SABR

Henry Fabian

This article was written by David E. Skelton.

Excepting some otherwise brief ventures as a young man, this 14-year-old runaway spent nearly 60 years in professional baseball as player, manager, owner, innovator and groundskeeper. In this latter capacity, Henry Fabian was considered “one of the great masters of his craft.”1 St. Louis Browns owner Bob Hedges tried to entice him from the Texas League in 1906 but balked at his salary demand. “’[Y]ou want as much as one of my ball players’ [Hedges exclaimed]. ‘Why not?’ [Fabian] replied. ‘If you want a first class job done.’”2 He was hired. For decades thereafter Fabian provided consultation on major- and minor-league stadiums throughout the nation. In 1939, while readying for baseball’s centennial celebration in Cooperstown, New York, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) turned to Fabian for the preparation of Doubleday Field.

Perhaps his landscaping skills were inherited. His mother, Sophie Finck, came from a long line of wine growers. Born in 1832 among the fertile soils of Alsace-Lorraine in present day France, Sophie immigrated to the United States and settled in New Orleans where she met and married Heinrich Fabian. Himself a German immigrant, Heinrich arrived in the Crescent City in 1851 as a 15-year-old from Bavaria. Lost are the reasons the family departed the German Confederation, but the turmoil of the preceding years may provide a clue:

[The region] had suffered the same calamitous agricultural and business setbacks as their neighbors in Europe. Food prices had risen by more than half since 1844, and there were hunger riots in almost every state.3

Henry Fabian was born September 11, 1866, in New Orleans. Heinrich had set himself up as a tavern owner near the French Quarter, in the red-light district infamously dubbed Storyville in later years. By 1880, Heinrich and his wife were also busy raising four children. This same year, Henry ran away following a thrashing he received from his father. It is alleged he never saw his parents again.4 The resourceful child landed a job as a dishwasher for a construction gang building a line to Cincinnati for the Queen and Crescent Railroad.

“It was with these tough lads that I really learned to play baseball,” Fabian recollected. “We worked pretty hard, but when we had any time off we always played baseball…I had a great arm and was in considerable demand as a catcher. It was from one of these railroad construction gangs that I graduated into professional baseball.”5

In 1883, the 16-year-old signed as an outfielder for one of two New Orleans entries in a four-team league (the other two based in Mobile, Alabama). The return to his native city allowed for a reunion with one of his sisters, whom he recruited in developing his first innovation: sliding pads. “He had a pair of quilted baseball pants … but they did not furnish protection enough when hitting the dirt. So he drew a paper pattern and his sister cut out a material to specifications and stuffed and sewed it … [worn] under his pants [he] … thereafter escaped many a strawberry blister.”6 Little is known of his playing exploits during this season or the following two (1884-85) when he played at various stops across the South, including one season in Chattanooga.

He returned to New Orleans in 1886 where he began catching professionally – affording him his next innovation. With the pitching mound only 45 feet away, Fabian turned to wearing a kid glove under a larger, thicker version, inserting a small piece of sheet-lead between the two layers of leather (at a time when Silver Flint, backstop for the Cap Anson-led Chicago Colts, was placing strips of raw beefsteak inside his thin finger glove to protect his hand).

But the clever alteration did not prevent Fabian from missing the entire 1887 campaign after sustaining a broken finger. Instead of being cut loose from the team, the popular youngster was reemployed as a groundskeeper under the watchful eye of locally acclaimed landscape gardener John LeClair. Excepting a return to New Orleans as the Southern League entry’s permanent left fielder in 1889 and a one-game appearance with the Pelicans (Southern Association) four years later, most of his playing career thereafter would be found in the various league iterations in Texas. During this time, he made two acquaintances that had enormous import to his future.

In a 1936 newspaper interview, Fabian made the claim of having played in the Illinois-Iowa League with Cedar Rapids in 1890. While he may or may not have been, he was certainly there the following season as the team’s primary outfielder when 18-year-old John McGraw took over as shortstop. A cantankerous youngster, the future Hall of Famer’s fellow-New York Giants coach Arlie Latham claimed, "McGraw eats gunpowder every morning for breakfast and washes it down with warm blood." But despite the rough exterior, Fabian found in McGraw a kindred spirit. Perhaps it was the shared experience of a thrashing at their father’s hand, resulting in running away from home that forever bonded the two young men. Whatever the reason, the friendship remained intact until McGraw’s passing in 1934 and spawned Fabian’s employment with the Giants until his own passing on the same day six years later.

It appears playing through Iowa also established acquaintance with a Minnesota-native named Anna Marie Doerle. Eight years his junior, they shared the common trait of having been born to immigrants from the German regions. They fell in love and he convinced her to return with him to Dallas where he’d played the three years previous and established a permanent residence. They married November 25, 1891. Nine years later the Fabian residence was cozily populated by two children, Anna’s parents and brother, with Henry listing himself as a professional stonecutter.

Months removed from his wedding day, a curious headline graced The Dallas Morning News: “Henry Fabian Shot At. A Case in Which a Base Ball Man Dodged a Bullet.” The story said a local carpenter named Parker had fired a shot at Fabian. Fabian told a reporter for the paper that ‘an article appeared in The Kansas City Sun about which he wanted an explanation from Parker.’ The article said, “Mr. Fabian’s description of the article The News is not privileged to report at this stage of the proceedings.” There was never another reference in any Dallas paper to the incident or about what the Kansas City story might have been.”7

Though Henry continued in baseball upon his return from Iowa, his playing career never took off like that of McGraw or others. Lacking the skills to move his playing career forward, Fabian turned to managing. The January 1896 edition of The Sporting News announced:

It appears to be a settled fact that Henry Fabian is to manage the new Dallas team. Well, there isn’t an enthusiast in the State that will not wish him well. Henry has always been a hardworking and conscientious player, and the club whose uniform he wore has ever had his best services. He is intelligent and aggressive in his methods, always in the game until the last man is out, and desirable on account of his manners and habits. ‘Fabe’ is an honorable man, has a good business head on him and knows the ropes thoroughly, and if he doesn’t make a success as a manager, there will be much surprise.8

While he said he managed in an interview in 1936, Baseball-Reference does not reflect his claim. The Dallas Steers, for whom Fabian played in 1895, dissolved with the Texas-Southern League before the start of the 1896. In its place appeared the Texas Association, and records show Henry played for, but did not manage, both the Dallas Navigators and Fort Worth Panthers. Conversely, in an interview 40 years later, Henry is quoted as having “tried my luck as manager of our leading rivals, the [Panthers].”9 Whether or not he managed, he played fulltime only one more season – the Texas League in 1897 – until Anna prevailed upon him to leave the game altogether.

Henry’s off-seasons had been spent in the employ of a wholesale dry goods store in Dallas, and he returned to this manner of work fulltime in 1898. But the baseball-bug soon rebounded. Fabian either took sole or partial ownership of the Waco Tigers a Texas League expansion entry in late 1904, the records are blurred. What was certain was his devotion to his stake: “I guess I was everything on that club except manager – owner, secretary, groundskeeper, ticket taker ... suddenly I found I was flat broke”10 and ownership eventually moved to other parties before the 1906 season. His short stay with the Waco Tigers had two lasting impacts.

Texas blue laws prohibited admission charges for Sunday play of any nature, thereby eating into the potential profitability of all ball clubs. In knowing violation of the law (at least the second occasion) Fabian was incarcerated after each of three scheduled Sunday games in 1905, posting a $60 bond after each arrest. ”After being found guilty at the local level Fabian challenged the statute in Texas’ Court of Criminal appeals, arguing that the law was passed before baseball became a professional sport and did not apply to the game. The court ruled in Fabian’s favor, and while local ordinances still prevented Sunday games in Dallas, Sunday baseball became the norm in the Texas League. In his obituary, 35 years later, The Dallas Morning News’ headline called Fabian “Father of Sunday Ball.”11

The second impact was the newly constructed stadium designed by Fabian. Drawing on the latest innovations for the comfort of spectators and players alike, Katy Park was constructed within a three-month span – fast enough to host an April 6, 1905 speech delivered by President Theodore Roosevelt. During its long history, Katy Park hosted numerous minor-league clubs, Baylor University and Negro League games and an April 4, 1929 exhibition between the Waco Cubs and a Babe Ruth-led New York Yankees squad.

The success of Katy Park spawned construction of another stadium readied for the Dallas Giants in 1906. This project captured the attention of St. Louis owner Bob Hedges (the Browns were using the Dallas facility for their spring training camp).Though Fabian negotiated a hard bargain, St. Louis had already been eyed closely by he and his wife in order to further their daughter Ruth’s aspiring singing career. Ruth had shown early talent for music – likely an inherited gift, music having been an important factor in her father’s heritage dating to Bavaria – and her parents were considering sending her to an acclaimed vocal teacher in the Gateway City – the offer from Hedges was simply the icing on the cake. Though departed from Texas, it appears Fabian maintained a Dallas residence throughout the remainder of his life, returning during the off-seasons.

It was during the years tending Sportsman’s Park that Fabian made another lasting contribution to baseball. The ball field, located less than two miles west of the Mississippi River, underwent wholesale remodeling. Essentially elevating the field to drain its own water, the innovation was dubbed the turtle-back infield (the idea came to him while playing with Dallas in 1889). “Some of the players yelled bloody murder,” Fabian recalled. “Especially do I recall [Detroit Tigers shortstop] Donie Bush … made six errors in a doubleheader and he blamed them on my turtle-back.”12 Despite the early critics, Henry’s alteration remains basic to stadium designs today.

Perhaps Fabian would have stayed in St. Louis had it not been for the intervention of an old friend. In 1913, the New York Giants, in St. Louis on a road trip, received a telegram stating that their longtime groundskeeper had suddenly passed away. With encouragement from famed pitcher Christy Mathewson, manager John McGraw approached his long ago teammate:

“’What are you getting here in St. Louis?’ asked McGraw, getting down to business immediately. Fabian gave his St. Louis salary. ‘Henry, you are a liar,’ said the fiery McGraw. Fabian showed him his St. Louis contract. ‘All right,’ said McGraw. ‘I’ll give you $1,000 more to come to New York.’”13

When Hedges heard of Henry’s impending departure, he wired from his home in Florida that he would match the New York offer, but the groundskeeper had already committed to his old friend. Unclear is the knowledge Henry possessed in regard to the challenges he faced with his new responsibilities. Fabian’s deceased predecessor kept a rowboat used “on days when the Harlem [River] swelled and the Polo Grounds was covered with surface water … [he] would get out his oars, paddle around in the outfield and find the manholes which answered for a drainage system.”14 A fire destroyed the Giants home in 1911, and there is no indication that the rowboats were necessary after reconstruction. But that didn’t mean there weren’t challenges. “Work had to be done on the Polo Grounds field every fall and winter to offset the natural falling away due to the quicksand which underlay it.”15

The 10-year shared tenancy of both the Giants and the New York Yankees that began in 1912 only added to Fabian’s burden, resulting often in round-the-clock tasks. The burdens for Fabian were found to be no less after the Yankees moved to their own grounds. When the Giants were on the road, the stadium was often leased for boxing matches, football games, etc. The most challenging was a mid-summer spectacle entitled “The Last Days of Pompeii” which involved horse-drawn chariots and herds of elephants that trampled the entire field – though also providing additional fertilization. “I might as well have stayed down in Texas,” Anna complained on one occasion from their comfortable apartment in Washington Heights behind Coogan’s Bluff. “I would see as much of you down there as I do here.”16 (Incidentally, in this same cozy apartment Henry had the peculiar habit of collecting the company of several hundred dogs of varying breed.)

However busy he might be, Fabian found great satisfaction in his work; with particular relish in favoring the oft hard to please McGraw – in actuality, both men shared the same prickly trait. With his exacting nature, Fabian was found to have his irascible side, reserving particular animus for Hall of Famer Mel Ott for his unconscious habit of prodding his front spike under the well-groomed sod. Despised by some, Fabian was exalted in certain venues as baseball’s “landscape gardener deluxe.”17 The controversial McGraw once instructed Fabian to raise the Polo Ground’s turtle-back as high as 21 inches, vexing opposing pitchers while Mathewson and his fellow-cohorts adjusted to throwing downhill (an advantage that contributed to numerous league championships and an oft-healthy World Series cut for their resourceful groundskeeper). Fabian’s services were retained long after McGraw resigned from the Giants in 1932.

Three accidents befell Fabian during his term with the Giants, any one of which could have had disastrous consequences. In 1918, an errant throw in pre-game practice struck Henry above the left eye. Throughout the remainder of his life, his sight would be impaired. A few years later another errant toss, this time from Hall of Famer Bill Terry, skulled Fabian and left the 50-plus year old lying on the ground unconscious. But the most remarkable story came in 1938 when the 72-year-old groundskeeper was struck by a car while crossing the street. He suffered some broken ribs, which were immediately taped, and Fabian continued on his daily tasks.

A heart attack finally prevented him from his steady rounds at the stadium. The 74-year-old had returned from Winter Haven, Florida after an inspection tour of the Giants spring training facilities when he was struck. He succumbed to the attack in a New York hospital on February 25, 1940. Henry was survived by his wife of 48 years, his daughter Ruth and younger son Carl. Upon Henry’s death, Anna returned to Dallas where she stayed throughout the remaining nine years of her life, passing on February 11, 1949. After a successful stage career in New York, Ruth opened a tearoom called The Friendly Door, which she operated in Williamstown, Massachusetts in the 1930s. She returned to Dallas to attend to her aging mother, and remained there until her own passing in 1989.

Carl, born November 18, 1894, grew into a large six-foot tall athlete who once had his own opportunities to follow his father into the professional ranks of sports. Accomplished in baseball and football, he was selected to Texas All Star squads in both sports at the prep and collegiate levels (catcher for the Texas A&M varsity), but spurned a tryout offer from McGraw’s Giants. He entered the U.S. Army during the First World War and retired with the rank of captain. He pursued a career suiting his chemical engineering degree, with his name appearing on a 1937 patent filing as co-inventor of a method for treating oils. He passed away on February 8, 1975, in in Beaumont, Texas.

Henry’s passing earned the following tribute from the New York Sun: “No French peasant ever loved the soil on which he lived more than Henry loved the Polo Grounds.”18 Though he spent 27 years attending to the New York stadium, his contributions to baseball extend far beyond the structure bordering the Harlem River. Throughout his career, he provided consultation for ball fields across the nation, including many of the parks built in his adopted Texas, and prepared Cooperstown’s Doubleday Field for the centennial celebrations of 1939. Besides innovations such as the turtle-back field, sliding pads and the two-layered catcher’s glove with the sheet metal protection, Henry is believed to be the first to place bases inside the base lines. He claimed to be the first to cover the infield with canvas during rainstorms (St. Louis, 1910), the first to think of using cushion around the edge of the catcher’s mask, and the first to suggest use of a catcher’s chest protector worn over the uniform (1903). Though some claims are difficult to substantiate, it is apparent that this onetime 14-year-old runaway – player, manager, owner, innovator and groundskeeper – always kept his head in the game.

 

Acknowledgements

The author wishes to thank Michael Fabian, direct descendent of Henry’s older brother John, for review and input herein.

 

Sources

Books

Gabriel, Mary. Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2011).

Thornley, Stew. Land of the Giants: New York’s Polo Grounds (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000).

Periodicals

Ryan, Terri Jo, “Brazos Past: Henry Fabian gave Waco’s Katy Park its curves,” Waco Tribune (March 9, 2013)

The Sporting News

Websites

Baseball-reference.com

ancestry.com/

wacotrib.com/news/waco_history/brazos-past-henry-fabian-gave-waco-s-katy-park-its/article_628d42fa-7a7b-5743-ae35-fcf13fdaa835.html

baseballhistorydaily.com/tag/henry-fabian/

sabr.org/bioproj/park/58d80eca

sabr.org/bioproj/person/fef5035f

google.com/patents/US2184838

 

Notes

1 “Burns-Eye Views of Big Time Parks by Ed Burns,” The Sporting News, August 5, 1937, 4.

2 “Henry Fabian, Who Introduced Turtle-Back Diamond, Draws the Line Only at Elephants on Polo Grounds,” The Sporting News, November 12, 1936, 5.

3 Mary Gabriel, Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2011) 133 and 202.

4 Fabian’s father passed away a year later. One source cites a reunion with his mother in 1898, impossible as she had passed away five years before.

5 “Henry Fabian, Who Introduced Turtle-Back Diamond, Draws the Line Only at Elephants on Polo Grounds,” The Sporting News, November 12, 1936, 5.

6 “Many Changes In Appurtenances And Dress Of Game Since 1849,” The Sporting News, May 21, 1936, 30.

7 “Father of Sunday Ball,” Baseball History Daily (January 21, 2013). (http://baseballhistorydaily.com/2013/01/22/father-of-sunday-ball/ ).

8 “Texas Topics: Henry Fabian Will Manage The Dallas Steers,” The Sporting News, January 4, 1896, 3.

9 “Henry Fabian, Who Introduced Turtle-Back Diamond, Draws the Line Only at Elephants on Polo Grounds,” The Sporting News, November 12, 1936, 5.

10 Ibid.

11 “Father of Sunday Ball,” Baseball History Daily (January 21, 2013). (http://baseballhistorydaily.com/2013/01/22/father-of-sunday-ball/ ).

12 “Henry Fabian, Who Introduced Turtle-Back Diamond, Draws the Line Only at Elephants on Polo Grounds,” The Sporting News, November 12, 1936, 5.

13 Ibid.

14 “Polo Grounds, Star Game Site, Rose from Mud Flat Into Fame,” The Sporting News, July 2, 1942, 17.

15 “Stew Thornley, Land of the Giants: New York’s Polo Grounds (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000).

16 “Henry Fabian, Who Introduced Turtle-Back Diamond, Draws the Line Only at Elephants on Polo Grounds,” The Sporting News, November 12, 1936, 5.

17 “Dallas All Aflame As Players Drop In,” The Sporting News, March 4, 1920, 6.

18 “Scribbled by Scribes: Tribute to Henry Fabian,” The Sporting News, March 7, 1940, 4.

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