C.W. Eisenfelder: Cold, Calculating Capitalist or Bumbling Baseball Executive?

eisenfelder houseThe Paris News’ A.W. Neville’s recalled Charles W. Eisenfelder, 1902’s Paris Texas League team owner, as a “tall, gangly, and loose-jointed” man. After researching the elusive Eisenfelder over the past several years, I wonder if Neville directed his words less at Charles’ physical appearance than his eccentric and unpredictable behavior.
A native German immigrating to the United States his mother in 1867, in Galveston four-year old C.W. Eisenfelder seemed to begin a lifetime searching for his niche. Fancying himself an entrepreneur of sorts, Eisenfelder took an interest in sports and recreation as he grew older, and he became well-known, if not infamous, in the Galveston community. But, the sparse written records of Charles’ ventures reveal a man holding at least a touch of an inferiority complex and desperate to leave a lasting mark in Galveston’s crowded business and political circles.

When Charles came of age in the late 1870s, he worked in a grocery store to support his mother. At the time, three families controlled Galveston. The Moody’s dominated Galveston’s cotton trade and diversified into a number of endeavors, most notably banking and insurance. The Kempner’s made their fortune in the mercantile and banking industries, and the Sealy family involved itself in everything from the railroad to cotton to twine. Most notably, though, the Sealy’s essentially held a monopoly on Galveston’s wharf area, a highly lucrative venture in a city many considered the most important port on the Gulf Coast. Records suggest Eisenfelder resented the power the three families held over the island, and the ambitious young man slowly developed plans to do something about it. In the meantime, though, Charles entered the business community himself, hoping he might become the patriarch of Galveston’s fourth influential family.

As the years passed and Galveston’s harbor activity spurned Texas’ rapid growth, Eisenfelder garnered attention on a number of levels. His first reported business venture, the purchase of an already failing Galveston saloon in 1885, lasted only briefly. Less than three years later, Charles had set up shop as a book dealer and married fellow German immigrant Paulina Friedrich. After all, any gentleman expecting to become one of Galveston’s elite required a wife to make inroads in social circles. A year later the Jewish born Eisenfelder became a leader in Galveston’s Spiritualist Church. Perhaps not so much a coincidence, William L. Moody’s wife Libbie also attended the church as a faithful supporter.

After spending several years as a clerk with the C.G. Fordtran feed store, in late 1894 Eisenfelder bought out his employer and entered the feed and grain business on a full-time basis. Undoubtedly Eisenfelder expected his new business situated in the heart of the Galveston’s famed Strand business district would propel him to a higher standing in the community. And, it most assuredly did. The eccentric businessman made major news when he sued the Galveston fire department for its slow response to a fire destroying his inventory. The City soon returned the favor and sued Eisenfelder himself for refusing to pay his business occupancy tax, and a long-running feud between local government and Eisenfelder began. Charles had made a name for himself, but even he would have admitted his dreams weren’t progressing as planned.

By the late 1800’s, his feed and grain business a success, the ambitious but somewhat misguided Charles Eisenfelder entered the sporting world as a part-time boxing promoter. Although he became involved in the boxing just as Galveston native Jack Johnson began a climb toward worldwide fame as the eventual first black World Heavyweight Champion, it is doubtful Eisenfelder had any involvement in Johnson’s career. But, the sporting bug bit Charles like a starving chigger, and he looked to expand his sports venture into professional baseball.

If Charles Eisenfelder hadn’t become well-known in Galveston through his business dealings and as a boxing promoter, in 1899 he gained notoriety as part owner the Galveston Sand Crabs baseball team. The Texas League as a whole had ceased operations eleven games into the 1898 season with the onset of the Spanish American War. A year later, the North Texas teams failed to regroup, but the South Texas cities of Galveston, Houston, San Antonio, and Austin organized a circuit of their own known as the Texas Association, and the Sand Crabs dominated play. With Paris native Ben Shelton making his professional debut, Galveston took both halves of the season by sizable margins and claimed the league championship. The following year, though, both North and South Texas baseball lay dormant, as the professional game went on a two-year hiatus in the state. In the meantime, Eisenfelder returned to managing his business on the Strand.

Despite Charles and Paulina Eisenfelder’s home on Ave P-1/2 resting in the middle of the 1900 Great Storm’s zone of total destruction, somehow both the couple and their house survived. Apparently, the same could not be said for the C.W. Eisenfelder Company warehouse on The Strand, however. Though destruction on the bay side of the island didn’t come close to that experienced several blocks eastward toward the Gulf of Mexico, flooding waters engulfed the business district, and Eisenfelder soon discovered his inventory destroyed. By 1901, the C.W. Eisenfelder Company no longer existed. Charles remained undeterred, though, and made lemonade out of the storm responsible for the deaths of 6,000 fellow Islanders as he pursued a career as a full-time baseball executive. With Galveston still recovering from the storm and in no mood for baseball, in early 1902 he looked to North Texas and its reorganized Texas League for a franchise. For the bottom dollar price of $250, Eisenfelder landed the team assigned to Paris and began to prepare for a successful business venture in the small Lamar County city where he had never set foot.

Charles W. Eisenfelder arrived in Paris with the energy of the 1900 storm, boasting he had purchased a boxcar load of baseball gear and interviewed several hundred ballplayers. He emphatically pointed out he would only sign the most upstanding, well-behaved candidates to contracts. In an age when most Texans seldom used the words “upstanding” and “well-behaved” when describing baseball players, Eisenfelder probably sealed his franchise’s fate on the spot. He stocked his team with little-known talent, with the possible exception of Paris native Rick Adams, one of few bright spots in an otherwise impotent lineup. But, when the “Parisians” won seven of their first nine games, local baseball fans thought Eisenfelder might just be the solution to the city’s failed franchises in its two previous Texas League seasons. The optimism soon evaporated, though, as the team followed its hot start by losing 12 of its next 14 games. To bolster attendance, Eisenfelder added an additional Paris native to his lineup, signing Ben Shelton after his former Sherman-Denison team relocated to Texarkana. Though Shelton brought a strong bat to town, it was not enough to offset the poor hitting and sloppy fielding of his teammates. As the season wore on, the Parisians continued to sink in the standings, barely managing to keep out of last place the majority of the summer.

Sportswriters loved heckling the Parisians, and the daily jabs from the Dallas Morning News apparently ate at Charles Eisenfelder. As his team continued its swoon, he unilaterally announced he would relocate the franchise to Houston, an offense to both Paris fans and other Texas League owners who refused to approve a plan suggesting only one of the League’s cities in Southern Texas. Sportswriters piled on, substituting “Frenchmen” and “Frog Eaters” for “Parisians” on a regular basis. Unfortunately for Eisenfelder, his plan not only ruffled feathers among his fellow owners and sportswriters. Paris fan support disintegrated. Eisenfelder soon announced he could no longer afford to host home games, as he rapidly lost money after paying the visiting team’s $50 guarantee. With relocation already snubbed and a dissolved franchise not something the novice baseball executive wanted on his resume, Eisenfelder reached a decision bringing him fame among aficionados of baseball nicknames. Rather than risk losing money in Paris, Eisenfelder sent his Parisians on the road for most of the second half of the season. “Eisenfelder’s Homeseekers,” as the team became known, played only 15 of its final 56 games in Paris, predictably winning only 11 of its games on the road and finishing one game out of the Texas League cellar. But, Eisenfelder, not his opposing owners, consistently pocketed the coveted $50 guarantee.

Following the 1902 season, both Paris and the Northern Circuit of the Texas League washed their hands of Charles Eisenfelder. He returned to Galveston and assisted in managing the affairs of the Sand Crabs for the first few weeks of the 1903 season before selling his share of a franchise which never returned to its 1899 championship form, a failure Eisenfelder’s must have considered vindication. Charles bounced in and out of local baseball circles for a few years, ultimately partnering with longtime Texas League umpire, ballplayer, and manager Wilson Matthews in purchasing the 1909 Charleston franchise of the South Atlantic League.

Charles’ new venture may have taken him a thousand miles from Texas, but upon arriving in South Carolina, he immediately enraged his former colleagues, emphatically declaring South Atlantic League players as faster, more talented, and more disciplined than Texas Leaguers. He even went so far as to insult Texas League owners’ dedication to making baseball a respectable profession, noting the South Atlantic League demanded its players maintain a pristine public image and dress in fine clothes at all times. If in Texas, he added, the League’s ballplayers would easily be mistaken for bankers and businessmen. A San Antonio sportswriter answered Eisenfelder, pointing out his refusal to pay his former Texas League ballplayers salaries suitable to purchase decent suit of clothes as the reason he found the players on the East Coast so appealing. Midway through the season, though, Eisenfelder returned to Galveston as he and Wilson Matthews parted ways after repeatedly butting heads on team business matters. Once again, it seemed Charles Eisenfelder had overplayed his hand.

Upon returning to the Galveston, Eisenfelder immediately gained the public spotlight his longstanding jealousy of the Moody’s, Kempner’s, and Sealy’s boiled over. He touted a plan to remove city politics from the influence of the wealthy families and took a leading role in forming Galveston’s Progressive Party, a group of Islanders determined to provide the average citizen a voice in civic affairs. Pressing for a representative local government and a city commission elected on a ward basis, Eisenfelder’s grandstanding undoubtedly did little to endear him to the powers who built Galveston. Likewise, his efforts failed and the three families continue to battle for control of Island politics.

Professionally, Eisenfelder remained in a sporting business of sorts, becoming manager of the Surf Bathhouse. He advertised “The Surf Club” as an establishment for only the most reputable citizens of Galveston, attempting to appeal to the same class envy he had in promising Paris baseball fans he would sign only ballplayers local citizens would proudly support. The Surf Bathhouse, built over the water along Galveston’s newly-completed seawall, offered concerts, dancing, fishing, bathing, and boxing competitions for members only, with memberships set at $2 per year, or the bargain of $1 for six months. For a time the Surf Club succeeded, its distinctive architecture often pointed out as an example of Galveston’s sophistication and dedication to developing itself as a tourist center. Ultimately, the business proved no match for another of Galveston’s battles with Mother Nature. Its destruction in the 1915 hurricane led local leaders to consider prohibiting further construction beyond the seawall.

Following the Surf Club’s demise, Eisenfelder continued searching for his niche, first setting up shop as the local distributor of Reif’s Special soft drink, a “near-beer” produced by a Tennessee company hailing its three month aging process—“By Golly, It’s Good!” With prohibition just a few years away and Galveston transforming into a “Free State” where law enforcement largely ignored liquor, gambling, and other vice-oriented businesses, the demand for near-beer on the island disappeared. At this point, Eisenfelder decided to enter full-time into a business he had dabbled in over the years—real estate management. The Galveston Daily News editions of the 1920’s and 1930’s are littered with his advertisements of rental property throughout the city. Even while suffering with congestive heart failure, Charles continued his effort to become a force on the Island, if only as a collector of overdue rent. In 1937, Charles W. Eisenfelder died following a stroke. Paulina, his wife of fifty years, sent his body to San Antonio for cremation, eventually burying his remains in Galveston’s Evergreen Cemetery. Even in death Eisenfelder must have been disappointed. The Moody, Sealy, and Kempner families, after all, owned burial plots in far more extravagant cemeteries on the island.

Eisenfelder’s refusal to play home games in 1902 represented the beginning of the end of Texas League baseball in Paris. A year later, Ted Sullivan’s outstanding ball club bailed out of town at the season’s midpoint, and in 1904, two novice owners left their team in the League’s hands before the season came to a close. By 1905, with three consecutive Paris franchises failing to finish their seasons, Texas League owners no longer looked on the city as a viable location for a franchise. But, “Eisenfelder’s Homeseekers” keep Paris at least a footnote in Texas League lore over a century later. A.W. Neville’s intent in describing Charles W. Eisenfelder as “tall, gangly, and loose-jointed” will never be known. But, it’s doubtful Neville worried the frustrated businessman might dislocate his shoulder carrying a satchel of money to pay his ballplayers.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s