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Old ballparks, Part II

Long gone baseball cathedrals

Forbes Field Night Game Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images

You can read Part I of Bradford Lee’s look at old ballparks here.

Over the years I’ve fallen in and out of love with a lot of different things: detective shows, Stephen King novels, oranges, sports cars, and Bruce Springsteen music just to name a few. One thing that’s never waned has been my love of old ballparks. It’s kind of strange, really, since I’ve never been to most of these parks. In fact, many of them were torn down before I was born. They exist only in the pictures and stories that remain.

Here are the stories of a few more of the old cathedrals. That’s the right term, isn’t it? Cathedrals? That’s always the feeling I have when I walk into any of the great ballparks that we have.

Forbes Field - Pittsburgh

When Forbes opened on June 30, 1909, it was the second steel and concrete stadium in the country and the first in the National League. With an initial seating capacity of 25,000, Forbes was also the largest park in baseball when it opened. Shibe Park in Philadelphia was the first concrete and steel structure. Prior to Shibe and Forbes, ballparks had been constructed of inexpensive wood, which made them vulnerable to fire. By the turn of the century, several ballparks had in fact burned to the ground. In 1898, a fan in St. Louis dropped a cigar in the middle of a game, which prompted a blaze at Sportsman Park in which more than 100 fans were injured.

Another risk was structural failure. On August 8th, 1903, fans in the left field bleachers at the Baker Bowl, rushed to the top of the bleachers to witness a fight occurring below them on 15th street. The weight was too much, and the bleachers collapsed, killing 12 and injuring 232. It’s hard to imagine how different the United States must have been in 1909. Teddy Roosevelt was the President. The Wright brothers had only flown at Kitty Hawk in 1903. In 1909, a 22-year-old New Jersey woman, Alice Ramsey, became the first woman to drive across the United States. It took her 59 days. Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner were the big stars in 1909. There were only sixteen teams, eight in each league. The baseball color barrier wouldn’t be broken for 38 more years. World War I was still five years away.

In that environment, Forbes opened in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, nearly three miles from downtown. The address was 230 S. Bouquet Street, close to the University of Pittsburgh campus. The University built the 42 story Cathedral of Learning, nicknamed the Cathy, just behind the third base-left field side of the stadium in 1926. Windows in the upper floors of the building could easily peer down on the action below. The first game in Forbes featured the Pirates and the Cubs, with Chicago coming away with a 3-2 victory. The Pirates' first season in Forbes was a classic. The team, led by The Flying Dutchman, Honus Wagner, won 110 games and defeated Ty Cobb and the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.

View of Forbes Field

The Pirates would eventually win three World Series titles during their stay at Forbes. Forbes was the site of the first-ever radio broadcast of a major league game. That came on August 5th, 1921.

On May 25, 1935, Babe Ruth hit the final three home runs of his storied career at Forbes, as a member of the Boston Braves. The last home run, number 714 of the Bambino’s career, cleared the right field roof and was deemed to be the longest home run in park history. One witness, Paul Warhola, the brother of famed artist Andy Warhol, said that the Babe “pointed to a group of old guys, clapping for him and said he’d put it over the roof.” Never one to disappoint the fans, the Babe delivered one last time.

The Homestead Grays of the Negro League, played at Forbes from 1922 to 1939. Forbes was where Yogi Berra, looking over his left shoulder, ran out of real estate as Bill Mazeroski’s ninth inning home run disappeared over the wall, giving the Pirates the World Series title in 1960. The Pittsburgh Steelers of the NFL played there for a time. Forbes was a pitcher’s park, with the dimensions running 365 to left, 455 to center, and a more reasonable 300 to right. It was a tough park to hit home runs in, thanks to a 12-foot, ivy-covered wall that ran the length of the outfield. A large scoreboard stood sentinel along the left field line. Despite the spacious size, there was never a no-hitter thrown at Forbes in the more than 4,000 games played there.

By 1970, the ballpark’s capacity was about 35,000 fans, but for the final game on June 28, 1970, they somehow managed to squeeze 40,918 into this old beauty. The Chicago Cubs were the first opponent, in 1909, and we’re also the last. The old park closed with a doubleheader. Pittsburgh fittingly won both. Al Oliver hit the last home run in the old park. Larry Gura, a 22-year-old rookie for the Cubs, pitched in both games. After Don Kessinger grounded out to end the game, home plate was dug up and loaded into a helicopter, which had landed on the field. It was then flown to its new home, the circular monstrosity known as Three Rivers Stadium. Forbes was damaged by two fires in December of 1970 and July of 1971. The park was razed in July of 1971. Several memorials now stand on the Pitt campus commemorating the park. Home plate can be seen in the lobby of Posvar Hall. Part of the outfield wall stands near its original location. There is a plaque where Mazeroski’s home run cleared the fence.

Crosley Field - Cincinnati

Located at the corner of Findlay and Western Streets in the Queensgate section of cities west end, Crosley opened on April 11, 1912. The original capacity was a mere 20,696. Crosley, originally named Redland Field, was the site of the first night game in major league history on May 24, 1935. The hometown Reds defeated the Philadelphia Phillies 2 to 1. The game was such a big deal that President Franklin Roosevelt threw a ceremonial switch in his office at the White House which lit the field to the gasps of the 20,422 in attendance. Understand, this was not the first-ever game under the lights. Semi-pro and Negro League teams, most notably the Kansas City Monarchs, had been playing under the lights for several years. The first baseball game played under permanent lighting occurred on May 2, 1930, in Des Moines, Iowa, where the Des Moines Demons defeated the Wichita Aviators, in a game that drew more than 12,000 fans.

Crosley was known as one of the “Jewel Box” stadiums, those beautiful, ornate parks built between 1909 and 1915. Crosley hosted All-Star games in 1938 and 1953 and the World Series in 1939, 1940, and 1961. The Reds were the long-time tenant, but the Cincinnati Tigers and the Cuban Stars of the Negro Leagues also played in Crosley during the 1936 and 1937 seasons. The Beatles played in Crosley on August 21, 1966, in what was their last concert tour.

Los Angeles Dodgers v Cincinnati Reds Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images

The dimensions of Crosley, like many of her inner-city peers, was dictated by the surrounding neighborhood. The left field corner stood 328 feet away. Center was a relatively short 387, while the right field corner was 366. a 58-foot scoreboard, which was in play, stood in left field. Beyond the left field wall was the Superior Towel and Linen service building, which was a prominent fixture on York Street. There was a sign on the side of the building for the Siebler Suit Company. Players who hit the sign with their home runs were promised a new suit. Reds outfielder Wally Post claimed he won 16 new suits. Willie Mays hit the sign seven times in his visits to Crosley. There was no warning track at Crosley, only a rising incline, known as “The Terrace”.

The park was later expanded to seat 30,322. The last game was played on June 24, 1970, during which the Reds defeated the San Francisco Giants by a score of 5-to-4. Johnny Bench and Lee May hit back-to-back home runs off Juan Marichal, leading off the bottom of the 8th, to give the Reds the victory. Bobby Bonds, father of Barry, made the final out, grounding out to Reds pitcher Wayne Granger. 28,027 fans came out to say goodbye to Crosley. A helicopter collected home plate and flew it to its new home, the circular, Astro-turfed Riverfront Stadium. That must have been a thing back in those days, hiring a helicopter to fly the old home plate. Riverfront is also gone, imploded in December of 2002, but I don’t think anyone misses it.

Sportsman Park - St. Louis

There was a ballpark located on Grand Avenue in St. Louis, as far back as 1867. Originally called “The Grand Avenue Grounds”, the local press started referring to it as Sportsman Park somewhere around 1881, though this essay is only on the last itineration of Sportsman Park. The official address was 3623 Dodier Street, which was the home of the Cardinals, and 2911 N. Grand Blvd., which was home to the St. Louis Browns.

World Series Game at Sportsman’s Park

The Browns, who in the early days were the stronger of the two St. Louis franchises, were the original owners of Sportsman. The first World Series in Sportsman occurred in the 1926 season, when the upstart Cardinals defeated the Yankees in a seven-game classic. Those 1926 Yankees were still a powerhouse with guys like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Bob Meusel, Earle Combs, Herb Pennock, and Waite Hoyt. The Cardinals had Rogers Hornsby, Billy Southworth, Jim Bottomly, and a 39-year-old Grover Cleveland Alexander, one of the all-time great pitchers, who went by the name of Pete. Their pitching leader was the wonderfully named Flint Rehm, who went 20-7 in the regular season.

That series was remembered for several things, among them were Babe Ruth blasting three home runs in Game Four, held at Sportsman. One of those shots cleared the roof of the right field pavilion. Very few parks could hold the Babe. Pete Alexander turned back the clock and shut down the Yankees for a Game Six win in New York, after which rumor has it, he partied long and hard into the night. And finally, in Game Seven, player-manager Hornsby called on a very hung-over Alexander to throw the final 2 13 innings to secure the series win, which he did, helped immensely by Ruth’s ill-advised attempt to steal second base with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.

In 1953, Cardinals owner Fred Saigh, ran into problems with the IRS, which forced him to sell the club. Anheuser-Busch bought the team, which caused Browns owner Bill Veeck many sleepless nights. Veeck had been running the Browns on a shoestring budget (his family often lived in an apartment below Sportsman’s grandstand) and knew he didn’t have the resources to compete with the beer money. Veeck first sold Sportsman to Anheuser-Busch for $1.1 million. After the 1953 season, Veeck finally folded the tent and sold the Browns to a group from Baltimore, and the Orioles were born.

Over the years, Sportsman was home to many great baseball memories. Standing at just 3’7’’, Eddie Gaedel made a pinch-hitting appearance for the Browns on August 19, 1951 as a promotional gimmick. The picture of Gaedel, holding a tiny bat and in a crouch no less, remains one of the more iconic baseball photos.

Eddie Gaedel At Bat
Eddie Gaedel, midget hired by St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck, takes a ball as he bats during a game on August 18, 1951 in St. Louis, Missouri.
Photo Reproduction by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

The ballpark hosted ten World Series, the last coming in 1964. The 1944 series, called the “Trolley Series” was played entirely in Sportsman, as the Cardinals bested the Browns in six games. The Cardinals Gas House gang called Sportsman home in the early 1930s. In 1945, Harry Caray started calling Cardinals games and would do so for 25 more seasons. Lights were installed in 1940, which was a welcome reprieve from steamy St. Louis summer days. Stan Musial became a star at Sportsman, once hitting five home runs in a double-header. Bob Gibson also became a star at Sportsman.

In Game Seven of the 1946 World Series, Enos Slaughter led off the eighth with a single. With two outs, Harry Walker stroked a hit into the left-center gap. Slaughter, a non-stop hustler who could make Pete Rose look like a slacker, was off with the crack of the bat. Boston shortstop Johnny Pesky took the relay throw and paused for a brief moment to survey the situation. Slaughter never broke stride, sliding across the plate with the series-winning run. Slaughter, whose nickname was Country, played for 19 seasons in his Hall of Fame career, including two in Kansas City for the Athletics. Like many of his generation, he missed three entire seasons of his prime to World War II, but old-timers remember him for his Mad Dash at Sportsman.

Enos Slaughter Sliding Into Home Plate
Slaughter’s mad dash

The 1946 series also featured one of the first defensive shifts in baseball history, as the Cardinals placed three men on the right side of the infield in an attempt to stymie Ted Williams. It worked. A frustrated Williams, instead of going the other way, tried to overpower the shift. Williams hit .200 for the series, then spent years bitching and moaning about the shift. The Browns became the third team (after the Dodgers and Indians) to (briefly) break the color barrier, with the signings of Hank Thompson and Willard Brown from the Kansas City Monarchs.

On May 6th of 1953, Brown’s pitcher Bobo Holliman threw a no-hitter in his first career start. Sportsman hosted three All-Star games in 1940, 1948, and 1957. The St. Louis football Cardinals played in Sportsman from 1960 to 1966.

The last game in the old park came on May 8th, 1966, with the San Francisco Giants beating the Cardinals by the score of 10-5. Willie Mays hit the last home run in the park, a 9th inning blast. Alex Johnson made the final out, grounding into a double play off future Royal reliever Lindy McDaniel.

Sportsman featured a large scoreboard behind the left field stands. The park’s dimensions were dictated by its location: 351 down the left field line, 422 to center, and only 310 to the right field line, which was protected by a large screen, which was in play. For years, the right field wall sported a sign for Griesedieck Beer, which was an early sponsor of the Cardinals. Once Anheuser-Busch purchased the team, and introduced the less expensive Busch Beer, the days of Griesedieck were near the end. The Griesedieck Brothers Brewery eventually closed their doors in 1977. Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. in 1992, the Griesedieck brand was revived and continues to produce beer today at their plant in the Baden neighborhood of North St. Louis.

Today the plot of land that was once home to Sportsman is a Boys and Girls Club. On a hot day, you can go across the street from where the stadium stood and have a cold beer at Valerie’s Sit and Sip Cocktail Lounge.