Manhattan, New York
January 4th, 1889
The tumult of flurrying snow followed Michael J. Monroe into the lobby of Hotel Chelsea with an icy vengeance—as if struggling to tear the fabric of civilization into a frozen and forgotten past. Patrons looked up from their meals to see the oddly-dressed man enter—beneath a large overcoat, his suit was too loose and his lapels too wide for a respectable denizen of Manhattan. Also, he wore a large pocketwatch with a silver chain, though they had long fallen out of style in New York—and one or two young socialites actually chuckled at the sight of this beard-trimmed vestige—for though the man wore conservative clothing, it was clearly of a fine cut and neatly tailored. Likewise, he did not appear all that ancient to be garbed like a Missouri Compromise Senator; an only slightly aged face (perhaps fifty-five) held a cropped, graying beard that fell handsomely over his features—a soft expression through gray eyes that observed the heated café with mild interest, removing his hard-brimmed bowler and scarf and handing them gently to a portly fellow in a similar outfit behind him .
The general clamor of silverware and china resumed, as interest faded on this unfashionable gentleman and his rotund, spectacled assistant, who was flubbering clumsily with a sheaf of papers and blowing warm air into two pink, frozen hands.
“The very place, sir!” the portly fellow said with some certainty, smacking one of the papers in a decisive matter and looking around the room once again. “Utter misery to find a cab to Manhattan at this hour, utter misery…”
Nodding, the taller stranger watched a consigliere approach in a neatly-fitting black suit, his black hair slicked back and shining under the electric light.
“We welcome you to L’hôtel Chelsea,” the man said in an undeniably over-pronounced French accent, his hands folded gently behind his back. He looked to the tall man, and then the red-cheeked assistant behind him “Are we expecting you, Monsieur…”
“Monroe,” the tall fellow replied, “Michael Monroe.”
Monroe had a clearly-ringing Carolina accent—to sharp to hail anywhere south of Charelston, yet rolled and rich enough to denote a southern education. The attendant visibly recoiled.
“Monsieur Monroe, my sincere apologies, we were not…ah…expecting you for some days.”
“I like to surprise people,” Monroe replied, sniffing, reaching a hand back and snapping for his assistant to hand him a document.
“This is Mister Lawson,” Monroe told the concierge. Lawson smiled, his large cheeks still red and glistening under the lamp-glow. He bobbed his hat in salutation. “He will see to the details. Has Colonel Spencer arrived?”
“Oui,” the waiter replied, still jarred. “Ah, yes, monsieur, la colonel est..ah…occupied. In the rear lounge.”
“I shall unoccupy him,” Monroe replied with a nod. “Which room?”
Still baffled, the Frenchman turned awkwardly and pointed to an ornate double-door to the rear of the café. Immediately, Monroe nodded and walked beyond the waiter, headed for the door.
Looking to Mister Lawson, the waiter whistled and shook his head.
“That is Michael Monroe, no? The Tobacco Baron of Richmond, they call him?”
“Oh, they call him many things down there,” Mr. Lawson mused humorously, patting his pockets until he found a cigar. “Light for a freezing fellow?”
Snapping out of his daze, the waiter looked down. “Ah? Oh, of course.” He removed a box of matches from his jacket and stooped to light the whiskered assistant’s cigar.
Chuckling, Mister Lawson watched his employer walk confidently for the doors of the back room, puffing on his cigar and coughing slightly.
“In just a few months,” Lawson continued, “They’ll be calling him the savior of baseball”
I know not what I was playing
Or what I was dreaming then;
But I struck one chord of music
Like the sound of a great Amen.
The phonograph blared Arthur Sullivan’s organ ballad in the warm room—an open fireplace in the far wall. The windows of the room were frosted over, with the dredge of an evening city under the salvos of a vengeful blizzard contrasting the warmth of the well-decorated lounge. The bright electric chandelier overhead scattered light in the many liquor bottles that lined the hearth of the fireplace and the table, at which three gentlemen sat playing cards—hundreds of dollars scattered across the table.
The trio showed little interest in Mr. Monroe, who entered quietly and observed the scene with mild interest.
At the table, a uniformed man in his late thirties, perhaps, slouched in the ornately carved chair. He wore the golden epaulettes of a Lieutenant Colonel in the Regular Army, his hair slicked back above a pointed goatee. His eyes were watered and unconcerned as he took another pull from an unlabeled brown bottle, tossing his cards down on the table. Happily, the man across from him laughed and slid the large pot of money to himself.
“Early in the evening for poker,” Monroe noted as he approached the table, his hands behind his back. “Your reputation precedes you, Colonel Spencer.”
Gruffly, the unshaved officer looked up, wincing against the light of the chandelier.
“Who the hell are you?”
“We’ve met before,” Monroe replied, lifting the unlabeled bottle off the table and observing it with some interest.
“It’s possible,” Colonel Spencer said, shrugging and pulling the bottle back from Monroe. “I owe you money?”
“Possibly,” Monroe answered. “Many men do.”
The two players across the table exchanged dubious glances as the conversation continued.
“Wasn’t in the Army,” Spencer said with a sigh, filling two glasses with the amber liquor and sliding one to Monroe. “I’d remember a tall, arrogant bastard like you.”
“Actually,” Monroe replied with a small smile, taking thee glass and offering a toast to the drunken officer, “it was.” He downed it and sighed, smacking his lips. Spencer tilted his head, confused.
“Petersburg,” Monroe continued, sniffing the glass with a dissatisfied expression, “You fought under Chamberlain, if my research is to be believed.”
Unable to stifle a laugh, Spencer guffawed and drank his own glass. “You a damn reb? What, here to exact vengeance, johnny-boy?”
“In a way,” Monroe said with a small smile. He turned to the two other card players with a wave of his hand. “You gentlemen may leave now. You’ve occupied enough of the Colonel’s time.”
Nodding the two men rose, gathering their earnings and hurrying past Monroe. Confused further, Spencer watched the pair.
“Now wait a minute now,” he said, attempting unsuccessfully to rise. He sat back down, dizzied, patting his head. “We was just getting ourselves into a good card game. Who are you, barking orders at a respectable trio of sporting gents?”
“They men are in my employ,” Monroe replied. “It was my instruction that they find you and occupy you long enough for me to arrive.”
Spencer blinked at the strange, southern man. “Well god damn it all,” he hissed. “Did you order them to take my last nickel, too?”
“I prefer a broad approach to issuing orders, Colonel. It makes for better leadership, I find.”
“Yeah, worked out fucking fantastic for you folks, didn’t it?”
“Mistakes were made.”
“You don’t fucking say.”
“Colonel Spencer,” Monroe answered, his voice rising just a bit. He paused, rapping his knuckles on the table. “Your army days are done. I have it on good authority they won’t let you within one hundred miles of a cavalry command—with good reason.”
“porkbelly crooks,” Spencer croaked. “Politics and ass-polishing, that’s the United States Army of 1889, stranger. Give my fucking regards to the god-damned—” he took another pull of whiskey, “—Indian Affairs bureau.”
Listening quietly to the drunken officer, Monroe nodded again.
“They say you were quite the player, in your lieutenant days.”
Spencer guffawed again.
“is that what this is about? Better read the papers, Monsieur Dixie-Land. If you’re trying to hire me to coach a ballcub in 1889, you’re drunker than I am. National Leagues’ dead.”
“I’m hiring you to build a ballcub,” Monroe answered simply, examining his fingernails. “Let me properly introduce myself, Colonel. I am Michael Monroe, president and executive of Monroe Tobacco.”
Staring, Spencer laughed, then stopped, waiting for the declaration of some large joke, then laughed again, leaning back in his chair.
“Well hol-ee shit. The Grande Viscount himself. In New York City, of all places. Ain’t it a bit cold for you southern boys way up here?”
“Colonel, I am in a position to secure the funding for a replacement to the National League. The future of baseball in America is either doomed to the monopolization of the magnates, or relegated to the past. Unless, that is, we can save it, today.”
“National League was doomed from the start,” Spencer replied. “Those fat bastards shoulda known the players would unionize and split into a hundred damn leagues. Tried to have it all.”
“As I said,” Monroe replied, “I can save baseball. But I have a condition.”
“Is that so?” Spencer folded his arms.
“The land of my ancestors is under attack by the soliciting and amoral villains who fill the corrupted chambers of government,” Monroe continued. “They would bleed the south dry, salting the earth like Scipio Afcricanus.”
“Breaking my heart, boss-man,” Spencer rolled with a laugh. “If I recall it wasn’t you pretty-boys working that earth to begin with.”
“I saw a skirmish in Louisville last summer that drew three thousand,” Monroe continued indifferently. “Not even in a league. Just a few boys, a ball and a bat. Folks forgot about everything in their life to come watch those muddy river-boys play ball.”
Spencer listened, working his jaw. Monroe seemed lost in thought.
“Colonel Spencer, there are talks behind closed doors of a new league—one with power to the players, not the magnates. And I can make all of that happen. A baseball utopia, for the players and the folk who watch the game.”
“Well ain’t you a telegram messiah,” Spencer replied. “You got a point somewhere in all this.”
“I have a condition.”
“The solicitors of the new league, of course. See, they need money that the northern banks won’t offer. After what happened to Spalding, they won’t risk another loss.”
“So, if this new league—these new entrepreneurial northern gentlemen—would have my coin, the would have my condition.” Monroe smiled slightly, his hands in front of him.
“A Richmond club,” Monroe answered simply, “funded by me—with the hero of the Battle of Petersburg, the legendary Lieutenant Kirby Preston, serving as President.”
Dumbfounded, Spencer stared at Monroe. Eventually, he burst into uncontrollable laughter, nearly falling from the table. He shook his head, tears in his eyes.
“You want to start a professional baseball club in Richmond, with a disgraced union officer as your president? Mr. Monroe, I think you are drunk. Drunk or insane. My, oh my.” He laughed again.
“Strange, on the surface, perhaps,” Monroe replied. “But if the club was to perform, Colonel, think of the good work we might do to heal the wounds between north and south—you are quite popular in the collective memory of the border states. Your reputation may be sullied in New York, but Virginia—Virginia is different.”
“So you want to give them Maryland and Pennsylvania boys a front-man they can stomach. Convenient.”
“It will be a challenge, certainly,” Monroe continued. “But if successful, we would see the growth of professional baseball from Virginia down to Florida.”
“I see your angle,” Spencer answered. “You put someone the ignorant masses can trust at the head of your confederate baseball outfit. If it takes off, you’re the father of baseball in the south—with a new economy to capitalize on. Smarter than you look, johnny reb.”
“Likewise,” Monroe answered with a nod. He rose, removing an envelope from his pocket and sliding it to Spencer across the table. “There are the details to my offer, Colonel. Think it over. I believe you’d find life on the frontier as a circus reenactor rather uneconomical.”
With that, Monroe left the room, closing the door behind him and leaving the drunken colonel to his thoughts.
Clumsily, Spencer watched the man leave, turning to the envelope and tearing it open. His brows raised as he read from the paper.
“Well I’ll be damned,” he said, whistling and leaning back in his chair. “I’ll be god-damned.”