During the mid-1890s, the National League’s problematic decision to expand to twelve teams meant that many clubs had little to play for by midseason or earlier. Morale on such franchises was understandably abysmal while local fans saw little reason to attend games.
Matters were especially bad in St. Louis, where owner Chris von der Ahe, in the midst of a personal and financial crisis, made constant managerial changes and installed a racetrack and a “Shoot the Chutes” at Sportsman’s Park to try to arrest a sharp decline in attendance. The sorry state of affairs prompted The Sporting News to observe, “Sportsman’s Park is not a ball park now. It has been made into a combination race track and ball park and as is always the case when anything is made to serve two purposes, it is unfitted to either.” (Sporting News, August 17, 1895, 4) Things reached a new low in August of 1895 when Von der Ahe hired a local saloon-keeper named Lou Phelan to manage the club. Phelan’s main qualification was that his sister-in-law was Von der Ahe’s latest paramour.
But if anything, matters were worse in New York, where owner Andrew Freedman ran his club as though it was a circus. As a result, it seemed only fitting when, less than two weeks after the Phelan hiring, he put Harvey Watkins of Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth in charge of the team.
Harvey L. Watkins was born around 1869 in Seneca Falls, New York, the only child of Harvey Watkins, a brickmaker, and his wife Barbara. Little is known about his childhood, but on reaching adulthood Watkins was hired as private secretary of James A. Bailey of Barnum & Bailey’s Circus. In this capacity he proved so valuable that he was assigned additional responsibilities.
According to Louis E. Cooke, “Harvey Watkins was for years private secretary to J. A. Bailey, which made him a valuable assistant, and as he was apt and well informed on everything in connection with the operation of the show, I finally persuaded Mr. Bailey to shift him over to the advance department in charge of the newspaper advertising, knowing that he would make good, and I was never disappointed in this respect.” (Louis E. Cooke, “Reminiscences of a Showman,” a series of articles published in the Newark Evening Star in 1915 and 1916, reprinted on the Circusiana website) Watkins was eventually given the title of general manager.
He served as stenographer for the circus’ annual route book in 1890 and took full responsibility for publishing it the following year. In its preface, Watkins wrote, “Now there have been route books, so called, but it is gravely to be doubted if any of them attained their objective. They had, however, the merit of perpetuating many pleasant events, and, in a measure, served as partial stories of many a successful and unsuccessful venture in the tented field. As such, those little books proved souvenirs to all the parties immediately connected with those enterprises, but as faithful records of either the principal events happening to the various facts of value to the circus world, they may be said to be utterly useless . . .”
Circus historians have not agreed with this assessment. The writer of a 1960 article marveled, “How modest Mr. Watkins is and how amazed he would be to learn how his compilation of facts is treasured today by the circus fan along with other books of equal merit as an accurate and excellent source of circus history.” (Bandwagon, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Jul-Aug), 1960, pp. 9-11, 14)
He again served as publisher and author of the circus’ 1893 route book, but by 1894, Watkins had begun working as Andrew Freedman’s financial secretary and started to become involved in the (mis)management of the Giants. During that season, Freedman exasperated player-manager Johnny Ward by using the team’s bench as a V.I.P. seating area. The players often had to compete for seats with as many as a dozen non-players, including team directors, police, three batboys, an African-American Broadway show mascot and, cryptically, “the big man with the blue suit and the straw hat,” which might mean Watkins. (New York Sun, August 9, 1894)
Ward retired after the 1894 season, and the club slid deeper into chaos. Infielder George Davis started the 1895 campaign as player-manager and captain. Harvey Watkins was also given a prominent role. Reports differ as to his title — the Chicago Tribune reported that his title was “Assistant Manager” while the New York World described him as the “Assistant Treasurer” — but it seems clear that he only attended to the club’s business matters. (Chicago Tribune, August 22, 1895; New York World, August 22, 1895)
Under Davis’ watch the club started the season with a mediocre 16-17 record. Dissatisfied, Freedman named first baseman Jack Doyle to serve in those capacities, and the club enjoyed a brief resurgence but then reverted to mediocrity.
And there were signs that more serious trouble was brewing. A Sporting News correspondent observed, “Last year, and for many years previous, the New York team had the reputation of being one of the neatest dressed teams on the circuit. This year it is as slovenly as a member of Col. Waring’s street cleaning department. Uniforms of all colors, grades and sizes adorn their stately forms, and many of the suits have the appearance of having never been introduced to the laundry.” (Sporting News, August 24, 1895)
Matters came to a head in mid-August. Sam Crane, a former major leaguer who had become a respected sportswriter for the New York Advertiser, wrote an article harshly critical of the Giants’ owner. Freedman was vacationing in Nova Scotia at the time, but when he learned about the comments, he sent a telegraph instructing that the sportswriter be barred from the Polo Grounds. When Crane showed up for a game on August 16, his season pass was taken and his efforts to purchase a ticket were foiled. (Washington Post, August 20, 1895; Sporting News, August 24, 1895)
The press was outraged by Freedman’s action. A particularly hysterical article appeared in Sporting News that denounced the event as “the sharpest blow that has ever been struck at the free press of America and the right of holding views and expressing themselves.” The writer, who was apparently unaware of the Alien and Sedition Acts, added: “Crane reported the last game from a knot-hole in the fence, and will probably utilize a balloon in the future.” (Sporting News, August 24, 1895)
At the same time, Freedman’s relationship with his latest manager was deteriorating. With the Giants’ slump continuing, Doyle missed several games with an ankle injury and was nowhere to be found on the bench during these games. Whether he had gone AWOL or simply couldn’t find a seat on the bench amid all of Freedman’s minions, his absence drew attention.
One article chided, “If Doyle is manager, he should act as manager. His place is on the bench, whether he be in uniform, citizen’s dress or pajamas.” (New York Herald; reprinted in the Washington Post, August 21, 1895) When accounts like these reached Freedman in Nova Scotia, the owner concluded that Doyle has deserted the team. On August 21, he fired Doyle and appointed Watkins as the team’s new manager.
The timing of the change was extraordinarily poor. The local press was already up in arms over Freedman’s treatment of Sam Crane and was looking for any excuse to attack the belligerent owner. Now he had not only handed them prime fodder but, by hiring a former circus manager, had even provided them with a perfect metaphor.
Not surprisingly, they made the most of the opportunity. The next day’s World recounted Watkins’ experience with the Greatest Show on Earth and added that, like his employer, the new manager knows nothing about baseball. The Sun and Herald similarly contrasted Watkins’ knowledge of the world of the circus with his lack of experience in baseball.
In fairness to Watkins, it was largely much ado about nothing. Watkins reportedly did not seek the new job and accepted it only with reservations. (New York Sun, August 22, 1895) While he nominally remained the Giants manager for the rest of the season, he reappointed Davis as captain and let the shortstop run the ballclub on the field while he handled the business end. Matters had thus essentially reverted to what they had been at the start of the season and, not surprisingly, the club’s performance showed little change. The Giants won 10 of their first 12 games under the new/old regime, but then slumped again and ended up compiling an 18-17 record under Watkins.
After the season, Watkins resigned as manager and was succeeded by experienced baseball man Arthur Irwin. Initially he remained as the team’s business manager and busied himself making plans for the 1896 season. (Chicago Tribune, December 6, 1895) But in January, Watkins resigned from Freedman’s employ and returned to Barnum & Bailey. The opportunity was too good to resist and the press gleefully informed its readers that he had swapped circuses. (Sporting Life, February 1, 1896)
Watkins was soon immersed in planning an extended tour of Europe of the Greatest Show on Earth that would eventually last five years. At the conclusion of the 1897 American outdoor season, three shiploads of circus personnel sailed for London. Watkins was in charge of the final group, which left American shores on November 12, 1897. (New York Times, October 29, 1897)
In January of 1898 it was reported that Watkins had been rehired as business manager of the Giants. (Boston Globe, January 13, 1898) But if this indeed happened, his tenure must have been short-lived, as he was soon back in Europe as the circus’ press agent. The circus spent the winter performing indoors at the Olympia in London, then took to the road in the spring of 1898 and spent two years on tour in Great Britain on sixty-seven specially built railroad cars. In 1899, the show moved to the continent engagements in Germany and Austria-Hungary before concluding the tour in France in 1902.
Watkins published a history of the tour entitled Four Years in Europe: The Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth in the Old World, which included maps showing the routes, photographs of performers, and a complete list of the personnel for the tour. The book does not include the 1902 season, suggesting that Watkins was not involved in that part of the tour.
A likely reason is that by then he was involved in another ambitious venture. James A. Bailey had acquired control of the Buffalo Bill Wild West show and decided to send it to Europe in 1903. While the extent of Watkins’ involvement in this project is not known, it seems a reasonable assumption that he played a major role since in 1904 the Sporting Life noted that Watkins had returned from Europe after a three-year absence. (Sporting Life, March 12, 1904)
During his stay in London, Watkins had married a young Englishwoman identified only as Edith. The couple settled in New York City after the European tours ended and Harvey continued as contracting press agent for the circus. (“The Great Triumvirate,” Billboard, May 19, 1906, p. 10) But Bailey died in 1906 and, after serving as assistant manager of the circus in 1907, Watkins left the business and began working as a theatrical manager.
As late as 1933 he is listed in the New York City directory, but around then he apparently left for parts unknown. Despite diligent efforts by members of the SABR Biographical Committee, the date and place of Harvey Watkins’ death are unknown.
UPDATE: Within two months of this biography being posted on the SABR website, I was contacted by a Welsh researcher named Heather Smith who shared my suspicion that Watkins and his wife had moved to England. Ms. Smith is an indefatigable researcher; she soon proved that they had indeed moved to England and she traced the couple up until their deaths. They both died at their home in Harrow on April 29, 1949, when their furnace malfunctioned. Additional research has established that Watkins’s full name was Harvey Lennox Watkins and his date of birth was June 14, 1869.
A. Morton Smith, “American Circuses Abroad,” Hobbies, August 1948, pp. 25, 29; “The Great Triumvirate,” Billboard, May 19, 1906, p. 10; Bandwagon, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Jul-Aug), 1960, pp. 9-11, 14; Louis E. Cooke, “Reminiscences of a Showman,” a series of articles published in the Newark Evening Star in 1915 and 1916; these and many other relevant articles are republished on the Circusiana website (www.circushistory.org); Barnum & Bailey Route Books, thanks to Robert F. Sabia of the Circus Historical Society; contemporary newspapers and censuses; research by Frank Vaccaro.