adventures in baseball archeology: the negro leagues, latin american baseball, j-ball, the minors, the 19th century, and other hidden, overlooked, or unknown corners of baseball history...with occasional forays into other sports
Back in August, it was announced that the baseball historian Bernard McKenna had discovered the first known aerial photograph of Maryland Baseball Park, home of the Baltimore Black Sox from about 1921 through 1931. The photograph was taken in 1927. Before McKenna found this, the precise location of the park had been unknown.
Courtesy of Kevin Johnson, here are some “very rough” dimensions for Maryland Park, calculated by Ron Selter:
LF 390 LC 440 CF 440 RC 390 RF 250 Backstop 80
The same photograph also revealed, two blocks south of Maryland Park, the location of Westport Park, the original home field of the Black Sox in the 1910s.
There was good news and bad news this year about historical markers for Negro league ballparks.
First, the good news. The Detroit Stars’ Hamtramck Stadium, the 1930s successor to Mack Park and one of the surprisingly large number* of Negro league parks still standing, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, thanks to the efforts of Gary Gillette and others.
(*-See Kevin Johnson’s great article in the latest Outsider Baseball Bulletin on Negro league ballparks, drawn from his research on the upcoming Negro League Ballparks Database.)
1) The person, place, or event to be marked is of statewide or national historical significance rather than that of local or regional interest. 2) People, places, and events already marked with existing monuments or markers receive less favorable consideration for a PHMC historical marker.
In other words, the Keystones weren’t that big a deal, and the state’s already got some markers commemorating the Negro leagues.
In reality, I think the problems are:
1) The information Dr. McDonald Williams and I gave the Commission directly contradictsthe Greenlee Field marker and might be seen as somewhat diminishing that landmark’s significance. 2) They’re having trouble seeing past Pittsburgh’s many Negro league heavyweights like Josh Gibson and the Homestead Grays, and figure that any team or player that doesn’t measure up to them isn’t worth commemorating.
It’s their commission, and they obviously have constraints on the number of markers they can manufacture and place. But as far as current scholarship knows, Central Park, and not Greenlee Field, was the first black-owned and black-built major league baseball park in the country. Giants Park in St. Louis was built in 1919 at the behest of the team’s African American owners, but we don’t know what architect or contractor was responsible. Unlike Central Park, Giants Park was not built in a black neighborhood, so it would seem less likely that a black-owned firm was involved. Mohawk Park was built in 1914 in Schenectady, New York, by the Mohawk Giants’ white ownership. Hilldale Park in Darby, Pennsylvania, was built as an amateur park, not originally for a professional team.
It’s just my opinion, but I think that all this firmly establishes Central Park’s state and national significance.
There was more to the Negro Leagues than a few big stars and teams from the 1930s and 1940s. Black professional baseball was a broad-based cultural and economic phenomenon; it represented the strivings of whole communities, a whole people. Josh Gibson, the Grays and Crawfords, and Gus Greenlee could only accomplish what they did because of those who came before them. A marker commemorating Central Park would acknowledge that Greenlee Field was not a lone, heroic effort, but rather the culmination of the desires and efforts of fans, players, and promoters over several decades.
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:
There’s also a Sanborn fire insurance map from 1913, which unfortunately cuts off in the middle of the velodrome/baseball park:
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.
Louis A. S. Bellinger and Alexander McDonald Williams
A couple of years ago Geri Strecker published a fantastic article on Greenlee Field, home of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, in the pages of Black Ball: A Journal of the Negro Leagues. It’s an absolute must-read, if you can get your hands on a copy. In it, among other things, Geri shows how the park was designed and built by a prominent African American architect, Louis A. S. Bellinger, meaning that Greenlee Field was, as it were, a black production from start to finish.
As it turns out, Greenlee Field wasn’t the only Negro league ballpark that could be characterized this way. Cleveland’s Tate Field (later Hooper Field), for example, was built in 1921 by a black contractor named George Roven Hooper. We don’t (yet) know who built Stars Park in St. Louis or Lewis Park in Memphis in 1922, Giants Park in St. Louis in 1919, or Hilldale Park in 1914, so it’s quite possible that African American architects and/or contractors were involved in those projects as well.
But we do know about one other Negro league ballpark. Last spring Dr. McDonald “Mac” Williams, English professor and the son of Pittsburgh Keystones owner Alexander McDonald Williams, submitted an official proposal to the Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission for a state marker to be placed on the site of his father’s ballpark, Central Baseball Park. As part of his application, he included several fascinating documents from his father’s files, including player contracts, financial statements…and receipts for lumber purchased during the building of the ballpark. Here’s one of them:
That’s Louis A. Bellinger, and the lumber is being delivered to the approximate location of Central Park, Chauncey and Wylie. (The date in August is actually after the ballpark hosted its first game on July 24, 1920, but newspapers noted at the time that the park was not yet finished.) When Gus Greenlee hired Bellinger to build a home for his Crawfords in 1932, he was engaging the services of a man already experienced in ballpark design and construction, because Bellinger had built Greenlee Field’s predecessor, Central Baseball Park.
The Keystones’ ballpark also marks an important passage in Bellinger’s career, as it seems to have been his first major commission as an architect. To my mind, this adds another justification for a historical marker, as Central Park carries significance in both the sports and the architectural history of Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, like most of Bellinger’s work, Central Park no longer exists; its location has apparently been a vacant lot since at least the 1930s:
It also strikes me that Greenlee Field is misunderstood if it’s thought to be a pioneering enterprise, the “first” of anything. In fact the Crawfords’ ballpark was actually a backwards-looking enterprise, an attempted revival of the golden age of the Negro leagues in the 1920s. With the collapse of Rube Foster’s NNL and the Eastern Colored League, black teams in the 1930s turned more and more to barnstorming, and instead of building their own parks they rented major and minor league venues. Greenlee Field was not the first of its kind, but the last. Its demolition in 1938 marked the end of a particular dream of black self-sufficiency, and served as a harbinger of the age of integration that was to follow.
Here’s another entry in the list of ballparks built especially for Negro league teams, joining Central Baseball Park and Greenlee Field (Pittsburgh), Giants Park and Stars Park (St. Louis), Lewis Park (Memphis), and Tate Field (Cleveland), among others. After playing a season at Island Park, a once and future semipro venue located on Van Slyck Island in the Mohawk River, the Schenectady Mohawk Giants were taken over in 1914 by a local businessman named Samuel R. Flansburgh. He determined to build the Mohawks their own park in Rotterdam, just beyond Schenectady’s southern boundary, at the end of the Broadway trolley line.
(Schenectady Gazette, March 25, 1914, p. 12)
Work was completed by the end of April, and Mohawk Park was opened on Saturday, May 2, by a game between the Mohawks and a new club, the New York Colored Giants. The Mohawks crushed them 17 to 0, and then followed up with a more restrained 10 to 2 victory on Sunday. Unfortunately this would be the last major black club to visit Schenectady in 1914, a marked contrast with 1913, which saw the Paterson Smart Set, New York Lincoln Giants, Philadelphia Giants, Brooklyn Royal Giants, and Cuban Giants of Buffalo all visit Island Park. Forced into a long road trip to find opponents, the Mohawks hemorrhaged money and finally fell apart in August.
(Schenectady Gazette, August 11, 1914, p. 7)
It turns out that the Mohawks’ troubles may have been caused by the Schenectady County sheriff, Louis A. Welch, who was determined to stop Sunday baseball at Mohawk Park. After the season Flansburgh actually sued Welch (unsuccessfully) for damaging his business.
(Schenectady Gazette, November 11, 1914, p. 12)
Flansburgh lost his lease on Mohawk Park the following year, but the ballpark continued to exist for a number of years, renamed Electric City Park, after the larger amusement complex on whose grounds it had been built.
Courtesy of Dwayne Isgrig, here are some photos of Kuebler’s Park, intermittent home of the St. Louis Giants from 1908 through 1915. Dwayne obtained them from the granddaughter of Henry Kuebler, brother of Conrad Kuebler, financial backer of the Giants through much of this period.
It might be hard to see, but a close examination of the buildings in the background show that this is indeed the same ballpark that appears in this photo from the Indianapolis Freeman. They also seem to match up with the buildings that line the opposite side of Pope Avenue in the 1908 fire insurance map of St. Louis found by Kevin Johnson.
Here’s a photograph of the St. Louis Giants’ Kuebler Park in 1909, from the Indianapolis Freeman (June 12, 1909). It’s not a great image, but it is a pretty unusual shot of a Negro league game in progress with a broad view of the small ballpark.
And here, from the same page, is a team photo of the St. Louis Giants themselves. Again, a bad image (you can barely make out their faces), though you can get a decent idea of what their uniforms looked like.
The Pittsburgh Crawfords’ Greenlee Field, built in 1932, has often been said to be the “first African American owned stadium in the Negro Leagues” (as its state marker has it), or the “first black-built and black-owned major league baseball field in the United States” (as some other sources have it). As it turns out, several other, older ballparks fulfilled one or both requirements: Lewis Park in Memphis (opened in 1922), Central Park in Pittsburgh (opened in 1920), and Giants Park in St. Louis (opened in 1919), were all built on the initiative of African American businessmen and controlled by them or by the black-owned baseball clubs they housed. And, while I don’t know the architects or contractors for Lewis Park or Giants Park, Central Park was, like Greenlee Field, designed and constructed by a black architect (more on this soon).
Tate Field in Cleveland, opened in 1921, was yet another park that belongs to this group. The Tate Stars, run by shirt shop proprietor George J. Tate, had been around for a few years when, in 1920, he convinced a group of investors to back an effort to attain league status.
Tate and company hired Candy Jim Taylor from the Dayton Marcos as player-manager and acquired five acres of land on Beyerle Road. The man they chose to build the park was a carpenter and contractor named George Roven Hooper (1880-1958), who was born in Canada to American parents—one might hazard a guess that his family had been fugitive slaves who fled to Canada before the Civil War.
Here, courtesy of Kevin Johnson, is a partial view of the park from a Sanborn fire insurance map:
(The street in the bottom right corner is Sykora Rd.)
Tate Field opened on June 4, 1921, with a game against the Pittsburgh Keystones (another team with its own park), Cleveland winning 8 to 3.
The park played host to the Tate Stars for three seasons, including one year (1922) as a full member of the Negro National League, finishing sixth. After the 1923 season the Tate Stars fell apart, to be replaced by a new team, run by Sol White, called the Cleveland Browns. The Browns retained Tate Field, but the name was changed to Hooper Field after its builder (perhaps reflecting Hooper’s ownership stake in the ballpark and/or the team).
The Browns lost their NNL franchise for 1925, and Hooper Field played host to several independent pro or semi-pro teams that season before the city again mustered up NNL entries for 1926 and 1927, the Elites and Hornets, respectively. Both played in Hooper Field.
In 1928 the Cleveland Tigers decided to try a change of venue, moving to Luna Park. Hooper Field still existed as late as 1932, but the Cleveland Cubs (1931) used Cleveland Stadium and Cleveland Hardware Field (E. 79th and Kinsman), and the Cleveland Red Sox rented League Park in 1934. Today a golf course occupies the space where Hooper Field used to stand.
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.
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 a diagram from a Sanborn fire insurance map, showing the Oval in 1929, the year the Lincolns joined the American Negro League, the short-lived successor to the Eastern Colored League:
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:
LF 180 SLF 238 LC 358 (deepest point in park) CF 292 (the HP-CF axis hit the CF end of the RF-CF bleachers) RC 286 SRF 256 RF 180
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.
What I’d originally intended as a couple of posts about the ballparks used by the St. Louis Giants, especially Giants Park (1919-1922), has turned into a kind of impromptuhistory of the Giants themselves. The most important thing I hadn’t realized in taking up this subject was just how many obstacles the team faced over the years, far more than any other northern Negro league team of the era that I’m aware of. From their beginnings in 1906 through 1918, the Giants had to contend with rapacious white financial backers, the resentment of local white semipro teams, difficulties finding a home field, hostility and outright interference from the major-league St. Louis Browns, and the vicious race riots in East St. Louis in 1917.
But Charlie Mills and the Giants persevered, and in 1919 things finally took a turn for the better. Mills was able to lure back a number of the team’s stars from previous years, and the owners put up the capital to build an entirely new field for the Giants. This new Giants Park was adjacent to the old Kuebler’s Park (itself also known as Giants Park), and stood at the corner of North Broadway and East Clarence Avenue, bounded by Prescott Avenue in left field and Holly Avenue in right, and across the street from O’Fallon Park, a public park. Here are a couple of articles from the St. Louis Argus, the first from April 25, 1919 (p. 4), the second from May 2, 1919 (p. 4).
(Click to enlarge either story.)
Note that motion pictures were to be made of the first game in the new park, vs. the Mexico (Mo.) Grays, a white semipro team. As it happens, the originally scheduled date (Sunday, May 11) was rained out, but the game went on the following day, when the ballpark was dedicated. You have to wonder: does any footage of opening day 1919 in Giants Park still exist somewhere?
Here’s another piece from the Argus the following spring (May 28, 1920), discussing an expansion of the ballpark made in preparation for the first season of the Negro National League. Here we find confirmation that the grandstand was built at the corner of Clarence and Broadway, with bleachers in the outfield, and Holly Avenue as a boundary.
(Many, many thanks to Patrick Rock and Dwayne Isgrig for providing material from St. Louis newspapers for this period.)
And here’s a Sanborn fire insurance map from 1931 showing the location of Giants Park, though no ballpark is depicted (East Clarence Avenue is on the left margin; Holly Avenue runs between lot 3446, where the park was located, and lot 3445):
The dimensions noted in the Argus (400 x 560 feet) seem right for the distance between North Broadway and Prescott, which were about 400 feet; but 560 feet the other way would extend considerably beyond Holly Avenue, and seems to indicate a pretty deep right field fence. At the same time, I’ve seen a number of mentions of home runs hit over the right field fence (usually by Charlie Blackwell or, in 1921, Oscar Charleston), so it probably was not that deep.
The St. Louis Giants played their home games in this park through both their seasons in the Negro National League, including the very successful Charleston-led squad of 1921, before Mills was ousted before the 1922 season and the NNL St. Louis franchise awarded to a new group led by Richard Keys and Samuel Shepherd. They changed the team’s name to the Stars and, because Giants Park was still rather distant from the city’s major black neighborhoods, made plans for a new park at Compton and Market. This would be Stars Park, with the famous trolley car barn impinging on left field. The old Giants Park became the home of the St. Louis Tigers, a Negro Southern League Club; but because Stars Park was not ready until July, 1922, the Stars (featuring rookie southpaws Cool Papa Bell and Earl C. Gurley) played their first nine home games at the old field.
Giants Park apparently still existed for a number of years, and in 1937, when Dizzy Dismukes managed a new version of the St. Louis Stars in the Negro American League, the team used the site, now called Metropolitan Park, as its home field. By 1950, however, the space had been taken over by the McCabe and Powers Auto Body Company. Today no sign of Giants Park is left.
(Thanks to Kevin Johnson, who started the search for Giants Park and other Negro league ballparks in St. Louis.)