A while back I called the Catholic Protectory Oval, the Bronx home of the New York Lincoln Giants, “one of the most remarkable settings for Negro league baseball.” Now I’d like to introduce what’s unquestionably the most remarkable setting for Negro league baseball: Sprudel Park in West Baden Springs, Indiana, birthplace of Larry Bird and home of the West Baden Sprudels in the 1900s and 1910s.
The Sprudels were organized and run by black employees of the palatial West Baden Springs Hotel, which boasted of the largest free-standing dome in the Americas, and advertised itself as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”
Both the Baden hotel and its great rival in the adjacent community of French Lick existed because of the mineral springs of the region, and both hotels marketed brands of mineral water—the West Baden hotel called its brand “Sprudel Water,” while French Lick sold the eventually much more famous “Pluto Water.” The hotels’ black professional baseball teams named themselves after the mineral water brands. By 1910 both clubs had gotten pretty serious—the Sprudels had hired Charles Isham Taylor, famous manager of the Birmingham Giants, to run the club, and he brought along his ballplaying brothers, including eventual Hall of Famer Ben Taylor. The Plutos, meanwhile, had built their own ballpark, Pluto Baseball Park (more on this another time).
The Sprudels had no need to build a park, because a venue already existed. The Indianapolis Freeman described it in 1911: “The park is the prettiest in the West and very much different from all other ball parks, the fans having an opportunity to see the games from an elevated bicycle track, fifteen feet high” (March 18, 1911, p. 7). This does not quite capture the reality of the park, as you can see from this 1911 postcard:
And here’s an amazing aerial view on another postcard, this one from John Martin Smith’s book of photographs and postcards, French Lick and West Baden Springs:
And here, also from Smith’s book, is a look at the upper level of the bicycle track, where fans could sit in deck chairs and watch C. I. Taylor’s Sprudels, or the major league clubs that took spring training here.
The odd shape, the bicycle track/grandstand with vacationers looking on from their deck chairs, the tennis courts in center field, the hotel’s great dome, possibly visible over the top of the structure if you looked back toward home plate, the ambience of the surrounding gardens…all of this combined to make the West Baden Base Ball Park, or Sprudel Park as it was usually called by the newspapers reporting on games, one of the weirdest settings for professional baseball you can imagine.
The Sprudels and Plutos began to fade away as baseball powers in the mid-1910s, and Sprudel Park burnt down in 1928. But today, to judge from Google Maps, it looks like a baseball field of some sort, with a backstop and outfield fence, lies directly on the former site of Sprudel Park. Even though the angles are a little different and the course of the creek seems to have been altered since 1913, you can orient yourself by the gray cross of the little bridge and walkway across the creek, which remains.