This article was written by Robert D. Warrington
This article was published in the The National Pastime: From Swampoodle to South Philly (Philadelphia, 2013)
On August 8, 1903, part of the top left-field bleacher balcony at the Philadelphia Phillies’ ballpark collapsed, hurling hundreds of people headlong to the pavement below. Twelve people died and 232 were injured. The tragedy, its aftermath, and the far-reaching effects it had on ballpark design and construction are examined in this article.
“From the lips of a frightened little girl came a cry of terror yesterday afternoon that lured hundreds of panic-stricken men to death and injury at the Philadelphia Base Ball Grounds.” So begins the front-page story in the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper describing the deadliest disaster ever to occur at a major league ballpark. On August 8, 1903, part of the top left-field bleacher balcony at the Philadelphia Phillies’ ballpark collapsed, hurling hundreds of people headlong to the pavement below. Twelve people died and 232 were injured. The tragedy, its aftermath, and the far-reaching effects it had on ballpark design and construction are examined in this article.
TOWARD THE MODERN BALLPARK ERA
The Phillies’ first ballpark—Recreation Park—was characteristic of nineteenth century ballparks. Hastily constructed in 1883 after Philadelphia had been awarded a National League franchise, Recreation Park was built entirely of wood and held just 6,500 people.[fn]Rich Westcott, Philadelphia’s Old Ballparks (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996), 11. Westcott’s book provides the finest comprehensive history of Philadelphia’s old ballparks.[/fn] Phillies owner Alfred J. Reach quickly became aware of the inadequacies of his ballpark: Wood was susceptible to fire and decay, and the seating capacity of a single-decked wooden ballpark could not accommodate the number of fans eager to attend games.[fn]Frederick G. Lieb and Stan Baumgartner, The Philadelphia Phillies (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1953), 23.[/fn] “We are having difficulty finding space for all the people who want to pay to see us play,” Reach noted.[fn]Rich Westcott and Frank Bilovsky, The Phillies Encyclopedia, Third edition (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004), 395.[/fn] Watching patrons turned away from Recreation Park because they could not be seated, Reach would seek to build a larger and more grandiose facility for the club.
Built at a cost of $101,000 and with a seating capacity of 12,500, Philadelphia Base Ball Park was considered the finest ballpark in the nation when it opened in 1887. Brick was used throughout the structure in place of commonly used wood, and it was the first such facility to offer pavilion seating for customers.[fn]Lawrence S. Ritter, Lost Ballparks: A Celebration of Baseball’s Legendary Fields (New York: Viking Studio Books, 1992), 9.[/fn] The massive brick pavilion at the main entrance—dominated on the outside by a central turret 165 feet high and two end turrets 75 feet high—was as revolutionary in ballpark construction as it was medieval in appearance. The double-decked grandstand between first and third bases held 5,000 seats, while 7,500 additional customers could be accommodated in the bleachers that extended down the left- and rightfield lines. There were no seats in the outfield.[fn]Westcott, Old Ballparks, 28-29.[/fn]
The ballpark still contained a great deal of wood in its construction, however, the drawback of which became apparent on August 6, 1894. That morning, the Phillies were preparing for an afternoon game against the Baltimore Orioles when at 10:40 A.M. one of the players noticed a fire in the grandstands. The fire quickly spread and largely consumed the ballpark. Its cause was never determined, although various theories included sparks from a passing locomotive and a torch that a plumber was using to make repairs.[fn]Ibid., 75.[/fn] Although there were no fatalities and only minor injuries, the fire destroyed the ballpark with the exception of part of the outer brick wall that enclosed it.[fn]The fire that consumed Philadelphia Base Ball Park was a fate common to many ballparks of that era. See Ritter, Lost Ballparks, 10.[/fn]
“THE FIRST MODERN BALLPARK”
Determined to avoid such catastrophes in the future, Reach planned a new ballpark at the same location that would be elaborate, elegant, and fireproof. Constructed mostly of steel and brick at a cost of $225,000,[fn]Frances C. Richter, “Black-Letter Day For Philadelphia,” Sporting Life 41 (August 15, 1903).[/fn] the new structure contained no wood except for the floors and seats of the stands.[fn]Westcott, Old Ballparks, 75.[/fn] It also was the first ballpark to feature cantilever construction, a radical new architectural technique in ballpark design.[fn]Ritter, Lost Ballparks, 10.[/fn] Using cantilevered concrete supports and iron girders, architects could eliminate most of the columns supporting the upper deck and roof that made for so much “obstructed view seating” at ballparks.[fn]A cantilever is a beam supported only on one end. The beam carries the load to the support where it is resisted by moment and sheer stress. Cantilever construction allows for overhanging structure without external bracing.[/fn]
Christened National League Park[fn]The ballpark continued to be referred to as “Philadelphia Base Ball Park” and, less frequently, “Huntingdon Street Grounds” by fans and in the newspapers.[/fn] when it opened in 1895, and seating 18,800 people, the ballpark’s construction was a defining moment for the future of baseball.[fn]Westcott, Old Ballparks, 75.[/fn] According to baseball historian Michael Gershman, Reach “created the first modern ballpark.”[fn]Michael Gershman, Diamonds: The Evolution of the Ballpark (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1993), 57.[/fn] Seeking to reassure fans that ballpark conflagrations were now a thing of the past, Reach wrote in an invitation to Opening Day, “The new structure is mainly of brick and steel, containing no wood or other inflammable material except the platform and seats.”[fn]Ibid., 59.[/fn]
Reach’s foresight and willingness to embrace improved building materials and innovative architectural features in his new ballpark moved baseball decisively away from the small, crowded firetraps that had previously housed ball clubs. Preventing fire from consuming ballparks as it had in the past propelled the dramatic step forward that occurred when National League Park opened its doors. Al Reach’s new structure, moreover, was intended to be a lasting part of Philadelphia’s architectural landscape. Brick and steel endured while wood decayed. Reach had this sense of permanence in mind when he wrote that his new ballpark “adds so novel and unique a structure to the many other ornamental edifices of our beloved city.”[fn]Westcott, Old Ballparks, 76.[/fn]
Reach was right in assuring fans that his new park did not pose the fire hazard previous structures presented. No fires occurred, and the most modern ballpark of its era stood without any major architectural changes for nearly a decade.[fn]Ibid.[/fn] Potential catastrophe was the furthest thing from Phillies’ patrons’ minds when they came to the ballpark to cheer on the hometown crew.
THE DEADLIEST DISASTER EVER
Although National League Park had remained essentially unchanged when the 1903 baseball season started, ownership of the Phillies had not. Reach and his partner John Rogers sold the team for $170,000 following the 1902 season to a coterie of “millionaires” from Philadelphia and Cincinnati who together had formed the “Philadelphia Base Ball and Entertainment Company.” James Potter, the chief stockholder, became the club’s president and led the new owners—numbering a remarkable 24 in total. Reach and Rogers, however, retained ownership of the ballpark itself.[fn]David Jordan, Occasional Glory: A History of the Philadelphia Phillies (Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 2002), 28–29.[/fn] This arrangement would become important in sorting out the torrent of lawsuits, verbal recriminations, and accusations of responsibility and liability that were to follow in the disaster’s wake.
A doubleheader was scheduled between the Phillies and Boston Beaneaters on Saturday, August 8, 1903. A crowd of some 10,000 saw the Braves take the first game in 12 innings, edging the Phillies by a score of 5–4. In the second game, the teams were locked in a 5–5 tie in the fourth inning. At 5:40 P.M., the Braves’ Joe Stanley was at the plate with two outs. However, the attention of fans that had each paid 25 cents for seats in the bleachers down the left-field line was drawn to an incident occurring below on 15th Street outside the ballpark.[fn]“Crowd Rushed to Rail at Little Girl’s Cries,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 9, 1903.[/fn]
Two drunken men were walking slowly down the street followed by a small group of boys and girls who were teasing them. Suddenly, one of the men turned toward the children and grabbed one of the girls by the hair. In doing so, he stumbled and fell on top of her. The child, who was later identified as 13-year-old Maggie Barry, shrieked in terror as did her companions. They cried, “Help!” and “Murder!” The commotion drew people in the ballpark to the top of the bleachers to see what was happening below.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
They congregated on an overhanging wooden balcony at the top of the outer wall that ran along 15th Street and continued around the corner on Lehigh Avenue. The balcony was seven-to-eight feet wide and protruded beyond the wall by about three feet. It was intended as a footway for people to use for entering and exiting the grandstand and bleachers. The balcony had a handrail but was not independently braced underneath. Instead, the same joists that were used to support the grandstand and bleachers held up the balcony. The joists extended through the top of the wall to provide support. The wall itself was approximately 14 inches thick. According to newspaper accounts of the time, an estimated 300 people jammed onto the balcony to witness the incident that was unfolding approximately 30 feet below on 15th Street. The Philadelphia Inquirer described what happened next in a headline story that ran the following day:
Suddenly, jammed with an immense, vibrating weight, the balcony tore itself loose from the wall, and the crowd was hurled headlong to the pavement. Those who felt themselves falling grasped those behind and they in turn held on to others. Behind were thousands still pushing up to see what was happening. In the twinkling of an eye the street was piled four deep with bleeding, injured, shrieking humanity struggling amid the piling debris.[fn]“Nearly Two Hundred Hurt, Three Dead, Following Crash at Base Ball Park,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 9, 1903.[/fn]
The crash was as horrifying as it was deadly. In an instant, 15th Street was piled high with more than 200 “bleeding, injured, and shrieking” individuals. More people continued to fall off the balcony as those still in the bleachers—hearing the noise and screams—pressed forward to see what the commotion was all about. One of the first police officers on the scene, Sergeant Bartle, told reporters:
There must have been one hundred men and boys, and every one of them was covered with blood. Some of them had their clothing almost torn from their bodies, while others were so bespattered with blood and mud as to be almost unrecognizable. Under the debris were the forms of those who were unconscious. You could not tell whether they were dead or alive. Timber, rubbish, and bricks were piled everywhere.[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, August 9, 1903.[/fn]
Policeman Robinson who was on duty outside the ballpark, saw the disaster, and immediately sent out a call for help. Within minutes, patrol wagons and ambulances were rushing to the ballpark, but the extent of the calamity was simply too great for them to handle. Streetcars were emptied of passengers and loaded with the injured. Delivery wagons and automobiles were commandeered by police to rush victims to local hospitals. The injured were taken initially to Samaritan and St. Luke’s Hospitals. When they became overwhelmed, victims were sent to the Jewish Hospital.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Back at the accident scene, the best and worst of humanity were on display. Neighbors opened their houses to the wounded, Good Samaritans tried to give comfort to the fallen, and doctors rushed to the ballpark when they heard of the disaster. At the same time, pickpockets sought to loot the injured and dying while curiosityseekers simply looked on without offering any relief to those in need.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
The game stopped immediately when the calamity occurred. Shock quickly turned to panic as people in the left-field bleachers started jumping onto the field fearing that additional sections of the ballpark would collapse.
The sound of the breaking timbers and the cry of those caught in the fall gave rise to a belief that the whole of the stand was about to fall. With wild cries of fear, the crowd rose and made a rush for the field. They clambered over the seats and over one another, screaming, swearing, striking and fighting for precedence in the mad rush for safety. They tore at one another’s clothing and behaved like insane men.[fn]Richter, Sporting Life, August 15, 1903.[/fn]
Some players armed themselves with bats to keep from being overwhelmed by the wild stampede. The game was canceled.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
THE DEADLY TOLL
The break started along the bleachers about 50 feet from the ballpark’s main entrance at 15th and Huntingdon Streets, continued north along 15th Street, and stopped at the point the stands curved toward Lehigh Avenue—a distance of approximately 150 feet. Once the victims had been removed, ballpark employees were ordered to remove the debris and clear the site. This was done by 7 P.M.[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, August 9, 1903.[/fn] Even the jagged ends of the timbers that once supported the balcony and still jutted out from the wall were cut off and taken away.[fn]“City Officials will Begin Today to Investigate Saturday’s Awful Crash,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 10, 1903.[/fn] While the clean-up was in progress, a city building inspector named John H. Kessler—in whose district the ballpark was situated—arrived on the scene, secured pieces of the joists and specimens of the brick and mortar, and took them with him to City Hall. They were impounded as evidence to be used in the inquiry that was sure to follow to determine the cause of the disaster and affix responsibility for it.[fn]Ibid. It is amazing that Phillies’ workmen were permitted to clean up the scene, removing key evidence that would be crucial in understanding the cause of the collapse. No one in authority who was present stopped them, however, and had not the building inspector seized some of it, no debris taken from the scene where the accident occurred would have been available for use in the later investigation. Coroner Dugan requested that no debris be removed from the site so it could be examined as part of the investigation, but that was not until two days after the accident had occurred.[/fn]
The final count showed that 12 had been killed and 232 injured in the catastrophe, and it remains Major League Baseball’s deadliest disaster. The youngest fatality was William J. Graham, age 24, who lived with his parents. His 18-year-old sister had died of illness in May, and the double blow left the family prostrated by grief. The oldest victim was Edward Williamson, a 63-year-old Civil War veteran who had been wounded at the Battle of Antietam and endured the misery of incarceration at the Confederacy’s notorious Andersonville Prison.[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, August 10, 1903.[/fn]
It was customary during the era for people—adults and children—to wear hats to baseball games, and over a hundred were gathered up and placed in the window of a grocery store on 15th Street waiting for their owners to reclaim them. Some never would.[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, August 9, 1903.[/fn]
What about the drunks? Efforts were made to find them once an investigation into the accident began. There were at least four versions of the drunken-men story circulating, and authorities wanted to talk to the individuals whose actions had started the ruckus that drew the spectators to their fate. Neighbors said that after the accident they saw the two men lying in an alley near 15th Street. The police, however, were so busy tending to the needs of victims that they paid no attention to the drunks. During the excitement the men apparently recovered sufficiently to amble off and disappear into the black hole of history. They were never identified.[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, August 10, 1903.[/fn]
FINGER-POINTING AND LAWSUITS COMMENCE
As often happens when disaster strikes, protestations of innocence and accusations of guilt abound amongst those seeking to avoid and affix blame. This calamity was no different.
Phillies Business Manager William Shettsline was in charge of ballpark operations when the disaster struck. In its immediate aftermath, according to newspaper accounts, he “was so badly prostrated by the shock that he could scarcely tell a coherent story.”[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, August 9, 1903.[/fn] By the next day, Shettsline had recovered sufficiently to issue a statement in which the owners of the club asserted their claim of having no culpability in the matter. While expressing sympathy for the victims, the statement explained:
The accident was in no way due to any lack of proper precautions or neglect on the part of officials of the club . . . When the present management assumed control of the grounds, the pavilion and stands were in perfect condition, and, for the purposes intended were safe and reliable, but the simultaneous rush of several hundred persons to one concentrated point weakened the structure and precipitated several hundred unfortunate persons to the street below . . . Over-anxiety on their part resulted in the regrettable accident.[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, August 10, 1903.[/fn]
Club President Potter was vacationing in Saratoga, New York but returned to Philadelphia quickly when informed of the disaster by telegraph. Accompanied by National League President Harry Pulliam, Potter appeared before the press on August 10 and echoed the defense offered the day before by Shettsline. The statement he read said in part, “I feel that no precaution was omitted on the part of the company to protect the patrons of the ground. It was one of those unfortunate accidents that occur when large numbers of people, actuated by a common impulse, do something they are not expected to do.”[fn]“Rotten Beams Caused Crash, Says the Mayor,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 11, 1903.[/fn]
Colonel John I. Rogers, co-owner of the ballpark along with A. J. Reach, also returned hastily from a vacation in Cape May, New Jersey. He released a lengthy statement to the press in which he recounted the ballpark’s construction and noted that it was inspected each spring by “experienced mechanics” to confirm its soundness and ensure the safety of patrons. Rogers observed:
The inspection usually lasted for weeks, and always entailed a large expenditure for maintenance and replacement. Three years ago we appointed an experienced carpenter as our park superintendent, so that inspections could be daily instead of annually, and we firmly believed that nothing of doubtful strength or fitness escaped his attention. The new club owners who took possession on March 1 followed, as Mr. Shettsline informs me, the same rule last spring and spent a large sum for maintenance and repair before their opening game. One thing is certain, that the mad rush of an excited crowd suddenly jumping to the balcony and pushing everything irresistibly before it, would have crushed any similar structure, no matter how strongly or recently built. It was a football center rush, multiplied indefinitely, that few, if any, walls could have withstood.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Rogers also commented that R. C. Ballinger & Co. had done the original construction of the ballpark, and he emphasized that “all the details were left to their superior skills and judgment.” He added, in an apparent effort to distance himself and Reach from any blame for the accident, “They submitted outline plans to the Building Inspectors and to us, and went ahead with their tasks and on their own responsibility, just like every other first-class firm.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
R. C. Ballinger immediately shot back in a comment to newspaper reporters stating, “The fault, if it lies anywhere, is theirs; not mine.” He praised the quality of the original construction but also cautioned that eight years had since passed, and that “the best timber, when subjected, unprotected, for eight years to the effects of the sun, wind, snow and rain may become rotten.” Ballinger declared emphatically, “My responsibility ended when the grounds were opened and the tests made.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
“Rotten timbers!” was Philadelphia Mayor John Weaver’s opinion of the cause of the balcony crash when he inspected the site along with other city officials two days after the accident. He opined, “I am not a builder, but it looks to me as if the construction of the balcony was faulty.” When asked who was responsible for the rotten timbers, Weaver replied, “The people whose duty it is to keep the stand in repair.” With an eye toward insulating the city from any culpability, Weaver commented that under present law, “Building inspectors were not under obligation to inspect buildings, except theaters, after they had been completed unless some complaint was made.” He further noted that the city did not have enough building inspectors to inspect all such structures regularly.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Weaver’s observation was echoed by Alexander Colville, Philadelphia’s assistant director of public safety, who offered his own explanation for the collapse:
Waterlogged and decayed timber. The debris found on the pavement showed that the timbers which had projected from the walls and on which the walk was laid which gave way under the weight of the sudden strain by the crowd upon it were rotten. They were built into the wall and had iron braces extending outward but none upward. The wall was about 10 or 15 years old. No such construction could be possible nowadays.[fn]Richter, Sporting Life, August 15, 1903.[/fn]
Charges about the decrepit condition of the balcony’s support structure became common currency in the days following the accident. Reporters at the scene detected the problem at once. One wrote:
A cursory glance at the debris before its removal by the ball park employees showed that much of the timber was in a badly decayed state. While the main body of the wall looked firm, the bricks about the top, where the joists protruded, were loose and some of them looked as though the mortar had been worn out or washed away.[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, August 9, 1903.[/fn]
The efforts by Potter, Rogers, Ballinger, and Weaver to absolve themselves from any fault can be well understood. The first lawsuit filed as a result of the accident was submitted on August 10. Attorney John R. K. Scott, as counsel for Walter Mariner and Harry Quigley—two of the men injured in the collapse—issued summonses from Courts of Common Pleas Nos. 1 and 5, respectively, against the Philadelphia Base Ball Club and Exhibition Company (Potter’s group) to recover damages for the injuries they sustained. It was alleged in the statements of claim “that the defendant company was negligent in maintaining the overhanging promenade in a condition which was unsafe for the patrons of the ballpark.”[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, August 11, 1903.[/fn]
Another lawsuit—the third one filed—asked for $5,000 in damages for James E. Dwyer, who was among the injured.[fn]“Builders to Help in Fixing Blame,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 12, 1903.[/fn] The suit alleged that the Philadelphia Base Ball Club and Exhibition Company was negligent in not providing a safe passageway for patrons, and that the company further rendered itself liable by not providing a sufficient number of “special officers” at the ballpark to control the crowds.[fn]Lee Lowenfish, The Imperfect Diamond: A History of Baseball’s Labor Wars (New York: De Capo Press, 1980), 72. Although a pittance compared to the claims in personal injury lawsuits today, $5,000 was a great deal of money in 1903. For example, the average annual salary for a major league ballplayer in 1903 was less than $2,500.[/fn]
As the days passed, additional lawsuits were initiated, and eventually, more than 80 were filed.[fn]Westcott, Old Ballparks, 78.[/fn] Later suits were expanded to also include the Philadelphia Base Ball Club, Limited—the company headed by Reach and Rogers— which owned the ballpark and from which Potter’s group leased it for Phillies games. Estimates were made that claims for damages filed in lawsuits could reach $1,000,000.[fn]Richter, Sporting Life, August 15, 1903.[/fn]
CLAIMS AND COUNTERCLAIMS AT THE CORONER’S INQUEST
Coroner Thomas Dugan began his inquest into the accident on August 18.[fn]“Ball Park Inquest will Begin To-Day,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 18, 1903.[/fn] It lasted two days and all six members of the jury were builders.[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, August 12, 1903.[/fn] The first witness called was R. C. Ballinger, whose company had erected the balcony and bleachers at the ballpark. He said the balcony had been constructed only to accommodate those fans passing to and from the bleachers. It was not intended, he explained, to “withstand a mob.” Ballinger noted that the supporting joists were built of the “best yellow pine lumber,” with an average life of seven-to-nine years.[fn]“Erection of Fatal Balcony Described,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 19, 1903.[/fn] He also observed, “I can’t see where any one has any reason to blame any one but himself. If an accident of the sort had happened while they were seated, then they might have complained.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn] The foreman in charge of the ballpark’s construction, David S. Lockwood, appeared on the stand and testified that the building materials and construction quality were good, and that the structure had been subjected to extensive testing before the park was opened in 1895.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Colonel Rogers appeared, as well, and described in great detail the story of the ballpark’s construction. He emphasized that there had been no indication that the timbers extending from the wall to support the balcony— which had been covered in tin for protection when put in place—had rotted.[fn]Ibid.[/fn] Shettsline appeared next and said that the special officers on duty at the ballpark had done their best to control the crowd and return the curious to their seats but had been simply overwhelmed by the mob.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Finally, James Potter took his place on the witness stand and testified that when his corporation took over the Phillies in February 1903, Colonel Rogers assured him that the stands were the strongest and safest in the world.[fn]Frances C. Richter, “The Verdict In The Inquest On The Great Disaster,” Sporting Life (August 29, 1903): 41.[/fn] Furthermore, according to Potter, when he inquired if anything needed to be done to improve the conditions in the grandstands, Rogers replied, “You cannot spend a cent in the way of repairs, for no repairs are needed.”[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, August 19, 1903.[/fn]
A newspaper reporter offered this interpretation of the cumulative testimony of the first day’s witnesses: “The impression seemed to prevail that the fatal balcony might have withstood ordinary usage for some time, but the great weight of the mob that rushed upon it on the day of the accident was too much for even an iron-braced balcony.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
The most sensational commentary during the second and final day of testimony came from Edward Clark, an engineer of the Bureau of Building Inspection who had examined the accident scene. He found that 50 of the wooden support joists in the area where the balcony had collapsed were “rotten and worthless;” 10 were 75 percent bad; and 14 were 50 percent bad. Only two of the joists were in good condition. Disputing Ballinger, Clark said that the lumber used for the joists was hemlock—not pine—and that water seeping through nail holes created when the tin capping was affixed to the joists had rotted the timber over the years.[fn]“Censure for the Lessons of Base Ball Park,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 20, 1903.[/fn]
The chief of the Bureau of Building Inspection, Robert C. Hill, corroborated Clark’s testimony and pointed out that under current law inspectors had no right to enter a building following the completion of its initial inspection except on complaint. Hill confirmed that since the ballpark’s 1895 opening, it had not been inspected by the bureau.[fn]Ibid.[/fn] He also condemned the use of hemlock in building construction noting, “From what I have seen in the last two weeks, I would not consider an application for a permit for any stand of a permanent character in which hemlock forms the main foundation or its component parts.”[fn]Ibid. Clark‘s and Hill’s testimony directly contradicted Ballinger’s regarding the wood used in the joists. The latter claimed it was yellow pine, while Clark and Hill asserted it was hemlock. Suspicions should have arisen that inferior wood had been used in the ballpark’s construction—perhaps to cut owners’ costs, increase builders’ profits, or both—and that its use had contributed to the accident, but the matter was never pursued at the inquest nor subsequently in the lawsuits that were filed by victims.[/fn]
The Coroner’s jury deliberated for two-and-a-half hours after the second day’s testimony had concluded and announced three principal findings:
The jury finds that the falling of a balcony on the left field stand on 15th Street which caused the deaths of Joseph Edgar and eleven others at the Philadelphia Base Ball Park was due to the rotten condition of the supporting timbers. We further find that the Philadelphia Base Ball Club, Limited (Rogers and Reach) were responsible in not having a thorough examination made of those timbers throughout the time of their ownership, and in stating at the time of the transfer (to Potter’s group) that the buildings on the grounds were in first-class condition.
We also find it our duty to recommend that the staff of the inspectors for the Bureau of Building Inspection should be increased, and that a number of inspectors should be assigned whose sole duty it should be to inspect all places of amusement, ball parks, race-track pavilions, external fire escapes, etc., and that they should be empowered to enter upon the premises of any place at any and all times to make such inspections as should insure the safety of the patrons or employees thereof; and that a permit be issued and publicly posted stating when the inspection was made and the condition of the place. The jury also recommends that the Bureau of Building Inspection allow no hemlock lumber to be used in the stands of a permanent nature or in buildings where big assemblages congregate.
The jury also recommends that there shall be no seating capacity allowed under any stand of wood construction unless a permit is first secured from the Bureau of Building Inspection.[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, August 20, 1903.[/fn]
Reacting to the findings of the jury and noting the foreman’s declaration that the verdict was “founded on Mr. Potter’s testimony,” Rogers issued a lengthy statement on August 24 in which he disputed Potter’s recollection of their conversation on February 28, 1903—the day the sale of the Phillies was concluded—about the condition of the ballpark. Regarding the statement that “you cannot spend a cent in the way of repairs,” that Potter attributed to Rogers, the latter retorted:
He (Potter) swore, according to his belief, founded on his memory, which, so far as I am concerned, is unreliable. If anyone else used such language it was not I. If such language was used at any time by anyone else connected with the club it could not have been applied to repairs in view of the heavy annual expenditures for that purpose . . . So Mr. Potter is mistaken, at least, as to anything said by me on this point in dispute.[fn]Richter, Sporting Life, August 29, 1903.[/fn]
Rogers continued that Potter made no inquiries as to the condition of the stands when he purchased the Phillies, and that if he had, “I (Rogers) would have expressed my opinion that to the best of my knowledge and belief they were in good condition.” He also noted that Potter’s corporation became responsible for annual maintenance of National League Park as part of the deal to purchase the Phillies, and that it “had spent many dollars for repairs” to offset “the wear and tear of the winter months” and get the ballpark ready for the 1903 season.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Stressing the enormous and expensive efforts undertaken every year to keep the ballpark in good condition, Rogers observed, “We certainly, and I— on whom most of the burden fell—particularly, did everything that mortals not gifted with foresight could to do insure the comfort and safety of our patrons during the entire time of our ownership.”[fn]Ibid. Rogers also released figures showing how much had been spent on a yearly basis in ballpark repairs and replacements: 1896 – $1,214.82; 1897 – $842.12; 1898 – $977.14; 1899 – $3,073.11; 1900 – $3,026.03; 1901 – $2,295.28; 1902 – $928.99.[/fn]
Rogers took the opportunity to also refute the testimony of Ballinger, whose company built National League Park. He claimed that Ballinger stated that tin covering the joists “would protect indefinitely from moisture and decay the timber resting on the wall.” Dismissing the notion that the timbers should have been inspected to ensure rot had not set in, Rogers commented:
Now it is said that, in addition to care and precautions we did take, we ought to have guessed that under the paint that was meant to preserve the outriggers over the pavement there was a dry rot at the core, and under the tin that was supposed to be a protective roof for that portion of the joists resting on the wall, that the moisture had somehow through nail-holes or otherwise, penetrated and lay there rotting the wood. This, contrary to all rule, all advice, all experience and all reason, we ought to have guessed, and because we didn’t so guess, what none of the jury would in all probability have guessed, we are morally censured because the timbers, which were daily getting weaker, yielded to an irresistible rush of an excited crowd.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Rogers’ contention about the “irresistible rush of an excited crowd” was a point he would return to repeatedly in denying any responsibility for the collapse. Opining that it probably would “have lasted for years while used for its legitimate purposes,” a crowd of “five times as many people” on the balcony than it was designed to hold created pressure “before which even brick walls and iron doors must fall.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
THE DISASTER’S LEGACY
One reporter correctly forecast about the lawsuits, “It may be safely predicted that there will be enough litigation to last all parties in interest a lifetime; and that in the long run nobody will get anything out of it except, perhaps, a few lawyers.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn] The lawsuits wound languidly through the court system for six years, reaching all the way up to the US Supreme Court. The Court largely accepted the defense offered by the owners of National League Park and the Phillies, ruling that an extraordinary number of fans had congregated at a location where many of them should not have been, and consequently, that neither the ball club nor the ballpark’s landlords were responsible for the accident. Both were absolved of all blame and financial responsibility.[fn]Westcott, Old Ballparks, 78.[/fn]
The Phillies’ 1903 season changed abruptly because of the accident. Shettsline attempted to restart games at the ballpark on August 10, saying that the left-field bleachers would be roped off and only the grandstand and right-field bleachers would be used to seat fans. City officials blanched at the proposal until the entire ballpark could be thoroughly inspected. Potter canceled all future games until an inspection could be done and repairs made.[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, August 10, 1903.[/fn] A conference was held on August 17 between Potter and Ben Shibe, the president of the American League’s Philadelphia Athletics. It was agreed that until the Phillies’ ballpark was ready to reopen, the team would continue its season by playing at the Athletics’ home field—Columbia Park.[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, August 18, 1903.[/fn] Forebodingly, a continuous rain forced nine straight postponements of Phillies’ games at their temporary location.[fn]This remains the longest series of consecutive rainouts in Phillies’ history.[/fn] When the team finally did get to play, it posted a 6–9–1 record at Columbia Park before returning to National League Park.[fn]Westcott and Bilovsky, Phillies Encyclopedia, 399.[/fn]
The legacy of “Black Saturday,” as the 1903 disaster came to be known, included a profound influence on the future of ballpark construction. In its wake appeared the classic American ballparks that would dominate the twentieth century, and their arrival coincided conveniently with the use of reinforced concrete as a building material.[fn]Also referred to as “ferro-concrete.” It consists of framing the weight-bearing portions of a structure in wood, pouring concrete into the frame, and then inserting steel rods in the concrete while it is still soft. Once the concrete has hardened, it can only be blasted apart. See Edward G. White, Creating the National Pastime: Baseball Transforms Itself, 1903-1953 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 24–25.[/fn] The first and most notable of these palaces was Shibe Park—the home of the Philadelphia Athletics—which opened in 1909.[fn]Westcott, Old Ballparks, 105–108.[/fn] The souvenir program sold at the inaugural Opening Day provided a detailed description of the ballpark’s construction, and the unmistakable influence of the 1903 tragedy was apparent in the text:
In the construction of the seating provisions of previous ballparks the use of wood was general. Several unfortunate accidents called serious attention to the need of something more durable than wood for the safety of the enormous crowds which thronged parks where winning baseball was being played … In the evolution of building construction vast strides have been made, and daring builders experimented with various materials to overcome the corrosive influences of time and the elements. Up to the present time nothing has been contrived which form a more lasting combination than wrought steel and cement. Technically it is known as reinforced concrete … The bleachers and grandstand and walls (at Shibe) are solid beds of concrete.[fn]“Opening of Shibe Park,” Souvenir Program, April 12, 1909, 3.[/fn]
Philadelphia’s building inspection laws also were fundamentally affected by the disaster. Taking up the recommendation of the Coroner’s jury, Mayor Weaver called immediately for more rigorous and extensive inspections of buildings in which the public gathered, declaring, “I shall insist that provisions be immediately made that hereafter all places where crowds congregate shall be thoroughly inspected.”[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, August 11, 1903.[/fn] A newspaper editorialized at the time that Mayor Weaver’s admonitions, coupled with the recommendations of the jury, were “expected to revolutionize the existing laws on building inspection.”[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, August 20, 1903.[/fn] They did. The staff of inspectors at the Bureau of Building Inspection was increased significantly, and legislation was soon enacted that made those inspections more rigorous, frequent, and intrusive than heretofore had been the case for public buildings in Philadelphia. The most visible evidence of these changes was the requirement that owners of establishments where the public gathered post openly the permits they had received from the inspection bureau attesting to the soundness of the structure and limiting the number of people allowed within it at one time.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Although regarded by baseball historian Gershman as the first modern ballpark, National League Park was more of a transitional structure when it opened in 1895. It symbolized a far-reaching step away from baseball’s wooden structures, but remained short of the modern ballparks that would emerge in the early twentieth century. Concerns over fire, in part, pushed baseball’s owners away from entirely wooden structures, but it was collapse—not conflagration—that provided the final proof of wood’s unsuitability for ballpark construction. From the debris and death on 15th Street emerged Shibe Park, Forbes Field, and other steel-and-concrete palaces.
Progress is often the offspring of disaster, but calamity’s true measure is gauged in human terms. This sad and all-too-obvious point is highlighted in the fate of Joseph Edgar, one of the fatalities at National League Park on that hot August day in 1903. As described in a newspaper account:
Edgar had been in poor health and went to the game at the advice of his physician, who advised open air recreation as a remedy for his ailment. In starting for the base ball park he invited his son Robert, aged 15 years, to accompany him, but the boy had an engagement and did not go. The death of Joseph Edgar leaves a widow and five children destitute.[fn]Philadelphia Inquirer, August 10, 1903.[/fn]
ROBERT D. WARRINGTON was born in Philadelphia and works for the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of Society for American Baseball Research and the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society.