This article was written by Joan M. Thomas
A little-known, but significant site of early professional baseball in St. Louis, Red Stockings Park lay just north of the Missouri Pacific Railroad tracks. Conveniently located in the central city on the west side of Compton Avenue at Gratiot, the six acres of level ground hosted baseball as far back as 1867. There, in 1874, a local amateur club called the Red Stockings erected a grandstand behind home plate and enclosed the field with a wooden stockade fence. The diamond lay near the southeast corner of the lot, home plate facing northwest.
The following season, the club turned pro and joined the National Association of Baseball Players. Although its tenure in that first group of professionals was brief, the park it called home continued to support baseball for countless St. Louis amateur and semi-pro clubs until at least 1898.
Originally called the Veto Grounds for the Veto Club (possibly a baseball club) the site of Red Stockings Park saw the inaugural game of an 1867 St. Louis City Championship series between two amateur clubs, the Unions and the Empires. The latter was one of the first known baseball clubs in the city. By then, there was also a baseball field in an outlying area further north on Grand Avenue at the site of what later became Sportsman’s Park. When a group of prominent St. Louis businessmen organized a professional team called the Brown Stockings, they chose the Grand Avenue Grounds for its home park. That club’s entry into the National Association for the 1875 season prompted the local Red Stockings to do likewise.
The Brown Stockings’ owners sought talent from outside the city, which roused the ire of many local fans. So, upon hearing that that the Browns’ roster was devoid of even one St. Louis lad, the Red Stockings decided to join the National Association too. Consisting of mostly local talent, the Reds with their more accessible park expected to draw the most support. As it happened, the locals saw the first fully professional baseball contest ever played in St. Louis at the Red Stockings Park. On May 4, 1875, fans witnessed the two National Association St. Louis clubs meet at the ballpark by the railroad tracks.
Foreshadowing the fate of the St. Louis Reds as pros, the game ended with a Brown Stockings’ 15 – 9 victory. That club went on to finish fourth in a thirteen-team league that year, but the Reds dropped out by mid season. The Browns’ fine performance convinced almost everyone that perhaps it wasn’t such a bad idea to bring in outsiders to play for a St. Louis club. As for the 1875 season, the last year of the National Association’s existence, several other events meaningful to the national game occurred at Red Stockings Park.
A May 12, 1875 St. Louis Daily Globe story about the previous day’s contest there created a buzz in the sports world. The writer refers to the “stand made by the plucky little Red Stockings against the veteran Chicago nine” (Red Hot 1875) at the Reds’ park. The game concluded with a then-phenomenal score of 1 – 0. Although the St. Louis club lost, the nearly thousand spectators surely relished the occasion. For, as stated in the article, “It was the score that for years base ball organizations have striven for, in vain…The very best on record…” Considering that only eight years earlier the Empires lost to the Unions 49 – 29 at the same park, only one run scored in nine innings would indeed seem amazing. Whether or not that May 11, 1875 game actually posted the first such score on record, the story demonstrates the timelessness of the appreciation for the talent required to achieve such an end.
An article on the same page of that paper reports that half a dozen vandals were arrested at the Red Stockings Park “for cutting holes in the fence at good points from which to view the game.” (Gossip 1875) The Knot Hole gang concept in St. Louis didn’t come into being until years later at Robison Field where the Cardinals first played, but this hole cutting incident might have given rise to the term. The piece also states that additional accommodations were made for the press at the Red Stockings Park, “an improvement much needed and duly appreciated.” No doubt, those early sports writers enjoyed special amenities as much as do their modern counterparts.
Following that first year of professional baseball in St. Louis, the Brown Stockings club became a charter member of the current National League in its first season, and their Grand Avenue park served major league baseball for nearly a century.
After dropping their professional status, the Red Stockings continued to play at their own park for several more years. Additionally, many other local clubs used the Reds’ grounds for baseball, as well as other sporting events such as shooting matches. As time passed, the ball grounds was called simply the Compton Avenue Park.
One notable baseball club often mentioned by the St. Louis media during the 1880s, the Negro League St. Louis Black Stockings often played at the Compton Avenue grounds. The club was described as Bridgewater’s Champions (for their manager, Henry Bridgewater). One report in the June 1, 1883 St. Louis Globe-Democrat gives an account of a Black Stockings game when the club scored so many runs that “the scorers lost their heads and failed to keep the record for either side.” (Diamond Dust 1883). Another game held at the park several days later reportedly drew four thousand spectators to see a local champion club called the Amateurs compete against the Black Stockings. A reference made to the beautiful weather and the absence of the professionals as the reason for the large crowd suggests that the only pro club in St. Louis, the American Association Brown Stockings (who called Sportsman’s Park home), were on a road trip. This is but one of many indications that St. Louis residents always hungered for baseball.
The seating capacity of Red Stockings Park can only be judged by the attendance; there is no documentation of capacity. Various attendance reports vary from as few as 300 to as many as the 4,000 at that exciting 1883 Black Stockings – Amateurs match. Judging from an 1875 St. Louis pictorial along with various news stories, the actual capacity was likely closer to 1,000. Standing room near the railroad tracks could have accommodated quite a few more. And, more seating could have been added after the grandstand construction of 1874.
By all accounts, the Compton Avenue Park, AKA Red Stockings Park, was torn down some time around 1898. City directories do not list it after that year. When in 1913, owners of the short-lived St. Louis Federal League Terriers searched for a place to build a park, they actually considered the Compton Avenue Grounds, calling it “the site of one of the first baseball parks ever operated in St. Louis.” (Site 1913)
The park property’s owner was Irish immigrant David J. Ranken, director of the Missouri Pacific Railroad who later served as a director of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair). He founded Ranken School of Mechanical Trades that still bears his name, now called Ranken Technical College. In recent years the land where the ballpark once stood came under the domain of the Bi-State Development Agency, the city’s public transit company. Currently, its repair facility occupies the space where two St. Louis clubs once competed in the city’s first fully-professional baseball contest. The Compton Avenue viaduct now passes over that spot, and most local commuters traverse the span completely unaware of the history that occurred beneath them.
Book of St. Louisans. Ranken, David J. 1906. p 477.
Pictorial Saint Louis 1875. Camille N. Dry, 1875.
St. Louis Globe-Democrat. May 28, 1883 p 8, col 1. June 1, 1883 p 7, col 3.
St. Louis Daily Globe. April 19, 1874, p 6, col 5. April 22, 1874, p8, col 3. April 28, 1874, p 8, col 1. May 2, 1875 p2, col 2. May 3, 1875, p5 col 1 & 2. May 5, 1875 p 8, col 2. May 11, 1875 p 8, col 3. May 12, 1875 p 8, col 2.
Lampe, Anthony B. “The Background of Professional Baseball in St. Louis.” Missouri Historical Society Bulletin 7, no. 1 (October, 1950): 5-34.
“Site for Federal League Park.” St. Louis Globe-Democrat. 31 December 1913. p 10. col 4 & 5.
“Diamond Dust.” St. Louis Globe-Democrat. 1 June 1883. p 7. col. 3.
“Gossip.” St. Louis Daily Globe. 12 May 1875. p 8. col 3.
“Red Hot – The Chicago – Red Stocking Base Ball Contest Yesterday.” St. Louis Daily Globe. 12 May 1875. p 8. col 2.