SABR

League Park (Louisville)

This article was written by Bob Bailey.

When Louisville's Eclipse Park burned late in the 1892 season the local National League ball club was not on very sound financial footings. Louisville franchises were always undercapitalized relative to their more affluent brethren but cash to build a new ballpark was going to be hard to come by. The owners nevertheless put on a brave face and boldly announced they were in the market for a site to build their new home.

The decision by the club owners to build a replacement park on a new site set the newspapers to their ink barrels to let the club know where the best site was. In fact, the club owners had not made any of their thoughts on the subject public when the papers waded in with their advice. In late October 1892 the Louisville Courier-Journal wrote, "The general opinion among those interested is that the Louisville management should secure other grounds than the old one's next season. Grounds in the southern portion of the city are suggested." The tug of war between the owner-merchant class and the worker class was readily apparent. The basic argument made by the newspapers, representing the upper echelon of society, was that a southern location would attract a better class of clientele, probably because the suggested locations were nearer to their homes or were more convenient to get to than the far West End. It was put forward that by appealing to this group of patrons the club would not have to depend so heavily on Sunday games, when workers and their families could more readily attend. [1]

Some even thought it was a given that the club would locate the new ballpark outside the West End. The Louisville Critic reported in October that the club was considering several offers and that "it is pretty certain...that the new grounds will be located in the Southern part of the city." The papers even put forward certain sites for the structure. The area around 4th and Kentucky Streets was suggested but it was thought that land prices so close to the fashionable residential area of the Limerick neighborhood, what is today called Old Louisville, might be too high. But attention focused on land further south at the Home of Refuge, a large home for children located about a mile south of Central Park surrounded by acres of land tilled by the inmates. The papers were wrong but only by thirty years. In the early 1920s the minor league Louisville Colonels would build Parkway Field on this site. [2]

It would be late February 1893 before a deal was closed for the site of the new park. But negotiations had been in progress for many months. A brief item in the October 7, 1892 Louisville Courier-Journal reported that the operators of the K&I Stockyards had offered the club a new park and were willing to share the cost of a new grandstand. K&I was part of the Kentucky and Indiana Terminal Railroad Company. This company had recently constructed the K&IT Bridge linking the West End of Louisville to Clarksville, Indiana across the Ohio River. They operated a large switching yard near the riverfront and their line ran through the West End to their stockyards on the southwest corner of 28th Street and Broadway. This site was just two blocks from the old Eclipse Park. [3]

But it turns out the negotiations were not between the club and K&I. Rather the club's Vice President, George Ruckstuhl, negotiated the purchase on behalf of himself and fellow club directors John F. Kellner and Charles P. Dehler. The three men were all executives with the Frank Fehr Brewing Company. It is probable that the club could not afford to buy the property and construct a stadium. The negotiations were protracted primarily over price. When the deal was announced on February 28, 1893, the owners of the property received $35,500 instead of the $50,000 they were originally asking for the thirteen-acre site. [4]

Ruckstuhl has big plans for the land. Thirteen acres was four or five times the land needed for a ballpark in those days. However, Ruchstuhl and his partners planned a large park and amusement area. In addition to the Colonels playing field he put up a smaller field and grandstand on the extreme southern portion of the plot for local amateur teams to play their games. They also built bicycle paths and picnic areas, as the site was to become a magnet for those in the West End to spend what leisure time they had.

This idea had some merit for the site was located just outside the Louisville city limits in the small residential town of Parkland. Parkland was solidly middle class suburb made up almost entirely of homes and churches. This caused the club no little problem since the fair city of Parkland had an ordinance prohibiting ball games being played on Sundays. Ruckstuhl almost immediately petitioned the State Legislature to have Parkland annexed by Louisville. Parkland was soon annexed by Louisville, but the wishes of the ball club probably had very little to do with it. [5]

The ballpark entrance was built about 200 feet down 28th Street south of Broadway. A wooden fence encircled the stands and playing field. The grandstand faced south with home plate immediately in front of it. First base was on the 29th Street side of the park and third base near 28th Street. There was a bleacher along the third base side running from the entrance area to the left field corner. The grandstand cost $6,000 to construct and had a capacity of 3,000. The team's dressing rooms were underneath the grandstand. The bleachers cost between $1,000 and $2,000 to build and held 3,000 additional fans bringing the overall capacity to 6,000. The park and the land were owned Ruckstuhl and his partners and leased back to the ball club. [6]

Construction began in mid-March 1893 but due to a very rainy spring in Kentucky the infield and the grandstand roof were not ready of Opening Day, May 5. So the team opened the 1893 season in what was left of Eclipse Park. The first game in what the newspapers were calling new Eclipse Park was held on May 22. There were no speeches or dedication ceremonies. The team just went out and beat Charles Comiskey and his Cincinnati team 3-1. The name Eclipse Park was rarely used after Opening Day and was more commonly referred to as Louisville Base Ball Park and League Park. [7]

The home team was a member of the twelve-team National League. Following the Brotherhood War, which spawned the Player's League in 1890, the National League bought out the American Association and added four Association clubs to the existing eight clubs, beginning in 1892. Louisville was one of the chosen added to the senior circuit. This second sojourn in the National League was not filled with glory for the team. The Colonels were generally a second division club. But several interesting players appeared on Louisville rosters during the 1890s. Jimmy Collins and Hughie Jennings passed through early in their Hall of Fame careers. Pete Browning returned from winning the Player's League batting title in 1890 to make two stops with the hometown team before calling it quits in 1894. By 1899 the roster included such future stars as Honus Wagner, Rube Waddell, and player-manager Fred Clarke.

But even with these fine performers the team was heading for a second 9th place finish in 1899. It had become evident to the League owners that the twelve-team format was not working. Too many teams fell out of pennant contention early in the race and subsequently drew poor fan support through much of the season. This hurt the better teams when they visited these poorer cities as the visiting clubs were compensated based on attendance. So the magnates began talking about reducing the League to eight teams again. But the cost of buying out several American Association teams earlier in the decade made them hesitate to add more debt to their books. However, talk continued and Louisville was always rumored to be among the four to be cut. [8]

The Louisville management, now headed by Barney Dreyfuss, put on a brave face each spring and predicted a pennant contender if not a pennant winner. But the club invariably got off to a dismal start putting them so far behind that they could not contend even with several strong late-season spurts. Dreyfuss was not unmindful of the danger of losing his franchise. He wished to stay in baseball and continually trumpeted how well Louisville was playing and drawing, perhaps to convince his peers to retain Louisville after what appeared to be the inevitable downsizing.

Dreyfuss did not need any other problems as he tried to keep Louisville in the National League. But on August 12, 1899 he got one. In the early morning hours of that day a severe electrical storm hit the city. Heavy rains and strong winds descended on the park. According to later reports, the wind caused certain live electrical lines to become crossed. This caused sparks to fly and the rafters of the Western Union press box ignited. The fire raced from east to west along the grandstand. Since the firemen could not save the stand they pulled down a portion of the western fence to prevent the fire's spread in that direction and turned their attention to saving the bleachers and ancillary structures. [9]

The team was on an eastern trip when the fire destroyed the grandstand, having split a doubleheader with Brooklyn that day. While the owners of the park began to plan to make the park serviceable for the remainder of the season, Dreyfuss hurried home to look out for the team's interests. The park's owners stated their intention to rebuild the grandstand so no games would be lost in the current season. Their plan was to construct some type of platform where the grandstand had been, placing temporary seating on it to be used as bleachers. The existing bleachers would be outfitted with a canvass roof and serve as the new grandstand. [10]

On his return to the city Dreyfuss announced his intentions to immediately begin construction of a permanent grandstand. He went into some detail as to its appearance, size and location relative to the old grandstand. Construction on the middle section of this new stand apparently started soon thereafter directly behind the temporary seats put up by the park owners. [11]

In the meantime the team returned from their road trip and played the hapless Cleveland Spiders in what would be the final game at the field. On August 31 the team announced that they had secured the League's permission to transfer the remaining games to the road. The basic reason for the switch was the poor attendance at the park since the fire. It is doubtful that the canvass roof was ever erected over the original bleacher, as the common complaint registered by the papers was that the fans "would not sit for hours on hard benches in a boiling sun." [12]

The section of the grandstand on which construction had begun was completed but it would be the venue for no more major league games. That December, seeing the handwriting on the wall, Dreyfuss sold his Louisville stock, bought a controlling interest in the Pittsburgh Pirates, and engineered a huge trade that essentially stripped the Louisville club of all its able players. As a result of ensuing negotiations with the National League the Louisville franchise was purchased by the league the next spring and Louisville left the major leagues for good. [13]

The park hosted several exhibition games in the spring of 1900 with the Pirates visiting on their way north from spring training. Local amateur and semi-pro teams also used the park. But another professional team would not appear until 1901. During that spring local interests tried to obtain a franchise in the Western League. When this proved fruitless the Interstate League, recently renamed the Western Association granted a franchise to Walter Wilmot who located it in Louisville. Wilmot leased the "old" League Park, made a few repairs to the grandstand, and opened the season. Attendance was low and expenses high. So at the end of June, while the team was on a road trip, Wilmot wired back to the city that he and his team would not return but would relocate to Grand Rapids, Michigan. [14]

The park remained for several years. By 1920 the lot had been cleared and sold to the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company as the firm expanded their local manufacturing operations. Today it remains a manufacturing site for the Tube Turns Division of Sypris Technologies.

Sources

[1] Louisville Courier-Journal, October 28, 1892.

[2] Louisville Critic, October 23, 1892; Louisville Courier-Journal, October 28, 1892.

[3] Louisville Courier-Journal, October 7, 1892.

[4] Louisville Courier-Journal, February 28, 1893.

[5] Judith Hart English, "Louisville's Nineteenth Century Suburban Growth: Parkland, Crescent Hill, Cherokee Triangle, Beechwood and Highland Park," M.A. University of Louisville, 1972, p. 67, 131, 138; John C. Rogers, The Story of Louisville Neighborhoods (Louisville, 1955), p. 14, 24-25; Louisville Courier-Journal, May 5, 1893.

[6] Louisville Courier-Journal, March 17, 1893.

[7] Louisville Courier-Journal, March 17, 1893; Louisville Courier-Journal, May 3, 1893; Louisville Courier-Journal, May 23, 1893.

[8] Bob Bailey, "Four Teams Out: The NL Reduction of 1900, " Baseball Research Journal (1990), 45-48.

[9] Louisville Courier-Journal, August 13, 1899.

[10] Louisville Courier-Journal, August 17, 1899; Louisville Courier-Journal, August 21, 1899.

[11] Louisville Courier-Journal, August 24, 1899.

[12] Louisville Courier-Journal, August 31, 1899; Louisville Courier-Journal, September 1, 1899; Louisville Courier-Journal, September 2, 1899; Louisville Courier-Journal, September 3, 1899.

[13] Bailey, "Four Teams."

[14] Louisville Courier-Journal, March 6, 1901; Louisville Courier-Journal, March 12, 1901; Louisville Courier-Journal, March 17, 1901; Louisville Courier-Journal, March 18, 1901; Louisville Courier-Journal, March 22, 1901; Louisville Courier-Journal, March 28, 1901; Louisville Courier-Journal, April 4, 1901; Louisville Courier-Journal, April 7, 1901; Louisville Courier-Journal, April, 10, 1901; Louisville Courier-Journal, June 30, 1901.

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