October 30, 2020

Those Thrifty Milwaukeeans

February 14, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Being born and raised in Milwaukee I know we have a reputation for being thrifty, frugal, financially conservative (O.K., cheapskates!). But I found it goes back well over one hundred years.

The Western League Brewers built a new park on the city’s north side at 17th and Lloyd Streets in 1895. By the next year the press was reporting spectators outside the park watching the game was a problem.

The Evening Wisconsin of May 20, 1896, wrote:

There will be disaster some of these days outside the ball park. There
are several stands built just outside the grounds and every day they
are crowded with persons watching the game. The props are not
substantial and they are liable to give way at any time under the weight.
It is dangerous and the persons who have charge of them should
strengthen them or limit the number of spectators. As a rule there is
a larger crowd on the outside than in the park.

To emphasize this last sentence, the newspaper wrote the next day: “There were 800 persons who saw the game yesterday, 500 on the stands outside the park and 300 within the gates. It would not be a bad idea for the management to secure an interest in the stands on the outside.”

For some time people around Milwaukee Park had erected “bleacher stands” outside the ballpark, providing access to see the game at a lower price than charged by the professional club. In 1896 Charles Prochazka, a shoemaker and saloonkeeper in the neighborhood, erected a platform outside the left field wall of Milwaukee Park, allowing the occupants to see the game at the reduced rate of 10 cents. It was not uncommon to see “from twenty to forty baseball enthusiasts perched up on the stand in the rear of Prochazka’s yard”, at 762 18th Street (later renumbered 2154 No 18 Street). It was reported “the management does not seem to have a just appreciation of the desire of the boys to see the game without squandering a quarter each time.” Several times the City of Milwaukee building inspector warned Prochazka about the safety of the structure, revoking a permit he obtained in June, but Charles continued.

In the spring of 1897 the management of the Milwaukee baseball club spread a high canvas on top of the fence to shut off the view from Prochazka’s structure. In early June the “enterprising shoemaker” had carpenters erect another story to his bleachers, expanding its seating capacity to 200. The structure was reported to be 37 feet high. The baseball management responded by adding another story to their fence and more roof garden canvas. This was not fool-proof, as the outsiders could still see the game through the holes in the canvas made to prevent the wind from blowing it away. Prochazka then decided to put his stand on wheels, “so that it can be moved to any point where an opening presents itself, and the management is lying awake nights thinking of schemes to head him off.”

In June the building inspector condemned the structure as not being strong enough. Prochazka was arrested and taken to court for not having a permit for the structure. Prochazka–“an average-sized man of middle age, spectacled and of a mild aspect, [who] had difficulty in expressing himself in English”–claimed the carpenters he hired were experienced men, had strengthened the structure and pronounced it safe. His attorneys also challenged the ordinance as it was enforced, and intimated that the building inspector and baseball management were working together. Prochazka was found guilty by Judge N.B. Neelen and fined $10 and costs. It was “believed that the arrest of Prochazka will put a stop to the practice of erecting opposition stands, because the building inspector will refuse to issue permits for such enterprises.”

But Prochazka continued. Within days he was issued a permit “to build a reviewing stand under the ordinance governing the erection of buildings.” His new stand was to be 47 feet high, seat about 100, and cost $135. The club then erected a 50-foot fence of slats to shut off the view of the “Butcher’s” stand. Prochazka then decided to move his stand 30 yards down the line to frustrate management. The papers never reported the final outcome of this battle.

The action by the ball club of building a higher fence had another consequence: it made home runs out of the park very difficult. In late July 1897 both the Milwaukee Sentinel and Journal reported if it had not been for the high fence the Brewers would have had two or three more home runs—instead the balls hit against the fence. In April of the following year the Washington Post quoted a player as saying “I tell you fellers, a man that can plunk a homer over that sign exhibit down there must put a dab of Sandow elbow-grease on his stick.”

Charles Prochazka’s life began to go extremely bad after his brief notoriety. He had trouble with alcohol and family problems, and was in jail at least twice in 1897 for assault and battery. It was reported he was arrested several times after for vagrancy and drunkenness, and went to the almshouse on one occasion. His wife, Anna, filed for and was granted a divorce in February 1898. She was given custody of the couple’s four children, secured the family’s dwelling on 18th Street, and opened a saloon at the premises. On April 21, 1899, Charles Prochazka went to the basement of his former home and shot himself in the right temple with a .32 caliber revolver. The colorful nemesis of the baseball management was dead at the age of 53.

Thrifty Milwaukeeans had other ways to see games free. When first built, the double fence—eight feet on one side and four more feet on the other—was thought would stop small boys from peeping through and cracks to watch a game. However, the Journal was to write in 1897: “The freckle faced, tow-haired youngsters…with short trousers jauntily supported by the relics of suspenders (would have) their eyes firmly glued to kindly crevices and peepholes and spasmodic moans attested to sundry base hits or glaring errors.” The scene around Milwaukee Park must have been almost comic on occasion as the Journal newspaper account continues: “Step ladders, painter’s ladders, ladders whose construction from nondescript pieces of lumber had taxed to the utmost the constructive genius of their makers, and ladders that had seen property were thrown at all possible angles.” Of course, others just clung to the top of the fence.

Of course, modern stadiums do not allow for “knot-hole watchers” and ladders on the outfield fence would get you nowhere but ejected from the area. But the lure of seeing a game free still lurks in the hearts of many Milwaukeeans I suspect.

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