Buddhism and Baseball - the White Elephant Wars
and White Elephants in Baseball
The Sacred White Elephants of Buddhism and Southeast Asia left their mark on the English language and pop-culture, by spawning two idioms, "white elephant" and "gift of a white elephant," and inspiring the names of events, "white elephant gift exchanges" and "white elephant sales."
You can read about the history and etymology of the "white elephant" idiom in my post, Two-and-half Idioms, the History and Etymology of "White Elephants."
You can read about the history of "white elephant" gift exchanges and sales on my post, Two-and-a-half More Idioms, "White Elephants" and Yankee Swaps.
White elephants, real and idiomatic, also played a minor role in pop-culture and sports, popping up on occasion in major, minor and circus league baseball, as well as inspiring the so-called "white elephant war" of 1884.
The White Elephant Wars
Beginning in about 1850, the idiom “white elephant” came into common use, meaning any seemingly desirable object that was more of a burden to own than it was worth. The increasing popularity of the expression, as well as periodic news items of actual white elephants, and the royal treatment they received in Southeast Asia, kept white elephants alive in the public consciousness as objects of mystery and fascination. It was only a matter of time before the great promoter, P. T. Barnum, would get his own white elephant.
In 1884, P. T. Barnum arranged to purchase a genuine “white elephant,” sight unseen:
He sent an agent, Mr. J. B. Gaylord, to Siam, with orders to buy or hire from the King one of these creatures. The Siamese Court met the proposition with an indignant refusal. Nothing daunted, Mr. Gaylord heard of a white elephant owned by a Siamese nobleman. He agreed to pay 100,000 dollars for it. It was smuggled down to Moulmein, but when on the point of being transshipped to Singapore, it died of poison, intentionally administered by some unknown person.
Nil desperandum is Mr. Barnum’s motto. He now offered 200,000 dollars for a sacred white elephant. This aroused the zeal of hundreds of active fortune hunters, and at length, after months of diplomacy and bribery, a sacred white elephant was purchased from King Theebaw of Burmah, the royal documents which record the transaction setting forth its genuineness.
This creature is seven feet six inches high, and of pie-bald color. His face, ears, the front of his trunk, his front feet, and part of his breast, are of a pinkish flesh color; the rest of his body is of a light ashen hue.
He arrived at Liverpool last week by the steamship Tenasserim, and was at once taken on a special car, by the London and North-Western Railway Company, to the Zoological Gardens in the Regent’s Park. He will probably also be exhibited in Paris before going to America, as his owners dare not trust him on the Atlantic before the month of June.
In his own country this elephant was called Toung Taloung, a name which the sailors on board the Tenasserim modified, after their custom, into “Old Tongue.” As regards the adjective this is a misnomer, for the new comer, being only fifteen years old, is still in his boyhood. He has been rechristened Buddha.
Scientific American Supplement, March 8, 1884.
Although initially planned for June, to avoid the harsh, winter weather on the Atlantic, Barnum rushed delivery of the Elephant; it arrived in late March 1884. Perhaps he rushed delivery to avoid the bad press, which preceded the elephant:
Manager Allison, of Australia, says he went to see Barnum’s white elephant when in London. “It is no more white,” said he “than the blackest of colored men you ever saw. It has a few pinkish spots on its trunk and ears, and that is all. The white elephant is simply a sick elephant, and if you have ever seen that disgusting disease known as leprosy you will know without any further telling what a sort of a looking thing the Barnum elephant is.”
St. Paul Daily Globe, February 27, 1884.
Or, perhaps he rushed delivery to beat the crowd:
Barnum, it now appears, is not to be the only possessor of a white elephant the coming season. Forepaugh has purchased an excellent specimen, but recently arrived from the East; Cole has secured another, and Messrs. Jack and Gill Robinson are at present negotiating for a fourth, which is ready to be shipped from Hamburg.
St. Paul Daily Globe, March 16, 1884.
But, if white elephants are supposedly so rare, where did the glut of white elephants come from?
Adam Forepaugh, not to be outdone by Barnum, quietly procured a white elephant some time ago, and it arrived this week and has gone to Philadelphia. A large number of showmen went down to the dock to see him landed, and it was greeted with derision. . . . The elephant is a little fellow, weighing only a ton, about four feet in height, without tusks, of a light-gray color, pinkish ears, and white toe-nails. The sailors gave away the secret of the latter feature, however, saying that just before they reached port his toe-nails were scraped, and he had been rubbed all over every day during the passage with pumice-stone to whiten him up. A circus agent, who was present when he landed, said he knew the little beast. It had been in Liverpool some time awaiting a purchaser, and that it came from Calcutta, where an animal dealer traded it to an Englishman for three American buffaloes; that it was a common Indian elephant and never saw Siam, and was no more sacred than a short-horn bull.
The National Tribune (Washington DC), March 27, 1884.
Adam Forepaugh had beaten all of his rivals to the punch, sparking the so-called “White Elephant War.” The rest of the year brought battling affidavits, lawsuits, insults – and lots and lots of paying customers. But the elephant wars did not last. The allegations of fraud and the ordinariness of even Barnum’s genuine white elephant probably soured the public’s mood. And the war between Barnum and Forepaugh came to an abrupt end late in 1884, when Forepaugh’s, four-pawed, faux-pas abruptly died:
We learn with profound regret that grim death has fastened upon Forepaugh’s mouse colored blonde elephant. The “gem of the sky,” is no more, the “silvery, sacred symbol of Siam” has skipped to the shining shore – in short, “The Light of Asia” has gone out. It had dyed many times before, but this last die proved fatal. “those who saw the late lamented on the occasion of its visit to Macomb will not be greatly astonished at its untimely demise, as its complexion then had a sickly, sallow hue, not indicative of robust health,” says the Eagle. Peace be to its ashes – “’tis grease, but living grease no more.”
The Ottawa Free Trader (Illinois), December 20, 1884.
Toung-Toulong only lasted a few more years; he died in a tragic fire at Barnum’s winter quarters in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in October 1887. His time in Connecticut was not all work, however. From his winter home, he had the opportunity to watch a number of professional baseball games. He may have even been the first elephant ever to play in a professional baseball game.
Elephant Credited with Error in Professional Ballgame
On April 23, 1887, the Bridgeports hosted the Portlands in a non-league, early season professional baseball game in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Bridgeport played in the Eastern League, one of twelve “important” baseball leagues in the United States at the time.[i] Other teams in the league were Danbury, Hartford, Waterbury, New Haven, and Springfield. Portland played in the New England League (another one of the “important” leagues), with Boston, Haverhill, Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn, Manchester and Salem. Portland had made a good showing against major-league competition earlier in the month, with an 8-4 loss to the Nationals in Washington DC. They had lost a close contest to Newark the day before, 11-9, and were looking for a win:
An elephant came near getting a “put-out” in the Bridgeport-Portland game on Saturday. One of Barnum’s pets was amusing himself by pushing around a circus car near the ball grounds when he observed a base ball coming toward him. He gobbled it up in his trunk, according to report, and whisked it toward the first baseman. The elephant got an error on a wild throw, and Jones, who batted the ball, scored for Bridgeport. The elephant will travel with Bridgeports as a mascot. – Waterbury Republican
The Sun (New York), April 25, 1887.
The article does not name Toung-Taloung by name, but I like to believe that it was he who made the throw. I was unable to find any indication that the out(sized)fielder ever actually travelled with the Bridgeports, but within twenty years, a “white elephant” would, in fact, become the mascot of a major league baseball team.
The Philadelphia White Elephants
Philadelphia has a long history with elephants. In 1887, Forepaugh’s “white” elephant was first exhibited in Philadelphia. Years earlier, by some accounts in 1798, “Old Bet,” the first elephant ever brought to the United States, was first exhibited in Philadelphia. The Worthington Advance (Minnesota), November 21, 1895 (citing the Chicago Inter-Ocean). In 1902, Philadelphia became the home of a major-league white elephant.
In the middle of the 1902 baseball season, John McGraw, the third-baseman, manager and part-owner of the American League Baltimore Orioles, left his team; jumping ship to the National League. He joined the New York Giants as player/manager a few weeks later.
Shortly after McGraw left the Orioles, the American League President, Bancroft “Ban” Johnson, made several public statements to the effect that McGraw had not left of his own volition, but had been forced off the team by fellow part-owners, Robinson and Kelly. In response to those charges, McGraw responded with his own publicity blitz.
In widely publicized interviews with newspaper columnists, McGraw criticized the business practices of the American League. He claimed that the league was run by a small clique of owners who watched out for their own interests, favoring Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia, at the expense of other teams in the league, like Baltimore and Milwaukee.
McGraw also specifically criticized the operation of the Philadelphia Athletics:
The Philadelphia club is not making any money. It has a big white elephant on its hands. The grounds are leased for ten years at the rate of $7,000 a year, and the principal backer of the club has had all that he wants of it, because he cannot see a penny coming in at the gate. No money was made last year and no money will be made this year.
The Washington (DC) Times, July 11, 1902.
It is difficult to tell whether his comments were merely sour grapes, or had merit. Within a few days, it was reported that:
The Athletics have drawn 136,000 persons to thirty-two games this season, an average of over 4,000 a game. This does not look much like a “white elephant” condition.
The Evening Star (Washington DC), July 15, 1902.
The name does not seem to have stuck, at least initially. Other than a few “white elephant” comments in follow-up articles during the rest of the 1902 season, I could not find any more references to the Philadelphia Athletics as white elephants until the first game of the World Series in 1905 – when the Philadelphia Athletics faced the New York Giants and John McGraw.
|McGraw's White Elephant-1905 World Series|
|1911 World Series|
Barnum’s elephant and the Philadelphia Athletics are not the only elephants to have played baseball. In 1913 and 1914, at least two travelling circuses fielded teams of elephants:
The circus [(Sparks’ Circus)] which exhibited in Lancaster on last Thursday was much above the average. The saying is that “see one and you see them all,” but you rarely see some of the features which were witnessed at this exhibition: for instance a herd of performing Seals had intelligence rarely to be found among animals, the Elephant base ball game was both ludicrous and amusing . . . .
The Central Record (Lancaster, Kentucky) September 19, 1913;
The Elephant Will Lie Down on Trainer, and Play Baseball, B’Gum!
Comes announcement that the old trick of the elephant raising his ponderous feet and stepping slowly over the prostrate body of his trainer – a sight which has literally curdled the blood of circus-goers for years – pales into insignificance in comparison with some of the stunts the elephants of the circus and their trainers present this year. . . .
Yet another marvelous illustration of the almost human intelligence of the elephant is found in the elephant baseball club, playing our national game, also trained by Professor Mooney. These elephants actually throw the ball to the batter, who holds the bat horizontally in his trunk, makes the strike and runs the bases. The catcher wears the usual wire masks, padded breast protector, and catcher’s glove.
The Washington Times (DC) May 1, 1914.
At about the same time that circus elephants were entertaining fans playing baseball, “white elephant sales” were quickly becoming a household word. “White elephant swaps” had been around since shortly after the Philadelphia Athletics played the Giants in the 1905 World Series.
Shnooks and Goons – Elephant Baseball’s Last Hurrah
The game went as expected. In the ninth inning, with nothing to lose and trailing 167 to 0, the Shnooks put their mascot on the mound; a baby elephant (grey, not white). With a cartoon-slow change-up, the elephant stopped the bleeding, striking out three Goons with one pitch. At the plate in the bottom of the ninth, the baby elephant scored 167 runs to tie the score in the bottom of the ninth. The Goons, living up to their name, fired 167 pitches from a giant bazooka. The Elephant, twirling his bat baton-like from the end of his trunk, hit and scored a run on each pitch.
With the score tied at 167, the Goons resorted to the old tie-the-elephant-to-a-stake-behind-home-plate trick. The elephant hit a hard line-drive deep into right field, but fell on his face when he reached the end of his tether. He turned the hopeless play into the winning run by literally stretching the hit into an in-the-park, walk-off homer, running the bases with the tip of his out-stretched trunk and beating out the throw at home.
Elephant baseball has not been the same since. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
You be the judge.
[i] “The twelve important baseball leagues” included, the National League, the American Association, the International League, the Northwestern League, the Western League, the Southern League, the New England League, the Eastern League, the Pennsylvania Association, the Michigan State League, the Ohio League, and the National Colored League. The Abbeville Press and Banner (South Carolina), April 27, 1887.