Forbes Field Praised as a Gem When It Opened

This article was written by Donald G. Lancaster

This article was published in the 1986 Baseball Research Journal


On June 28, 1970, the Pittsburgh Pirates swept a doubleheader from the Chicago Cubs and Forbes      Field’s role in Pirate baseball was over. The park was condemned and doomed to the wrecker’s ball. It was 61 years earlier, almost to the day, that Forbes Field opened, with the Pirates hosting the same Chicago Cubs. Over those 61 years, two of the most remarkable moments in Forbes Field history were the construction of the park and opening day in 1909.

Barney Dreyfuss, president of the Pittsburgh Pirates Baseball Club, decided in 1908 to seek some land on which to build a new park. He had three reasons to leave Exposition Park, home of the Pirates since 1891. First, a lease that would make it feasible to rebuild the wooden stands could not be obtained. Second, floods hit the park at least six times every year, ruining the field and parts of the stands. (Exposition Park was located in Allegheny, Pa., about 50 yards from the Allegheny River and at almost the exact spot where Three Rivers Stadium now stands.) Third, because of the floods, the field was always damp until midsummer. Early in the season practice could not be held at the damp park because the field would be torn up by the players’ spikes.

On October 18, 1908, Dreyfuss purchased land from the Schenley estate through the Commonwealth Real Estate Co. and E. C. Brainerd. He bought nearly seven acres located next to Schenley Park, about three miles from downtown Pittsburgh. Part of the land was occupied by the Carnegie Technical School (now Carnegie-Mellon University) football field.

The trustees of the Schenley Estate – Andrew Carnegie, John W. Herron and Denny Brereton – fully guarded the interests of the city. They demanded a contract under which Dreyfuss was required to spend a large sum of money to make the ballpark fireproof and of a design that would harmonize with the other structures in the Schenley Park district.

The Dreyfuss purchase was one of the largest real estate deals in Pittsburgh in years. It was criticized by many people. Dreyfuss said they laughed at him because the area had nothing but the Schenley Farms and a few buildings, including Carnegie Museum and Carnegie Technical School. Many did not believe the city would expand that far east, but Dreyfuss saw the location eventually growing into Pittsburgh’s cultural center.

Charles W. Leavitt, Jr., an architect and landscape engineer, was chosen to design and supervise the building of the ballpark. He had planned and supervised the construction of nearly all of the racetrack stands and clubhouses in the eastern United States, including Belmont Park and Empire City Track in Yonkers, N.Y.

The ballpark was to have a seating capacity of 25,000. This was twice the size of Exposition Park and larger than the Polo Grounds in New York City and West Side Park in Chicago. The stands were to be constructed entirely of concrete and steel, a first in ballpark construction. This would make the park fireproof; fires were common in parks constructed of wood.

The location was easily accessible. It was within walking distance of 15 trolley lines and within a 15-minute trolley ride of the nearest railroad station.

On January 1, 1909, the task of filling in Pierre Ravine began. This required 11,155 tons of dirt and fill. Grading of 60,000 cubic yards of dirt was required to make the playing field. A retaining wall using 2,000 cubic yards of concrete was built to hold in the fill.

On March 1, 1909, the Nicola Building Co. began construction of the ballpark. On March 21 the Raymond Concrete Piling Co. completed its contract to put in the piles to support the stands.

In a meeting between Charles A. Marshall, who represented Charles W. Leavitt, Jr.; F. C. Jones, an official of the Pirates, and William Berner, superintendent of the Nicola Building Co., it was decided to have the stands completed and the field laid out by July 1. The Nicola Building Co. also agreed to turn over all the land to landscapers in order to save ten days in work time.

On March 28 the contractors were ahead of schedule, with the bleachers along the left field foul line being completed. The following day the Nicola Building Co. began working two eight-hour shifts a day.

Construction of the park was rapid. On May 9, opening day for the new structure was set for June 30. By May 12 all the steel girders were in place and the grandstand and bleacher seats had been received. Installation of the seats began a short time later.

Architect Leavitt was pleased that the fill had not settled as much as expected. This was because it was put in when the weather was bad and the fill became thoroughly soaked; work on the playing field was able to start ahead of schedule.

By May 9, 120 of the 300 boxes of eight seats each had been sold for the season. Each box bore a brass name plate with the box holder’s name on it.

The advance sale of reserved and box seat tickets for the opening game began on June 7. This was by mail order only and on a first-come, first-served basis. The general admission and bleacher tickets would be sold on the day of the game.

On June 13 little construction remained. The box seats were sold out and the temporary bleachers in center field were finished. By June 16 the entire field was sodded and on June 21 the last of the seats were installed. Except for a few minor touches, the park was finished.

The main grandstand had four general units. The first unit was a great amphitheater of concrete steps, starting eight feet above field level and rising 28 tiers. This unit had 12,500 seats. The seats could be turned up, making it easier to clean the stands. At the rear of the lower stand was a promenade the entire length of the grandstand, with ramps that led to the entrances on street level or to the upper deck balcony.

  The second unit was the balcony. It was the same length as the lower deck and was suspended on steel columns with cantilevered trusses. The front row of the balcony was over the fifth row of the lower deck. The balcony consisted of 12 rapidly rising tiers, providing a good view of the field. The balcony seated 5,500 and was connected to the lower deck by ramps. The Pirates’ offices were located at the rear of the balcony, tucked underneath the seats behind home plate.            

The third unit was a row of boxes located on the roof over the balcony. This was held up by steel supports and connected to the street level by elevators.

The fourth unit was located under the lower deck at street level. All tickets except bleacher tickets were sold here. There were eight ticket windows and ten turnstiles here. Crowds could be inspected from the Pirate office windows. On the right side of the entrance was the umpires’ room, and beyond this were the visiting and home clubhouses. Each clubhouse was equipped with lockers, baths and dryers for clothes. These rooms also had an entrance from the field and a private exit underneath the right field end of the grandstand.

The balcony supporting columns were in a single line and 50 feet apart. The supports in the rear were larger and of a lattice construction. The spaces between the supports were fitted with terra-cotta. The lattice columns were 16 feet apart and were joined by a series of terra-cotta arches enclosed with frames filled with glass and terra-cotta. These formed fronts which on the street side looked like an office building. All the steelwork was painted light green. The terra-cotta was painted a buff white with some blocks painted green as were the ornamental panels.

The bleachers, on the left field foul line, were made of reinforced concrete and rose in a solid bank. The front of the bleachers was in line with the front of the grandstand, but the tiers in the bleachers rose more rapidly than those in the lower deck grandstand. The bleachers had 43 tiers that seated 6,000. Under the bleachers was located a garage for cars. The rear face of the bleachers was made of terracotta with pictures of subjects dealing with the early history of Pittsburgh.

The entrance to the bleachers along the left field foul line was located at the extreme north end of the grandstand and consisted of ticket windows and turnstiles as in the main entrance. The entrance led to an open space of 4,000 square feet under the grandstand for the protection of the fans when it rained.

The temporary bleachers were in the extreme center field area. These were to be used until the ground settled at which time they would be replaced by a permanent stand. The entrance to these bleachers was from the right field side.

In front of the lower deck grandstand were the private boxes. These consisted of three tiers with the front row only four feet above field level.

The lower deck grandstand was made up of reserved seats with the last few rows in the back as general admission seats. The balcony consisted of reserved seats with the front few rows being box seats.

The prices of tickets in 1909 were: $10.00 for a box of eight seats, $8.75 for a roof box of seven seats, $1.00 for a reserved seat, 75¢ for a general admission seat, 50¢ for a left field bleacher seat, and 25¢ for a seat in the temporary bleachers.

The name selected for the new park was Forbes Field. Dreyfuss picked it after receiving a letter from Judge Joseph Buffington which stated the park should be named after General John Forbes, who, along with playing a part in Pittsburgh’s history, was supposedly a good athlete.

The week of June 30 to July 7, 1909, was proclaimed dedication week by Dreyfuss. Special ceremonies were held on opening day beginning at 2:30 in the afternoon. To celebrate dedication week, all railroads leading into Pittsburgh had special rates.

Forbes Field was superior to other parks for several reasons. The seating capacity of 25,000 was larger than that of any other field. Rain would not stop a game unless it were heavy because of the good drainage system and a new type of canvas infield tarp. This tarp would rise from underneath the field in foul territory behind the home plate-third base area and could be rolled over the entire infield in one piece. The rolling out or rolling up of the tarp would be done mechanically, with groundskeepers required only to make sure it was going in or out straight. Ironically, this tarp system, which is now in use at Three Rivers Stadium, was patented by the 1909 Pirates’ manager, Fred Clarke.

Another noticeable difference about Forbes Field was that it was in a nice section of town. Smoke, dust and cinders were absent from the air because Forbes Field was at least a mile away from the factories. There was also no danger of a grandstand fire so common in the wooden parks.

Opening day, June 30, 1909, was a beautiful occasion for a baseball game. The sky was cloudless and the air was warm. Fans began arriving at the park at 9:00 in the morning to wait in line for general admission and bleacher tickets. When the ticket windows opened at 10:00, the people were overflowing into the streets. During this time, as well as during the entire game, there was no violence. At noon the gates were opened, and there was a mad rush of more than 5,000 fans for the unreserved seats.

Fans at Forbes Field enjoyed the view of Schenley Park over the outfield fence. The ballpark itself was a beautiful thing to see. The stands stood majestically, 74 feet high and 889 feet in length. Flags lined the roof of the grandstand. Potted plants and palms decorated the foyer and the club offices.

The crowd filled the stands quickly; it seemed as if everyone from the Pittsburgh area was there. Downtown Pittsburgh was at a standstill with most businesses closed at noon. The crowd grew so large that the outfield was roped off to hold standing-room-only ticket holders.

The dedication ceremonies began at 1:30 with two bands giving concerts. At 2:30, two processions started, one from each foul line in the outfield, each led by a band and consisting of the two teams and dignitaries. Both processions went to home plate, where they joined and marched to the center field flag pole. When the flags were raised, a cheer swept the stands. The procession then broke up; the bands left the field, the dignitaries went to the stands and the teams began to warm up.

There were many women and prominent families in the crowd of 30,338. Among the dignitaries were Mayor William A. Magee of Pittsburgh; John M. Morin, director of the Department of Public Safety; Harry Pulliam, National League president; Ban Johnson, American League president; John K. Tener, U. S. Congressman and ex-ballplayer from Charleroi, Pa.; and Eddie Morris, a member of Pittsburgh’s 1885 Union Association team.

Mayor Magee threw out the first ball to Morin and the game was ready to begin. The umpires were Bob Emslie and Hank O’Day.

The Chicago Cubs started by scoring a run in the first inning. Vic Willis, the Pirates’ starting pitcher, hit lead-off batter Johnny Evers with a pitch. The second batter, Jimmy Sheckard, walked. Solly Hofman then sacrificed the runners along. Frank Chance followed with a single to center field, scoring Evers.

There was no further scoring until the sixth inning as both Willis and Ed Reulbach of the Cubs pitched effectively. The Pirates also had some good defensive plays. In the top of the fourth inning Tommy Leach, the Pirate center fielder, made a spectacular running catch of Wildfire Schulte’s fly ball. In the top of the fifth Pirate third baseman Jap Barbeau made a leaping catch of Reulbach’s line drive.

In the bottom of the sixth inning, the Pirates finally scored. Honus Wagner led off with a single to left field. Bill Abstein moved Wagner to second with a sacrifice and Dots Miller singled to left, scoring Wagner.

The Cubs broke the 1-1 tie with two runs in the eighth inning. Evers singled, Jimmy Sheckard laid down a bunt which Barbeau fielded and threw past first baseman Bill Abstein. With runners at second and third, Chance hit the ball to Pirate second baseman Dots Miller, who threw to catcher George Gibson, but Gibson dropped the ball and Evers scored. Harry Steinfeldt then successfully bunted with two out, plating Sheckard for a 3-1 lead.

In the bottom of the eighth the Pirates scored once. With one out Clarke walked. After another out Abstein hit the ball to Cub second baseman Evers, who booted it. The key play of the game followed. Dots Miller drove the ball into center field, and it rolled into the crowd. Both runners crossed home plate, but the umpires ruled the hit a ground rule double and made Abstein return to third. A heated argument ensued as Abstein had reached the plate about the same time the ball went into the crowd. Ham Hyatt then pinch-hit for right fielder Owen Wilson and struck out to end the inning with Chicago still leading, 3-2.

The Cubs did not score in the top of the ninth. In the Pirate half Gibson, the first batter, walked. Alan Storke then pinch-hit for Willis and sacrificed pinch runner Kid Durbin to second base. Barbeau followed with a grounder to Evers, who bobbled the ball, and the Pirates had runners at first and third with only one out. Leach then flied to shallow left field for the second out, bringing up manager Clarke. He grounded to shortstop for a game-ending force at second base, and the Cubs emerged 3-2 winners, spoiling the Pirates’ debut at Forbes Field.

The most remarkable thing about the construction of Forbes Field was that it took only two months to fill in Pierre Ravine and four months to build the stands. The main reasons for the rapid construction were that the weather cooperated and there were no labor problems. Dreyfuss footed the million-dollar cost himself, thus eliminating any squabbles that might have occurred if more than one person had been involved with the building of the park.

Forbes Field, along with Shibe Park in Philadelphia, which opened earlier that season, launched the era in which the wooden ballpark became obsolete.

In the next five years, ten new parks were built, none made of wood. Today we are in the second age of the “modern” ballpark. It’s been a few years since the demolition of Forbes Field. In its time it was host to four World Series and two All-Star games. Of all of the feats that occurred at Forbes in its 61 years, there never was a no-hitter. The closest was on June 14, 1968, when Bob Moose held the Houston Astros hitless for seven and two-thirds innings.

After the opening of the original stadium there were some additions. Doubledecked stands were added in right field in 1925. In 1938 a third tier, the “Crow’s Nest,” was added behind home plate. Lights were installed in 1940 and on the evening of June 4 the Pirates defeated the Boston Braves, 14-2, in the initial night game. From 1947 to 1953 the bullpens were in left field in an area called “Greenberg Gardens.” This shortened the left field line from 365 feet to 335 and left-center from 406 to 355. In 1959 three rows were added to the front of the field level boxes, making the first row of seats dugout level. At its closing, the seating capacity of Forbes was 35,000.

Today all that remains of Forbes Field are home plate, which is encased in glass on the ground floor of the University of Pittsburgh’s Forbes Quadrangle in the same location it occupied in the ballpark, and a section of the center field wall, complete with ivy and distance marker (457 ft.), located outside of the Quadrangle. On the sidewalk outside of the Quadrangle the left field wall is marked by a small plaque and red bricks tracing its former location from the foul line to left-center field (it ends at the curb). To the older fans in Pittsburgh, of course, Forbes Field remains alive in their memories.

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