Saturday, June 28, 2014

Two-and-a-half More Idioms - "White Elephants" and Yankee Swaps

The History and Etymology of “White Elephant” Gift Exchanges, 
"White Elephant Sales" and “Yankee Swaps”

“White elephant” gift exchange and “Yankee swap” are two different phrases for the same event; a party in which a number of people exchange gifts, with the opportunity of swapping gifts in an effort to get a better gift.  A “white elephant” is a possession that is not worth the trouble of keeping; so in a “white elephant” gift exchange, the more useless or funny the gift is, the better.  Hilarity ensues.

Although the two expressions mean, more or less, the same thing, they have separate, independent origins; origins that are also separate and independent from the origins of the group gift exchange party.   

The “swap party” or “swapping party” dates to at least 1901, and perhaps earlier.  They were not known as “white elephant parties” or “white elephant swaps” until about 1907, even though the expression, “white elephant,” had been around since about 1851.  The expression, “Yankee swap” may be even older than “white elephant, but that term was not applied to “swap parties” until well into the twentieth century.


Swapping Yankees

The expression “Yankee swap” relates to the reputation of “Yankees” to trade.  Depending on the time and the context, the word “Yankee,” could be applied to New Englanders, Easterners, Northerners, or Americans.  In 1855, Walt Whitman wrote a glowing review (anonymously) of his own collection of poetry, Leaves of Grass.  In the review, Whitman lists the “Yankee swap” as one of the “essences of American things,” right up there with George Washington and the Constitution: 

. . . the essences of American things . . . the sturdy defiance of ’76, . . . the leadership of Washington, and the formation of the Constitution – the Union always calm and impregnable – the perpetual coming of immigrants - . . . the noble character of the free American workman and workwoman – the fierceness of the people when well-roused – the ardor of their friendships – the large amativeness – the Yankee swap . . . .

The United States Review, Volume V (September, 1855), page 205 (see also Carolyn Wells, Rivulets of Prose: Critical Essays, New York, Greenberg, 1928, pages 1-7).  

In 1825, a Scottish magazine published an outsider’s perspective of the New England Yankees’ propensity to swap:

Every thing is a matter of serious calculation with your genuine Yankee.  He won’t give away even his words – if another should have occasion for them.  He will “swap” any thing with you; “trade” with you, for any thing; but is never the man to give anything away, so long as there is any prospect of doing better with it.  If you put a question, to a New Englander, therefore; no matter what – no matter why – beware how you show any solicitude.  You will make a bad bargain, if you do.  He is pretty sure to reason thus; generous and kind as he is, in some things. – “Now; this information is wanted.  It must be of some value to him, that wants it; else why this anxiety? – Of course, it would be of some value to me, if I knew how to make use of it, properly.  At any rate (a favourite phrase, with him); at any rate, he wants it; he knows the value of it; he can afford, of course, to pay for it; and will not give more than it is worth.  Therefore I shall get as much as I can: if he gives too much for it; whose fault is that? – His; not mine.  Therefore, he shall have it; if he will – at any rate.”

John Neal, Brother Jonathan: or, The New Englanders, in Three Volumes. William Blackwood, Edinburgh, 1825, page 151.

The expression, “Yankee swap,” was still in use in the early 1900s:

In certain parts of the country small farms are now offered in exchange for moderate quantities of hard coal.  A Yankee “swap” between agriculture and anthracite!

Chicago Eagle, October 18, 1902.

Swap parties started receiving frequent notice in the press, beginning in 1901, but were not called Yankee swaps until much later.

White Elephants

The expressions “white elephant” and “gift of a white elephant” date to the middle of the nineteenth century.  The expressions are based on the historical reverence for the rare “white elephants” (naturally occurring albino elephants), in certain cultures in Southeast Asia.  The phrase, “gift of the white elephant,” is based on the mistaken notion that Southeast Asian kings would give white elephants as gifts to rival courtiers, in order to financially burden them with the expensive upkeep of a sacred white elephant.  You can read a more thorough review of the history and etymology of, “white elephant” and “gift of the white elephant,” in my earlier posting, “Two-and-a-half Idioms – the History and Etymology of “White Elephants.”

(See also, my update on "White Elephants," The Gift of the Nabob.)

In 1902, the new manager of the New York Giants baseball team called the Philadelphia Athletics baseball team a “white elephant” because, he claimed, it was losing money every year.  When the Athletics played the Giants in the 1905 World Series, the Athletics remembered the insult, and adopted the phrase as an unofficial nickname.  

Although the phrase, “white elephant,” was a well-established, familiar idiom in 1901 when swapping parties came into vogue, those parties were not called “white elephant parties” until at least six years later.

Swapping Parties

Swapping parties, or swap parties, became a popular social function during the early years of the 1900s.  The earliest description of a “swap party,” from 1901, describes an event very similar to the modern “white elephant” gift exchange or “Yankee swap”:

Swap Party. Have you ever been to a “swap” party? Each one is supplied with four or five little bundles, wrapped so that no one else can suspect the contents.

The Hartford Herald (Hartford, Kentucky), January 23, 1901.

Soon, the national press picked up on the craze.  A 1901 article in Table Talk provided instructions for hosting the perfect, “Swap Party”:

In this day of craze for novel entertainments the more nonsensical the scheme the greater the enjoyment seemingly.  As illustration the function very inelegantly designated as” The Swap Party.”  Why not the word “exchange” instead nobody knows, but at all events it has become very popular alike with old and young.  Every guest brings four or five little neatly wrapped and tied bundles.  The more misleading in shape as to contents the better.  The packages may contain anything from candy to soap, starch, tea, book, handkerchief, sun-bonnet, etc., the more absurd the funnier.  Each person recommends their own bundles describing the contents as wittily and in a way to deceive as much as possible.  The bargaining becomes very shrewd and merry until all the parcels have been swapped, oftentimes more than once.  Then they are opened, the best bargain winning first prize, the poorest compelling the holder to tell a story, suggest a game, sing or recite for the entertainment of the company.  The universal verdict – “no trouble and lots of fun!”

Table Talk, Volume 16, Number 3, March, 1901, page 95.  This description, from Table Talk, later appered in Mrs. Burton Kingsland’s, The Book of Indoor and Outdoor Games, With Suggestions for Entertainments (New York, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1904, page 127).

John T. McCutcheon wrote a humor piece about a swap party in the fictional, small Midwestern town of Bird Center, Illinois.  McCutcheon wrote a series of Bird Center cartoons and articles for the Chicago Tribune.  The stories were similar in tone and content to Garrison Keilor’s Lake Woebegon stories; they took place in a fictional town, with recurring, colorful characters, and offered a satirical, yet nostalgic, view of small-town life.  His “swap party” piece was included in a collection of his Bird Center pieces that were published in book form (Bird Center Cartoons, A Chronicle of Social Happenings at Bird Center, Illinois, 1904, Chicago, A. C. McClurg & Co., 1904), and was mentioned in Life Magazine in 1905 (Volume 44, November 10, 1904, page 485), which also printed a copy of one of the swap party cartoons.

Instructions for hosting a “swap party” also appeared in Clara E. Laughlin’s, The Complete Hostess (New York, D. Appleton and Company, 1906, page 120).

Swap parties appear to have been all the rage in 1906.  But it is possible that they may have been older.  Although the Table Talk article from 1901 lists “swap parties” among “novel entertainments,” I found one earlier reference that hinted at, perhaps, an older pedigree.  In an 1899 article about the Evacuation Day celebrations among high-society types in New York City:

The entertainment was of a festive order, and continued until midnight.  The programme included a Revolutionary guessing bee, an old fashioned swapping party, a “patriotic dance” by the little regent,[i] recitations and music.

New York Tribune, November 27, 1899.

The reference to the “swapping party” as “old fashioned” suggests that the “swap party” craze of the early 1900s may have been a revival of an earlier practice.  The 1899 article, however, does not describe what they meant by a “swapping party,” so it is impossible to judge whether it was the same type of party that became popular after 1901.  

A description of a “swap party” at a sorority house in Ann Arbor suggests that swap parties were all the rage at the University of Michigan in 1895.  But don’t get too excited, it’s not what you think (hope?); these swap parties were more in the nature of an auction than . . . a wrapped gift exchange:

Eta. University of Michigan.

Dear Thetas:  Are you all beginning to be afflicted with “that tired feeling” which comes to us with the spring?  It does not seem to be very seasonable with us for we are still wading through snow-drifts.  However, everyone appears to be afflicted with the premonitory symptoms and little is going on excepting an occasional “swap-party,” - -  the momentary rage in Ann Arbor.  It is a very jolly way to entertain one’s friends, provided that the said friends have not taken part in too many similar festivities.  Each guest takes along some ancient article of clothing or bric-a-brac for which he has no further use.  These are auctioned off, the bidders offering what they have brought instead of money, and the owner of the article under the hammer decides which is the highest bid.  With a good auctioneer and funny things to be auctioned, the bidding becomes very lively.

The Kappa Alpha Theta, Volume 9, Number 3, April, 1895, Burlington, Vermont, 1895.
In any case, even if “swap parties,” of any kind, were old-fashioned in 1899, they were not yet called “white elephant” parties or “Yankee swaps;” those names would come later.

White Elephant Swaps/Parties

Even though the expressions, “white elephant” and “gift of a white elephant,” seem, in retrospect, as perfectly suited (if not obvious) to be the name of a “swap party,” the name did not appear until 1907. 
The earliest appearance of the phrase is in a joke.  The joke was republished in dozens of outlets during its first year, and recurred from time to time for more than a decade and into the 1920s.  In modern parlance, we might say that the joke went viral.  The joke may, in fact, be the origin of the phrase:

A shocking thing happened in one of our nearby towns, says exchange.  One of the popular society women announced a “white elephant party.” Every guest was to bring something she could not find any use for and yet too good to throw away.  The party would have been a great success but for an unlooked for development which broke it up.  Nine out of the eleven women invited brought their husbands. – Primrose Record.

The Columbus Journal (Columbus, Nebraska), July 10, 1907.  

This version, the earliest one I found, from Columbus, Nebraska, claims that the party was held in the nearby town of Primrose, Nebraska.  But the joke was repeated dozens of times across the entire country.  In each case, the location of the party changed, sometimes to a nearby town or neighboring state, and sometimes to a far-off big city. 

The only reference to a “white elephant party” from 1907, that was not merely a repetition of the “white elephant” joke, is from the Madison (Wisconsin) High School’s 1907 yearbook, Ty-cho-ber-ahn.  But even there, the reference is from a mock-newspaper article with humorous stories about students in the school, not an actual notice of a party to be held under the name, “white elephant party.”  So it is difficult to determine whether the name preceded the joke, or whether the joke writer coined a new expression.  But in either case, the joke seems likely to have spread new name, regardless of its origin.  If the frequency of the joke in print is any indication, it seems likely that anyone who had never heard of a “white elephant party” before 1907 had heard of it by the end of 1908.   

In 1908, the helpful-hints columnist, Madame Merri, legitimized the expression, to the extent that it may have needed legitimizing after its appearance in the joke.  In her widely syndicated helpful hints column, she provided detailed instructions for hosting a “White Elephant Party,” including instructions for making special, elephant-shaped invitations.  The game instructions were more or less identical to the “swap party” instructions that had been making the rounds for years.  To her credit, she admits as much; “this has been tried before under the name of a ‘swap’ party. Whatever it is called it makes a lot of merriment.”  She also published the “White Elephant Party” instructions in book form, in a collection of her articles published in 1913. Madame Merri, The Art of Entertaining for All Occasions; Novel Schemes for Old and Young at Home, Church, Club, and School, Arranged by Months, Chicago, F. G. Browne & Co., 1913, page 297.

Beginning in 1908, notices of actual “white elephant” parties started to appear in newspapers.  Those notices continued, with increasing frequency, into the early 1910s, often in the society pages, and often hosted by women’s groups or clubs.  Such notices were fairly frequent by 1913, the same year in which women’s clubs and charitable organizations popularized the related expression, “white elephant sale.”

White Elephant Sales

The earliest appearance of the phrase, “White Elephant Sale,” is a commercial usage from 1892:

White Elephant Sale.

The linens used in our Exposition display will be sold to-day at sacrifice prices.

An extraordinary opportunity to get table linens cheap.  Jos. Horne & Co., 609-621 Penn avenue.

Pittsburg Dispatch (Pennsylvania), October 27, 1892, page 6. 

Although this use of the phrase is an exact precursor of the phrase, it appears to have been a one-off, as the phrase did not take hold.  This was the only example of the phrase that I could find before 1913. 

The earliest use of “white elephant sale” to describe a fund-raising rummage sale is from in 1913:

The Ladies’ Aid Society will hold a “White Elephant” sale in the church parlors, Friday afternoon, March 14, 1913.

Perrysburg Journal (Perrysburg, Ohio), March 14, 1913.

The Ogden Standard - 4/11/1918
The expression appears with increasing regularity throughout the following several years.  Nearly all of the sales were hosted by women’s groups with names like, Ladies Aid Society, Women’s Relief Corps, or Ladies Village Improvement Society, and the like.  Many of the sales during this early period were fundraisers for the Red Cross or European relief efforts associated with World War I:

Society women are keeping shop this week, beginning Wednesday, when the American fund for French wounded, the British-American war relief and the Red Cross helpers will be the beneficiaries of their enterprise. . . .  The white elephant sale is a rummage sale, and those interested in the causes are begging for discarded articles of any kind, especially books, jewelry, silver, furniture and plants.

The Washington Herald (Washington DC), February 9, 1917, page 8;

White Elephant Sale.
The women of Lexington will hold a “White Elephant” sale in the future for the benefit of the Armenian Fund, if sufficient encouragement may be received in the way of contributions.  One of the greatest tragedies of history and the greatest of this war has been enacted in Armenia, and efforts of the Central powers to eliminate the race by murder and starvation is without parallel.

The Lexington Intelligencer, November 23, 1917, page 5.

“White elephant” gift exchanges and “white elephant” sales were here to stay.

Meade County (KS) News - 4/18/1918

Yankee Swaps

I do not know when the phrase “Yankee swap” was first applied to “white elephant” gift exchanges, but it appears to have been long after 1920.  I was unable to find any viable information on the subject.  If you have any idea, I would be curious to know. 

The world awaits!

[i] The “little regent” was Sarah Bancker Trafton, Regent of the Holland Dames, a patriotic club of Old-New York Dutch families.  The Bancker names is connected with New York City as early as the late 1600s; Anna Bancker, the daughter of the Dutch sea captain, Gerrit Bancker, married Johannes de Peyster, who was the mayor of New York in 1698.  Several of her female descendants married cousins with the name Bancker – so her marriage did not end the association of the name Bancker with New York City.

Buddhism and Baseball - White Elephants and the White Elephant Wars

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
The match-up against the Giants and McGraw called to mind McGraw’s “white elephant” comments from a few years earlier.  Souvenir vendors, as well as the team, capitalized on the hype.  Vendors outside Philadelphia’s Columbia Park sold bandanas emblazoned with “white elephants” before the game. The Evening Star (Washington DC), October 9, 1905.  Inside the stadium, the Athletics presented McGraw with a small statue of a white elephant before the game.  McGraw accepted the elephant with obvious good humor. 

1911 World Series
Six years later, during the 1911 World Series, the Athletics wore elephants on their sweaters and jerseys.  The Athletics continued using elephants on promotional materials and their uniforms into the 1960s.








Elephant Baseball

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

Gone Batty
In the Warner Brother’s 1954 cartoon, Gone Batty, the Goonsville Goons took on the out-manned Sweetwater Shnooks.  The Goons were menacing in Dodger Blue (in 1954, the Dodgers were perennial powerhouses; they had just won their fourth pennant in seven years); all muscle-bound and barrel-chested with angry five-o-clock shadows, they glowered over the Shnooks.  The Shnooks, dressed in red and white (much like the Philadelphia “White Elephants” of 1953 who, at the time, were perennial losers) looked like Shnooks in their turn-of-the century throw-back uniforms; pale and weak, they cowered before the Goons, behind Rollie-Fingers, handle-bar mustaches.

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.