Everyone Went to Nick’s: High and Low Life in Manhattan’s First Sports Bar, Part Two
[This essay by Don Jensen continues from Part 1, which appeared in this space yesterday.] Finally, Nick’s success came from courting customers who represented not so much the opposite of the High Victorian gentility, but rather its underside: namely, the world of sport, or the sporting life. The world of the uncultivated macho dandy whose love of sport had nothing to do with High Victorian “athletics” and everything to do with, simply, the eternal gamble against Fate. His patrons would bet on anything, and were therefore willing to turn loose all the minor vices that were kept leashed in the social sphere above them.32 There were plenty of chances as soon as one stepped out of the Home Plate’s front door.
Baseball and show business were intermingled elements of the sporting life. The New York newspapers listed the Giants’ games, which began at 3:30 in the afternoon, together with the evening’s theater offerings and ads for the town’s menu of variety, burlesque, and freak shows. A benefit ballgame between actors and journalists at the Polo Grounds in September 1888 for the dying minstrel Carl Rankin was “one of the funniest games of ball in American history,” according to The New York Times. The journalists came out on the field in a spare set of Giants uniforms; the actors wore stage costumes, while Nick, decked out in a Tyrolean yodeler suit, “stood guard over the inevitable keg of beer at third base.” The game was called at the end of the eighth inning “out of mercy to the spectators who were so exhausted with laughter as to scarcely be able to rise from their seats. Nick and other members of the fund committee turned over $1,200 to the ailing musician.”33
Critics occasionally said that Engel kept such a high profile because it was good for business, but many more defended him. “I know him pretty well,” said journalist W. L. Harris in 1891, “have traveled with him to Philadelphia a great many times to see games, and know him to be a Simon-pure crank. He would rather see a ball game than eat the finest dinner, and that is saying a good deal, for Nick is a good liver.”34
The “High and Mighty Order of Baseball Cranks of Gotham”
Nick Engel sometimes called himself “Umpire,” but on one subject he was far from neutral: the New York Giants. There was scarcely an event in the team’s tumultuous decade after he opened the Home Plate in which Nick was not standing nearby in the sepia-toned shadows, or warming up Giants morale with one of his juicy steak dinners. Nick, along with other sporting men, formed the core of the “High and Mighty Order of Baseball Cranks of Gotham.” They attended as many games at the Polo Grounds as possible, and often accompanied the team on the road (with Nick often bringing along his stove). Engel, Bell, Hopper, and Judge Cullum, another enthusiast, had regular seats at the Polo Grounds; these were reserved for them with a padlock and chain to which they held the key.35 A Giants home game, recalled an old-timer many years later, was not supposed to begin until De Wolf Hopper arrived on his tally-ho, driving right into the park.36 Engel and Hopper organized the benefit for the team after they defeated Brooklyn in 1889 to win their second pennant in a row.
Engel was an ardent admirer of the Giants shortstop, a frequent saloon patron. Ward “is one of the brightest men I ever knew,” Engel marveled. “He can hold his own in any company, and his speech at the time the world tourists were received in New York [at Delmonico’s in 1889] was as good as any of the others.”37 The “others” included those of Chauncey Depew, and Mark Twain. Loyal above all to the players, Engel backed Ward’s Brotherhood League in the Great Rebellion of 1890 even though the revolt broke his friend John Day’s heart.38 Day “was warned they would quit him but he wouldn’t believe it,” said one crank years later. “‘What!’ says John, ‘My boys? Never.’ But they left him flat, all except Smiling Mickey Welch and Mike Tiernan.”39
The Home Plate served as the new league’s informal headquarters. “Hurrah for Judge O’Brien! Hurrah for John M. Ward! Hurrah for the Players’ National League!” were the cheers as hundreds of guests drank bumpers of wine to the health of the new league at a “wildly enthusiastic” gathering at Nick’s on January 28, 1890—the day the courts threw out the National League moguls’ attempt to enforce the reserve clause against Ward.40 Engel was a member of the New York delegation at the Players’ League convention held inClevelandin March. Despite his sympathy for the upstarts, the doors of the Home Plate remained open to players who had remained loyal to the National League.41 Engel also kept his sense of humor. Before the 1890 season began, he accepted the wager of eccentric Chicago fan Edward Everett Bell of his long locks against Nick’s “imperial” whiskers that the Chicago Players’ League club would win the pennant. The Players’ League Giants finished two games ahead of Chicago so, in payment, Engel marched Bell to the Brunswick Hotel, where a barber cropped all of Bell’s hair save a pigtail, and Giants pitcher Tim Keefe gave him an ice-water shampoo. The party then moved on to Nick’s saloon, with Bell still extolling the merits of his Chicago club. Nick saved Bell’s hair and promised to send a lock to each member of the team.42
Ward blamed the demise of the Players’ League on “stupidity, avarice, and treachery.” Its official death came shortly before noon on January 16, 1891, when it was ratified out of existence at a joint meeting of the National League and American Association. After the decision, Ward and other Players’ League leaders met at Nick’s, where they toasted each other, reminisced, and laughed in between singing off-key melodies such as “You Have Lost Your Popularity” and “My Good Old Friends Who Never Alter.” Their National League adversaries Al Spalding and Cap Anson were there, as well, celebrating their victory. Hearing the singing from a back room, the victors joined the vanquished in the main room, where there was “conventional cordiality” and a “warm and dignified” debate about all that had happened. After a round of “He’s a Good Old Has-Been,” Ward stood and gave a toast. “Pass the wine around,” said Ward, standing to give a toast. “The league is dead. Long live the league.”43
“The Prince of New York Cranks”
The Players’ League was indeed dead, but Nick Engel’s fame continued to grow. He dabbled in Republican politics, became a leader of the Elks, and prepared steak dinners for legislators in Albany. He was one of the participants in the March 1893 annual meeting of the National League held at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, when the pitcher’s distance was moved five feet back from home plate to its modern distance of 60 feet, 6 inches. Charles H. Hoyt’s forgettable Broadway flop of 1895, A Runaway Colt—featuring Cap Anson in his theatrical debut—included a character playing Nick in the third act, in which the Colts ballclub, overweight and out of shape, worked out in the team’s gymnasium. Engel was caricatured “superbly,” according to the Brooklyn Eagle.44
Business at the saloon, still a favorite hangout of athletes, pool players, and actors, continued to be good and Nick spread it around generously. When his old friend Ned Williamson, the Chicago infielder, died in 1894, Engel sponsored a benefit for his widow. He led a fund for Charley Bennett, the Boston catcher whose legs were severed in a freak train accident in that same year. When Digby Bell’s penniless opera company was stranded in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1895, Nick helped bail it out. But Nick had his friendly rivals. Among others, Honest John Kelly (who acquired his nickname in 1888 when, while serving as an umpire, he refused a $10,000 bribe) opened a competing Tenderloin saloon, “The Two Kels,” with baseball star Mike Kelly in 1890.
Temple Cup Victory
The player rebellion inflicted a heavy financial blow onJohn Day. In the years after the peace agreement he was forced to sell shares of Giants stock. Edward Talcott, a New York lawyer who had owned the Players’League Giants, purchased an interest in the club. As part of the transaction he insisted that Jim Mutrie be replaced as manager, even though under him the team had finished in third place in 1891. The Giants dropped to 10th under Pat Powers the next year but improved to fifth after the club brought in John Ward in 1893, by which time Talcott had acquired a controlling interest in the team. By then, however, the old sense of community between owner and players that had marked the years before the Great Player Rebellion were largely gone. Talcott looked upon the Giants primarily as a business interest.45 Instead of being junior colleagues of the owner, the players had become employees, regarded by the magnates as childish and potentially troublesome.
Players no longer referred to an owner as “our good friend,” which was [old Giants infielder] Gil Hatfield’s term for John B. Day.… Changes in attitude led to the creation of sharp social lines. Owners, even managers, no longer fraternized with their players. The easy camaraderie of Nick Engel’s Home Plate Saloon, where Day and Mutrie drank with “the boys,” was over. Their successors were only hired hands to the New York magnates of the nineties.46
Nick Engel led a group of 160 cranks and sportswriters on a special train to Baltimore to open the 1894 season. After a pregame parade through downtown Baltimore with a band and the teams riding in carriages, the Giants lost to the Orioles by a score of 8–3 before the largest crowd in Baltimore history, more than 15,000 fans. Nick also brought along his cooking paraphernalia, and enough members of the Tenderloin Beefsteak Club attended to organize after the game a Baltimore branch of the fraternity.
The Orioles swept the series; by the end of May the Giants were in sixth place (Engel told the press that he was “disgusted” by the Giants’ play after a 16–7 loss to Brooklyn in May).47 They rallied as the season wore on, however, and finished with an 88–44 record, just three games behind Baltimore. In the postseason Temple Cup Series (a best-of-seven between the National League’s first- and second-place teams), the Giants stunned the Orioles by winning four straight. After the triumph, Engel organized a public reception for the champions at the Broadway Theatre.48
Digby Bell recited “A Tough Boy on the Right Field Fence,” his familiar poem about a knot-holer. Hopper and his company performed “Dr. Syntax.” After a brief time backstage, Hopper returned, but the audience clamored for Ward. “There was such an uproarious demand for him that Hopper had to come to the captain’s rescue,” promising that Ward would speak soon, when the Temple Cup was formally awarded. Hopper then recited “Casey at the Bat,” and the crowd cheered. After the event had concluded, both teams retired to Nick’s place and shared reminiscences of the season just past over bumpers of beer.49
It was almost like the old days.50
When word leaked during the 1894 season that Edward Talcott wanted to sell the Giants, many of Ward’s friends began urging the now-retired team captain, already a stockholder, to buy the team himself. Ward declined and kept to his decision to practice law. Nick Engel and other cranks then began discussing the idea of John B. Day returning to become the team’s managing director. In January 1895 Talbott found a buyer: Andrew Freedman, a real estate baron and Tammany Hall politician, who purchased 1,200 shares, nine more than an absolute majority, for $45 a share. He took over the team amid general goodwill from both press and cranks.51 Sportswriter Sam Crane wrote an article welcoming Freedman to the National League.52 On the evening of February 25, Engel tendered the team a steak dinner at the Home Plate.53 The next day Nick, Crane, and others saw the club off at Pier 35 for their voyage to spring training in Savannah. The new captain, third baseman George Davis, announced that he regarded the Giants as second to no one in the league, and that he expected to win the pennant.54
Thus began the Freedman era. It was probably the darkest period in the team’s long history. Freedman “had an arbitrary disposition,” wrote the Sporting News, “a violent temper, and an ungovernable tongue in anger which was easily provoked and he was disposed to be arbitrary to the point of tyranny with subordinates.”55 Within weeks he was making enemies. Freedman eliminated complimentary passes to the Polo Grounds for Engel, Hopper, and others; alienated the other owners in league meetings; punched Edward Hurst, a writer for the New York World, whose copy displeased him. On August 18, Sam Crane was refused admittance to the Polo Grounds after criticizing Giants management.56 Davis lasted 33 games as manager, compiling a record of 16–17 before Freedman fired him. He was followed by first baseman Jack Doyle (32–31) and Harvey Watkins (18–17), an actor who was working for Barnum and Bailey’s circus when Freedman offered him the job. The Giants finished in ninth place.
No longer welcome at the Polo Grounds, Engel continued to root for the Giants from a distance. He attended the Giants–Bridegrooms game in April 1896 at Washington Park in Brooklyn with other former members of the Gotham Rooters’ Club. (“This … will hardly please President Freedman,” remarked the Brooklyn Eagle, “as Washington is only an hour’s ride from here.”)57 Nick detested Freedman as well. “A bond of sympathy links Nick Engel and John T. Brush [owner of the Cincinnati club and later of the Giants],” the Washington Post stated. “Nick and John T. turn on an electric fan and nestle to the windward of it when Andrew Freedman is incinerated in the fire of their cayenne confabs. And Andrew speaks equally kindly of John T. and Nick.”58 The estrangement between the club and Engel proved permanent.
On Friday afternoon, October 22, 1897, Nick was working at the Home Plate, but left early for his home on 148 West 92nd Street complaining of illness. He had not been feeling well the previous few weeks. When he reached home, the good life finally caught up to him: Nick passed away suddenly, the doctors later said, from fatty degeneration of the heart. Engel was one week short of his 53rd birthday.
The news shocked the baseball world and the theatrical “profesh.” Engel’s funeral—on October 25 at Church of the Blessed Sacrament on 72nd Street—was packed with friends from all over the city. The Elks had a supplementary service at the Scottish Rite Hall on Madison Avenue. Nick Engel was survived by his wife Teresa, six children, and his brother Adam. “Oh, the memory of the jovial hours, the inviting odors of gently broiling steaks and chops, foaming ale, and the only profitable, real bohemianism ever cultivated in America, which arises with the name of Nick Engel!” wrote Leslie, the Beefsteak Club veteran.59
The neighborhood had been changing for years, though Nick had seemed too preoccupied with Freedman and the Giants to pay much attention. The sporting life had been gradually becoming more open and fluid—more modern. The stretch between Madison Square and 42nd Street had become known as the “Upper Rialto,” and the night life was spilling even beyond. A portrait of New York published in 1899 noted, “The best and worst of it is to be met here—stars, supers, soubrettes, specialists and managers alike…. The life of the street is as active at midnight as at noon, for the theatres create a constant patronage for the restaurants, which are crowded up to the early hours of the morning.”60 The best and worst were gradually strolling northward, away from the Home Plate and toward what in 1904 was christened Times Square, after the New York Times Building that was in construction. The term the “Gay White Way came into currency … defining an area from the Hoffman House at Twenty-Sixth Street to Rectors [the first and greatest of the lobster palaces], between Forty-Third and Forty-Fourth Streets….” 61 And Broadway was becoming sexy— not crude, like the Tenderloin, but suggestive and racy.
Nick Engel’s friend, Honest John Kelly, established a house on 45th Street that included a saloon on the ground floor, gambling on the second, and Kelly’s domicile on the third.62 At a luncheon in April 1899, small cards were placed on tables at Delmonico’s on Madison Square announcing that the establishment would close on the 18th of the month. A new version opened at 44th Street.
Nick’s sons Adam and Nick Jr. tried to carry on their father’s legacy. There was a “jolly” Tenderloin Club dinner with Buck Ewing and Joe Vila and others in December 1898, just like Nick used to cater. But the Giants were bad and many of the old regulars were no longer around. The sons sold the Home Plate itself in 1902, the year the Flatiron Building opened to announce the arrival of commerce on Madison Square. By then, the saloon had long since disappeared from the newspapers, though later there was one embarrassing incident for those who remembered the saloon in its heyday. The Washington Post disclosed in 1907 that John Montgomery Ward had notified James Conry, a later owner of the Home Plate, that he was going to court to regain possession of an old photograph of the 1894 Temple Cup–champion Giants that had hung on the saloon’s walls. Ward insisted that he had lent the picture to Nick Engel with the understanding that it would be returned, while Conry maintained that he purchased everything in the café when he closed the deal. More poignantly still, Nick’s prized photo of King Kelly, the paper noted, had mysteriously disappeared.”63
Always an ardent Giants fan, in his advanced years Freddie Engel lived on West 116th Street, not far from the first Polo Grounds. He kept with him the remaining photographs of the Giants that had hung in his father’s establishment. In 1957, Freddie refused to attend the last Giants game before their move to San Francisco. If he went to the game, he told The New York Times, he would have to admit that the Giants were irretrievably lost to him.64
Andrew Freedman sold the Giants to John T. Brush in 1902 after the worst season in their history. The team revived quickly under Brush, giving Digby Bell and the other cranks much to root for. With John McGraw as manager, the Giants won league championships in 1904 and 1905, beginning a golden new era for the club. Freedman was instrumental in putting together the political and financial package that led to the opening in 1904 of the IRT subway system, which stopped in Times Square, thereby ensuring Madison Square’s demise.
The lights dimmed quickly. Delmonico’s was already gone, and, one by one, the other Madison Square landmarks and hangouts closed or moved northward in the next few years. In 1912 and 1913, an 18-story, neo-Gothic limestone building was erected on West 27th Street to replace three brownstone row houses, including Number 16, where Nick Engel had once reigned. The building was occupied in the 1920s by the American Museum of Safety.65 But even though the Home Plate had disappeared, decades later Frank Craven, the playwright, director, and actor, fondly recalled Nick and the sporting life:
Novotny’s place, where Digby Bell and Harry Woodruff and Willie Hopper and most of the profession used to get their tobacco are gone. The hole in the wall farther down the street where one could get a plate of stew for a nickel, and “a baby”—which was a double schooner of beer—has passed out of the picture. The dairy next to the stage door of the Empire, with its bottle of milk and graham muffins and the shaker of salt, I don’t see any more—or Nick Engel’s either.66