One of the most remarkable settings for Negro league baseball was the Catholic Protectory Oval in the Bronx, home of the New York Lincoln Giants in the 1920s. The Lincolns’ original home, Olympic Field in Harlem, had been built by the club’s founders, Roderick James “Jess” McMahon and his brother Edward*, for their white semipro club, the Olympic A.C., back in 1905. The McMahons lost control of both Olympic Field and the Lincoln Giants in 1915, founding a new black club, the Lincoln Stars, which played at Lenox Oval for a couple of seasons. The Lincoln Giants, under the ownership of James J. Keenan and Charles Harvey, continued at Olympic until 1920.
(*-Jess McMahon was eventually best known as a boxing and wrestling promoter, an associate of Tex Rickard and Carlos Henriquez. You’ve heard of his grandson.)
At the start of the 1920 season Olympic Field was torn down, and its bleachers were transferred to the ball field at the Catholic Protectory, a famous orphanage in the Bronx. Sunday semipro and amateur games had been played there for a couple of decades, but the coming of the famous African-American team would bring much larger crowds.
Here’s an illustration of the Catholic Protectory from sometime before 1920, with the Oval situated in the center left. The outfield bleachers had not been installed yet. (From Lawrence Ritter’s East Side, West Side: Tales of New York Sporting Life, 1910-1960.)
And here, courtesy of Kevin Johnson (who has written a couple of posts on the 1928 Negro leagues), is a fantastic aerial photo of the Catholic Protectory Oval in 1924, the Lincolns’ second season in the ECL:
The scorekeeper’s table was placed under the trees visible here along the right field line.
Aside from the neo-Gothic architecture surrounding it, the other unusual feature of the Oval was its cramped shape. Kevin asked the ballpark expert Ron Selter, author of Ballparks of the Deadball Era, to estimate the dimensions. This is what he came up with:
LC 358 (deepest point in park)
CF 292 (the HP-CF axis hit the CF end of the RF-CF bleachers)
Ron remarked (to Kevin) that it reminded him of “a miniature version of the playing field at the Polo Grounds.”
The data I’ve gathered definitely suggests that the Catholic Protectory Oval increased offense by huge amounts. Any hitter with the Lincoln Giants in the 1920s—I’m looking at you, Chino Smith—probably saw his stats greatly inflated by the park, in the midst of what was already a very high-scoring era.
The Lincoln Giants’ successors in the 1930s, most notably the New York Black Yankees, moved to other venues; and in 1938 the Catholic Protectory was razed to make way for the Parkchester Apartments.
UPDATE 3/1/2011 Corrected dates on the map & aerial photo.