Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Empires And The St. Louis Fire Department

It's obvious to me that there was some sort of relationship between the Empire Base Ball Club of St. Louis and the St. Louis Fire Department. When the city instituted an all-paid fire department in 1857, Henry Clay Sexton, the president of the Empires in 1864 and again from 1870 to 1873, was named chief. John Shockey, who would serve as team captain in 1869, was an assistant chief with the department. Other members of the club who were known to have worked as firemen were Adam Wirth, Tom Oran, and Joe Schimper. Both Shockey and Schimper were, according to Bill Kelsoe, "killed by a falling wall at a fire" and are on a list of firemen killed in the line of duty kept by the StLFD.

Certainly not all the members of the Empire Base Ball Club were members of the StLFD. Al Spink wrote in The National Game that the club "had in its ranks many wide-awake business men as well as some of the most influential mechanics and tradesmen. It had for its officers the most popular men in the community-men selected for their great heart, wide acquaintance and numerous following." The Empires were by no means an extension of the StLFD but the fire department had both a strong presence and influence on the club.

This is not unique in the history of 19th century baseball. According to Warren Goldstein in A History of Early Baseball, one of the "most fertile sources of baseball nines were volunteer fire companies..." The most famous example of this was the New York Mutuals who were "founded in 1857 by the Mutual Hook and Ladder Company No. 1." It's Goldstein's contention that the volunteer fire companies and the early fire departments played a vital role in the development of early baseball, "providing a cultural bridge between this new sport and the earlier, more rough-and-tumble world of working-class leisure." He goes on to list some of the similarities between the two institutions including their names, social activities, and uniforms.

It's doesn't appear, based on Spink's observations on the make-up of the club, that the Empires fit Goldstein's pattern exactly. But, under the leadership of Sexton, a relationship between the club and the StLFD was established and this relationship was used to the advantage of the club. This can be seen in Tom Oran's switch from the Union Club to the Empires. Peter Morris, in his essay on Oran for SABR's Biography Project, writes that "(on) June 5, 1869, the Empire Club defeated the Unions to regain local supremacy. Shortly afterward, the Empires lost their catcher to injuries and recruited Oran to take his place...Both clubs appear to have been amateurs, and it is unlikely that Oran was offered money to change clubs. It is, however, quite possible that he received another sort of inducement to join the Empires. Empire club president Henry Clay Sexton was the chief of the St. Louis fire department and Oran was soon working as a city fireman."

I think it's safe to assume that there were more members of the Empire Club who were also members of the StLFD than the five that I'm aware of. I'm currently searching for a list of members of the StLFD in the 19th century in order to compare it to known members of the Empire Club. When these two lists are cross-checked then the extent of the relationship between the two organizations should become clearer.

Note: The picture at the top of the post is of a funeral procession of a St. Louis fireman who lost his life in the line of duty in 1916. It's the earliest photograph of St. Louis firemen that I've been able to find and was taken from History's Time Portal to Old St. Louis.


Richard Hershberger said...

I have written before about Jack Smith of the Easton Club. He was a volunteer fireman in Philadelphia with the Marion company before he was recruited to play for Easton. He formed the Marion Base Ball Club in 1871, which is one of several club names clearly tied to fire brigade names. (The Mutuals are another. The Knickerbockers are traditionally also so listed, but it is not entirely clear to me that this is correct.)

After the 1874 season the Easton club broke up. It seems likely that Smith was a good enough player to have gone professional, but he chose to stay in Easton. He had married a local girl, joined one of the fire companies, and had a job with one of the local newspapers, so he had established ties. A couple of years later the city established a professional fire department, and Smith was chosen the chief.

This is all by way of agreeing about baseball clubs and fire companies, with the tenuous connection to St. Louis of the former Eastons who played for the Browns.

Jeff Kittel said...

I have a strong feeling that there's an unofficial official relationship between the Empires and the StLFD. You have prominent members of the department who are members of the club and prominent members of the nine who are working as firemen. It's too coincedental.

If they gave Tom Oran a job to switch from the Unions then they most likely did the same for other players, using the fire department jobs as a form of pay. They wouldn't have been the first people to sereptitiously use govt funds and patronage to support a baseball club.

Richard Hershberger said...

No they would not. The next question is were the jobs real, or strictly for show? I get the sense that the Mutuals jobs in the New York city morgue were fake. I am less clear about the Nationals and the Treasury Department.

Jeff Kittel said...

For Schimper and Shockey, the jobs were all too real. Wirth actually got his portrait in Harper's Weekly for his work as a fireman (a copy of which I'm still searching for). So some of these guys were actual firemen who happened to play baseball.

It doesn't look like the Empire Club started as an extention of the StLFD but rather that the relationship grew over time. One would have to assume that Sexton's involvement with the club had a lot to do with that.

There's a history of the StLFD written around the turn of the century that I'm trying to get my hands on and hopefully that will shed more light on the situation.