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Old Stadiums, Part III

The Jewel box edition

Wrigley Field Los Angeles 1935 Photo Reproduction by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

You can read Part I of the Old Ballpark series here, and Part II here.

Some fans have a bucket list of seeing a game in every major league ballpark. One of my secret joys is traveling to see the grounds where old stadiums used to stand. I’ve visited several and there’s always something interesting to see. Did you realize that Kauffman Stadium is now the sixth-oldest stadium in the Major Leagues? It still looks as good as it did when it opened in 1973. In some ways, it’s better. The outfield plazas and seating are a marked improvement. It’s still a beautiful ballpark which gives me conflicted feelings about a possible move downtown. Either way, I’ll continue to essay the old ballparks and I hope you enjoy the tour.

Griffith Stadium - Washington D.C.

Talk about an old stadium with some history, Griffith Stadium, which stood between Georgia Avenue, 5th Street, W Street and Florida Avenue NW in the LeDroit Park area of Washington D.C., opened in 1911. The park had some of the strangest dimensions of any big-league park. Long known as a pitcher park, it often ran between 360 and 405 down the left field line, 421 and 457 to center, and 320 to right. Right field was protected by a 30-foot spite fence to block the view of the row houses across the street.

But wait! There’s more. There was a 41-foot hand operated scoreboard in right-center field that was in play. There was also a National Bohemian Beer sign, shaped like a beer bottle, which stood 56 feet above the field. The beer bottle was also in play. When he was a teenager, future commissioner Bowie Kuhn operated the scoreboard.

Did I say there was more? There is. Have you ever said that after you got out of high school you never used geometry again? I have used it again. Once. I determined that Griffith was shaped like a parallelogram. The cause of this was five homeowners who refused to sell their properties when the park was being built...so the builders decided to build around them. And their large tree that stood just outside the center field fence. Thus, straightaway center field stood 421 feet away from home plate. It then took a direct left-hand turn for about ten feet before stretching its distance to 457, the deepest part of the park.

Griffith dimensions

Despite its gargantuan dimensions, some of the longest home runs ever recorded were hit in Griffith. Only three players hit a home run ball over the left field bleachers: Mickey Mantle did it once and Josh Gibson, twice. According to Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith, Gibson hit more balls into the distant left field bleachers than the entire American League. Babe Ruth hit 500-foot drives over the center field and right-center fence on consecutive days in May of 1921.

In May of 1949, the Cleveland Indians Larry Doby hit a ball that cleared the right-center wall and hit the roof of a home outside the park. Doby called the shot, which traveled over 500 feet, was the longest home run he ever hit. The most famous home run to fly out of Griffith came on April 17th, 1953, when a 21-year-old Mickey Mantle got all of a Chuck Stobbs fastball and sent it over the left-center wall and out of the park. The blast, which was then measured, coining the term “tape-measure home run” was estimated at 563 feet. The home run was so popular that the Topps trading card company issued a card commemorating the shot in their 1961 set, card #406. Yes, you had to be a man to hit it out of Griffith.

The venue hosted All-Star games in 1937 and 1956 and the World Series in 1924, 1925, and 1933. The original Washington Senators played in the park, before departing to Minnesota and becoming the Twins. The expansion Senators also played in the park, before they departed for Texas, to become the Rangers. The Homestead Grays of the Negro Leagues called Griffith home during the 1940s and hosted the Negro League World Series there in 1943 and 1944. When the Boston Braves of the NFL moved to Washington, to be rechristened as the Redskins, they spent 24 seasons playing in Griffith.

Aside from the World Series appearances in the ’20s and ’30s, the Senators were most often a terrible team. The old saying was, “First in war, first in peace and last in the American League”, which was a twist on a phrase used by Harry “Light Horse” Lee (no relation) at George Washington’s funeral. Harry’s son, Robert, married Mary Custis, the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. Lee later went on the lead the army of Northern Virginia in the Civil War. Eventually, the Lee estate became Arlington National Cemetery. Fascinating stuff, but Robert wasn’t a baseball player, so someone else can go down that rabbit hole.

The end for Griffith came after the 1961 season, when the Senators and Redskins moved to the newly built D.C. Stadium (later known as RFK). The ballpark sat unused until its destruction in 1965. Today, the Howard University hospital sits on the site. A marker of home plate sits inside the hospital.

War Memorial Stadium - Buffalo, New York

Many of you will recognize War Memorial, even though it never had a major league baseball tenant. War was a depression-era project, built in 1937 under the guise of the Works Progress Administration. It was a versatile stadium, at various times hosting college, Canadian, and NFL football games, minor league baseball, soccer, boxing, wrestling, and even NASCAR. The stadium was built on the east side of Buffalo, hemmed in by Best Street, Jefferson Avenue, and Dodge Street. The stadium itself was an oval, sort of resembling the Los Angeles Coliseum, without the elegance. In 1940, a quarter-mile track was added to the interior perimeter for auto racing. The stadium was well known locally for midget and stock car racing. Fans were permitted from sitting in the first five rows during car races, for safety reasons.

Austin Gonsoulin Being Tackled While Intercepting Pass
NFL game at War

When dressed for baseball, the venue had a standard layout: 330 to left, 420 to center and 310 to right. A large, covered grandstand filled the entire length from home plate to the left field corner. The Buffalo Bison of the International League played in War from 1961 to 1970 and again from 1979 to 1987. Johnny Bench played his final minor league season in War as a member of the Bison in 1967, before civil rights riots forced the team to play their remaining games in Niagara Falls. Seating capacity ran anywhere from 36,500 to 46,200 with a record crowd of 50,988 that packed into the stadium in October of 1948 to watch two Buffalo-area high school football teams do battle.

The Buffalo Bills of the old AAFC played in War from 1946 to 1949 and when the AFL Buffalo Bills were birthed, they called War home from 1960 to 1972, before moving to Rich Stadium in the suburb of Orchard Park. The venue hosted three AFL playoff games, including the 1967 AFL Championship game which saw the Kansas City Chiefs defeat the Bills 31-7 and advance to the very first Super Bowl.

In 1983, War was used for the movie “The Natural”. Many scenes from the movie were filmed in and around Buffalo, but the baseball scenes filmed in War, affectionately known as “The rockpile” by locals, left behind a permanent memorial to the stadium. Not much about the stadium was changed for the film, other than a 1930’s era scoreboard was fitted into the top of the left field stands.

The Bison moved to the fine Pilot Field in 1987 and after that it was only a matter of time before the wrecking ball arrived. The demolition occurred in 1989, but thankfully the powers to be spared the two main entrance buildings. The grounds are now the Johnnie B. Wiley Amateur Athletic Sports Pavilion which includes a baseball diamond and Masten Park football field.

Wrigley Field - Los Angeles, California

Wait, what? Wrigley LA was the original Wrigley Field, built in South Los Angeles in 1925. Wrigley Chicago was opened in 1914 but was originally known as Weeghman Park before the Wrigley family bought it in 1927. Ironically, Wrigley LA was designed by noted Chicago Architect Zachary Taylor Davis, who also designed Comiskey Park and Weeghman Park.

The chewing gum magnate, William Wrigley Jr., had the park built to house the Los Angeles Angels, Wrigley’s Pacific Coast League team. Dubbed the “Million Dollar Palace”, the park was built in a Spanish-style architecture with a nearly symmetrical layout of 340 to the left field corner, 412 to center and 339 to right. The park sat in between Avalon Boulevard, 41st Place, 42nd Place and San Pedro Street. a small park, seating capacity for baseball ran around 20,712.

Wrigley Field Los Angeles Aerial
Wrigley - L.A.
Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images

The park was well known as the home of the PCL Angels from 1925 to 1957 and the Hollywood Stars, another PCL team, from 1926 to 1938. When the Brooklyn Dodgers moved west in 1958, the Angels were forced to relocate to Spokane, Washington. The Dodgers considered playing in Wrigley, but instead set up shop in the Los Angeles Coliseum. They remained in the Coliseum until Dodger Stadium was opened in 1962.

In 1960, the American League added expansion franchises in Washington and Los Angeles. The LA franchise was re-christened the Angels and they played their inaugural season in Wrigley LA, winning 71 games, a first-year record for expansion teams. The final major league game was played in Wrigley on October 1st, 1961, with the Cleveland Indians defeating the Angels by the score of 8-5. Fittingly, PCL legend Steve Bilko hit the last home run in Wrigley LA, a ninth inning pinch-hit shot. The portly Bilko was often asked how much he weighed. His standard reply was “between 200 and 300”. You got to love a guy like that.

Bilko had been a bonus baby, signed by the St. Louis Cardinals when he was only 16. Despite getting shots with six different teams, his major league career never panned out as expected. Bilko was, however, a superstar in the PCL. Between 1955 and 1957, Bilko hit 37, 55, and 56 home runs respectively while winning three MVP awards and the 1956 PCL Triple Crown. Teams combined to hit 248 home runs in Wrigley in 1961, which stood as a major league record until 1996, when 271 bombs left the friendly confines of Coors Field in Denver.

Wrigley LA was the home to several baseball movies, most notably the “Damn Yankees”, which was filmed there in 1958. One of the great fights of all time took place at Wrigley in 1956, when Sugar Ray Robinson knocked out Carl Olson. Wrigley was also used at various times for winter exhibition baseball games and for the filming of the television show “Home Run derby”. A record 35,000 jammed into Wrigley in May of 1963 to hear Dr. Martin Luther King speak. The first NFL Pro Bowl game was held in Wrigley in 1939.

The wrecking ball came in January of 1969 and the site now hosts a community center and a baseball diamond and two soccer fields.

Braves Field - Boston, Massachusetts

When this facility opened in 1915, what a place it must have been. The Braves, who previously called The South End Grounds home, had won the World Series in 1914. That team, which had been in last place on the 4th of July, stormed back to win the pennant before sweeping the Philadelphia Athletics thus earning the moniker “The Miracle Braves”.

The games in Boston were played at Fenway Park, itself a relatively new park having just opened in 1912. Before they were the Braves, the Boston team was known as the Beaneaters. Who was in charge of picking out these names?

One of the Beaneaters most famous players was a pitcher named Old Hoss Radbourn. Radbourn only pitched for 11 seasons, yet managed to win 310 games, including 48 and 60 in back-to-back seasons in 1883 and 1884. He was also the first person photographed giving the bird, in a photograph taken at the South End Grounds. Old Hoss, who only went 5’9’’ and 168 pounds, died young in 1897 at the age of 42. In his 11 seasons, he somehow managed to squeeze 4,527 innings out of his slight frame, including an astounding 678 in 1884.

Radbourn

Braves Field was considered baseball’s first “super stadium” and was the last of the Jewel Box ballparks when it opened. The Jewel Boxes were stadiums built in the stadium building boom between 1909 and 1915, when 14 new ballparks were built. Of those, only Fenway Park and Wrigley Field are still in use.

Braves Field was located about one mile directly west of Fenway Park, on what was then the outskirts of Boston. There was an old story that during the construction of the park, a dozen horse and mules died during a cave in. They were reportedly buried along the third base line under sod brought over from the South End Grounds. Just beyond the left field stands, train tracks and what later became Interstate 90, separated it from the Charles River. It was the largest park opened in that era with the opening day crowd estimated at 46,000 fans, which was the largest crowd in history to see a game. A trolley car dropped fans right outside of the park.

Braves owner James Gaffney loved the excitement of the inside the park home run, and had the fences installed accordingly. When the park first opened the right and left corners stood 400 feet from home with dead center running nearly 500 feet. To make matters worse, a stiff breeze often blew in off the Charles River. Ty Cobb took one look at the park and said, “No one will ever hit a ball out of this park.” In the dead ball era, he was right. The first home run to fly out of the park came in 1925, when the Giants Frank Snyder put one over the left field wall. There were more than 200 inside the park home runs hit in Braves Field, before Snyder finally broke the streak.

Braves Field

On May 1, 1920, the Braves Joe Oeschger and the Brooklyn Robins Leon Cadore engaged in a pitchers’ duel that almost defies belief. The game was finally called for darkness after the 26th inning, ending in a 1-1 tie. The game still stands as the longest major league game ever and unbelievably, both pitchers went the distance. Cadore faced a still-standing record of 96 batters and both pitchers threw an estimated 300 plus pitches. Charlie Pick, the Braves second baseman, set another still-standing record by going 0 for 11 at the plate. Rough day.

With the advent of the live-ball era, and amid fans' complaints, the fences were moved in, to a more reasonable alignment of 337-390-319. Despite that, the park only had two games where a player hit three home runs. There were four no-hitters thrown in the park. An overweight and arthritic 40-year-old Babe Ruth ended his career with the Braves in 1935, appearing in 28 games. He batted .181 and hit six home runs, three of those coming in one last glorious afternoon in Pittsburgh. The Babe hit a home run in his first game in Braves Field, and another on April 21, which was his last home run in Boston. He was done by May 30 and his retirement closed the annals of one of the most storied eras in baseball.

For five seasons, between 1936 and 1940, the Boston team changed their name from the Braves to the Bees. Fans began to call Braves Field “The Bee Hive”. Casey Stengel took over as manager of the Bees for the 1938 season, staying partway through the 1943 season but never achieving the success he had later with the Yankees. It helps to have talent. The club eventually realized that the name Bees was a terrible choice and went back to being the Braves. Fans then began to call the stadium, “The Wigwam”. Political correctness obviously wasn’t a thing back in the 1930s and ’40s.

The park hosted the World Series in 1915, 1916, and 1948. The Braves allowed the Red Sox to use the field for the 1915 and 1916 series, due to the larger capacity. Twenty-year-old Babe Ruth appeared in his first World Series in 1915. The 1948 pennant-winning Braves were led by pitchers Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain but lost the series to the Cleveland Indians. That duo prompted Gerald Hern of the Boson Post to pen the famous poem “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain.”

Spahn was quite a story. He ended his Hall of Fame career with 363 wins despite missing three complete seasons in his prime to World War II. If that weren’t enough, he saw action in the Battle of the Bulge and at the Ludendorff Bridge, earning a Purple Heart. If you enjoy World War II history, read about the battle at Ludendorff Bridge. It was, in my humble opinion, one of the more underrated battles of the war. Spahn won 20 games an amazing 13 times. He also gave up Willie Mays’ first career hit, a home run. Spahn would later joke that, “We might have gotten rid of Willie forever if I’d only struck him out.”

The park hosted the baseball All-Star game in 1936 and was an early home to the NFL’s Boston Braves, a team that later moved to Washington and became the Redskins. When the Braves moved to Milwaukee for the 1953 season, Boston University purchased the stadium. The scoreboard was packed up and sold to the Kansas City Athletics, where it remained until Municipal Stadium was razed in 1976. In 1955, Boston University reconfigured the stadium, only keeping the pavilion that ran along the right field line. That piece still stands today, as part of Nickerson Field. Dormitories now occupy what used to be the main grandstand. What remains is the largest remnant still standing of the Jewel Box parks that were torn down.