Wednesday, August 24, 2016

There Used to Be a Ballpark

Now the children try to find it
And they can't believe their eyes
`cause the old team just isn't playing
And the new team hardly tries
And the sky has got so cloudy
When it used to be so clear
And the summer went so quickly this year
Yes, there used to be a ballpark right here
Those are the words that sum up Joe Reposo's maudlin tune about the loss of innocence. Written for Frank Sinatra, the song was titled There Used to Be a Ballpark.

Baseball of late has become a bittersweet passion for my son. My boy the high school ballplayer is learning the harsh reality that the higher up the mountain he climbs, the weight of each step becomes heavier and heavier, as the air sustaining him becomes thinner and thinner.

Yet the flame burns within him as bright as ever.

Meanwhile, my son the rabid baseball fan is in the process of "collecting" major league ballpark experiences, an interest I also had at his age. Unlike me however, he has a father who is almost as passionate about the game as he, and is willing to frame summer vacations around visits to ballparks. This summer has been particularly fruitful as we made it to three new parks (for us), bringing his total including the two hometown parks, to seven.

In addition to the extant parks, my passion extends to visiting the sites described in the Reposo song "where the field was (once) warm and green and the people played their crazy game with a joy I'd never seen."

I wrote about two such sites on this blog. In a post from 2012 called "In Their Footsteps" I wrote about the thrill of standing upon a spot where something important happened. In this case the spot was the former left handed batters box of Old Comiskey Park in Chicago, where luminaries such as Joe Jackson, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson performed their magic. The significance of that spot was not lost on my then eleven year old son. The site of the old lost ballpark with a monument marking where home plate and the batters boxes once sat is now the parking lot for the new(er) ballpark across the street.

A month later I wrote a piece called "The Corner" about the patch of land at the intersection of Michigan and Trumbull Avenues in the Detroit neighborhood of Corktown. At the time of that writing, control of the site where two ballparks stood, was bitterly contested by the city of Detroit who wanted the site reserved for potential commercial development, and a group of baseball enthusiasts who hoped the site could be used as a public space devoted to baseball. That group, who called itself the Navin Field Ground Crew, much to the chagrin of the powers that be, took over the abandoned site, brought the field back to playing condition, and encouraged passionate, like-minded fans to come back to the park to play ball, get married, even scatter the ashes of loved ones on the hallowed ground where their beloved Tigers played for over 100 years. It remained that way until this year when the site was taken over by the Detroit Police Athletic League who plans to build their headquarters on the land formerly occupied by Tiger Stadium's grandstands, and retain the playing field, making it accessible to the public on a limited basis.

The three cities my son and I visited this summer were New York, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Last year we visited St. Louis. The current ballparks in those cities were built in the retro style, doing their best to emulate the classic ballparks of old while providing visitors modern amenities such as luxury skyboxes and up-to-date concession stands designed to separate fans from their money as efficiently as possible.

Miller Park, Milwaukee
Way back in 2010, we went to a game up in Miller Park in Milwaukee. You can read about that visit here. That park in contrast to those mentioned above, while paying lip service to the past in the form of superficial design elements found on its outer facade, is a thoroughly modern ballpark complete with a retractable roof. Miller Park was built to replace the fifties vintage Milwaukee County Stadium, which stood only a few feet away.

From 1903 until 1953, Major League Baseball was remarkably stable. During that period there was no expansion or contraction, and all sixteen teams in the two leagues stayed put in the cities in which they played. Several things changed after the Second World War. More and more people were moving out of the big cities and into the suburbs, and the automobile became the primary means of transportation for many Americans. The old ballparks built in a bygone era where people got around by streetcar, were ill equipped to handle people coming from the 'burbs in their cars. Making it worse, television and other amusements were competing for the public's attention. Adding to that, games were broadcast on the tube making some people feel no need to go down to the ballpark.

As you might surmise from its name, Milwaukee County Stadium was built with public funds and administered by the local government. It wasn't the first major league ballpark to have that distinction, more on that later, but it does have the distinction of being the first "build it and they will come ballpark", constructed with the expectation that it would attract a big league team to its city. They built Country Stadium atop a defunct stone quarry on the outskirts of town, on a site with acres of land, perfect for lots of parking spaces.

By the fifties, Major League Baseball was in trouble and it was becoming clear that cities like Boston, Philadelphia and St. Louis could no longer support two teams. So in 1953, the oldest team in baseball, the Boston Braves headed west for greener pastures in Milwaukee. That move proved to be a huge success as Milwaukee's new team set attendance records year after year. Their success at the gate was matched by their success on the field. In the thirteen year existence of the Milwaukee Braves, the team never had a losing record, a feat never duplicated in baseball. These Braves, led by baseball immortals Warren Spahn, Eddie Matthews and Henry Aaron, were one of only two teams who beat the Yankees in the World Series in the fifties. If anything, the Milwaukee Braves were victims of their own success. In the mid-sixties the owners, well aware of the success of their original move, looked to make even more money by exploiting a then untapped resource, the south. So in 1966, the Braves packed their bags again and headed down to Atlanta. Five years later, Milwaukee snagged another struggling franchise, the Seattle Pilots, who have played in Brewtown ever since. They were christened with a nickname that has adorned the uniforms of players on several teams in that city since the mid-nineteenth century, the Brewers.

Pretty much a no frills ballpark, there was nothing particularly beautiful about County Stadium as a building. It was a deceptively large ballpark, at its maximum it could hold well over fifty thousand fans. Despite all that, it was beloved for its intimacy; it didn't look all that big and the fans were never far away from the action. As it was set in a ravine created by the old quarry, it sported a lovely view of the Story Hill neighborhood, which sat beyond team mascot Bernie Brewer's chalet in the center field stands, from where he would slide into a huge beer stein after every Brewer home run.

Ballparks are not designed to last forever, their typical life expectancy is about fifty years. County Stadium exceeded that by seven years. Lots of memorable games in that ballpark in those years, I even saw a couple of them. But the craziest game had to be the one that took place on May 26, 1959 when "Hard Luck" Harvey Haddix of the Pirates, (more on him later), retired the first 36 Braves he faced in the game. In the bottom of the thirteenth inning, an error on a ground ball to third hit by Felix Mantilla broke up his twelve inning perfect game. Eddie Matthews sacrificed the runner to second, then Hank Aaron was intentionally walked. Haddix next faced Joe Adcock who blasted a home run to right-center field, but it wasn't quite over yet. As the Braves were running the bases, Aaron headed for the dugout, thinking Adcock's ball hit the outfield wall for a double which would have ended the game with Mantilla's run. As Aaron left the base paths, Adcock kept running his home run trot, passing up disappearin'  Hammerin' Hank, making both men out and nullifying his home run. However since Mantilla crosssed the plate before the infraction and the third out occurring, his run was ruled to have counted thereby ending the game, the no-hitter, and a chance for a "W" for Haddix. Final score Braves 1, Pirates 0. The Committee for Statistical Accuracy in Baseball would later decree that a no-hitter constituted  "a game in which a pitcher or pitchers complete a game of nine innings or more without allowing a hit." Since Haddix did not complete the game without allowing a hit (Adcock's home run would eventually be ruled a double), any reference to a no-hitter, let alone a perfect game would be washed away in the record books. Sadly all that Harvey Haddix would have to show for one of the greatest performances in the history of the game, at least in the record books, was a tough luck "L".

Helfaer Field, built atop the infield of old Milwaukee County Stadium
Unlike the sad memorial to Comiskey Park in the middle of a parking lot, the folks up in Milwaukee got it right by building a little league ballpark on the site of old Country Stadium. Today, youngsters can play the game at Helfaer Field in the shadow of the statues honoring the great Milwaukee Braves and Brewers players their parents and grandparents rooted for, a true field of dreams. Perhaps even the spirit of old Harvey Haddix is there rooting them on.

Next up: New York and St, Louis

Regarding History: There Used to be a Ballpark Part III

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