Coroner’s Jury and Bankruptcy: Aftermath of the 1903 Ball Park Horror

By Ed Morton

Illustration : Maggie Barry; 8/11/1903 North American p 1

Maggie Barry was returning from an errand for her Aunt on August 8, 1903 when she joined a group of girls taunting two drunken men. One of the men grabbed her and she screamed.1 

Illustration : Crash at Base Ball Park; 8/9/1903 p 1 Phila. Inquirer 

The left field bleacher patrons at the Phillies’ ball game rushed to the railing and the overhanging portion of the walkway collapsed, spilling them into the street 25 feet below.2 The injured were rushed to nearby hospitals in trolley cars, carriages, or any kind of conveyance.3 Both nearby Samaritan Hospital and St. Luke’s Hospital were almost overwhelmed.4

For more on the collapse and aftermath see “Baseball’s Deadliest Disaster: Black Saturday in Philadelphia” by Robert Warrington in the 2013 The National Pastime.    

Illustration : Coroner’s Jury to Visit Scene; Phila Press 8/12/1903 p 1

Coroner Dugan swore in six expert builders to act as the jury in the inquest of the tragedy. One of the men chosen was Joseph Bird.5 He had built the 1887 version of the ballpark, which had been consumed by fire in 1894, on the same site.6 Bird had become embroiled in several Mechanic Liens with the ballpark owners as a result of that construction.7 Apparently neither the business relationship nor the following disputes disqualified Bird from serving as a juror. The Coroner provided the jurors with a pamphlet forwarded by John Rogers, describing the building of the stands and listing the participants.

Illustrations : Section of the Wrecked Promenade; 8/9/1903 Phila. Press p 1
Collapsed Wall on Fifteenth Street; 8/9/1903 Phila. Record p 1
Philadelphia Ball Park; May 1905 Outing Magazine p 178 courtesy

On August 13th the Coroner, empaneled jurors and employees of the Bureau of Building inspection visited the Ball Park.  In addition to inspecting the 15th Street walkway the Jury called for a gang of workmen to remove planks and metal covering timbers along the Lehigh Ave and Broad Street promenades. Not a single joist was found to be sound, they were “rotten as punk”.9 The promenades on Lehigh Ave and along Broad Street as far south as the flagpole had been built as part of the same renovations as the 15th Street walkway.10 The Coroner directed the builder, Ballinger & Co., to bring all plans and specifications to the inquest on August 18th.11    

Illustrations : R. C. Ballinger; 3/24/1896 Phila. Times p 10 | James Potter; 10/7/1904 Phila Record p 9 | John I. Rogers; 1/22/1901 Phila. Inquirer

The three entities under scrutiny in the tragedy were : the builder of the park R. C. Ballinger; the current owners of the park represented by James Potter and the former owners of the park represented by John I. Rogers. They were all united in the opinion that the fault lay with the victims themselves for leaving their seats to rush to the railing and expressed that view in the press. And they were supported by editorials in both the Sporting Life and the Sporting News. Highly regarded commentator Henry Chadwick concurred with that view. 

But Ballinger and Rogers, attempting to get ahead of the story, explained to the press why neither could not be the party at fault. Ballinger said “the fault if it lies anywhere .. is not mine”. He pointed to 7 years of weathering and the large crowds supported by his structure over the years. Rogers explained he told Ballinger what he wanted in the park but “the details were left to their superior skill and judgement.” Rogers also pointed out that Ballinger prepared the plans and submitted them, then “went ahead on their task on their own responsibility.” 

Mayor Weaver had a different view. When asked who was responsible for the collapse he replied “The people who built the balcony and those whose duty it was to keep it in repair.”

Weaver pointed to the decision to cover the joists with tin as a major cause of the failure. The nail holes widened as the structure flexed allowing the water to seep under the tin, holding it there and rotting the beams.

The Coroner’s inquest commenced August 18th in front of a surprisingly small crowd. After establishing the identity of the deceased the inquest moved onto witness testimony. First was the builder R. C. Ballinger. Most of the newspapers noted the familiarity with which the builders on the jury addressed him. Ballinger could not produce the plans of the structure claiming they had been destroyed during construction. He testified he built the stand under a commision agreement to pay Ballinger & Co. 7 ½ per cent of the total cost. Unlike the Pavilion, the plans for the bleachers were drawn by the builder, instead of an architect.

Illustration : Structure of Wallway Based on Coroner’s Jury testimony
Illustration : Stacy Reeves; Ward, James “Architects in Practice 1900-1940” p 98

Ballinger also made a surprising admission, that he had shown the plans to members of the Builders’ Exchange and that some had found fault with them. He further stated that Stacy Reeves, dean of the Builders’ Exchange, told him “that thing will fall from its own weight”. But Ballinger received approval for his design from Building Inspector Kessler. The builders on the jury quizzed him on the use of old lumber from the 1894 temporary stand, which he claimed was directed by Rogers, and the use of hemlock in the 15th Street stands built in 1896 while he used yellow pine in the right field stands built the following year. Ballinger admitted pine was superior but claimed he used it in the 1897 stands because he thought “the strain was greater”. Ballinger estimated the life of timber exposed to the elements as 7 to 9 years. 

Illustration : RF Wall; M. Gershman, Diamonds p 78

He also described a test of the balcony, but not at the location where they failed, but rather at Broad Street. At that point the walkway was supported with iron trusses unlike the 15th Street unbraced overhang.  When juryman Bird asked Ballinger if he didn’t “punch the protection full of holes” when nailing  the floorboards onto the timbers, allowing the rain and snow to penetrate the tin, he answered simply “I guess so.” 

Garrett Lockwood, followed Ballinger on the stand. Lockwood was described as a structural engineer in the days leading up to the inquiry, but he was more likely the foreman of the carpenters building the stands. In both the 1900 and 1910 census his occupation was listed as carpenter. He was able to confirm that all the support joists used in the overhanging walkway were 3” x 8” hemlock boards. Joseph Schroder, groundskeeper from 1895 to 1902, was a landscaper. He described making a thorough inspection of the timbers when the walkway was replaced in 1900 by sounding them with a sledge hammer and by use of an icepick. He was followed by Sam Payne who succeeded Schroder as groundskeeper. Payne was a former contractor who had built houses for Rodgers’ real estate interests. He described sounding the support timbers by “thumping the flooring with a crowbar” in spring 1903. The jurymen shook their heads at this description. It should be noted that at the time of this last inspection Payne was then an employee of Potter’s ownership group. Col. John Rogers, former principal owner of the Phillies testified next. His reception was much different than that of Ballinger. The Coroner replied to Rogers’ answers with sarcasm and angry frowns. Rogers testified that neither he nor any of the “stockholders selected a single stick of timber” and that he thought the “substructure was eternal” when Ballinger went to the expense of covering it with tin. He claimed he instructed the groundskeepers to make needed repairs instantly. In response to the Coroner’s query he also said that he was never asked if the stands were sound but stated that if he had been asked he would have answered “to the effect that to the best of my knowledge and belief the stands were sound and safe”. Club business manager William Shettsline next testified as to the attempts of the special officers to keep the aisles and walkways clear and stop fans from sitting or leaning up against the railings. The last witness of the day was James Potter, president of the current ownership group. Potter testified that Rogers had told him at the time of the purchase that nothing needed to be done and that he couldn’t spend a cent if he wanted to. Potter stated he then instructed Shettsline to continue the current methods and retain the employees.   

Illustration: Figures at Yesterday’s Inquest; 8/20/1903 North American p 1
Illustration: Figures at Yesterday’s Inquest; 8/20/1903 North American p 1

During the second day of testimony the jurors heard from many of the victims of what was becoming known as the “Ball Park Horror”, including Maggie Barry.

Illustration: End View of Beams Based on Coroner’s Jury Testimony

 A sensation was caused by the evidence offered by Edwin Clark, a structural engineer for the Bureau of Building Inspection, when he stated that only 1 of 50 joists examined under the left field balcony were sound. Even more damning was the revelation that 69 joists throughout the park had new wood added to afford nailing surfaces for the flooring since the top of the rotten beams could not hold a nail. Clark was collaborated by George Bourne who displayed rusty nails and degraded tin, not only at the nail holes, but in the body of the tin. This allowed water under the whole body of the tin, trapping it there and rotting the wood. That mirrored the Mayor’s earlier observations. The Evening Item explained how this allowed the supporting joists to show “faces of yellow pine and hearts of black corruption.” It also explains how the joists degraded uniformly until they failed all together in a single cataclysm.

 As the hearing came to a close R. C. Ballinger rose from his seat and requested the privilege of adding to his testimony. Permission was granted and Ballinger started by stating he “distinctly told Colonel Rogers  that all of them ( the stands ) should be inspected thoroughly every year”. This was an improvement on his somewhat foggy memory of the day before. He also amended his statement that the supporting joists were spaced 16 or 18 inches apart, doubling it to 32 inches. When questioned why the Broad Street and Lehigh Ave galleries were braced and the overhang on 15th Street was not, Ballinger’s defective memory returned.

Illustration : Coroner’s Jury to Visit Scene; 8/12/1903 Phila Press p 1v

The Jurors deliberated for 3 hours before delivering their verdict.They found that the Philadelphia Ball Club Limited ( Rogers as principal owner ) was responsible in not having made a thorough examination of the timbers of the stands during its ownership and by stating at the time of transfer that the buildings on the grounds were in first class condition. They recommended assigning more building inspectors that would be empowered to inspect buildings without the owner’s consent. They further advised against the use of hemlock lumber. The jury foreman, John Wiggins, explained the verdict “Some confidence is necessary between gentlemen, and we felt the former owners should be blamed for not finding the rotten condition … during the 8 years of possession ( actually 7 ) rather than the new owners who had been in charge only 4 months” (actually 6 months). Coroner Dugan stated he would submit no report to the District Attorney ending any possibility of criminal prosecution.

It does appear a large share of the blame rests with the initial owners of the Ballpark. The testimony about adding wood strips to the support beams to hold nails is very troubling and happened during their ownership. ( Payne blamed Schroder, Schroder blamed Ballinger and Ballinger denied knowing anything about it ) But it is doubtful that Rogers would make such a simple declarative statement regarding the stands’ condition. His response to the newspapers the following day, that the transfer was made with “assets just as they are without warrants of any kind” seems the more likely statement of a careful lawyer. And although Rogers’ Limited partnership had made 6 spring inspections, Potter’s Exhibition Company made the latest, most crucial one. And they did so in a most amateurish manner. Additionally Potter expended money for repairs in line with that of previous years so he knew that the stands were not in perfect condition when purchased. Most surprising of all is the failure of the jury to find any culpability on the part of their fellow builder Ballinger. Ballinger had been advised by some that his design would collapse before he built it yet the jury appeared to have not looked into the possibility that the design, especially the lack of bracing of the overhang, was defective. His expensive decision to clad the timber in tin did not increase the life of the wood, making it “eternal” as Rogers expected, but rather set it up for a devastating failure. Additionally the tin had the effect of inhibiting inspection. The Mayor’s early assertion the fault lay with the builder as well as those responsible for maintaining the structure rings true. 

Philadelphia’s leading lawyers debated the effect the ruling of the Coroner’s Jury would have on the damage suits. The consensus was that the victims could not recover from the Philadelphia Ball Company Limited, the original owners. It was said the Coroner had done the victims no favor in directing the attention of those seeking damages to the Limited Company as it was defunct and could not be made to pay damages. One lawyer made the analogy of trying the “ashes of a dead man for a criminal offense.” But just to be safe some attorneys who had commenced suit against the Exhibition Company started bringing additional suits against John Rogers and A.J. Reach as owners of the land.

Rogers and Reach owned the ground under the park in their own names, having purchased it in 1888. The Ball Club Limited partnership did not wish to purchase the ground having made large expenditures to build the first park on site. Potter’s Exhibition Company purchased all the assets of the franchise including all buildings and improvements on the site and were given a 13 year lease and an option to buy the land under the stands. 

Illustrations : Explanation of Balcony’s Fall, 8/11/1903 North American p 6
Baseball’s Deadliest Disaster: Black Saturday; Bob Warrington; 2013 National Pastime

Potter planned on using a defense of negligence on the part of the fans. Blaming the victims for rushing to the railing. The Limited partnership had successfully used such a defense when a railing broke during a bicycle race at the ball park in 1897. But unlike the railing during the bike race the walkway was being used for its intended purpose. 

Illustration : Points Between Which Walk Fell; 8/9/1903 North American p 1

And whether tired of baseball after watching the better part of a doubleheader or coached by their lawyers, a surprising number of the surviving victims claimed to be leaving the park at the time of the accident and were not part of the rush to the railing. Also some victims were on the street under the overhang, including Phillies’ mascot Sammy Kelly, who was killed by the collapse.  Plaintiff lawyers also announced their intent to base their claims on insufficient special officers to control the crowd. Two of the plaintiff lawyers were future Phillies’ president Alfred Wiler and future Secretary-Treasurer Frank Elliot.

Illustration : New Left Field Bleachers; 3/31/1904 Phila. Inquirer p 10

 The Phillies rebuilt the bleachers at a cost of $10,000 before suffering through another dismal season finishing 8th in the standings and 7th in attendance. The club lost about $30,000 in 1903 as well as another $30,000 in 1904. Potter’s group had purchased the franchise for around $170,000 and incorporated for $200,000 giving them $30,000 in working capital.  In order to cover their losses the shareholders loaned the Ball Club $30,000 in two installments, one in November 1903 and another in February 1904. Shareholders learned at their meeting on October 6 1904 that another $7,000 was due, mostly for player salaries and taxes on the grounds. 

Illustrations : Harry Pulliam and Barney Dreyfuss; Wikipedia

NL President Harry Pulliam attended the meeting and he returned with Barney Dreyfuss on the 9th to confer with officers of the club. It was understood that Dreyfuss was interested in the club along with the listed stockholders : Julius Fleishman, Kelsey Schoepf, Hugh McGowan and 22 socialite Philadelphians headed by Potter. Fleishman was part owner of the Cincinnati Reds and Schoepf held stock in the Pittsburgh Pirates and had been their vice president only a few months before. It was understood the Philadelphians owned between $105,000 and $125,000 ( the most common estimate was $110,000)  of the $200,000 worth of stock giving them a slim majority. 

Illustration : Arthur E. Newbold; 6/11/1920 Inquirer p 1

A.E Newbold filed suit to recover the $30,000 lent to the club by the shareholders on October 12, 1904  President Pulliam convened a meeting of  NL magnates in the St. James building in New York City on the 14th. The following day Pulliam returned to Philadelphia yet again to pay the players and to declare the NL Philadelphia franchise forfeited to the League under section 36 of the league constitution for not paying the players. And with that Philadelphia had a franchise expelled from the National League a second time. Of course it was a “friendly forfeiture” in the words of the Sporting News. Meanwhile the St. Louis Cardinals still owed their players their last two weeks’ pay without threat of expulsion. The Philadelphia Record and the Sporting News saw the forfeiture as a ploy to evade liability for the ball park tragedy while preserving shareholders’ equity. Horace Fogel, writing under his pen name Veteran, predicted the victims of the collapse would “have to whistle up a tree for their money.”  

The NL magnates had considered expelling  the St. Louis Cardinals in 1899 in order to get rid of Van Der Ahe during his money troubles and place the team in friendly hands. But they reconsidered as they feared legal problems since the team was already in bankruptcy. By expelling the Phillies before bankruptcy they eliminated that complication.

Illustration : Overhanging Balcony; 8/10/1903 Evening Bulletin p 1

The Sheriff had the Phillies’ offices and ballpark posted, announcing the sale of the club’s assets. With the franchise repossessed by the league the club had little of value other than the lease of the grounds. And the value of that was diminished with League president Pulliam making it clear that the new Philadelphia franchise would be granted to the previous owners  

Illustration : Panorama of the Crowd; 8/21/1903 Phila. Inquirer p 35

At a small table near 3rd base Deputy Sheriff Wildey conducted the auction in the ballpark at 10 AM on November 2. Present were President Pulliam and the officers of the club. R.H Innes acting for A. E. Newbold opened the bidding at $400. Smiles played across the faces of all participants as Innes then bid $401 and $402, doing so satisfied the requirement for 3 separate bids. The party took the train to the club offices at 702 Chestnut Street where James Potter outbid a second hand furniture dealer for the safe and office furnishings. The entire process took less than an hour and netted $508. With this action the victims of the Ball Park accident lost any possibility of recovery against the Philadelphia Baseball and Exhibition Company as it also ceased to exist. 

Illustration : William J Shettsline; 12/1/1904 Phila. Inquirer p 10

The Philadelphia Baseball Company was chartered in New Jersey on November 30, 1904. Capitalized at $50,000 the stock was allocated to all the old stockholders on a pro rata basis.

William Sheetsline was elected the new president while Potter and ex-secretary Roberts served on the Board of Directors. Remarkably all these events unfolded exactly as predicted by an unnamed stockholder a year earlier, even as to the amount of capitalization of the new entity. 

The first official act of President Sheetsline was to apply to NL President Pulliam for admittance to the National League. At the Winter meeting at New York on December 13.1904 the new company was granted a new Philadelphia National League franchise upon repayment of the players’ salaries to the League. And the players confiscated in October were returned to the new franchise. Additional assistance came when the owners of Cincinnati and Pittsburgh teams (and fellow shareholders in Phillies) presented several players to the new franchise. After the Phillies’ financially successful 1905 season James Potter purchased the interest of the Cincinnati magnates making him the largest shareholder. Barney Dreffuss retained his stock until early February 1909 when it was sold to Phillies’ manager Billy Murray. Murray was acting as the front man for Robert Davis, political boss of Jersey City, N.J. ( Someone should have told Murray in advance that he was to be fronting for Davis, when asked about his purchase he replied “Where would I get $30,000 ?” ) Israel Durham purchased the stock of the other shareholders, including Potter, later that month. Durham and his associates held 776 shares to Murray’s 224.

Illustration : Judge Robert N. Willson; 9/20/1894 Times of Philadelphia p 3

The immediate effect of the bankruptcy of the Philadelphia Base Ball and Exhibition Company was the continuance of the suit of James Sterritt that had already been called for trial. With no prospect of recovery against them or the equally defunct Philadelphia Ball Club Limited partnership the lawyers who had not already done so, rushed to sue Reach and Rogers as individuals. Because of what Sporting Life called a “beautiful exemplification of law’s delay” the first suit for damages arising out of the disaster didn’t take place until March 7,1907. Attorney Issac Hassler argued for plaintiff George Cunningham, 18 years old and his mother Mary. Young Cunningham had suffered injuries as well as lost his father in the accident. Hassler claimed the defendants were “constructively the owners because when the stands were erected they were the controlling stockholders and officers of the club” Hasller also argued the stands were “defectively constructed”  and as landlords they also bore responsibility. Rogers took the stand for the defense and argued that the stands were built by the ball club and insured for $100,000. All the assets of the Ball Club Limited including the insurance policy passed to the Exhibition Company in February 1903. Rogers did admit to owning shares in the Ball Club Limited. Defense attorney John G. Johnson asked Judge Willson to direct a verdict for the defendants. After listening to Hassler’s plea to allow the case to go to the jury, Willson instead directed the verdict in favor of the defense. Half a dozen other attorney’s were “anxiously awaiting the verdict” as this was seen as a test case.Hassler took the case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court where the same arguments were made. Of the six assignments of error on the part of Willson that Hassler asked the Supreme Court to review, two did not include the answers to objections and two did not include the proper documentation and were not considered. On the remaining assignments of error the Court ruled that Rogers and Reach as individuals had never owned the stands, they had been erected by one tenant, the Limited partnership and transferred to another, the Exhibition Company. The Court also ruled landlords could not be held responsible for the actions of the tenant in control of the property.  As this decision would control all other lawsuits, no more were advanced. 

Works Cited:

[1] “How Little Girl Caused Ball Park Catastrophe” North American 8/11/1903 p 1

[1] “Nearly 200 Hurt, 3 Dead Following A Crash At Base Ball Park” Philadelphia Inquirer 8/9/1903 p 1

[2] “Many Rush To Aid The Injured” Philadelphia Press 8/9/1903 p 2

[3] “Nine Are Dead From Crash At Baseball Park” Philadelphia Record 8/10/1903 p 1

[4] “Expert Builders To Act As Jurymen” Evening Bulletin 8/11/1903 p 1

[5] “The Local Season” Sporting Life 8/4/1886 p 4

[6] “Mechanics’ Liens” Philadelphia Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide 10/10/1887 p 475. Ibid 11/7/1887 p 527

[7] “Death Claims Two More Victims Of Ball Park Horror” Phila. Evening Item 8/12/1903 p1; “Investigation Holds up

[8]  Ball  Games” Public Ledger 8/13/1903 p 2;“To Limit Witnesses At Ball Park Inquest” Evening Telegraph 8/13/1903

[9] “Death Claims Two More” Phila. Record 8/13/1903 p 6

[10] “We’ve Met the Enemy and We’re Theirn”  Inquirer 4/17/1896 p 1

[11] “Coroner Will Limit Number Of Ball Park Accident Witnesses” Evening Item 8/14/1903

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