Hit Sign, Win Suit

Abe Stark (center)

If baseball has a cathedral, it’s Yankee Stadium. But for most of the first half of the Twentieth Century there was a second one that was almost as famous. It was in Brooklyn and called Ebbets Field. It was home of the Dodgers and home of some of the quirkiest people who ever graced a ballpark. Hilda Chester may be the most famous, but Abe Stark was the more significant. 

Stark was born in 1893, became a tailor, and in 1915 opened a clothing store at 1514 Pitkin Avenue in Brooklyn. The store did well and Stark made money. There is dispute about how much of a baseball fan he really was. Some claim he was an entrepreneur who saw a way to make a buck, others say he was a fan and saw an opening on the stadium wall. 

Whatever the reason, in 1931 Stark bought space on the outfield wall of Ebbets Field. There was an open space just below the right-center scoreboard. Stark stuck his sign there. It read, “Hit Sign, Win Suit.”  The deal was that if a player hit the sign on the fly he would win a suit. There’s a lot of disagreement about how often the sign was hit. Some sources indicate almost never, others say a few times a year. There’s universal agreement that Mel Ott of the Giants did it first. There was, of course, a running joke that the Dodgers had two right fielders, the current holder of the job and Stark who stood in front of his sign to ward off hits. (Didn’t happen.) 

Apparently the official scorer would inform Stark anytime the sign was hit and at the end of the season, or the last time the opposing player was in town during the season, the lucky guy could pick up his suit. If he hit the sign more than once, he got more than one suit. The player didn’t get a top-of-the-line suit, but got a fairly inexpensive one (I’m trying not to call it a “cheap suit”). In Bob McGee’s The Greatest Ballpark Ever (certainly worth a read) there’s a story by the infielder Woody English to the effect that he won three suits, didn’t like the looks of the ones he was offered and agreed to take one suit of much better quality.  One story states that Stark was so grateful for Carl Furillo’s work in saving him money that he gave him a pair of pants as a gift for being a great right fielder. I couldn’t find any comment from Furillo acknowledging it ever really happened. 

The sign made Stark famous. In 1954 he was elected President of the New York City Council and served in the job until 1961, ironically the period when the Dodgers left Brooklyn. He closed the store in 1959, two years after the Dodgers decamped for Los Angeles. In 1962 he was elected President of the Borough of Brooklyn, holding the job until 1970. He died two years later. 

Stark’s name is still around in Brooklyn. A school is named for him, as is a senior center and a skating facility. Not bad for a guy most famous for a sign in a ballpark. 

BTW–the woman in the picture above is Dorothy Hamill, later Olympic figure skating champion.

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2 Responses to “Hit Sign, Win Suit”

  1. William Miller Says:

    What’s Stark doing playing with Dorothy Hamill’s skates? He was a tailor, not a shoe salesman! Funny how her hair style was pretty much the same in the ’76 Olympics.
    Interesting post. As usual, I learned something I didn’t already know. Bill

  2. verdun2 Says:

    Glad you liked it. Little stories like this are, to me, one of the great glories of baseball.
    v

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