Field of Dreams
Baseball players still hit homers in Cardines Field, one America's oldest ballparks.
By Thomas Gannon | Online Only | Mar. 12, 2004
It was baseball the way it was played when small ballparks first began to appear in America in the 1880s. On Oct. 5, 2002, the Providence Grays and Hartford Senators met in a small ballpark in Newport, R.I., wearing wool uniforms and no gloves, except a small mitt for the catcher. Foul balls weren't counted as strikes, and batters could request a high or low pitch. Following rules from the 1880s, the teams played nine innings in an appropriate setting: Cardines Field, possibly the oldest existing ball field in the country.
In Newport, hundreds of buildings, from 17th-century cottages to Gilded Age mansions, are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. But one of the city's most venerable places—a baseball park—remains unprotected by any historical designation. Now, with the help of a local architect, a team of university students, and financial backing from the city, Bernardo Cardines Field is on the road to preservation.
Originally called Basin Field and renamed for Bernardo Cardines, a Newport baseball player who died in World War I, the stadium dates back to 1893. Built for unofficial "sandlot baseball" games by railroad workers from the adjacent Old Colony Line, the field hosted many barnstorming all-stars, including Negro League teams like the Baltimore Elite Giants and the New York Black Yankees. In Newport, a major naval base, many professional ball players exchanged their baseball uniforms for World War II Navy blues but still participated in Newport's Sunset League, an amateur club formed in 1919. Those Wednesday night all-star games drew thousands and required construction of temporary bleachers in the outfield, now long gone.
Although it seems unlikely that anyone would suggest demolishing this icon of America's pastime, a decade ago, some city officials, desperate for parking space and tax revenue, began eyeing the park, by then in an advanced state of disrepair, for the valuable two-and-a-half acres it occupies. At the edge of the downtown commercial district, overlooking Newport Harbor, the land is worth about $4.1 million dollars as commercial property, according to city tax assessor Allan Booth. Although the stadium lies within both Newport's extensive historic district and a National Historic District, its city-owned status exempts it from zoning restrictions.
Several years ago, Jeffrey Staats, local architect and amateur baseball researcher, began researching the history of what he calls "a small urban gem of a ballpark." He quickly discovered that it was much older than the 1937 date on the plaque at its entrance. Staats says the original backstop may have been in place as early as 1908, when the city organized its first six-team league. The plaque refers to construction and restoration work done by the W.P.A. from 1936-37, when stone and concrete bleachers were built along the third-base line.
The distinctive curving grandstand section behind home plate, which Staats believes was designed by a maintenance supervisor for the Newport recreation department, was built in 1939. The 2,200-seat stadium is reminiscent of the old Ebbetts Field in Brooklyn, while the exterior's elliptical arches reflect the early facade of Yankee Stadium.
Last summer, with the aid of several small grants, Staats enlisted the help of students at the school of architecture at Roger Williams University in nearby Bristol, R.I., to start renovating Candines. Staats hoped to give the students some hands-on exposure to the construction side of the building business and, he admits, to get some "free labor" to restore the ballpark. "It was a way to solve a problem and to get the students some real experience in the field and understand what contractors are doing when they're designing buildings later in their career."
While city recreation department spent close to $500,000 this year upgrading basic systems like plumbing and wiring and installing new field lights, Staats' 13 students—eight women and five men—got to work. They tore out a section of rotting wooden seating along the third-base line that will be replaced with more durable polymer wood. When that work is done, they will begin renovating the grandstand and, later, the stands in right field. Staats estimates that the students' efforts so far equate to about $180,000 of commercial work and will amount to more than $1.5 million by the time the project's completed in five years.
The work has been painstaking. Staats seeks to preserve and restore as accurately as possible the stadium's original elements, including rough tree trunks supporting the grandstand. Two years ago, the city repainted the exterior "Kentucky Green," a shade darker than the original paint. Staats took paint chips from the original gray pine seating to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. "I found that they matched almost exactly the field seats from the Polo Grounds in New York," he said. The seats and eventually, Staats hopes, the exterior will be repainted a more appropriate color.
The Sunset League itself, so named because games began at 5:30 p.m. and ended at dusk, is the oldest continuous amateur baseball league in the country. Katie Grovell of Newport served as bat girl at the field from the 1940s to the 1990s and saw much of the heyday of the league. Grovell, who also filled in as warm-up catcher, was on hand when pitching legend Satchel Paige, barred the major leagues for 23 years because of his race, showed up with a traveling Negro League team. "I caught Satchel Paige," she says, a distinction that has earned her a mention in a Hall of Fame publication on "Baseball and American Culture."
During the World War II era, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, and Bob Feller graced the field. Not surprisingly, since Newport is a port, the Navy dominated the Sunset League from 1942-44. With black players such as Larry Doby and Luke Easter, the Navy teams—and the Sunset League—were integrated several years before Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. The Sunset League still plays a full schedule, and the Newport Gulls, the local entry in a collegiate wooden-bat summer league, has been based at Cardines for the past two years. Cardines also is home field for a local high school and Babe Ruth teams, as well as special events, such as the 1884 "throwback" game earlier this month.
"Cardines Field is a central part of the cultural landscape in Newport," says Daniel Snydacker, executive director of the Newport Historical Society. "It's a community park and not just a stadium, and it serves as a buffer between the residential and commercial sections of that part of town. It's a beautiful park, too."
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