MADE BASEBALL A REAL TREAT
BASEBALL, HOT DOGS AND PEANUTS ARE AS AMERICAN AS RED, white and blue.
Whether it’s little league or the majors, ballpark food is the quintessential sidekick to our nation’s pastime.
As the season kicks off, millions of Americans will enjoy these delights at baseball stadiums around the country.
They can thank a Mahoning Valley resident for it.
Harry Mozley Stevens of Niles had a strong influence on the modern-day concession stand.
He is credited with popularizing the ballpark hot dog, the drinking straw and the scorecard.
He even turned peanuts into profits.
Retired Trumbull County teacher Nick Spano said he hasn’t been the same since he read an article about Stevens 18 years ago.
“Harry has meant a lot to me,” said Spano. “Harry M. Stevens was a man of great character, an entrepreneur and a loyal friend to many. I feel that it is our duty to keep the memory of our predecessors, particularly those who did so much for others, alive.”
The former Warren John F. Kennedy High School math teacher has written several articles on Stevens, and has even pushed for Stevens’ induction into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Stevens was born in England on June 11, 1855. When he was 27, he came to America in search of work. His family settled in Niles where he worked in the steel mills for five years.
In a Vindicator obituary of Stevens from May 4, 1934, Falcon Mills co-workers recalled Stevens as an “average iron puddler.”
“In those days,” the obituary told readers, “Stevens was a typical iron worker, ready to wager money on the leading sport of the time, which was foot racing. Two men would be paired off, and plenty of money would be bet.”
During his mill days, Stevens started getting interested in baseball, Spano said
“Harry and his family attended many games, but they found them to be very long,” said Spano.
To remedy the boredom, his family started bringing food, which they shared with others attending the game.
In 1887, a steel-mill strike led him to Columbus, Ohio, where he got a job as a book salesman. During this time, he began attending Columbus Senators’ games in the former Ohio State League.
HARRY SCORES SUCCESS
In “Derbyshires Own,” a book published by History Press in 2006, Nicola Rippon chronicles the lives of several famous natives from the “East Midlands” of England, including Stevens. In her book she says Stevens was “frustrated that he could not recognize visiting players, or keep up with the action. So he designed the first baseball scorecard, allowing fans to become more involved in the action.”
The first scorecard was an instant success, which led Stevens to expand his new idea into Wheeling, W.Va.; Toledo; Boston and Washington, D.C.
In 1893, Stevens got another break during a game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the New York Giants. Giants manager John Montgomery Ward (owner of the Montgomery Ward retail chain) told Stevens that “a man of his talent belonged in New York,” said Spano.
The following year, his wife and three children remained in Niles, while Stevens got a contract with the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan, New York City. The concession and scorecard contract allowed greater exposure at a stadium that housed the New York Giants and, at the time, the New York Yankees.
He also got a contract at the old Madison Square Garden arena.
During this time, Stevens’ business began to blossom. He saw that people didn’t want to miss any of the games’ action. It kept them from leaving their seats to go to the concession stand. He decided to start carrying refreshments up and down the stadium aisles so fans wouldn’t miss the game. It’s a practice still used at almost every major sporting event.
“He saw that people had a need, and he was there to help,” said Richard Ale, a Niles resident and Stevens supporter who is working to bring Stevens’ memory back to the city’s limelight.
PROFITS FROM PEANUTS
One of Stevens’ most popular items was the roasted peanut. He even leased acreage in Virginia to grow them and then ship them to New York.
William Payne Whitney, a wealthy American businessman from the early 20th century said Stevens was “the only man to parlay a bag of peanuts into a million-dollar business.”
On a cold April day in 1901, Stevens’ ice cream wasn’t selling well during a game at the Polo Grounds. He told his workers to gather up all the Vienna rolls and “dachshund” sausages they could find.
“He boiled the sausages and placed them in the buns,” said Spano. “He led his employees into the stands yelling, ‘Get your red-hots, get them while they’re hot.’”
Spano said cartoonist Tad Dorgan, tried to capture the moment, but he couldn’t spell “dachshund” correctly, so settled on the term “hotdog.”
While some argue that Stevens wasn’t the first to create or sell the item, his influence on it boosted its popularity.
“Some writers of that time have credited Harry with saving baseball by giving credibility to the scorecard and by providing spectators with food and drink,” said Spano.
Steven’s business soon expanded throughout racetracks and ballparks on the East Coast.
Harry M. Stevens Catering established businesses in Cuba, Puerto Rico and Mexico. The company stationery said “From the Hudson to the Rio Grande.” Spano said it was the world’s largest food vendor company at the time.
HARRY AND THE BABE
While his business boomed, Stevens befriended an American sports icon in New York. Stevens began a close relationship with baseball star George Herman “Babe” Ruth. It’s unclear how their friendship blossomed, but Spano believes that Ruth was a large consumer of Spano’s hot dogs, and both had a shared interest in alcohol.
In Stevens’ office below the Polo Grounds, where all the cash he accrued was kept, one writer said “this is the only place I’ve seen where they keep the money out in the open and the whiskey in the safe.”
After Ruth hit his 60th home run of the season, an accomplishment not seen again in baseball, he presented Harry with a poster showing every ball for each of the 60 home runs. Each had the date, and they were numbered 1 to 60, as well as a signed picture of himself that read “To my second dad, Harry M. Stevens, “Babe” Ruth, Dec. 25, 1927”
Stevens died in New York in 1934 at age 76. His body was returned to Niles for entombment in the family mausoleum.
News reports said there were two train cars of flowers sent from New York.
After his wife, Mary, died in 1941, his $1.2 million estate was divided among his five children, Harold, Frank, Joseph, William and Annie. The catering company was then taken over by Frank and Joseph. His former mansion is still on the corner of Robbins and Crandon avenues, while his mausoleum is at the back of Niles City Cemetery.