This article was written by Charlie Bevis
The Congress Street Grounds in Boston had a short, but illustrious, history during its seven-year existence from 1890 to 1896. In the two years that the grounds were used on a full-time basis for major-league baseball, the facility hosted pennant-winning Boston ball clubs in the 1890 Players League and the 1891 American Association. The Boston club in the National League also played 27 games there in 1894 while its burned-down South End Grounds were being rebuilt.
On December 10, 1889, the directors of the Boston club in the newly formed Players League signed a lease to play the team’s games at a new ball grounds to be built on Congress Street extension, across the Fort Point Channel from downtown Boston. In 1889, Congress Street was the only thoroughfare that spanned the Fort Point Channel to connect downtown Boston with the relatively undeveloped South Boston section of the Boston waterfront. Today, office buildings at 368 and 374 Congress Street, adjacent to Thompson Place, stand on the land once occupied by the ball grounds, and are surrounded by numerous other buildings (many with markers indicating they were built in the mid-to-late 1890s). In 1889, though, this area of the Boston waterfront was sparsely occupied save for a railroad yard and a few buildings. The Boston Wharf Company, which owned the land and sought to develop it, used the Congress Street Grounds as a promotional device to attract businessmen from downtown Boston to view the area and consider locating a warehouse or manufacturing facility there.
Boston Wharf Company built the Congress Street Grounds and leased it to the Boston Players League club. This approach was consistent with the firm’s general business philosophy, as espoused by company treasurer Joseph B. Russell, son of company president Charles T. Russell. “We prefer by far to make long ground leases,” the younger Russell said in 1887. “It has been our custom to erect buildings for any reliable tenants, and also to sell land at reasonable terms on time.” Boston Wharf Company had its company architect, Morton Safford, design an ornate pavilion for the grandstand at the grounds. In the Classical Revival style that he’d use for many Boston Wharf Company buildings, Safford designed a double-decker facility, 200 feet long and 62 feet wide, with four entrances and two towers, each topped by a flag pole.
The grounds were designed to seat 4,000 people in the grandstand, with bleachers along the left and right field foul lines to hold another 6,000 people. After a reported 20,000 people tried to gain entrance to a pre-season game on the Fast Day holiday on April 3, bleacher seating was expanded to accommodate another 4,000 people, to bring the total seating capacity of the Congress Street Grounds to 14,000.
Since the grounds were half a mile (and a 15-minute walk) from the central business district in downtown Boston, and no public transportation served the area near the grounds, private firms operated land barges from the business district to the ball grounds. Tickets to the games could also be purchased downtown at two sporting goods stores, John F. Morrill on Bromfield Street and John P. Lovell Arms Company on Cornhill Street. Businessmen could tell if a game was to be played by looking across the channel to see if flags were flying atop the grounds.
The leased grounds covered 200,000 square feet of land in a rectangle 640 feet in length (north toward the harbor) and 350 feet wide (east-west along Congress Street). Home plate was located on the Congress Street side, with batters facing north toward the waterfront. The center field fence was 385 feet from home plate, according to a February 23, 1890, Boston Globe report, which didn’t specify the distance to the left and right field fences. A diagram of the grounds in the December 11, 1889, edition of the Globe and a sketch in the February 23, 1890, edition both indicate a short distance to the end of the bleachers at the east and west property lines. Within the 350-feet total width of the grounds, the baseball diamond spanned 128 feet between first and third bases, leaving just 111 feet on either side (assuming the diamond was situated perfectly equidistant from the property lines). Using basic geometry, one can then determine that the left and right field foul lines extended just 156 feet beyond first and third bases, for a total distance from home plate to the outfield fence on the foul lines of just under 250 feet.
The first regular-season game at the Congress Street Grounds was played on April 19, 1890. Boston defeated Brooklyn 3-2 before a reported crowd of 10,000. The Boston team, led by the popular Mike “King” Kelly, proved to be quite an attraction, regularly outdrawing the cross-town rival National League club (if newspaper accounts can be believed). Boston captured first place in the Players League and raised the league pennant at the Congress Street Grounds on October 11, 1890, at an exhibition game with the New York club of the Players League.
After the Players League dissolved following its sole season in 1890, the directors of the Boston club acquired a franchise in the American Association for the 1891 season. Boston finished in first place in that league as well, and raised the pennant during its last home game of the season on October 3, 1891. When the American Association merged with the National League before the 1892 season, the existing Boston club in the National League bought out the owners of the Boston Association club to regain its monopoly position in the Boston baseball market and ended major-league baseball at the Congress Street Grounds.
For the Boston Wharf Company and the Russell family, the two seasons of major-league baseball at the Congress Street Grounds served the business purpose. Demand rose to locate manufacturing and warehouses in the area around Congress Street, so Boston Wharf Company could line up tenants to lease the new buildings on the drawing board. While Safford designed, and Boston Wharf Company constructed, several buildings on Congress Street between 1892 and 1895, Massachusetts politicians debated where to locate a publicly owned central train terminal near downtown to replace the crazy-quilt system of privately owned terminals scattered throughout the city.
The main athletic events staged at the Congress Street Grounds in 1892 were Gaelic football and hurling matches played by the local young men that lived in the predominantly Irish neighborhood of South Boston. The New England AAU track and field championship also took place at the Congress Street Grounds on June 11. One of the few baseball games at the grounds reported by the Globe was played on September 8, when amateur teams representing the Boston and New York shoe and leather trades squared off in a 5-5 tie, the game ending when the visiting team had to leave to catch a 7:00 train back to New York.
Professional baseball returned briefly to the Congress Street Grounds in 1893 when the Manchester, New Hampshire, club in the minor-league New England League transferred to Boston. The club’s first game in Boston was on July 17, when the last-place Boston Reds lost to Lewiston, Maine, 15-6 before a crowd of 1,019 spectators. “The grounds were in horrible condition,” the Globe reported, likely due to their new primary uses as a Gaelic football pitch and running track. The New England League games only attracted crowds of 400 to 600 people. When just 500 attended the August 4 game with Brockton, the club gave up playing home games and became strictly a road club for the remainder of the season.
In 1894, the Boston club in the National League became a temporary resident of the Congress Street Grounds when the club’s South End Grounds burned down on May 15. Boston’s groundkeeper John Haggerty worked all night to get the Congress Street Grounds in reasonable shape for the scheduled game the next day, May 16, with Baltimore. There were no seats at the grounds, however, so Haggerty had to borrow hundreds of chairs from other organizations.
Home runs became an immediate attraction at the grounds, which Richard Tourangeau called “a long ball valhalla [sic] in its phoenix month of glory in 1894.” During the 27 games played at the Congress Street Grounds in 1894, 86 home runs were stroked; the league hit only 629 homers in 400 games during the entire season. Bobby Lowe smacked 12 homers at the Congress Street Grounds, tops among the Boston hitters. Lowe hit four homers in one game, the second game of a Decoration Day doubleheader on May 30, to enter the record books as the first major leaguer to hit four homers in one game.
Haggerty, in his effort to remake the Congress Street Grounds into an acceptable playing field, may have reoriented the field more to the west to shorten even more the distance from home plate to the left field fence. One of his considerations may have been relocating the pitcher’s box for the 60′ 6″ distance used in 1894 from the 50′ length in the original construction of the diamond in 1890. Tourangeau cites a Baltimore Sun description of the Congress Street Grounds that says: “The left field fence in Boston is so short that any long fly to left field sails over it … the centre and right field fences are as far away as they are in almost any of the League grounds and the ball is very seldom hit over them.”
“Patrons of the game will not be at all sorry when the return is made to the South End Grounds,” Jake Morse wrote in Sporting Life that June. “The Congress Street Grounds have not been put into anything like suitable preparation for League contests.”
The last professional baseball game at the Congress Street Grounds was played on June 20, 1894, when Boston defeated Baltimore 13-12. On the final play of the game, Hugh Duffy stroked a home run over the short left field fence with two men on base in the bottom of the ninth inning.
After Boston returned to the rebuilt South End Grounds, Gaelic football returned as the main event at the Congress Street Grounds. One of the last baseball games played on the grounds was on the Bunker Hill Day holiday, June 17, 1895, when Holy Cross College defeated South Boston 21-3.
Charles and Joseph Russell of the Boston Wharf Company were very politically connected (Joseph’s brother William was Governor of Massachusetts 1891-1893). The Russells were able to influence the location of the new central train terminal to be at the intersection of Summer Street and Atlantic Avenue, right across Fort Point Channel from the company’s land. In 1896, the Massachusetts legislature passed a law establishing Southern Union Station (now known simply as South Station) at that location and also authorized the extension of Summer Street across the channel, which conveniently connected the train station to the undeveloped land owned by Boston Wharf Company.
The completion of the new train terminal in 1898 and extension of Summer Street in 1900 dramatically increased the value of Boston Wharf Company’s land south of Congress Street. After Charles Russell died in February 1896, Boston Wharf Company’s new president Edwin Atkins focused the company’s attention on developing the area around Summer Street extension. The Congress Street Grounds were now expendable. Boston Wharf Company dismantled the grounds in the fall of 1896 when the company built an extension of A Street (now Thomson Place) and built warehouses on the land where the ball grounds had been located.
One of the last athletic events at the Congress Street Grounds was a Gaelic football game on June 17, 1896, when the O’Connells of Boston defeated the Quinsigamonds of Worcester. The New England Firemen’s Union Muster on September 23 may have been the last event held at the grounds before they were torn down. On May 23, the grounds were leased to a group seeking to demonstrate a hot-air balloon ascension, which attracted 3,000 people. “The old grand stand from which so many exciting ball games have been seen was awakened by the shouts and tramping of legions of small boys, who swarmed over it like ants over the dome of their dwelling.”
A century later, those 100-year-old warehouses on the former site of the Congress Street Grounds are being remodeled into luxury condominiums as part of the redevelopment of the Fort Point Channel area. Baseball will be viewed once again on the site, but only through cable TV wire rather than an in-the-flesh game.
Boston Globe. “Congress Street Front of New Brotherhood Grand Stand,” February 23, 1890.
——–. “Growth of the Boston Wharf Company,” June 19, 1887.
——–. “New Grounds of Players’ League Club,” December 11, 1889.
——–. “Rebuilding the Past: Transforming Old Warehouses into Luxury Condos Is More Than Cosmetics,” June 18, 2007.
Boston Landmark Commission. “The Fort Point Channel Landmark District,” 2004.
Boston Public Library. “Congress Street Grounds,” Sports Temples of Boston,
Morse, Jake. Sporting Life, June 16, 1894.
Tourangeau, Richard. “Remembering the Congress Street Grounds,” The National Pastime, 2004.