SABR

National League Park (Louisville)

This article was written by Bob Bailey.

Baseball came to Louisville prior to the Civil War. The Louisville Base-ball Club was organized in 1858, but numerous teams played at various open lots and fields throughout the city. Amateur and semi-pro teams organized and arranged to play on commons, in parks, and on the grounds of various estates. Some of the clubs organized as stock companies to provide for equipment, uniforms, lease payments for grounds, and probably for some payment to the players, in addition to some return to investors. Admission was regularly charged to the games of such teams. Since enclosed ballparks did not exist at the time in the city, ropes were set up to separate the patrons from the players. [1]

Current research indicates that the first enclosed ballpark was that of the Louisville Eagle Base Ball Club organized in May 1874. The club was capitalized with $1,000 of stock, and the grounds were secured from one Mr. Wilder, who owned land "back of Cedar Hill." Cedar Hill was a park located from Third to Fifth Streets between Ormsby and Weissinger (now Park) Avenues about twelve blocks south of Broadway. Cedar Hill had been the site of the games of an earlier Eagle Club that disbanded in 1871 when the Fourth Street Railway was extended through the park. The location was considered suburban in that era. But it was an elegant suburb. The property was next to the duPont estate. This branch of the Delaware family operated a chemical plant in Louisville. Their estate sat at the end of the most fashionable residential area in the city. This was only appropriate since the Eagle club was comprised of "young men of the best reputation and of the most aristocratic families in the city." [2]

Mr. Wilder put forward an interesting proposition for the use of his property. The ground rent was a "small price" and he gave his permission to fence in the yard but he retained the right to purchase the fencing material when the club disbanded. The club immediately accepted his terms.

Work on the first enclosed park began in mid-May and were completed by early June. The field was apparently laid out very close to the grandstand, for in mid-August substantial alterations were made to the park. The left field fence was moved out 100 feet. This allowed the batters position to be moved out to where the pitcher's box had been. With a roof being constructed over the part of the stand reserved for the ladies they were now given "a fine view of the game without placing them where there is danger of getting struck by wildly thrown balls, as was the case in the old ladies stands. [3]

But the major leagues first came to Louisville with the start of the National League in 1876. A group of local businessmen organized a professional club late in the 1875 season and, through contacts with William Hulbert in Chicago, were included as a charter member of the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs. [4]

In addition to assembling the best team they could the directors needed a place to play. They decided to build their own park and finally settled on a site near the existing Eagle Grounds. The plot was from 4th to 6th Streets between Magnolia and Hill Streets, directly behind Central Park. That they should chose a location in the finer part of town is not surprising as the investor group was comprised of businessmen who resided in the area, headed by Walter N. Haldeman, President of the ball club and owner-publisher of the Louisville Courier-Journal newspaper.

The descriptions of the park layout are rather sketchy in the local press, but the field was directly south of Eagle Park. Home plate was probably centered along Hill Street between 4th and 5th Streets facing north. First base was in the middle of the block along 4th Street and third base on the 6th Street side. Center field sat in the middle of the block toward Magnolia. The grandstand, said to be similar to the stand at the Hartford, Connecticut park, was located directly behind home plate running east to west along Hill Street. The grandstand may have actually been several separate freestanding structures for the Lady's Stand, a covered grandstand and an open-air bleacher stand. The covered stands held 800 to 1,000 spectators and the bleachers had a capacity of about 3,500. [5]

Construction work on the new structure began in the early spring with Opening Day scheduled against Al Spalding's Chicagos on April 25. Work was proceeding apace when a cyclone hit the southern portion of the city on April 13. Portions of the new grandstand were demolished with other parts of the park receiving considerable damage. The fence at the nearby Eagle grounds was "prostrate." Within several days a crew of workers were busy reconstructing the stand. As a result of the storm damage one design change was made. The original grandstand roof had been an upward sloping structure. The new roof was designed as a gable giving the wind less opportunity to sweep in and repeat the damage of the prior week. [6]

All was ready for Opening Day. The Fourth Street Railway was extended to the grounds and Western Union ran a new line to the ballpark so results could be wired to other League cities directly from the park. [7]

The first game was considered a rousing success even if the announced attendance of 6,000 was clearly overstated. But it was a standing room only crowd. After playing several series at the park there were several features of the park's configuration that distressed the owners and resulted in alterations to the structure. The first was the observation that a small knoll existed just beyond the left-center field fence. This provided a splendid vantage for a group of fans that did not wish the pay the fifty-cent admission. Before the second game on April 27 a large awning was built on the fence to block the view of those non-paying patrons. It was announced that advertising would be sold on the awning to offset any costs. This may be the first example of advertising on the outfield fence in any major league park. That such advertising was ever placed on the fence was never reported. [8]

In late July the owners took their second action to frustrate some would-be entrepreneurs. The fence around the field was approximately six to eight feet high. Wagon owners took up positions outside the northern and western fences and charges people ten cents to stand in the wagon bed and watch the game over the fence. When the team went on a road trip in July the owners had the fence extended to a height of sixteen feet. [9]

Ballparks in this era did not usually have official names. The newspapers that covered the teams playing there variously named the parks. In this case the park was referred to as National League Park, League Park, Louisville Base Ball Grounds, and Fourth Street Grounds.

There is no report of any alterations to the park between the 1876 and 1877 seasons. But problems getting to and from the park caused the Fourth Street Railway Company to double track Fourth Street the entire distance to the ballpark. [10]

Following the 1877 season it was revealed that four Louisville players had accepted money from gamblers to throw the 1877 pennant race to Boston. The players were tossed out of the league and the owners of the Louisville franchise were allowed to withdraw from the league. During the 1878 season the park was used by the Louisvilles, a local semi-pro team made up of former members of the Eagle ball club, including Walter Haldeman's son, Will. [11]

The park was abandoned as Louisville fans lost some of their taste for the National Pastime as a result of the gambling scandal. The structure burned sometime in the early 1880s. By 1882 the plot was a vacant lot that was part of the site selected to house the Southern Exposition from 1883-1887. When the Exposition closed the northern portion of the Exposition plot was cleared and Central Park reestablished. The southern portion of the site that has housed the ballpark was sold to residential developers. From the late 1880s to the 1910s large Victorian homes and mansions were developed on the site now renamed St. James Court. Those homes still stand today and the block that saw the first major league shutout and the first major league betting scandal is now on the Federal Register of Historic Places as an outstanding example of Victorian residential architecture. [12]

Sources

[1] Dean Allen Sullivan. "The Growth of Sport In A Southern City: A Case Study of the Organizational Evolution of Baseball in Louisville, Kentucky, As An Urban Phenomenon 1860-1900." M.A., George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, 1989, p. 17-21; Louisville Daily Democrat, July 22, 1865; Louisville Courier-Journal, May 8, 1874; Louisville Courier-Journal, May 15, 1974; Louisville Courier-Journal, April 17, 1875; Louisville Courier-Journal, June 5, 1875.

[2] Louisville Courier-Journal, May 8, 1874; Louisville Courier-Journal, May 15, 1874.

[3] Louisville Courier-Journal, June 5, 1874; Louisville Courier-Journal, June 19, 1874; Louisville Courier-Journal, August 22, 1874.

[4] Dennis C. Cusick, "Gentleman of the Press: The Life and Times of Walter Neuman Haldeman," M.A., University of Louisville, 1987, p. 120-126.

[5] A. H. Tarvin, Seventy-five Years on Louisville Baseball Diamonds, (Louisville, 1940); Louisville Courier-Journal, April 18, 1876.

[6] Louisville Courier-Journal, April 14, 1876; Louisville Courier-Journal, April 18, 1876.

[7] Louisville Courier-Journal, April 18, 1876; Louisville Courier-Journal, April 20, 1876.

[8] Louisville Courier-Journal, April 27, 1876.

[9] Louisville Courier-Journal, August 2, 1876; Louisville Courier-Journal, August 3, 1876.

[10] Louisville Courier-Journal, May 10, 1877.

[11] Cusick, "Gentleman", p. 134-141; J.E. Findling, "The Louisville Grays' Scandal of 1877," Journal of Sport History 3, #2 (Summer, 1976).

[12] Louisville Courier-Journal, January 17, 1883.

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