Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Regarding History: There used to be a ballpark III

There has been a lot of talk lately about baseball history here in Chicago, especially pertaining to the Chicago Cubs.

As the entire world knows by now, the Cubs are in the World Series, words that could not be truthfully said since 1945. That means countless Cub fans have come into this world and gone to their reward without having seen their team compete for the game's ultimate reward. On top of that, no Cub fan alive can remember the last time their team was World Series Champion, as the last time that happened was 108 years ago. Heck Wrigley Field wasn't even around yet, AND believe it or not, the Cubs did not play on the north side of Chicago, but the west side.

All that's left of the ballpark where the Cubs won their last World Series is this plaque:

One of the biggest questions fans have of the current team is if they have a true appreciation for the team's history and the suffering of its fans. Anyone rooting for the team should hope the answer to that question is: yes they know that history, but no, they don't really care. After all, how could any team survive let alone triumph in a grueling 162 game season, plus two rounds of playoffs AND the World Series, all the while struggling with the collective burden  of 108 years of suffering of countless million fans?

Ah but certainly not having been World Series bound for so long is not the the fault of the players, the coaches, the front office, or the ownership; the true culprit for the Cubs' historic lack of success, according to many fans, is the Curse. Whether the curse was cast by a player who went to his grave known as the guy whose base running mistake enabled the Cubs to slip past his team to win the pennant and World Series in 1908, a guy who was pissed off because the team didn't let him bring his pet goat into the ballpark in 1945, or a black cat crossing Ron Santo's path in Shea Stadium in 1969, the legend of the curse is emblazoned into the hearts and minds of even some of the most rational fans of the baseball team who plays on the north side of Chicago.

But it's here where curse supporting fans' knowledge of Cubs history and the game of baseball is flawed. The rational explanation for the team's lack of success on the field is this: since 1945, the Cubs have fielded very few good teams. The ones that were good were not of World Series caliber, and were beaten by better teams. The reason for all that, is pretty straightforward as well.

PK Wrigley inherited ownership of the Cubs from his father William upon his death in 1932. Many describe Wrigley the Younger as a spoiled rich kid who had no interest in baseball and let the team flounder until his death in 1977. An employee of both Wrigleys, Sr. and Jr., Bill Veeck, in his autobiography Veeck as in Wreck, paints a more nuanced picture of PK Wrigley. According to Veeck. Wrigley was an idiosyncratic man who had his own opinions on how to run a ball club, opinions which were diametrically opposed to those of his fellow owners. Wrigley's decisions, from where to acquire players, to putting lights in his ballpark, as I argued in this postworked much to the detriment of the Cubs on the field both during and long after his life. Ironically. many of Wrigley's decisions that led to decades of less than uninspired ball, ended up making the franchise one of the most popular and financially successful in all of sports. Consequently, the team could build on their tremendously devoted fan base and financial resources to put together today's team which is on the verge of making history. At the heart of all this success is Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs since 1916.

Ballparks hold a special place in the hearts of baseball fans. For starters, no two are alike. Apart from the diamond where the center of the action takes place, there are no restrictions for the dimensions of a baseball field, Traditionally, those dimensions were determined by the size and shape of the lot available to build the facility. Baseball is the only game I know of that includes a pre-game ritual involving the officials and representatives of both teams discussing the "ground rules" of the playing field. One of the most famous attractions, as well as idiosyncrasies of Wrigley Field is the ivy planted on the outfield wall. That ivy is considered "in play" meaning it is an obstruction that players need to contend with at times during a game.

Most ballparks are not surrounded by grandstands, meaning they provide fans a view of the surrounding neighborhood outside their walls.Think of Wrigley Field and its view of Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood beyond its outfield walls. Think of Fenway Park in Boston and the famous Citgo sign beyond its iconic wall known as the Green Monster in left field.

In the 1990s after two decades of building stadiums that accommodated baseball and football, two non-compatible sports, there was a paradigm shift in modern baseball park design, the return of the baseball only stadium. These new ballparks borrowed many of the design elements of the classic ballparks such as Wrigley and Fenway, including signature views beyond the ballpark. This summer, my son and I visited three of these newer ballparks, New Yankee Stadium as described in Part II of this series, Progressive Field in Cleveland, and PNC Park in Pittsburgh.

PNC Park and its now iconic view of the Downtown Pittsburgh Skyline
One thing that separates the newer ballparks from the classic ones built 100 years ago is their location. As the new facilities are built in part with public money and the backing of local government, many of them were built in prime locations either in or just on the fringe of their city's downtowns. PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates is located directly across the Allegheny River from Downtown Pittsburgh, providing fans a spectacular view of the Roberto Clemente Bridge and the Pittsburgh skyline.

Honus Wagner monument outside PNC Park
The current trend in ballparks is to place larger than life bronze statues of a team's heroes of the past, in and around the facility. At the main entrance of PNC Park, just behind home plate, Pirate fans are greeted by Johannes Peter "Honus" Wagner, whose likeness would more than likely grace a Mount Rushmore of all time baseball greats, if such a thing existed. Baseball is a game that celebrates its history more than any other and it's nice to see so prominently situated, the likes of a magnificent player who played his final game nearly a century ago. Along with Wagner, statues of the Pirate's own version of Mt. Rushmore are placed outside the ballpark, Roberto ClementeWillie Stargell and Bill Mazeroski, players who represent four of the five World Series championships in the team's history.

The Pirates are only part of the legacy of baseball in Pittsburgh. In the thirties the city was the home of two of the most storied teams in baseball history, the Homestead Grays and the Crawfords. The 1936 version of the Crawfords was comprised of what was a veritable All Star team of the finest African American players of the time including Judy Johnson, Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, and Satchel Paige, all Hall of Famers. As such, this team is certainly one of the greatest baseball teams ever assembled. At one time, statues of some of these players as well as Buck Leonard who played for the Grays, joined Honus Wagner and the other Pirates of old outside the ballpark. For some reason the statues of the Negro League greats were removed and sold, (with the proceeds going to charity) in 2015 and replaced with banners. The little fanfare accompanying the removal of the statues is a sad reminder of the current lack of interest and respect for the history of Black baseball that existed as a separate entity until the early fifties.

When my son and I got inside PNC and into our seats, I wondered out loud if it was possible for a ballpark to have too beautiful of a view, one that was so interesting that it distracted from the game. After a big play for the home team, my boy noticed that one of the skyscrapers across the river was putting on a light show. This must have been a coincidence we thought, that had nothing to do with the ballgame. We were wrong, another big play, another light show. Now there's some big time planning the two of us thought. Contrasting that bit of high tech theatrics with the lowest of low tech, at the end of the game, the team invited fans to come onto the field to play catch. The experience of a baseball game today in Pittsburgh is a celebration, exactly as it should be.

What was once deepest center field of Forbes Field, Schenley Park, Pittsburgh
The beauty of PNC Park harkens back to what had to rival Wrigley Field as the most beautiful ballpark in baseball, Forbes Field. That park was one of the first of the all steel and concrete "classic" ballparks, and one of the biggest. Pirates owner Barney Dreyfus built his new baseball palace on land adjacent to the University of Pittsburgh and Schenley Park, both of which were visible from the park, The site at the time was on the far outskirts of town and with the help of none other than Andrew Carnegie, Dreyfus was able to purchase a whopping seven acres for his new ballpark. The ample amount of land available to Dreyfus was reflected in the dimensions of the field, deep center field extended an immense 457 feet from home plate, as you can see in the photograph of what remains of the outfield wall in Schenley Park. Those dimensions were reduced considerably in the late forties when the bullpens were placed in left field, bringing the left field wall in about thirty feet. It probably was no coincidence that the Pirates at that time had just acquired slugger Hank Greenberg from the Tigers who gladly took advantage of the new dimensions. Greenberg was replaced by another slugger, Ralph Kiner who deposited so many balls in the left field bullpen that the nickname for that part of the ballpark became "Kiner's Corner". After Kiner retired, the bullpens were placed back in their original place outside the foul lines and Forbes Field returned to its original dimensions.

Plaque marks the spot of Bill Mazeroski;s
famous home run
Unlike other ballparks, it's not at all difficult to pick the most memorable moment in Forbes Field. As any baseball fan in Western Pennsylvania can tell you, it occurred precisely at 3:36PM on October 13, 1960. That's when in the bottom of the ninth inning in the seventh game of the world series with the score tied at nine against the Yankees, Bill Mazeroski did what every baseball loving kid in America dreams of doing. He hit a walk-off home run (off a 1-0 Ralph Terry pitch), to win the seventh game of the World Series for his team. No one had ever done that and no one has done it since. For that reason, Mazeroski's home run, is the most important home run in baseball history. Here's the story of the actual ball he hit. 

If you recall all the way back to Part I of this series, I mentioned"Hard Luck" Harvey Maddix who threw twelve perfect innings against the Milwaukee Braves only to lose that game in the thirteenth inning. Well his luck got a little better that day as he was the pitcher of record for the Pirates when Mazeroski his his home run, so he was credited with the win.

Beside the remnants of Forbes Field's center field wall in Schenly Park, there are a few scant reminders of the old park.  Inside the University of Pittsburgh's Posvar Hall, you'll find the home plate that was removed from Forbes Field in 1970 and flown by helicopter to Three Rivers Stadium downtown, which was replaced in 2002 by PNC Park a few blocks away.

Then on the sidewalk outside of Posvar Hall, a row of bricks mark the location of Forbes Field's  left field wall. Just before the curb where Roberto Clemente Drive cuts through the site of the lost ballpark, sits a plaque on the sidewalk marking the spot where Mazeroski's home run cleared the wall. In case you need further proof of that home run's significance to Pirate fans, consider this: every year on the anniversary of the event, fans gather at that site to celebrate it. Sometimes Maz himself attends.

Baseball past and present is alive and well in Pittsburgh.


The same is true in Cleveland.

Progressive Field, Cleveland
When my boy and I walked into Progressive Field in Cleveland this past August, both of us immediately fell in love with the ballpark. He was taken by how open and unassuming it was. We had free reign to move around every inch of the stands without ushers inspecting our tickets and telling us where and we could and could not wander. That was a pleasant contrast to Yankee Stadium a month before where an usher yelled at me one hour before the game started, for standing in an area reserved for people in wheelchairs." I'm just trying to take a picture" I told the woman. "But you're standing in people's way" she said. I looked around and the only person who was in the enclosure was at the other end, about fifty feet away, entirely oblivious of us. When I pointed that out to her she said: "well you still can't be here."  By contrast the Cleveland ushers were as laid back and helpful as they could be, and even allowed my son to hang out by the field attempting to get autographs from the players, one of whom obliged.

I was immediately struck by the vast number of monuments to the team's past scattered throughout the ballpark. The Cleveland Indians are not exactly the most successful franchise in major league baseball history. Like the Chicago Cubs, as of this writing,  they have only two World Series championships to their credit and have appeared in only six Fall Classics (counting the one going on at the time of this writing) compared to eleven (ditto) for the Cubs.

However you'd never know it when you step into Progressive Field. Consider this:

Members of the first inductees into the baseball Hall of Fame, June,1939. Top row:, Honus Wagner, Pete Alexander, Tris Speaker, Napoleon Lajoie, George Sisler,Walter Johnson. Bottom row: Eddie Collins, Babe Ruth, Connie Mack, Cy Young. Two members of that group were not present for the photo, Ty Cobb and the late  Christy Matthewson
The photograph above has to be of one of the greatest collections of baseball immortals ever assembled in one place. The picture was made at the official opening of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY on June 12, 1939. Of the ten former players pictured, Cleveland was represented by more than any other team as Tris Speaker, Nap Lajoie and Cy Young* all played a significant part of their careers in Cleveland.

That's just for starters. Upon walking into the ballpark, in addition to the three mentioned above, we were also greeted by these names of the past that gave me goosebumps, all Hall of Famers: Lou Boudreau, Stan Coveleski, Larry Doby, Bob Feller, Addie Joss, Bob Lemon and Satchel Paige.

The Cleveland Indians played a large role in the integration of baseball as on July 4, 1947, Larry Doby played his first game with the team at Comiskey Park in Chicago, becoming the first African American player in the American League. You can read about him here. The man who hired Doby was none other than Bill Veeck, whose attempts to integrate baseball several years before were thwarted by Commissioiner Kennesaw Mountain Landis. You can read about Veeck here.

In 1948, Veeck signed the great Satchel Paige to his first stint in the major leagues. No one knew exactly how old Satch was, but he was certainly well into his forties, making him the oldest "rookie" in Major League history. Sports writers claimed that signing Paige was merely a publicity stunt, one of them even said: "if Satchel Paige were white, there is no way the Indians would have signed him." An indignant Bill Veeck responded: "Had Satchel Paige been white, he'd have been in the major leagues for twenty years."

The Indians made it to the World Series that year and won, beating the Boston Braves four games to two, making Larry Doby and Satchel Paige, the first African American players to contribute to a World Series championship.

All in all, 31 Cleveland Indian players have been inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame.

But wait there's more, Joe Jackson, who most certainly would have been in the Hall of Fame had he not gotten himself mixed up with gamblers and the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, began his career in Cleveland. Jackson was perhaps the greatest natural hitter in baseball, whose swing inspired no less than both Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth.

Perhaps the brightest Cleveland light not in the Hall of Fame was shortstop Ray Chapman, one of the most popular players in Indians history, who was killed by a Carl Mays pitch in the Polo Grounds in New York in 1920. We visited his grave in Lakeview Cemetary in Cleveland where as you can see, people continue to pay tribute to him.

That 1920 season was one of trumph and tragedy for the Indians. In 1914, Bill Wambsganss was brought up to replace the unquestioned leader of the team, Napolion Lajoie. Lajoie (pronounced la-zhoe-EE), was so important to the Cleveland nine that during his tenure there, the team was nicknamed the Naps, after him. Wamby as he was called, was no Lajoie at the bat, but still a capable hitter and a very dccent fielder. A natural shortstop, Wamby was forced to play second base because Chapman was already there at short. The two of them made a formidable double play combo, but combined with their first baseman Doc Johnston, their names when read in succession were not nearly as poetic as the trio of  Chicago Cubs who were made famous by this poem "Baseball's Sad Lexicon"  by Franklin Pierce Adams:
These are the saddest of possible words:"Tinker to Evers to Chance."
Trio of bear cubs, and fleeter than birds, Tinker and Evers and Chance.
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,
Making a Giant hit into a double–  (play)
Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble:"Tinker to Evers to Chance."
Next to those guys, Chapman to Wambsganss to Johnston just didn't have a chance. But they were still pretty good at turning two.

And unlike the Cubs' JoeTinker and Johnny Evers who couldn't stand each other, Chapman and Wambsganss were the closest of friends.

On that fateful day, August 16, 1920 when Chapman was struck in the head by a Carl Mays submarine spit-ball and died the next day, Bill Wambsganss was devastated. Not only did he lose his best friend, but also his double-play partner.

He managed to carry on through the rest of the season but just barely.

With three games left to play in the season and a virtual tie between the Indians and the White Sox, seven of the best Chicago players were suspended for their role in throwing the 1919 World Series. Decimated, the White Sox lost two out of their last three games to St. Louis and finished second to the American league Champion Cleveland Indians. Cleveland's opponents in the World Series would be the National League Champion Brooklyn Robins (today's LA Dodgers).

On October 10th the series was tied at two games apiece. Wamby continued to slump both at the plate and in the field. He confided in a friend that he was afraid his dispondance over Chapman's death was hurting the team. Before the game that day, a friend assured Wamby telling him to: "Stay with it, this could very well be your day."

Game five took place in League Park in Cleveland. That game would be one of many firsts. With nobody out and the bases loaded with Indians, including player-manager Tris Speaker and Wamby, outfielder Elmer Smith hit a home run which would be the first grand slam ever hit in a World Series game. Then in the third, Cleveland pitcher, 31 game winner Jim Bagby hit a solo home run, the first home run ever hit by a pitcher in a World Series. But all that paled in comparison to what was to come.

The Indians were up seven runs by the top of the fifth, but Brooklyn threatened to cut deeply into their lead by loading the bases with nobody out. Lefty Clarence Mitchell was up to bat. Gladly conceding a run in the hopes of preventing an extra base hit or with luck, possibly turning a double play, Wambsganss played deep, close to the outfield grass, just a few steps toward the first base side of second. The hit and run was on meaning the runners would take off before the ball was hit. Bagby offered a fastball which Mitchell hit toward center field. The runners with their heads down in mid-stride, heard the crack of the bat and knowing the ball was hit hard, kept running. Wamby it turned out positioned himself perfectly, needing only a few steps and a lunge to his right to snag the ball on the fly. The batter Mitchell was out. Wamby's momentum carried him toward second base. At that point, Pete Kildoff, the runner at second, was still barreling toward third. Wamby calmly stepped on second, doubling up the oblivious runner. Two outs. By the time the runner at first, Otto Miller lifted his head, he saw himself headed right in the direction of Bill Wambsganss standing on second base holding the ball Mitchell just hit. It was too late, Miller's momentum wouldn't allow him to turn back, he just stopped dead in his tracks. Legend has it that at that point Miller said to Wambsganss: "Where'd you get that ball?" Wamby taking two steps to his left and tagging out the stunned runner said: "Well I've got it and you're out number three."

It all happened so fast that people at League Park, including the base runner Kildoff couldn't quite comprehend it. As it began to sink in, the crowd noise built in a slow crescendo from a murmur to a wild roar that lasted over five minutes. Wambsganss just did what no player had done before or since; he turned an unassisted triple play in the World Series.

One can only imagine how his thoughts must have turned to his late double play partner. I can't say for sure but he must have felt the irony of being a player best known for his ability to turn double plays with his partner, would go on to turn a triple play all on his own on the game's biggest stage after losing that partner. Perhaps he felt he wasn't quite alone after all in making that play. 

The Indians would eventually win that best of nine series winning five games to Brooklyn's two.

Bill Wambsganss would later lament that after a long and distinguished baseball career, he would always be remembered for that one serendipitous play.

On the other hand at least he's remembered. Later in life Wamby acknowleged that fact. "There were a lot of pretty good ballplayers in my time who have been forgotten," he told an interviewer, "but they remember me because of that one play."

That one play is my vote for the most memorable moment at Cleveland's League Park, in its time the smallest major league ballpark. The park, in the Hough neighborhood of East Cleveland, was replaced (partially) in the 1930s by the largest major league ballpark ever, Municipal Stadium, which could hold nearly  80,000 fans. It would become the paradigm of ballparks to follow, that is to say it was multi-purpose, built downtown, and made possible at least in part by public money.

The cavernous stadium on Cleveland's lakefront was the home of the Cleveland Browns football team as well as the Indians. It was torn down in the mid-nineties and replaced by a football only stadium. The Indians moved into Progressive Field, one of the first baseball only modern ballparks in 1993. Like PNC Park, it also has a very nice view of downtown, including one of my favorite skyscrapers anywhere, Terminal Tower.

Curiously League Park continued to be the part time home for the Indians for a number of years, hosting weekday games while Municipal Stadium hosted weekend games. The Indians quit playing in League Park completely in 1946 and the facility closed for good in 1949. Most of League Park was demolished, except for the ticket office building which stood in the right field corner of the old ballpark. As the neighborhood was in decline for many years the site of the old park stood in decrepitude until about 2010 when it was decided that what was left of the site would be turned into a public park with the old field converted into a new ballpark to be rented out to local teams.

Here is how it looks today:

League Park, Cleveland, the field which retains the location and dimensions of the original, seen from the left field corner
Field turf has replaced the natural grass and dirt playing field, but otherwise the field retains the same dimensions and, unlike Heritage Field which sits on the site of old Yankee Stadium, the new field is placed in exactly the same location as the original.  

The old ticket office is the only original structure left standing at League Park 
The old ticket office pictured above, survived all those years intact and was lovingly restored. Today it serves as a museum of Cleveland baseball history including the Cleveland Buckeyes, the city's entry in the Negro American League, who also played on this field.

At 290 feet from home plate, a chip shot for major leaguers, this fence replicates the 40 foot fence that was the right field wall of League Park. 
Visiting new League Park you get a very good sense why ballparks looked the way they did 100 years ago. Built in a residential neighborhood, the team had to work with the site available to them, in this case a rectangular plot of land, not at all ideal for a baseball field. As a consequence of the shape of the plot, the left field corner could be placed as far from home plate has possible, while right field was a mere 290 feet away. In order to prevent ridiculously cheap home runs to right, the team built a 48 foot fence, (The Green Monster in Fenway Park is only 35 feet), which has been replicated, well at least half of it, as you can see in the photograph above. 

When the new park opened with much fanfare in August, 2014, former Cleveland Indian Travis Hafner stood at home plate and knocked several home runs over the fence. Unfortunately unlike Heritage Field in the Bronx, the League Park field is fenced off and accessible only at game times to officially sanctioned teams. However those fortunate enough to be able to play there can stand in the footsteps of every major leaguer who played in the American League between 1900 and 1946, quite a formidable group.

Oh yes and one National League team as well, the 1920 Brooklyn Dodgers who not only lost the World Series on this very field, but adding to their hard luck legacy, hit into that unassisted triple play so many years ago. If you blink hard enough, you can almost imagine it happening all over again, right before your eyes... 

Looking toward second base, the exact spot where Bill Wambsganss turned his unassisted triple play in the 1920 World Series
Of course what Cleveland, Pittsburgh, New York and every major league city except Boston and Chicago do not have, is an honest to goodness, functioning classic ballpark. It's true that Los Angeles has Dodger Stadium which has been around for a good long time, over 50 years, has seen its share of baseball history.

But Dodger Stadium can't say that it has seen the likes of players such as Cy Young, Nap Lajoie, Tris Speaker, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Walter Johnson, Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Cool Papa Bell, or even Jackie Robinson (who has been immortalized in every MLB ballpark) play on its field. For what it's worth, Fenway Park and Wrigley Field can.

What those two ballparks have that no other ballpark has ever had, is a 100 year history, and a future. If you ask what was the greatest moment in Wrigley Field, that moment could have been during the 1932 World Series when Babe Ruth allegedly pointed to center field and the next moment hit a home run to that exact spot. It could have been in 1938 when Cub player/manager Gabby Harrnett hit his Homer in the Gloamin to vault the Cubs over the Pirates on their way to the National League pennant. It could have been in 1970 when Ernie Banks hit his 500th home run. 

Or it could be in a few days if and when the Cubs win the World Series.

That moment would overshadow them all.

Now how sweet would that be?


Click below for parts I and II:

There Used to be a Ballpark Part I
Beer and Whiskey: There Used to be a Ballpark Part II

*The legendary pitcher Cy Young, yes that one, played his first nine seasons for the now defunct National League Cleveland Spiders, and three seasons in the twilight of his career for the Indians.

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