SABR

Eclipse Park (Louisville)

This article was written by Bob Bailey.

Following the demise of Louisville's National League franchise in the gambling scandal of 1877, Louisville was out of the major leagues for four seasons. In late 1881 a group of Midwest entrepreneurs decided to challenge the National League and formed the American Association as a competing major league. Louisville was a charter member. The Louisville team largely made up of members of the local Eclipse team. This strong semi-pro squad from the West End of Louisville developed a reputation for being one of the country's strongest nines as they defeated several National League clubs in exhibitions.

The West End of Louisville had spawned several clubs in the 1870s. The West End was a solidly working class part of town extending from downtown to the city limits around 28th Street between Main Street and Broadway. The area had a strong immigrant flavor with much of the growing population being of Irish or German descent. It was the part of town looked down upon by the inhabitants of the fine homes in the area near Eagle Park, the first enclosed park built just south of downtown.

The strongest nine from the West End (before the Eclipse) was probably the Olympics. In 1874 they played their games on a commons located at 23rd and Broadway. At the close of the 1874 season the Olympics directors decided to join the Eagles by erecting Louisville's second enclosed ballpark. They leased property on the estate of Dr. T.D. Elliott. The plot extended from 28th to 29th Streets between Elliott Avenue and Magazine Street. A nine-foot fence was put up around the park and a grandstand and clubhouse constructed inside the fence. The grandstand was centered at the corner of 28th and Elliott extending down the left field line to about third base. The clubhouse was in the right field corner. The park was dubbed Olympic Park by the newspapers. [1]

The Olympics played here during the 1875 season. With the coming of major league baseball to town in the form of the Louisville Grays in 1876, the Olympics reorganized into the Riverside team. Soon there was a new rising baseball power in the West End. The Eclipse club had recently organized and by 1880 they were probably the strongest semi-pro squad in the city. Ultimately, they would replace the Olympics and move into Olympic Park, to be known from that point as Eclipse Park. In 1882 this team and park entered the major leagues with the birth of the American Association. [2]

The park that was constructed in 1874-75 had added a bleacher down the right field line but was otherwise unchanged since opening. It stood in the midst of working class residential neighborhoods and small to mid-sized industrial plants. The immediate neighborhood contained wood frame residences, a railroad yard, several distilleries, and many saloons. The Walnut Street Railway carried fans from downtown along Walnut Street, turned south down 28th Street and deposited them at the ticket office at the corner of 28th and Elliott. [3]

By 1884 the grandstand held about 2,000 spectators, up from the original 800. In the spring of 1884 the directors of the club were doing well enough to build a new grandstand. The old stand was razed in mid-March and construction of the 5,000-seat grandstand was completed by mid-April. The new structure had a club room where gentlemen could repair during the game to enjoy refreshments from the wares of local distillers, a scoreboard on which the names of the players were posted, a fence increased in height by four feet to exclude "deadheads, "and a tower on top of the new grandstand that allowed the favored few to view the game from what might have been the first sky box. This tower area had a capacity of about 60. A new clubhouse was also constructed along the right field line. [4]

After a third place finish in 1884 the owners again made extensive renovations to the park. In fact they virtually built a new park on the site. In January 1885 plans were approved to extend the grandstand 96 feet down the right field line. The grandstand down the left field line was extended 160 feet and was double-decked with a roof covering the upper level seating. An additional clubroom was constructed under the stand for special guests and club officers. Another unique feature was the construction of seats in the outfield. The left field fence was moved back 45 feet and a "jury box" stand 170 feet long and six rows high was erected. The diamond was moved forward thirty feet to accommodate the new construction. A new clubhouse was put up in the left field corner and a new 12-foot fence surrounded the park. [5]

This is perhaps the Louisville ballpark richest in historical terms. It is the site where Pete Browning, Guy Hecker, and Chicken Wolf enjoyed their most productive years. It is the site of the use of the first Louisville Slugger bat in the major leagues. It is also the site where Louisville set the major league record for consecutive loses (26) in 1889 only to go from last to first and capture their only pennant in 1890.

In late September 1892, having transferred to the National League, the 9th place Colonels returned from a road trip to Cleveland and opened a new home stand on September 26 with an 11-0 victory over Cap Anson's Chicago Colts. The Courier-Journal headlined their game story, "How Did it Happen." That question applied to another story in that day's paper. But instead the headline read, "In a Blaze." Just before midnight on the 26th the alarm sounded. Eclipse Park was afire. The fire started in the grandstand on the lower floor below the tower. Arson was suspected but never proven. The fire moved rapidly down the left field stand toward the clubhouse. This portion of the park was destroyed. The firemen were able to cut off the fire before it reached the right field bleachers. At that point the fire department turned their attention to the surrounding property. [6]

The game against Chicago scheduled for Tuesday the 27th was postponed. At 2 p.m. Tuesday the club directors contracted to construct new seats and fence. The makeshift job was completed by 1 p.m. the following day and the Colonels and the Colts split a doubleheader that afternoon before about 700 fans. [7]
The team finished out the schedule with the temporary stands and had to think about what they would do for the next season. While the club directors decided to find a new location for the park, this was not the last major league game played at the original Eclipse Park. Due to construction delays the Colonels opened the 1893 season in the old ballpark, makeshift stands and all. On Thursday May 4, 1893 the first game of the new season and the last game at old Eclipse Park was played. Rain cancelled the next five scheduled games. The team left for a two-week road trip and returned to a new ballpark in late May.

The professionals abandoned the old site at 28th and Elliott. But it has retained its use as a baseball park to this day. By 1894 the grounds had been cleared and were used as a YMCA athletic ground. In 1906, after a brief court battle between the city and the heirs of Dr. T.D. Elliott, the City of Louisville received title to the 3.9-acre site for use as a public park. Today Elliott Park stands in the West End of Louisville with a baseball diamond and backstop set up with the field oriented just as it was when Pete Browning thrilled the fans of the day. [8]

Sources

[1] Louisville Courier-Journal, July 26, 1874; Louisville Courier-Journal, October 4, 1874.

[2] Louisville Courier-Journal, April 30, 1876; Louisville Courier-Journal, July 21, 1876.

[3] Louisville Courier-Journal, October 4, 1874; Louisville Courier-Journal, March 27, 1881.

[4] Louisville Courier-Journal, April 17, 1881; Louisville Courier-Journal, April 8, 1883; Louisville Courier-Journal, March 23, 1884; Louisville Courier-Journal, May 1, 1884.

[5] Louisville Courier-Journal, January 11, 1885.

[6] Louisville Courier-Journal, September 27, 1892.

[7] Louisville Courier-Journal, September 28, 1892; Louisville Courier-Journal, September 29, 1892.

[8] Caron's Louisville City Directory, 1894; Deed dated July 1906 between Sue Browne Elliott and Board of Parks Commissioners, City of Louisville.

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