This article was written by Jim Nitz
Rockford has the distinction of being a part of America’s first professional baseball league, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. This circuit counted the Rockford Forest City Base Ball Club, led by Hall of Fame third baseman Cap Anson, as a charter member in its inaugural year of 1871. Unfortunately for northern Illinois fans, the Forest Citys were dropped from the National Association after a dismal last-place campaign and have remained the only major league team in Rockford history.
The Fair Grounds of the Winnebago County Agricultural Society were the home field of the 1871 Forest Citys. This site had been chosen to house a state tournament on September 19 and 20, 1865, during the Winnebago County Agricultural Fair. The Forest City Base Ball Club had just formed that summer and were participants in the tourney. Between 1865 and 1871, as the highly-successful Forest Citys evolved from amateur to semi-pro to professional status, the Fair Grounds were Rockford’s principal baseball venue.
The ballpark was easily accessible, just west of Rockford’s business district. The spacious Fourth Ward site was convenient to visitors staying in downtown hotels, as it was within leisurely walking or carriage-ride distance. For local fans, the Fair Grounds were a centrally-located gathering place more convenient than the previous ballpark on the old drill grounds at the north end of Church Street.
The boundaries of the Fair Grounds included Peach Street (later Jefferson Street) on the southwest, private lots fronted by Horsman Street on the southeast, Pecatonica Street (no longer in existence but once located between the current Lee and Kilburn Streets) on the northeast, Oak Street (now Acorn Street) on the north, and Kent Creek on the west. The Fair Grounds had a race course that the diamond may have been within; however, the exact location, orientation, and dimensions of the playing field are unknown.
The capacity of the ballpark is uncertain, although there were numerous crowds of between 2,000 and 5,000. Considering that Rockford only had a population of about 11,000 in 1870, these are respectable attendance figures. Rockford was a minor league town with a major league ballclub. The exact features of the park are unclear because no pictures, illustrations, postcards, or maps of it are known to exist. Rockford newspapers did gloat by declaring that the ballpark was “. . . one of the best ball grounds in the country.” Other accounts give the impression that the structure changed from year-to-year as seats were added or taken away, depending upon local interest in the Forest Citys. Newspaper game accounts never mentioned the ballpark.
One Rockford Register article, dated August 16, 1939, has become the sole source of information on the characteristics of the Fair Grounds. In this piece, a former Rockford resident, John Clifford, described his experiences at the town’s only major league park:
The games were played on the fair grounds and a poorer baseball field, to my mind, has never been known. Trees in every direction. There was a cluster of five around third base. The catcher was hemmed in by trees with the exception of a space about 30 by 50 feet. An umpire could not see a foul unless it hit back of the plate or a few feet on either side of the base lines. Between the plate and second base the terrain was fairly level, but approaching third base there was a noticeable rise and from third to the plate there was a depression and the base runner had to dig in for life.
At the edge of the outfield was a deep gutter to take care of water from the quarter-mile race track and why more fielders did not break legs in this trap was because Providence protected them.
The bleachers were situated along first base and the plate and would accommodate about 300 to 500. They were made of bridge planking. In the later years of the club’s existence there was built a grandstand, primarily to protect the scorers. The grandstand would hold about 30 to 40 persons.
After the demise of the National Association Forest Citys, Rockford did not see professional baseball until 1879. In that year, the town placed a franchise in the minor Northwestern League. The home park was again the Fair Grounds. From 1880 to 1886, independent and semipro teams played at the Fair Grounds. Beginning in 1887, ballparks that could be serviced by street car lines started popping up in Rockford, effectively ending the Fair Grounds’ reign as the town’s primary baseball site.
The slump in popularity of old-fashioned county fairs caused the Winnebago County Agricultural Society to sell the Fair Grounds to the City of Rockford in 1904 for $5,520. The property was then developed into a public park. Since 1910, the Rockford Park District has managed what is now called Fairgrounds Park.
Atlas of Winnebago Co., Illinois. Chicago: Warner, Higgins & Beers, 1871.
Champion Map of Rockford, Illinois. Daytona Beach: Champion Map Corporation, 1990.
Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois: History of Winnebago County. Volume II. 1916.
Molyneaux, Dr. John. Director of Local History Department, Rockford Public Library. Telephone and personal interviews. January through March 1993.
Overfield, Joseph M. “Robert Edward Addy.” In Nineteenth Century Stars. Ed. Robert L. Tiemann and Mark Rucker. Kansas City, Missouri: SABR, 1989.
Roby, Judy. Rockford Park District. Telephone interview. 25 January 1993.
Rockford Gazette, Rockford Register, Rockford Register-Republic, and Rockford Register Star. Various newspaper articles.
Thorn, John and Pete Palmer, eds. Total Baseball. 2nd ed. New York: Warner, 1991.