Johnson Field (Johnson City, NY)

This article was written by Kurt Blumenau


The Southern Tier Expressway does not lend itself to reflection or nostalgia. The six-lane divided highway breaks off from Interstate 81 in Binghamton, New York, and heads west, offering drivers — when construction allows — the fastest possible route to Elmira, Corning, the Finger Lakes, and other destinations in the Empire State’s southern and western environs.1

It’s worth remembering, though, that a ballpark gave its life many years ago so this high-speed concrete ribbon could be built. Johnson Field in the Binghamton suburb of Johnson City hosted affiliated minor league teams for the better part of 55 years, including a lengthy affiliation with the New York Yankees. Spud Chandler, Whitey Ford, and Thurman Munson were among the Yankee mainstays who learned their trade in Johnson City before state engineers decided to route an expressway through the site of their old field.

The story of Johnson Field begins with a sports-minded industrialist who had strong ideas about welfare capitalism. George F. Johnson, owner of shoe manufacturer Endicott-Johnson Corp., provided employees a generous benefits package he called the Square Deal. In addition to pay and medical coverage, the Square Deal included access to housing, playgrounds, parks, and other community quality-of-life perks.2 As The Sporting News put it, Johnson believed that “industrial leaders had responsibilities beyond ‘pocketing the profits.’”3

In 1912, Johnson also took over as sole owner of the local pro baseball team, the Binghamton Bingoes of the Class B New York State League. He decided the team needed a high-quality steel and concrete ballpark that could be easily reached by Endicott-Johnson employees4 in the outlying communities known today as Johnson City and Endicott.5

For the site, he selected Suburban Park, a property he owned at North Broad and Brocton streets in today’s Johnson City, described as a “superb” and “easily accessible” location. Suburban Park had been used for baseball games at least since 1904 and also offered public recreation space, which Johnson paid to upgrade in 1909.6 By October 1912, work was under way to dismantle the old baseball grandstand and flatten and improve the playing field, with a steamroller owned by Endicott-Johnson doing the honors.7

The new park offered Johnson two clear benefits; a drawing card for the team he now owned, and another public perk to build employee loyalty and keep unions away. For an investment of $35,000 to $40,000, he got what he wanted — an impressive, modern baseball park with an announced seating capacity of about 2,300.8 About 7,000 fans turned out for Johnson Field’s first game on May 6, 1913, with some standing behind ropes in the outfield to watch the Bingoes defeat the Scranton Miners, 4-3. Factories, stores, and county offices closed early and school principals were allowed to hold half-sessions, so fans of all ages could see the eagerly anticipated new park — and sing the praises of George F. Johnson, civic paterfamilias.9

Early on, Johnson Field served as the backdrop to a simmering social controversy. George F. Johnson actively opposed blue laws that limited baseball on Sundays. The Binghamton Press wrote that Johnson supported Sunday baseball “due to his belief that the working man who is confined to shop or factory for six days, should be given the opportunity to spend the afternoon of one day in the week in a wholesome and enjoyable manner.”10 Johnson won, allowing him to provide yet another benefit for his workers. But, worn down from the battle, he sold the Bingoes in 1919 and invested instead in semi-pro teams.11 Pro baseball disappeared from Binghamton until 1923, when a new Class A circuit called the New York-Pennsylvania League was founded in a Binghamton hotel, with a team called the Binghamton Triplets as a charter member under new ownership. This league evolved over time into the Eastern League, still active and operating at the Double-A level as of 2020.12 The Triplets name, carried by Binghamton teams from 1923 to 1968, referred to the three communities of Binghamton, Endicott, and Johnson City.

Over time, Johnson Field’s official capacity was bumped up to 8,000, and promotional “nights” for major local employers like Endicott-Johnson or IBM could bring up to 11,000 fans to the park.13 A single deck of seats arced from partway down the right field line to partway down the left, with a roof covering a relatively small portion of stands between the first- and third-base lines.14 The park got lights early, and the Triplets played their league’s first night game on July 22, 1930, almost five years before the first major league night game. The “Trips” beat the Williamsport Grays, 7-5, on a rainy night in front of 1,500 fans.15

Johnson Field’s unique dimensions made it capable of being both a hitter’s and pitcher’s nightmare, depending on which way the ball was hit. Originally, the right field line measured a capacious 383 feet, and the fence quickly angled out from the foul pole to a tall scoreboard, 407 feet from home plate. The left field line measured 318 feet, but the fence again quickly curved away from the foul pole, so that a home run to left required a healthy poke of at least 390 feet. But, where an outfield fence would typically arc outward, the fence between right and left fields traveled across the playing field in a straight line, producing a distance of only 342 feet to the fence and the in-play flagpole in straightaway center.16 In one 1932 game, slugger Julius “Moose” Solters crushed a ball to center field that left the park, hit a nearby house, and rebounded back onto the field of play.17

Before he gained big league fame for homering in eight straight games in 1956, lefty-swinging first baseman Dale Long earned respect for leading the Eastern League with 27 homers in 1950 — despite playing in a ballpark with an absurdly distant right field fence. The Triplets finally took mercy on left-handed hitters in 1955, installing a low wire fence that cut the distance down the right field line to a more conventional 325 feet.18 Other distinctive features at Johnson Field included a municipal water-pumping station beyond left field, a “wildcat” bleacher area atop a garage just past left-center field, and an advertisement for a local clothing store in right field that offered a free sport shirt to any batter clearing it with a home run.19

Going back to the 1930s, one of the turning points in Binghamton baseball history occurred in the deep Depression summer of 1932, when struggling Triplets owner John Jardine turned over the franchise to the league. As fate would have it, the New York Yankees were looking for a place to put players from a team that was disbanding in Albany, New York. The Yankees bought the Triplets franchise and restocked its roster.20 The arrival of the Yankees chased a well-known name out of town; former big-leaguer Heinie Groh managed and played for the team under Jardine, but was let go after the change in ownership.21

From 1932 through 1968, Binghamton and Major League Baseball’s dominant franchise enjoyed a steady relationship, except for a three-year period from 1962 to 1964 when the Triplets temporarily connected with the Kansas City A’s and Milwaukee Braves. (This interregnum followed the Yankees’ decision to sell the Triplets in the fall of 1961. A community stock sale kept the team in town, and it reconnected with the Yankees in December 1964.)22 Some of the Yankees’ biggest stars of the era, like Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, came to Johnson Field only as part of exhibition games. Mantle was reportedly ticketed to join the Trips in 1951, but played so spectacularly in spring training that the Yankees called him to the bigs instead.23

Triplets fans got to see other rising stars. Future Most Valuable Player Chandler impressed fans in 1932 and ‘33, while future Baseball Hall of Famer and Cy Young Award winner Ford went 16-5 with a 1.61 ERA at age 20 in 1949. Other well-known Yanks who made Eastern League All-Star teams with Binghamton included second baseman Bobby Richardson, catcher Johnny Blanchard, and pitcher Bill Stafford. Rookie catcher Munson brightened the Triplets’ final season, 1968, with a league All-Star berth and a .301 average. He was the last great Yankee to pass through Johnson Field.

Future Hall of Famer Lefty Gomez, past his days as the Yankees’ ace, played and managed in 1946 and ‘47. (Gomez’s legion of entertaining stories included a claim that he once had a 390-foot marker at Johnson Field repainted as 310 feet, to encourage hitters to irresponsibly swing for it.)24 Former American League batting champ Snuffy Stirnweiss managed the team in 1955. And then there was outfielder Jack Reed, a Triplets success story twice over. In 1955, Reed led the Eastern League in hits with 172. Twelve years later, he managed the Trips to their 11th and final league championship and was named Eastern League Manager of the Year.25

Binghamton fans followed the team’s exploits on radio, though not always live. A 1948 advertisement touted Trips “play-by-play, highlights, and recreation” on a local station six nights a week — with broadcasts beginning at 10 p.m. or later.26 Jim McKechnie, son of Baseball Hall of Famer Bill McKechnie, served as the voice of the Trips in the 1940s. He later called games for the Syracuse Nationals of the National Basketball Association, predecessors of the Philadelphia 76ers.27 The team’s best-known broadcaster was its last. Pete Van Wieren, who covered the final two seasons at Johnson Field, went on to call 33 years of Atlanta Braves games.28 Van Wieren’s Binghamton career began one month into the 1967 season, when he and his radio station finally sold enough ads to pay for the game broadcasts.29

The Triplets earned titles in every league and level at which they played. The team topped the original New York-Pennsylvania League in 1929, 1933 and 1935; took the honors of its successor, the Eastern League, in 1940, 1944, 1949, 1952, 1953, 1958, and 1967; and won the championship of the second New York-Penn League in 1965 during a brief period out of the Eastern League.30

Mention should be made, too, of players who lit up Johnson Field but reached fame with teams other than the Yankees. Outfielder Tommy Holmes led the league in 1938 with a .368 average. Outfielder Deron Johnson was a league All-Star in 1957 before playing 16 years in the bigs. Shortstop Bert Campaneris, later the spark plug of the 1970s champion Oakland A’s, played at Johnson Field in 1962 and ‘63.31 A pair of A’s farmhands playing for Binghamton set Eastern League records that, as of 2020, still stood: Ken Harrelson logged 138 RBIs in 1962, and Fred Norman struck out 258 hitters the following year.32

Two other events from the Johnson Field years are worth including here for their pure unlikeliness. In 1962, player-manager Granny Hamner, three times a National League All-Star as a Phillies infielder in the 1950s, tried to reinvent his career as a knuckleball-tossing pitcher. The 35-year-old Hamner led the Eastern League with a 2.03 ERA in 22 games, performing well enough to toe the rubber with the parent Kansas City A’s for three games in July and August. On the other end of the pitching spectrum, Binghamton pitchers Dave Latter and Tom Gorman combined to throw what must rank as one of the sloppiest no-hitters of all time. On August 1, 1948, Latter and Gorman held the Elmira Pioneers hitless, but yielded four runs on six walks, four errors, and a hit-by-pitch with the bases loaded. Elmira won the game, 4-3, and gave 1,207 Binghamton fans something to talk about.33

Back in the barnstorming days, Johnson Field hosted exhibitions by the eventual National League champion Brooklyn Robins in 1916 and the Philadelphia A’s in 1928 — the latter game including baseball royalty Ty Cobb, Al Simmons, Jimmie Foxx and Tris Speaker.34 Traveling Black teams appeared as well, ranging from longtime catcher and manager Chappie Johnson’s Philadelphia Colored Giants in 1922 to the Indianapolis Clowns promising a “Rock n’ Roll Fun Show” in 1958.35

As a well-known civic edifice, Johnson Field also hosted events beyond baseball. In 1917, an estimated 20,000 people turned out for a performance by a band led by John Philip Sousa, the “March King.”36 An attempt to lure the legendary Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame football team in 1921 did not pan out, but the park hosted the New York University and Colgate University grid teams that year. Colgate’s lacrosse team played a mixed English team from Oxford and Cambridge the following year. There were boxing bouts, drum-and-bugle corps exhibitions, track and field meets, field days for school safety patrols, donkey baseball games, a fundraising “horse opera” Wild West show, and professional wrestling, including a 1964 card featuring Hans Schmidt, the Munich Madman.

George F. Johnson, ballpark builder and the “first citizen” of the Triple Cities, died in November 1948.37 The park that bore his name throughout its existence took the first step toward its own demise nine years later. In October 1957, the state Department of Public Works announced plans for two major highway projects to improve access to the Triple Cities. One, the construction of Route 17, would cut through Johnson City, requiring the removal of 92 single-family homes, a tavern, three grocery markets — and Johnson Field.38 As part of the process, the state officially took title to the ballpark in September 1965 from Endicott-Johnson Corp., which had continued to own it over the years.39

The ballpark lingered through the 1968 season. But throughout its final decade, a sense of finality threaded through press coverage, as stories repeatedly acknowledged that Johnson Field’s days were numbered. As the park received several offseason stays of execution, it became common for the last game story of each season to predict that the game might have been the last at Johnson Field — or even the last in Triple Cities history. The 1966 version of this evergreen story featured a soon-to-be-famous name, as the Triplets dropped a season-ending four-hit shutout to an Auburn Mets lefthander named Jerry Koosman.40

Interestingly, a search for the phrase “save Johnson Field” in the Binghamton Press between 1957 and 1968 turns up no matches.41 While some displaced homeowners vowed to fight the highway project, there seemed little community spirit to retain the old stadium. It was showing its age — adjectives used to describe it in news stories included “antique,” “antiquated,” “aged,” and “rickety” — and it declined further after the highway project was announced, since money invested in the ballpark would be money wasted. When two seven-year-old boys started a small grandstand fire by smoking in the ladies’ room, Trips general manager Gerald Toman noted that the doomed park “doesn’t require that much fancy repairing.”42

By 1963, the park’s first-base entrance had been boarded up to cut costs.43 The president of the Triplets’ community ownership group said the seats, lighting, and restrooms all fell into poor condition.44 Both dressing rooms were substandard, and visiting teams would reportedly dress at their hotel to avoid entering the locker room at all.45 Parking, that scourge of older ballparks, was an issue too. Johnson Field had very little, and as early as 1932, fans were getting ticketed for parking their cars on nearby lawns. In the early days, buses and trolleys carried fans to Johnson Field, but the stadium was ill-equipped to keep up with America’s embrace of the car.46

Nearby highway preparation work added pathos to the final year or two of Johnson Field’s existence. A Triplets game story from April 1968 noted that the old park “suddenly assumes comparative grandeur against a backdrop of highway-confiscated homes that make the areas behind the leftfield and rightfield fences look like Deadwood, S.D.”47

The end came to Johnson Field on August 30, 1968, when the Trips lost a 7-4 decision to Waterbury in front of about 1,100 fans. Future Oriole, Expo and Angel Mickey Scott took the loss, while future Indian and Brewer Rick Austin collected his first professional win. Not counting a few good nights, the average night’s crowd during Johnson Field’s final season fell short of 400 fans, according to news reports.48 The Trips reached the playoffs and could have extended the park’s life, but a 19-inning, 8-7 loss to Reading on September 4 ended their season before they could return home.49

The ballpark became a parking lot for heavy equipment working on the highway project. Demolition work began September 12, 1968, when workers cut holes in the outfield fences to make an entrance and exit for the machinery. A journalist visiting the park in April 1969 — the day the Eastern League season opened without Binghamton — noted only a few remnants left. They included a batting cage, light towers, and the battered center field fence, still proudly displaying its perennially incorrect marking of 347 feet.50 Part of the Johnson Field property was later used to build the Johnson City Senior Center, although senior citizens interviewed in 1992 had differing recollections of exactly where on the parcel the ballpark used to stand.51

Pro baseball finally returned to Binghamton in 1992, when the Yankees’ crosstown rivals, the New York Mets, set up an Eastern League farm team there.52 The team plays in an all-mod-cons downtown stadium that, as of 2020, is named NYSEG Field after utility company New York State Electric & Gas.

The long-ago names and memories of Johnson Field: Bill Scalise, groundskeeper from the 1920s to the 1950s; or fan Donal O’Sullivan, who died of a heart attack after an exciting Triplets game;53 or fans Bill and Madeline West, who attended at least 1,000 home games;54 or outfielder John May, who once faked a catch of a home run by pulling a spare baseball out of his back pocket;55 or outfielder Bobby Cantrell, who made the final out in stadium history in 196856 — are, for the most part, gone like yesterday’s traffic jam.

 

Acknowledgments

This article was reviewed by Phil Williams and Norman Macht and checked for accuracy by SABR’s fact-checking team.

 

Sources

In addition to specific sources cited in the Notes, the author also obtained information from baseball-reference.com and retrosheet.org, and from issues of the Binghamton Press and The Scrantonian (Scranton, Pennsylvania) not specifically cited.

 

Notes

1 The highway was originally signed as New York State Route 17. As of December 2020, it is in the process of being redesignated as Interstate 86 as sections are brought up to interstate highway standards.

2 “The Legacy of George F. Johnson and the Square Deal,” National Public Radio, All Things Considered, aired December 1, 2010. Accessed online December 12, 2020.

3 “Necrology,” The Sporting News, December 8, 1948: 29.

4 John W. Fox, “First-Year Titles Not New,” Binghamton (New York) Press and Sun-Bulletin, April 16, 1992: 4 (special section).

5 The village now known as Johnson City was originally called Lestershire but was renamed in honor of George F. Johnson in 1915. See “Prepares Papers to Rename Village,” Binghamton Press, July 27, 1915: 8.

6 “Will Transform Baseball Grounds into a Park,” Binghamton Press, July 30, 1909: 7.

7 “Construction of New Ball Park Under Way,” Binghamton Press, October 5, 1912: 9.

8 “May 6 Will Be Known as George F. Johnson Day,” Binghamton Press and Leader, April 16, 1913: 14.

9 “Throng Wind Way to Johnson Field,” Binghamton Press and Leader, May 6, 1913: 1.

10 “Anti-Sunday Ball Advocates Reject Mr. Johnson’s Proposal for Election,” Binghamton Press and Leader, May 19, 1913: 14. This page includes several articles that, combined, provide a fair amount of background on the issue.

11 “First-Year Titles Not New.”

12 League history from the 2020 Eastern League media guide and record book, accessed online December 15, 2020.

13 8,000 capacity figure from “Park Planners are Dubious on TC Baseball’s Future,” Binghamton Sunday Press, October 16, 1966: 3A. Mention of Endicott-Johnson Night drawing 11,000 in 1948 can be found in Charley Peet, “Trips’ Business Chief Due for Promotion,” Binghamton Press, September 30, 1948: 26.

14 A good aerial photo of the field in its final years, with two lanes of highway drawn across it for purposes of illustration, can be seen in the Binghamton Evening Press, September 25, 1968: 1C.

15 “Brice, Styborski Pitch Second Night Game; First Draws 1,500,” Binghamton Press, July 23, 1930: 17.

16 Field dimensions taken from several sources, including “Fence in Center Gets No Deeper,” Binghamton Press, April 25, 1952: 22, and John W. Fox, “Statistics Tell Why Hitters Rue the Day They’re Sent to EL,” Binghamton Sunday Press, April 10, 1955: 3D. The aerial photo cited in note 14 provides a good visual for the field dimensions.

17 “Triplets Beat Senators, 11 to 7, in Last Game,” Binghamton Press, September 12, 1932: 16.

18 325-foot fence from several sources, including untitled column by John W. Fox, Binghamton Press, September 18, 1962: 25. The Trips briefly experimented with a shorter right-field wall in 1950, but only for a few games, according to published reports.

19 John Fox, “THIS Was the Place?” Binghamton Evening Press, April 23, 1969: 2C.

20 Al Lamb, “Spinning the Sports Top,” Binghamton Press, September 12, 1932: 16.

21 “Bottle-Bat Groh Dies, Ex-Pilot Here,” Binghamton Press, August 23, 1968: 3B.

22 “New Trip NY-P Deal Brings Back Yankees,” Binghamton Press, December 3, 1964: 30. As the headline indicates, the Triplets franchise bounced down to the Class A New York-Penn League from 1964 through 1966 before returning to the Double-A Eastern League for its final two years of existence in 1967 and 1968.

23 John Fox, untitled column, Binghamton Evening Press, March 6, 1969: 4B.

24 Chic Feldman, “Delightful Evening with Gomez,” Scrantonian (Scranton, Pennsylvania), October 13, 1968: 56.

25 Eastern League all-star honors, championship information, and Manager of the Year honors as listed in the 2020 Eastern League media guide (see note 12.)

26 Advertisement, Binghamton Press, April 30, 1948: 26.

27 “Jim McKechnie,” Greater Syracuse Sports Hall of Fame website, accessed online January 5, 2021.

28 Paul Newberry (Associated Press), “Binghamton Baseball Loses a ‘Good Friend,’” Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin, August 3, 2014: 4E.

29 John W. Fox, “Braves’ Voice Started as Trips’ Pinch-Hitter,” Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin, May 31, 1998: 7F.

30 League championship information from the 2020 Eastern League media guide (see note 12) and the 2020 New York-Penn League media guide, accessed online December 15, 2020.

31 Future Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa appeared for Binghamton in 1962 as well, but only played 12 games there. He was 17 years old.

32 League leaders and records from 2020 Eastern League media guide (see note 12.)

33 “Triplets Reach New Low in Futility,” Binghamton Press, August 2, 1948: 17.

34 Brooklyn exhibition detailed in “Superbas Are Defeated, 8-4,” Binghamton Press, August 17, 1916: 11. A’s exhibition described in “Veterans Shine as Majors Beat Trips By 11-8,” Binghamton Press, August 9, 1928: 22.

35 Philadelphia Colored Giants from “Colored Giants in Tilt with EJ Legion’s Team,” Binghamton Press, June 22, 1922: 15. Indianapolis Clowns information from event advertisement, Binghamton Press, August 26, 1958: 24.

36 “Estimate 45,000 People Hear Sousa at Two Concerts,” Binghamton Press, August 13, 1917: 7.

37 Lewis E. Sweet, “Geo. F. Johnson Dies at 91 of Heart Attack at Home,” Binghamton Press, November 29, 1948: 1.

38 John F. Moore, “JC Put ‘On Map’ Again but Highway Not All Fun,” Binghamton Sunday Press, October 20, 1957: 10.

39 “Johnson Field ‘Gone,’” Binghamton Press, September 28, 1965: 5A.

40 John W. Fox, “Triplets Fade Quietly,” Binghamton Press, September 3, 1966: 8. Koosman’s 1969 “Miracle Mets” teammate Tommie Agee had less positive memories of Johnson Field: He broke his hand there in a 1963 brawl while playing for the visiting team and missed two months of action. See “Agee Really Busted One as Triple Cities Visitor,” Binghamton Press, October 15, 1969: 1C.

41 Search conducted by author via Newspapers.com on multiple dates in December 2020.

42 Lou Ganim, “Smoking Boys, 7, Blamed for Blaze at Johnson Field,” Binghamton Press, February 13, 1968: 5A.

43 John Fox, “Times Changed in 50 Years: Now Open Outdraws Trips!,” Binghamton Sunday Press, June 23, 1963: 2D.

44 “Sports Complex Gets Another Slap,” Binghamton Evening Press, February 13, 1969: 8B.

45 Tom Cawley, “Only Litter Roams Outfield,” Binghamton Evening Press, September 13, 1968: 1B.

46 Parking tickets from “3 Ball Fans Are Fined for Lawn Parking,” Binghamton Press, August 9, 1932: 17. Info on buses and trolleys from “Sports Complex Gets Another Slap.”

47 John W. Fox, “Triplet Weapon an 8th-Inning ‘Walkie-Talkie,’” Binghamton Press, April 26, 1967: 2C.

48 John W. Fox, “Cold Exit for Triplets Once It Turned Kuhl,” Binghamton Evening Press, August 31, 1968: 8.

49 “Triplet Farewell Was Oh ‘So-Long,’” Binghamton Evening Press, September 5, 1968: 10B.

50 Fox, “THIS Was the Place?”

51 Bob Donahue, “Johnson Field Gone, but Fondness Lingers,” Binghamton Press, April 16, 1992: 15 (special section).

52 The team rebranded from Mets to Rumble Ponies as part of the minor-league trend toward colorful mascots and merchandising, but remained the Mets’ Double-A affiliate as of December 2020.

53 “O’Sullivan Dies of Heart Attack,” Binghamton Press, September 6, 1949: 5.

54 Russ Worman, “Some Fans Hit the Road, Others Wait for 19??,” Binghamton Press, August 31, 1969: 2E.

55 John Fox, “John May’s Tricks and Hefty Bat Add Punch to Triplets,” The Sporting News, August 15, 1964: 41.

56 John W. Fox, “…And the Mighty Triplets Just Struck Out,” Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin, April 16, 1992: 15 (special section).

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