Everyone Went to Nick’s: High and Low Life in Manhattan’s First Sports Bar

This week I am pleased to give Our Game over to my friend and esteemed colleague, Don Jensen. In two parts, he will share with the readers of Our Game an outstanding article he contributed to the fifth edition of Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game, back in Spring 2009. With the kind permission of the journal’s publisher, McFarland, I will occasionally bring to your attention other outstanding works that heretofore have been unavailable to the broad readership interested in baseball history. 

Jensen, a longtime SABR member, is author of  The Timeline History of Baseball (Thunder Bay Press, 2009) and contributing author to SABR’s Deadball Stars of the National League (2004) and Deadball Stars of the American League (2006), both published by Potomac. A former diplomat, he is Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University; he is also a consultant to the US government. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia, and is a devoted fan of the Giants (in New York and San Francisco) and the San Francisco Seals. 

Everyone Went to Nick’s: High and Low Life in Manhattan’s First Sports Bar

Don Jensen

“This was New York in the elegant eighties and these were the Giants, fashioned in elegance, playing on the Polo Grounds, then at 110thStreet and Fifth Avenue. It was the New Yorkof the brownstone house and the gaslit streets, of the top hat and the hansom cab, of oysters and champagne and perfecto cigars, of Ada Rehan and Oscar Wilde and the young John L. Sullivan. It also was the New York of the Tenderloin and the Bowery, of the slums and the sweat shops, of goats grazing among the shanties perched on the rocky terrain of Harlem.”1

Toots Shor ran New York City’s best-known watering hole of the 1940s and ’50s, where Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason were regulars and Joe DiMaggio ate two or three meals per week. When they were not at Shor’s, Mickey Mantle and his Yankee buddies hung out at the Stork Club, the Plantation Room, Mama Leone’s, or Jack Dempsey’s joint, with the old champ often decorating the window by sitting at a nearby booth.2

In 1894 Michael T. “Nuf Ced”  McGreevey, a devoted baseball fan, named his new Boston saloon Third Base because it was the last place one stopped before going home. By the turn of the century his establishment was a favorite of diehard fans known as the Royal Rooters. Its walls were covered with baseball pictures from McGreevey’s own collection and memorabilia from friends like Cy Young.3

McGreevey’s claim today to being “America’s First Sport Bar,” however, ignores the real holder of that honor: “Uncle” Nick Engel’s Home Plate, in New York City, just off Broadway near Madison Square. For a decade beginning in the mid-1880s, boxers, billiard players, racing men, actors, writers, playboys, and aristocrats staggered and swaggered through Nick’s place, where one might bump into Mark Twain or Maurice Barrymore at the bar, or a member of the visiting Chicago White Stockings feasting on one of Nick’s steak dinners upstairs. During the baseball season, managers and magnates made a point of visiting Nick’s and many deals originated within its walls.

Above all, Nick’s Home Plate was the hangout of the New York Giants during the club’s glittering first era of greatness. Team owner John B. Day and manager James Mutrie were regulars. Pictures of Giants players adorned the café’s walls—Johnny Ward, Mickey Welch, Buck Ewing—as well as photos of out-of-town favorites such as Michael “King” Kelly (with a telegram from the great player to Nick tucked in the corner announcing victory in an important game) and Engel’s pals from the New York stage. Nick’s son Freddie, the team’s batboy, was not only supposed to retrieve errant balls and bring good luck to the team on the diamond. He also delivered love notes from Giants players to adoring female fans.4

Working His Way Up

Nick was a “perambulating trade mark for the damp brand of joy that that fluxes in his Gotham glassware emporium,” wrote the Washington Post.5 He was born on October 31, 1844, in New York City, the son of Adam Engel, a carpenter. The senior Engel apprenticed Nicholas and his elder brother Adam to a woodcarver, but at the beginning of the Civil War the brothers left the trade and began opening oysters at the Philadelphia Hotel at Battery Place and Greenwich Street in lower Manhattan. They worked there for seven years before moving on to North Moore and Greenwich Street as bartenders. Nick married the former Teresa Rieger in 1868.6

In 1872 the brothers went into business for themselves, opening an oyster and chop house on Sixth Avenue between 28th and 29th Streets in the heart of the infamous Tenderloin district. Nearby on 27th were houses of vice such as the Heart of Maryland, the Tuxedo, the Cairo Dance Hall, and Buckingham Palace, a single room two stories high that had crammed into its confines a shooting gallery, a full-scale restaurant, and, behind curtained booths, a brothel.7 Soon the reputation of the Engel brothers’ place grew as a place of good food and convivial atmosphere. The brothers parted ways in 1877, with Adam moving to the Clifton, at 35th Street and Fifth Avenue. Nick started a café at 12 West 27th Street, which he operated for 10 years. In 1887 he moved next door to number 16, where he opened the Home Plate.8

Setting the Scene: Madison Square in Nick’s Heyday

A primary reason for Nick’s success was the Home Plate’s central location. By 1890, bustling Madison Square, just two blocks from his establishment, was barely recognizable from the “open and useless field” where the Knickerbocker Club had played an early version of baseball little more than four decades before. The square boasted an ambiance that many people compared to Paris, a mixture of stately homes and elegant entertainment.9  Nearby were the newest theaters, the most luxurious hotels, and the most exclusive clubs. Broadway from Madison Square south to Union Square had “champagne sparkle,” wrote Harry Collins Brown. “All the world came to Broadway to flirt, find amusement and to meet acquaintances among the city’s finest jewelers, furriers, florists and haberdashers.”10 Broadway, from 23rd Street down to 8th, was known as the “Ladies Mile,” a reference to the great department stores that had grown up in the area, and to the many smaller “fascinating, alluring, irresistible” shops nearby. During the afternoon shopping hours Broadway was clogged with victorias, landaus, broughams, and coupes, and along its sidewalks promenaded an endless procession of elegantly attired women with their long “walking dresses” in the urban dust. “What are the Parisian boulevards, or even Regent Street,” marveled King’s Handbook in 1892, “to this magnificent panorama of mercantile display?”11

The hotels on Madison Square, a prime source of Nick’s clientele, were world famous. The elegant Fifth Avenue Hotel, made of brick and white marble, was the social, cultural, and political hub of elite New York; it could accommodate 800 guests. Every president since Buchanan had stayed there during his visit to the city, and it was the frequent meeting place of the team moguls of the new National League. Immediately north of the Fifth Avenue Hotel were the Albemarle Hotel, where Lily Langtry lived when in New York, and the Hoffman House, preferred by Sarah Bernhardt. Every “gentleman” worthy of the name visited the Hoffman House bar to see its notorious major adornment: a painting of Nymphs and Satyr by the Parisian artist William Bouguereau, which hung beneath a red velvet canopy, lit by a crystal chandelier, and reflected in a large mirror. So popular was the scantily clad subject that reproductions of it were to be found on labels inside cigar boxes, on silver matchbox covers, on plates, urns, and even bathroom tiles.12 The Brunswick Hotel, on Fifth Avenue and 26th Street, was the headquarters of the aristocratic, horsey set, which enjoyed the hotel’s bird and game dinners and rare vintages. Directly across the street from the Brunswick, occupying the block between Fifth Avenue and Broadway, was the most glamorous establishment of all, Delmonico’s, where Albert Spalding’s all-star baseball teams were feted in 1889 when they returned from their world tour. New Yorkers claimed that one could starve from indecision at the corner of Fifth and 26th from having to choose from rival cuisines.13 The more venturesome could walk over to the Home Plate for a prime cut of meat.

Madison Square was equally famous as Manhattan’s center for amusement. “It was the period of Lily Langtry and her scandals, of Lillian Russell and Diamond Jim Brady, of the first American tours by Sarah Bernhardt. Playwrights became producers and theater owners: Augustin Daly, David Belasco, Henry D. DeMille.”14 The second Madison Square Garden (built in 1889 on the very spot where the Knickerbockers had played) was at the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and 26th Street. Designed by architect Stanford White, it featured a concert hall, theater, and roof garden (where in 1906 the architect would be shot by the new husband of his former mistress, Evelyn Nesbit). Madison Square was also displacingUnion Square as the center ofNew York’s legitimate theater, increasingly a major industry with its piano shops, theatrical agencies, printers, costume shops, and photography studios. As the city grew, that industry was migrating up Broadway.

Most theaters around Madison Square catered to the elite. At the socially exclusive Lyceum, Thomas Edison had personally installed the electric lights. On opposite sides of the street at 30th were Daly’s and the new Wallack’s, where on August 14, 1888 Nick Engel’s friend and fellow baseball crank De Wolf Hopper first recited “Casey at the Bat.” But there were also pockets of lower-brow entertainment of the sort that appealed more to working men from the Bowery or visitors from out of town. The Eden Musee, at 55 23rd Street near the Fifth Avenue Hotel and across from McCreery’s Department Store, “featured the usual retinue of freaks, midgets, fire eaters, sword swallowers, waxworks, a Chamber of Horrors and ‘Ajeeb, the chess mystery,’ a pseudo-automaton … consisting of a hollow figurine inhabited by a child dwarf.”15 In a concession to the generally high-toned tenor of the neighborhood, the Eden Musee also displayed a wax likeness of actress Helen Dauvray, future bride of Giants’ shortstop John Ward, during her stay at the Lyceum.16

Engel’s Home Plate sat on an entertainment fault line, as well. A short walk from the intersection of Fifth and 26th west to Sixth Avenue began a world “that existed just below the veneer of Victorian respectability—beyond the pale, but not too far beyond, often illegal, but just a few hundred yards down the primrose path, in a smoky purple haze….”17 From 23rd Street northward, dingy by day and depraved by night, the neighborhood—known as Satan’s Circus or the Tenderloin—descended into a gas-lit carnival of vice. Along the avenue and the streets branching off it were houses of prostitution—“the abiding places of the Crimson Sisterhood”—garish saloons, and low dance halls.18 It was estimated in 1885 that half of the buildings in the neighborhood were given over to some type of immorality. In the blocks between 23rd and 40th Streets, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, the turf was carefully divided up among specialties: 28th Street was devoted to high-end gambling houses, 27th to poolrooms with bookmaking operations, while 24th, 25th, 31st, 32nd, and 35th were reserved for whorehouses. (The so-called Seven Sisters on 25th Street were adjacent brothels in residential brownstones. The Sisters sent engraved invitations to visitors whose arrival in New York had been announced in the press).19 Houses of assignation were everywhere.20 At Koster and Bial’s Music Hall, one block from the Fifth Avenue Hotel, patrons could drink and watch Lily McTwobucks do a version of the cancan. In 1885 Koster and Bial’s witnessed the debut of Carmencita, noted for wearing her corsets on the outside of her dress.21The Haymarket concert saloon, on Sixth just south of 30th, forbade its wealthy clientele from close-up dancing with prostitutes and expelled visiting working-class girls if they showed their ankles. At the same time, the establishment provided curtained galleries behind which discreet sex could be practiced. Visiting ballplayers or men-about-town could also retire to the Haymarket’s balcony, where cubicles featured sex exhibitions, or “circuses.”22

A Genial Host

Nick Engel was always an exceedingly cordial host. He often told friends he would rather cook than eat, and constantly kept his ears open for new ways of cooking steak and preparing clam chowder. He put these recipes into practice. Giants pitcher Mickey Welch even composed ditties about the excellence of Nick’s offerings.23 Engel’s fame lay primarily in his steak dinners, often served to friends at midnight, which he broiled himself. Guests sat on wooden boxes, broken-down chairs, or anything they could find, and were protected by towels, which served as bibs and napkins. Knives, forks, and spoons were taboo.24

Engel learned the art of broiling steaks—and of serving them without utensils—in the late 1870s from “Uncle Billy” Miller, for 40 years the proprietor of a century-old tavern, Shannon’s Corner, at the junction of Market, Hamilton, and Monroe Streets in Lower Manhattan. Shannon’s steak dinners used the juiciest cuts provided by butchers at the nearby Catherine Street Market in honor of their favorite customers, ship captains (often oystermen), who bought large quantities of meat for long voyages. Each guest devoured his allotted three pounds of hickory-broiled and buttered beef between planks of bread. The tradition lasted for many years, with sea yarns spun and songs sung far into the night in an atmosphere of unlimited ale and greasy-mouthed gusto.25 As the fame of Shannon’s spread, well-to-do merchants, swells, and men-about-town began to drop by, as did actors such as Edwin Booth and Nick Engel’s friends De Wolf Hopper and Digby Bell. Hanging on the wall of the Home Plate, next to photos of ballplayers and actors, was a picture of Billy Miller’s ancient grill room, with Miller broiling a steak and Engel serving the assembled guests.26 Nick learned his craft well. He “was by gourmands accounted the most famous beef cook in America, probably the world,” wrote drama critic Amy Leslie, “and the honor of initiation into the secret ways of preparing his steaks he granted to not over a half-dozen other guests who have devoured his delicious oven productions.”27

In the 1880s, a rash of nostalgic beefsteak clubs broke out in Manhattan, though without the original, salty simplicity of Shannon’s Corner. (By now a gridiron and hickory coals had given way to gas stoves, which also produced the desired smokeless heat.) Rich merchants and assorted tycoons, eager to escape the stultifying formality of their wives’ dinner parties, willingly joined them. No expense was spared, and sometimes stage designers were hired to turn large halls into “old-time” taverns. In the fall of 1889, Frederick Oppermann, a wealthy brewer, organized with Engel’s help the Turtle Bay Beefsteak Club, and 20 more clubs sprung up in the city alone. Turtle Bay members were eager to extend the enjoyment of their table to the “heathen, who, if not gastronomically befogged by the mysteries of French cookery, are still suffering the intestinal tortures of the frying pan.” Nick, his son Nick Jr., and his brother Adam were all key Turtle Bay missionaries. Two clubs were formed in Brooklyn and others arose in Pittsburgh, Washington, Milwaukee, and Syracuse. All clubs outside New York were initiated into the Order of Beefsteak Eaters by a committee from the parent Turtle Bay Club. For the installation in Pittsburgh, the New Yorkers took a special train and brought with them 220 pounds of meat and 40 pounds of chops, furnished by the same butcher who used to provide meat for Uncle Billy Miller.28 At the creation of the Washington branch of the order in 1894, Nick Sr. served as carver, Nick Jr. as assistant barkeeper, while Adam helped entertain.29 The National Theater furnished a stage setting representing the interior of a London Tavern, with a cavernous fireplace, an old spinning wheel, ancient muskets and cutlasses, curious old clocks, and some “deadjohns and bottles that were literally as dusty as if just out of a time-forgotten cellar.”30

As the years passed, the Turtle Bay Club (later styled the Tenderloin Beefsteak Club with Nick Engel as its chef) maintained a headquarters at 455 Seventh Avenue, on the fringes of Satan’s Circus. The dining room “was a long, bright kitchen, with a funny square little finish at one end suggesting the shape of the ‘T’ bone in a porterhouse steak.” As at Shannon’s Corner, utensils were forbidden, and overturned boxes, butter tubs, and reed baskets were the only seats allowed.31

NOTES

1. Graham, F. 1952. The New York Giants: An Informal History of a Great Baseball Club (2002 reprint) (p. 3).

2. Reisler, J. 1999. Babe Ruth Slept Here: The Baseball Landmarks of New York City (p. 113).

3. www.mcgreevysboston.com

4. The New York Times: Sept. 29, 1957.

5. Washington Post: July 12, 1896.

6. The New York Times: Oct. 23, 1897.

7. Sante, L. 1991. Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York (pp. 114–115).

8. The New York Times: Oct. 23, 1897.

9. Berman, M. 2001. Madison Square: The Park and its Celebrated Landmarks (p. 6).

10. www.preserve2.org/ladiesmile/flatiron.htm. Traub, J. 2004. The Devil’s Playground: A Century of Pleasure and Profit in Times Square (p. 11).

11. Morris, L. 1951. Incredible New York: High Life and Low Life of the Last Hundred Years (p. 111).

12. Berman 2001, 46.

13. Morris 1951, 110.

14. Sante 1991, 88.

15. Ibid., 99.

16. Ibid., 88–89. See also Traub 2004, 8.

17. Wolf, T. 1972. “Forward,” in The Police Gazette, ed. G. Smith and J. Smith (p. 9).

18. Morris 1951, 11–12.

19. Burrows, E., and M. Wallace. 1996. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (p. 959).

20. Sante 1991, 187–188.

21. Ibid., 95.

22. Burrows and Wallace 1996, 1148.

23. The New York Times: Sept. 29, 1957.

24. Boston Daily Globe: May 6, 1915.

25. Batterberry, M., and A. Batterberry. 1999. On the Town in New York: The Landmark History of Eating, Drinking, and Entertainments from the American Revolution to the Food Revolution (p. 306).

26. Chicago Daily Tribune: Mar. 26, 1893; The New York Times: Oct. 26, 1896.

27. Leslie, A. 1899. Some Players: Personal Sketches (p. 583).

28. Chicago Daily Tribune: Mar. 26, 1893.

29. Reed received a medal at the Washington event which he attributed to his “indomitable gluttony, as he had eaten twenty-nine pieces of the steak, a record which has never been broken” (Leslie 1899, 388).

30. Washington Post: Feb. 25, 1894.

31. Leslie 1899, 584–586.

 


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