This article was written by Ralph S. Graber
This article was published in the 1982 Baseball Research Journal
You sat so close to the field you could almost touch the players. After the last out, you could run the bases. The stands, usually wooden, were rickety, and monstrosities in construction; the distances to the fences were eccentric. But the quaint old ballparks (not stadiums) had a warmth and charm, a different smell from that of the modern saucers with their chemically created grass. Now only a memory, they have been replaced by supermarkets, parking lots, shopping centers or ugly housing developments. Their passing reminds us of our own mortality and that the only changeless thing is change itself.
A nostalgic look at the historic ballyards must begin with Sulphur Dell Park, Nashville, the site of amateur baseball games shortly after the Civil War, with the earliest recorded date September 11, 1866. The spot was originally a sulphur springs and a trading, watering and picnic spot in the pioneer days.
Known as Athletic Park as early as 1885, when old Southern League games were played there, the Dell was given its name sometime after the Nashville Vols became part of the newly formed Southern Association in 1901. Grantland Rice, the noted sportswriter, is given credit for naming the park. Until 1927 the Dell field faced the opposite direction. The Vols played their first game in the turned-around park on April 12, 1927.
The park’s outfield distances and terrain were a blessing to left-handed hitters and a nightmare to outfielders, who should have been replaced by goats, for a steep embankment, with a 45-degree slope in right field, ran all around the outfield. The right field barrier was only 262 feet from home plate and had a fence only 16-feet high. The field was a paradise for left-handed sluggers. In 1931, to cut down on the home run barrage, a screen 22½ feet high (some sources state 30 feet) was placed on top of the fence and extended 186 feet to a point in right-center.
But left-handed hitters continued to draw a bead on the inviting rightfield wall. Joe Dwyer, a little line-drive hitter, set the all-time Southern Association record for doubles in one season by cracking out 65 in 1936. In 1941 Les Fleming, a slugging first baseman, and the third Vol to go over the .400 mark in batting, hit .414.
With the disbanding of the SA at the end of the 1961 season, the Dell’s days were numbered. In 1963, Nashville entered a team in the Class AA South Atlantic League, but then dropped out of organized ball for a time. Sulphur Dell then passed from the scene, to become only a memory.
Other old ballparks were built on sites as interesting as Sulphur Dell but lacked its long history and quaintness. Seals Stadium, at Sixteenth and Bryant Streets in San Francisco, was built on what was once the site of a mine. The original deed listed the name of the land as Home Plate Mine. Built by a triumvirate, headed by Charles H. Graham, which owned the Seals in the Pacific Coast League, the park opened on April 7, 1931. There in 1933 the 18-year-old Joe DiMaggio hit safely in a PCL record 61 consecutive games. Later the Seals shared the park briefly with the San Francisco Missions after the latter club moved from old Recreation Park.
Beginning in 1959 the park was used by the transplanted New York Giants until Candlestick Park was completed.
A swimming hole and haunt for youngsters rather than a mine provided the site for Muehlebach Field in Kansas City. Built by George F. Muehlebach at 22nd Street and Brooklyn Avenue (1922-1923), the park was renamed Ruppert Stadium, Blues Stadium, and Municipal Stadium, the latter after it had been rebuilt and double-decked in 1954 to prepare for the arrival of the former Philadelphia Athletics.
Although its site at West 31st Street and Nicollet and Blaisdell Avenues in Minneapolis had no exotic previous use, Nicollet Park, built in 1896, rivaled Sulphur Dell in its quaintness and dimensions. Its old wooden roof over the entrance and 279-foot right-field fence provided a special atmosphere. Atop the roof stood what appeared to be an old chimney.
To prevent home run barrages (Joe Hauser hit 69 homers for Minneapolis in 1933), a second layer of fence replaced the single layer of screen in 1935 and at the same time a new screen was added, making 30 feet of boards topped by a 16-foot screen extending from the foul line to the scoreboard, 435 feet in center. Right-center was only 328 feet from home plate. In an effort to offset the predominantly left-handed slugging Miller team, opposing managers always saved their southpaw pitchers for Nicollet.
The park also was a part of two traditions — “On to Nicollet Day” and the home-and-home games with the St. Paul Saints on holidays. Prior to the home opener, attractive, large tickets designed as baseballs or diamonds and bearing the slogan “On to Nicollet” were sold throughout the area by baseball boosters and pretty girls. On the day of the game, a long parade featuring bands, majorettes, and cars carrying dignitaries from Minneapolis and the surrounding hamlets wended its way out Nicollet Avenue to the ballpark for the opening-day ceremonies.
For the holiday tradition with St. Paul, a morning game would be played in one of the cities, followed by an afternoon contest in the other. Rival fans traveled between Nicollet and the Saints’ Lexington Park on streetcars, which at times became prize rings as the partisan fans supported their team with fists.
In 1955 came Nicollet’s last and finest hour. The Millers, who had won the American Association pennant and play-off titles, defeated the Rochester Red Wings in the deciding seventh game of the Junior World Series. But, early in October, only a short time after the dust had settled, wrecking crews began tearing down the historic park. No longer would paraders trek to the park for the annual ritual. No longer would a little tailwind carry a towering fly to right field as an outfielder, first waiting ten feet from the fence, then back against the scoreboard, would turn in disbelief to watch the ball soar over the screen onto Nicollet Avenue.
St. Paul fans, however, had little time to rejoice over the demise of their rivals’ park, where Ted Williams in 1938 and Willie Mays in 1951 slugged and romped as 20-year-olds on their way to the majors. The Saints’ Lexington Park, which featured a distant right-field fence, met the wrecking ball the next year. The parks that had been the scene of one of the minor leagues’ greatest rivalries were no more.
The American Association had a park older than Nicollet. Even more of a monstrosity, Borchert Field (originally Athletic Park) in Milwaukee had a longer though less glamorous history. In 1888 the Milwaukee Athletic Park was opened at Eighth Avenue and Chambers Street to house the Milwaukee team in the newly formed Western Association.
In 1895, the club, which gradually became known as the Brewers, moved into a newly built park — the Milwaukee Baseball Park — at North Sixteenth and West Lloyd when the owners balked at the rent at Athletic Park. With the formation of the American Association in 1902, the Brewers entered the new league and reclaimed old Athletic Park, while the Western League Creams (1902-1903), named for the color of Milwaukee-manufactured brick, took over the Lloyd Street Field.
Athletic Park was later called Brewer Field and then became Borchert Field in 1927 after the death of Otto Borchert, owner of the club for eight years. A monstrosity in construction and rickety even at that time (it was once described as “a lot of kindling wood called a grandstand”), it nevertheless had the finest-groomed diamond in the American Association. The grandstand, however, had been built at such an angle that no one could see the full field from either of the side sections. After the arrival of night baseball, 100-foot light poles sticking up out of the grandstand blocked the spectators’ vision. The poles were placed outside the park in 1948.
Several times the rickety structure was threatened with condemnation even though over the years the original bleachers had been replaced. In 1944 a gale leveled part of the left field fence, and two months later the wind ripped off 100 feet of the roof and dropped the debris on homes in the area.
Borchert Field, where Al Simmons, Oscar Melillo, Ray Schalk, Frank Schuite and other stars had played, had its greatest moments of glory under the ownership of Bill Veeck in the I 940s. With Jolly Cholly Grimm as manager, the club won pennants in 1943 and 1944, when Grimm was succeeded by Casey Stengel, and in 1945 under Nick Cullop. Charlie Grimm, back at the helm, won a pennant in 1951, and the Brewers repeated in 1952, when the managers were Grimm, Bucky Walters, and Dick Smith. Lou Perini, owner of the Boston Braves, had bought the Brewers in 1946, and this paved the way for major league baseball with the moving of the Braves’ franchise in 1953.
In 1952 Borchert’s widow sold the park to the city for $123,000. Back in 1937 the debilitated stadium had been assessed at $73,000, only $13,000 representing the value of the plant. With the completion of the new County Stadium in 1953, the old park met its end.
Although Borchert Field was older than the parks in the International League, that circuit also featured fields where minor-league history was made — especially Oriole Park in Baltimore and Ruppert Stadium in Newark.
Although from 1889 to 1891 an Oriole Park had been located at what was then called York Road and Tenth Street, the best-known park by that name was the later one at 29th Street and Greenmount Avenues made famous by the teams of Jack Dunn. Built in 1914 by the Federal League Club, it was named Terrapin Park until 1916, when Jack Dunn bought it for $25,000 and renamed it Oriole Park. Previously Dunn’s clubs had played at American League Park, built in 1901 when Baltimore was in the majors. Babe Ruth played in that park when Dunn signed the 19-year-old left-handed pitcher for the Orioles in 1914 and in July sold him to the Boston Red Sox.
Dunn moved the franchise to Richmond, Virginia, for the 1915 season. In 1916 he sold the Richmond franchise and bought Jersey City’s, moving it to Baltimore and Oriole Park. By 1928, when Dunn died of a heart attack, his clubs had won eight pennants, seven of them in a row, and produced outstanding players such as Lefty Grove, George Earnshaw, and Max Bishop. At the end of the 1924 season Dunn received a record $100,600 from the Philadelphia Athletics for Grove, far more than he had received from the Red Sox for Ruth. Lights were added to the park in 1930.
After Dunn’s death, the club, under nine different field managers and various general managers, won no pennants until 1944. Then a motley team of graybeards and teenagers won the flag by a margin of .0007. However, early on the morning of July 4, the old wooden park with its freestanding hexagonal ticket booths that bore some resemblance to outhouses, caught fire, and was totally destroyed. The freshly tarred roof assisted the flames that prevented firemen from saving the club’s irreplaceable archives, trophies, and pictures. Forced to go on the road, the team returned to play in old Metropolitan Stadium. Although the Orioles went on to win the Junior World’s Series against Louisville, the fire had lessened the thrill of victory. An era had come to an end.
But the fate of Oriole Park going out in a final blaze of glory was far more appropriate than that of Newark’s Ruppert Stadium, which lingered on to be used for soccer and midget racing. It escaped the fate of Newark’s earlier parks, Harrison Field and Wiedenmayer’s Park, both of which burned down. Ruppert Stadium was built next door to the site of old Wiedenmayer’s Park.
Ruppert Stadium, called Davids Stadium until Yankee ownership in 1932, was built in 1926 by Charles A. Davids, who went broke when the cost went beyond half a million dollars. The fans of Newark then raised $147,000 and gave it to the club without any promise of repayment. Holding more than 24,000, the stadium rivaled Wrigley Field in Los Angeles in strength and beauty of construction.
Two of the greatest teams in minor league history performed in the stadium. The 1932 Newark Bears featured Red Rolfe, Mary Owen, Don Brennan, Johnny Murphy, Johnny Neun, Dixie Walker, and Pete Appleton. Oscar Vitt’s 1937 Bears, which beat Barney Shotton’s Columbus Red Birds to win the Junior World Series after losing the first three games at home, included Charlie Keller, George McQuinn, Joe Gordon, Babe Dahlgren, Buddy Rosar, Willard Hershberger, Bob Seeds, Spud Chandler, Atley Donald, Marius Russo, Joe Beggs, and Steve Sundra. They could have handled most of the present major league teams. All told the Newark Bears won seven pennants in 17 years under Yankee ownership.
In those years the crowds were huge and fan enthusiasm high. Before night ball in the majors, thousands of New York, Brooklyn, and Long Island fans flocked to the night games in Newark. At times upwards of 10,000 fans jammed downtown traffic to watch the progress of out-of-town games on the huge scoreboard on the roof of the old Star-Eagle building.
Then the honeymoon ended. The location of the park, the meadow fires, television, and the shift of fans to the suburbs stopped the flow of Newark fans over the Centre Street Bridge to the stadium. After the 1949 season the Bears were moved to Springfield, Mass. The stadium had had its brief moment of glory. Instead of dying a dignified death, it lingered for years, demeaned by the uses to which it was put, vandalized, overgrown with weeds — it stood alone in the wasteland of the marshes.
And where are you Swayne Field (Toledo), replaced by a shopping center? Rickety Vaughn Street Park (Portland), where industrial smoke swirled? Lane Field (San Diego)? Recreation Park (San Francisco)? Gilmore Field (Hollywood)? Emeryvihle Park (Oakland)? Ponce de Leon Park (Atlanta)?
Are you merely off somewhere waiting for the long, long winter to end; listening for the feet of fans, the shouts of vendors, the opening-day ceremonies, the cry “Play Ball”?