Monday, November 30, 2009

Wheel Cafe Salutes the 1939 Cincinnati Reds

Here's a 1939 Cincinnati cafe menu that congratulates the hometown nine on a championship season.

First, the menu, and then we'll get to what really matters--baseball!

The menu is from the Wheel Cafe in Cincinnati, at Walnut near Sixth. If you couldn't find something at this cafe to like, there was little hope for you. A variety of sandwiches to choose from, including grilled frankfurter and bratwurst sandwiches. No peanut butter and jelly here.

For a quarter you could have gotten the Self Serve Platter Dinner, which included on this day (it changed daily) your choice of meat or fish and two vegetables, salad, rolls, and butter. A quarter!

Pricier entrees included prime rib, chicken, Veal cutlet with spaghetti, pork chops, Swiss steak, and sirloin steak. For dessert, there were fresh baked fruit pies and that original Wheel creation, Old Fashioned Apple Cake. Hungry yet?

Another thing about those prices... Add up the prices for everything on the menu and it totals $4.25. Amazing. That amount of money wouldn't get you very far on a 2009 menu.

Beer and cocktails were on the menu also to help you wash down all that good food. And speaking of beer... The earliest mention of the Wheel Cafe I can find comes from an old Federal Writers' Project book, Cincinnati: A Guide to the Queen City and its Neighbors. In that book, we learn that on the eve of Prohibition, in 1919, a reporter was on hand at the Wheel Cafe in Cincinnati to record the events:

On May 26, 1919, local bars and beer parlors accommodated overflow crowds. All day and well into the evening men drank at their favorite saloons, a little stunned by the fact that the next day would bring prohibition. Everywhere the cash registers snapped with staccato rings; in some places trade ran to $20,000.
As the closing hour drew near, an Enquirer reporter was on hand to record the historic moment.

Midnight in front of the Wheel Cafe resembled the old Klondyke days... Two hundred men, each carrying a battle, a jug, or a case of liquor, thronged the barroom.

Fisher Bacharach, the manager, stood on the table. Coatless, and with sleeves rolled up, he waved his left hand filled with bills of all denominations.

"The town is dry," he announced. "Outside everybody," he commanded.

And so, at 12:01 o'clock, Cincinnati... passed into the shadow of the valley of ice cream and ginger ale.
Fast forward to 1933... The Wheel Cafe figured prominently and historically in Cincinnati when Prohibition was repealed, becoming the first establishment to receive a shipment of beer.

From Over the Barrel: The Brewing History and Beer Culture of Cincinnati, by Timothy Holian (Sudhaus Press, 2 vols., 2001):

As it turned out, the Bruckmann Company was the only Cincinnati-area brewery fully licensed and prepared for the repeal of Prohibition and immediately able to deliver beer shipments; other beer was brought in from Louisville, Chicago, Columbus, and Milwaukee as it became available, to help satisfy the initial heavy demand. At precisely 12:01 a.m. on April 7, 1933, the first Bruckmann truck left the loading docks at Central Parkway and Ludlow Avenue and headed toward downtown Cincinnati, to deliver the first legal supply of beer since January 18, 1920 to the Wheel Cafe, on Walnut Street. The joy of patrons there at the return of beer was diminished slightly by a lengthy wait to purchase the product; actual sale of beer at the Wheel Cafe did not commence until 9:00 a.m. due to delays in the retail sales permit process. Other establishments had better luck with the government; by 1:00 a.m. the Ohio State Liquor Control Commission—which had set up a temporary office in the Hotel Metropole—had granted 138 area permits for the first day of beer sales, to 115 bars, sixteen grocery stores, and seven wholesale distributors. In a later reminiscence a longtime Wheel Cafe employee recalled the typical response when the first glasses of draft Bruck’s Beer finally crossed the counter at area drinking establishments, where overflow crowds consumed a continuous flow that quickly tested the abilities of the bartenders—and the beer supply—to keep up with the rush:

People lined up 10 to 15 deep on Walnut Street between Fifth and Sixth, just waiting to get in to get a taste. We didn’t figure they’d do much eating, so we almost did away with the platter lunches. The only food we served was sandwiches which were wrapped ahead of time. ... We had only the lower floor open when they started packing in. There were at least nine bartenders on the job. Soon [I was sent] upstairs to open up another bar on the second floor. At both bars we would set up a barrel of beer ... open the spigot and let it run. We never had to shut off the spigot, so fast did that beer move. We just shoved the half-liter and liter glasses and mugs across the bars. [The customers] would toss their money on the bar, grab a beer and stand aside. We would throw the money into the open register. It went on like that all day.
Now to the ballpark for a dog and a beer and to watch those champion Reds.

Flip the menu over for a look into Cincinnati baseball history.

The Reds won the National League pennant in 1939 (the year of this menu) with players such as Al Simmons, Eddie Joost, Johnny Vander Meer, Ernie Lombardi, Paul Derringer, Bucky Walters, and Harry Craft. Vince DiMaggio was on the team, too (see below).

Following are some anecdotes about several of the players (I used to eat baseball trivia when I was a kid!) from memory and a bit of research for verification:

Johnny Vander Meer is the only pitcher ever to throw back-to-back no-hitters, which he did in 1938.

Ernie Lombardi caught both of Vander Meer's games, but is probably best remembered for what happened in the 1939 World Series against the Yankees. With the game tied 4-4 in the 10th inning, and Cincy needing a win to stay alive in the Series, Joe DiMaggio singled in a runner, Charlie Keller, for the go-ahead run. Keller scored on a close play at the plate in which Lombardi was knocked silly. DiMaggio circled the bases crossing home untouched as Lombardi lay on the ground still in a fog. Lombardi, known as the Schnozz, became a part of baseball folklore that day, with the episode dubbed "The Schnozz's Snooze" or "Lombardi's Big Snooze."

Vince DiMaggio was traded to the Reds by the Yankees (farm team) at the end of the 1939 season and played in only eight games for the Reds. He had no plate appearances against the Yankees and brother Joe DiMaggio in the World Series, which the Yankees swept in four games, by the way.

I remember Harry Craft, of course, because he was the first manager of my hometown team, the Houston Colt .45s, a National League expansion team in 1962. I can remember going out to old Colt Stadium with my brother and father for a few games in those early years, so I'm sure I saw Craft at some point, but had no idea who was who. I was only six. My dad did point out Stan Musial in one game and impress upon me the fact that he was one of the game's greatest hitters ever.

Craft also figured in the historic second no-hitter in Johnny Vander Meer's back-to-back gems, having caught Leo Durocher's flyball for the last out in the ninth inning to clinch Vander Meer's spot in the record books for eternity.

Craft got his managing start in the Yankees farm system. Mickey Mantle, on his quick trip through the minors, first came under Harry Craft's tutelage and later complimented Craft, saying, "I was lucky to have Harry as skipper my first two years. He started me out right."

Later in the 1950s, Craft was managing in Kansas City and a young Roger Maris credited Craft for helping him with his hitting. A few years later, Maris was traded to the Yankees and had his historic season in 1961, breaking Babe Ruth's single season home run record. No asterisks here. If you're a fan of baseball history, and have not seen Billy Crystal's film, 61*, order it from Netflix or your neighborhood video store now. You won't be sorry. Especially nice for you Yankees fans in the Hot Stove League.

As far as I can tell, the Wheel Cafe is long gone, but the Reds are still playing baseball. And in 1976, the Big Red Machine finally avenged the 1939 World Series loss to the Yankees with a sweep of their own.