Grave Story: Frank Bancroft (1846-1921)

Here lies Frank Bancroft, who managed seven different teams in his career, including one of the most remarkable teams of the 19th Century. He also became a successful business manager who instituted several baseball traditions we still hold dear. Bancroft managed the Worcester Ruby Legs (1880), Detroit Wolverines (1881-82), Cleveland Blues (1883), Providence Grays (1884-85), Philadelphia Athletics of the American Association (1887), Indianapolis Hoosiers (1889) and Cincinnati Reds (1902).

Frank Carter Bancroft was born in Lancaster, Mass., on May 9, 1846. His mother died after his was born, and when his stepmother died after giving birth to a stepbrother, he was sent to live with his maternal grandparents. When he was 15 years old, he joined the Civil War as a drummer boy with the New Hampshire 8th Infantry, Company A, before becoming a cavalryman. He stayed in the Army from 1861 until he was mustered out in 1865, according to his service records in Shortly after he was discharged from the service, he married for the first of four times and moved back to Massachusetts.

Bancroft never played baseball professionally, though some reports note that be played ball during the Civil War and afterwards in Massachusetts. By the late 1870s, when he was on the wrong side of 30 to be a player but the right age to be an executive, and he joined a new Fall River baseball club in 1877. The Fall River team played 130 games, a massive schedule for an amateur team, and became New England champions.

Apart from baseball, Bancroft worked as a journalist, hotel clerk, theater manager, boardinghouse manager and hotelier. His hotel, The Bancroft House in New Bedford, was a favorite hotel for traveling theater companies. Though he always had multiple business ventures going on at once to keep himself busy (and profitable), he was never far removed from baseball.

The Bancroft plot at Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati.

Bancroft spent 1878 and ’79 managing minor-league clubs in Massachusetts and Connecticut. He led the Worcester Grays in 1879 and then arranged for several of those players to visit Cuba in the offseason as the Hop Bitters. The team, smartly outfitted in bluish-gray uniforms with “H.B.” on the breast and red caps and belts, sailed from New York to New Orleans, where they played local teams like the Eckfords, Crescents and Robert E. Lees (who presumably surrendered) before traveling to Cuba. The trip to the island was shorter than originally scheduled, but they nevertheless were the first American team to barnstorm the island. Bancroft’s team included Tricky Nichols (pitcher), Charlie Bennett (catcher), Chub Sullivan (first base), George Creamer (second base), Art Whitney (third base), Arthur Irwin (shortstop), George Wood (left field), Doc Bushong (center field), Lon Knight (right field) and a player named Ward as the change pitcher. Bancroft repeatedly returned to the South with major-leaguers for exhibition games over the years, and he saw the potential of expanding baseball’s traditional base.

“There is new territory opening up in the West and Southwest, interest in the game [in the] South is growing, and ten years from now you will find the ball clubs doing as the circuses do now – playing North and Northwest in the summer and going South in the winter,” he said in an 1883 interview. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the railroads that are pushing into Mexico would make that country profitable for exhibition trips. Then we will work by the year, instead of by the season of six or nine months.”

Most of the Hop Bitters remained with Worcester when the team moved to the National League in 1880, as the Ruby Legs. Bancroft managed Worcester for one season, and the team finished 40-43 in fifth place. His role as “manager” isn’t really the same role of today’s manager, as the team’s captain handled the in-game strategy. He oversaw the business end of running the team, making sure the shareholders made a profit. He also made personnel decisions, and one of his best was to sign pitcher Lee Richmond, who won 32 games for the team. Also debuting that year was Harry Stovey, a 22-year-old who previously played for Bancroft in New Bedford. He started his Hall of Fame-worthy career for the Ruby Legs, too.

Bancroft was hired as manager of the Detroit Wolverines, which entered the National League in 1881. The Wolverines were close to a .500 team in Bancroft’s two seasons at the helm, thanks largely to players like Bennett, Wood and Knight, whom he swiped from Worcester. The Ruby Legs, left without many of its best players and business manager, finished in last place in 1881 and 1882 and folded.

Detroit released Bancroft after the 1882 season, and he ultimately landed with Cleveland for the 1883 season. He also organized an operetta company to tour New York and the West in the offseason. The traveling troupe included, per The Boston Globe, a vocal quartet, an elocutionist, a ventriloquist, and some light comedy performances. Cleveland finished with a 56-42 record, thanks largely to its pitching staff – Jim McCormick was 28-12 with a 1.84 ERA and Hugh “One Arm” Daily was 23-19 with a 2.42 ERA. There was no report stating the MVP of the operetta company, but they were probably the more fun group. Daily was a mean-spirited drunk who left chaos in his wake.

An ad for the Bancroft House, from the New York Clipper, October 13, 1877.

According to one report, Cleveland was faced with the prospect of playing a tough Providence club without the services of its two best players, McCormick and Fred Dunlop, who were ill. As Bancroft was trying to figure out how to get out of this predicament, a light drizzle started to fall. He immediately dashed down to the park and had his groundskeeper attach a fire hose to the nearest hydrant and flood the field. When Providence and manager Harry Wright came to the park, Bancroft had to explain the field wasn’t playable. “Oh, these are the queerest grounds you ever saw. They are flooded over every time it rains,” he explained, giving Wright a view of the waterlogged field as proof. They had no choice but to call the game on account of “rain.”

Bancroft’s luckiest moment came on January 17, 1884. He was to have departed on the steamer City of Columbus along with a friend, Nathaniel Morton, a Boston Globe employee. The ship, which was to sail from Boston to Savannah, struck a reef off the Gay Head Cliffs of Massachusetts and was swamped by massive waves, sending dozens of passengers and crew into the freezing Atlantic Ocean. Of the 132 souls on board, 103 drowned or froze to death, including Morton, 28. Bancroft changed plans two days before the departure and never boarded the ship.

Bancroft was traveling to meet his new team, the Providence Grays. If that rings a bell, it’s because Old Hoss Radbourn had his historic 60-win season for the 1884 Grays. On one hand, it was Bancroft’s finest moment in baseball: Radbourn made baseball history, Providence won the NL pennant and, after some hemming and hawing, the team whipped the New York Metropolitans of the American Association in a proto-World Series exhibition series. Providence also made about $25,000 in profit under Bancroft’s management. He’s a prominent part of Edward Achorn’s Fifty-Nine in ’84, an excellent book about Radbourn and the Grays.

On the other hand, it might have been the most stressful season of Bancroft’s life. He was forced to deal with the moody Radbourn, who didn’t want to be in Providence and threatened to quit the team on multiple occasions. He also clashed repeatedly with the team’s other ace pitcher, Charlie Sweeney. Sweeney was a hellraiser who detested playing second fiddle to the more established Radbourn. The breaking point came when Bancroft had Sweeney removed from the mound in a July game with a big lead, to save his arm. Sweeney, upset at being pulled, went into the locker room, put on his street clothes, and refused to go back out to the field, calling Bancroft “an opprobrious name” in the process. Providence couldn’t replace Sweeney because he wasn’t injured, so they had to play the rest of the game with two outfielders. Unsurprisingly, relief pitcher Cyclone Miller gave up 8 runs and the win.

Source: New York Clipper, December 13, 1879.

Sweeney jumped the team for the St. Louis Maroons of the outlaw Union Association, leaving Providence in a lurch. The team nearly folded in fact, but Radbourn agreed to pitch all the remaining games in exchange for being granted free agency at the end of the season. Thanks to Radbourn’s herculean task, Bancroft’s handling of his prima donna pitchers hasn’t been looked at as harshly as it could be. While he attempted to find other pitchers to carry the workload like Miller, Bancroft lacked confidence in them and overworked Sweeney and Radbourn until he nearly lost them both. In the manager’s defense, there were three major leagues operating in 1884, and talent was stretched so thin that anyone who could throw a ball with any skill was employed by a team already.

Both Bancroft and Radbourn returned to Providence in 1885, but the magic was over. The team finished under .500 and was ousted from the National League at the end of the season. Radbourn was decent, but he was never the same pitcher again. Bancroft still carried with him the reputation of being the shrewdest business manager in the game and agreed to manage a new semipro team in Rochester in 1886. He then moved to the Philadelphia Athletics of the American Association. That partnership lasted only half a season and seemed to be marked by a power clash between Bancroft and the Philadelphia ownership. A report in late June said that the Athletics were releasing players without the manager’s input. Bancroft sought his release and was finally granted it on July 23, marking the first time he had ever been dismissed mid-season.

Bancroft was in no hurry to return to baseball, as he had his other interests, including ownership in polo clubs, to occupy his time. He agreed to manage the Indianapolis Hoosiers, a National League team, in 1889 after the team’s negotiations to make shortstop Jack Glasscock a player-manager broke down. Bancroft made Glasscock his captain, which came with a salary bump, to soothe any hurt feelings. Bancroft’s tenure in Indianapolis was short and unsuccessful. The team wasn’t very good, and the manager supposedly did not react to losing well. He resigned in July, leaving Glasscock to take over a team that had gone 25-43. Bancroft first announced his intentions in the media via telegrams before sending a letter to team president John Brush, which left the president in a bind and was pretty uncharacteristic of Bancroft’s usual professionalism. But he had apparently had his fill of baseball and wanted out.

Bancroft swiftly moved from one baseball plan to the next, with none of them lasting long. He attempted to serve as president of the New England Baseball League in 1890 and organize a team of his own in Springfield, Mass. However, the concept for the league didn’t even make it to the spring thaw. The following year, he agreed to become the financial manager for Mike “King” Kelly and his American Association team, the Cincinnati Kelly’s Killers. The team didn’t last the 1891 season before disbanding, and the Milwaukee Brewers, the class of the Western Association, was invited to join the AA as Cincinnati’s replacement in August. Bancroft took on a similar role with the new club, which went 21-15 in its short time in the AA. The league collapsed in the offseason, leaving the National League as the last league standing in the 19th-Century baseball wars.

That season, 1891, was the first time that Bancroft oversaw the financial aspects of the team only, leaving the on-field duties to Kelly in Cincinnati and Charlie Cushman in Milwaukee. The role of “manager” was evolving to something new. It was becoming too much for one person to handle both the finances and the on-field decisions. Bancroft’s next job – his last job, as it turned out – was to serve as the business manager of the Cincinnati Reds.

The hiring was somewhat of a surprise to Bancroft, as he’d spent his time with Kelly’s Killers doing everything he could to draw attendance away from the Cincinnati Reds. Reds owner John T. Brush – his old Indianapolis boss — supposedly told him, “If you will work for me as hard as you have worked against me I shall be very well satisfied.”

Brush wanted Bancroft to oversee the team’s finances so that manager Charlie Comiskey could maintain his focus on the field. Aside from stepping in as an interim manager in 1902 for a handful of games while the Reds changed owners, Bancroft’s work remained off the field.

Bancroft managed for a total of 9 seasons for 7 teams in the NL and AA. He accumulated a win-loss record of 375-333, with the one pennant coming with Providence in 1884. He was also considered one of the finest developers of talent in the game’s history, up there with Harry Wright and Cap Anson. Among the players he shepherded into the majors are Harry Stovey, Roger Connor, George Gore, Lee Richmond and Arthur Irwin.

Under the merger of the NL and the AA, Sunday baseball finally came to the National League, and with it the profitable alcohol sales. Bancroft’s SABR bio notes that he worked with the Cincinnati police to allow beer to be sold at the ballpark on Sunday. Instead of the act resulting in a criminal charge, the penalty was reduced to a fine. In essence, the Reds paid the city of Cincinnati a fee, under the guise of a fine, to sell alcohol on Sundays. Attendance boomed as a result, as all the city’s workers who couldn’t get to the game during the week could watch a game, cheer for the home team and drink a beer or two on the weekend.

“Mr. Bancroft is possessed of a rare business ability, and never goes into a project without making it a success in a pecuniary way,” wrote The Cincinnati Enquirer in 1894.

The Cincinnati Reds weren’t a particularly good team during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, but Bancroft at least made sure they were profitable. He also married Mary Siefried in Portsmouth, Ohio, in November of 1893, with the city’s mayor doing the honors. It was his fourth marriage.

Many of Bancroft’s other marketing efforts are still around today in one form or another. He popularized Opening Day in Cincinnati, treating it almost as a holiday. According to his SABR bio, Bancroft has been called “Father of Opening Day” for that reason. He also popularized the doubleheader in baseball – not just to make up a rained-out game, but as a way to greatly boost attendance. His spring training tours took the Reds everywhere from Texas to California and even out to Hawaii on occasion. His Cuban excursions resulted in the Reds picking up a couple of Cuban ballplayers – Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida. Bancroft had a surprisingly worldly view about baseball and its international future.

“I hear American players going back home after being beaten down here and giving all kinds of excuses, laying the blame on the climate, etc., it makes me laugh. While the American players may not be used to the climate, and it is to a certain extent a handicap, the cold fact remains that the Cubans are good ball players and win on their merits,” he said in 1911. “American scouts in looking for talent will keep in touch with the coming young Cuban players, and I predict that many more will be grabbed up by the league teams in future years.

“While I may not live to see it, I predict that it will not be many years before the world’s championship will be played between the champions of America, Cuba and Japan and other foreign countries where baseball is getting a firm hold.”

Bancroft essentially had predicted the World Baseball Classic about 100 years before it happened.

Bancroft got to see the Reds win the World Series in 1919, though the resulting Black Sox scandal tempered the enjoyment of it somewhat. By then, nobody had been involved in baseball as long as Bancroft had. Over his 40+ years in the game, he had acquired a legion of friends and well-wishers all over the country, and he always had an anecdote from his past to tell an eager reporter. Bancroft maintained good health until late 1920, even traveling to Texas that November to make arrangements for the 1921 spring training.

On December 8, 1920, Bancroft was working in his Reds office. He left at noon, saying goodbye to Reds president Chris Herrmann. He went to a Turkish bath, as he wasn’t feeling well, and collapsed there. He spent the remainder of his life in and out of hospitals, diagnosed with neuritis – an inflammation of the nervous system. Frank Bancroft died on March 30, 1921, at Deaconess Hospital in Cincinnati. He was 74 years old. He is buried in Cincinnati’s Spring Grove Cemetery.

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3 thoughts on “Grave Story: Frank Bancroft (1846-1921)

  1. I live about 20 miles or so from Lancaster, MA. As a history buff, I was aware of Metacom’s War and the massacre in that town and the capture of Mary Rowlandson, that made her the first “best selling” female author in her retelling of the

    I knew Luther Burbank as also born there. I am also an amateur baseball
    historian who also occasionally writes on a baseball history site.

    However, I was totally unaware that Bancroft was from Lancaster.

    I’m glad I stumbled across your site and plan to be a regular reader.
    Thanks for your dedicated research
    and stories!

    Liked by 1 person

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