The Forgotten Hall of Fame Candidate

Abner Powell in 1885. Photo courtesy of SABR Pictorial History Research Committee.

Abner Powell’s Hall of Fame candidacy received significant endorsements.

“Abner Powell was the greatest pioneer of baseball,” Connie Mack, MLB’s all-time winningest manager, told Baseball Digest in 1956. “I’d sincerely say that Abner did more for the sport than any other man in history.”

Powell was a pitcher, infielder, outfielder, manager, owner, and inventor in his 22-year career in professional baseball. He made the Providence Grays roster as an outfielder in 1883 before converting to pitching at the request of manager Harry Wright, a Hall of Famer himself. Powell spent time in the major leagues in 1884 and 1886 with Washington, Baltimore, and Cincinnati as both a pitcher and position player.

“While Powell enjoyed great success as a player, his destiny was to make much more lasting contributions to baseball,” the Republican Herald wrote.

One of those lasting contributions is the tarp. Powell was co-owner of the rain-affected New Orleans Pelicans in 1887 when he took a fateful walk to a dock. “Powell noticed the longshoremen along the New Orleans waterfront covering the mountains of cotton bales with a canvas tarpaulin when it would rain. This prevented the cotton bales from becoming soaked with water,” SABR’s New Orleans chapter noted in its research project “Abner Powell: Baseball’s Forgotten Innovator.”

A light bulb went off in Powell’s head and he tracked down the man in charge of the dock. “Abner asked him if the tarpaulin actually provided sufficient protection from the rain. Assured it did, he then inquired as to where he could get one made up large enough to cover the infield of a ball diamond,” Baseball Digest reported.

“A few days later, a mammoth tarpaulin was delivered to Sportsman’s Park (the Pelicans’ home stadium). About an hour later the wind from the Gulf of Mexico blew up a shower. Powell summoned his ground-keepers to help him spread out the canvas. The men looked at each other quizzically and scratched their heads. Their employer definitely had some screwy ideas! But when game time came that afternoon, the playing field was fit and ready despite the morning rain,” the Republican Herald recounted.

“After the Cincinnati Reds played an exhibition in New Orleans that year, they took the (tarp) idea north with them, and soon it had spread through the game,” Sports Illustrated added.

Rain was also the inspiration for another Powell invention: ticket stubs.

“In those days all ball clubs used a hard rectangular cardboard ticket which was sold over and over again, day after day. Ticket buyers turned them in at the gate. And at the end of the game they were returned to the box office to be resold,” United Press International explained in a syndicated article. “If rain halted the contest before the fifth inning, the fans lined up to receive a ticket for the next day. Usually there were more fans in line than there were tickets in the box.”

And why were there more fans than cardboard tickets after a rainout?

“A lot of fellows would get into the park without paying by climbing the fence. Then there were park employees’ friends who had entered the service gate and politicians and others who had gotten through the pass gate,” Powell told the Wisconsin State Journal. “All those free riders and fence jumpers joined the line, too.”

New Orleans had 20 home games postponed in the first six weeks of the 1888 season, so the reusable-ticket trouble continued. The club was losing money and Powell was losing sleep.

“Late one evening he sat at his desk, gaslight turned low, idly flipping through a pile of the standard tickets. The idea that was to revolutionize baseball ticket-selling suddenly flashed clear and wonderful-to-behold in the mind’s eye,” Baseball Digest described. “He visualized a smaller, expendable ticket with a detachable rain-stub, dated and with appropriate wording, which could be retained by the purchaser for additional admission to a future game in the event the one he was viewing was rained out prior to the fifth inning.”

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Powell partnered with an Arkansas printing company in 1889 to produce perforated tickets with a detachable stub.

“The printer asked if he could do the same thing for other clubs and (Powell) agreed, so the rain check idea developed fast,” the Decatur Daily Review reported.

News coverage noted Powell could’ve become a millionaire had he patented tear-able tickets, but he chose not to. “I don’t have any regrets. Back in those days we fellows were more interested in doing anything we could to improve baseball and further the game than in making a whole lot of money out of it,” Powell told Baseball Digest decades later.

Powell’s box office brainchild also augmented our lexicon. “When Abner Powell of the New Orleans Pelicans Baseball Club invented the Rain Check,” The Owensboro Messenger wrote. “He not only gave the American fan rain insurance, he added a phrase to the language: ‘I’ll take a Rain Check’ has come to mean ‘I can’t make it now, but I will later.’ ”

Abner Powell in 1887. Photo courtesy of S. Derby Gisclair.

Powell was ahead of his time on inclusion. “In the early days, women never attended games,” Powell said to the Chicago Tribune. “It wasn’t considered the thing to do. I worked on the idea that if we could get them to come it would boost our men’s attendance.”

“Secondly, it would clean up the grandstands which had become overrun with gamblers and other colorful characters, with equally colorful language,” the SABR research project added.

Powell offered free tickets and gifts to female fans once a week and bought newspaper ads highlighting the promotion. But the first Ladies’ Day special, on April 29, 1887, brought out only nine women.

Columns popped up criticizing the then-controversial concept. “The men in the park lifted their eyebrows and foresaw nothing but doom for the national pastime,” the Republican Herald wrote before conceding that “as the season progressed, women by the hundreds started to pay for the privilege of seeing baseball games.”

“Other teams quickly followed Powell’s pioneering move,” the Chicago Tribune said.

Powell was the oldest ex-major leaguer from 1952 until his death in 1953 at age 92. A farewell column by Hall of Fame Spink Award-winning writer Grantland Rice eulogized him: “Abner Powell represented all that was best in the game he honored and loved so much. It is a greater game today because of him.”

Other obituaries echoed Powell’s accomplishments, and sparked a Hall of Fame campaign originating in his hometown of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. “This bustling community in the heart of the anthracite coal fields will not rest until its native son, the late Abner Powell, is awarded a place in baseball’s Hall of Fame for three outstanding contributions to the game,” said The Daily News.

The campaign worked – sort of. Petitions reached decision makers; Powell was nominated by the Veterans Committee in 1955 but was miscast as a manager only and didn’t advance past the original discussion. He should have been categorized as an “Executive/Pioneer,” the phrase the Hall of Fame uses for inductees enshrined for developments that molded the early game.

The 1955 Veterans Committee process was disorganized. Its secretary, Paul Kerr, admitted to The Sporting News that former National League President Harry C. Pulliam was nominated even though the committee wasn’t sure if Pulliam was eligible for election.

Almost two decades later, Powell’s triumphs returned to the national spotlight through a March 1973 Sports Illustrated article titled “Baseball’s Great Innovator.”

“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,” the feature began. “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.”

Sports Illustrated’s push didn’t persuade the Veterans Committee when it met 10 months after the article’s publication. That year’s committee, composed of 11 Hall of Famers, elected two players and an umpire.

These days, the Hall of Fame’s era committees are more structured. In 2020, the BBWAA-appointed Historical Overview Committee will assemble the next Early Baseball ballot, which will include 10 people whose greatest contributions took place before 1950. A similar committee in 2015 announced four of its 10 spots went to non-players who were known “for their off-field careers.”

There are recent examples of new Hall of Famers who passed away generations ago. Longtime umpire Hank O’Day, former Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert, and 1800s player Deacon White all died in the 1930s and were elected to the Hall of Fame in 2013.

If Abner Powell’s achievements and endorsements impress the Historical Overview Committee in 2020, he’ll receive the honor of appearing on an official Hall of Fame ballot for the first time, 65 years after campaigns to get him there.

References and Resources

  • Baseball Digest
  • Baseball-Reference Hall of Fame inductees page
  • Baseball-Reference’s history of Veterans Committee voting procedures
  • Chicago Tribune
  • Graham Womack’s Veterans Committee candidate spreadsheet
  • National Baseball Hall of Fame Communications Department
  • New Orleans Times-Picayune
  • Pottsville Republican
  • Republican Herald
  • SABR Pictorial History Research Committee
  • SABR Schott-Pelican Chapter New Orleans
  • Sporting Life
  • Sports Illustrated
  • Standard Speaker
  • The Atlanta Constitution
  • The Boston Globe
  • The Cincinnati Enquirer
  • The Daily Notes
  • The Decatur Daily Review
  • The Detroit News
  • The Evening Herald
  • The Owensboro Messenger
  • The Sporting News
  • United Press International

Tim Hagerty is the broadcaster for the Triple-A El Paso Chihuahuas and has written for Sporting News and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @MinorsTeamNames.
1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
87 Cards
5 years ago

To highlight Powell’s judgement on risks, I offerthe following.

In July 1901, he was managing the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association and clinging to last place. He left the team to travel to North Carolina, picked up a dozen players out of the failing V-NC League at $100 each, transported them to New Orleans and then fired the entirety of his old squad and installed his new purchases on the roster. New Orleans played .800 baseball the rest of the way and finished the 1901 season within a game of the SA pennant.

He also died at age 93–of heart-attack–after felling-and-cording a chinaberry tree.

Verified from the New Orleans Bar Association: