Hiram Bithorn Stadium (San Juan, PR)

This article was written by Charles F. Faber

The first major-league baseball game this writer ever saw was at the Polo Grounds in New York City on May 24, 1946. Since then he has visited major-league and minor-league parks from Boston to San Diego and many places in between. But he has never seen games anywhere that rival the pageantry of those at Estadio Hiram Bithorn (Hiram Bithorn Stadium) in San Juan, Puerto Rico. “Fans are rabid,” said Horace Stoneham, president of the San Francisco Giants, in 1963.” From the moment the umpire yells play ball, the stands come alive with hoots, yells, and excitement.”1 That fervor has diminished little in the decades since.

Stoneham was also one of those baseball men who praised the park itself, which opened in October 1962. He said, “It’s a beaut and it offers an unobstructed view from any seat.” That’s because Bithorn has a one-tier grandstand with cantilever construction. Seating capacity has ranged from 18,000 to 22,000. In 2004, the Washington Post observed, “The ballpark bears too much resemblance to Shea Stadium and the concrete monstrosities popular in the U.S. in the 1960s…yet despite its grim façade, it holds certain unique charms as well.”2 Rare is the stadium that can survive more than half a century – in January 2014, Hiram Bithorn Stadium was added to the National Registry of Historic Places.

This multi-purpose stadium is owned and operated by the municipality of San Juan.

It is named for Hiram Bithorn, the first Puerto Rican to play in the major leagues. Bithorn’s career started with the Chicago Cubs in 1942. He was murdered in 1951 by a Mexican policeman under mysterious circumstances. March 18, 2016, marked the 100th anniversary of Bithorn’s birth in Santurce.

The stadium’s principal tenants are members of La Liga de Beisbol Profesional de Puerto Rico (Professional Baseball League of Puerto Rico – a.k.a. the Puerto Rican Winter League or PRWL). They are the Santurce Cangrejeros (Crabbers) and Los Senadores de San Juan (San Juan Senators) – though the latter club’s presence in the league has been intermittent since 2004. The stadium has also been host to league All-Star contests (held on January 6), Caribbean Series games – and regular-season major-league games in 2001, 2003, 2004, 2010, and two more were scheduled for May 2016, but plans were scrapped due to fears of the Zika virus.

Bithorn replaced the venerable Estadio Sixto Escobar, which had served the area since November 1932. Originally called Estadio del Escambrón, the old stadium hosted baseball games, other sporting events, and political conventions. Its name was changed in April 1938 in honor of Sixto Escobar, the island’s first world championship boxer. By 1962, however, the little park (normal capacity 13,135 patrons) had grown outmoded. As a baseball facility, Escobar became antiquated rather rapidly. The Puerto Rican Winter League’s attendance began to decline in 1954 with the coming of television. Negro Leaguers, who had been among the league’s primary stars since 1938, became old. Their replacements were often players from the minors, though a significant contingent of major leaguers was still present. In 1957, a new racetrack was inaugurated and horse racing diluted fans’ interest in baseball. Even so, the level of competition remained just a step below the major leagues for decades to come.

The new stadium was built during the administration of Mayor Felisa Rincón de Gautier. The project stemmed at least in part from her leadership. This remarkable woman, who died at the age of 97 in 1994, was the first female to be elected mayor of a capital city in the Americas. She designed innovative city services, established the first pre-school centers called Las Escuelas Maternales, which became the model of the Head Start programs in the United States. She renovated the public health system and was responsible for the establishment of the School of Medicine in San Juan. Her main passion was improving the health, education, and lives of San Juan’s impoverished residents, especially the children. She started the tradition of bringing gifts to poor and needy children on the Día de Reyes on January 6 each year. In some years she had planeloads of snow flown in so children who had never played in the snow would be able to do so.3

“Doña Fela” recognized the importance of baseball to Puerto Rico. She helped organize youth baseball teams, providing uniforms and equipment, and authorized the clearing of land to serve as ballparks for neighborhood children. She helped in the establishment of Little League teams throughout San Juan. During the PRWL’s first season at the new stadium, owners Hiram Cuevas of Santurce and Tuto Saavedra of San Juan arranged with public school officials to admit 5,000 school children free of charge to Saturday afternoon games.4

Hiram Bithorn Stadium is located just off Avenida Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It is across the street from the Coliseo Roberto Clemente and in front of a large shopping mall called Plaza las Américas. The dimensions of the field have changed from time to time, but now are: left field – 325 feet, center field – 404 feet, right field – 325 feet. Although the fences have been moved back a bit, the short distances down the lines make Bithorn a hitter-friendly park. There is an unusually large amount of foul territory, though, which helps the pitchers to a degree. Originally, games were played on grass, but two types of artificial surfaces have been used. In 2004, Field Turf replaced the Astroturf that had been laid in 1995. Another distinctive feature is the stadium’s light towers, which tilt inward toward the field.5

The architects who designed the new facility were Orval E. Sifontes and Alexander Papesh. Construction took about two years, said chief engineer Rafael Aparicio, who recalled that it wasn’t quite finished when the first game was played there on October 24, 1962. Hiram Bithorn’s mother was invited and attended the game. Mayor Rincón de Gautier did not claim the privilege of throwing out the ceremonial first pitch. Instead, she deferred to another politician, Herminio Concepción de Gracia.6 The Sporting News reported, “The dedication of the new $7,000,000 Hiram Bithorn Stadium touched off a turnstile boom as the Puerto Rico League opened its 1962-63 season. An all-time record crowd of 18,363 poured into the ultra-modern arena for the season inaugural, contributing to a smashing getaway for the circuit.7

Bob Veale was on the mound for the visiting Ponce team and pitched a no-hitter for 7 1/3 innings against the home team, the San Juan Senators, until he weakened in the eighth frame. Ponce won the game, 6-2. Veale’s teammate, Rafael Alomar, got the first hit in the new stadium. After the game, thieves broke into the stadium office, but failed to abscond with any of the $20,353 gate receipts.

Bithorn has hosted seven Caribbean Series between February 1971 and February 2015. The 1995 edition at Bithorn featured Puerto Rico’s “dream team” – a major-league lineup loaded with Island stars such as Roberto Alomar, Carlos Baerga, Edgar Martinez, Juan González, Bernie Williams, Rubén Sierra, Carlos Delgado, Carmelo Martinez, and Rey Sánchez. Among the many Puerto Rican All-Star contests held at Bithorn, perhaps the most memorable was the one on January 6, 1973. It honored the memory of the late Roberto Clemente, who had died just six days before. The outfield fence at Bithorn includes the retired numbers of Clemente (21), Rubén Gómez (22), and Orlando Cepeda (30).

On Opening Day of the 2001 American League baseball season, the Toronto Blue Jays and the Texas Rangers played the first regular-season major-league game in Puerto Rico. It was the first game of the new millennium. Major League Baseball and the city of San Juan spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to upgrade Hiram Bithorn Stadium. Carlos Delgado of the Blue Jays, one of the team’s two Puerto Ricans along with José Cruz Jr., said “I’ve played many games in that stadium, but this is going to be a little sweeter.”8

The day has been described as equal parts ballgame and street fair.9 Four thousand fans who bought tickets were turned away when police determined that the safe capacity of the park had been exceeded. Roberto Clemente’s widow, Vera, and Orlando Cepeda threw out the first pitch. Fans drank piña coladas and feasted on pinchos (chicken kabobs), while the public address system played “Kung Fu Fighting” and a selection or two from the band U2. When native Puerto Ricans Iván Rodriguez and Ricky Ledée came out bearing Puerto Rican flags, the crowd went wild. The raucous atmosphere continued throughout the game.

In both 2003 and 2004, the Montreal Expos played 22 “home” games in Bithorn Stadium, largely because of poor attendance at Olympic Stadium in Montreal. The idea was that with greater revenue from San Juan, the Expos would not have to conduct a “fire sale” of star players. Frank Robinson, Montreal’s manager at the time, said, “It will be great to play in front of the people down there. They’re great fans.”10 Robinson had previously been Santurce’s manager for eight seasons. Robinson and Clemente managed against each other at Bithorn in 1970-71, when Clemente was managing San Juan.

The Expos also had some strong Puerto Rican players to draw fans, including José Vidro, Javier Vázquez, and Wil Cordero. The travel schedule proved hard on the team, though. Infielder Jamey Carroll said, “At first I was thinking, ‘Wow, we get to go to Puerto Rico’…It was kind of fun. But after a while, we started getting tired of it.”11

None of the three main areas competing for the relocation of the Expos was able to put together complete financing for a new ballpark in 2003, so Hiram Bithorn got a second chance to host the team in 2004. Attendance was at least 10,000 for each of the games in 2003, but was not as strong the second year. An effort was made to attract the Expos to San Juan permanently, but Puerto Rico remained a long shot at best. Even as early as May 2003, Commissioner Bud Selig remarked, “The San Juan experiment has worked out beautifully…but I don’t know that I would describe it as a player.”12 The club finally moved to Washington, D.C., ahead of the 2005 season.

Yet, that did not mark the demise of big-league games in Hiram Bithorn Stadium. After years of “serious dialogue,” negotiations finally proved successful, enabling the Florida Marlins to play a three-game “home” series against the New York Mets from June 28 through June 30, 2010.13 The Marlins’ manager, Edwin Rodriguez, was the first native of Puerto Rico to manage in the majors. Florida’s third-base coach, Joe Espada, grew up watching games at Bithorn and later played there, too.

Meanwhile, in 2006, 2009, and 2013 Hiram Bithorn Stadium was host for parts of the Clásico Mundial de Beisbol, or World Baseball Classic. In 2006, Cuba, Panama, Puerto Rico, and the Netherlands started in San Juan. Cuba and Puerto Rico advanced. In 2009 the Dominican Republic, Netherlands, Panama, and Puerto Rico played in San Juan, with the Netherlands and Puerto Rico advancing to the next round. In 2013 the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Spain, and Venezuela competed at Bithorn. The Dominicans swept the games in San Juan and won the championship game versus Puerto Rico in San Francisco.

The atmosphere during the World Baseball Classic in 2009 and 2013 was very lively. There is a large grassy area between the street and the stadium, with sidewalks leading to the stadium. At times tents are erected on the grass, with bands playing from some of them and hawkers selling their goods from others. The sidewalks were lined with young people handing out advertisements and freebies, such as chewing gum, baseball cards, and noisemakers—lots of clickers and thunder pieces. During the games young people threw goodies into the stands, mainly T-shirts and ponchos. The games provided temporary employment for probably hundreds of youngsters, with T-Mobile and a medical plan employing the most. The vendors in the stands were mainly, but not exclusively, young. They sold piña coladas, cotton candy, peanuts, Pepsi, and Coors Light, but not the typical American ball park foods, hot dogs and hamburgers, although such items were offered at other times, especially at games involving teams from the United States and Canada. The fans at the Classic were incredibly enthusiastic, going up and down the aisles beating on drums and playing other musical instruments, singing, dancing, waving flags, and shouting constantly.

In addition to baseball, Bithorn has hosted other sporting and non-sporting events. Boxing is one of Puerto Rico’s favorite sports, and a number of championship fights have taken place in Bithorn. It was also the main venue for the 1979 Pan American Games.

During baseball’s offseason the field is converted into a soccer field with one goal facing the right field bleachers and the other facing the third base grandstand. Since 2008 Bithorn has been host to the Atléticos de San Juan and the Academía Quintana in the Puerto Rico Soccer League.

World Wrestling Federation matches and professional basketball games have been held at the stadium. Longtime NBA player and coach Don Nelson had unpleasant memories about playing there. “I played outdoors in Puerto Rico when I was with the Celtics,” Nelson recalled, “and it was a disaster. It rained, and there were a lot of other crazy things. There was a hostile crowd, and they were throwing stuff. It was amazing.”14

The preseason game between the Phoenix Suns and the Milwaukee Bucks at Bithorn on September 24, 1972, is said to have been the first outdoor contest played in the National Basketball Association. Bithorn was used because San Juan’s new arena, Coliseo Roberto Clemente, had not yet been completed. It rained that day, but fortunately, the rain did not start until just after the game was over.

Hiram Bithorn Stadium has hosted dozens of musical events over the years. The Byrds, Santana, the Beach Boys, Rod Stewart, Billy Joel, Whitney Houston, and the Backstreet Boys are just a few of the stars who have entertained fans at the stadium. Coldplay brought their “A Head Full of Dreams Tour” to Bithorn on April 20, 2016.

Basketball, soccer, wrestling, and musical concerts may have their roles in the grand scheme of things, but Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico, is one of the best places in the world to see the game that many still view as the world’s best – baseball!

 

Acknowledgments

The writer wishes to express his appreciation to SABR members Rory Costello, Jorge Colón Delgado, and Thomas Van Hyning for their input and expertise.

 

Notes

1 Jack McDonald, “Stoneham Points to Latin Nations as Talent Hotbed,” The Sporting News, December 7, 1963: 6.

2 Dan Jung, “Minor League Baseball, Puerto Rico Style,” Washington Post, July 1, 2004.

3# Eric Pace,” Felisa Rincon de Gautier, 97, Mayor of San Juan,” New York Times, September 19, 1994.

4 Miguel J. Frau, “San Juan Stacks Hill Staff with Major Leaguers,” The Sporting News, November 3, 1962.

5 Philip J. Lowry, Green Cathedrals (New York: Walker & Co., 2006), 215; “Clem’s Baseball – Hiram Bithorn Stadium”, www.andrewclem.com.

6 “Construtor de una leyenda como el Hiram Bithorn,” El Nuevo Día (Guaynabo, Puerto Rico), October 25, 2012.

7 Miguel J. Frau, “New Stadium Ignites Loop Boom at Gate,” The Sporting News, November 19, 1962, 25.

8 Associated Press, “Blue Jays, Rangers take show on road,” May 4, 2003.

9 Official Souvenir Program, 2006 World Baseball Classic, New York: Major League Baseball, 2006: 44.

10 “Expos: 22 games in San Juan,” Associated Press, November 21, 2002.

11 Jonah Keri, Up, Up, and Away, New York: Random House, 2014.

12 Ricardo Zuniga, Associated Press, “Will Expos stay dancing in Puerto Rico?”, May 4, 2003.

13 Adam Rubin, “New York Mets Contemplating Playing Regular-Season Games in Puerto Rico during 2010 season,” New York Daily News, November 22, 2009.

14 Dave McMenamin, “In Golden State, Shooter Crawford, Coach Nelson at Stalemate,” NBA.com, March 23, 2009 (www.nba.com/2009/news/features/dave-McMenamin/03/23/westerninsider200900...)