Lost Ballparks

Baseball's Victims of Progress

Tiger
Tiger Stadium has been empty since 1999.

Credit: Jim Poserina

"You should enter a ballpark the way you enter a church." —Bill "Spaceman" Lee, former Major League pitcher

Baseball season is upon us. With it comes the promise of spring, hopes for the home team and, for some of us, a longing for bygone classic ballparks. Although some of us miss the places where so much of the game's history happened, we understand that some of the old ball yards outlived much of their function and usefulness.

The problem is, before the current renaissance of new parks modeled on the old, there was a movement to replace old parks with what appeared to be giant, concrete ashtrays. These faceless, "multi-purpose" stadiums, as they were called, could accommodate football, concerts, and other events besides baseball.

Perhaps that's why the new 1970s-era parks in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati felt so generic. It was by design. And maybe it's no coincidence that those three (and several other parks from then) have since been imploded as well, replaced by parks similar to what was there in the first place. As sportswriter Rich Reilly asked in Sports Illustrated, "Let me get this straight. We're bulldozing real vintage ballparks like Tiger Stadium and Fenway Park to put up fake vintage ballparks?"

What if cities had actually preserved the old parks? What if they'd been given new life as another kind of venue: a high school stadium, city park, community center, or baseball museum?

Thankfully, at least one park may evolve to be spared from the wrecking ball. When the new Yankee Stadium opens in the Bronx for the 2009 baseball season, a good part of the original model will still be standing nearby. Currently, the plan is to keep most of the shell of Yankee Stadium along with the field. The city and state will build a hotel, convention center, a high school for sports medicine and sports management, a museum, and several other offices in and around the current structure.

Sure, many of us will miss watching games in the old Yankee Stadium, but at least it will have concrete plans upon its closing, unlike Tiger Stadium in Detroit. Closed in 1999, it still stands, decaying a bit more each day. While there are still no definitive plans for preservation or development, going to bat for it is a host of groups including the Greater Corktown Development Corporation, the National Trust and a group called Friends of Tiger Stadium. (Tiger Stadium made the National Trust's list of 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 1991 and 1992.)

Over the years, while many stadiums have been torn down, there actually have been some modest, even charming stabs at preserving some aspect of what once stood. Exploring the sites today demonstrates why it's so important not to wipe everything away—why maintaining some sense of structure and place can teach people today about the past.

A few of the most notable places:

The First World Series—Huntington Avenue Grounds, Boston

A ballpark once stood on the campus of Northeastern University in downtown Boston. Before the 1912 opening of Fenway Park, Huntington Avenue Grounds was home to the Boston Red Sox. In use for only 11 years, what makes Huntington Avenue Grounds most significant is visible from the home plate-shaped plaque that sits near its original location. Dedicated in 1993, the inscription reads: "On October 1, 1903, the first modern World Series between the American League champion Boston Pilgrims (later known as the Red Sox) and the National League champion Pittsburgh Pirates was played on this site. General admission tickets were fifty cents. The Pilgrims, led by twenty-eight game winner Cy Young, trailed the series three games to one but then swept four consecutive victories to win the championship five games to three." There is also a life-size statue of Cy Young located near where the pitcher's mound used to be (in the Churchill Hall Mall).

Forbes Field, Pittsburgh

From 1909-1970, beautiful Forbes Field was the home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was the scene of one of the most dramatic moments in baseball history: Bill Mazeroski's Game Seven home run in the 1960 World Series to beat the Yankees. Though the stadium was torn down in the early 1970s, some interesting remnants remain here on the grounds of the University of Pittsburgh. A sizeable part of the outfield wall still stands—ivy-covered during summer. And the last home plate used at Forbes remains on display near its final location—only now it's under glass in the hall at the Quadrangle Building.

Metropolitan Stadium, Bloomington, Minn.

The Twins played at "The Met" until 1981. The stadium was torn down in 1984 to make room for the world-famous Mall of America, which now occupies the site. Home plate is marked with a plaque in its exact spot, now part of the Camp Snoopy area. A seat from the Metropolitan is bolted to a wall to mark the spot where a mammoth 520-foot homerun by Harmon Killebrew landed on June 3, 1967.

Sportsman's Park, St. Louis

Starting back in the 1870s, baseball was played at Sportsman's Park. Around the turn of the century the St. Louis Browns began playing here, and in 1920, the St. Louis Cardinals moved in and shared the park until 1953. Sportsman's Park was home to the Cardinals until May 8, 1966. After leaving the stadium, Anheuser-Busch and August A. Busch, Jr. donated the property for use as a private recreational facility, the Herbert Hoover Boy's Club, which opened in 1967. If you stop by, it's still possible to play on the exact spot where almost 100 years of St. Louis baseball history took place.

There are other places that, to varying degrees, have made efforts to preserve some traces of the former fields. The Polo Grounds, Shibe Park, Crosley Field … all are emotional places to wander and search for clues. Maybe it's just a plaque, or piece of a wall. But it's something to rally around.

Yankee Stadium, a new model for reuse, may become the norm. The last three classic Major League parks standing—Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, and Dodger Stadium—are relatively safe for the time being. But things can change. Should there ever come a time when they are to be retired, it's easier now to imagine them living on in some form.

As Jimmy Buffet put it, "These old ballparks are like cathedrals in America. We don't have big old Gothic cathedrals like they do in Europe. But we got baseball parks."

Chris Epting is the author of nine books including Roadside Baseball, published by The Sporting News. He is also national spokesman for the Hampton Inn Save-A-Landmark program, which helps identify and helps restore historic sites throughout North America.  

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