Consider Your Sources: Baseball and Baked Beans in Boston

This article was written by Bill Nowlin

This article was published in 2005 Baseball Research Journal

Tim Wiles, director of research at the National Baseball Hall of Fame for the past 10 years, wrote an entertaining article, “The Joy of Foul Balls,” in issue #25 of The National Pastime. At a recent SABR board meeting, Norman Macht read a couple of paragraphs aloud and the room convulsed with laughter for a few minutes. The story, in Tim’s words, ran as follows:

On August 11, 1903, the A’s were visiting the Red Sox, then playing in the old Huntington Avenue Grounds. At the plate in the seventh inning was Rube Waddell, the colorful southpaw pitcher for the A’s, who was known to run off the mound to chase after passing fire trucks, and to be mesmerized whenever an opposing team brought a puppy onto their bench to distract him. Waddell lifted a foul ball over the right-field bleachers that landed on the roof of a baked-bean cannery next door.

The ball came to rest in the steam whistle of the factory, which began to go off. As it was not quitting time, workers thought there was an emergency and abandoned their posts. A short while later, a giant cauldron containing a ton of beans boiled over and explod­ed, showering the Boston ballpark with scalding beans. It is prob­ably safe to say that this was the most dramatic foul of all time.

Certainly so! When laughter subsided, I remarked that I’d contributed a multi-part series of articles for the Red Sox maga­zine in 2003, recounting every game of the 1903 season, which culminated in the first victory in a modern World Series for the Boston Americans. (The team was not named the “Red Sox” until owner John I. Taylor designated that name on December 18, 1907, while selecting new uniforms for the 1908 season.) I’d not come across any mention of an explosion raining baked beans onto the crowd – it’s the kind of thing you’d remember – but I certainly wanted to learn more.

I wrote Tim and asked him where he’d learned about this inci­dent, and he referred me to Mike Gershman’s book Diamonds. On page 70, there it was, a story the very respected Gershman titled, “The Great Beantown Massacre.” Mike gave as his source Charles Dryden, whom he described as “for years Philadelphia’s leading baseball writer.” Dryden’s rendition was even more dramatic:

In the seventh inning, Rube Waddell hoisted a long foul over the right-field bleachers that landed on the roof of the big­gest bean cannery in Boston. In descending, the ball fell on the roof of the engine room and jammed itself between the steam whistle and the stem of the valve that operates it. The pressure set the whistle blowing. It lacked a few minutes of five o’clock, yet the workmen started to leave the building. They thought quitting time had come.

The incessant screeching of the bean-factory whistle led engineers in the neighboring factories to think fire had broken out and they turned on their whistles. With a dozen whistles going full blast, a policeman sent in an alarm of fire.

Just as the engines arrived, a steam cauldron in the first factory, containing a ton of beans, blew up. The explosion dislodged Waddell’s foul fly and the whistle stopped blowing, but that was not the end of the trouble. A shower of scalding beans descended on the bleachers and caused a small panic. One man went insane. When he saw the beans dropping out of a cloud of steam, the unfortunate rooter yelled, “The end of the world is coming and we will all be destroyed with a shower of hot hailstones.”

An ambulance summoned to the supposed fire conveyed the demented man to his home. The ton of beans proved a total loss. (Dryden’s story ran in the Philadelphia North American on August 12, 1903.)

What a great story! Naturally, I wanted to learn more. I was surprised I hadn’t come across such a dramatic event while read­ing 1903’s daily game stories in the Boston Herald. I’d read all the usual books about the Red Sox and hadn’t heard this one before. I couldn’t find anything on ProQuest, which made me wonder even more. So I took myself off to the Microtext Reading Room at the Boston Public Library. Surely Dryden would not have been the only sportswriter to have noticed 2,000 pounds of boiling baked beans splattering the bleachers at the ballpark, or the dozen fac­tory whistles shrieking alarm.

The Boston Globe had no mention of any such incident. The seventh inning was a particularly unremarkable inning, about the only inning not described in detail in the game account. The Herald noted, “Murphy opened the seventh by striking out and Monte Cross drew the first gift of his side, but it amounted to nothing as Powers was out to Dougherty and Waddell fouled to LaChance.”

Waddell did foul out, but one presumes that LaChance caught the ball somewhere in the vicinity of his position at first base. There was no mention of an earlier foul in the at-bat that went out of the grounds, or of baked beans cascading onto unwitting patrons of the park, or anything of the sort.

Dryden’s piece seemed oddly comic, almost as though it had been written as comedy for a publication such as The Onion. There was a particular line that stood out to me: “One man went insane.” Though one could imagine losing a grip on reality if suddenly and unexpectedly coated with scalding baked beans and molasses as sirens shrieked from all sides, there was something about that line that raised a red flag.

Reading through the other various Boston newspapers of the day – the Boston Journal, the Post, the Record, the Daily Advertiser, and the Traveler – not one mention turned up of any exploding bean works or any problems at the ball game. The Journal noted that an earlier explosion (not at a bean company) in Lowell had claimed another victim. After a burglary in Wrentham, the crooks escaped using a stolen railroad handcar. A seven-year­-old drowned in Fall River. A Charlestown woman had been miss­ing for two days. A runaway horse injured two people in Franklin Square when it bolted due to the noise of an elevated train.

There was no ball game on August 12, but it was not because the park was being cleaned of baked bean residue. The team was simply on its way to Detroit.

The Boston Post noted many of the same stories as the Journal and paid particular credit to Reserve Officer Morse for saving several small children by stopping the runway horse. The Post offered a sports page cartoon of the ball game (a 5-1 Boston victory), and depicted four baseballs being lofted off Waddell to various parts of the park, but did not illustrate any explosions, screaming whistles, or rain of beans. A man in Braintree, a hunter, shot himself in the left hand by mistake. John J. Sullivan, a fire­ man with Ladder 2, caught a 5’4″ skate fish off Apple Island. There were any number of stories, but notable by its absence was any account of an exploding baked-bean cauldron.

The Boston Record offered a follow-up story regarding an acci­dent at the Philadelphia baseball park, the National League park where the Boston Nationals had been playing against the Phillies. The games there had been called off because of an accident that had taken place on August 8. An altercation between two drunks outside the park caused a number of people to rush to the wall overlooking the street, and as people crushed forward to gawk at the disturbance, the wall collapsed, killing a number of people and causing over 200 to be treated for injuries. At least 12 people died in the collapse or in the days that followed. It must be one of the most serious accidents ever to occur at a major league base­ball park.

As a reporter from Philadelphia, Dryden had to be aware of the tragedy. This made the Boston story seem more credible, since this was hardly a time for levity. One would have to believe that Dryden didn’t just make up the story of the baked beans in Boston. How can we explain this remarkable story that was remarked upon by no other writer?

In email correspondence, Tim Wiles had written me that he thought it might be a good idea to poll SABR and “see if anyone knows whether Dryden had a mischievous streak.” He added, “This might make a nice little article on the pitfalls of repeating what others have written without double-checking.”

First, I decided to look around a bit myself, to see what I could learn about Dryden. The very first item I found showed Charles Dryden enshrined in, of all places, the very Hall of Fame where Tim works. He was a 1965 recipient of the J. G. Taylor Spink Award. Dryden was listed as a charter member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. What more reliable sources could we hope for than Mike Gershman, Tim Wiles, and a Spink Award honoree?

Uh-oh. There it was. In the next sentence, the Hall of Fame bio provides a crucial bit of information about Dryden: “The humorist was often regarded as the master baseball writer of his time.”

It turns out Dryden was the one who coined the phrase: “Washington – first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.” He labeled Frank Chance the ”Peerless Leader” and called Charles Comiskey “The Old Roman.” The Hall of Fame’s web site noted of Dryden: “Upon receiving compliments from New York writers on his humor-filled columns, Ring Lardner replied: ‘Me, a humorist? Have you guys read any of Charley Dryden’s stuff lately? He makes me look like a novice.’”

Further research on Dryden shows that he particularly enjoyed tweaking Rube Waddell. In another story, he claimed that Waddell had once been found taking a bite out of the Washington Monument, but that it was not a serious problem because the Athletics pitcher had rubber teeth. Dryden also informed readers that the reason left-handed pitchers were called southpaws had nothing to do with early 20th-century ballparks being positioned in such a way that home plate was toward the west and the late afternoon sun would therefore not be in the eyes of the batter. The truth, Dryden assured his readers, was a simple one: there was a particular left hander who tried out for the Chicago Cubs and hailed from Southpaw, Illinois. It was as simple as that.

Dryden’s account of the August 11, 1903, game reads smoothly enough and contains the expected information about the ball game. Entitled “Prodigal Waddell Pitched and Lost,” it starts on page one and continues inside on page five. It is only in the 11th paragraph that the story about the baked beans turns up, seem­ingly out of nowhere but seamlessly integrated into the account of the day’s game. There was an earlier story of a mascot retained for the game by Lave Cross, a “human reservoir” described as “a colored man who can drink ten quarts of water or any other liq­uid without removing the pail from his lips.” Dryden added, “When Cross engaged the reservoir the teams wanted to know why he did not use ‘Rube’ for a mascot.” Cross did not reply. The story continued on to note Waddell’s role “once again as chief actor in a baseball tragedy” – and then recounts the story of the exploding steam cauldron of baked beans.

The Philadelphia Inquirer failed to notice any explosions, but did note that Boston had now taken five out of six from the 1902 champion Athletics. The game had been the final one of a six-game set, with Philadelphia taking the second game but losing all the others, including this day’s 5-1 defeat at the hands of Long Tom Hughes and the Boston Americans. Boston scored twice in the first, once in the second, and coasted on Hughes’ seven-hit pitching, the only run for the visitors coming in the eighth inning. The win left Boston at 60-34 on the season. Philadelphia was 54-41, in second place but 6 1/2 games behind.

And after the game, the Athletics – presumably accompanied by Dryden – caught an 8:00 p.m. train which in 36 hours would bring them to Chicago.

Back in 2003, Norman Macht had posted a warning still found today on SABR’s web site, in a section of guidelines devoted to BioProject: “A writer’s credentials do not guarantee reliability. Fred Lieb’s books have errors of fact. Charles Dryden, like other reporter-humorists, made up stuff. Jim Nasium had either a porous memory or fertile imagination.”

Apparently, we knew it all along, but that such a wildly improbable story was reported as fact by both eminent writers Gershman and Wiles is a lesson in double-checking even primary sources and considering the quality of those sources. And a reminder that baseball research can result in some very entertaining forays.

BILL NOWLIN is VP of SABR and the author of a dozen books on the Red Sox, including 2006’s Day By Day with the Boston Red Sox and (with Cecilia Tan) The 50 Greatest Red Sox Games.



Thanks to Nicole DiCicco, Clifford Blau, and Tim Wiles. Additional research via ProOuest.