Sunday, June 16, 2024

Play Ball! George W. Busch, Player, Organizer, and Fan

As many of you know, "Darkness Visible" would not have been written had it not been for my Grandfather Busch's family stories, passed on through my father. This Father's Day, I'd like to pass on more information about Grandpap, this time learned through research.

Last November, Anne Madarasz, a curator at Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, contacted me about the Munhall High School rifle team, which they wanted to feature in an exhibit, "A Woman's Place: How Women Shaped Pittsburgh." The mostly-women team, of which I was a member 1957-1961, still holds the record for state championships (17), even though the Munhall School District no longer exists.

In discussing Pittsburgh sports with Anne, the topic turned to Grandpap Busch, who I knew from Dad's stories to be a professional football player, sandlot baseball player, friend of Honus Wagner, avid baseball fan, and promoter of teams in the Homestead area, including the Homestead Grays.

Rooting around through old photos reminded me of how much my grandfather was involved in sports. Although George obviously loved football and played on winning teams, I think baseball was his first love. As a teenager, he was involved in sandlot baseball. One of his pals at sandlot was another German immigrants' son, Honus Wagner. Both were born in 1874, and both are interred at Jefferson Memorial. My dad remembered Wagner coming to dinner at the Busch home in Munhall sometime around 1920. In the 1950s, Dad introduced me to Pie Traynor, who told me he knew my grandfather and admired his work with Homestead mill and community baseball teams.

                               Pie Traynor, Pirates' star third baseman and Hall of Famer

Every year  for 60+ years Grandpap attended the Pirate opener at Forbes Field. In his later years, Dad would drive Grandpap to Oakland, and they'd park and walk over a mile to Forbes Field. Dad said his father easily kept up a good pace. Every year, George's opener record would be featured on local media. At home, George listened to games on the big console radio in the living room, sitting in an easy chair right next to it. During lulls in the action, he'd sometimes nod off. If someone woke him up, he'd say he was "just resting his eyes."

He supported/managed a number of mill baseball teams. There's a photo of him with one of these teams, Mechanics 1919, with my dad as bat boy. A copy of this photo has been used on Eat'N'Park and other local restaurant menus, and one hangs in the back room at Duke's on Eighth Avenue. When I was at Duke's in August last year for my Munhall class reunion, I pointed it out to the wait staff (top photo). 


I sent this information to Craig Britcher, assistant curator of the Center's Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, who took the ball and ran with it, so to speak, and did some research on Grandpap. He found some new information and confirmed some of the family stories. I sent him the photo of George, his brothers Walter and Frank, and brother-in-law in the photo of them after they won the 1895 City League football championship game. (See Craig discovered that George likely played football on the team coached by James F. Lalus team. Craig sent me two clippings showing the lineup of the Lalus team vs. the College Reserves and the Braddock team during the 1896 season, showing George playing left guard.

Craig, being a big fan of Honus Wagner, pursued George's connection to him. Craig found an article confirming the family story that George and Honus were childhood friends. The article, which appeared in the Pittsburgh Post on 28 Feb. 1953, says George was an "old friend" of Wagner's, and that they were the same age. 

                                    A young Wagner when he played for Louisville

But what totally surprised me was the statement that "in his younger days, Busch. . .played professional ball with Christy Mathewson." Mathewson, like Wagner, was among the first five players admitted to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was among the most dominant pitchers in baseball history, and ranks in the all-time top 10 in several key pitching categories, including wins, shutouts, and earned run average. And in the early days Grandpap played on the same team with him!

As for Wagner, after retirement he remained very involved in Pittsburgh baseball--he continued playing, was involved with a number of sandlot leagues, and coached at Carnegie Tech. He and George likely kept contact through their support of local teams, including the mill teams.

I sent the Center the large framed stereopticon photo of a "Homestead Steel Works Baseball Team, Geo.Busch, President" that hung in my grandparents' house and later my house for many decades. The names of all the players and coaches are written over their images. Craig discovered that it was taken in 1914, and he used it in a blog post on Homestead sandlot baseball teams. (See Homestead's Asmongas: Sandlot Baseball Tradition in a Steel Town)

The Pirates, alas, are currently at the bottom standing in the National League Central division. Grandpap Busch, a die-hard fan, would still be listening to the games if he were still around, but I don't follow them or any baseball team today.

I was a devoted Pirate fan in the 1950s and '60s. I stayed up till 11:30 to listen to the play-by-play of Harvey Haddix pitching a perfect game for 12 innings against the Milwaukee Braves, but losing the no-hitter and the game in the 13th inning (May 26, 1959), and I watched the Pirates' winning the "Greatest Game Ever Played" in the '60 World Series from the Munhall High School auditorium. (See

Nevertheless, I honor the family connection with Pittsburgh baseball by wearing a Pirates cap as a memento of the glory days at Forbes Field and Grandpap's connection with local baseball. 

Play ball! 

                                                                    Forbes Field

       "Take me out to the ball game.
         Take me out with the crowd.
         Buy me some peanuts and cracker jack.
         I don’t care if I never get back.
         Let me root, root, root for the home team.
         If they don’t win it’s a shame.
         For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out.
         At the old ball game!"


Friday, November 24, 2023

The Great Thanksgiving Snowstorm of 1950

 ". . .in those years around the sea-town corner now, out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six."

--from A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas


                                         Pulling cousins Larry and Jean around on a sled, 1948.

Wherever you live, there's probably a weather event that stands out in your memory: a hailstorm, a tropical storm, a flash flood. For many who live in the northern states, it's a snowstorm that people remember. My family remembers the Halloween blizzard of 1991 in Minnesota. Three feet of snow fell overnight, clogging up the roads, trapping people in their homes. I remember slogging three blocks to the local grocery store on snowshoes. It took many days to clear the streets and alleys of Minneapolis of snow, and what was on the ground stayed until March.


                                    Downtown Minneapolis during the blizzard--Photo by NWS

The other snowstorm that is etched in my memory--but one that is a childhood memory--is the Thanksgiving weekend snowstorm of 1950, dubbed "The Great Appalachian Storm" by the National Weather Service: 

"One of the most damaging and meteorologically unique winter storms to strike the eastern United States occurred on Thanksgiving weekend 1950. After it was over, as much as 57 inches of snow blanketed the central Appalachians (with locally up to 62 inches at Coburn Creek, WV) and one of the most widespread and damaging wind events ever recorded over the Northeastern U.S. made the Great Appalachian Storm of 1950 the costliest storm on record up until that time. . . .A unique feature with this storm was the wild temperature gradient produced as the arctic airmass wrapped southeastward around the low, while warm air from the Atlantic was pulled northwestward. Case in point, Pittsburgh, PA received 30.5” of snow and recorded temperatures in the single digits while only 200 miles to the north, Buffalo, NY enjoyed temps in the 40s and recorded no snow at all."

Map of snowfall totals for the November 22-28, 1950 storm. Colored shading represents 10-inch increments. Image credit: From Northeast Snowstorms Vol. 2 , Paul Kocin and Louis Uccellini.
                                    Streetcar stuck in snow, Pittsburgh, 1950. Photo by Walter Stein.

The storm began in the Carolinas and tracked northwesterly into the Ohio Valley, reaching Pittsburgh on the day after Thanksgiving. People knew it was a bad storm from news report from West Virginia and Kentucky. But we really had no idea how bad it was until it hit.

On Thanksgiving my parents and I walked the two blocks to my Aunt Estella's house for dinner. My cousin Grace, Estella's daughter, who was an adult at the time, remembers it as being a big feast, with an extra table set up to accommodate the guests. What I remember is what followed the next day. 

On Friday evening the snow began to fall. The wind howled all night long as the snow fell. The next day we woke up to an astounding sight: everything covered with a thick blanket of snow. We had snowstorms, when, for a day or so, we kids could sled down the James Street hill. Then the trucks would come and spread cinders and ashes, and that was the end of that. Usually, the snow would be melted in a few days.

But this storm was different. I recall looking out the front door--which was blocked with deep snow--and seeing white everywhere. As my dad began shoveling from the front door to the sidewalk, other neighbors emerged. People were in shock, wondering how they were going to get out of the neighborhood. The snow was way too deep to sled. The official Pittsburgh snowfall total was 30.5", still the record.

                                        People digging out cars on our block of James Street.

Pittsburgh and the river towns around it didn't have a lot of snow removal equipment. No snowblowers, no winter tires. If you had to get around when the roads were snow-covered, you put chains on the tires. I recall only two times that Dad had to do this. After this snowfall, however, no one was going anywhere. Stores were closed. The streetcars weren't running. The main arteries were clogged with snow. People couldn't get to work, or in some cases, get home from work. Estella's husband David couldn't get to his shift at the Homestead Works, only a mile down the hill from their home. 

 As neighbors on E. James Street were digging out Saturday afternoon, Dad got out his camera.

 Our house is the one just over my left shoulder

                                                          Sliding down the front walk

It would take days of shoveling and plowing for residents to be able to move around the city. Much to the delight of many children, schools were closed all the next week. We never got "snow days" in Munhall, so this was quite extraordinary. We lived only a block away from Woodlawn School, where my dad taught. He could get to school, but few other teachers could.

As in Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales, some Munhallers who were students at the time have vivid recollections of this storm, but it's in vignettes:

--Nancy: I was three and I remember the snow was taller than I was. Maybe I remember that because I’ve been told so, but I honestly feel like I remember looking up at the snow from the shoveled pathway.

--Joe: We had about three feet of snow at our home.  A few days later, we heard that a store was opened on Whitaker Way.  My father and I made the trek with me on a sled for a few essentials.

--Richard: Lived on 14th at that time. No cars or trucks coming up the hills. My dad loaded me and my sister on a sled. We then went down to 8th Avenue as there were delivery trucks traveling there. We got the bread butter milk and eggs . Me and my sister held on to bags as my dad toted us back up the hill.

Barbara: I was living in Whitaker, and Dutch Ackerman, our mayor provided families with milk and water. And we were sledding down Spur Road!

Wayne:  As I recall the street cars even stopped running. My cousin Donna and I were sled riding on West Street near 16th avenue!


My cousin was born during that storm. Baby and Mom came home on a sled.
When I look at this photo, I'm reminded of what it felt like to wear woolen clothing in the winter. It was warm, but when it got wet, it got heavy and could chill you to the bone. When I came inside, I'd take off my coat, hat, and gloves and hang them by the radiator, hoping they'd dry off before I went out again.
As children, we weren't aware of how the storm affected millions of people from the Carolinas to New York to Vermont to Canada. All we knew is that it was the most exciting, magical, awe-inspiring weather event we had ever experienced. We'll never forget it.


Saturday, September 2, 2023

Maxo Vanka and the Art of Social Justice

“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are." --Benjamin Franklin

                                                              Maxo Vanka, Self Portrait

When I was in Pittsburgh recently, I attended "Saints and Steelworkers," a talk at the Bost Building in Homestead by Gavin Moultin on the Catholic workers' movement in the early 20th century. Moultin focused on the design and construction of St. Paulinus Catholic Church in Clairton, done solely by its parishioners. It's a fascinating story of a priest and congregation who chose to build a church that represented the workers who worshiped there.

                         St. Paulinus Catholic Church, Clairton, PA--Photo by Gavin Moultin 

But during the presentation, my eyes were repeatedly drawn to a print of a painting that hung on the wall behind Moultin, the image of a figure in a gas mask holding a sword in one hand and the scales of justice weighted down with gold coins in the other.


After the talk I asked one of the docents about this painting. She told me it was the work of Maxo Vanko, some of whose drawings and paintings were on exhibit at the Rivers of Steel Gallery in the Bost Building, "Gledaj! The Gaze of Maxo Vanka" "Gledaj! The Gaze of Maxo Vanka". She told me that I could see the painting itself, which is one of the murals in St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale, and that the church gave talks on the murals on Saturdays. So I hied myself to Millvale the next morning, a Saturday, to visit St. Nicholas and learn more about the Vanka murals.

Looking around the sanctuary, I was stunned by the anti-war, anti-capitalist imagery of the Vanka murals. I can think of no other church, Catholic or otherwise, that displays such anti-establishment imagery--for example: Mary attempting to stop carnage on the battlefield; a ghoulish "capitalist" sitting at a table laden with food, while a crippled worker lies on the floor in front; mothers weeping over a son fallen on the battlefield; Jesus's side being pierced by a soldier's bayonet on a battlefield.


                    "Mary on the Battlefield" 1941

                                                                 "The Capitalist" 1941


       "Croatian Mother Raises her Son for War" 1937

                                           "Christ on the Battlefield" 1941

Maxo Vanka's biography is as interesting as his art. He was born in Croatia in 1889, an out-of-wedlock son of an Austrian nobleman. Like Hemingway, Vanka, a pacifist, served with a Red Cross unit in Belgium during WWI. By 1920, Vanka was working in Croatia as an art professor and artist who was involved in efforts to shape a new national identity based on folkloric and ethnic traditions. In 1931 he married Margaret Stettin, the daughter of a Jewish surgeon from New York City. By 1934 the threat from the Nazis was clear, and the Vankas emigrated to New York.

In 1937 Vanka was commissioned by Father Albert Zagar, another Croatian immigrant, to paint murals in St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church that would have meaning for the immigrant workers who were his parishioners. In 1941 Zagar brought back Vanka to do another set of murals. (Read the whole story here: "A Gift to America: Maxo Vanka and the Millvale Murals" ("A Gift to America: Maxo Vanka and the Millvale Murals").

When I visited the church, scaffolding obstructed the view of the figure in a gas mask, but I learned that it is titled "Injustice" (shown above), a companion piece to "Justice" on the opposite end of the wall. Vanka's murals are powerful, arresting images, so unlike the conventional representations of saints and Biblical figures shown in most church artwork. 

                                                "Justice"--Photo by Pawsburgh Photography

Remarkably, one mural includes a Methodist man (at left of the Christ figure), a patron of the church who employed many of the congregation.

                                                          "A Simple Family Meal" 1941

Murals depicting workers and work in industrial Pittsburgh proliferated during the Depression, so in that sense, the St. Nicholas murals are not unique. Supported by Federal grants, these murals were inspired by the radical labor culture of the city, for example, those in the atrium of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Oakland. But Vanka's murals are unique in that they are in a church, not in a public space like a museum or courthouse. Father Zagar should receive credit for being, as Vanka put it, the “only priest in 100,000 who [was] courageous enough to break with tradition, to have his church decorated with pictures of modern, social significance.”

Vanka's murals are not pretty, nor are they intended to be. They are striking, powerful images of the violence that the forces of greed wreak on common people.  

On Labor Day, I salute Maxo Vanka for his skill and Father Zagar for his vision in creating these extraordinary murals that capture so powerfully the immigrant worker experience.

                  "There is no wealth but life." --John Ruskin, Unto This Last 1860


             The Sanctuary of St. Nicholas Croatian Church--Photo by Pawsburgh Photography

[You can see all of Vanka's murals on the website "Save Maxo Vanka" at]

Monday, July 3, 2023

The Fourth of July: Carnegie Steelworkers' One Day Off

The world was watching 131 years ago as the management at Carnegie Steel in Homestead locked out their workers in response to a strike threat from unionized workers. On the Fourth of July in 1892 the mill was shut down. Andrew Carnegie, the mill owner, was off at his castle in Scotland. He left the managing of the lockout to Henry Clay Frick. Frick was more than up to the challenge.

The press swarmed into town. Townspeople had picnics and celebrated, but a pall hung over the town as everyone was on tenterhooks waiting to see what would happen next. Tensions increased until three days later, the dispute exploded into a day-long gun battle between workers and company-hired Pinkerton Guards. The Pinkertons, trapped on barges on the Monongahela River, inevitably had to surrender. It was one of the very few union-company conflicts of that period that ended in a worker victory.

                                  A Naval Salute on the Fourth, 1893 (Library of Congress)

The Fourth of July was an important holiday. For many years, it was the only day during the entire year that Carnegie Steel gave the workers off. Otherwise, they toiled seven days a week in round-the-clock shifts to keep the finished steel rolling off the production line. In 1890 the average worker received about $10 a week, just above the poverty line of $500 a year. It took the wages of nearly 4,000 steelworkers to match the earnings of Andrew Carnegie.


        The Pennsylvania Milita entering Homestead

The workers' victory was short-lived. On July 12th, the Pennsylvania Militia of the National Guard marched in and took over the mill. A few days later, the Homestead Works slowly began restoring production using replacement workers. 

It had been a pyrrhic victory for the workers. In his book "Steelworkers in America: The Nonunion Era," labor historian David Brody notes that the daily wages of the highly skilled workers at Homestead shrank by one-fifth between 1892 and 1907, while their work shifts increased from eight hours to 12 hours. 

When journalist Hamlin Garland visited Homestead in 1893, he found a dirty, depressed town with a haggard, overburdened work force: 

"A COLD, thin October rain was falling as I took the little ferry-boat and crossed the Monongahela River to see Homestead and its iron-mills. The town, infamously historic already, sprawled over the irregular hillside, circled by the cold gray river. On the flats close to the water's edge there severe masses of great sheds, out of which grim smoke-stacks rose with a desolate effect, like the black stumps of a burned forest of great trees. Above them dense clouds of sticky smoke rolled heavily away."

 "They wipe a man out here every little while," a worker told Garland. "Sometimes a chain breaks, and a ladle tips over, and the iron explodes.... Sometimes the slag falls on the workmen.... Of course, if everything is working all smooth and a man watches out, why, all right! But you take it after they've been on duty twelve hours without sleep, and running like hell, everybody tired and loggy, and it's a different story."

Workers watch as a foundry ladle prepares to pour molten iron into ingot molds at Carnegie Steel Company's Homestead Steel Works. (Homestead Steel Works, by B. L. H. Dabbs, 1893-1895)
                                                       *               *               *               *

William McQuade, a plate-mill worker, commented, "We stop only the time it takes to oil the engine," a stop of three to five minutes. "While they are oiling they eat, at least some of the boys, some of them; a great many of them in the mill do not carry anything to eat at all, because they haven't got time to eat."

Garland's guide through the Works was a former mill worker. Witness this exchange as they stopped to watch a worker:

" That looks like hard work," I said to one of them to whom my companion introduced me. He was   breathing hard from his work.

 " Hard ! I guess it's hard. I lost forty pounds the first three months I came into this business. It sweats the life out of a man. I often drink two buckets of water during twelve hours; the sweat drips through my sleeves, and runs down my legs and fills my shoes. "

 " But that isn't the worst of it," said my guide; " it's a dog's life. Now, those men work twelve hours, and sleep and eat out ten more. You can see a man don't have much time for anything else. You can't see your friends, or do anything but work. That's why I got out of it. I used to come home so exhausted, staggering like a man with a ' jag.' It ain't any place for a sick man--is it, Joe ? "

        ---from "Homestead and its Perilous Trades--Impressions of a Visit" Hamlin Garland, McClure's Magazine, June 1894.

If one is to judge by the traffic on U.S.roads, the fully loaded flights, and the number of "no vacancy" signs at resorts and campgrounds, Americans still enjoy the Independence Day break from their labors. Today, very few of the workers at The Waterfront shopping area built on the site of the Homestead Works even know that one of the largest steel mills in the world once stood there. Most of the restaurants and stores are open on the Fourth. If they know about the July 6th battle, it's likely because they learned it in school.

It's rather ironic that in the 1890s, the holiday that celebrates U.S. independence from Britain highlighted  the workers' slaving away at the mill on the other 364 days. For most of the workers, it probably was a day to catch some needed rest before their next shift started.

Have fun on the Fourth and enjoy your day off, America. It wasn't always like this.

"The Stars and Stripes Forever" John Philip Sousa, 1894

"The Stars and Stripes Forever" John Philip Sousa (1894) played by the U.S.. Navy Band


Saturday, April 16, 2022

Freaky Victorian Easter Cards II

Victorian holiday cards, whether Christmas or Easter, can be counted on to be bizarre or sentimental--and for the most part, secular. While frogs (for some inexplicable reason) in Christmas cards are experiencing mishaps and doing foolish things, in Easter cards, not surprisingly, rabbits and chicks are featured, for better or worse.

     A very large, well-dressed rabbit proposes to an oddly proportioned girl. Did she accept? 

 A hen with color-coordinated dress and umbrella chases away a bunny. Was he trying to take away her eggs?

                                  Bang! In this German card, a chick blasts away at a rabbit.

There's not much joy for this female chick in a guardhouse with broken eggs spilled on the ground. The chick soldier is wearing a Pickelhaube, a German style helmet from that period. Hmm.

                                     Rabbits smoking flowers in egg bowls. *cough*

    Easter bunnies drop their egg basket when bees and mud-slinging frogs attack them.

                             Cherubic babies go at Easter eggs with hammers. Take that!

 Storks don't bring babies, bunnies do, in eggshells. No message on the sign. We, too, are left speechless.

An injured Jewish chick hobbles to his egg-home. Attacked by Gentiles?

 Very bizarre: Injured rabbits pushing a severely wounded one come across a small one slumped on a road marker. Were they shot by gun-toting chicks?

'Want to see more vintage cards? Check out this BBC article, "The Odd World of Victorian Easter Cards":"The Odd World of Victorian Easter Cards"

Happy Easter! 'Hope it's not too weird. 

Friday, December 31, 2021

Weird Victorian New Year's Cards

 As we reach the end of 2021, most of us will have to admit that the past two years have been hard to navigate sometimes. Now, on the eve of 2022, it behooves us to put aside the onerous politics, weather disasters, and pandemic worries afflicting us today and consider some of the passing strange new year's greetings that the Victorians sent.

Wishing you a bright and glad new year--unless you're a fox, in which case we'll rip you to shreds.

What the heck dinosaurs examining a picture of a man has to do with "compliments of the season" beats me.

 Here's one that some of us might relate to, a man afflicted with various maladies. Happy, happy!
Take this, old man! Become vegetarian, or else!

What's with the frogs in Victorian cards? These three are bowling towards a clock striking midnight, using mushrooms as pins.

                                                                    Hi, I'm Satan!

Many of these cards have food and eating as a theme. Some are strange and horrifying.

                                Polar bear having an Inuit entree for supper. Yum, yum.

     Woman making boy soup for supper. Note the legs of another child sticking out of the kettle.

                                                            Roast rat for the elves. 

                     Rats are apparently very useful to elves for food and transportation.

                               The tables turned: rats eat cat, with new potatoes on the side.


A hairy root vegetable wishes you a happy new year.

                                   Fly away! The new year spider is out to devour you.

                                      Ready to take a train to oblivion? They were in 1889.

                            Compliments of the season to you! And a happy, healthy 2022.