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Original Issue

Baseball's Great Innovator

Charles Abner Powell gave us the rain check, Ladies' Day and one of the winningest minor league teams of its era

If there were real justice in such matters, Charles Abner Powell would be in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Not for his feats on the playing field, although they were considerable, but for his immeasurable contribution to the game of baseball as an American institution. One day the oversight may be rectified—Grantland Rice and some other people have tried—and if this remarkable man does take his place in Cooperstown they will have to provide him an oversized plaque. It might read something like this:

"Charles Abner (Ab) Powell, player, manager and club owner, developer of baseball's first rain check, Ladies' Day, the Knothole Gang, the field tarpaulin, free soda pop, band music and one of minor league baseball's superteams." They might also toss in the fact that he was the only manager ever to fire his entire squad at once.

The rain check was perhaps his best money-saving idea. Powell, then 27 and a veteran of five years in the majors, had come to New Orleans in 1887 for a salary of $175 a month to be player-manager of the newly organized minor league Pelicans. In his first year the club won the Southern Association pennant, with Powell playing in 98 games, alternating as pitcher and outfielder. He batted .354 and stole 89 bases. It was an auspicious beginning and, with attendance climbing, the club should have been earning a lot of money. But it wasn't, and Powell had an idea why.

New Orleans is one of the rainiest cities in North America, averaging more than 50 inches a year. Games at the old Sportsmen's Park were often washed out in early innings, or even before they got under way. The standard practice on rain-outs then was to give new tickets to the fans as they left the park.

"It wasn't only that we didn't make any money on rainy days," Powell said years later, "we were losing money." It seems that spectators who had sneaked into the game—by climbing fences, slipping past a guard or by knowing somebody at the gate—would now collect a real ticket on the way out. "We ended up giving back a whale of a lot more tickets than we had sold in the first place," Powell recalled.

He worried with this problem for a full year until one June night when the inspiration came to him at 3 a.m. He got out of bed and began diagramming a new kind of admission ticket. Instead of taking the entire pasteboard when the fan entered the park, the gate attendants would now take only half the ticket, leaving the spectator with a dated stub that would be good on another day in the event of a rain-out.

Powell took his design to a printing firm in Arkansas, and the new ticket became the standard admission for Pelican games. Unfortunately for Powell, he never bothered to patent his idea, and soon other clubs began adopting the rain check for themselves, many ordering their tickets from the same Arkansas printer that serviced the Pelicans.

Even before the rain check, Powell had come up with an idea that was perhaps his biggest contribution toward making baseball the national pastime. He called it Ladies' Day, and it was just what the name suggested—a regular day each week when women were admitted free. It was a revolutionary idea for its time, especially since baseball was not the gentlemanly pursuit we know today. Players fought at the slightest provocation. Brawls between entire teams were not uncommon. Spectators did not merely razz umpires for unpopular decisions; they mobbed them. Powell's own mother, who ran a barroom and smoked a pipe, once forbade him to play baseball for money because it wasn't "respectable."

Despite these obstacles, Powell saw an untapped reservoir of fans among the nation's women, and he decided to go after them. He began by running advertisements in the Times-Picayune, setting aside one day each week for the ladies. The first such day, April 29, 1887, attracted only nine women. Surprisingly—or perhaps not so surprisingly—there was a substantial increase in male attendance that day. More women came the second week and still more the week after that. Soon hundreds of women were watching the Pelicans.

Attendance kept rising, sometimes hitting 5,000 on weekdays and 10,000 on weekends, totals that many minor league clubs would envy today. The New Orleans rainfall still plagued the team, however, even with the ticket problem solved. After each rain, the infield would be a quagmire, and it would remain so for days on end. Powell started to work on a solution—if not to the rain (a roof over the park was not practical), then to the wet field. The answer came to him one day in 1889 when he was walking along the Mississippi riverfront and saw a gang of laborers throwing tarpaulins over bales of cotton. He learned that the huge canvases were waterproof, and the rest was easy. Within a few days, Powell had obtained some tarpaulin and from then on the Sportsmen's Park infield reposed under it between games. After the Cincinnati Reds played an exhibition in New Orleans that year, they took the idea north with them, and soon it had spread through the game.

Two other Powell accomplishments had their genesis that golden year. Having come from a poor family, Powell often felt a twinge as he passed the dozens of youngsters hanging around outside the ball park, unable to afford a ticket. Recognizing that the game's future resided in these young fans, Powell decided to give them a better view of the game than they could glimpse through a knothole. He went to the Pelican club owner with a plan: why not, he asked, let the kids come in free one day a week? That taste of baseball would almost certainly stimulate their appetite for the game in later years. Powell got the O.K., and immediately christened these pint-sized freeloaders the Knothole Gang. Like the rain check, they soon became a baseball tradition.

The only other remarkable thing Powell did that year was to build one of the superteams of minor league history. In so doing, he put himself and a hundred other players out of work. The Pelicans had started off the 1889 season by winning 12 straight games, losing one, then winning 11 more. At first their success drew large crowds, but as the spectacle of Powell's unbeatables clobbering team after team began to pall, the fans started staying home. After several weeks of this, the seven other teams of the Southern Association decided to call it quits and the league disbanded. In all, the Pelicans had lost only 11 games.

Teamless—indeed, leagueless—in midseason, Powell headed north, to Hamilton, Ontario in the International League. The following year he went to Spokane and in 1891 to Seattle, both in the Pacific League. By 1892 the Southern Association had recovered from Powell's peerless Pelicans and reorganized. Powell promptly returned to New Orleans, and the moans were audible throughout the South. Fortunately for his rivals, Powell was able to approximate his 1889 feat only once, in the second half of the 1901 season.

In July of that year the Pelicans were in last place. Powell, discouraged and angry at what he considered a lazy team, decided to do something drastic. "I went to North Carolina," he reminisced years later, "and bought myself 12 players for $1,200. They were the key men up there, and after they left, the North Carolina league collapsed. When I got back to New Orleans the old team said to me, 'What are you going to do with us?' I said to 'em, 'You're all fired. Go on up in the stands and watch a real team.' Well, they howled and hooted and hissed and booed, but my new team couldn't be stopped."

Indeed, Powell's North Carolinians went on to win 80% of their remaining games, lifting the club to second place, only one game short of winning the pennant. In terms of percentage, the revitalized 1901 club—Pelican II, so to speak—closed with as good a record as his 1889 team had begun.

Throughout these years Powell's fertile promotional mind seldom rested. Among the gimmicks he introduced at Sportsmen's Park were free cold drinks, gate prizes, bands and orchestras, fireworks demonstrations, pitching contests and fielding competitions. He also became part owner and, later, sole owner of the club. The Pelicans did not always ride so high as in 1889 or 1901, but Powell held on through lean years and was generous in the fat ones. He often advanced money to ailing franchises to keep the league alive. At one point he found himself owner or part owner of clubs in New Orleans, Atlanta, Nashville and Selma, Ala. "We were making money and it was up to us to keep the league going," he once remarked. "We were campaigning for the game in those days."

Powell retired from baseball in 1904 after selling his last property, the Atlanta club, for $20,000. He tried various business ventures, but his heart remained with baseball. He spent most of his later years around the sandlots, teaching the kids and kibitzing. His evenings were frequently devoted to spinning yarns about the glory days for young and old admirers on the front porch of his Canal Street home.

He remained in remarkable physical condition to the end of his life. When he was nearly 70 he approached a league official for a job as an umpire in the Southern Association. "You must be kidding," said the official, an old friend of Powell's. "At your age they'd kill you out there." Powell walked out and never spoke to the man again. Fifteen years later Powell put on a base-running exhibition, circling the paths in 22 seconds, timed by stopwatch. At 90 he was still driving his own car, and at 91 he climbed a 38-foot ladder and put a coat of paint on his two-story house.

In the summer of 1953, after chopping down and cutting up a chinaberry tree in his backyard, Powell collapsed with a heart attack. Confined to a hospital bed, he received a letter from Charlie Hurth, president of the Southern Association, who had just returned from a trip to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. While there, Hurth said, he had noticed a group photo of the 1884 Washington team and saw that Ab Powell was in it. In a way, Hurth closed, that meant Powell had made it to the Hall of Fame after all.

"Now that's a nice letter," Powell told his son Roy, who was at his bedside. "Just as soon as I'm up and around, I'll have to answer that." He never did. On Aug. 7 at the age of 92, Ab Powell finally ran out of good ideas.