This article was written by Bob Ruzzo
This article was published in the Fall 2012 Baseball Research Journal
In the midst of the Deadball Era, a jewel box ballpark rose a few miles west of the center of Boston’s downtown, accessible by excellent streetcar service. The park was universally acclaimed upon its opening. Serendipitously, it hosted a World Series in its inaugural year. But this story is about Braves Field, not Fenway Park.
In the midst of the Deadball Era, a jewel box ballpark rose a few miles west of the center of Boston’s downtown, accessible by excellent streetcar service. The park was universally acclaimed upon its opening. Serendipitously, it hosted a World Series in its inaugural year. But this story is about Braves Field, not Fenway Park.
The best stories should always be told last. That is why, in the waning days of a year marking Fenway Park’s centennial, some time should be reserved for another, more complicated stadium saga. The beginnings of this tale have a familiar quality to them.
In the midst of the Deadball Era, a jewel box ballpark rose a few miles west of the center of Boston’s downtown, accessible by excellent streetcar service.[fn]The term “jewel box ballpark” for purposes of this article is meant to encompass those major league ballparks built or rebuilt between 1909 and 1915. The Baker Bowl presaged the jewel box era.[/fn], [fn]Subway service to Fenway Park did not begin until 1914. At its opening, the park was accessible by streetcar, on either the Ipswich Street or Beacon Street lines. Glenn Stout, Fenway 1912 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 74.[/fn] The park was universally acclaimed upon its opening. Serendipitously, it hosted a World Series in its inaugural year.
This is not, however, another Fenway tribute, but rather a testament to Fenway’s younger but ultimately somewhat shabbier sibling, Braves Field.[fn]There was nothing shabby about Braves Field at the time of its opening. Financially weak ownership, lack of routine maintenance against the elements and an unrelenting neighbor, the Boston & Albany Railroad, caused deterioration in its physical plant over time.[/fn] The birth and subsequent demise of Braves Field serves as a “pivot point” in ballpark history, one that distinguishes two very different approaches to how baseball parks should be built and how they should relate to their host city and its citizens.
Braves Field, the last of the jewel box ballparks, resulted largely from the genius of one man, built by him within a matter of five months. When the park opened in 1915, it featured an unprecedented effort to integrate the workhorse of the urban transportation system, the streetcar, into the infrastructure of the facility. When Braves Field was abruptly abandoned in 1953, it didn’t just take a village to replace it; it took an entire county. Milwaukee County Stadium was a publicly financed stadium, located on the site of an abandoned gravel pit that took three years to construct. County Stadium was divorced from the urban fabric and reflected the increasing dominance of the automobile in American life.[fn]To be fair, construction was delayed by union strife and by steel shortages caused by the Korean War. Milwaukee County Stadium is frequently misidentified as the first publicly financed stadium used by major league baseball. It was not. That honor belongs to Cleveland Municipal Stadium.[/fn]
Simply put, this one change changed everything.
THE ROGUE VISIONARY
More than anything else, Braves Field represented the triumph of James E. Gaffney, his vision of baseball as it should be played, and his appreciation for the fans, or cranks, who flocked to see it. Who was James Gaffney? That was the central question posed by Braves chronicler Harold Kaese in his landmark history of the franchise, first penned in 1948. Gaffney came to the franchise from New York cloaked in the intrigue, allegations, and influence of the Tammany Hall political machine.
Kaese’s portrait of Gaffney can only be characterized as somewhat charitable. Gaffney was a self-made man who rose from street cop to alderman. From there he wound his way into the lucrative construction trade through a variety of corporate vehicles, most notably the construction company of Bradley, Gaffney, and Steers. As the right hand man of Tammany chief Charles F. Murphy, he had ready access to cash and connections. Amongst his closest friends numbered the “Old Fox” Clark Griffith. Indeed, rumors abounded that Gaffney had, on behalf of Murphy, supplied the funding for Griffith’s 1911 purchase of an interest in the Washington franchise. Gaffney also reportedly sniffed around the possible purchase of two American League franchises before setting upon the course of acquiring the Boston Nationals.[fn]“Magnate Gaffney Likes the Baseball Business,” The Pittsburgh Press, December 24, 1911:17.[/fn]
That transaction was realized through a short-lived collaboration with John Montgomery Ward, a New York lawyer and former pitcher for the Providence Grays. Ward had also been an organizer of both the player-centric Brotherhood and the short-lived Player’s League.[fn]The Brotherhood was the first real players union. The Player’s League lasted only one year. Daniel R. Levitt, The Battle That Forged Modern Baseball (Lanham, Maryland: Ivan R. Dee, 2012), 16.[/fn] A third New Yorker, John Carroll, collaborated on the purchase of the franchise in December 1911, with Ward serving as the baseball man, Gaffney as the business man, and Carroll as the bridgebuilding “go between.”[fn]Harold Kaese, The Boston Braves 1871–1953 (Boston: Northeastern University Press edition, 2004), 128.[/fn] Boss Murphy was again alleged to have partnered with Gaffney, sharing profits and losses as they had supposedly done in the transaction with Griffith and in the operations of Gaffney’s construction business.[fn]“Magnate Gaffney Likes the Baseball Business,” The Pittsburgh Press, December 24, 1911:17.[/fn]
What are we to make of the string of allegations surrounding Gaffney, some 100 years after the fact? Here is what the record indicates: Boss Murphy insisted in 1913 to newly elected New York governor William Sulzer that if any change was going to be made in the office of state highway commissioner, Gaffney should get the job. When Sulzer demurred, Murphy delivered the message that it was “Gaffney or War.”[fn]Gustavus Myers, The History of Tammany Hall (New York: Boni & Liveright, 1917), 352–369; Jay W. Forrest and James Malcolm, Tammany’s Treason: Impeachment of Governor William Sulzer (Albany: The Fort Orange Press, 1913), 59–61. Myers also describes another corporate vehicle—the New York Contracting and Trucking Company—in which Gaffney, Murphy’s brother John, and Murphy’s lieutenant Richard J. Crouch owned five shares each. The owner of the remaining 85 shares was “never definitively explained.”: 302.[/fn] Sulzer then became the first and only governor of the state of New York to be impeached. Gaffney had been accused in one case of taking a $30,000 payoff, and in another matter had apparently benefited from the expiration of the statute of limitations.[fn]Myers, The History of Tammany Hall, 366, 367.[/fn] In one famous incident, a grand jury witness testified that he was “morally certain” that Gaffney had acted as a bagman for Murphy by seeking a five percent share of a construction contract.[fn]“Met by Stewart, Gaffney Balks,” The New York Times, January 23, 1914: 1.[/fn] The same witness, however, could not testify that he was “legally certain” as to Gaffney’s identity.[fn]After more than twenty-five years as a lawyer, the author is not surprised by a distinction between moral certainty and legal certainty; however, it is surprising that in this instance legal certainty appears to be the higher standard.[/fn]
In retrospect, the New York Herald sounds understated in its assessment that “[a]s a power under cover, [Gaffney’s] position has been unprecedented.”[fn]Kaese, Boston Braves, 129.[/fn] It did not take long for the “power under cover” in the Boston franchise to emerge. Gaffney and Ward clashed almost immediately. Notwithstanding Gaffney’s “genial disposition, unaffected ways and his loyalty to friends,”[fn]“James E. Gaffney,” Sporting Life (May 4, 1912): 1.[/fn] by August of 1912, Ward had resigned as president of the Braves. (The team had been renamed in tribute to the symbol of Tammany supremacy.) Gaffney, originally the treasurer, although always the principal shareholder, became president.
Even before this coup, Gaffney had been the man out front. Immediately upon purchasing the team, he had been quoted as pledging $100,000 to make the team an on-field success. The franchise itself had been a bargain. In 1912, a half-interest in the Red Sox sold for $150,000, a mere $37,000 less than a full stake in the Boston Nationals.[fn]Levitt, Battle That Forged Modern Baseball, 32.[/fn]
After Ward’s departure, Gaffney decried the inadequacy of the Walpole Street Grounds in Boston’s South End and sought to replace the site. He quickly turned to the alternative approach of improving and expanding the tired facility, increasing the park’s capacity as well as removing the principal distortion in its dimensions, a left-field fence within 275 feet of home plate.[fn]“Boston National Park to Lose its Old Title as a Mere Bandbox,” Sporting Life (October 18, 1913): 2.[/fn] It would now take a 350-foot wallop to clear left field.
A body in motion tends to remain in motion, and when Gaffney’s Tammany-based expectation of immediate success met with frustration on the field, rumors began to crop up as early as June of 1912 that he might be looking to sell his interest in the team.[fn]T.H. Murnane, “Set for Real Race,” The Sporting News (June 13, 1912): 2. These rumors may have been fueled by the Gaffney-Ward split.[/fn] By the early months of his third season in ownership, Gaffney was nearing the limits of his frustration. Disgusted, he remarked to his manager, George Stallings, in early 1914: “Do anything you want with them. Take them away. Drown them if you want to—I never want to look at them again.”[fn]“Sidelights on the New World’s Champions,” Baseball Magazine (February, 1915): 44.[/fn] On July 4 of that season, Gaffney’s Braves were languishing in last place.
And then the impossible happened.
THE WORLD’S GREATEST BALLPARK
The Braves’ World Series sweep of Connie Mack’s men may not have been the only miracle of 1914. During the Braves’ late summer surge, the whirling turnstiles of the Walpole Street Grounds had transformed James E. Gaffney from disgruntled Tammany owner into arguably the most ambitious baseball visionary of the decade.
Gaffney needed a fair amount of courage for the role, since 1914 did not present ideal economic circumstances for making an unprecedented investment in a baseball plant. 1913 brought the introduction of direct competition to Organized Baseball in the form of the Federal League, and 1914 had witnessed a months-long closure of the stock exchange and the beginnings of a European War that would eventually engulf the world.
Still, the turnout of bugs at the South End Grounds convinced Gaffney that his investment needed a new headquarters. Gaffney was able to secure the use of the two-year-old Fenway Park as home field for the Series from the new controlling owner of the Red Sox, Joseph J. Lannin, a hotelier who had only just previously acquired a small stake in the Braves franchise.[fn]“Boston Budget,” Sporting Life (November 29, 1913): 3.[/fn] The World Series triumph, and the increased return stemming from the sizable gate at the Jersey Street locale, no doubt emboldened Gaffney to pursue a new facility, one that would surpass all other locations.
After Gaffney had titillated the public for over two months, members of the press were almost frothing when they gathered at the Braves’ recently refurbished offices in the Paddock Building at 101 Tremont Street at five o’clock, on the evening of December 4, 1914. Gaffney, addressing reporters via telephone from New York City, unveiled the chosen location. Not surprisingly, it was a savvy real estate play, reflecting some very astute political connections.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts had earlier decided to construct an armory along Commonwealth Avenue at the site of the Allston golf course. In an ironic footnote to history, the architect for the armory, James E. McLaughlin, had overseen the recent construction of Fenway Park, a mere one mile to the east.[fn]The Commonwealth Armory, located next door to Braves Field, the
world’s largest ballpark, was the world’s largest armory. “World’s Largest Armory To Be Dedicated Tonight,” Boston Globe, December 30, 1915: 9.[/fn] Gaffney secured the right to purchase the western portion of the golf course and immediately determined to reserve the valuable frontage along Commonwealth Avenue for commercial use, sliding his ballpark towards the rear of the site, abutting the Boston and Albany railroad tracks at a point where the Charles River makes an abrupt turn. The contours of the former golf course had featured a sweeping valley thought to make the site less than desirable for building purposes, driving down the expected price. The cost of the acquisition was $100,000.[fn]Gaffney acquired the land in December 1914 using the corporate vehicle known as the Boston Realty Holding Company. When he arranged financing for the construction of Braves Field, the Commonwealth Realty Trust issued 100 shares of the trust to his Boston Realty Holding Company “in payment for the real estate.” The par value of each share was $1,000. Suffolk County Registry of Deeds, Book 3868, Pages 408–440.[/fn]
The location at first seemed ideal. Baseball Magazine, perhaps over-exuberantly, described Common wealth Avenue as the “Fifth Avenue” of Boston. Gaffney set to work immediately, and became immersed in the details of the plans, serving as his own contractor, a decision likely both economic and egotistic. He reviewed the plans for each one of the new or recently rebuilt jewel box parks with the aim of incorporating the best features of each into his new home for the Braves. It is widely believed that he copied the grandstand from Detroit’s Navin Field (later Tiger Stadium), although The New York Times noted that the new field would be sunk below the street level “after the fashion of the Yale Bowl.”[fn]“Braves Park To Be Bowl,” The New York Times, December 29, 1914: 9.[/fn]
On March 8, 1915, to much fanfare, Gaffney unveiled his design for the new facility. Work would be rushed in order to have the plant up and running by September 1, hopefully just in time for a defense of the Braves’ World Series crown. A nine-foot square model, that would later be displayed prominently in the window of a downtown department store, previewed what would later come to be called the “perfect park.”[fn]“Here’s How the Braves’ New Park in Allston Will Look,” Boston Globe, March 9, 1915: 9.[/fn] While the model featured a singledeck grandstand extending from right field all the way around to left field, with seating for approximately 45,000 persons, some cost cutting changes were made before construction was completed. Through a process that today bears the more exotic label of “value engineering,” Gaffney trimmed his design, cutting costs and settling upon revisions that resulted in a much smaller bleacher section of 2,000 seats. In addition, the right- and left-field “pavilions” were left uncovered.[fn]Again, irony intercedes, as the decision to abandon a single, unitary roof structure for the entire structure may have facilitated the ultimate preservation of the right field pavilion some four decades later.[/fn] For the second time in three years, Osborn Engineering was designing a major league park in Boston.
Time was the principal, but not the sole construction challenge. Gaffney had his leading engineer—one F.G. Collins Jr.—fresh from his role in the excavation and concrete work on the new Penn Station, create a natural amphitheater, with the diamond 17 feet below street level. Painful attention was paid to making sure that drainage was superb.
Gaffney had both a specific vision and a core constituency in mind as he constructed his ballpark. First, he rejected the anomalies of geometry that characterized many competing venues. The short right-field fence of the Baker Bowl and Fenway’s left-field wall with its accompanying cliff were, in his view, detractions from the game as it should be played. The most exciting play in baseball was the inside the park home run. Gaffney was sure that was what the cranks wanted to see.
Hence, the playing field was enormous. Upon viewing the completed facility, Ty Cobb remarked “[t]his is the only field in the country on which you can play an absolutely fair game of ball without the interference of fences.” Cobb was utterly convinced, upon spying the 520-foot distance to the flag pole in right-center field that “no home run will ever go over that fence.” Baseball Magazine calculated the distance to left field and to right field at 375 feet.[fn]F.C. Lane, “The World’s Greatest Baseball Park,” Baseball Magazine (October 1915): 31.[/fn] Other sources estimate these distances at 400 to 402 feet.[fn]Ronald M. Selter, Ballparks of the Deadball Era (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2008): 34–35.[/fn]
In either case, the grounds were huge. A Boston bug who meandered from the edge of the right-field pavilion seats to the last seat in the far reaches of the left-field pavilion would have traversed a quarter mile in the process.[fn]Lane, “World’s Greatest Baseball Park,” 104.[/fn] Construction began in March, with a September 1 targeted completion date. Following the practice of their American League cousins, the Braves would transplant the infield from the old South End Grounds to their new Allston home. When the old grounds became unplayable, the Red Sox afforded the Braves temporary quarters at Fenway.
Gaffney’s demanding view of the game as it should be played was matched by his desire for his constituents to be whisked from the park with the ultimate convenience. While other fields had excellent streetcar service, Braves Field took things a step further, by incorporating a departure station into the ballpark itself, within the stadium walls. To do so, Gaffney used his persuasive and other powers to convince the Boston Elevated Railway System to construct a closed loop system that allowed trolley cars to depart from the Commonwealth Avenue mainline, then swing down Babcock street to enter a 600-foot by 50-foot pen within the park’s perimeter. A departing patron could pay his fare at a mini pay station, enter a waiting car and be immediately returned to the mainline tracks and sent on his way home. Costs for the platform, capable of storing 20 trolleys at a time, exceeded $50,000, a pricetag that railway professionals doubted was worthwhile even given the fare-paying throngs that flocked to the field during the two World Series played there in 1915 and 1916.[fn]“Handling Traffic at Largest Baseball Park,” Electric Railway Journal (September 25, 1915); “Are Special Peak Loads Profitable?” Electric Railway Journal (November 25, 1916): 1.[/fn] It was also a cost that the Boston Elevated Railway Company, operating under increasing financial distress, could ill afford.[fn]A later investigation of the conditions of the Elevated at this time described its cars as “antiquated” and its track conditions as “crooked, broken [and] patched.” Within a few years, the Massachusetts Legislature would have to enact the Public Control Act to financially assist the system. Boston Finance Commission; Timothy F. Callahan, Summary of Report of Investigation of Boston Elevated Railway (Boston, 1939): 2.[/fn]
In an independent but fortuitous development, the Elevated (which ran at street level in this area and was only elevated in portions of the system) began adopting a new trolley car that would prove particularly effective at handling crowds associated with sporting events, such as those at Braves Field. Entry into the car was afforded by a single door, located in the middle of the trolley car. Within a few years of the park’s opening, these center entrance cars, known as “crowd eaters,” would serve as the principal means of conveyance to the park and would retain that role for generations of Braves fans.[fn]Alfred Barten, “Center Entrance in Boston,” Electric Lines (May–June
1992). Accessed April 5, 2012, http://www.virtualrailroader.com.[/fn]
THE GRAND OPENING … AND AFTER
Braves Field represented the last of the jewel box ballparks. Unlike many of that genre, it was constructed entirely of steel (some 750 tons) and an estimated 8,200,000 pounds of concrete.[fn]With the exception of Yankee Stadium (the first “stadium” as opposed to a “park” or a “field” or “grounds”), it would be the last major league baseball park constructed until the truly cavernous and multi-purpose Municipal Stadium opened in Cleveland in 1932.[/fn]
Like a true Tammany man, Gaffney delivered when it mattered. The field was inaugurated ahead of the original scheduled delivery date of September 1, a daring feat in its own right.[fn]Gaffney had already moved the target date up to August 15.[/fn] Yet no signs of a rush to meet the deadline were in evidence at the festive opening, which came on August 18 in a successful tilt against the Cardinals. Fourteen mayors including Boston’s own James Michael Curley attended, along with Governor Walsh of Massachusetts. The whereabouts of former New York governor Sulzer were not reported in contemporaneous accounts.
Clark Griffith threw out the first ball to the delight of some 10,000 Boston school children who attended as guests of the Braves. At least 6,000 presumably less delighted fans were turned away. Paid attendance was 32,000 which excluded the schoolchildren and over 4,000 other guests classified as dignitaries. The Braves claimed attendance of some 56,000 despite the fact that there were only 40,000 seats. Some Tammany habits really did die hard.
Baseball Magazine was impressed, dubbing the field “The World’s Greatest Baseball Park.” F.C. Lane, who had earlier said it was a “mad policy” emblematic of baseball’s mismanagement to build another ballpark in the same city as the new Fenway Park, now declared, “The field at Boston is vast, simple in its line, Grecian in its architecture.” According to National League President Tener: “It is the last word in baseball parks, its building was the biggest single event in ten years time.”[fn]Lane, “World’s Greatest Baseball Park,” 29. Lane’s earlier ruminations had come in February 1915, before Braves Field was begun.[/fn]
Not everything was perfect at the opening of Gaffney’s “perfect park.” From an operational perspective, the interior loading of trolley cars at game’s end created a severe crush of humanity. The Globe reported that “[t]he rush for these cars was tremendous and for more than half an hour only the sturdiest were able to clamber aboard. There was a mad dash for every car and a battle at every step. Many climbed [in] … through windows and every car that passed out to Commonwealth Avenue was jammed, packed full. The women had no chance at all.”[fn]Melville E. Webb, Jr., “Braves Dedicate New Park with Victory Before the Greatest Crowd That Ever Saw a Ball Game,” Boston Globe, August 19, 1915: 1.[/fn]
AN OPPORTUNITY TO DO BUSINESS
But the events surrounding the opening of Braves Field that may have had the greatest impact on baseball history and the Braves franchise involved representatives of the Federal League, who had departed well before the opening ceremonies. The fact that Gaffney had Opening Day “boxes reserved for the Feds” as well as all owners in Organized Baseball represented a major shift by Gaffney in his thinking regarding the outlaws of the Federal League. In 1914, he had allegedly used his influence on the New York City docks to thwart the Federals’ effort to meet and sign major leaguers returning from their 1913–14 world tour.[fn]James E. Elfers, The Tour to End All Tours (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2003); Levitt, Battle That Forged Modern Baseball, 101–102.[/fn] He had litigated aggressively, indeed almost zealously, against the Federals in an effort to combat their efforts to raid the rosters of major league teams.[fn]“Two $25,000 Suits Aimed at Federals,” The New York Times, April 14, 1914.[/fn] Furthermore, when Gaffney sold the old Walpole Street grounds, he included, at the insistence of the National Commission, an “iron bound agreement” that the land could never again be used for baseball purposes, in order to prevent “any undesirable parties [the Federals] from eventually getting control of the grounds.”[fn]T.H. Murnane, “Baseball Exit for South End Grounds,” Boston Globe, December 20, 1914:15.[/fn]
Most notably, he had pulled his team off the field earlier in the 1915 season rather than allow John McGraw’s Giants to use the services of “reverse jumper” Bernie Kauff, who had left his Federal League team for McGraw’s National Leaguers. This infuriated the Little Napoleon who screamed, “That’s a fine way to repay the favors I have done for you. I’ll get even. You can’t make a fool of me and get away with it.”[fn]“Avert Base Ball Disaster,” Sporting Life (May 8, 1915):1.[/fn]
Like any good politician, Gaffney kept his options open and by shortly before the grand opening in August, he had definitively changed course. Not only did he offer a personalized tour of the new grounds to the Federals’ inner circle of President Gilmore, George S. Ward, C.B. Comstock, and Harry Sinclair (later of Teapot Dome scandal fame), he reportedly wooed these insiders with his pitch to have his construction firm build the proposed new Federal League Park in New York City. At the same time, he was reportedly feeling out the Federals’ reaction to possible peace negotiations. Subsequent events revealed that the ballpark proposal, which featured the prominent display of an architect’s plans for a 40,000-seat stadium in a storefront window on 42nd Street, was part of the “Big Bluff” strategy of the Federals to secure more favorable peace terms.[fn]Robert Peyton Wiggins, The Federal League of Base Ball Clubs (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2009): 281.[/fn]
When peace between the Federals and Organized Baseball did come, the lion’s share of the credit for concluding a peace treaty on terms favorable to Organized Baseball went to the Nationals, and Gaffney was credited with getting the peace talks started.[fn]Francis C. Richter, “National League’s Eventful Meet,” Sporting Life (December, 1915):5.[/fn]
A LEGACY ASSESSED
The month after Braves Field opened, the Boston Red Sox sprinted onto the grounds in an effort to acclimate themselves to the park that would serve as their “home field” during the 1915 World Series. Included on this squad was George Herman Ruth who—although he would not pitch in the 1915 series—would take to the Braves Field mound in 1916 for perhaps the most impressive pitching performance of his career.[fn]Robert W. Creamer, Babe the Legend Comes to Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1974): 126. It should be noted that Ruth did pinch hit in Game 1 of the 1915 World Series.[/fn]
It was however, in his subsequent incarnation as a slugger, that Ruth would radically change the game, and, in so doing obliterate Gaffney’s vision of the game as it should be played. Ruth’s power display, beginning with his 29 home runs in 1919, relegated Braves Field to premature functional obsolescence. The vision had been irrevocably blurred and, as a result, the vast configuration of Braves Field would become a liability. In the years that followed, the diamond was the subject of almost constant tinkering. Bleachers and shorter fences were built and, in turn, demolished. The playing field was rotated toward right field. In all, Braves Field’s dimensions were altered more than those of any other ballpark, although in the end, as Kaese noted, no one could figure out how “to move 8,200,000 pounds of cement stands closer to the playing field.”[fn]Kaese, Boston Braves, 174.[/fn]
Less than one month after peace with the Federals was declared, Gaffney stunned the baseball world by selling the Braves to a local group headed by Percy Haughton. He made no secret of why he closed the deal. Denying any preexisting intention to sell the club, Gaffney stated, “[w]hen I discovered I could secure a price…that would net me a substantial profit, I could not, as a business man, turn down the proposition.”[fn]Sporting Life (January 15, 1916): 8.[/fn] The sale price was reportedly $500,000, making for a nice return on Gaffney’s original purchase price of $187,000. Gaffney retained ownership control of Braves Field and from the very first reports, skepticism was expressed as to whether the terms of the sale and the lease cost of the ballpark afforded a realistic opportunity for a successful operation by the new owners.
For the first time since 1903, the Boston National League franchise was in the hands of local owners. Gaffney, for his part, was at various times rumored to be a potential purchaser of the Giants (in tandem with Sinclair), Brooklyn, or returning to Boston to rescue the beleaguered owners of the Braves.[fn]“Base Ball Facts, Fiction and Reminiscences,” Sporting Life (October 28, 1916): 4; “National Agreement Again in Full Force,” Sporting Life (February 5, 1916):7.[/fn] Gaffney would thereafter from time to time make himself available to Boston reporters, occasionally stirring the baseball pot in Beantown. For example, just after the 1918 World Series, Gaffney and Red Sox owner Harry Frazee discussed the possibility of sharing Braves Field, allowing Frazee to capitalize on the rising real estate values in the Fenway area by selling his ballpark. Nothing ever came of it. Apparently, Frazee found some other way to raise the capital he needed.[fn]James C. O’Leary, “Red Sox May Join in Use of Braves Field,” Boston Globe, October 31, 1918:4.[/fn]
THE NEW VISIONARIES
Financially weak ownership would continue to plague the Braves franchise for decades after Gaffney’s departure. Indeed, it seemed that simply owning the team was enough in itself to drive a once wealthy owner, Judge Emil Fuchs, into bankruptcy. The team languished for most of the twenties, teetered on the brink of collapse during the Depression, and did not begin to shake off the doldrums until a triumvirate known as the “Three Little Steamshovels” wrestled control of the team from their syndicate partners in early 1944. New Deal politics and wartime exigencies had killed Tammany Hall and replaced it with a less egregious, but still politically charged world of contracting. Lou Perini, Guido Rugo, and Joseph Maney were local construction men who mirrored that progression. In many respects, they were as much a product of their era as Gaffney was of his.
Like Gaffney, they saw an immediate need to improve the existing conditions at Braves Field, which had been allowed to languish over the years. Light towers were erected to introduce Boston to night baseball. The playing field was lowered by 18 inches to improve sight lines. Fir trees were planted beyond the outfield fence to offer some buffer from rail yard emissions.[fn]Kaese, Boston Braves, 261, 268. These improvements were welcome but did not do much to improve the basic competitiveness of the facility. It should not be forgotten that the only two surviving Jewel Box ballparks each had the benefit of early, large scale reconstruction efforts. Fenway was rebuilt by Tom Yawkey in 1934. Wrigley Field benefited from major work over the course of several renovations in the 1920s and 1930s.[/fn] Further renovations, including potentially covering the pavilions and enlarging the bleachers, were planned.[fn]Bob Brady, Boston Braves Historical Association, Spring 1910 newsletter.[/fn]
As the on-field performance improved under the new owners, Boston fans, who had briefly entertained thoughts of a subway series in 1915 and 1916, had their quite realistic hopes dashed in 1948 when the Red Sox unraveled in a one-game playoff against the Cleveland Indians. While the Braves drew more than 1.45 million fans in 1948, the glory days of that season reversed themselves within four short years, as the Braves sunk to seventh place and attendance slid back down to alarmingly dismal but nonetheless familiar levels. As attendance dwindled, losses mounted, reaching in excess of $580,000 in 1952.[fn]Kaese, Boston Braves, 283.[/fn]
But America was a different place by the early fifties and baseball was changing, too. In an era of seemingly limitless American power, failure was less acceptable and futility no longer an option. A new postwar, automobile-driven prosperity brought with it greater disposable income and more leisure, but also more leisure options. Baseball faced the issues and opportunities arising out of increased competition for the sports dollar, integration, more night baseball, and the beginnings of a fitful dance with television.
Like Gaffney, the steamshovels—down to two when Rugo left the scene, then diminishing to one when Perini bought out all his partners in late 1952—knew that baseball was, above all, a business.
AND THEN THEY WERE GONE … BUT NEVER FORGOTTEN
Lou Perini had a secret in the winter of 1952–53, a secret he held so closely he did not divulge it even to his wife.[fn]David Perini interviewed in “A Braves New World,” a feature for Wisconsin Public Television (2009).[/fn] Warren Spahn, his star pitcher, while already a five-time All Star, was even further removed from this privileged information. Approximately one thousand miles away from Boston, meanwhile, the wave of the future was building, and the Braves would catch the early development of this wave just as surely as they had closed out the era of the jewel box ballpark in 1915.
Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, had undertaken the financing and construction of a new ballpark, originally aimed at replacing the outdated Borchert Field as the home of the Braves’ leading minor league affiliate. The readily expandable nature of the park’s design made it obvious that higher aspirations were in the minds of its sponsors. The site was a former gravel pit known as “Story quarry” that was far removed from the Milwaukee equivalent of Fifth Avenue. The quarry was an automobile-centric location, reflecting the nation’s increasing reliance on the car; when County Stadium was completed, it was situated in the midst of a sea of parking.
Lou Perini’s secret was his intention to disrupt the baseball equivalent of the Congress of Vienna. Ever since peace had been hammered out between the American and National Leagues in the National Agreement of 1903, the major leagues of Organized Baseball had been the exclusive province of 16 teams in an elite cadre of 10 cities.[fn]This is sometimes erroneously stated as 11 cities. New York City
swallowed Brooklyn in 1898.[/fn] This basic tenet underlying the National Agreement had withstood one baseball war (against the Federal League), the Great Depression, two World Wars, and the collapse of the National Commission originally established to administer it.[fn]The rules on the transfer of franchises were unique to each league’s constitution. The National League required unanimous consent.[/fn] Once Perini toppled these foundations by moving the Braves to Milwaukee, a flood of relocations and expansions followed. Perini, like Gaffney, had a vision and he had foreseen the trend of transferring franchises. He believed “other cities can take a page from the Milwaukee book by providing for major league facilities.”[fn]The New York Times, March 19, 1953: 1.[/fn] Walter O’Malley, the Brooklyn Dodgers owner, added ominously, “This is bound to start a chain reaction.”[fn]The New York Times, March 19, 1953: 39.[/fn] The decision to relocate was, in the finest traditions of Gaffney’s sale of the team in 1916, a good business decision, perhaps the best made by a Braves owner since Gaffney’s time.
Braves fans had a different perspective. As Kaese recounts things, the end was as sudden and painful as the plan had been secret. On March 13, 1953, the word leaked out that the Braves, already in spring training at Bradenton, would be playing that very season in Milwaukee County Stadium. Warren Spahn, who had planned to open his new diner across the street from Braves Field, immediately became an absentee owner. The 1953 All-Star Game was quickly moved from Braves Field to Crosley Field. Braves fans, stunned, mourned the loss of the franchise in the only way appropriate, by stealing home plate.[fn]Bob Brady, the President of the Boston Braves Historical Association, notes that the theft was perpetrated by a member of the local “Mountfort Street Gang” and home plate now resides in the Sports Museum of New England. My thanks to him for this tidbit and for all of his counsel in preparing this piece. Bob Brady email, May 19, 2012.[/fn]
The same year the Braves left town, one of the old “crowd eater” trolleys dropped a brake shoe in the downtown core subway tunnel, wreaking havoc with the Boston morning rush hour. The center entrance cars that carried the echoes of countless Braves postgame celebrations and frustrations were immediately retired from service.[fn]Barten, “Center Entrance in Boston.”[/fn]
Boston University acquired James Gaffney’s overgrown “perfect ballpark” some four months later and, in the process of converting it for the university’s own athletic purposes, demolished the majority of the plant, although much of the old right field pavilion remains and the Spanish Colonial ticket and administrative office building now serves as the headquarters for the Boston University police force.
The Boston Braves and Braves Field live on in the memories of a hardy group of preservationists known as the Boston Braves Historical Association. Over the years they have kept alive the spirit of their youth through a series of reunions and, as the ranks have thinned and grayed, by means of a newsletter and the bully pulpit of the Internet. Baseball, the game, and how the nation and its cities relate to that game, have changed several times over since that dismal March day in 1953, but somehow the love of the game, the love of one’s team whether that team is good or bad, and our memories, live on.
BOB RUZZO is an affordable housing finance professional who lives and works in the Boston area. He is a former Massachusetts Deputy Secretary of Transportation, and is a staunch though whimsical advocate of Transit Oriented Development. He has authored a number of articles on real estate law for a variety of legal publications, but insists this does not make him categorically boring.
- Related link: Get your copy of Braves Field: Memorable Moments at Boston’s Lost Diamond (SABR, 2015), edited by Bill Nowlin and Bob Brady. To read articles from this book at the SABR Games Project, click here.