Kekionga Ball Grounds (Fort Wayne)
Fort Wayne has hosted only 12 major-league games in its long professional baseball history. However, one of those contests was the very first major-league game, played in 1871 at the Kekionga Ball Grounds. Only eight more home games were played at this site.
The Fort Wayne Kekiongas were charter members of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, America’s earliest professional baseball league. But 1871 proved to be Fort Wayne’s first and only year as a major-league town. Named after the original Miami Indian village that became the city’s site, the Kekiongas, with an overall 7-12 record, finished ahead of only Rockford. Fort Wayne had a won-lost record of 5-4 at the Kekionga Ball Grounds. The club did enjoy the distinction of hosting the National Association’s inaugural contest, playing the Forest City Base Ball Club of Cleveland on Thursday, May 4, 1871. This initial professional league game was a 2-0 shutout pitched by the Kekiongas’ Bobby Mathews, an astounding run count in an era of elevated scores. The whitewash was the lowest score in the National Association’s first four years of existence.
The Kekionga Ball Grounds, often called by the shorter names of Kekionga Grounds or Kekionga Park, were located at Camp Allen, the site where Civil War recruits had gathered before heading south. This property was on the west bank of the St. Marys River, five blocks south of Cemetery Road (later West Main Street), with Mechanic Street to the west and open land to the south. Called both Rockhill Addition and Nebraska, the neighborhood was just west of downtown and very accessible via the Main Street bridge over the St. Marys River. An 1871 Fort Wayne Guide Map clearly shows the location of the Ball Grounds but offers no clue as to its orientation, dimensions, or features. No other pictures, maps, or drawings are known to exist of America’s first league ballpark.
The Kekionga Ball Grounds evolved from a Civil War camp to an open ball diamond to a covered wooden ballpark during the late 1860s and into 1871. The ballpark was built for the 1870 state champion Kekiongas. In a nod to the French segment of Fort Wayne’s history, the ornamented central section of the grandstand was christened Grande Duchesse. The setting was improved even further for the 1871 National Association campaign as the ground was leveled and holes and ruts from the frequent intrusion of horses and carriages were filled. Fences were repaired and railings installed to keep carriages and crowd away from the field and the players. “Two beautiful new flags” were erected as foul markers. The Kekionga Ball Grounds were superior in all ways to its predecessor, Hamilton Field, in the south-central section of downtown Fort Wayne.
Opening day on May 4 drew a small crowd of 200 as the weather was threatening. The game of Saturday, May 13, against the Chicago White Stockings drew a season high of 1,500 spectators. The last of the Kekiongas’ nine home games occurred on Tuesday, August 19, before 500 fans. On that same day, the Brooklyn Eckfords replaced the Kekiongas in the National Association as Fort Wayne ran into difficulties paying and retaining its players.
In 1872, the property was subdivided and in the ensuing years streets and homes were built. The neighborhood has remained residential to this day. The easternmost section of the Kekionga Ball Grounds property is Camp Allen Park, a small city park. Homes currently occupy the balance of the site.
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Fort Wayne Guide Map. Fort Wayne: Harvey C. Lowrie, 1871.
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Panoramic View of the City of Fort Wayne, Allen County, Indiana, 1880.
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