Baseball and Opera

Baseball vs. Opera

Below are most of the posts from the Baseball and Opera group on LinkedIn. I’ve added relevant illustrations (you can generally get larger versions by clicking on them). As more discussions are posted on the group, they will be added here. Unless otherwise noted, all posts and comments are by me.

To get directly to what you want, do a browser search for a category or word of interest. The easiest way to search for the headings is to enter the number, including the period after it. In a few cases, you might be taken to a year at the end of a sentence, but a click or two more will get you where you want to go.


1. Why This Group (2014 April 22)

2. In the Beginning…. (2014 April 22)

3. Baseball Operas (2014 April 22)

4. Ella, Ida, Edna, Nella, Elda, and Hedda (2014 April 23)

5. First Base to Primo Basso (2014 April 23)

6. Shameless Commerce (2014 April 23)

7. The Fans Went Wild and Stormed the Field (2014 April 25)

8. Lou Gehrig’s Other Record (2014 April 26)

9. “Play Ballo!” – Opera at the Ballpark (2014 April 29)

10. It’s the Law! (2014 May 2)

11. The Definite Article (2014 May 6)

12. “Even the Music Was Nice” (2014 May 10)

13. “Coloratura Curves” (2014 May 19)

14. The Ringers (2014 May 23)

15. Drag (2014 June 3)

16. The Motion-Picture Inventor (2014 June 8)

17. Baseball at the Opera House (2014 June 12)

18. The Song (2014 June 18)

19. Under One Roof (2014 June 22)

20. Ty Cobb’s Football-Player Opera-House Baseball-Championship Tour of 1911-12 (2014 June 26)

21. The Catcher Who Saved the Opera House (2014 July 3)

22. The Commissioner and the Composer (2014 July 7)

23. Pavarotti’s Balls (2014 July 9)

24. The Slow Fastball (2014 July 22)

25. “Beer, Here!” (2014 July 30)

26. The First Parabolic Mic (2015 August 28)

27. Knowing the Score (2015 October 8)

28. Without Opera There Would Be No Mascots (2015 October 9)

29. The Tokyo Dome’s Only Undefeated Manager (2015 November 20)


1. Why This Group (2014 April 22)

Babe Ruth sang in opera houses; Robert Merrill pitched on ball fields.  In San Francisco and Washington, people go to ballparks to watch operas; for half-a-century before television, people went to opera houses to watch baseball games.

The intersecting histories of baseball and opera date back at least to 1849 and the Shakespeare riots in New York City.  By 1867, baseball was being spoofed on an opera-house stage.  In the 1870s the games of opera-house ball teams were reported in newspapers across the U.S., and one of the first well-known baseball players became a well-known opera singer (he would not be alone).  Baseball’s reserve clause and antitrust exemption are both based on opera, and some of the world’s most famous ball players and opera singers once lived under the same roof.

1870-10-12 NYT Headline

I plan to elaborate on those and other baseball-and-opera topics here.  Who am I?  I’m a media-technology engineer and historian who knows a little about opera (having worked in the field for more than 40 years) and almost nothing about baseball.  But, in the course of doing the research for a lecture on alternative content for cinema, I came across the technology used for presenting live, remote baseball games in opera houses, starting no later than 1885 — the subject of 44 U.S. patents, and some of the most-popular systems weren’t patented.

1904 Sousa teamAs I expanded my research, I came across much more: Ty Cobb’s performances in opera houses, baseball references in operas, the first known-to-be-African-American major-league baseball player running an opera house, the Metropolitan Opera’s ballpark tour, and much more.  Baseball’s most-famous poem, “Casey at the Bat,” was introduced to the public at a performance of the opera Prince Methusalem; its most-famous song, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” was likely first heard in public at a Brooklyn opera house.  Lou Gehrig’s record of consecutive-ball-game attendance eventually fell to Cal Ripken, but his record of attendance at the most performances of Tristan und Isolde in a single season at the Metropolitan Opera endures.

I hope you might be able to add to the list of intersections of baseball’s and opera’s histories.  If not, enjoy the group anyway.

Here’s a two-pager with more info.

And, if you happen to be in Cooperstown on August 2 [2014], consider a lecture I’ll be giving on the subject for the 75th anniversary of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, co-presented by them and Glimmerglass Festival, the local world-class opera company:

World Series rings on opera-company employees?  Stay tuned.

2014 BrandonCrawford-ZandaSvede_byScottWall


2. In the Beginning…. (2014 April 22)

1581 dialogo della musica antica et della moderna di V. Galilei-thumbMany people say the first opera was Dafne in 1598 (1597 according to the local calendar). But some think it was Orfeo around 1480. Before that there was Ludus Danielis, a musical drama dating from the late 12th or early 13th century. And, what might be the first opera book, Galileo’s father’s volume on ancient and modern music (right), suggests that the ancient Greeks might have sung what we might call opera today.

Baseball’s origins are similarly blurry.  We know the game wasn’t created by Abner Doubleday, but there have been so many rule changes over the years that it’s difficult to pick a “first” moment.  And, like opera, baseball, too, has roots in antiquity.

1859-elysian-fields-gameThe first intersection of baseball’s and opera’s histories, however, might have occurred in 1849. Two actors were playing Macbeth at nearby theaters. One was an American, Edwin Forrest, performing at the Broadway Theatre; the other was a Brit, William Charles Macready, performing at the Astor Place Theater, previously an opera house.

1849 Great Riot at the Astor Place Opera HouseAccording to Nigel Cliff’s book The Shakespeare Riots, fans of Forrest recruited thugs at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey, the first famous baseball field, to disrupt Macready’s performances. The disruptions turned into a deadly riot. According to his obituary in The New York Times, Edward Plunket Fry, former impresario at the opera house, saved Macready’s life, spiriting him out an unknown exit.

Fry, by the way, is sometimes said to have produced the first American grand opera, Leonora, composed by his brother William with libretto by his brother Joseph. He also has a claim to having invented electronic home entertainment (and, possibly, the headphone) in 1880. For that story, see the discussion “The Tenor, the Impresario, and the Invention of Electronic Home Entertainment” on the Media-Technology and Opera History group.


3. Baseball Operas (2014 April 22)

The most-famous baseball opera is probably The Mighty Casey, by William Schuman, a National Medal of Arts winner who was president of the Juilliard School at the time it was written and later became the first president of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. But it’s not the only one — not by a long shot.

1867On August 26, 1867, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle ran an ad for Hooley’s New Opera House (“the people’s favorite resort”). It announced the arrival of “the celebrated tenor singer Mr. J. R. Ricci.” It also announced “The Great Base Ball Match between the well known clubs the Atlantics and Mutuals for the Championship of the Great National Game.” It was neither an opera nor a baseball game but a “screaming burlesque,” which the critic of the Eagle found quite amusing.

1885 - Black Hussar - Read the Answer cover - trimmedThe earliest opera I’ve found that makes mention of baseball is Carl Millöcker’s The Black Hussar, with libretto by Sydney Rosenfeld. A trio called “Read the Answer in the Stars” has the following:

 1885 - Black Hussar - Read the Answer - baseball

Angela title trimmedThree years later came a performance of the first opera entirely about baseball, Paul Eaton’s Angela: or the Umpire’s Revenge. At least three of the pieces in it were scored by a different opera composer, one known better for his non-operatic works, John Philip Sousa: “He Stands in the Box with the Ball in His Hands,” “The Umpire and the Dude,” and “An Umpire I, Who Ne’er Say Die.” The tryout performance at Philadelphia’s Grand Opera House was well received, but I’m not aware of any succeeding performance.

That was before The Mighty Casey. After it, there were Cooperstown — Jazz Opera in Nine Innings music by Sasha Matson, libretto by Mark Miller and Matson; The Summer King music by Daniel Sonenberg, libretto by Daniel Nester & Sonenberg; Shadowball music by Julian Joseph, libretto by Mike Phillips; Play Ball by Warren Nelson, and Bambino by Richard Maltz. There was also the operetta The Fighting Phillies by Rod Johnston and Bill Schall, The Brooklyn Baseball Cantata by George Kleinsinger, and a number of musicals, including 1919: A Baseball Opera by Rusty (Benjamin Rush) Magee.

Do you know of other baseball operas? Here’s my list so far.


4. Ella, Ida, Edna, Nella, Elda, and Hedda (2014 April 23)

John_Phillip_Sousa_-_De_Wolf_Hopper_-_El_Capitan1He called himself “the uncanonized comic opera patron saint of base ball,” and the larger-than-life De Wolf Hopper (six feet five inches tall) might well have been right. He made his comic-opera debut in John Philip Sousa’s “Desiree;” later, when Hopper had his own opera company, Sousa wrote two operas for him: El Capitan and The Charlatan.

As for baseball, Hopper would drive from his theater to the Polo Grounds for as many games as he could. He was permitted to drive right onto the field, and he and his fellow members of what The New York Times called “the High and Mighty Order of Baseball Cranks of Gotham” had keys to their own seats. In an 1888 team photo of the Chicago White Stockings (today’s Cubs, not the White Sox), Hopper appears (bottom row, third from right), along with fellow comic-opera star Digby Bell (the two had performed in the trio “Read the Answer in the Stars” in The Black Hussar in 1885, probably the first reference to baseball in an opera) and a third opera performer, Clarence Duval, Chicago’s mascot.

1888 Chicago White Stockings with Hopper

On August 15, 1888, The New York Times ran two stories featuring Hopper, baseball, and opera. One was headlined simply “Chicago Beats New-York.” Hopper’s friend and future Hall of Fame member Tim Keefe had been pitching 19 consecutive winning games for the Giants, a major-league record that still stands. Hopper, Mathilde Cottrelly (the third member of the baseball-opera trio), and some 30 other members of the McCaull Opera Company had come to the game on August 14 to watch Keefe win number 20. Alas, short-stop John Montgomery Ward was sick and was replaced by inexperienced Gil Hatfield, whose errors gave Chicago two runs and the game. According to The Times, “De Wolf Hopper was exasperated. If comedians could weep he certainly would have done so.”

1888-8-15 NYT Chicago Beats New-York

1888-8-15 NYT Prince Methusalem Baseball

CaseyThe other Times story was headlined “‘Prince Methusalem’s’ Baseball.” After the game, the opera company performed the Johann Strauss II opera, and both teams attended. The first act was warmly received, and the second even more so, when Hopper added to the verses of “The Dotlet on the I” “one about the pennant that brought out long continued applause and laughter. In response to the demonstrations he then proceeded to recite a thrilling ode entitled ‘Casey’s at the Bat,’ which was most uproariously received, particularly the ending thereof, which told in mock-heroic strain how the redoubtable Casey ‘struck out.’”

It was the first public performance of baseball’s most-famous poem. By his own count, Hopper went on to recite it 10,000 times; others put the number as much as four times higher.

Hedda HopperWilliam Hopper as Paul DrakeIncidentally, Hopper was married six times. The names of his first five wives were, in order, Ella, Ida, Edna, Nella, and Elda. Elda didn’t like being called by the wrong name, so she consulted a numerologist who suggested she change her name to Hedda (yes, that Hedda Hopper); their son William is best known for having played investigator Paul Drake on TV’s Perry Mason.

Hopper’s sixth wife was named Lillian.


5. First Base to Primo Basso (2014 April 23)

I know of only one person who gave up an opera career for baseball, but there seem to have been many who have gone in the opposite direction.

Clayton Matthews

On Site Opera is a New York City company that specializes in site-specific productions. Last year, they did Gershwin’s jazz opera Blue Monday at the Cotton Club, and some of the publicity — including a piece on BBC TV <>– related to Clayton Matthews, a baseball player turned opera singer. Like Matthews, Michael Adams and John Fowler both switched from baseball to opera after injuries.

Ara BerberianSemi-pro pitcher Robert Merrill (whose teammate was Tommy Holmes) went on to sing almost a thousand performances at the Metropolitan Opera. Kansas City Athletics pitcher Ara Berberian (left) sang a mere 334 there. Charles W. Barnum and Michael Fabiano had each been a professional umpire before turning to opera singing.

1911-1-22 Pittsburgh Press Sammy StrangIn his 1914 book Busting ‘em, Ty Cobb (himself a performer on opera-house stages) wrote, “‘Sammy’ Strang, for the benefit of those who don’t know, was a Big League ball player, but he quit the game some time ago to study abroad for grand opera.” Not quite. After playing for the Giants and helping them win the 1905 World Series, Strang, for whom the term “pinch hitter” was created (by John McGraw, because Strang regularly got hits in pinches), did, indeed go to Paris to study opera under Jean de Reszke. And he was good enough to get offers from opera companies to sing. But he turned them down to coach baseball at West Point and then went on to manage and own the Chattanooga Lookouts.

1879 Signor Brocolini as Captain Corcoran in PinaforeLong before any of those, however, there was the strange case of Signor Brocolini, or, as the great baseball historian Peter Morris titled his paper on the subject in volume 15, number 2 of Nine: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture, “From First Baseman to Primo Basso: The Odd Saga of the Original Pirate King (Tra La!).” Signor Brocolini was engaged by the impresario of the National Opera House in London (Colonel J. H. Mapleson) and was later a “mainstay” of Her Majesty’s Opera Company. He performed in operas ranging from Lucia di Lammermoor to Les Huguenots. Performing as Captain Corcoran in H. M. S. Pinafore, he so impressed Gilbert and Sullivan that they created the role of the Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance for him.

Pirates premiered in New York City on the last day of 1879. If Signor Brocolini related the location, he might have called it Nuiorcasiti; after all, his name came from an Italianization of the place where he lived and worked before embarking (literally) on his opera career: Brooklyn. He was born John Clark in Cork, Ireland.

Starting in 1865, he also served as a director and first baseman of the Detroit Base Ball Club. One of two easterners (and, possibly, professionals) on the team, he was so good that, according to Morris, “most Michigan clubs were unwilling to play the champions. Even a match that pitted the Detroit Base Ball Club against an all-star squad of the state’s best players resulted in another rout.” The easterners left the team so it could play opponents. Clark returned to Brooklyn and started singing, his colleagues raised $5500 to send him to Milan to study opera, and, four years later, it was a glorious thing to be the Pirate King.


6. Shameless Commerce (2014 April 23)

opera_ball_team_tote_bagCommerce: I’ve created a “shop” where you can buy clothing, bags, bottles, and other gifts in (so far) one of five baseball & opera designs. One reproduces the April 15, 1886 headline from the Atlanta Constitution: “Baseball at the Opera House.” Another shows the cover page of the music for the “Base Ball Song” from the 1895 comic opera “The Mormons.” Another shows an 1895 patent diagram for a system of automatons designed to reproduce live baseball games at opera houses. Another shows the headline of the 1910 New York Times story “Opera Ball Team Trounces Boston.” The fifth (and last, so far) shows a promotional post card and some of the music (featuring Caruso and Tetrazzini) for the 1912 song “Baseball vs. Opera” (at the top of this column).automatic_baseball_by_electricity_flask

Shameless: All profits go to Opera America, and the more people see the designs, the more you’ll help raise awareness of opera. So you’ll do some good, too.

Feel free to suggest more products and/or designs.

Happy shopping!

Here’s a link to the Baseball & Opera section of the shop (there are other sections for the statement “No opera, no X-rays!” and for a number of opera quotations as well as for a few designs –shocking, I know — not related to opera; profits from even those still go to Opera America):


7. The Fans Went Wild and Stormed the Field (2014 April 25)

1916 Robison FieldOn June 16, 1916, something extraordinary happened at Robison Field in St. Louis. According to a contemporary account, “It is doubtful whether such action has ever before been taken…  in the United States.” Thousands of fans stormed the field! “The police did not interfere….” Did the Cardinals win with a shutout? Did they lose an equally lopsided game?

No. The source of that contemporary account was the publication Musical America, and the unruly mob was thousands of opera fans. They might have been even scarier than the baseball variety.

The story really begins more than a year earlier at Harvard Stadium. The Metropolitan Opera produced an experimental outdoor performance of Siegfried. The Boston Evening Transcript offered some idea of the difficulties of outdoor performance in the age before sound reinforcement when it noted augmentation of the Met’s orchestra of 100 with local musicians. And there were other difficulties: “The Magic Fire did not come to pass save for one flash which may have meant a burnt fuse.”

Nevertheless, the Met took Siegfried on a ballpark tour the following year. On June 9, they played Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. The opera was called due to rain after Act II, the fans got rain checks, and Act III was played the following night.

1916-6-1 ChiTrib Siegfried adThe team was scheduled to play at what is now called Wrigley Field in Chicago on June 15. Alas, the weather didn’t cooperate there, either. The Chicago Tribune headlined its story, “Blame the Weather Man for Not Seeing ‘Siegfried.’”

The Met played Redland Field in Cincinnati without difficulty on June 20. But first there was that Siegfried at Robison Field in St. Louis.

1887 Siege of Troy at ballparkThe 1916 Siegfried ballpark tour wasn’t the first time a cultural event had been performed at a baseball stadium. As early as 1887, impresario Bolossy Kiralfy intended to present The Siege of Troy at Chicago’s West Side Park, where the baseball team today known as the Cubs was then playing. The stage was to cover 36,000 square feet. Let me put that in context: The main stage at the Metropolitan Opera House, one of the world’s largest, is less than 3,000 square feet.

Then there was that “magic fire,” the sets, the curtain, and the other stage machinery (the Met had actually brought a “steam curtain” when they performed Die Walküre at the Yale Bowl earlier that month). Musical America picks up the story of what happened with the 12,000 fans at Robison Field.

“Through a most unfortunate contract with the owners of the park, Director Edward Siedle was unable to erect his enormous portable stage and orchestra platform at a distance close enough to the seats so that even a part of the music could be heard. Quite unfortunately, the managers did not foresee the action which was going to be taken by a major portion of the audience.

Robison Field“At 7.45 p.m. Conductor Artur Bodanzky started to direct the orchestra, but not a sound was heard in the seats of the grand stand, owing to the noise made by late-comers, as well as the distance. Then came a sudden rush of people laden with wraps, chairs and other articles, hastening down the aisles and over the ball grounds to a place of vantage immediately in front of the orchestra and stage. Great noise and excitement accompanied this rush, and it was fully thirty or forty minutes before five or six thousand people had settled themselves immediately in front of the stage on chairs, benches and wraps on the precious baseball diamond which was the bone of contention in erecting the stage. The police did not interfere, except to keep order, and after this unusual change was made, the performance proceeded in a more regular way. It is doubtful whether such action has ever before been taken by an audience in the United States.”

Moral: Never get between opera fans and their opera.


8. Lou Gehrig’s Other Record (2014 April 26)

Sills Merrill SteinbrennerMany people associated with baseball have been opera fans. There’s a photo of Yankees-owner George Steinbrenner at an opera gala with singers Beverly Sills and Robert Merrill. Giants-owner Andrew Freeman was an opera patron and endowed a home for retired performers. Emmett Ashford, the first African-American umpire in Major League Baseball, studied opera libretti before attending performances. His teammates complained that Sandy Koufax would stay in his hotel room listening to opera while they were down at the bar. At the Metropolitan Opera House, Yogi Berra once debated Luciano Pavarotti over which was the more-famous Italian. Even Ty Cobb attended opera in his spare time.

It’s hard to know what brought them to opera. In the case of Lou Gehrig, however, the reason is known. As with so many other men, he was brought by his wife.

On the ball field, Gehrig set records for the most grand slams and the most consecutive games played, which gave him the nickname “The Iron Horse.” Both records were eventually broken. Had Gehrig not been stricken with the disease that now bears his name, they might still endure. But he has another record — at least among ballplayers.

There are operas, and then there are long operas. Richard Wagner specialized in the latter. His
Tristan und Isolde typically clocks in at five hours. And that was Gehrig’s first opera. It’s a love story, sung in German.

Flagstad, Kirsten with Lou Gehrig compressedThat first performance Gehrig attended featured opera royalty as the lovers: Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior. And, based on what was spoken in his childhood home, Gehrig happened to be fluent in German. At the end, when Isolde sang the “liebestod” (the “love death”) over Tristan’s dead body, Gehrig openly wept.

He was hooked. So he attended every performance of Tristan und Isolde that season at the Met, each of them lasting five hours. That’s a record among ballplayers likely to endure for the ages. Truly, Gehrig was the Iron Horse. 

Comment from John Luff: Culture on the diamond…whodathunkit….


9. “Play Ballo!” – Opera at the Ballpark (2014 April 29)

dodger_stadiumOn January 12, 2012, Mitsubishi and Shuji Nakamura received engineering Emmy awards. Mitsubishi’s was for developing the technology that made color video scoreboards possible. Their first was installed at Dodger Stadium in 1980. Nakamura’s was for developing the technology that made LED versions possible, including today’s high-definition variety.

San Francisco Opera (SFO) hasn’t (yet) received an Emmy award for its ballpark work, but it’s significant. In 2007, they introduced “Opera at the Ballpark,” sf ballpark 3feeding a high-definition simulcast of Saint-Saëns’s Samson and Delilah from the War Memorial Opera House to close to 15,000 fans at AT&T Park. Washington National Opera (WNO) brought their simulcast “Opera in the Outfield” to Nationals Park the following year. WNO’s 2010 offering was Verdi’s opera Un ballo in maschera (“A Masked Ball”), so, of course, it began with an umpire yelling, “Play Ballo!” SFO’s 2010 simulcast of Verdi’s Aida drew an extraordinary crowd of 32,000 opera fans to the ballpark. But that wasn’t the largest opera audience at a baseball stadium.

1930 Montreal AidaI’ve already written about the Metropolitan Opera’s ballpark tour of Siegfried in 1916 (and Bolossy Kiralfy’s 1887 Siege of Troy at Chicago’s West Side Park). Siegfried drew a reported 12,000 fans to Robison Field in St. Louis, but that was before sound reinforcement. After sound reinforcement, there were regular opera series performed at Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds in New York, Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium, Detroit’s Navin Field, and other ballparks, including Montreal Stadium, home of the Royals, where Jackie Robinson played before moving to the Dodgers.

1935 Opera Under the Stars Navin 2What happened to the opera series in ballparks? Who knows? Movies? Television? But between those series and the scoreboard simulcasts, there was another era of live opera on the ball field.

Aida, an opera that takes place in ancient Egypt, often has elaborate staging, involving huge casts, horse-drawn chariots, camels, and even elephants. Opera-house stages are hard pressed to accommodate the spectacle, but ballparks have the room.

So, in 1988, a spectacular Aida was staged for two performances at Montreal’s Expos Stadium (and later went to Toronto’s Sky Dome, home of the Blue Jays). Martin Bowman, whose brother Scotty holds the record for most wins as a coach in the National Hockey League, wrote at the time, “The set — the pyramids and the Sphinx — was extraordinary. We were at a night in Egypt.” “And I had hardly ever heard such singing. Katia Ricciarelli was wonderful, her pianissimi in the huge space of the stadium beautiful and tender.”

As best I can tell from published figures, about 44,000 opera fans bought tickets for and attended the second Montreal performance, making it the largest single-site single-performance opera audience ever. And it was at a ballpark.


10. It’s the Law! (2014 May 2)

Baseball has had two legal peculiarities that have been upheld by courts: the “reserve clause” that allowed teams to buy and sell players, keeping salaries artificially low, and a seeming exemption from antitrust laws, allowing such anomalies as the reserve clause. Both are based on opera precedents.

1909 T206 Honus WagnerThe most valuable baseball card in the world has been said to be the 1909-11 American Tobacco Company T206-series card of a Pittsburgh player by the name of Wagner. One was sold in 2011 for $2.8 million to the owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Others are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library (two venues where operas have been performed).

Unlike opera-composer Richard, this Wagner is commonly known by a name that doesn’t seem to apply to anyone else, Honus. The official list of members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame calls him “Wagner, John P. (Honus).” But he wasn’t born either Honus or John. His given name was Johannes, which is where Honus came from.

Johanna_Jachmann-Wagner as Ortrud in LohengrinJohanna Wagner had almost the same name and was alive at the same time (she died when Honus was 20; there’s a current Johanna Wagner writing about baseball, but she’s not part of this story). Johanna’s biological father’s last name was Wülfingen, but she was adopted by Albert Wagner, the composer’s eldest brother. She became an opera singer and got a three-year contract at the Dresden Opera before she was even 18. In 1852, she signed a contract with Benjamin Lumley to sing at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London, also giving him a say in her future engagements. Then she signed a different contract, with Frederick Gye, to sing at Covent Garden. Lumley sued, the court ruled in his favor, and his ability to control Wagner’s future was successfully cited as precedent for the legality of baseball’s reserve clause.

ManhattanoperahouseAs for baseball’s antitrust exemption, in 1906, Oscar Hammerstein opened the Manhattan Opera as competition to the Metropolitan Opera. In 1910, the Met bought him out, with a contract that prohibited his producing opera for ten years. He did it anyway, the Met sued, and one of Hammerstein’s defenses was that the contract violated the Sherman Antitrust Act. The court ruled that opera “or other… exhibitions before an audience in exchange for the price of tickets involves none of the elements of trade or commerce as commonly understood” and was, therefore, not subject to the antitrust act. Metropolitan Opera Co. v. Hammerstein was successfully cited as the basis of baseball’s antitrust exemption.

The judge who wrote that opinion, incidentally, was Francis Key Pendleton, grandson of Francis Scott Key, who wrote the lyrics for the national anthem sung before baseball games (often by opera singers, sometimes even a recording of a dead one). Hints of its music may be heard in the opera Madama Butterfly. The music, however, was originally for a bawdy British drinking song, with a refrain about daring to “intwine the Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s Vine.”

Comment from Karen McLaughlin: It gives a whole new meaning to “the long arm of the law”…


11. The Definite Article (2014 May 6)

News media have long covered both opera and baseball. We know, for example, about chandeliers rising in opera houses thanks to an account in Paris’s Mercure Galant in 1683. Baseball historian George A. Thompson, Jr. found references to “the manly and athletic game of ‘base ball’” in New York newspapers in 1823, with a lengthy review of a game appearing by 1845.

Baltimore Opera Sports Cartoonist - one panelThe Washington Post’s Dave Sheinin, a trained opera singer, covered baseball, but the Baltimore News American’s cartoonist Mike Ricigliano covered both baseball and opera. Combination beats were common in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1911, for example, Allen G. Johnson, sports editor and theater critic of the Birmingham News got into some trouble reviewing Ty Cobb on both the ball field and the stage (but that’s another story). And, before him, there was Charles Hale Hoyt.

Hoyt’s baseball career began as scorekeeper and umpire in Charlestown, New Hampshire in 1876. His journalism followed, and he was soon the music, sports, and theater editor of the Boston Post, covering both the local Beaneaters baseball team and opera.

His exposure to the stage led Hoyt to try his hand as a playwright, starting with a tragic melodrama and then a romantic one. The second was well reviewed in all the local papers (and on the front page of the Post) but didn’t do well at the box office, so Hoyt switched to musical farce, starting with A Bunch of Keys, a huge success. Other successes, A Rag Baby, A Parlor Match, and A Tin Soldier soon followed.

Mike King KellyCap Anson croppedHoyt’s musicals were often revived. So, for an 1888 production of A Bunch of Keys, Hoyt added an inexperienced stage performer to the cast, Adrian Constantine Anson, better known as Cap or Pop. He was called “Cap” because he was captain of the Chicago White Stockings, the team that later became the Cubs. For A Rag Baby the same year, Hoyt added Mike “King” Kelly, Anson’s former teammate, sold in 1886 to the Boston Beaneaters for a then-record $10,000. Both have been called baseball’s first superstar and both were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Kelly had a lot more stage experience than Anson and performed later, too, often singing and reciting “Casey at the Bat.” Some said Casey was modeled on Kelly. The poem’s author, Ernest Lawrence Thayer, denied it and in 1905 accused Kelly of “impudence” for claiming to have written it (though there doesn’t seem to be evidence that Kelly ever made such a claim).

1895 Cap AnsonAs for Anson, Hoyt felt he might be more comfortable performing as himself and with his teammates, so, after the White Stockings became the Colts, Hoyt wrote A Runaway Colt. It opened at Weiting’s Opera House in Syracuse on November 12, 1895 and later moved to Chicago’s Grand Opera House (on the site of an opera house built by the Chicago Black Stockings’ owner). It was the first time a baseball player received top billing at an opera-house. The New York Times reported, “Anson acquitted himself very well.”

Charles Hale HoytAfter A Tin Soldier, Hoyt decided to try opera, writing the libretto for The Maid and the Moonshiner. It seemed to have everything going for it. Its music was by Edward Solomon, successful on both sides of the Atlantic. Its stars were the biggest names of the day: Lillian Russell and Tony Hart. Assisting Hoyt in directing was Julian Mitchell, who went on to direct more Broadway musicals than anyone else. But it closed in 12 days.

Why? There are many possibilities. It opened in mid-August during a heat wave in a poorly ventilated theater. Hart behaved erratically. Russell fought with her husband, Solomon, perhaps having discovered the bigamist’s other wife; they split after the run.

Hoyt, who for many decades held the record for most Broadway performances, was certain he knew the answer. His successes all began with “A;” the opera began with “The.” He wrote 13 more musicals, all starting with “A.”

Comment from Karen McLaughlin: Were the last 13 musicals successful?

Response: Mostly.


12. “Even the Music Was Nice” (2014 May 10)

Both baseball and opera go on as long as they need to. Baseball is broken into innings; opera is broken into acts.

longestIn 1981, a professional baseball game between the Pawtucket Red Sox (with Wade Boggs) and the Rochester Red Wings (with Cal Ripken, Jr.) went on for 33 innings — eight hours and 25 minutes of playing time (Pawtucket won 3-2). Der Ring des Nibelungen (the Ring of the Nibelung) is a work broken up into four operas, but its composer, Richard Wagner, intended them to be seen consecutively. If they are considered a single operatic work, it is one of the longest ever performed, about 17 hours. Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Licht (Light) is a seven-opera cycle with 29 hours of music, but it has yet to be performed in one consecutive run.

The first complete performance of the Ring was in August 1876. A century later, Ralph Carpenter, the sports information director of Texas Tech, home of the Red Raiders, was talking to Southwest Conference information director Bill Morgan during a basketball game between the Red Raiders and the Texas A&M Aggies that was then tied 72-72. Their exchange appeared in The Dallas Morning News on March 10, 1976: “Hey, Ralph,” said Bill Morgan, “this… is going to be a tight one after all.” “Right”, said Ralph, “the opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings.”

Susan Graham croppedAccording to The Yale Book of Quotations, that was the first time it appeared in print. It wouldn’t be the last time the saying was used. It has been attributed, for example, to Baseball Hall of Fame member and former Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver. But why did it become an “instant classic”?

In the corridors of the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport terminals, there are currently billboards showing a woman with the words, “I am a Red Raider.” She is identified as “internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano” Susan Graham, whose height has been reported to be about six feet. Graham’s official website refers to her as having “tall, slim good looks.” But she’s not a Wagnerian soprano (at least not yet).

1876 Amalie-MaternaThe most-famous soprano role in the Ring is that of Brünnhilde, and, while hers is not the very last voice heard, she does get the last big scene. The first Brünnhilde of the first complete Ring in 1876 was Amalie Materna. Materna did not have a web site, of course, but, if she did, it would not have said she was “slim” (click picture to enlarge). Concepts of “good looks” often change.

So Carpenter’s remarks becoming an “instant classic” theoretically depended on the general public in 1976 having a sense of the duration of the Ring, Brünnhilde’s role in ending it, the size of that first Brünnhilde, and, perhaps, even the upcoming centenary of the complete cycle. Amazing!

Yogi Berra Eleanor Steber croppedHall of Fame member Yogi Berra was more succinct: “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” Why that’s considered a “mangled” quotation but Gertrude Stein’s “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” is considered poetry is for others to discuss.

Berra also attended opera, and, in another of his famous quotations, pointed out the importance of its theatrical elements. After seeing a performance of Tosca, he reportedly remarked, “I really liked it. Even the music was nice.”

Comment from opera-orchestra member and baseball blogger Susan Spector: July 4, 1985. Atlanta Fulton County Stadium. Mets v. Braves. Final score: Mets 16, Atlanta 13. Nineteen innings. Several rain delays. Ended at 4AM with the promised post-game fireworks. Residents thought it was the return of General Sherman. (Or an Immolation?!)


13. “Coloratura Curves” (2014 May 19)

The following appeared in The New York Times on June 30, 1910. In a future post, I’ll tell you about the previous scandalous season between the same rivals:

1910 NYT Opera head 1

1910 NYT Head 21910 NYT head 31910 NYT head 41910 NY Times Opera Team Body

Comment from Karen McLaughlin: Whoever wrote that story had both an impressive knowledge of baseball and opera, and a delightful way of combining the two lingos. Any idea who the reporter was?

Response: Alas, no. By the way, the Jean de Reszke comment was an allusion to Sammy Strang, the Giants pinch hitter who went to Paris to study opera singing under de Reszke.


14. The Ringers (2014 May 23)

2012 Alexander Orthwein as Casey at Opera Saratoga (Gary Gold Photography)Starting with The Black Hussar in 1885 and continuing into the present, there have been opera singers portraying baseball players on opera-house stages. In 1909, however, according to at least one well-informed source, there were three baseball players who took the roles of opera-house employees on ball fields. But, first, here’s a message about the sponsor.

The classic movie Citizen Kane is widely considered to have been based on the life of publisher William Randolph Hearst. The film begins with supposed newsreel footage about the rich Kane, showing his palace, Xanadu.

Oheka 3Hearst lived in a castle atop a hill near San Simeon, California, but, as mansions go, his was rather modest — a mere 68,500 square feet (the main stage at the Metropolitan Opera House, one of the largest in the world, is less than 3,000 square feet); Hearst Castle is only the 18th largest home ever built in the United States. For the Citizen Kane newsreel section, director Orson Welles wanted something grander, so he chose as Kane’s Xanadu the roughly 115,000-square-foot 127-room Oheka Castle, on the north shore of Long Island in New York, situated on almost a square mile of landscaped grounds. Oheka stands for Otto Herman Kahn.

Otto KahnThe man is perhaps best described in the title of one of his biographies, The Many Lives of Otto Kahn by Mary Jane Matz.  One of those lives was as a wealthy banker, who could afford such an estate — in addition to an 80-room (not counting servants quarters) mansion on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, a “cottage” in Palm Beach, and other domiciles. His summer place in New Jersey burned down; the grounds now hold the world headquarters of Honeywell Corporation. Kahn is said to have been the model for the Monopoly character, Mr. Moneybags.

Another life was as a Gatsby-esque party giver. His parties went on for days, and the many rooms at Oheka Castle were said to have been useful for assignations among the guests.

Then there was his life as a behind-the-scenes operator. Robert Caro, author of The Power Broker, about master builder Robert Moses, found a document indicating that Kahn was able to get the incorruptible Moses to move the path of the Northern State Parkway away from Kahn’s golf course in exchange for funding the state’s then-broke Parkway Commission.

Those three lives are more than enough for a movie, but Kahn had more. Citizen Kane was nominated for nine Academy Awards; it won for Best Original Screenplay, written by Herman Mankiewicz and Welles. Between journalism/publicity and screenwriting, “Mank” produced a revue called “Round the Town,” which failed, leaving him in debt. Kahn bailed him out with a loan and might have “eased his introduction at Paramount, where Mankiewicz swiftly became the highest-paid writer in the movies,” according to Kahn biographer Theresa M. Collins (in Otto Kahn: Art, Money, and Modern Time).

Twin Peaks“Mank” was not alone. Enrico Caruso, Hart Crane, Isadora Duncan, Sergei Eisenstein, George Gershwin, Vaslav Nijinsky, Max Reinhart, and Arturo Toscanini were among the many artistic recipients of Kahn’s largesse. So was amateur architect Clifford Reed Daily, who designed and built “Twin Peaks,” a Greenwich Village building for artists, with Kahn’s money. It was dedicated by movie actress Mabel Normand, who smashed a bottle of champagne over one roof, and novelist Princess Amelie Troubetskoy, who burned acorns in honor of the god Pan. “Holy water, flowers, and other rites also inaugurated the building,” according to The New York Times.

I’ve already written here about Metropolitan Opera Co. v. Hammerstein, a lawsuit used as the basis for baseball’s antitrust exemption. The Met had bought out Hammerstein’s competing Manhattan Opera Company, Hammerstein agreed not to produce operas for ten years but did, and the Met sued. Two things I didn’t know at the time but have since discovered are that the Manhattan Opera was going bankrupt anyway, so the agreement wasn’t necessary, and that Kahn put up the money on behalf of the Met because he didn’t want Hammerstein to suffer.

Kahn was able to act on behalf of the Met because he headed its board of directors, which he first joined in 1903. According to Matz, “Kahn was said to have ruled the Metropolitan board virtually alone” and poured $5,000,000 of his own money into the organization, “half before he was permitted to own a box there,” because of his Jewish heritage.

MinskyHe also helped other opera companies and even non-artistic causes, but the softest spot for his philanthropy was at the Met — composers, singers, and directors but also others. “When a box office employee lost his entire life savings in stock speculation, Kahn arranged through a broker [secretly] to buy every share the man held at face value,” according to Matz, who provides many other stories of such kindnesses as well as of his eating and playing cards with people seemingly way below his station. Though he loved the opera Tristan und Isolde, Kahn didn’t sit through it night after night as Lou Gehrig did; instead, he “would stroll into the press room at the Metropolitan, gather together any lounging reviewers, and take them to Forty-second Street, where he seated them in a box to enjoy a few acts of vaudeville or, in Minsky days, burlesque, before shepherding them back down Seventh Avenue for Isolde’s Liebestod.

So, when Met accountant Aimé Gerber proposed a Met baseball team, Kahn jumped at the idea and “insisted that the players have the finest uniforms and equipment that could be bought.” “When the Boston Opera House team challenged the Metropolitan in 1909, Kahn sent the Metropolitan team to Boston by the overnight steamer Harvard, engaging luxurious quarters for them so they would be in good form for the game.” Kahn also served as a director of the Boston Opera.

Those quotes are from Matz’s book. I’m about to continue to quote from it, but, before I do, I thought I should mention that she had access to, among other sources, the quarter-million documents about Kahn at Princeton University’s library. Huntington_Avenue_Grounds croppedCaro found out about the Kahn-Moses deal from a single document; it’s certainly possible that Matz, too, found proof of what follows (though some of my own research gives me some doubt).

The game was played at the Huntington Avenue American League Base Ball Grounds, site of the first World Series in 1903 and the first perfect game of the modern era, pitched by Cy Young in 1904. The ballpark was literally across the street from the Boston Opera House.

Ray_Fisher_baseball_cardRed_AmesThe 1909 Met team “suffered ignominious defeat,” according to Matz. “When it was discovered that the Boston Opera team had used a professional pitcher, Kahn was furious.” So he had two ringers hired for the return engagement, Ray Fisher (left), who went on to play for the New York Highlanders (the team that became the Yankees) and was later called one of the best pitchers in the American League by Ty Cobb, and Red Ames (right), who had pitched for the Giants in the 1905 World Series (and went on to do so again in 1911 and 1912).

“When the two professionals, Ames and Fisher, kept Boston from getting to first base, the Metropolitans’ revenge was complete. To placate the losers, Kahn gave a banquet for both teams in the Opera House restaurant, then took them on an all-day excursion to Coney Island.”

A few end notes: Mets is short for Metropolitans. The entry on Kahn in the 1918 edition of The Cyclopædia of American Biography, says “he has a proper respect for the great American game of baseball.” And, although I have not found any other connection between the ringers and opera, in the off season Fisher taught Latin at the Newton Academy.


15. Drag (2014 June 3)

On April 2, 1931, Jackie Mitchell consecutively struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in seven pitches. For this post, however, the pitcher’s clothing is more significant. Unlike Robinson, this Jackie was female (and 17 years old).

1931 Jackie Mitchell trimmed

Opera has a long tradition of cross dressing and even cross-cross dressing. In the popular operas Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) and Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose), for example, female singers play male characters, in men’s clothing, who, at some point, dress as women.

Despite baseball’s being called a “manly and athletic game” in The National Advocate on April 25, 1823, women have actually been playing baseball about as long as men. Vassar College had two teams by 1866.

dolly_vardenThe 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings are thought to have been the first professional baseball team, but they were preceded by the Dolly Vardens of southeastern Pennsylvania, not only female but also African-American. Those women began playing professionally in 1867 and played Princeton in 1872.

According to an 1883 report in The New York Times of a game between the Dolly Vardens of Chester and the Dolly Vardens of Philadelphia, the teams by that point wore “short, tight-fitting” calico dresses, jockey caps, and cricket shoes. Ellen Klages, in her introduction to “The Girls of Summer” section of the Exploratorium’s “Science of Baseball,” offered a glimpse into what was worn by earlier female players:

“In the 1870s, an American woman could not vote. She could not own property in her own name after marriage. But she could play ball — as well as it could be played in an outfit that weighed as much as 30 pounds and included a floor-length skirt, underskirts, a long-sleeved, high-necked blouse, and high button shoes.”

By the 1890s, a change of costume was reflected in the names of teams known as “Bloomer Girls.” Despite the second word, it was not unusual for men to play on those teams, dressed as women. Future Hall of Fame inductee Rogers Hornsby, for example, donned wig and costume to play for the Boston Bloomer Girls in Texas in 1912. When Jackie Mitchell struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in 1931, her Spalding uniform was similar to that worn by the male players on her team but was specially designed to be baggy so as not to emphasize her shape.

2011 Don Mattingly Mother Ginger Nutcracker 2How about ballplayers in opera houses? Ex-Yankee and current Dodgers manager Don Mattingly first appeared onstage in a dress in 2011 as Mother Ginger in an Evansville Ballet production of The Nutcracker. He was not the first.

Future Hall of Fame inductee Rube Marquard performed onstage in a female player’s uniform in the title role of The Suffragette Pitcher in 1913. His performance was so successful that it was filmed and released as a movie of the same name.

Who Would Doubt compressedThe 1895 comic opera The Mormons featured an aria “Who Would Doubt That I’m a Man?” An adapted version’s sheet music calls it a “Base Ball Song” and shows a seeming Bloomer Girl player. Ten years earlier, for the baseball stanza of “Read the Answer in the Stars” in the opera The Black Hussar, no one changed clothes, but it was a mixed-gender group of opera singers that played the game, with De Wolf Hopper pitching, Digby Bell catching, and Mathilde Cottrelly batting.

As for Jackie Mitchell, she had been playing baseball since she could walk and was taught a breaking-ball pitch by neighbor and future Hall of Fame inductee Dazzy Vance. While in baseball training in Atlanta, she was spotted by Joe Engel and later hired for his recently acquired Chattanooga Lookouts. She was a Lookout when she struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in an exhibition game. When she later played for the House of David team, she wore a fake beard.

1931 Jackie Mitchell 2 trimmed

Where did Engel get the team? He bought it from Sammy Strang, the pinch hitter who helped the Giants win the World Series before going to Paris to study opera singing under Jean de Reszke.


16. The Motion-Picture Inventor (2014 June 8)

42In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, originally a radio series broadcast in 1978, hyper-intelligent beings create a supercomputer to answer “the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.” After 7½ million years, the delivered result is 42. Author Douglas Adams denied there was any significance to the number. But it’s possible he was subconsciously influenced, and, for many, it’s possible that 42 was the answer.

Sports teams sometimes “retire” uniform numbers to honor players; the first was Ace Bailey’s 6, retired by hockey’s Toronto Maple Leafs in 1934. But 42 was retired across all teams in Major League Baseball, except for April 15, when all players wear the number. That’s the anniversary of the 1947 day when Jackie Robinson broke a racial barrier by playing for the Dodgers, wearing number 42.

It’s hard to conceive today of the impact he had at the time. It was a different age. Life, the universe, and everything changed.

andersonOpera, too, had a racial barrier. When Marian Anderson performed as the fortune-teller Ulrica in Un ballo in maschera (“A Masked Ball”) on January 7, 1955, it was the first time an African-American sang a named role on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House. Jackie Robinson served as master of ceremonies at a Fight for Freedom Fund event honoring the Met’s general manager, Rudolf Bing, for having invited Anderson to perform.

Jackie Robinson was a hero. He changed the world. The retirement and mass wearing of 42 are well deserved. But he was not the first African-American to play major-league baseball.

Believe it or not, according to relatively recent discoveries by such baseball historians as Peter Morris and Bruce Allardice, the first was actually born enslaved in Georgia in 1860. His name was William Edward White. In 1879, when the Providence Grays were in the National League, a player broke his finger. The team substituted White, a freshman playing for Brown University, in one game on June 21. He “played first base in fine style,” according to The Providence Journal.

1879 William Edward White on the Brown team 2nd row seated w hat

White’s mother was light skinned, and his father considered himself the boy’s mother’s owner. At least by the time he was at Brown, White’s name was also his designated race.

1883 Moses Fleetwood Walker catcher Toledo Blue StockingsThe first major-league baseball player known to have been African-American was probably Moses Fleetwood Walker, who, like White, played college baseball, first for Oberlin in 1877 and then, by invitation, based on his performance on the ball field, for the University of Michigan, where he studied law. He began playing semipro ball in 1881, but, when his team traveled to Louisville, locals kept him out of the game.

In 1883, he turned pro on the Toledo Blue Stockings of the Northwestern League. A league representative tried to ban “colored” players, but Walker’s performance killed the motion. The Toledo Blade said he “has been of greater value behind the bat than any [other] catcher in the league.” Sporting Life said, “Toledo’s colored catcher is looming up as a great man behind the bat.” But he still faced prejudice.

At an exhibition game, Cap Anson of the Chicago White Stockings didn’t want to play against a team with Walker on it. This time, his team backed Walker, and Anson relented when he learned he otherwise wouldn’t get paid. In 1884, the Blue Stockings joined the American Association, so Walker became a major-league baseball player — for a while. After an injury, he was released from the team.

There’s more to his baseball story (and even more to his life story, including his being acquitted by an all-white jury after killing a white man), but this is about baseball and opera. In 1885, Walker took over LeGrande House in Cleveland, among other things an opera house. It was the first of three he would run.

1888 Oct 8 Edison Caveat croppedA case can be made that opera is the reason movies were invented. In the first caveat on the subject he filed with the U.S. Patent Office (in 1888), Thomas Edison listed opera as the only purpose of motion pictures. When Louis Le Prince had his French patent certified by the secretary of the Paris Opera in 1890, it was called “Method and Apparatus for the projection of Animated Pictures in view of the adaptation to Operatic Scenes.” Charles Francis Jenkins, the first president of the Society of Motion-Picture Engineers, referred often to opera; in his 1925 book Vision by Radio, he noted the importance of “a loudspeaker, so that an entire opera in both action and music may be received.”

Walker US1348609 trimmedFleet Walker bobbleheadWalker did not invent movies, but, at his third opera house, in Cadiz, Ohio, he embraced the new medium. He found its technology wanting, however. Having previously (in 1891) received a patent for an artillery shell that would explode only at its target, Walker applied himself to such issues as alerting projectionists to film running out (diagram at right) and improved reels; he was awarded three patents in the field.

Moses Fleetwood Walker died in 1924. His number was not retired. In Toledo, however, he has been remembered in a modern-baseball way. On August 1, 2011, the Toledo Mud Hens gave each of the first thousand fans at their stadium a Walker bobblehead.

Comments from Patrick von Sychowski: Brilliant piece of historical-technical sleuthing as always. I’m sure you know it already or I’ve pointed to this piece by Walter Murch, called ‘A Digital Cinema of the Mind’, about the intersection of opera and cinema in its early days.

“If only we could just stop that gentleman in the top hat coming out of the Metropolitan Opera — no, that one, with the fur collar — and ask him about the performance of “Tannhäuser” he has just attended. Perhaps, if he were agreeable, we could walk with him up Broadway and let the conversation go where it might, since this is October in the year 1899, and one’s thoughts have naturally turned toward the coming 20th century.

What about the stunning production that he has just seen? Truly unbelievable!

And perhaps a word about the future of opera — specifically, Wagner’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, or Total Art Work, the ultimate fusion of music, drama, and image. What wonders will audiences be seeing in 100 years?

As he stops to consider, one cannot help but glance over his shoulder at the sight of dozens of men in the shop behind him, mostly young, mostly immigrants, their heads plunged into some kind of mechanism, their right hands cranking madly away in a kind of trance. We have stopped by chance in front of an amusement arcade, and the men inside are operating Kinetoscopes and watching images of young ladies disrobing over and over again before their very eyes.”

“In 1879, when the Providence Grays were in the National League, a player broke his finger. The team substituted White, a freshman playing for Brown University, in one game on June 21.” – nice colour irony there for a piece about racial barriers. Fascinating reading as always. Thanks for sharing! 

Response: Indeed! For more on opera and movies — or media technology in general, try the Media-Technology and Opera History group on LinkedIn. There you’ll find such items as the world’s first motion-picture patent being issued to the Paris Opera’s head of special effects. Those discussions have been collected (with images added) here.



17. Baseball at the Opera House (2014 June 12)

1886 Baseball at the Opera House

When he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976, former Cleveland pitcher Bob Lemon told of being introduced to baseball (and his future team) when he was just a few weeks old. His mother put him into a basket and took him to the Redlands (California) Opera House to watch the 1920 World Series.

1931_Nov-Dec_TV_NEWS - Japan Baseball coverThe first telecast of a major-league baseball game didn’t occur until August 26, 1939. The first telecast of any U.S. ballgame didn’t occur until May 17 of that year. There had been an experimental telecast of a game in Japan in 1931, and as early as 1928 a Bell Telephone Laboratories engineer hypothesized shooting baseball games at the Polo Grounds.

Lemon’s trip to see the World Series came before all of those. But it was at least 35 years after people started watching live remote baseball games at opera houses.

The story begins another 40 years earlier, in 1845. Though baseball had already been played, that was the year the so-called Knickerbocker Rules were published, establishing some aspects of the modern game. The same year, the Magnetic Telegraph Company was created to provide commercial telegraph service in the U.S.

1895 ComptonBaseball and telegraphy grew up together in the U.S. along with railroads. As teams played on distant fields, telegraphy sent results; by 1869, reports came after each inning. The New York Clipper on May 22, 1875 told of sports bars: “…a number of prominent saloons exposed bulletins, upon which was represented the result of each inning as telegraphed from the baseball park.”

In 1884, three telegraph operators in Nashville came up with a money-making idea. Instead of posting results on a newspaper-office window or a saloon blackboard, they used the local Masonic Theater. One operator sent results from the ballpark, another read them to the audience in the theater, and the third moved names of players around a representation of the field. Sporting Life reported in 1885 that something similar was being done at Augusta’s Opera House.

Under the headline “Baseball at the Opera House,” The Atlanta Constitution on April 15, 1886 described the system at DeGive’s Opera House. Boys in uniforms ran around a field painted on the stage, reproducing the plays as they were received.

1895 ChapmanThe Nashville telegraphers spread their system to other cities and improved on it. In Chicago, they had a screen twenty feet square with “a very realistic view of a ball-field, with the diamond in the centre and the fence, hills, and blue sky beyond,” according to the Chicago Tribune on May 4, 1886. At Detroit’s Opera House, they began to develop the language and cadences of sportscasting. Under the headline “Base Ball by Electricity,” the Detroit Free Press reported on July 9, 1886, “when the operator read–with Dalrymple’s name appearing as batsman–‘foul fly to left,’ the audience fairly held its breath and when the next instant the operator called out ‘and out to White,’ there came a storm of applause, just such as is heard on a veritable ball field.”

1912 October Popular Electricity - Nokes Electrascore trimmedThe first of what would by 1927 be 44 U.S. patents for mechanisms for visually reproducing live, remote baseball games was issued in 1889; revenues from its licensing helped its owner buy The Boston Post. An improved version the following year could show the players running between bases. By 1891, electricity was added to the display. When the Orioles beat New York in 1894, the crowd at Ford’s Opera House in Baltimore was driven wild by the Compton Electric Base Ball Game Impersonator. Android robotics came next.

On May 7, 1895, the Richmond Times quoted a fan watching a game via Samuel Crowder’s Little Men at Mozart’s Academy of Music: “Why they bow just as sweetly as ‘real live men’ when applauded.” The Electrical Engineer, in its August 7, 1895 issue, described “Automatic Baseball by Electricity,” created by Frank Chapman of Palmer’s Opera House. After connecting, a hitter would lose his “bat which he flings down with a genuinely ‘sickening thud’ when he starts for first base.” A player on base could “move his legs so that he seems to be running, and of course he can be seen in the very act of trying to steal the next base.”

1924 Coleman Life-Like Scoreboard1924 Coleman backstage at Washington National TheaterDifferent systems were said to be able to show players warming up, being coached, sliding (and, if it happened, breaking a leg and writhing in agony), arguing with the umpire, and clapping and dancing after good plays. Among those awarded patents was future Hall of Fame inductee, pitcher Kid Nichols of the Boston Beaneaters. Many of the most-popular systems were never patented, including the Nokes Electrascore (with 1500 light bulbs to depict the arc of a ball) and the Rodier Electric Baseball Game Reproducer.

1931 Tuscon Opera House2After the 400-projector Coleman Life-Like Scoreboard was installed at the Providence Opera House, The Evening News reported, on August 24, 1914, “The plays are reproduced with such realism and accuracy that the spectator forgettingly believes himself attending a real game.” “Even arguments between players and arbitrators are shown.”

Into the 1930s, the Arizona Daily Star was still sponsoring World Series viewing on an Automatic Base Ball Play-O-Graph at the Tucson Opera House, but newer media eventually took over. In 1934, World Series radio-broadcast rights were first sold.

Harold_Arlin croppedThe first complete opera was broadcast on radio in 1910, the first baseball game on August 5, 1921 (there had been a non-broadcast wireless voice transmission from a game the year before). But announcer Harold Arlin didn’t have the long experience of the opera-house baseball systems. “Nobody told me I had to talk between pitches,” he later recalled.


18. The Song (2014 June 18)

George Jean NathanInternet search engines are useful — except when they aren’t. Searching for baseball and opera, you might come across this quotation: “Opera in English is about as sensible as baseball in Italian.” Perhaps millions of sites will attribute it to H. L. Mencken. The actual quote is “Opera in English is, in the main, just about as sensible a plea as baseball in Italian;” it was written by Mencken’s American Mercury partner George Jean Nathan in that magazine in February 1926.

baseball ItalyOperas were performed in English before 1926. Italian baseball has existed at least since World War II; the national team is highly ranked, and the Italian Baseball League’s championship series is truly international; it has been won for the last three years by the team from the tiny country of San Marino.

Baseball is primarily an American game, however, and opera’s main language seems to be Italian. Handel wrote operas in Italian even to be performed in England and Germany (which gave him extra sources of revenue in sales of translations and the candles necessary to read them).

Gallipacci 2Even fake Italian sounds operatic. When Caesar’s Hour on NBC spoofed the opera Pagliacci with Gallipacci on October 10, 1955, lovers Rosa (Nanette Fabray) and Emilio (Carl Reiner) sang a lively duet of made-up Italian-sounding words (you can watch all of Gallipacci here: The studio audience laughed heartily not because they understood what was being voiced or because of any visual gags but because they recognized the tune: “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

Take Me Out to the Ball Game movie posterIt’s quite recognizable. According to the book Take Me Out to the Ball Game: The Story of the Sensational Baseball Song by Amy Whorf McGuiggan, published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2009, “Only ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ and “Happy Birthday’ are sung more often.” The National Endowment for the Arts and the Recording Industry Association of America declared it one of the “Songs of the Century.” MGM turned it into a movie, starring Frank Sinatra, Esther Williams, and Gene Kelly. The U.S. Postal Service turned it into a stamp on its centennial (coincidentally showing a baseball with “42” on it, the cost of first-class postage at the time). In addition to McGuiggan’s book, there’s another devoted to nothing but the song, Baseball’s Greatest Hit: The Story of Take Me Out to the Ball Game by Andy Strasberg, Bob Thompson, and Tim Wiles (Hal Leonard Books 2008).

1908 LOC copyright Take Me OutWith so much scholarship, a great deal is known about the song. It was first published in 1908 (there had been many other baseball songs, including “Ball Days,” performed by 1854). The words were written by Jack Norworth, inspired, he later told a reporter, by a baseball ad he saw. The music was composed by Albert Von Tilzer. Neither had been to a baseball game before the song was written.

As to where it was first performed, there is less certainty. The scholars all agree it was most likely by Norworth, his wife Nora Bayes, or both in a Brooklyn opera house. According to Strasberg, Thompson, and Wiles, it was the Amphion; according to McGuiggan, it was the Grand.

In America’s early days, the term “theater” was considered only slightly more acceptable than “brothel.” To provide legitimacy, names such as Academy, Adelphi, Alhambra, Amphitheatre, Athenaeum, Garden, Hall, Museum, Palace, Tabernacle, and, yes, Opera House were used. According to Coal and Culture: Opera Houses in Appalachia by William Faricy Condee (Ohio University Press 2005), such opera houses “housed little, if any, opera, but were used for almost everything else, including traveling theater, concerts, religious events, lectures, boxing matches, union meetings, and — if the auditorium had a flat floor — skating and basketball.”

1907 Grand Opera House Brooklyn Hoffmann1889 May 9 Brooklyn Daily EagleWhat about those two Brooklyn opera houses (neither, alas, still standing)? There are programs for operas performed at Brooklyn’s Grand Opera House, including Lucia di Lammermoor and Tosca. As for the Amphion, in the course of my research, I discovered a week of Wagner’s operas performed there by the Metropolitan Opera (which had its own opera house just a few miles away) of which the Met’s archives had not previously been aware.

I’ve already posted that baseball’s most-famous poem was publicly introduced during a performance of the opera Prince Methusalem. The baseball-song scholars make good cases that its most-famous song was introduced in an opera house.


19. Under One Roof (2014 June 22)

AnsoniaOnce upon a time, a little pig lived with four geese on a rooftop farm high above the streets of New York City. The little pig’s name was Nanki-Poo.

All of the information above appeared in a news story in The New York Times on November 12, 1907 about how the little pig’s owner’s father got wind of an impending raid by the Board of Health and had both pig and geese spirited into the basement. Opera fans might notice that the little pig had the same name as a key character in the comic opera The Mikado.

The pig’s owner was an 11-year-old boy known as “Weddie,” short for William Earl Dodge (W. E. D.) Stokes, Jr. His father was an heir to the Phelps Dodge fortune, so, when the senior Stokes used his money to create a spectacular residential hotel (which supported Nanki-Poo’s roof), he named it after his grandfather, Anson Greene Phelps, who had started the business that made him rich. Like the town in Connecticut also named for Phelps, the building was called the Ansonia. Its roof was covered in family copper.

Caruso Singing into a HornConstruction began in 1899, and it opened officially in 1904 (though it had already been in use). It’s still standing and is still one of the most glorious buildings in the neighborhood; the architecture of a more-recent residential tower was intended to echo the Ansonia’s Second Empire style. It became an official New York City landmark in 1972 and joined the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

It was certainly grand. It had the world’s largest indoor swimming pool at the time it opened (as well as a second one) and the first indoor miniature golf course. Live seals are said to have cavorted in the lobby fountain. Weddie later reported that a pre-Nanki-Poo rooftop farm “included about 500 chickens, many ducks, about six goats, and a small bear” (in divorce proceedings against the elder Stokes, his wife claimed he kept 47 chickens in his apartment). Others have mentioned a cattle elevator to the rooftop farm. Eggs were reportedly delivered to tenants, the excess sold in a basement food market. There was a full kitchen on each floor for room service. The Ansonia initially generated its own electricity.

The exceptionally thick and solid walls contained pneumatic tubes for message delivery and near-freezing-brine cooling pipes used to keep the rooms at a constant temperature and to deliver ice water. The climate control, 24-hour room service, and thick walls made the building a natural residence for opera singers.

Geraldine Farrar trimmedAmong those who could be found there were Licia Albanese, Frances Alda, Karin Branzell, Enrico Caruso, Bruna Castagna, Lina Cavalieri, George Cehanovsky, Fyodor Chaliapin, Franco Corelli, Alessio De Paolis, Emmy Destinn, Geraldine Farrar, Olive Fremstad, De Wolf Hopper, Herbert Janssen, Alexander Kipnis, Victor Maurel, Lauritz Melchior, Jan Peerce, Roberta Peters, Ezio Pinza, Lily Pons, Elisabeth Rethberg, Bidu Sayao, Tito Schipa, Friedrich Schorr, Elisabeth Schwartzkopf, Antonio Scotti, Eleanor Steber, Teresa Stratas, Joan Sutherland, Renata Tebaldi, Richard Tucker, and Thelma Votipka (who sang more performances at the Metropolitan Opera than any other woman). There were also opera conductors Richard Bonynge, Fausto Cleva, Gustav Mahler, and Arturo Toscanini; opera composers Sergei Rachmaninoff and Igor Stravinsky; and impresarios Giulio Gatti-Casazza and Sol Hurok.

The copper was sacrificed to the war effort in 1942. There’s no longer a lobby fountain, and the skylight over the 180-foot-high grand staircase has been covered, but the thick walls ensure that the building still houses plenty of musicians, although there’s no overt indication of that. There is a small “museum” of artifacts in the lobby, but they all relate to a resident much better known for his work on the ball field than on the opera-house stage: 1920 Babe Ruth and Dorothy Jardon trimmedBabe Ruth. By the time he moved in, perhaps because it was close to a major station of the new subway, the Ansonia was already a regular stop for visiting baseball teams (as well as housing some local players).

Besides Ruth, other baseball players who could be found at the Ansonia included “Pete” Alexander, “Sleepy Bill” Burns, Ty Cobb, Jean Dubuc, Lou Gehrig, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, Connie Mack, John McGraw, Bob Meusel, “Lefty” O’Doul, Wally Schang, and “Honus” Wagner.  It’s where the 1919 Black Sox scandal was arranged in “Chick” Gandil’s room (it was also home to gambler Arnold Rothstein, who “saw” that the fix was in by watching one of the opera-house game displays installed there).  Ray Chapman was staying at the Ansonia the day he was fatally hit by a pitch, the only player in Major League Baseball history to have been killed that way. Jason Giambi went to see his physical therapist there. John Murtaugh, called “the best college first baseman” by future Hall of Fame inductee Hughie Jennings, died at the Ansonia after accidentally consuming “Roach salt” (an insecticide) instead of “Rochelle salt” (a mild laxative).

Baseball’s first agent, Christy Walsh, started there, getting to see Ruth by delivering a case of beer to his apartment. Walsh helped make Ruth rich. Something that helped enrich another player, a decision to invest in Coca-Cola, was made in Ty Cobb’s room at the Ansonia in 1918.

Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig trimmed

Steber at the BathsThe hallways of the Ansonia are exceptionally wide and long. Melchior is said to have practiced archery in them. Ruth, who took advantage of the thick walls to practice his saxophone, would also step into the hallway in his red silk robe and take the elevator to the basement barber for his daily morning shave. Melchior, too, went down to the basement in his robe; he was too big to fit in a bath tub and used one of the pools instead. In 1973, Steber recorded an album in the basement, which, by that time, had become the Continental Baths (where the careers of Bette Midler and Barry Manilow took off); the audience wore black towels for the opera-music recording.

Enrico Caruso was reportedly asked what he thought of Ansonia resident Babe Ruth. “I don’t know,” he is said to have replied. “I never heard her sing.”


20. Ty Cobb’s Football-Player Opera-House Baseball-Championship Tour of 1911-12 (2014 June 26)

Ty_Cobb_LC-DIG-ggbain-08006_cropIf you look up Ty Cobb on the National Baseball Hall of Fame web site, the entry begins, “Ty Cobb may have been baseball’s greatest player, if not the game’s fiercest competitor.” On the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) Biography Project page devoted to Cobb, historian Daniel Ginsburg wrote that he was “arguably the greatest player in the history of the game.” He received more votes (222) than Babe Ruth (215) for induction to the Hall of Fame out of the same number of ballots cast (226); on a percentage basis (the number of ballots was different), he beat Willie Mays, too.

On July 4, 1912, however, he might have lost his baseball-champ status to a journalist in Birmingham, Alabama, as a result of his work as a football player in opera houses. Baseball-historian Rob Edelman first told the story in The National Pastime in 2010 in an article called “Ty Cobb, Actor”

Red Sox Quartet 1911 trimmedPrevious posts here have covered baseball players who became opera singers, but they weren’t the only ones to perform on opera-house stages. The quintessential name of baseball talent is Babe Ruth (who actually sang on opera-house stages, but only as a novelty; he knew he wasn’t a great in that field). Opera singers Enrico Caruso, Luciano Pavarotti, Beniamino Gigli, and even Maria Callas have been called the “Babe Ruth of opera” for their talents on the stage. Caruso was Ruth’s counterpart as the quintessential name of opera talent. Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, and Lew Fonseca have been called the “Caruso of baseball” for their talents on the ball field, but so was ballplayer Marty McHale (by Variety), not for his pitching but for his singing. He helped form the Red Sox Quartette during his rookie season, and also performed solo and with fellow player Turkey Mike Donlin.

1911 Savanah Theater trimmedSome ballplayers performed on opera-house stages without singing. The first of those to get top billing was Cap Anson. Another was Ty Cobb.

The history page of the Grand Opera House of the South in Crowley, Louisiana says that “notables such as Enrico Caruso [and] Babe Ruth… were just a few of the famous to grace the Grand’s ‘mammoth’ stage.” It’s unlikely that either actually performed while on that stage. There was a nearby train station, and a lengthy stop might have provided enough time for an appearance.

Anson and Cobb did perform. They rehearsed, performed, toured with their shows, and were reviewed. The last was part of Cobb’s problem.

1911 Ty Cobb trimmedHis role was that of Billy Bolton, star of the Bingham College football team, in George Ade’s comedy The College Widow. Cobb enjoyed live entertainment. He frequently attended the Detroit Opera House and went to operas on the road, too, once guest of honor at an opera in Syracuse. He had seen The College Widow in Detroit and felt it was appropriate for him.

The production opened at Taylor’s Opera House in Newark, New Jersey. According to Edelman, “Cobb did not embarrass himself onstage.” A review in the Trenton True American said that Cobb “is no lemon when it comes to the histrionic.” When he played the Grand Opera House in Augusta, Georgia, The Augusta Chronicle said he “has been the dramatic find and surprise of the current season.” Further, “Cobb has been making a reputation for himself which is second only to [what] he has achieved on the diamond….” Woodrow Wilson was a member of his audience there. The Atlanta Constitution also called him “the dramatic find of the year.” The Nashville Banner said, “On the stage, Mr. Cobb is maintaining the same high average that has marked his work on the diamond.”

1911 Ty Cobb 2 trimmedIn a previous post, I noted that it was not uncommon for baseball and opera to be covered by the same newspaper journalist. Allen G. Johnson was sports editor and drama critic of The Birmingham News. When The College Widow came to that city, according to Edelman, “A black streamer across the paper’s sports page announced Cobb as the new editor.” Edelman continues the story:

“Even though that day’s paper was a hot-seller, the News’s managing editor was not amused. He promptly ordered Johnson to not just review The College Widow but to offer an honest judgment of Cobb’s thespian abilities. While the ballplayer’s performance earned him a curtain call at the second-act finale, Johnson harshly criticized his acting prowess. Upon learning of the review, Cobb wrote Johnson a cutting missive in which he retorted, ‘Your criticism is beneath my notice, but I just want you to see what a few real critics say about my work.’ Cobb included clippings of previously published critiques and added, ‘I am a better actor than you are, a better sports editor than you are, a better dramatic critic than you are. I make more money than you do, and I know I am a better ball player—so why should inferiors criticize superiors?’

rickwood“With tongue steadfastly planted in cheek, Johnson answered Cobb with a letter of his own in which he declared, ‘I admit that you are a better critic, actor, sports editor, and money maker than I am, Mr. Cobb, but I refuse to admit that you are a better ball player. I have seen you play ball and know what you can do, but you have never seen me in action on a diamond. Therefore I now challenge you to a game at Rickwood Field, the Birmingham Southern League ball ground, July 4, for the championship of the world. If you do not appear to play me I will claim the championship by forfeit.’ Unsurprisingly, Cobb never responded to the challenge.”


21. The Catcher Who Saved the Opera House (2014 July 3)

Flag of the Kingdom of HawaiiHere’s a quick question: Which was the second country (after the U.S.) to establish baseball teams? Canada? Cuba? Dominican Republic? Japan? Based on rule changes over the years, there are many possibilities, but, according to baseball historian Bruce Allardice, the answer is Hawaii, an independent country prior to its annexation by the U.S. in 1898.

I am indebted to Allardice’s “The Catcher Who Stopped a Revolution” <> for the information about Hay Wodehouse and his role in the events of July 1889, to Monica Nucciarone for the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) BioProject article on Alexander Cartwright and baseball in Hawaii <> and to Janos Gereben’s “Ho’okani hana keaka: a History of Opera in Hawaii” <> for the information about early opera in Hawaii. For the rest, the Library of Congress has a wonderful collection of old newspapers from Hawaii.

Hawaii Opera House croppedBaseball and opera were both introduced to Hawaii at about the same time, circa 1850. Gereben wrote, “It is likely that opera recitals were offered as early as 1847 when Honolulu’s first theater — the Thespian, on the corner of Maunakea and King — opened. But the first dated evidence is a playbill found in the Hawaii State Archives about a performance of Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment on Feb. 11, 1854, in the Varieties Theater by a traveling company — not identified, unfortunately.” Local newspapers even before 1847 reported on opera performances elsewhere. By the mid-1880s, the name “opera house” was used for some Honolulu performance spaces.

knickerbocker rules croppedAs for baseball, the Canadian Encyclopedia says a version of the “Massachusetts game” was played in Beachville in what is now Ontario in 1838. But that game allowed 10-14 players to field at the same time. The version that limited the number of players to nine was known as the New York game, and the name most associated with it is Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Alexander Cartwright, sometimes called the “father of baseball,” who played for the Knickerbockers, which introduced formal baseball rules in 1845. Although those are sometimes called the Cartwright rules, there doesn’t seem to be any indication that he wrote them. Furthermore, those rules don’t mention nine players (or nine innings).

Cartwright was born in 1820, began working as a clerk for a New York broker in 1836, and later worked for a bank. He also volunteered as a firefighter for the Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 12. According to Nucciarone, “Some speculate that the young ballplayers, possibly Cartwright himself, named their ball club after the engine company, apparently sometime between 1842 and 1845.”

Alexander_Cartwright_BaseballIronically, in 1845, a fire destroyed the bank where Cartwright worked. After trying his hand at selling books and stationery, he left New York for California in 1849 to join the gold rush but instead continued to Hawaii, where, in 1850, by an act signed by King Kamehameha III, he became chief engineer of the Honolulu fire department. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, the first game of “New York rules” baseball was played in Hamilton in what would become Canada in 1859, nine years later.

Cartwright was deeply involved in Honolulu life, working for the hospital, the library, and the Masonic lodge, among other institutions, and he was a pioneer of civil rights, ensuring, for example, that the library was not “to be run for the benefit of any class, party, nationality, or sect” and that women and children could belong, too. “What makes us old geezers think we are the only ones to be spiritually and morally uplifted by a public library in this city?” he wrote to his brother. He was also an advisor to several Hawaiian monarchs.

King David KalakauaKing Kalākaua was the first monarch to attend a baseball game, and he also liked attending opera in the royal box; he was known as the Merrie Monarch. Another opera-loving king, Gustav III of Sweden, was assassinated at a masked ball at the Swedish Royal Opera House in 1792, providing the plot of the opera Un ballo in maschera (“A Masked Ball”); when Washington National Opera simulcast it at Nationals Park, an umpire yelled, “Play ballo!” The Hawaiian monarch wasn’t assassinated, but in 1887 he was forced by a militia of non-Hawaiians, the Honolulu Rifles, to sign a new constitution stripping the king of most of his powers and establishing a British-style constitutional monarchy but also allowing non-citizen resident aliens from Europe or the U.S. to vote and restricting the vote for (and service in) the upper legislative house to those with high-enough income or wealth.

Robert William Wilcox, sent by the king in 1881 to Turin, where he studied at the Royal School for Artillery Officers, was among those who didn’t like what came to be known as the “Bayonet Constitution” due to its coerced adoption. He, and a partner from his Italian military training, Robert N. Boyd, recruited some 150, mostly Hawaiian and Chinese, to the Liberal Patriotic Association, intent on overturning the Bayonet Constitution.

1889 July 31 Daily Pacific Commercial AdvertiserLearning of the planned rebellion, the king fled the palace with some guards and ordered those remaining not to take sides. The Honolulu Rifles, defending the constitution, occupied the Royal Opera House; the rebels were in a bungalow on the palace grounds. Wilcox’s military skills came in handy when the rebels seized two cannons on July 30, 1889. The Daily Pacific Commercial Advertiser ran a headline the next day, “The Opera House Bombarded by the Rioters.” The Honolulu Daily Bulletin provided more details:

“The front of the Opera House is badly peppered with bullet shots. Considerable damage was done to the interior. One shell from a field piece passed through the front door, two green baize screens, the inner wall, through the outer wall of the Royal box, the back of a chair, exploding in the wall on the other side of the box. Another shell passed through the front window and lodged in the counter weight box of the red curtain where it now is. The back of one of the seats in the gallery was smashed to pieces. The windows and roof were riddled with bullets.”

1889 Oct 16 The Sporting Life - WodehouseAccording to a report in The Sporting Life on August 21, 1889, the Honolulu Rifles “secured the services of Hay Wodehouse, [catcher] of the Honolulu Base Ball Club. Wodehouse took up his position in the Coney Island building, just across a narrow lane, and overlooking the bungalow. No attack was expected from that quarter, and there was nothing to disturb the bomb thrower. Wodehouse stood for a few moments with a bomb in his hand as though he were in the box waiting for a batman. He had to throw over a house to reach the bungalow, which he could not see.

“The first bomb went sailing over the wall, made a down curve, and struck the side of the bungalow about a foot from the roof, and the yell that followed reminded one of a day at the Haight street grounds when good pitchers were in the box. The bomb had reached them and hurt a number of the insurgents. Wodehouse coolly picked out another bomb. Then he took a step back, made a half turn, and sent it whizzing. Robert_William_Wilcox_sitting_in_police_stationIt landed on the roof of the bungalow, smashed a hole four men could have dropped through, and scattered old iron among the rebels until they thought they were in a boiler explosion. The base ball pitcher was too much for the rebels. He threw one more bomb, and Wilcox came out and surrendered.”

Wilcox sounds like a non-Hawaiian name. In fact, he was Robert William Kalanihiapo Wilcox, descended from kings of the islands of Hawaii, Maui, and Oahu on his mother’s side. He was tried for treason but acquitted by an all-Hawaiian jury and later became the official delegate to the U.S. Congress from the Territory of Hawaii after annexation.

On August 20, 1896, Wilcox married Theresa La’anui, a second marriage for both. La’anui’s first husband had been Alexander Cartwright’s son.


22. The Commissioner and the Composer (2014 July 7)

Peter GelbPeter Gelb is the general manager — the person in charge — of the Metropolitan Opera. Not counting his positions at other organizations, at the Met he was previously a television producer and, before that, an usher. Kenesaw Mountain Landis was also an usher at his local opera house, and, he, too, rose to be the person in charge. What he ended up in charge of, however, was not an opera company but baseball.

In his youth, Landis had actually played baseball, managed a team, and even been offered a professional contract, which he turned down because he preferred to play for the love of the game. Like Gelb, he did other work before reaching the top; in Landis’s case, it was law.

Federal LeagueAs a judge, Landis was asked to decide a lawsuit brought by the Federal League of Base Ball Clubs against the National League, the American League, all sixteen major-league baseball club presidents, and the National Commission (which governed baseball at the time). Landis urged the parties to reach an agreement, and most of them did. The Baltimore Federal League team, the Terrapins, later filed its own suit, decided against them by the U.S. Supreme Court, based, in part, on a precedent involving the Metropolitan Opera (see post 10: “It’s the Law!”).

1920 October 7 The Sporting NewsIn 1919, baseball’s worst scandal, White Sox players paid to lose games in the World Series, originated at the Ansonia in New York City, where many in baseball and opera could be found (see post 19: “Under One Roof”). As part of baseball’s attempt to recover its former status, Landis was appointed the first baseball commissioner — commissioner for life — and given the power to “rule with an iron hand,” according to National League president John Heydler.

Opera manager Gelb says his “baseball action was limited to pick up games in grade school and junior high school,” though he’s “always been a fan” and fondly recalls “sitting behind home plate when Reggie Jackson hit his three home runs for the Yankees against the Dodgers in the World Series.” There was never any question of Landis’s devotion to baseball; in the Federal League trial, he said “any blows at… baseball would be regarded by this court as a blow to a national institution.” He also continued to attend opera performances.

Landis Sousa big very croppedA story he liked to tell involved attending an opera with his wife on a rainy night, her slipping on their way into the opera house, and his grabbing her and saying “Look out, darling! You’ll break your goddamn neck!” So it’s not surprising that, in trying to restore baseball’s reputation, he turned to an opera composer.

The earliest known opera about baseball, Angela: or the Umpire’s Revenge, in 1888, was scored, at least in part, by John Philip Sousa. Not even counting that, Sousa had written some 17 musical works for the stage by the time of the “Black Sox” scandal, including two operas for singer and baseball fan (and first public performer of “Casey at the Bat”) De Wolf Hopper.

Sousa also loved baseball. His band had two teams, so they could play the game on tour even where there was no competition, and he sometimes pitched. Sousa’s team played baseball on July 4th at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair (where opera movies were shown with synchronized sound). He is best known, however, for neither his operas nor his baseball but his patriotic marches, such as “Stars and Stripes Forever.” He led the U.S. Marine Band — the oldest musical organization in the United States — under five Presidents.

The_National_Game_by_John_Philip_SousaSousa was also a novelist, and, in his 1905 Pipetown Sandy, he wrote, “Oh, base-ball! thou art truly the embodiment of purest democracy; like love, thou dost level all ranks.” So Landis asked Sousa to compose a patriotic baseball march. “The National Game” was introduced in time for the 50th anniversary of the National League.

Today, baseball is still called the national pastime, and few know of the 1919 scandal, but it’s unlikely Sousa’s march had much effect. In music, as in the game, not every attempt is a hit. As Sousa continued in Pipetown Sandy, “Of what avail is distinguished ancestry, pre-Adamite origin, cerulean blood or stainless escutcheon, when one is at bat and strikes out! Intellectual superiority, physical perfection, social status, wealth or poverty count for nothing, if you fail to bring in the winning run.”


23. Pavarotti’s Balls (2014 July 9)

Stan_Musial_1957In his Society for American Baseball Research BioProject report on Stan Musial, historian Jan Finkel wrote the following: “It was said of Ty Cobb when he retired that he left the game with more money and fewer friends than anyone before him. The line on Musial was that he left the game with more money and more friends than anyone before him. And his friends weren’t just any friends, either” One of Musial’s friends (though not when he left the game) was opera singer Luciano Pavarotti.

Musial was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame on his first ballot, with 92.3% approval, the first player to get more than 300 votes (317). If there were a National Opera Hall of Fame, Pavarotti would likely be in it. And, aside from their skills in their respective fields, both were also very nice people.

Pavarotti baseball - Heritage Auctions - Stan Musial collectionAt a 2013 Metropolitan Opera fundraising gala, fellow Hall-of-Famer Joe Torre recalled being taken by Musial to see Pavarotti in Tosca at the Met in 1992. Novelist James Michener was also in the group, which went backstage to visit the tenor in his dressing room. According to Torre, Musial kept pulling baseballs out of his wife’s handbag and asking Pavarotti to sign them, which he did. Michener also signed them, as did Musial and Torre. Torre still has one. Another, from the Stan Musial Collection, was sold by Heritage Auctions late last year to an Internet bidder for just over $500.

Like Pavarotti, Torre has also sung on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. At the end of the on-stage gala, he led the crowd in a rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”


24. The Slow Fastball (2014 July 22)

Robert Merrill sings the National AnthemPitcher Moishe Miller died on October 23, 2004, while watching game one of that year’s World Series on TV. He was probably not wearing his pinstripe uniform, but the Yankees lamented his passing, which was also noted by ESPN. According to his obituary in The New York Times, “he was known for the security and strength… as well as for the precision… with which he could hit pitches….” But first here are some words about the sponsors.

Becoming an opera singer usually costs a lot of money, for both the training and, especially in the old days, the transportation to that training, generally in Europe. I’ve already written about how first-base player John Clark’s colleagues raised the money to send him to study in Milan, where he became primo basso Signor Brocolini. But sometimes the singer wasn’t the player.

Farrar-as--Carmen--for--Movies-George Malicky, who pitched to Babe Ruth, helped launch the career of his daughter, opera star Joyce Castle. Sid Farrar, who played first base for Philadelphia (the Quakers and the Athletics), was reportedly paid just $900 by the Quakers in 1883 (about $23,000 today), so asked all ball players to save the tin foil their chewing tobacco came in. He picked up the caches as he traveled from game to game and collected enough to send his daughter, Geraldine, abroad for singing lessons. She became what some call America’s first opera superstar, so famous that she even became a silent movie star, too. Maybe the tin-foil story is true, but Geraldine was eight when Sid retired from baseball.

In fairness, I should note that at least one ball player, major-league pitcher Erskine Mayer, was raised by a musician, his father Isaac, and his grandfather, Morris, composed an opera. Incidentally, the libretto of Mayer’s opera was in Hebrew.

Tommy_HolmesThen there was Miller. He got the opera bug early but decided to cover the cost of his singing lessons himself, by playing semi-pro baseball for $5 or $10 a game. A teammate was Tommy Holmes, who later became a Boston Braves outfielder and runner-up for the National League’s Most Valuable Player award in 1945, when he hit safely in 37 consecutive games.

Holmes was said to have a fine baritone voice, but it was Miller who became a famous baritone, first changing his name to Merrill Miller and then to Robert Merrill. When Holmes was up for the MVP award in 1945, Merrill won the Metropolitan Opera “Auditions of the Air.” The full sentence from his Times obituary was, “Regarded as one of the greatest Verdi baritones of his generation, he was known for the security and strength of his sound, as well as for the precision and clarity with which he could hit pitches across his two-octave range.”

1987 Steinbrenner NY PopsMerrill went on to sing 958 performances at the Met, not counting his work at other opera houses, in musicals, and even in a movie. But George Steinbrenner also wanted him to sing at Yankee Stadium — the national anthem — which he did for three decades on opening day and in the post season. He had his own uniform, number 1½, originally intended for Billy Martin, who gave it to him. He also sang in Cooperstown when Phil Rizzuto was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. After his death, the Yankees have sometimes used a recording of his anthem.

Merrill also managed the Yankees “Old Timers,” which included Mickey Mantle, who once asked Merrill for an opera recording. Coaching the Cracker Jack Classic in 1982, Merrill gave Hall-of-Famer Luke Appling the signal to slide. According to Merrill (in What Baseball Means to Me, edited by Curt Smith), “he belly-flops into the base. Safe! Then it hits me. He’s 75 years old!”

With so much love of the game, why did Merrill give up his baseball career for opera? “The problem is I had a forty-mile-per-hour fastball.”


25. “Beer, Here!” (2014 July 30)

Opera BobsWriting in The Grid in 2012, Rob Duffy and Jacob Rutka listed “Toronto’s 20 greatest sports bars”: Of the first, they wrote, “In the summer, this dimly lit, Dundas West watering hole serves as a fan clubhouse for the Toronto Blue Jays. The bar hosts monthly Jays Days, which feature cheap beer, hot dogs, bagged popcorn, peanuts and baseball trivia.”

Robert Pomakov - credit Adrian ParksThe name of the establishment is Opera Bob’s Public House. One of its founders (and the namesake) is opera bass Robert Pomakov, who has sung with many of North America’s great opera companies, including the Met. One of Opera Bob’s offerings is Grapefruit League imperial pale ale.

brew at Opera BobDrinking figures prominently in many operas. Les contes d’Hoffmann (“The Tales of Hoffmann”) opens and ends in a pub. La traviata opens with a drinking song, one of the most familiar of opera tunes. But all of that is on the stage.

In its April 14 issue this year, The New Yorker published a cartoon by Liam Walsh: It showed the interior of an opera house, an opera visible on stage, with a ballpark-type vendor in the aisle. A patron holds a hot dog in one hand and comments to the woman next to him, who is wearing pearls and a fur stole and is holding an opera lorgnette, “There’s no frank like an opera frank.”

Groucho vendsIt’s funny because the idea of a hot-dog vendor working the aisles of an opera house seems preposterous. The same idea was funny in 1935, when, in the Marx Brothers movie A Night at the Opera, music sheets inserted into the score cause the orchestra to segue from the overture to Il trovatore to the song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” and Groucho works the aisles with a vendor’s basket, much to the consternation of the staid opera patrons.

Some serious suggestions for improving attendance at opera these days include the introduction of such vendors — or at least allowing food and drink inside the opera-house auditorium. Opera gave baseball the idea of luxury boxes; baseball, the theory goes, should show opera how to deal with hungry and thirsty patrons of lengthy entertainments.

1740 Pietro_Domenico_Oliviero_-_The_Royal_Theater_in_TurinStrangely, however, it appears that there were vendors working the aisles of opera houses in the old days, at least as those opera houses were rendered in art works. One of the largest was painted by Pietro Domenico Olivero in the 18th century and supposedly depicts the opening night of the opera Arsace, at Teatro Regio in Turin in 1740. It can be found at the Civic Museum of Ancient Art at Palazzo Madama in that city.

1740 Olivero trimmedThe painting shows two vendors apparently working the aisles, shown at right in added red ovals, one seeming to have some sort of food and the other some sort of drink — flagons of beer, perhaps. Click to expand the image.

2013 Coors Light Skydeck at Detroit Opera HouseDetroit’s Opera House has come up with another way of increasing attendance: the Coors Light Sky Deck, which opened last year. The roof of the building overlooks Comerica Park, home of the Tigers. And the occasional presence of football cheerleaders doesn’t hurt.

2013 Coors Light Skydeck at Detroit Opera House 2

Opera also directly influenced at least one vendor at that ballpark, Charley Marcuse. After The Three Tenors came to town, he adopted an operatic pitch for his hot dogs. Unfortunately, he was fired last year over a condiments dispute (there is a musical-theatre piece called “The Condiments”). According to Marcuse, a man of principle, “There’s no ketchup in baseball.”



Comment: Coors Field in Denver also has an “Opera Man” vendor, for beer, Howard Greer, a two-time Aramark All-Star winner. 


26. The First Parabolic Mic (2015 August 28)

parabolic mic shot by J. Glover, Atlanta, GeorgiaYou see them all the time in baseball video production, but where did the first parabolic mics come from? According to Louis Figuier’s Scientific and Industrial Annual of 1887 (published in 1888), it was invented by engineer Giulio Marini, director of the Telephone Company of Rome. He first tried it during a production of the opera “I puritani” at Rome’s National Theatre. The design allowed the mics to be moved from the stage to the back of the house. According to Figuier, “They completely succeeded: music and song were reproduced with complete sharpness and accuracy.”

Here’s a link to Figuier’s report (page 112):

Many thanks to Michael Kaye for calling this to my attention.


27. Knowing the Score (2015 October 8)

SF OperaIn this baseball playoff season, it might be worth noting that one of the words used in both baseball and opera is score. And how do opera goers keep up with baseball scores? Janos Gereben addressed the issue in his piece “Of Opera and Baseball” in San Francisco Classical Voice on October 21 of last year, during the 2014 World Series, in which the San Francisco Giants were playing. San Francisco Opera “audience members remonstrated with the officials about the lack of such information [about the game], recalling the halcyon days of a German Papageno singing 49ers’ score (in English) from the stage.” Although I don’t know the age of those opera goers, I strongly suspect that singer in The Magic Flute wasn’t the first.

managers John McGraw of the Giants and Jake Stahl of the Red Sox at the 1912 World SeriesJoanne Hulbert wrote “DeWolf and the Kid” in The National Pastime Museum about the 1912 World Series, when opera singer and baseball fan De Wolf Hopper (who became the first person to recite the poem “Casey at the Bat” from the stage when he worked it into a performance of Prince Methusalem in New York), “relied on a balky telegraph system and a corps of messenger boys to relay news of the game while he was performing” The Mikado in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. It was another series with the Giants, who were still a New York team at the time and Hopper’s heart throb. He was performing with Eugene Cowles, a big fan of the series’ other team, the Boston Red Sox.

When, at the beginning of the second act, Hopper got word that the Giants were ahead, he sang:

The_Mikado_Chappell_Vocal_Score_cover_(c.1895)“My object all sublime

“I have achieved in time.

“I’ve seen the Giants win the flag,

“The Giants win the flag!”

Cowles, as Ko-Ko, did his own singing when the score changed:

“We knew him well;

“He cannot tell

“Untrue or groundless lies.

“He tells a lie;

“The Red Sox tie

“The score up in the eighth.”

Later, when the score changed again, Hopper sang:

“See how the fates their gifts allot;

“The Giants are happy, the Red Sox NOT!”

And there were two more replies, reproduced in Hulbert’s piece.  Reportedly, the opera fans loved it all.

Back at the San Francisco Opera last fall, the management finally posted scores on the title screens during intermissions. Who could object to that? At least one opera goer, according to Gereben: “Nothing like seeing sports scores at intermissions to blast you out of the mood in which the previous act may have put you. Sorry, but I don’t believe any sport should interfere with an artistic event. In fact, that is what is largely wrong with the sports scene in this country: the prevailing opinion that sports event can force its way into any venue, artistic or not. I don’t go to the opera to see the sports scores but to get away from all of that nonsense.”

Giants-SFO bigger

Ah, well.  As Gereben noted, many opera goers object to seeing even the opera text on those screens.


28. Without Opera There Would Be No Mascots (2015 October 9)

As this is being written, the New York Mets are still contenders for the 2015 baseball championship. They won in 1969 and 1986 after having the worst record in 162-game major-league-season history when they first took the field.

NY_MetropolitansWhen the team was founded, it was the Metropolitan Baseball Club of New York, a name that originally belonged to a team that, in 1882, accepted offers to join both the National League and the American Association. The owners got around that problem by buying another team and calling them the New York Gothams. The Gothams became the Giants, and it was their move to San Francisco that led to the formation of the current Mets. In between the 19th-century Mets and the current team, the Metropolitan Opera’s baseball team was also known as the Metropolitans or Mets.

Mr. Met in 2009Although not often in first place, the Mets have the distinction of having baseball’s first official live human mascot, Mr. Met, who appeared at their first game at their home at Shea Stadium in 1964. The English word was coined when Edmond Audran’s opera La mascotte, which had opened successfully in Paris at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens on December 29, 1880, was imported to Boston’s Gaiety Theatre, where it opened in 1881 on April 12 as The Mascot. The root of the French word referred to a witch, but the opera was about a woman who brought luck to a farmer.

The original Mets accepting offers from two major leagues at the same time was an echo of what happened when the opera moved to New York at two opera houses, the Bijou on May 5 and the Park on May 9. At the end of the overture on May 5, a man announced from the stage that at 6 pm an injunction had been served on the tenor, preventing his appearance, and named his replacement. The audience “was good-natured and sympathized with the management,” according to the next day’s positive review in The New York Times, and gave the substitute “favor, it being generally understood that he had never even rehearsed the opera and had thrown himself into the breach to save the piece.”

1881-12-31 Punch MascotteThe very successful opera continued to open in more cities — two different opera houses in Chicago, too. In London, it opened at the New Comedy Theatre on October 15. On December 21, the United Telephone Company Limited threw a dinner party at London’s Bristol Hotel for the purpose of listening to The Mascotte via telephone, an introduction to pay cable. By 1882, the year the first Mets joined major-league baseball, the opera was being transmitted from the Theatre Royal in Preston, England, to Manchester, a distance of some 30 miles.

Let’s go, Mets!

Comment: Just for the record, there was an even earlier Metropolitans team. They played no later than 1858 and had Dave Birdsall, later with the Boston Red Stockings, playing second base.


29. The Tokyo Dome’s Only Undefeated Manager (2015 November 20)

The Metropolitan Opera’s baseball team has played in some famous venues. In the early 20th century, they played at New York’s Hilltop Park, home of the Highlanders, better known today as the Yankees. Before that, they played at the Huntington Avenue American League Baseball Grounds, site of the first World Series.

Tokyo_Dome_2015-5-12We think of baseball as a strictly American game, because the teams in the World Series are usually from the U.S., although a Canadian team won two years in a row.  But baseball is popular outside North America, too. The first baseball games to be televised were in Tokyo in 1931, and there’s a Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in the 55,000-seat Tokyo Dome, home of the Yomiuri Giants.

In 2006, between performances of a tour, Metropolitan Opera company members, managed by long-time master carpenter Steve Diaz, played a game against their local tech crew at the Tokyo Dome.  The Met’s team had lost on a previous tour, but this time they won, 15-8, making Diaz the only undefeated manager in Tokyo Dome history.




Baseball Opera and Musical Theater

Baseball and Opera connections

Lecture links:

Link to a lecture (about 46 minutes, including Q & A) on opera & baseball, co-presented by the Glimmerglass Festival and the National Baseball Hall of Fame on August 2, 2014.  The video does not include a program of baseball music performed by the Glimmerglass Young Artists before the lecture:

An updated and less Cooperstown-centric version of the lecture (about the same length) was given at the Atrium at Citigroup Center on October 29, 2014 for National Opera Week.  It includes rare footage of one of the remote viewing systems, showing the 1919 World Series.  It was arranged by the GoingGoingGoneSports gallery, with the help of Boston Properties and World Stage.  It may be seen here:

Links to lectures specifically about the systems used to display live remote baseball games in opera houses in the era before television.  The first is about 14 minutes long; the second is about 26 minutes long:



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