Distinctive baseball saloons, which once dotted urban landscapes not far from the cities’ ballparks, have gone the way of telephone booths and bookstores.
Some are still around, but they’re falling like dominoes.
Baseball saloons during a bygone era were once convenient gathering places not only for fans and the players themselves but also for prominent politicians to hold court within their inner-circle. They served as weigh stations for brassy mobsters and prying journalists (mostly print reporters) hoping to soak up some juicy gossip.
Though no longer distinctive treasures of city neighborhoods, there are still a number of baseball taverns across the country.
Stan’s Sports Bar in the South Bronx right across from Yankee Stadium, for example, is a wildly popular place for Yankee diehards to root for their pinstripe favorites. The Short Stop on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles is typically flooded with a sea of blue, just a short distance from Dodger Stadium, And of course, Murphy’s Bleachers is right behind the left-field bleachers at Chicago’s Wrigley Field and is considered a quintessential baseball watering hole.
Yet another baseball tavern still in operation with a rich history is the Double Play at 16th and Bryant streets in San Francisco. It first opened its doors in 1909 in the fashionable Potrero District and rose to prominence in 1931 when the San Francisco Seals (Pacific League) opened a stadium right across the street. The venerated saloon has been named Double Play since 1943 and is especially noted for displaying revered relics (photos, caps, jerseys, mitts, etc.) from the old Seals stadium.
As popular as these baseball taverns are from coast to coast, these establishments are no longer places for all walks of society: from lawyers, politicians, gamblers, journalists, and baseball fans to swig a beer and share some nuts all under one roof.
“Sadly” Richard A. Johnson, curator of the Sports Museum of New England, tells me, “Many of the new ballparks sit isolated in suburban parking lots or on the scorched earth of redeveloped urban ‘opportunity zones.’ No traditional bars, just parking lots for suburban fans to race out of on their way to Applebee’s or Chili’s.”
To give you a sense of the multifaceted tenor of baseball saloons during a distant era, I highlighted some of the more famous, or in some cases infamous, from around the country.
Theatrical Grill (Cleveland)
The Theatrical Grill was located in an area of downtown Cleveland called “Short Vincent” (between E. 9th and E.6th streets NE) and officially named Vincent Avenue. The street was merely a block in length, but by the 1920s, according to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, it was swarming with saloons, eateries, gamblers, racketeers, lawyers, sports personalities, and newspapermen.
The Theatrical Grill (originally named Mickey’s Theatrical Grill) swung open its doors in 1937 and was owned by Morris “Mushy” Wexler, who ran the Empire News Service, a telegraph service that informed bookies of race track results and updated betting odds.
By the mid-1940s, Wexler brought in Alex “Shondor” Birns, a reputed gangster and convicted felon as co-owner (or silent partner).
Among the Theatrical’s many regulars, a number of professional sports personalities popped in from time to time, including Joe DiMaggio, Rocky Colavito, Sam McDowell, Boog Powell, Bill Veeck, Joe Louis, and Poncho Gonzales. Entertainers who made appearances included Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Dean Martin, Jimmy Durante, Milton Berle, Tony Bennett, Cab Calloway, Yul Brenner, Lauren Bacall, Edward G. Robinson, and a cavalcade of other show stoppers.
According to Bob DiBiasio, vice president of public affairs for the Cleveland Indians, George Steinbrenner had an open tab there for all New York Yankees players, writers, managers, and coaches.
In his entertaining book Cleveland’s Short Vincent: The Theatrical Grill and Its Notorious Neighbors, Alan F. Dutka wrote that former Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner negotiated trades for his baseball team while eating dinner at the Theatrical Grill. Also, the first preliminary discussions regarding the sale of the Cleveland Browns to Art Modell (in 1961) took place there, Dutka wrote.
Dan Coughlin, former sportswriter for the Plain Dealer and Cleveland Press and author of Pass the Nuts, which features amusing anecdotes from his celebrated sports career, tells me there was a dress code in the 1960s—coat and tie. “Rocky Colavito walked into the Theatrical with an alligator shirt, no tie, no coat. Nobody said a word.”
Coughlin additionally recalled that when the New York Yankees advanced to the World Series in 1977, Steinbrenner brought two Theatrical bartenders (Anthony “Nino” Rinicella and Eddie Hallal) to New York and invited them down on the field for the pre-game ceremonies at Yankee Stadium. “Before the game,” Coughlin said, “George started to introduce them to Billy Martin. Before he could do it, Martin walked up to them and said, “Hi Nino. Hi Eddie.”
A fire destroyed the Theatrical on September 13, 1960. It was rebuilt, but after 1978, the Theatrical became the only remaining business on Short Vincent.
Once a bustling district of activity that included the Taystee Barbeque, Frank Ciccia’s Barbershop, the Grog Shop and Kornman’s Restaurant, Short Vincent was hanging on for dear life. A series of maneuvers to try to revive the club were introduced, including a sports bar, a comedy club, and finally a strip bar. All of them miserable failures. The Theatrical closed in 1999 and is now a parking garage.
Wielert’s Café (1408-1410 Vine Street, Cincinnati)
Wielert’s Café, one of Cincinnati’s quintessential beer gardens, became legendary for the place where the Republican political boss of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, George B. Cox (who towered over the city’s political machine from 1886 through 1916), held private meetings with his top lieutenants.
Wielert’s was originally opened by Heinrich (Henry) Wielert, a native of Hanover, Germany, who would later enlist as a Union soldier in the U.S. Civil War. The shelves of Wielert’s were decorated with elegant high steins and solid and heavy chairs and tables, according to an article from the Cincinnati Post. The orchestra was heard filling the air with mellifluous sounds from Beethoven while large steins of beer typically served with schnitzel and German-fried potatoes were promptly carried by waiters from table to table.
Before Prohibition, between Wielert’s and Central Parkway (then “The Rhine”), there were no less than 17 beer halls for thirsty patrons to choose from.
In the 1890s, author William A. Cook chronicles how baseball players back then were celebrities, likening them to rock stars of today. Consequently, it was common practice for baseball executives to parade baseball players in wagons through the streets of the Over-the-Rhine District in order to attract patrons to Reds games.
Boss Cox’s inner circle, among others, consisted of Cincinnati Mayor Julius Fleishman, Rud Hynicka (a politician who led the Republican Party in Cincinnati for many years and operated a chain of burlesque houses), and August “Gary” Hermann, who served as president of the Cincinnati Reds from 1902 to 1927 and president of National Baseball Commission from 1903 to 1920. They met regularly at 5 p.m. at Wielert’s for large steins of beer, reportedly drinking well past midnight.
Although it has not been verified and the story might even be considered apocryphal by many, but the idea of the World Series, many believe, was hatched at Wielert’s by Hermann in consultation with Boss Cox.
True or not, Hermann was christened the undisputed “Father of the World Series.”
McCuddy’s (247 W. 35th Street, Chicago)
McCuddy’s Tavern had a long celebrated history on the South Side of Chicago. It was opened by John McCuddy in 1910, just five months before Comiskey Park was inaugurated just across the street. Once inside, patrons feasted their eyes on wall-to-wall Sox mementos dating back to its inception in 1894.
McCuddy’s soon became the fashionable place to go on Opening Day for a dog and some suds. Former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley made it a point to swing through McCuddy’s on Opening Day.
The most thrilling feeling for patrons inside McCuddy’s was knowing how many famous players drank exactly where they were tipping their mugs of beer, including many from the 1919 White Sox team, Big Ed Walsh, Ted Lyons, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Charles Comiskey, and later, Carlton Fisk.
Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck was reportedly a frequent visitor to McCuddy’s, where he would settle in his chair and prop his wooden leg on the table before diving into a few baseball yarns.
A famous story has it that Babe Ruth once made a mad dash from Comiskey Park to McCuddy’s while a game was still in progress and destroyed their carpeting as he hopped around the watering hole in his spikes, stuffing four hot dogs in his mouth while washing them down with four steins of beer.
McCuddy’s Tavern, a 78-year-old institution, became just one of 11 businesses to be demolished in 1988 to make way for the new Comiskey Park.
Despite promises from Governor James R. Thompson to clear some space for a new McCuddy’s Tavern, it was never rebuilt.
McGreevy’s Third Base Saloon (Boston)
McGreevy’s first opened at Tremont and Ruggles streets in Roxbury in 1894 and is believed by many to be the first baseball-themed bar in the country.
The proprietor of the historic saloon was Michael T. McGreevy, nicknamed “Nuf Ced” because he would often settle arguments by pounding on the bar and belting out “Nuf Ced!” McGreevy came up with the name “Third Base” for his saloon because it would often be regulars’ last stop before heading home.
By 1900, McGreevy moved the bar to 940 Columbus Avenue, a short distance from the Huntington Grounds where the Boston Americans (now Boston Red Sox) played. McGreevy’s moved again after the 1915 World Series to 1153 Tremont Street.
The Third Base Saloon was described by many as a spectacular baseball museum, festooned as it was with dazzling memorabilia and vintage photographs of some of McGreevy’s favorite players, including Nap Lajoie, Jimmy Collins, Cy Young, Chick Stahl, and Buck Freeman.
On any given day, patrons would rub elbows with gamblers, bookmakers, ward bosses, ballplayers, Tin-Pan Alley stars, and of course the most rabid of baseball fans. Boston Mayor John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald (grandfather of Senator Edward Kennedy and President John F. Kennedy) was reported to be a regular, as was infamous bookmaker and gambler Joseph “Sport” Sullivan, who helped fix the 1919 World Series.
In 1920, when Prohibition hit Boston with the passage of the Volstead Act, McGreevy was forced to close up shop for good, at which time he leased his former saloon building to the city of Boston for a new “Roxbury Crossing” branch of the Boston Public Library. By 1923, most of McGreevy’s photo collection was donated to the Boston Public Library; but somewhere between 1978 and 1981 almost 25 percent of his most treasured archive of photos was stolen. The mystery of the thefts, sadly, remains unsolved.
In 2008, Ken Casey, one of the lead singers of the Boston punk group Dropkick Murphy’s, and baseball historian Peter Nash opened McGreevy’s on Boylston Street in tribute to the original saloon and as a valentine to the city of Boston and its rich sports history.
Toots Shor Restaurant (51 W. 51st Street, New York City)
Bernard “Toots” Shor, an “inside bouncer” at some of the city’s most popular speakeasies during the 1920s, first opened his restaurant and bar in 1940, which quickly attracted a flock of sports celebrities and some of the most widely known entertainers of the day, including crooner Frank Sinatra, Don Ameche, Marilyn Monroe, and Bing Crosby. This is the place (known more for its whiskey and beer at its circular bar than its mediocre cuisine) where comedian and film star Jackie Gleason would famously spend the day drinking, go home to take a nap, and show up again at Toots for the nighttime carousing.
Mostly, though, Toots was crawling with Yankees players, especially his personal favorite, Joe DiMaggio. Mickey Mantle also was a frequent guest.
One time, Toots introduced Yankees catcher Yogi Berra to world-famous writer Ernest Hemingway. Yogi being Yogi said: “Good to meet you. What paper are you with, Ernie?”
During the DiMaggio era, when day games were more frequent, sportswriters used to file their stories and dash over to Toots to mix with the Yankees players. If the Yankee Clipper had a decent game, he would even field questions from the gaggle of reporters.
One of the many appealing features of Toots was that it didn’t matter your station in life. All were welcome, whether you were U.S. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren or reputed gangster and crime boss Frank Costello (both of whom once tipped their glasses in acknowledgement of each other).
Legendary New York Times columnist Red Smith referred to Toots as “the greatest saloonkeeper in the world.”
As quickly as he made friends, he would lose a few more along the way. His friendship with Joe DiMaggio ended abruptly one evening when he made a disparaging remark about Marilyn Monroe’s rising skirt. New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath was also insulted by a Toots comment and never returned. The hefty outgoing saloonkeeper (always with a quick slap on your back) once told Hollywood mogul Louis B. Mayer that “his food is better than some of the crummy pictures [of yours] I stood in line to see.”
In 1959, Shor sold the lease for his 51st Street restaurant for $1.5 million to William Zeckendorf. He opened another bar and restaurant in 1961 at 33 West 52nd Street, but the clientele he once catered to grew thinner and he was hopelessly competing with other counter-culture sanctuaries. This, compounded with mounting financial troubles (including tax evasion), led to its closing in 1971. Toots tried yet again to open another saloon in 1972, but it slammed its doors within a year.
Shor died penniless while living with his family at the Drake Hotel at Park and 56th Street. He was 73.
So while traditional baseball watering holes of today might not resemble the assorted mix of regulars of past generations, having been largely overtaken by the 20-something and 30-something wings-and-a-beer crowd of a new generation, at least we still have our written chronicles and treasured archives to bring the past back to life for our active imaginations.