Happy 125th Anniversary, Ladies Day Riot

Marketing baseball to females is nothing new.  It is almost as old as professional baseball itself.  The New York Gothams (later the Giants) had a Ladies Day in 1883.  It offered free admission to ladies in the hopes of hooking them on the game.  Then they would presumably come back as paying customers.  Sounds like a plan. What could go wrong?  The Washington Senators found out when they scheduled a Ladies Day for Monday, September 13, 1897 at Boundary Field in the nation’s capital.

On that day the Cincinnati Red Stockings were in town to take on the Senators.  There was little at stake as the Red Stockings were in fourth place with a 66-49-2 record, while the Senators were in sixth place with a 54-62-3 record.  (In 1897 major league ball was comprised of 12 National League teams; the American League was not founded till 1901).  It was late in the season and neither team was in the pennant race.  September 13 was the penultimate home game of the season for the Senators, so why not let the ladies in free?  As an added inducement, the Senators’ starting pitcher was a renowned ladies man.  At a time when the team’s per-game average attendance was 2,221, an estimated 1,000 ladies turned out.

Then as now, some players were more popular than others.  On the Senators, the most popular player was 23-year-old pitcher George Barclay Mercer, popularly known as Winnie or Win because he was a winner.  The year before he had fashioned a 25-18 record.  He had kept up the good work in 1897, when he would go on to start 43 games and win 21 of them.  His Achilles heel that season, however, was control.  He walked 104 batters and notched 28 hit batsmen.

In days of old as well as today, players acquire reputations.  For example, it was widely known that eagle-eye Ted Williams never swung at a pitch outside the strike zone.  It was more than a legend, as he led the American League in walks eight times.  Consequently, umpires gave him the benefit of the doubt on close pitches.  So it is certainly possible that Win Mercer’s reputation for wildness affected umpires’ perceptions – consciously or otherwise – of marginal pitches.

On September 13 Mercer was apparently having a decent outing until the fifth inning when he got into a heated argument with umpire Bill Carpenter and was thrown out of the game.  As is usually the case in these situations, it was probably not one ball/strike call but a number of them that precipitated the fracas.  Given the limited number of umpires (in 1897 there was only one per game), the chances of a pitcher encountering the same umpire during a season were much higher.  A running feud could easily be drawn out over the season, or even from one season to the next.

However long the duration of Mercer’s feud with Carpenter, his fate was sealed when he took out a pair of glasses and offered them to Carpenter.  When Carpenter refused, Mercer tried to put them on him.  Mercer had clearly crossed the line so it was no surprise that he was tossed.

If Carpenter had thrown out any other pitcher in the league, that would have been the end of it. In this case, however, there were repercussions because of Mercer’s matinee idol status among D.C. distaff baseball fans.  Then as now, female sports fans were much like teenage girls and boy bands.  Ostensibly a fan of the band/team, every female had her fave singer/player.  In the nation’s capital in 1897, Win Mercer was definitely the ladies’ choice.

After Mercer left the game, female fans hollered and screamed at Carpenter.  A controversial call in the seventh inning didn’t help matters any.  At the conclusion of the game (2-1 in favor of the Reds), the male fans began to exit the ballpark.  The ladies, however, had other ideas.

As Carpenter approached the grandstand to exit the field, he was beset by hordes of females who pushed him to the ground, ripped his clothing and assaulted him with parasols and fists.  Amusingly, one newspaper account related, “The umpire was too manly to turn upon the women.”  Luckily, some players came to his assistance and escorted him to the clubhouse.  Eventually, he was disguised and smuggled out of the park.

The female fury was not spent, however.  Armed with bricks, they smashed windows and doors.  They also ripped out seats and tore loose railings.  With no umpire to absorb the blows of their parasols, they turned on ushers.  The police intervened and restored order but there is no account of any arrests.  Thus endeth all peaceful protests.

Despite the 1897 riot, Ladies Day did not disappear from baseball.  The promotion, however, has been null and void since 1973 when the New York Human Rights Commission ruled that Ladies Day was reverse discrimination, and free or discounted admission to femme fans at New York ballparks was taboo.  Other teams took the hint and ended the promotions  In subsequent years it was not unusual for giveaways to discriminate (i.e., some free stuff for men, some for women) but that too has gone away.  (Curiously, age discrimination is still kosher, as some giveaways are earmarked for 13-and-under.)

Absent Ladies Day is it possible we shall ever have a collective female hissy fit at a major league game today?  Well, remember that old standard, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”?  What people sing during the seventh inning stretch is just the chorus of the song.  It’s actually about a young lady asking her beau to take her out to see her hometown heroes.

The song opens:

Katie Casey was baseball mad,

Had the fever and had it bad.

In the second verse:

Katie Casey saw all the games,

Knew all the players by their first names.

Told the umpire he was wrong,

All along, good and strong.

Katie Casey was alive and well in 1897; she was alive and well in 1908 when “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was written; and she is alive and well today.  Of course, today she is more likely to be obese and have blue hair.  I doubt that she still carries a parasol.  Her language is likely saltier.

Win Mercer, however, was something of a flash in the pan.  On January 12, 1903, he checked into the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco and asphyxiated himself with gas transferred via tube from an outlet in his room.  Theories varied as to his motive.  One was unpayable gambling debts; another was an intractable pulmonary problem.  A third theory was woman trouble.

Always an occupational hazard for a ladies’ man.

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