Fame finally comes to Barney Dreyfuss


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When the city was abuzz this month over the first appearance by the New York Yankees since an epic World Series 48 years ago, two monuments to Barney Dreyfuss went unnoticed.

Not a single fan stopped at a 4-foot-high marble tribute, flanked by two recycling receptacles, on the concourse behind home plate at PNC Park. Likewise, no noticeable attention was paid to a state historical marker placed outside Posvar Hall on the University of Pittsburgh campus, not far from where Bill Mazeroski's home run cleared the brick wall of old Forbes Field in 1960.

But without Barney Dreyfuss there might never have been an annual Fall Classic or a Forbes Field or so many other innovations in baseball. Even if Simon & Garfunkel never sang "Where Have You Gone, Barney Dreyfuss," he is still the man who put the swash in the Pirates buckler and a founding father to what has become a multibillion dollar industry.

"For a city that adores sports and has a two-story sports museum as part of its history center, he is one of the figures we ought to know more about," said Rob Ruck, professor of sports history at the University of Pittsburgh. "He was a mensch. He meant as much to the identity of the city as Art Rooney and Cumberland Posey [who is already in the Hall of Fame for his contributions to the Negro Leagues]."

A second and long overdue chance to discover the life and times of Barney Dreyfuss is at hand because 76 years after his death, his new memorial -- a bronze plaque in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum -- will be unveiled during induction ceremonies next Sunday in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Not only will the Pirates family take part, the fourth and fifth generations of Mr. Dreyfuss' family will also be there, honoring an immigrant who left his job as a bank clerk in his native Germany, landed a job washing out whiskey barrels in a Kentucky distillery for one dollar a day and elevated baseball to the status of national pastime after finding a permanent home in Pittsburgh.

"He was baseball's quiet giant. He sort of got overlooked," said great grandson Evan Dreyfuss, who lives in New York about 100 miles from Cooperstown. "His life and vision for baseball very much parallels the story of the American Dream -- that success comes from hard work, taking risks, being of strong moral fiber and treating people well. The family is very, very proud of him. The city should be proud as well."

Evan's twin brother, Andrew, will deliver the induction speech. And another brother, Barney Dreyfuss III, will be in attendance.

How the Bucs were born

Barney Dreyfuss would hardly recognize the business of baseball today, especially the historic stretch of losing seasons hanging like an albatross around the Pirates' neck. But baseball was once the way to enter the American mainstream for newcomers arriving by ship from overseas, and baseball provided the remarkable trip around the base paths that made him a Pittsburgher.

He was born in 1865 under Kaiser Wilhelm and in the final days of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. Upon his death in 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was seeking the presidency promising a New Deal to break the grip of the Great Depression while baseball had a solid grip on the American psyche.

When he came to America in 1885, just before a National League franchise began playing in Pittsburgh, Mr. Dreyfuss did odd jobs and kept the books for cousins Isaac and Bernard Bernheim, the makers of I.W. Harper bourbon. He worked so hard he became frail, and a doctor suggested some outside recreation. Baseball was just the tonic as Mr. Dreyfuss learned to play second base and later managed an amateur team composed of fellow distillery workers.

Over time, he invested his savings in the Louisville Colonels, which entered the National League in 1892 with the 27-year-old Mr. Dreyfuss at the helm. There are several versions of what happened next, but when the league contracted after the 1889 season and Mr. Dreyfuss purchased a half-interest in the Pirates, he negotiated the transfer of the best Louisville players to Pittsburgh.

The transaction included future Hall of Famers Honus Wagner, Fred Clarke and Rube Waddell, plus Deacon Phillippe, Chief Zimmer, Claude Ritchey and Tommy Leach. In their first 13 years, under seven presidents and 11 managers, the Pirates had lost games and money with regularity. With Dreyfuss, things changed dramatically.

After a second-place finish in 1900, the Pirates set records for winning percentages and ruled the National League with three straight titles. After the three-peat was completed in 1903, Mr. Dreyfuss challenged the winner of the upstart American League to a post-season series, which evolved into the World Series. His stipulation that rosters had to be set by Sept. 1 is still in effect.

The Pirates lost that inaugural series, but Mr. Dreyfuss donated his share of the profits to the players, making the checks out to their wives. It was and is the only time a losing team received a higher share than the winners. He also looked out for his players by offering to invest their salaries for them, guaranteeing to make up any losses if the investments didn't work out.

The Pirates brought the city its first championship in 1909 by beating Ty Cobb's Detroit Tigers, and they won again in 1925 against Walter Johnson's Washington Senators. They lost in 1927 to a Yankees team known as Murderers' Row.

As one indication of the baseball team's dominance of the local sports scene, the city's first National Hockey League team in 1926 and its first National Football League franchise in 1933 began life as the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Mr. Dreyfuss wanted to turn the Pirates over to his son, Samuel, but he died a year before his father. Control of the team went to son-in-law William Benswanger, who continued operations until he sold the Pirates to John Galbreath in 1946. In the 47 seasons the team was in the Dreyfuss family, the Pirates finished in fourth place or better 37 times in an eight-team league.

Building Forbes Field

At the start of the Dreyfuss era, the Pirates still played at Exposition Park, not far from where PNC Park is located. But the owner was convinced he needed a bigger, better facility to attract the masses to baseball, and within 10 years, he created the first modern ballpark.

Helped by industrialist Andrew Carnegie, Mr. Dreyfuss secured seven acres of the Mary Schenley estate in Oakland, filled in a hollow in right field and built a fireproof Forbes Field out of steel and concrete. He covered the $2 million tab in full, and it was completed in four months.

Just like the Steelers' Art Rooney, Mr. Dreyfuss frequented the racetrack. His new ballpark was designed by Charles Wellford Leavitt Jr., whose portfolio included the grandstands at Belmont Park and Saratoga racetracks.

The new baseball palace -- the largest and finest in the land -- was named for British Gen. John Forbes, who gave the name Pittsburgh to the Forks of the Ohio 250 years ago.

The baseball writers of the day noted that Mr. Dreyfuss felt as much at home at Forbes Field as the place where he ate and slept. He was offered some pretty good money to put billboards on the red brick walls, but he rejected crass commercialism. To him, baseball was the thing.

There are no TV clips or highlight films of the humble man who came of age during a time when players in their uniforms rode to games in a horse-drawn omnibus. But his contributions are well documented, not the least of which were his keen eye for talent and his system of making out the schedules for all the major league clubs.

Mr. Dreyfuss worked to abolish the three-man commission that ran the National League in favor of a commissioner, a post occupied by men from Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis to Bud Selig. He also worked to outlaw "freak" pitches such as the spitball, and he was a vigilant force in ridding the game of gambling. In short, he advocated a clean game on a level playing field, but he never called attention to himself.

Well remembered

Columbia, S.C., is part of the Hall of Fame celebration and hopes to rewrite history by correcting a spelling error on a street sign.

A ballpark built in 1927 for a Pirates farm team was named Dreyfuss Field after the man who paid for its construction. When it was renamed Capital City Field, the road outside was named for Mr. Dreyfuss but with one glitch -- his name was misspelled with one "s." On the day of the induction, a minor league team known as the Columbia Blowfish will wear throwback uniforms in his honor and conclude a campaign by putting up a new street sign with the proper spelling.

"Columbia is very proud to be part of Barney's legacy," said team owner Bill Shanahan.

One mark of a man is the roster of those who come to pay final respects.

When Mr. Dreyfuss died in 1932, at a time when he was vice president of the National League, his family received blankets of flowers from the biggest movers and shakers in baseball. In addition to arrangements sent by the national and local chapters of the Baseball Writers Association of America, flowers were also sent by Gus Miller, the chief usher at Forbes Field.

Mr. Dreryfuss' honorary pall bearers included a roster of Judge Landis, the presidents of both the National and American Leagues, club executives from competing teams, and players such as Honus Wagner and Deacon Phillippe.

Judge Landis told a reporter, "When I think of Barney Dreyfuss, I think of integrity, fidelity -- of Gibraltar."

Bob Quinn, president of the Boston Red Sox, called him "the game's strongest champion."

Sidney Weil, president of the Cincinnati Reds, said, "Much credit for building up baseball as America's national game must go to him."

In the eulogy delivered at Rodef Shalom Temple, prior to burial at West View Cemetery, Dr. Samuel Goldenson said, "Here was a man who elevated a mere sport to the dignity of an honorable and magnificent business. ... It is fair play we have most need of in the world, and this man made it the object of his life."

Those words echo across the years for a baseball pioneer who died before there was a Hall of Fame, which helps explain why his enshrinement has taken so long. And now, he joins the immortals of the game he built and developed.




Robert Dvorchak can be reached at bdvorchak@post-gazette.com


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