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.
In the commentsKim Agan points out that the last time the Cubs won the World Series, back in 1908, they took spring training at the luxurious West Baden Springs Hotel in Indiana—at Sprudel Park, a ballpark surrounded by an enclosed bicycle track. Under the name Sprudel Park, it would the following year become the home of the West Baden Sprudels, a black professional team.
Here’s a photo of the Cubs in Sprudel Park that spring (from this link provided by Kim), which gives a great view of what the ballpark looked like inside:
You can see the hotel, with its free-standing dome (then reputedly the largest in the western hemisphere), just peeking over the bicycle track that formed the ballpark’s walls. (From what I can tell the enclosed track was also where fans were seated, though maybe they also set up bleachers inside the track.) Check out more photos of Sprudel Park here--they’re worth a look.
The Missouri History Museum has uncovered an astonishing find: a photograph of Stars Park, home of the Negro National League’s St. Louis Stars in the 1920s.
See here for some (limited) views of the park’s interior, and here for a diagram of the lot (after the park was demolished).
Given that Negro league ballparks were often in well-travelled, well-populated sections of large, often-photographed towns and cities, it seems extraordinarily likely that more such images exist, waiting to be found.
(Thanks to Scott Simkus & Kevin Johnson for pointing me to this.)
Brian Campf, who sent this photo along, identified Williams by comparing the photo with this shot of the 1928 St. Louis Stars—Williams is in the back row, second from right (it’s the same shot used for Williams in the Seamheads DB, by the way).
But what’s interesting here is not so much Flick himself, though it’s a fine photo of him. It’s what’s in the background. Williams is wearing the uniform of the St. Louis Stars. From 1922 through 1931 the Stars played in Stars Park, where left field was cut off by a city trolley car barn. It was only 250 feet down the left field foul line.
As Brian points out, if Williams is pictured in Stars Park, then we’re looking at the left field line, with third base to the right of Williams (where a player is standing with hands on knees), and home plate would be either behind or slightly to the left of Williams. And down the left field line, after the grand stand and taking the place of a left field wall, is certainly what looks like a building to me, rather than an outfield wall in a ballpark. Could this be the famous trolley car barn?
If so, this would be the only real image of Stars Park I know of (aside from backgrounds to team photos such as the one of the ’28 Stars above).
UPDATE 7/24/2014Scott Simkus pointed out that these photographs, of St. Louis Stars Willie Wells and Cool Papa Bell, also show the same structure in the background, which he has always assumed was the trolley barn.
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.