at his hotel. In the winter of 1897, despite ill health, he felt obligated to attend the National League meeting in Philadelphia. Afterward, Byrne’s health worsened further, and he fell into a coma.

On January 4, 1898, Charley Byrne died from Bright’s disease at his Manhattan home at the age of 54. Charles Ebbets succeeded him as Brooklyn club president. Byrne left behind a legacy that is unmatched among baseball executives of his day. “From the year Mr. Byrne made his advent in the base ball arena, up to the year of his last illness, he was foremost in every movement that was calculated to benefit the national game,” said Hall of Fame sportswriter Henry Chadwick.xxv

Byrne always put the interests of baseball above his own. “We are merely the backers of a sport that appeals to old and young,” he said. “If we betray that trust, we betray the cardinal principle of the game that we control.”xxvi

The Brooklyn baseball president’s “apparent anxiety to conserve only the best interests of the national game was dear to him more than anything else on earth,” Sporting Life said. “In that respect, he was easily the greatest magnate of them all.”xxvii

Charley Byrne’s name faded from view as baseball moved into the 20th century. But based on the opinions of those involved in baseball in the late 1800s, no executive made more contributions to the early development of America’s national game and the storied franchise that became the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers than Charles H. Byrne. The record is clear: The “Napoleon of Base Ball” deserves a place in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

 

Sources

Ronald G. Shafer, When the Dodgers Were Bridegrooms, Gunner McGunnigle and Brooklyn’s Back-to-Back Pennants of 1889 and 1890 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc., 2011).

Brooklyn Eagle

Sporting Life

The Sporting News

New York Times

New York Clipper

 

Notes

i New York Sporting Times, as quoted in Sporting Life, June 11, 1892.

ii Sporting Life, October 11, 1890.

iii Brooklyn Eagle, November 3, 1887.

iv The area is now called Lawn Park Slope. See Philip J. Lowry, Green Cathedrals (New York: Walker & Company, 2006), 35.

v New York Clipper, January 20, 1883.

vi Brooklyn Eagle, January 26, 1913.

vii New York Times, January 6, 1885.

viii Sporting Life, April 11, 1896.

ix Sporting Life, July 12, 1886.

x Brooklyn Eagle, April 12, 1885.

xi The Sporting News, December 11, 1886.

xii Brooklyn Eagle, February 1, 1885.

xiii Brooklyn Eagle, June 6, 1886. The quotation was contained in a report on the Grays by a Philadelphia newspaper, which was not named.

xiv Sporting Life, June 21, 1886.

xv Sporting Life, December 2, 1885.

xvi Sporting Life, December 8, 1887.

xvii St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 10, 1887.

xviii Brooklyn Eagle, December 7, 1887.

xix Sporting Life, October 23, 1889.

xx Brooklyn Eagle, February 17, 1890.

xxi Sporting Life, January 16, 1891.

xxii Sporting Life, November 3, 1889.

xxiii Sporting Life, November 8, 1897.

xxiv Sporting Life, December 25, 1897.

xxv Sporting Life, January 15, 1898.

xxvi Sporting Life, December 25, 1897.

xxvii Ibid.

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