This article was written by Terry Gottschall
Nineteenth-century baseball often suffered game delays, suspensions, and even cancellations due to weather or dusk. But a game between the Baltimore Orioles and Boston Beaneaters on May 15, 1894, at Boston’s South End Grounds concluded prematurely for a more life-threatening reason: fire. “It was a hot game, sure enough,” the Boston Globe reported.1 Spalding’s Guide for 1895 described the game in equally brief terms: “Baltimore vs. Boston stopped by fire (3rd inning), 3–3.”2
The South End Grounds, constructed in the city’s Roxbury section in 1888, was considered one of the most beautiful ballparks of the time, with striking twin spires rising from each corner of the Grand Pavilion. A Boston Globe reporter audaciously asserted that the Boston Tea Party, the battle of Bunker Hill, and Paul Revere’s ride would “fade into nothingness” when compared to the park’s beautiful “cathedral-like grand stand.”3 The double-decked area seated approximately 2,000 in the lower deck and 800 in the upper deck, while bleachers along each foul line provided seats for another 2,600 cranks.4 But like all ballparks of the era, it was built largely of wood, making fire a constant threat. Indeed, similar fires would damage the ballpark in Chicago and destroy the one in Philadelphia on consecutive August days that same season.
Unexpected fireworks first broke out on the field. As the Beaneaters’ Tommy “Foghorn” Tucker slid into third, the Orioles’ John McGraw kicked him in the face. Although the umpire broke up the ensuing brawl, Tucker nursed his sore jaw while awaiting an opportunity to avenge his injury.
That opportunity didn’t come because with the Orioles at bat in the next inning, Boston right fielder James “Foxy” Bannon spotted a fire under the right-field bleachers. He rushed over to the stands and tried “to stamp out the flames with his feet.” At first, most fans ignored the fire, preferring to watch the fiery Tucker in anticipation that he would “get even with the young Baltimore sport.” The Beaneaters expected the game to resume momentarily “as the visitors were acting very fresh, especially catcher Wilbert Robinson, who kept shooting off his big mouth at a lively rate.”
But a sudden, powerful gust of wind spread the fire, causing the “blackened and exhausted” Bannon to give up his “gallant efforts.” Panicking fans “in the 25-cent bleachers rushed out on to the field, breaking the fence and tumbling over one another to get away from the heat.”
The conflagration swept swiftly around the outfield fence to the left-field bleachers, then up the line to the grandstand, setting “the whole pavilion ablaze [with] the fire running wizard-like up to its highest tower.” Witnesses later estimated that the fire destroyed the South End Grounds in less than 45 minutes, leaving the “jagged cornice of the east end of the grandstand, and that charred and broken, as the only relic remaining of the big pavilion.”
The fire’s rapid spread caused consternation among the players. They quickly returned to their locker rooms to grab their clothes but then had to change outside “in the open field.” John Haggarty, the Beaneaters equipment manager, saved the team’s bats and uniforms but lost four dozen balls when he could not find the key to the storage closet. He also reported that the fire had destroyed the team’s championship pennant from 1893, but promised fans that “the Bostons would win another pennant just as good.” Catcher Charlie Ganzel bravely saved the team’s large photograph from the pavilion’s foyer but lost three suits of clothes when his boarding house across the street burned down. Another player cut his hand severely while trying to help fans out of the burning ballpark.
Boston firefighters sent requests for assistance to fire stations 20 miles from the blaze. The nine-alarm fire caused no fatalities, but burned more than 12 acres, destroying about 200 buildings valued at more than $300,000. A total of 1,900 people were left homeless.5
The Globe initially blamed the fire on two young fans who it was said had set fire to an empty peanut bag and then dropped it underneath the bleachers. But Fire Marshal Edward J. Flynn, citing the eyewitness account of 14-year-old Jimmy Lasky, who had sneaked into the bleachers to avoid paying the 25-cent admission, said an adult fan had carelessly tossed away a cigarette that had set fire to trash underneath the bleachers.
Municipal officials cited the team’s miserly ways for the destruction of the South End Grounds and the ensuing Roxbury fire. The city had installed a hydrant on the grounds, but team owners had failed to pay the fee necessary to have the water turned on. “If this is true, it would appear for the sake of saving $15, the grand stand, worth $80,000, was imperiled,” the Globe remarked.6
Team directors moved the next day’s game to the Congress Street Grounds, where other Boston teams had played in previous seasons. Fear of fire failed to deter a crowd of 2,000 who watched Boston defeat Baltimore, 10–8.7
The team built a new ballpark at the South End site. But because inadequate insurance coverage meant the owners had less money to invest, it had a smaller, one-story grandstand. Contractors also used more steel and brick to provide both “comfort [and] safety for the patrons of the game.” When the new grounds opened on July 20, more than 5,200 fans watched Boston defeat the Giants.8
The Bostons did not, however, get their replacement pennant at season’s end. It went to the other fire-stricken team that day, the Orioles, who outlasted the Giants by three games. The burned-out Beaneaters faded to third.
This essay was originally published in “Inventing Baseball: The 100 Greatest Games of the 19th Century” (2013), edited by Bill Felber. To read more stories from this book at the SABR Games Project, click here.
1 “Editorial Points,” Boston Globe, May 16, 1894: 6.
2 Henry Chadwick, ed., Spalding’s Base Ball Guide and Official League Book for 1895 (New York: American Sports Publishing, 1895), 32.
3 “Editorial Points,” Boston Globe, May 26, 1888: 1. All otherwise unattributed quotations in this article come from this Boston Globe article.
4 Alan E. Foulds, Boston’s Ballparks & Arenas (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2005): 13.
5 “1900 Persons Homeless,” Boston Globe, May 16, 1894: 1.
6 “Dread Doubt,” Boston Globe, May 17, 1894: 5.
7 “Lively Batting,” Boston Globe, May 17, 1894: 5.
8 “Bat Like Fiends,” Boston Globe, July 21, 1894: 2.
Boston Beaneaters 10
Baltimore Orioles 8
South End Grounds
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