Baseball Family Owners

“I’m not quite mad as hell. And I can probably take it a little longer. However, my fuse is getting short when I think about the Lerners’ poor stewardship of the Nationals.” Washington Post sports columnist Tom Boswell’s exasperation would be familiar to legions of Washington’s baseball fans.

Most authors and scholars have placed the poor familial leadership of the baseball teams in Washington at the feet of Clark and Calvin Griffith, who owned the Washington Senators from the end of World War I until 1960. The pair are also the figures that the public remembers. However, the city has a long, rich experience with questionable family owners of their professional teams.

Robert C. Hewett assumed the presidency of a team in an upstart third league, the Union Association (UA) in 1884. A member of the Masons, Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias and Red Men, Robert Hewett ran a feed business on Seventh Street, NW. He ran away at fourteen with “but three nights’ schooling, on two of which the teacher was absent and the other the candle went out,” under his belt. After making his fortune selling grain during the Civil War, Hewett bought real estate and became a landlord.

Hewett had previous involvement with baseball teams in the District. He served as president for one of the city’s earliest professional teams. During that time he met the man who managed his UA team, Michael B. Scanlon. Irish-born, Scanlon settled in New York at age 11 and served with the union army for three years from 1863. He settled in Washington and began managing Washington’s semi-pro club, the Nationals in 1868 and assembled one of the most famous teams in the country. He started a pool hall business during the off season.

The Union Association Nationals rented the area where the U.S. Senate Parking Garage exists today. The owners filled in the “Capital Grounds” and erected a grandstand along C Street, NE at New Jersey Avenue that sat 3,500 people. The UA organizer Henry Lucas stacked his team with the best players. Lucas also manipulated the schedule to ensure that his St. Louis team started the season with a long winning streak. Without a pennant race attendance for the UA lagged. Hewett withdrew the Nationals from the league after receiving far less that their share of the gate receipts after games in St. Louis and Cincinnati.

The next year Hewett found himself running a team again in the minor leagues. Hewett brought the only child from his first marriage, Walter, into team management. The team improved the stadium, adding covered seating. In addition, they reoriented home plate to increase the distance from the left field fence so balls hit over it became home runs rather than ground rule singles.

Midseason, the Washington and Georgetown Railroad Company sold left field for $7,000. The purchaser, a Baltimore capitalist, planned to erect fine homes on these lots at First and B Streets, NE and the team was out of luck. Summing up the feelings of team leadership, Scanlon asserted, “The Washington and Georgetown Railroad Company should assist us by allowing us to remain at Capitol Park… In every other large city [a street railroad company] has fitted up grounds and encouraged their maintenance with the most substantial backing.”

The team did not receive any help. The streetcar companies in other cities helped because the location of the team’s stadium led to increased numbers of riders for them. The location did not serve that purpose in Washington. The park sat on the edge of the central part of the local city where the expansion of housing would occur next. Nearly all the powerful figures in the local city supported this growth. According to these officials, that a team had its stadium sold in the middle of the season was simply too bad for the team. However, it showed very graphically the limited cache and importance of sport at that time in U.S. culture.

After contemplating contraction, National League (NL) leadership invited Indianapolis and Washington to form teams and join the league. Hewett and Scanlon needed funds for the security deposit that the NL required, for the salaries for the players and for the cost of a stadium. The Nationals’ officers issued 40 shares of stock at $500 each for capital and incorporated as the Washington National Base Ball Club “to develop and maintain a proper appreciation of athletic and other manly sports and amusements…”

 

The team executed a five-year lease on grounds bordering North Capitol Street, F and G streets, NE (across North Capitol Street from the Government Printing Office). Their recent experience prompted them to negotiate for an option to buy the property before the owners sold it to anyone else. Newspapers glowing described the new park and its 7,500 person capacity. “It is large enough to accommodate the biggest crowds… is easily reached by cars, herdics or on foot and is surrounded by interesting objects, such as the dome of the Capitol, the smoke-stack of a factory on the left, a row of elegant dwellings on the right and such magnificent structures as the Pension office and the District buildings looming up on the horizon.”

Baseball’s fan base consisted of men in the working and middle classes so Robert Hewett believed the location would enable the team to be a success. Hewett made the financial decisions. Michael Scanlon, like other managers of the day, made the personnel decisions and the traveling arrangements. Despite the beautiful surroundings, the team finished in last place in the National League.

Near the end of the first season, the National’s management announced a loss of $10,000. Since this was their initial season, the team spent $18,000 on a series of one-time expenses, including $11,000 to purchase the release of players from other teams and $7,000 on grounds at Capital Park. Michael Scanlon informed the press that things appeared much rosier for the next season. They expected to spend $28,000 on salaries and $7,000 on travel and hotels for total of $35,000 in expenses for 1887 season. If the team earned the same amount as during the 1886 season, $45,000, they would make $10,000 profit.

As the photograph of the stadium showed, the team used the stadium itself to raise revenue. The team offered space on the fences around part of the outfield to local advertisers. These included a steam laundry on the western border of Swampoodle, a feed and hay store and a local food merchant. Other advertisers presumably appealed to the fan base included a local bottling company, and two sporting goods vendors. The most intriguing advertising sign featured an elixir named Mist. The sign carried their claim that Mist was good for the blood.7

The situation must have looked better in the near future. At season’s end, the team If theynIfTreasurer Charles White and two other Board members sued the Club for the one-fortieth share of stock they never received at the beginning of the season. Robert Hewett and Scanlon argued successfully in court that the club incorporated in 1886, being different from the 1885 club, did not recognize investment in the former organization. The new team ownership reelected Robert C. Hewett President and voted Walter F. Hewett the team’s Secretary and Treasurer.

The players received similar questionable treatment from the elder Hewett. Outfielder Cliff Carroll refused to sign a contract for the 1887. He believed club management wronged him with a $100 fine for a slight offense. President Hewett agreed with Carroll and promised that he would remit the $100 if Carroll signed the contract. When Carroll went to the bank to cash the check, he discovered Hewett placed a stop payment on the check. The player took his case to the Base Ball Players Union and a committee went to the annual meeting to inquire into the matter. Several owners went to Hewett and told him he had acted wrongly and suggested that he settle this problem before the Union brought the case up at the League meeting. President Hewett did.

Before the start of the second season the elder Hewett maintained he was unfamiliar with all the details connected with the game which led to some ill-judged actions. He announced to potential local buyers that “[The club] can be obtained at any time by returning the plant to its promoters and assuming its liabilities.” Whether the result of the recent treatment from his fellow owners or not, Hewett suddenly wanted out of baseball. “The club has made a hard struggle, but has been anything but a paying enterprise,” he stated. The Hewetts retained control of the team.8

The Nationals moved up one spot to seventh place at season’s end. One fan asserted that the team lost because their players were out-classed in the League. The reporter covering the team for the sports journal, Sporting Life agreed, noting ”The club is resting upon its oars watching the great grab game that is going on for young players … I can not understand for no club in the League has demonstrated its weakness more forcibly that the Washington Club.” Another reporter noted that the board of directors met but conducted no business. “If the press can arouse the directorate they will be doing a charitable act.”

The reporters expressed a legitimate complaint. The team’s best hitter, Paul Hines, announced he did not want to return to Washington. The management could not keep him. The Board did little regarding improving the team. The Board did vote Luther E. Burket the team’s Secretary and Treasurer as Walter Hewett increasingly acted in his father’s position.

Later that month team officials astonished the baseball world. A report leaked that the team management made an offer to the St. Louis team’s management of $12,000 in exchange for the rights to first baseman and manager Charlie Comiskey. The correspondent for the Sporting News informed fans, “It is plain to see that President Hewett is fully determined to strengthen his team to the utmost and in doing so money will be no object. Every one who is acquainted with Mr. Hewett knows that if he makes up his mind to do anything, that he will do it.”

The correspondent proved wrong. The only successful transaction during the off-season hurt the team. Management traded the .300 hitter Hines in exchange for an outfielder who would have only three at-bats with the team. Walter Hewett defended management’s choices for the team in early 1888 in the Washington press. Whether he convinced them of anything was unclear. However, National League officials considered Washington an experimental combination whose future remains uncertain.

The team management did eventually meet again before the start of the 1888 season. Like many of today’s teams they immediately moved to enhance their personal earnings from the team. Before the start of the season, the directors met at the Hewett’s feed store and promptly voted to raise season ticket prices by 50% to $30 for grandstand seats. Despite not improving their product the team management felt emboldened to charge more to see the games. The fans responded as few purchased these tickets. They still had to pay more to see the games as the League’s officials mandated that all teams boost bleacher ticket prices from 35 to 50 cents. Matters grew worse when the Sporting Life reporter wrote at the beginning of the season that the owners have not yet full confidence in the capacity of their team.9

The players might have felt similarly about the team’s management. With Walter Hewett taking the reigns as field manager, the team won 10 and lost 29. When the Detroit team visited Grover Cleveland at the White House in late June of 1888, the President commented on the poor showing of the Washington team. The Hewetts hired Ted Sullivan as manager and the team improved slightly.

Events in team management turned for the worse. In mid-summer, the sixty-one year old Robert left with his wife and daughter Laura on a convalescence trip to Vermont. Rumors flew about the team’s financial status and the possibility of a sale. Walter turned greater attention to the feed and flour stores. As the Nationals climbed to seventh place in late August, Walter Hewett assured the League that the team was comfortable financially. However, the rumors of a sale gained credence when Robert C. Hewett returned to Washington and died days later.

Robert Hewett left his eldest son in an excellent position from which to run the team. Walter held the majority of the stock and the premiere executive position, team president. He had the significant personal wealth from the $20,000 gift. Walter also had control of his regular income as the owner of the family’s feed store. His position as one of the city’s premiere grain dealers enabled Walter to be voted the Vice President of the Washington Grain Exchange in 1890. Walter expanded into the building supplies business but lost control of the business in 1895. A local member of Democratic Party organizations, Hewett would serve on one of the committees required to run the inaugural festivities for Grover Cleveland when he won the Presidency in the election of 1892.10

The Eldest Son Takes The Helm

The beat reporter for Sporting Life believed that the team’s future hinged on Walter’s actions. “[However] he prefers to devote his active attention to the flour and feed business. The life of a base ball magnate is not congenial to him.” Did this attitude emerge before or after he managed the team? Walter Hewett demonstrated his limited baseball acumen when at season’s end he did not act to secure any of the best players from the bankrupt Detroit team despite Washington’s obvious weaknesses. He sold two pitchers and an infielder for $4,200 to the Columbus minor league team. Instead, Hewett sought a star and aimed at acquiring the New York Giants’ shortstop John Ward. He offered the future Hall-of-Famer a contract for $5,000, the largest amount ever offered to a player. Ward asked for $6,000 and when Hewett refused Ward opted to stay in New York for less than the $5,000 salary.

The son’s organizational infighting skills appeared sharper than his baseball sense. Installed as team President, Walter leaked to the press that the club owed his late father’s estate $23,000. He promptly informed team stockholders that they owned $500 per share held. This heavy assessment created dissatisfaction among board members and caused several small shareholders to want out of the business. Several took Hewett’s buyout offer but some wanted more money and their proportional share of the valuation of the Capital Park lease. Hewett refused his fellow Board members while continuing to put his stamp on the team.

The young magnate also alienated other owners. They accused him of trying to pry players from every major and most of the minor league teams. Perhaps the older owners used this against him because of the Nationals owner’s poor choices. Walter spent $5,000 to acquire second baseman Sam Wise from the Phillies; his .250 batting average for his new team hardly warranted the purchase price.

Hewett purchased shortstop and new manager John Morrill from the Boston team for $6,000. The local sportswriters expressed pleasure with the deal, describing Morrill’s handsome presence and the expectation that he will guide his fellow players well. In his fourteenth major league season, Morrill met no one’s positive expectations, as he hit for a .185 average and led the team into last place with over twice the number of losses as wins. He became such a defensive liability that he transferred himself from third to first base.

Hewett gave up on Morrill in early June and purchased Arthur Irwin from the Philadelphia Quakers for $3,000 in early June and installed him as the manager. Irwin batted .233 for the Nationals but sparked the team to a 22-10 record, prompting the observation from the local press that “The Washingtons are playing great ball now.”11

The team’s turnaround in the dog days of summer went for naught. Walter Hewett sold the option and the lease which the Washington Baseball Club held on the 322,000 feet of ground that constituted Capitol Park. Chester A. Snow, a well-known patent attorney, purchased the lot at an estimated price of 70 cents a foot. Snow would not disclose what he intended to do with the grounds. The team management auctioned off the ground stands, fencing and other materials.

Hewett announced that he expected to secure grounds more convenient to the Nationals’ downtown patrons. Washington fans and the newspaper reporters noted that Hewett would struggle to find a new location. Very few open lots of the necessary size for a stadium existed in the core of the local city. Those areas the federal government reserve for its use could not be used for a stadium. The remaining spaces contained residences that made the surrounding empty grounds too small to use for the ball park.

The team finished the season poorly after the sale of their home field. During the off season, Hewett met with three well-known Washingtonians and the trio and Walter forged a syndicate. The members each agreed to advance half of the cost necessary to build a ball park and to place the baseball team on a first-class basis. Hewett left the city to attend the NL’s winter meetings and nothing more occurred with the syndicate.

The National League owners had tremendous worries as a new league emerged to create serious competition for attendance. Many baseball players left their teams in both the NL and AA to join the new eight team combine established by for the 1890 season, known as the Players’ League. Hewett’s Nationals had lost many of the best members to the Players’ League teams in Philadelphia and Buffalo. League officials used legal threats to undercut their new competitors and considered eliminating the weaker teams in their own league to improve the financial circumstances.

In January, Walter Hewett developed his own response to the three baseball league crisis. He announced that the Baltimore ownership would purchase his franchise for $25,000. The newly-combined team would share home dates between the two cities. Two weeks later the deal vanished. National League officials expressed their concern about the team’s status. President Nick Young worried about Walter’s confusing, dilatory tactics and requested definite actions toward finding a stadium in Washington. By early March 1890, team management still failed to secure grounds.

The season loomed and the National League published a schedule for the new ten team league. With the rise of the Player’s League, the owners in the National League wanted to contract the business. They believed that a streamlined League would help them defeat the Players League. The owners worked frantically in the backrooms of the League’s offices to whittle membership down. Within a week, Washington and Indianapolis each accepted $20,000 to leave the League.

Through a focus on making money, ill consideration of the team fans, and public relations, and poor personnel management, the Hewetts sets a standard that other DC family team owners have continued for years.

 

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5 comments so far

  1. […] Baseball Family Owners « Bohemian Yankee in the Capital […]

  2. […] post from last week fleshes out the Hewetts and their ownership […]

  3. Hi, interesting post. I have been wondering about this issue,so thanks for writing. I’ll certainly be subscribing to your site. Keep up the good work

  4. […] Baseball Family Owners « Bohemian Yankee in the Capital […]

  5. st louis building on

    Yeah , I think “The next year Hewett found himself running a team again in the minor leagues” is a great thing.


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