Hiding in Plain Sight: Real-life References in The Rhino in Right Field
Updated: Oct 1, 2019
The Rhino in Right Field is a made-up story. Of course it is! Climbing into animal pens at the zoo? A parade of zoo animals? An escape? None of that stuff could happen in real life. Could it?
You might be surprised.
Here (in alphabetical order) is a roundup of the very real people, places, and events that found their way into The Rhino in Right Field. I’ll be adding links and photos a little at a time, so check back often.
Advertising: The ads sprinkled throughout the book are authentic to the time and place. Doerflinger's Artificial Limb Company was located at 2525 W Fond du Lac Avenue in Milwaukee. King's Motors ("Your source for genuine Packard parts!") was real, too, and its phone number was HOpkins 5800. A popular magazine ad of the era boasted that "More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette!"
The batboy contest: Penny’s rejection—just because she was a girl—is based on a true event. While he was owner of the Cleveland Indians, Bill Veeck sponsored a citywide batboy contest. According to Paul Dickson’s book, Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick, Veeck sent out a call inviting boys ages 12–16 to submit an essay explaining why they should be the Indians batboy. Dickson writes, “Thousands of boys entered the contest, as did one girl… to whom Veeck sent a regretful letter explaining why she was not eligible.”
The brewery on State Street: The Miller brewery has been located at, or near, the same location on State Street in Milwaukee since 1855.
The Caravan of Animals from the zoo to the ballpark recalls two significant events in Milwaukee history. The first is Milwaukee’s Great Circus Parade. Sporadically from 1963 to 2009, brightly painted circus wagons carrying giraffes, lions, camels, and other exotic animals paraded through the streets of downtown Milwaukee to commemorate the arrival of the circus. On a smaller scale, the Washington Park Zoo sponsored a traveling zoo wagon in the 1950s. A Parks Department truck fitted with cages trundled around the city during the summer, so that kids who couldn’t get to the zoo could still see live tortoises, rabbits, and other small zoo creatures.
The second event occurred in 1943, when Karonga the rhino was purchased from the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. Karonga was part of a caravan of animals that also included two hippos and a wildebeeste. Karonga’s truck was the fourth of five vehicles trundling up the highway from Chicago to Milwaukee. Behind it was a car carrying a zookeeper with an elephant gun. Just in case.
Joe Daggett’s character was inspired by Bill Veeck, who owned the minor league Milwaukee Brewers from 1941-1945. Veeck had a wooden leg as a result of injuries received in the Pacific during World War II. (He even carved a hole in the hollow leg so he could use it as an ashtray.) Veeck owned five different pro baseball teams during his long career, and his influence reverberates to this day. He is credited with introducing fan giveaways, names on players’ jerseys, and even with planting the ivy on the outfield wall at Wrigley Field. And just like Joe Daggett, Bill Veeck's door was always open.
Dandelions: My Greek grandmother really did pick dandelion leaves from the yard and cook them for dinner. They are a good source of potassium and vitamins A and C (though dandelions in your yard may have been treated with fertilizer, weed killer, or pest killer). Buy them from a market, and wash them well before cooking.
The escaped rhino: A rhinoceros never escaped its wagon during a parade, but something similar almost did happen. In 1943, a rhino named Karonga was tranported to Milwaukee by truck from the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. He was accompanied by a caravan
that included a police escort and zookeepers with elephant guns. According to a written account, “When the procession moved Karonga was quiet. But at every stop … he renewed bombardment of the front of his crate. So terrific were his onslaughts that everyone in the parade feared he would gain freedom.”
The fence: Nick’s description of the “chest high chain link fence” that separated Tank from the Scramble field really did exist at Washington Park Zoo, exactly as described in the book--except the fence actually contained American bison, which is arguably more intimidating than a rhino, considering those horns. A short chain link fence sits atop a shallow retaining wall built of stone. The retaining wall provides a convenient step for anyone wanting to climb in (or out). Want to try it for yourself? Go for it! The wall and fence are still there.
Frederick Street: Vliet Street in Milwaukee (rhymes with “Fleet Street”).
Frozen custard is a favorite in Milwaukee. It looks like soft-serve ice cream, but is called custard because it’s made with eggs. Traditional flavors are chocolate and vanilla, but most local custard stands create their own “flavor of the day” menus. Some popular local custard stands are Gilles, Kopp’s, Leon’s, Robert’s, and Culver’s. Every true Milwaukeean swears loyalty to their favorite custard stand.
Mrs. Garble is a complete figment of my imagination. But the Camel cigarette ad she quotes in the book really did exist.
Mrs. Gibbs is modeled after Ione Quinby Griggs, known simply as “Mrs. Griggs” to several generations of Milwaukeeans. Her daily advice column ran in the Milwaukee Journal’s Green Sheet from 1934–1985.
The Green Sheet was the daily entertainment section of the evening Milwaukee Journal from 1934–1994. It was a 4-page broadside, printed on green paper, containing the comics, radio and TV listings, movie showtimes, and Mrs. Griggs’ famous local advice column.
The Kenosha Comets were a team in the All-American Girls’ Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). The league had between 5 and 11 teams, and played from 1943 until 1954. Players’ uniforms included short skirts (with bloomers underneath). League rules also stated that “lipstick should always be on,” and “at no time may a player…wear slacks or shorts in public.” Players were allowed to pitch overhand beginning in 1948.
Monkey Island has been a favorite attraction at Milwaukee zoos since 1925. Generations of kids have watched the monkeys (macaques) swimming in the moat, but never climbing out and escaping to freedom. The monkeys can wade in on the island side, but the moat gets deeper toward the outer wall. Since the monkeys can’t touch the bottom, they have no way of jumping out. And the wall is too smooth to climb. But in 1948, you could almost reach out and touch them!
Mountain Goat Mountain, where Barbary sheep roamed, was another favorite exhibit at the Washington Park Zoo. Anonymous sources claim that it was also a perfect venue for playing Cops and Robbers, or for shagging fly balls.
The Mudpuppies are inspired by the minor league Milwaukee Brewers (1902–1952). I changed the team’s name to avoid confusion with the present-day, major-league Brewers, and to pay homage to the tradition of quirky names for minor league clubs, such as the Mud Hens, Yard Goats, and Riverdogs.
Newspapers: The morning Milwaukee Sentinel was published from 1837–1995, when it merged with the evening Milwaukee Journal to become the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
Orchard Field is modeled after Borchert Field, home to professional baseball in Milwaukee from 1888 until 1952. Nicknamed “Borchert’s Orchard” or “The Ol’ Orchard,” the rectangular ballpark took up one full city block in the middle of a residential neighborhood, at 8th and Chambers streets (“8th and Chalmers” in the book.) Borchert Field’s phone number was COncord 3180 (dial 2 and 6, the numbers corresponding with the letters C and O on the dial, and then 3180—a six-digit phone number).
Radio announcers: Bob & Ray (Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding) were a nationally famous comedy team on radio and TV from 1946 until 1984. Their routines often consisted of fictional play-by-play and news commentary. You can listen to some samples here. More locally, broadcasters Earl Gillespie and Gordon Hinkley were fixtures on Milwaukee radio and television for over 40 years. And then of course, there’s Bob Uecker, the radio voice of the Milwaukee Brewers since 1971. Without the Uek, Milwaukee baseball wouldn’t be anywhere near as much fun as it has been all these years.
Tank the rhino: Tank’s real name was Karonga, and he was the Washington Park Zoo’s resident rhino from 1943–1957. In his prime, he weighed 2,580 pounds and sported a 17-inch horn.
WTRJ radio: A sideways homage to WTMJ radio, broadcasting in Milwaukee since 1927.
The zoo: The Washington Park Zoo was a true city zoo. Occupying the southwest corner of Washington Park from 1892 until 1958, it housed more than 800 animals, including polar bears, giraffes, lions, and a rhinoceros. Since it was in the park, the zoo had no gates or fences around it, and no admission charge. It gained a national reputation as a progressive zoo, building large, realistic enclosures for many of its animals, with few obvious barriers between the animals and their human visitors. Close interaction was officially forbidden. Of course.
In 1958 the zoo was relocated to the western city limits and renamed the Milwaukee County Zoo, where it is still located.