Harrison Park (Harrison, NJ)

This article was written by Bill Lamb

Barely more than one square mile in size and with about 15,000 residents, Harrison, New Jersey, was an improbable site for the construction of a new major-league ballpark in early 1915. But timing, circumstance, and geography were all the impetus needed for the erection of spacious Harrison Park. In its maiden year, the new ballpark served as home field for the Federal League franchise officially based in next-door neighbor Newark. Following the collapse of the FL at the close of the 1915 season, the grounds were thereafter used sporadically, sometimes by Newark's minor-league club, and other times for boxing, college football, and other events. Harrison Park's tenure as a sports venue, however, was brief. A fire after an August 1923 Newark Bears game left the edifice a smoldering ruin. Once razed, the ballpark was never rebuilt. Currently, the site serves as a parking lot for New York City-bound railway commuters and those attending games of the professional soccer team that plays several blocks away. Today, all that remains of Harrison Park is a small plaque noting its one-time existence on the property. The story of this poorly commemorated ballpark follows.

Located some 15 miles southwest of lower Manhattan, Newark has always been the largest city in densely populated New Jersey. Beginning in 1884, the city, a hotbed of early baseball, hosted professional minor-league ballclubs almost continuously. One attractive feature of Newark baseball was that the city, like many other municipalities in the Garden State, had no blue laws prohibiting the playing of professional sports on Sundays. This, of course, made Newark and its surrounds a tempting Sabbath Day game site for nearby out-of-state major-league clubs. But in actuality, the notion of clubs from New York, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia playing Sunday games in New Jersey was an often-broached/seldom-acted-upon proposition.1 For the most part, Jersey baseball fans had to rely on their home-state clubs for game action.

Since 1902 Newark had fielded a club in the top-level minor Eastern League, and its successor, the International. The site of Newark games was Wiedenmayer's Park, a commodious wooden structure with a seating capacity of about 15,000 located in Newark’s Ironbound section, an industrial enclave situated several miles east of the city's downtown commercial center. In 1913 the Newark Indians captured the International League crown. But the following year under the new stewardship of Charles H. Ebbets Jr., son of the NL Brooklyn Robins owner, Newark tumbled to fifth place in IL standings, losing some $30,000 in the process.2 Still, the club retained the leasehold on Wiedenmayer's Park, the only substantial ballpark in the greater Newark area, and made plans for a better finish in 1915.

Enter Harry Sinclair. The young oil tycoon had been dabbling in low-level minor-league franchise ownership for about a decade, and now deemed himself ready for the upgrade to major-league ballclub owner. After several fruitless inquiries about acquiring a National League club, Sinclair shifted his sights to the upstart Federal League. An independent minor-league circuit outside Organized Baseball in 1913, the FL audaciously declared itself a major and relocated several of its teams to big-league cities for the 1914 season. The Feds survived their inaugural major-league campaign, but just barely. None of the outlaw ballclubs turned a profit, and several were on the verge of bankruptcy.

Quietly assisted by Federal League bigwigs in anxious need of the monetary transfusion that would attend the millionaire’s joining their ranks, Sinclair initially moved on the financially failing Kansas City Packers. But his takeover of the KC club was stymied by a court injunction obtained by incumbent club investors. Sinclair had better luck with the Indianapolis Hoosiers, insolvent despite the club’s capture of the 1914 Federal League pennant. With behind-the-scenes assistance from FL President James A. Gilmore, Sinclair managed to acquire the Indianapolis franchise for about $81,000.3 But plans to relocate the franchise to New York City were thwarted when agents of New York Giants boss Harry Hempstead encumbered the Manhattan properties needed for erection of a Federal League ballpark there.

With the 1915 season looming on the horizon and his new ballclub without a home, Sinclair turned to baseball mentor Patrick T. Powers for counsel. A veteran minor-league executive and a successful indoor winter sports promoter, Powers proposed a solution that gratified both his home-state loyalties as a proud New Jerseyan4 and his desire to pay back the fellow executives who had engineered his humiliating ouster as Eastern League president in December 1910: placement of the Sinclair club in Newark. Manhattan may not have been available, Powers reasoned, but the city’s horde of baseball fans was only a short train ride away from Newark and likely to flock to the Sunday ballgames that New York City blue laws prohibited from being played in Gotham. Powers also savored the consequences that the presence of a Federal League club would have on the Newark Indians, the local member of the International League. There was a problem, however. With Wiedenmayer's Park, the only ample-sized baseball venue in Newark, securely leased by the Indians, there was no ready ballpark for the Sinclair club to move into. Nor were ballpark-suitable property lots available for purchase in heavily built-up downtown Newark.

While not within the confines of Newark, a solution to the ballpark problem resided little more than a long fly ball away. Just across the Passaic River in the adjoining mini-city of Harrison lay West Hudson Field, a green expanse used by local football and soccer clubs. The grounds were bounded on all sides by commercial and residential properties, but were large enough to accommodate construction of a major-league ballpark. With the 1915 season drawing ever closer and with no other local options seemingly available, Sinclair moved quickly. With the assistance of Harrison city officials, the property, located directly across from the plant of the Otis Elevator Company and less than two blocks from the Passaic River’s edge, was acquired by Sinclair for a guesstimated $40,000.5 But obviously, other costs attended the start-up of the new club. Indeed, a Sporting Life correspondent later placed the Sinclair investment in the Newark franchise at about $300,000, total.6

In early March, construction plans were filed with the Harrison building inspector Daniel F. Maher.7 The design of Manhattan architect/contractor C.B. Comstock envisioned a ballpark with seating capacity for over 20,000 spectators. A 12,000-seat roofed grandstand would sit directly behind home plate with extensions along the two foul lines capable of accommodating thousands more. Separate 3,000-seat bleacher sections were designated for the left-center and right-center outfields, with space for standing-room patrons in between.8 Building materials would include an estimated 1 million board feet of yellow pine lumber imposed over an iron superstructure.9

Laid out catty-corner on the property, the completed playing grounds of new Harrison Park were spacious, with foul-line distances of 375 feet running down both the left- and right-field foul lines. The fence in dead center stood a distant 450 feet from home plate, allowing for a multitude of the outfield extra-base hits common to the Deadball Era but few, if any, fence-clearing home runs.10 The main ballpark entrance was located on the South Second Street side of the grounds behind the home plate-first base grandstand. The building plans, however, did not ease club management's primary headache: how to get Newark baseball fans across the Passaic River to the ballpark. Although the water was spanned by the Jackson Street bridge, this was a railway conduit not easily traversed by pedestrians. Another drawback was that Harrison Park would not be serviced by Newark trolley lines. But for the time being, these concerns were set aside — for Opening Day for the Newark Peppers was near at hand.11

To give the Peppers the time needed to put their new playing grounds in usable shape, the club started the season with road games in Baltimore and Brooklyn. But on April 16, 1915, the great day finally arrived. The City of Newark pulled out all the stops for its namesake ballclub. Mayor Thomas Lynch Raymond declared the date an official half-holiday, freeing city employees to leave work to attend the early-afternoon ballgame against Baltimore. Opening Day festivities began downtown with Boy Scouts, local amateur ballplayers in uniform, and throngs of Newark citizens dressed in their Sunday finest assembled together. Led by a Scottish bagpipe and drum corps, a thousand walkers followed by automobiles, jitneys, and other vehicles festooned in celebratory bunting gingerly paraded across the bridge to not-quite-finished Harrison Park.12 There, an overflow crowd estimated at anywhere between 25,000 and 32,00013 consumed all available viewing space, even ringing the ballpark’s generous outfield dimensions.

After pregame ceremonies that included presentation of floral tributes to the team, flag raising, and speeches by local dignitaries, Mayor Raymond took the mound to throw the ceremonial first pitch — a strike according to the New York Times, high and outside to other observers. Thereafter His Honor joined Harrison Mayor John Daly, Federal League President Gilmore, Baltimore club owner Ned Hanlon, and other dignitaries for the start of Newark’s game against the Terrapins. Unhappily for all but Hanlon, Baltimore then bested the Peppers, 6-2.14

The following day, Newark returned the favor, posting a 5-1 victory over the Terrapins before a respectable crowd of 5,000. But from there, attendance at Harrison Park went into steep decline. An obvious cause for the attendance drop-off was oversaturation of the New York metropolitan-area baseball market, there being seven high-echelon professional ball clubs (AL New York Yankees, NL New York Giants and Brooklyn Robins, and FL Brooklyn Tip-Tops and Newark Peppers, plus the International League Newark Indians and Jersey City Skeeters) all playing within 20 miles of one another. Another damper on fan enthusiasm was the sputtering start the Peppers got off to — the club played barely better than .500 ball for the first two months of the campaign. And suspicion lingered that Newarkers resented how the new ballclub bearing their city's name was located in another municipality.

On July 2, the IL Newark Indians, the Peppers’ most immediate competitor for fan allegiance, abandoned the city, transferring operations to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. But the departure of a local rival did not cure the cause of poor attendance identified by Peppers brass: inconvenient fan access to Harrison Park. In particular, the lack of public transit made the club’s home grounds hard to get to for the average Newark baseball fan. Shortly thereafter, Sinclair and Powers voiced their dissatisfaction with the situation, threatening to relocate the Newark Peppers to another city unless trolley service directly to Harrison Park was instituted by the Railway Public Service Corporation.15 This led Sporting News correspondent Joe Vila to issue the sneering prediction that “the Feds will be out of New Jersey within a month.”16

Public Service promised consideration of the Peppers' request — but ultimately did nothing. But rather than forsake Newark, club management embarked upon a promotional campaign. The already-modest Harrison Park admission prices were slashed, with bleacher seats reduced to a mere 15 cents.17 Meanwhile, Peppers games were coupled with bicycle races, track meets, and other fan attractions.18 Perhaps more important, the Newark club, under the direction of recently installed player-manager Bill McKechnie, began to move up in Federal League standings. Improvement in club fortunes culminated on August 22, when a near-capacity crowd of 20,000 saw the Peppers assume first place by taking both ends of a Harrison Park doubleheader against the Pittsburgh Stogies. The club's reign at the top, however, lasted only two days. By season’s end, a mediocre finish dropped the Peppers (82-70, .526) all the way to fifth place, but only six games behind the pennant-winning Chicago Whales in tightly bunched final FL standings.

At the close of the season, negotiations with the established major leagues led to the dissolution of the Federal League. As part of the settlement, the National Commission, Organized Baseball's governing body, agreed to a 10-year sublet of Harrison Park from Newark club owner Harry Sinclair. The stipend was $10,000 per year, which the majors anticipated at least partially recouping by leasing the ballpark to a minor-league team, most likely the returning-to-Newark Indians of the International League.19 But negotiations with the new ownership of the Indians foundered, and the Newark club soon decided to play at its old grounds, Wiedenmayer's Park.20 These events, in turn, set the stage for perhaps the comedic highlight of the 1916 season: the solitaire baseball played at Harrison Park by erstwhile Newark Peppers first baseman Rupert Mills.

A four-sport star as a Newark schoolboy, Mills was signed by the Peppers within days of his graduation from Notre Dame in June 1915. But Mills had flopped in a 41-game audition at first base, batting a meager .201 with shaky defensive play. Nevertheless, Mills rejected the club's $600 postseason buyout offer. The two-year contract he had signed with the Peppers guaranteed him $3,000 for the 1916 season, and Mills demanded to be paid — whether or not the Federal League continued play. Wary of a courtroom battle with the legally-trained ballplayer — Mills held a bachelor of law degree and would later become a prominent Newark politician and civic leader — club President Powers adopted an alternative strategy: requiring specific performance of contract duties by Mills.

Unexpectedly, Mills was perfectly agreeable, showing up five mornings per week at deserted Harrison Park for a solitary eight-hour baseball workout. To amuse himself, Mills invented game action, smashing imaginary base hits, fielding groundballs that only he could see, and running the bases with abandon. Mills also served as his own umpire and official scorer. Soon, word of these antics reached sportswriters who began journeying to the ballpark to catch the Mills show. In time, and much to the chagrin of Pat Powers, baseball fans nationwide were following tales of how Mills pitched to himself (mostly curveballs), the gymnastics required to field a groundball and be a baserunner simultaneously, and how umpire Mills always called batter Mills safe on close plays at first base. In mid-June, an embarrassed Powers threw in the towel, and paid the wily Mills off.21

Once the Rupert Mills show closed, Harrison Park fell dormant. Following the United States’ entry into World War I in April 1917, the grounds were conscripted into the war effort. That summer, US Army units bivouacked there. Meanwhile, the National Commission, frustrated by the unwillingness of the International League Newark Indians to play there, contemplated authorizing the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers to play Sunday games at Harrison Park.22 But nothing ever came of it. The ballpark was, however, the site of a memorable July 1918 boxing event. Before a crowd of 10,000, a lightning-quick first-round knockout of towering Fred Fulton transformed little-known Jack Dempsey into the chief contender for heavyweight champion Jess Willard’s crown.23 Thereafter, Harrison Park was again commandeered by the government, this time to serve as a mail-transfer facility.24

After three seasons of paying Sinclair his $10,000 annual rental fee but having no use for Harrison Field, the National Commission and the Newark Bears (as they had come to be named) of the International League reached agreement for the club to play its 1919 season in Harrison. After the season ended, the ballpark was used for random events including a Rutgers University football game against Northwestern.25 After that, however, Harrison Park was again rendered tenantless, as club owners transferred the Newark International League franchise to Syracuse.26 The respite proved brief. In 1921 Harrison Park was re-engaged by the returned Newark club, and served as home field for the Bears for the next three seasons.

On Saturday, August 18, 1923, the last-place Newark Bears edged the Toronto Maple Leafs, 3-2. Shortly after Harrison Park emptied, smoke was detected by a ballpark custodian. Soon, the grounds were engulfed in flames. It took hours for fire companies from Harrison, Newark, and surrounding communities to douse the blaze. By that time, Harrison Park was a charred ruin, with all but a section of the left-center-field bleachers completely destroyed.27

Little thought was given to rebuilding the ballpark, as it had proven an inhospitable location for Newark baseball clubs.28 The Bears completed the 1923 at the Meadowbrook Oval, a bandbox ballpark on Newark’s west side owned by the Newark Board of Education. The following season, the Newark club returned to its old home grounds at Wiedenmayer’s Park.29 For a time, the site of Harrison Park hosted a small sports venue called Hyatt Field. Thereafter, it became a parking lot. Today, only a plaque memorializes the brief existence of the ballpark of the Newark Peppers, the last major-league club to call New Jersey home.30

 

Acknowledgments

This article was originally published in the June 2019 issue of Palaces of the Fans, the newsletter of SABR’s Ballparks Committee. This version was reviewed by Rory Costello and Len Levin and fact-checked by Chris Rainey.

 

Sources

Sources for the dimensions and layout of Harrison Park include Philip J. Lowry, Green Cathedral: The Ultimate Celebration of Major League and Negro League Ballparks (New York: Walker & Co., 2006); Mark Okkenen, The Federal League, 1914-1915: Baseball’s Third Major League (Garrett Park, Maryland: SABR, 1989), and various of the newspaper articles cited below.

 

Notes

1 As early as 1877, National League clubs from St. Louis and Hartford played lucrative Sunday exhibition games against New Jersey semipro clubs. A decade later, the Philadelphia Athletics of the major-league American Association played random Sunday games in the New Jersey suburb of Gloucester City. A regular-season NL game was finally played in New Jersey when the New York Giants defeated the Brooklyn Bridegrooms in a Sunday contest played at the Weehawken Cricket Grounds in September 1898. Newark hosted its first major-league contest on July 15, 1904, when the New York Highlanders beat the Detroit Tigers in a Sunday makeup game played at Wiedenmayer's Park.

2 Per Joe Vila, “Vila Draws Dark Picture for Feds,” The Sporting News, April 1, 1915.

3 Per Daniel R. Levitt, The Battle That Forged Modern Baseball: The Federal League Challenge and Its Legacy (Lanham, Maryland: Ivan R. Dee, 2012), 201-202.

4 The 54-year-old Powers was born in Trenton, and got his feet wet as a baseball executive by managing minor-league clubs in Trenton and Jersey City. For most of his adult life, Powers was a Jersey City resident.

5 Vila, The Sporting News, April 1, 1915.

6 See Edward B. Gearhart, “Newark Nuggets,“ Sporting Life, June 15, 1915. Joe Vila's estimate was $231,000. See again The Sporting News, April 15, 1915.

7 Per Edward B. Gearhart, “Newark News,” Sporting Life, March 13, 1915.

8 Ibid. For detailed information on Harrison Park dimensions, along with illuminating schematics and ballpark photographs, see Marc Okkonen, The Federal League of 1914-1915: Baseball’s Third Major League (Garrett Park, Maryland: SABR, 1989), 57-59. See also Philip J. Lowry, Green Cathedrals: The Ultimate Celebration of Major League and Negro League Ballparks (New York: Walker & Company, 3rd ed., 2006), 95.

9 Per Gearhart, Sporting Life, March 13, 1915.

10 During the 1915 season, only one over-the-fence type homer was hit at Harrison Park, a June 13 blast by Peppers first baseman Emil Huhn.

11 The Peppers (Peps for short) nickname was conferred on the nine by club President Pat Powers. See Frank G. Menke, “Hot Liners,” Stamford (Connecticut) Advocate, and “Newark Feds Called Peppers,” Watertown (New York) Times, March 8, 1915. As a result, Harrison Park was sometimes called Peppers Park.

12 Most notably, the roof of the grandstand behind home plate lacked its covering.

13 An Opening Day crowd of 32,000 was cited in the headline published in the Newark Evening News, April 17, 1915, while the New York Times estimated the ballpark crowd at 25,000. Modern baseball authority such as Baseball-Reference and Retrosheet provide a precise attendance figure of unknown origin: 26,032.

14 The contest was the first major-league game played by a New Jersey team since the Elizabeth Resolutes of the 1873 National Association folded during the season. For a more detailed account of the Opening Day contest, see Bill Lamb, “April 1915: The Newark Peppers Return Major Leagues Baseball to New Jersey,“ The Inside Game, Vol. XVIII, No. 4 (September 2018), 22-27.

15 See “Feds Blame Trolleys,“ New York Times, July 9, 1915, and “Federal League Affairs and Matters,” Sporting Life, July 17, 1915.

16 See Joe Vila, “Newark a White Elephant for Feds,” The Sporting News, July 15, 1915.

17 See “15 Cent Ball at Newark,“ New York Times, August 3, 1915, and Joe Vila, “Gilmore Adds to Broadway Gaiety,” The Sporting News, August 12, 1915.

18 Peppers President Pat Powers had introduced the six-day bicycle race to Madison Square Garden some 20 years earlier and had long experience in athletic promotions.

19 See James F. Greavey, “Knockers Do Not Die with Outlaws,” The Sporting News, March 26, 1916.

20 “Minor League News and Gossip,” Sporting Life, April 1, 1916.

21 For more detail, see Bill Lamb, “Rupert Mills: The One-Man Federal League of 1916 — And a Good Deal More than Just Another Obscure Deadball Era Ballplayer,” The Inside Game, Vol. XVIII, No. 3, June 2018), 28-32.

22 Per “New York Fans to Get Sunday Ball,” The Sporting News, May 2, 1918.

23 In Toledo the following May, Dempsey took the heavyweight title from Willard via a third-round knockout.

24 See “Uncle Sam Takes Harrison Park,” The Sporting News, October 17, 1918.

25 Rutgers won, 28-0.

26 See e.g., “Newark Franchise to Be Transferred,” Pawtucket (Rhode Island) Times, November 12, 1919, and “Newark Franchise to Go to Another City,” Baltimore American, November 13, 1919.

27 As reported in “$125,000 Fire Destroys Park of Newark Baseball Team,” Newark Sunday Call, and “Ball Park Fire Loss $250,000,” Newark Star-Eagle, August 19, 1923. The cause of the fire was likely a carelessly discarded cigarette.

28 During its three seasons as home of the Newark Bears, Harrison Park attendance had averaged barely more than 90,000 per year. See Lloyd Johnson and Miles Wolff, eds., The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball (Durham, North Carolina: Baseball America, Inc., 2nd ed. 1997), 223-231.

29 Ironically, Wiedenmayer's Park was destroyed by fire little more than a year later. The Newark Ironbound site of the ballpark was thereafter used for construction of Davids (later Ruppert) Stadium, the home field of the minor-league powerhouse Newark Bears of the late 1930s and the 1940s.

30 During the 1956 and 1957 seasons, the Brooklyn Dodgers played a handful of “home” games at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City. But the Dodgers have never been considered a New Jersey team.