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Baseball's Great Innovator
Edwin Hoag
March 19, 1973
Charles Abner Powell gave us the rain check, Ladies' Day and one of the winningest minor league teams of its era
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March 19, 1973

Baseball's Great Innovator

Charles Abner Powell gave us the rain check, Ladies' Day and one of the winningest minor league teams of its era

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Two other Powell accomplishments had their genesis that golden year. Having come from a poor family, Powell often felt a twinge as he passed the dozens of youngsters hanging around outside the ball park, unable to afford a ticket. Recognizing that the game's future resided in these young fans, Powell decided to give them a better view of the game than they could glimpse through a knothole. He went to the Pelican club owner with a plan: why not, he asked, let the kids come in free one day a week? That taste of baseball would almost certainly stimulate their appetite for the game in later years. Powell got the O.K., and immediately christened these pint-sized freeloaders the Knothole Gang. Like the rain check, they soon became a baseball tradition.

The only other remarkable thing Powell did that year was to build one of the superteams of minor league history. In so doing, he put himself and a hundred other players out of work. The Pelicans had started off the 1889 season by winning 12 straight games, losing one, then winning 11 more. At first their success drew large crowds, but as the spectacle of Powell's unbeatables clobbering team after team began to pall, the fans started staying home. After several weeks of this, the seven other teams of the Southern Association decided to call it quits and the league disbanded. In all, the Pelicans had lost only 11 games.

Teamless—indeed, leagueless—in midseason, Powell headed north, to Hamilton, Ontario in the International League. The following year he went to Spokane and in 1891 to Seattle, both in the Pacific League. By 1892 the Southern Association had recovered from Powell's peerless Pelicans and reorganized. Powell promptly returned to New Orleans, and the moans were audible throughout the South. Fortunately for his rivals, Powell was able to approximate his 1889 feat only once, in the second half of the 1901 season.

In July of that year the Pelicans were in last place. Powell, discouraged and angry at what he considered a lazy team, decided to do something drastic. "I went to North Carolina," he reminisced years later, "and bought myself 12 players for $1,200. They were the key men up there, and after they left, the North Carolina league collapsed. When I got back to New Orleans the old team said to me, 'What are you going to do with us?' I said to 'em, 'You're all fired. Go on up in the stands and watch a real team.' Well, they howled and hooted and hissed and booed, but my new team couldn't be stopped."

Indeed, Powell's North Carolinians went on to win 80% of their remaining games, lifting the club to second place, only one game short of winning the pennant. In terms of percentage, the revitalized 1901 club—Pelican II, so to speak—closed with as good a record as his 1889 team had begun.

Throughout these years Powell's fertile promotional mind seldom rested. Among the gimmicks he introduced at Sportsmen's Park were free cold drinks, gate prizes, bands and orchestras, fireworks demonstrations, pitching contests and fielding competitions. He also became part owner and, later, sole owner of the club. The Pelicans did not always ride so high as in 1889 or 1901, but Powell held on through lean years and was generous in the fat ones. He often advanced money to ailing franchises to keep the league alive. At one point he found himself owner or part owner of clubs in New Orleans, Atlanta, Nashville and Selma, Ala. "We were making money and it was up to us to keep the league going," he once remarked. "We were campaigning for the game in those days."

Powell retired from baseball in 1904 after selling his last property, the Atlanta club, for $20,000. He tried various business ventures, but his heart remained with baseball. He spent most of his later years around the sandlots, teaching the kids and kibitzing. His evenings were frequently devoted to spinning yarns about the glory days for young and old admirers on the front porch of his Canal Street home.

He remained in remarkable physical condition to the end of his life. When he was nearly 70 he approached a league official for a job as an umpire in the Southern Association. "You must be kidding," said the official, an old friend of Powell's. "At your age they'd kill you out there." Powell walked out and never spoke to the man again. Fifteen years later Powell put on a base-running exhibition, circling the paths in 22 seconds, timed by stopwatch. At 90 he was still driving his own car, and at 91 he climbed a 38-foot ladder and put a coat of paint on his two-story house.

In the summer of 1953, after chopping down and cutting up a chinaberry tree in his backyard, Powell collapsed with a heart attack. Confined to a hospital bed, he received a letter from Charlie Hurth, president of the Southern Association, who had just returned from a trip to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. While there, Hurth said, he had noticed a group photo of the 1884 Washington team and saw that Ab Powell was in it. In a way, Hurth closed, that meant Powell had made it to the Hall of Fame after all.

"Now that's a nice letter," Powell told his son Roy, who was at his bedside. "Just as soon as I'm up and around, I'll have to answer that." He never did. On Aug. 7 at the age of 92, Ab Powell finally ran out of good ideas.

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