Bourbon, Baseball and Barney: Barney Dreyfuss, ‘Last of the Baseball Squires’

This article was written by Len Martin - Dan Bonk

This article was published in the Road Trips: SABR Convention Journal Articles


This article was originally published in “A Celebration of Louisville Baseball,” the 1997 SABR convention journal.

 

Barney Dreyfuss was the last president of the National League Louisville Colonels. Using business skills honed at a Louisville whiskey distillery, he made a commitment to succeed in baseball. Unfortunately for Louisville, Barney could only guide the Colonels for a year before the team was dropped by the league. In 1900 he moved to Pittsburgh to gain control of the fledgling Pirates. In the 13 National League seasons prior to his arrival, the Pirates had finished an average of 29 games out of first place. There were six Pirate presidents before Dreyfuss, few quality players, and a frustrated base of fans. By his second season the Pirates won their first of three consecutive National League pennants. During his 33-year stewardship, the Pirates won the National League pennant six times and the World Series twice, making Barney the most successful owner in the century-plus history of the team.

Dreyfuss was an unlikely baseball success story. German- born, he was small in stature and spoke English with a heavy accent. He could be obstinate, difficult, and argumentative to the extent that, at times, his peers sought ways to avoid his company. He was nevertheless respected because he brought much needed discipline, organization, and focus to league affairs. At times he was supportive and considerate of his players, but he could also be highly intimidating and critical. His son-in-law, Bill Benswanger, who succeeded Dreyfuss as president of the Pirates just prior to Barney’s death in 1932, admitted, “Barney could be a stubborn man. He relied implicitly on his judgment. He was a man of pride and principle.”

Brooklyn club president Charles Ebbets once told Dreyfuss, “Barney, you’re a bulldog. You get hold of something and you never let it go.” “He was a fighter for what he thought was right,” declared American League founder Ban Johnson. One-time Pirate shortstop Dick Bartell, who didn’t care much for Dreyfuss, recalled, “Dreyfuss was tough to talk to, tough to negotiate with, and a stickler on petty matters.”

“He was the most intense diamond enthusiast I ever met,” observed John K. Tener, National League president from 1913- 1918. “No matter how a conversation began, he channeled into baseball within a brief time. Thereafter, all other topics were out.” When arguing salaries, Dreyfuss could be unyielding even with Hall of Fame caliber stars. “You can’t steal first base,” is the famous baseball quote attributed to Dreyfuss during contract negotiations with Pirate all-time stolen base leader Max Carey. Perhaps the most balanced recollection of Dreyfuss, however, was advanced by Rogers Hornsby in his autobiography My War With Baseball. Hornsby wrote, “He made baseball his life, and you couldn’t take a magazine out of his office without him knowing it. But he did everything he could to improve baseball.”

According to family records, he was born Bernard Dreyfuss in Freiburg, Germany on February 23, 1865. He was the second of four children and the only son of Samuel and Fanny Goldschmid Dreyfuss. Raised and educated in Germany, Barney apprenticed as a bank clerk as a teenager and aspired to come to America.

At age 17, Dreyfuss arrived in Paducah, Kentucky to work at a distillery owned by his cousins, the Bernheim Brothers who, years later, were known as the makers of I. W. Harper brand bourbon. Barney liked to claim that his first assignment was scrubbing whiskey barrels, but the brothers started him out as an assistant bookkeeper to utilize hisbank training. While in Paducah, Dreyfuss took an interest in baseball, playing second base and operating a semipro team. In 1888, he became a naturalized citizen. That same year, the distillery the distillery moved its entire operation upstream to Louisville. Barney eventually worked his way to the important position of credit manager, where his efforts were rewarded with a lucrative equity interest in the company.

Shortly after his arrival in Louisville, Dreyfuss collected his savings and bought a small interest in the local American Association team. He gradually increased his financial stake until, just prior to the 1899 season, he gained control of what was now a National League franchise. In doing so, Dreyfuss took the biggest financial gamble of his life—resigning his position with the Bernheims and selling his stake in the distillery to finance the acquisition. Although his baseball venture reportedly came on the heels of advice from his physician to seek a more fresh-air-oriented profession, years later he commented, “I had a vision of what was coming, though I could not at the time see stadiums like Forbes Field. I saw that America was a nation of sport-loving people that liked to be out in the open. And I knew that baseball was a game of the people. It thrilled me, an immigrant from Germany. I decided to go on with the game.”

The Louisville franchise was very tenuous when Barney took over. In his first season, Dreyfuss became embroiled in a battle with a faction of owners who tried to deprive him of lucrative Sunday playing dates. When his ballpark burned down late in the season, Dreyfuss knew Louisville was finished in the National League and began to search for options to remain in baseball.

Dreyfuss had two valuable assets at the end of the 1899 season, talented ball players under contract and investment capital. He bought the Pittsburgh Pirates as part of a deal that caught William W. “Captain” Kerr somewhat off guard, but found support among the other Pirate owners on the promise that he would deliver his best Louisville players. Dreyfuss replaced Kerr as Pirates president and, with the infusion of new talent that included Honus Wagner and Fred Clarke, the team went on to their best season since 1893. Kerr tried to unseat Dreyfuss prior to the 1901 season, but was rebuffed when Barney successfully challenged him in court.

Frustrated by Dreyfuss and perhaps jealous of his success, Kerr sold out. No sooner had Dreyfuss gained a foothold in Pittsburgh than he was threatened by Ban Johnson’s upstart American League. Johnson courted Kerr as an owner, offering to shift the Detroit franchise to Pittsburgh. Dreyfuss was rightfully wary, as Kerr had the capital and experience to be a successful competitor. Seeking to shut the new league out of available playing venues, Dreyfuss signed leases at both Exposition Park and Recreation Park, the only two local ballparks considered suitable for major league baseball. Eventually, the deal fell through. Still feeling insecure, Dreyfuss immediately lobbied to make peace with the new league. When an agreement between the two leagues was hammered out in early1903, it included specific provisions banning an American League team in Pittsburgh. Later that summer, in n effort to cement the partnership between the two leagues, the Pirates participated in the first World Series, losing to the Boston Americans. The results mattered little to Dreyfuss; in fact he even gave his losing squad his share of the Series receipts in gratitude for their efforts. More important to Barney, his baseball monopoly in Pittsburgh was safe and his prestige within baseball’s inner circle was rising.

Dreyfuss championed various baseball issues he believed would improve business. He was fervent in his opinion that the game needed to be cleaned up to attract a higher class of clientele. He correctly reasoned that wealthier patrons would pay higher prices for the best seats and spend more money on the game in general. Players who cursed, fought, smoked, or drank to excess were the focus of his wrath.

Opinionated and not always consistent in his views, Dreyfuss vehemently opposed player gambling, but he was famous for his own wagers, which included large sums bet on his Pirates during the 1903 World Series. He disdained real estate ownership, preferring to rent rather than own his own home. However, he purchased a plot of land in a fashionable section of Pittsburgh and built the most extravagant ballpark of its era—Forbes Field. He squeezed extra profits out of his business wherever he could, but for years he was the only owner to ban advertising from the outfield walls of his ballpark.

Barney’s baseball life reached it apex in 1909, the year he opened Forbes Field and his team captured its first World Championship. His critics labeled Forbes Field “Dreyfuss’ Folly” because it was too big, too fancy, and too far from downtown Pittsburgh. Characteristically, Dreyfuss never doubted his decision to build it. On opening day, as he stood inside the main gate, he shook the hands of those who came to congratulate him and told a local reporter, “This is the happiest day of my life.I used to dream of such things as I see here today, but it was not until a comparatively [short] time ago that I ever thought to see them as realities.”

Dreyfuss was competitive and liked to win. He was famous for maintaining extensive statistics and personal files on numerous major and minor players in an effort to gain an advantage. He dubbed himself “First Division Barney,” bragging of his teams’ propensity to finish in the upper half of the league standings. The team achievement he most enjoyed citing was a record-setting six consecutive shutouts posted between June 2 and June 8, 1903.

Dreyfuss was proudest, however, of his effort to bring credibility, integrity, and organization to the new league scheduling process. He never forgot how he was slighted by the league in 1899. After arriving in Pittsburgh, he took on the daunting task of developing schedules for both leagues each year. Initially his schedules were challenged, but his skill and tenacity in this are a came to be viewed as incomparable. “How can you beat a guy like that?” decried Ban Johnson. “He pulls out a schedule as soon as he gets to a meeting. If you object to that he produces a second. Finally, he will come up with a third one. Invariably, with a few minor changes, it will be just to both leagues.”

On February 5, 1932, Barney Dreyfuss died after contracting pneumonia following prostate surgery. Many believe he simply lost his will following the death of his only son, 36-year-old Sam, a year earlier. Barney’s tenure as president of the Pittsburgh Pirates was, at the time, the longest in the history of the game. Famed sportswriter Dan Daniel called him “The Last of the Baseball Squires” and the “Dean of the Major Leagues.”

Barney Dreyfuss is buried in Pittsburgh. In 1980, he was posthumously inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame at its second annual induction dinner in Los Angeles.

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