If there were real justice in such matters, Charles Abner Powell would be in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Not for his feats on the playing field, although they were considerable, but for his immeasurable contribution to the game of baseball as an American institution. One day the oversight may be rectified—Grantland Rice and some other people have tried—and if this remarkable man does take his place in Cooperstown they will have to provide him an oversized plaque. It might read something like this:
"Charles Abner (Ab) Powell, player, manager and club owner, developer of baseball's first rain check, Ladies' Day, the Knothole Gang, the field tarpaulin, free soda pop, band music and one of minor league baseball's superteams." They might also toss in the fact that he was the only manager ever to fire his entire squad at once.
The rain check was perhaps his best money-saving idea. Powell, then 27 and a veteran of five years in the majors, had come to New Orleans in 1887 for a salary of $175 a month to be player-manager of the newly organized minor league Pelicans. In his first year the club won the Southern Association pennant, with Powell playing in 98 games, alternating as pitcher and outfielder. He batted .354 and stole 89 bases. It was an auspicious beginning and, with attendance climbing, the club should have been earning a lot of money. But it wasn't, and Powell had an idea why.
New Orleans is one of the rainiest cities in North America, averaging more than 50 inches a year. Games at the old Sportsmen's Park were often washed out in early innings, or even before they got under way. The standard practice on rain-outs then was to give new tickets to the fans as they left the park.
"It wasn't only that we didn't make any money on rainy days," Powell said years later, "we were losing money." It seems that spectators who had sneaked into the game—by climbing fences, slipping past a guard or by knowing somebody at the gate—would now collect a real ticket on the way out. "We ended up giving back a whale of a lot more tickets than we had sold in the first place," Powell recalled.
He worried with this problem for a full year until one June night when the inspiration came to him at 3 a.m. He got out of bed and began diagramming a new kind of admission ticket. Instead of taking the entire pasteboard when the fan entered the park, the gate attendants would now take only half the ticket, leaving the spectator with a dated stub that would be good on another day in the event of a rain-out.
Powell took his design to a printing firm in Arkansas, and the new ticket became the standard admission for Pelican games. Unfortunately for Powell, he never bothered to patent his idea, and soon other clubs began adopting the rain check for themselves, many ordering their tickets from the same Arkansas printer that serviced the Pelicans.
Even before the rain check, Powell had come up with an idea that was perhaps his biggest contribution toward making baseball the national pastime. He called it Ladies' Day, and it was just what the name suggested—a regular day each week when women were admitted free. It was a revolutionary idea for its time, especially since baseball was not the gentlemanly pursuit we know today. Players fought at the slightest provocation. Brawls between entire teams were not uncommon. Spectators did not merely razz umpires for unpopular decisions; they mobbed them. Powell's own mother, who ran a barroom and smoked a pipe, once forbade him to play baseball for money because it wasn't "respectable."
Despite these obstacles, Powell saw an untapped reservoir of fans among the nation's women, and he decided to go after them. He began by running advertisements in the Times-Picayune, setting aside one day each week for the ladies. The first such day, April 29, 1887, attracted only nine women. Surprisingly—or perhaps not so surprisingly—there was a substantial increase in male attendance that day. More women came the second week and still more the week after that. Soon hundreds of women were watching the Pelicans.
Attendance kept rising, sometimes hitting 5,000 on weekdays and 10,000 on weekends, totals that many minor league clubs would envy today. The New Orleans rainfall still plagued the team, however, even with the ticket problem solved. After each rain, the infield would be a quagmire, and it would remain so for days on end. Powell started to work on a solution—if not to the rain (a roof over the park was not practical), then to the wet field. The answer came to him one day in 1889 when he was walking along the Mississippi riverfront and saw a gang of laborers throwing tarpaulins over bales of cotton. He learned that the huge canvases were waterproof, and the rest was easy. Within a few days, Powell had obtained some tarpaulin and from then on the Sportsmen's Park infield reposed under it between games. After the Cincinnati Reds played an exhibition in New Orleans that year, they took the idea north with them, and soon it had spread through the game.