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For the love of old ballparks

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Take me out...

Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Years ago, I bought a video game called Old Time Baseball. Even though I’ve bever been much of a gamer, I loved playing this one. The graphics were good for the time and the thing I loved the most was the ability to pit teams from different eras against each other. The other cool feature was the ability to play in any stadium, past or present. I played nearly all my games in places like the Baker Bowl, Shibe Park, the Polo Grounds or Ebbets Field.

I’ve been fascinated with baseball parks ever since my father took me to Municipal Stadium for the first time. That venture was probably back when I was just a tyke, I’m guessing 7 or 8. It was very early fall and the field had already been laid out for football. We stopped on what would have been the third-base side and walked the ramp into the upper deck. I’ve written about this before, on how emerging from the tunnel, it was like in the movie The Wizard of Oz, when the film turns from black and white to color. That’s the effect the green grass had upon me. I’d never seen anything quite as bright or beautiful in my young life.

There was a groundskeeper working right below us, quite possibly George Toma. To this day, every time I’m in a new city, I try to seek out their art museums and the location of any old ballparks that may have stood at one time. It must be genetic because my brother Shane does the same thing. We have a “Where’s Waldo?” thing going on, where we text each other pictures of us standing next to a stadium with a “guess where I am?” tagline.

My father was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, so growing up I heard plenty about Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Carl Furillo, Duke Snider, and Ebbets Field. I’ve always been fascinated with Ebbets Field but have never been to the location. The Dodgers, so named because people in the borough dodged trolley cars, played in Ebbets from 1913 to 1957. Ebbets was built on the site of a garbage dump called Pigtown and was well known from being located on Bedford Ave. Ebbets was immortalized by Roger Kahn’s classic book, “The Boys of Summer”.

I was pleased when Citi Field, home of the New York Mets, was built, that they incorporated some outside design aspects of Ebbets. Ebbets was a small park, with maximum capacity of about 35,000. The right-field fence was only 297 feet away but had a high wall with a fence on top, which made it more difficult for left-handed sluggers. Ebbets had plenty of historical moments. On the park’s first night game ever, June 15, 1938, Cincinnati’s Johnny Vander Meer threw his second consecutive no-hitter. On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier at Ebbets in a game against the Boston Braves. The Dodgers won pennants in 1941, 1947, 1949, 1952, 1953, 1955, and 1956. They won the World Series in 1955 and hosted the All-Star game in 1949.

The end was ugly. New owner Walter O’Malley had wanted to build a domed stadium on what was called the Atlantic Yards (now the site of the Barclays Center), but New York Building Commissioner Robert Moses refused to help O’Malley secure the land. Moses wanted the Dodgers to move to a city-owned stadium in Flushing, Queens (the site of Shea Stadium and Citi Field). O’Malley refused stating “We’re not the Queens Dodgers!” O’Malley then started negotiations with the city of Los Angeles. The Dodgers did move, of course, after the 1957 season, breaking the hearts of Brooklyn fans everywhere. The move had a domino effect as O’Malley convinced Horace Stoneham, owner of the crosstown New York Giants, to move west with him, to San Francisco.

The old ballpark started coming down on February 23, 1960. In April of 1960, items such as banners, seats, bricks, bats, caps, photos, and balls were auctioned off. The auctioneer, Saul Leisner, an old Dodger fan himself, said it was the saddest day of his life. In 1962, a large apartment building was built on the site. The apartments were known as the Ebbets Field apartments until 1972, when the name was changed to The Jackie Robinson apartments.

About the Giants, their home in New York was known as the Polo Grounds. In the 1950s, New York City had to be the baseball romantics ground zero, with old Yankee Stadium, Ebbets Field, and the Polo Grounds. The Polo Grounds stood in various incantations in upper Manhattan from 1876 to 1963. When most people talk about The Polo Grounds, they are referring to the fourth Polo Grounds. After a fire destroyed the third Polo Grounds on April 14th, 1911, the fourth version of the field was built and opened on June 28th, 1911.

The Polo Grounds were often referred to as Coogans Bluff. The park actually sat in Coogans Hollow, the bottomland between the bluff and the Harlem River. To say the Polo Grounds had some quirks would be a massive understatement. The park was shaped like a bathtub. The left and right field lines were amazingly short at 279 and 258 feet respectively. There was a 21-foot overhang of bleachers in left field that often turned catchable fly balls into home runs. The power alleys were massive, 450 feet into the left and right-center gaps. The center field fence stood 483 feet from home plate. The park was sizeable though and could seat about 55,000 fans. The players exited the field through a door in the center field fence.

The park had many historic moments. On August 16, 1920, Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman was beaned by the Yankees Carl Mays. Chapman died 12 hours later. He remains the only player to die from injuries sustained in a game. On October 3rd, 1951, Bobby Thompson hit “The shot heard ‘round the world”, the home run that clinched the National League pennant for the Giants. The Giants had won 37 of their last 44 games that season to catch the Dodgers. Thompson’s blast came in the bottom of the ninth of Game Three of their series to decide who would face the Yankees in the World Series. Willie Mays was a rookie that season and made his Polo Grounds debut on May 28th in a game against the Boston Braves. He hit the first of his 660 home runs that evening, a first-inning, solo shot off another Hall of Famer, Warren Spahn. It was Mays’ first at bat at the Grounds. What a way to introduce yourself to the New York fans. Mays was barely 20 years old.

Baseball Game at the Polo Grounds
The Polo Grounds
Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

In the 1954 World Series, Mays made one of the most famous catches of all time, simply known as “The Catch”, when he made an over-the-shoulder grab of a drive off the bat of Cleveland’s Vic Wertz. He was helped by the Polo Grounds expansive centerfield. The drive would have been a home run in most other parks.

The Giants left for San Francisco after the 1957 season and the old park sat vacant for nearly three years. In the fall of 1960, the New York Titans (now the Jets) of the American Football League began playing in Polo. The expansion New York Mets also used the Polo Grounds as a temporary home while Shea Stadium was being built. The Mets played their last game in the park on September 18, 1963 in front of 1,752 fans. Here’s a couple of trivia questions for you.

  • Who hit the last home run at the Polo Grounds? Jim Hickman of the Mets. Hickman hit a solo shot leading off the fourth, off the Phillies Chris Short.
  • Who had the last hit in the Polo Grounds? Answer? Chico Fernandez of the Mets, who hit a ninth inning single off Short. Ted Schreiber of the Mets promptly hit into a 4-6-3 double play to end the game and the Polo Grounds era. Such was the life of the Mets in those days. That 1963 team, managed by Casey Stengel, went 51 and 111.

The Polo Grounds were demolished in 1964, ironically with the same wrecking ball that brought down Ebbets Field four years earlier. The site is now home to the Polo Grounds Towers, a public housing project that opened in 1968. Immediately across the Harlem River from the Grounds sat Yankee Stadium.

One old park site I have visited is League Park in Cleveland. Cleveland is, in my humble estimation, one of the great underrated cities. I made the sojourn there when my oldest son was living in Cleveland. Part of the grandstand façade still stands at the corner of East 66th Street and Lexington Avenue. The park was home to the early Cleveland Spiders and later, the Cleveland Indians. The Cleveland Buckeyes of the Negro American League also played in the park. Ground was broken for the stadium in 1891 and the stadium closed on September 21st, 1946. The stadium was built on the Lexington Avenue location because team owner Frank Robison owned the streetcar line that ran alongside the structure.

The ballpark had a maximum capacity of about 22,000 fans, and like many early parks had some squirrelly dimensions, which were most often dictated by how the park was squeezed into its urban neighborhood. The left-field line stood 375 feet from home. Centerfield stood a whopping 460 feet away, while the right-field corner was a mere 290 feet.

League Park Cleveland 1910
League Park - 1910
Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images

History abounded in League Park. In 1891, Cy Young threw the first pitch in the new stadium. In the 1920 World Series, the Indian’s Bill Wambsganss pulled off the only unassisted triple play in series history. On August 11, 1929, Babe Ruth hit his 500th home run in League. Seventeen-year-old high school junior, Bob Feller, made his first appearance in Cleveland during a game at League on July 24, 1936. A month later, on August 23, Rapid Robert made the first of his 484 career starts in League. Indians’ manager Steve O’Neil had another pitcher warming up in case the teenager ran into early trouble. That move proved unnecessary as the “Heater from Van Meter” tossed a complete game, striking out 15 St. Louis Browns for good measure.

The site is now a community park. Unfortunately, I’ve lost the pictures I had of League. I was fishing in the river one day, with my cell phone in the front pocket of my waders. I stumbled on a boulder and fell face-first in the drink, ruining my phone and the pictures it contained.

Philadelphia was home to two classic old-time parks: The Baker Bowl and Shibe Park. The Baker Bowl was bounded by North Broad Street, West Huntington Street, North 15th Street and West Lehigh Avenue. It was built in 1887 and over the years had a maximum capacity of about 20,000 fans. The dimensions were fairly standard compared to other oddball city parks: 341 down the left field line, 408 to center and 280 to the right field foul pole. The right field wall was the most distinctive feature about Baker. The masonry and wire structure stood 60 feet tall and ran from the right field foul pole to the middle of the power alley. The Phillies played at Baker for 51 ½ mostly futile seasons. The Phils played their last game at Baker in the middle of the 1938 season. They moved just five blocks west on Lehigh to Shibe Park, which they shared with the Philadelphia Athletics. Baker did have some famous moments. Babe Ruth, playing for the Red Sox, played in his first World Series at Baker.

On June 9th, 1914, Honus Wagner collected his 3,000th hit there. Babe Ruth played his final game at Baker on May 30th, 1935 as a member of the Boston Braves. Ruth had hit three home runs in four at-bats a few days before in a game at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field, another of the old classic yards. But at the age of 40, his body was shot. He grounded out to first baseman Dolph Camilli and that was that. Ruth had made his debut on July 11th, 1914 at Fenway Park in a game against the Cleveland Naps. Just two weeks earlier, on June 28th, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo and by July 28th the World was hurtling towards the war to end all wars while in the States, the young Babe was about to change baseball.

Baker Bowl 1916
Baker Bowl - 1916
Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images

The Philadelphia Eagles played at Baker from 1933 to 1935 and the Hilldale Daisies of the Negro Leagues played often in Baker. The park was torn down in 1950. Currently there is a historical marker on Broad Street that reads, “Baker Bowl National League Park”. Today the location of the field is a gas station, convenience store and car wash and a business called CrabsPlus. I’m not making that up. Google maps is amazing.

Shibe Park was the second of iconic Philadelphia parks. When it opened on April 12, 1909, it was baseball’s first steel and concrete stadium. Shibe was bounded by Lehigh Avenue, 20th Street, Somerset Street and 21st Street. Shibe was a beautiful little park, known for its distinctive French Renaissance designed tower and cupola on the southwest corner, directly behind home plate. When it was opened, the press gushed that Shibe “was the greatest ballpark in the world.” Dimensions were 334 to left, 410 to center and 329 to right. A large scoreboard set above the right-center power alley. Peak capacity was about 33,600, which made Shibe a large park for its time.

In 1956, the old scoreboard was replaced with a much larger board, which topped out at 75 feet. The new scoreboard had a prominent ad display on the top part for Ballantine Beer. It also had a Longines clock centered on top of the board. Balls that hit the scoreboard were in play. Balls that hit the clock were home runs. Dick Allen was the only player to hit a home run over the beer sign and clock. The clock brings to mind the scene in the movie “The Natural” where Roy Hobbs hits a home run into the clock.

Shibe Park
Shibe Park
Photo by MLB via Getty Images

In the early days, the Athletics won and won often, hosting World Series in 1910, 1911, and 1913. Connie Mack gained control of the team, and stadium, in 1937. By 1939, Mack had installed lighting, much to the dismay of surrounding neighbors. The Phillies moved into Shibe in 1938 and by the mid-1940s, both the Athletics and Phillies were losing with regularity. Phillie owner Gerald Nugent, heavily in debt, agreed to sell the club to Bill Veeck. Baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis vetoed the sale when he learned that Veeck planned to restock the Phillies with stars from the Negro Leagues.

By 1954, Mack and the Athletics were in deep financial trouble. The final Athletics game at Shibe, now known as Connie Mack Stadium, on September 19th, 1954 only drew 1,715 fans. Gil McDougald of the Yankees hit the last home run in the park. Frank Leja of New York, got the last hit, a ninth-inning single.

The Phillies continued to play at Connie Mack through the end of the 1970 season. The Athletics as you know, then moved to Kansas City for the 1955 season after the cash-strapped Mack sold the team to Arnold Johnson.

The last major league game in the park was played on October 1st, 1970 with the Phillies beating the Expos 2 to 1 in ten innings. Oscar Gamble, he of the great afro, hit a walk-off single, scoring Tim McCarver with the winning run. Almost 32,000 fans came out for the finale which descended into mayhem as souvenir hunters nearly dismantled the park.

Frank “Home run” Baker, using a 52-ounce bat, hit the first home run in park history. John Bateman of the Montreal Expos hit the last home run. Babe Ruth got his first hit as a Yankee at Shibe. Ted Williams once hit a foul ball over the roof in right field which cleared 20th Street, Opal Street, Garnet Street, and reportedly landed on 19th Street.

The NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles played at Shibe from 1940 to 1957. In 1971, the vacant stadium fell victim to arson, which collapsed a large part of the upper deck and roof. By 1975, what remained of the stadium was razed, except for the corner cupola and tower, which stood until July 13, 1976, ironically the same day the baseball All-Star game was played in Philadelphia at Veterans Stadium. In 1991 the property was sold to the Deliverance Evangelistic Church, which constructed a 5,100-seat sanctuary on the site.

Of course, all of this brings us around to Municipal Stadium. The Muni was opened for business in 1923. At that time, it was known as Muehlebach Field, named for George Muehlebach, a local beer, and hotel baron. Muehlebach owned the minor league Kansas City Blues and needed a new field after the railroad, which owned right of way, laid tracks through the outfield of Association Stadium, which was located at 20th Street and Prospect. Municipal was located at 22nd and Brooklyn and was initially a single deck stadium. Along with being the Blues home field, Municipal was also the home to the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. The park hosted the first Negro League World Series in 1924.

When the New York Yankees bought the Blues in 1937, the park was renamed Ruppert Stadium, in honor of Yankee owner Colonel Jacob Ruppert. After Ruppert’s death in 1939, the city renamed the field Blues Stadium.

When Arnold Johnson brought the Athletics to Kansas City, more capacity was needed and soon. Over a period of 90 days, the city ran three shifts and completely rebuilt the stadium, expanding the capacity from 17,476 to 30,296. It was an amazing feat of governmental work to have the park ready for opening day 1955. The final touch was purchasing the scoreboard from the Boston Braves for $100,000.

Former President Harry Truman threw out the ceremonial first pitch while Connie Mack and Jimmie Foxx looked on. Kansas City defeated Detroit 8 to 2 in the opener. Wins were hard to come by for the Athletics and when Johnson suddenly succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage, his socialite wife wanted nothing to do with Kansas City or a baseball team. Chicago businessman, Charlie O. Finley, purchased the Athletics from the Johnson estate and the fun began.

To Finley’s credit, he did dump a ton of money into upgrading the ballpark, including expanding seating capacity to 35,561. Finley also installed speakers in the bathrooms, so people taking a break could hear the progress of the game. At one time, Finley had a small zoo and picnic area behind the right-field wall. Goats, sheep, and even a shepherd made their home there. Finley also installed a mechanical rabbit named Harvey, which would pop out of the field and deliver a basket of balls to the home plate umpire. Finley, believing the ballpark was the cause of the Athletics’ losses, would almost annually tinker with the distance of the outfield fences. Pulling them in one season in an attempt to garner more home runs, only to push them back the next when he realized that the opposing team could also hit home runs. The final dimensions were fairly standard: 369 down the left-field line, 421 to center and 338 to the right-field pole.

Kansas City Municipal Stadium
Municipal - 1955
Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images

The Kansas City Chiefs of the NFL came to Municipal as a co-tenant starting with the 1963 season. The Chiefs, led by Lamar Hunt, were winners. The Athletics were not and that ate at Finley, who began shopping for other cities almost immediately. One of the best things Finley did was to hire George Toma as the groundskeeper. Toma is the best groundskeeper who ever lived and kept both the baseball and football field in immaculate condition.

Jackson County voters approved a bond issue in 1967 to build a new football and baseball stadium, in what would become the Truman Sports Complex. Finley refused to wait for the new park and moved the A’s west to Oakland for the 1968 season, right when they were starting to win. The Chiefs stayed. The expansion Royals began using Municipal in 1969 and stayed at the old park through the end of the 1972 season. The Chiefs moved to Arrowhead Stadium for the 1972 season. Their final game at Municipal remains one of the all-time great NFL games. On Christmas day, 1971, the Chiefs and Dolphins tangled in what became the longest game ever played, a double-overtime, an 82-minute classic, won by the Dolphins 27-24.

The stadium saw its share of history through the years. A young Mickey Mantle played there. So did Jackie Robinson, Turkey Stearnes, Cool Papa Bell, and a very young Ernie Banks. Satchel Paige pitched there in his prime and in 1965 when he was 59. Buck O’Neil played 10 seasons for the Monarchs. Early Wynn won his 300th game at Municipal. Bert Campaneris once played all nine positions in a game at Municipal. Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, and Joe Rudi all made their debuts at Municipal. The field hosted the 1960 baseball All-Star game and in 1964, a concert by the Beatles.

Gene Tenace, drafted by the Kansas City Athletics, hit the last home run in the park on September 30th as a member of the Oakland Athletics. John Mayberry hit the last Royal home run in the park on September 29th. Only 7,329 fans came out to bid the old grey lady goodbye as Ed Kirkpatrick got the last hit in Municipal, an eighth inning single, on October 4th. Roger Nelson pitched a complete-game two-hitter, sending the Muni out in style, with a 4 to 0 win over the Texas Rangers.

After the Royals moved east for the 1973 season, Municipal sat vacant, overgrown with weeds and in disrepair. I remember driving by on the interstate and seeing the shell of the stadium still standing. It made me a bit sad to see. The stadium was demolished in 1976 and today the site has been redeveloped into homes. There is a plaque at 22nd and Brooklyn that marks the location of the stadium. If you close your eyes, you can almost imagine what it must have been like on game days, the sidewalks packed with fans trekking to the stadium from Arthur Bryant’s. After the game, the jazz clubs at 18th and Vine would have been jumping.

There are many other old parks that inspire nostalgia. Fenway and Wrigley still stand and are well worth the trip. Gone as Tiger Stadium, Crosley Field, Forbes Field, Wrigley Field of Los Angeles, and Sportsman Park, just to name a few.

Municipal Stadium Kansas City Photo Reproduction by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images