The Late Great Forbes Field

Copyright Marc Senger

Copyright Marc Senger

At Lost Places, we see a lot of images from places that are slowly falling to the ground.  This week, however, we see a place that is already gone.  This image is of the outfield at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  The image was taken by the late Michael Senger, a software developer who received his psychology degree from the University of Pittsburgh in the 1970’s.  This is one of many photos Senger took of Pittsburgh and Boston during that time period.  The history of baseball is ingrained in the minds of millions of Americans.  Fans hold certain statistics, such as Pete Rose’s 4,256 career hits or Cal Ripken Jr.’s streak of 2,632 consecutive games, as almost sacred accomplishments.

It is no surprise, then, that the parks where baseball is played often have the aura of shrines.  Baseball parks in the early 20th Century were built to last.  Some parks lasted so well that generations of fans grew up attending games within their confines.  Some of the parks are still alive and kicking, like the two gray ladies of Major League Baseball: Boston’s Fenway Park (opened in 1912) and Chicago’s Wrigley Field (opened in 1914).  Both are beloved by fans.  In many cities, though, beloved parks are razed to make way for progress.  Such was the case with Forbes Field.

Forbes Field was home to the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team from 1909-1970 and to the National Football League’s Pittsburgh Steelers from 1933-1963.  Built in 1909, the stadium was the first steel and concrete baseball stadium in the nation.  At the time, it was lauded as the finest ballpark in all of baseball.  The Pirates won the World Series in their first season in the new park, defeating Ty Cobb’s Detroit Tigers.  The Pirates were led by Honus Wagner.  It was the only time the two future hall of famers would face each other during their careers.

During its 61-year history, the park hosted some of the most noteworthy events in baseball history.  In 1920, the park hosted the last triple-header in the major leagues.  On May 25, 1935, an aging Babe Ruth hit the last three home runs of his career in Forbes Field while playing for the Boston Braves.  In October 1946, Jackie Robinson and his African-American all-stars squared off against Honus Wagner’s all-stars in an exhibition at Forbes Field.  Robinson famously broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.  Forbes Field was home to a number of great African-American ballplayers, including some of the top teams in the Negro Leagues.  The Homestead Grays of the Negro Leagues played their from 1922-1939.  The Grays counted many hall of famers among their numbers, including Josh Gibson.

The most iconic moment in the park’s history came during the 1960 World Series.  Pittsburgh second baseman Bill Mazeroski cracked a home run in game seven to beat the New York Yankees 10-9.  It was the first time a home run had ended a World Series.  The win gave the Pirates their first world championship since 1925.

Forbes Field is now gone, like so many legendary ballparks of the past.  The nature of the the parks–places whose stories are passed down from generation to generation, where past glories are recounted every spring–means they will still live on.  Unlike many lost places, whose stories are forgotten by time, baseball stories will get told each and every spring as long as people are playing the game.

The Myth of Abner Doubleday and Baseball

Copyright Scott Nelson

Copyright Scott Nelson

Baseball season is in full swing here in the United States, despite the chilly weather we’re still seeing in the northeast.  This week, we celebrate that great American tradition by paying homage to Abner Doubleday.  For many years, Abner Doubleday was considered the inventor of baseball.  That story is pure legend.  The truth of his life, however, is much more interesting.

Doubleday eventually found himself on administrative duty in Washington.  He was a staunch supporter of Abraham Lincoln and rode with him on the train to Gettysburg, where Lincoln delivered The Gettysburg Address, one of the key speeches in American history.  After the war, Doubleday commanded troops in Texas and San Francisco, where he eventually became president of the American Theosophical Society, whose members included Thomas Edison.  He spent much time writing, eventually penning two major works on the Civil War.

Doubleday’s connection to baseball  comes from a 1907 report claiming Doubleday invented the sport in a cow pasture in Cooperstown, New York in 1839.  In the years leading up to the report, a vicious debate raged in the United States on the origins of baseball.  Had baseball been invented in the United States or was it a variation on a British game called rounders?  National League president Abraham G. Mills and Chicago Cubs president Albert Spalding certainly didn’t want to believe the game was British.  Sportswriter Henry Chadwick, a native of Britain, believed the game had indeed evolved from rounders.  He outlined similarities between the two games in a 1903 article.  A commission was formed to research the truth–a committee of men handpicked by Spalding.

Enter Abner Graves, an engineer told the Akron Beacon Journal in 1905 that Doubleday had invented the game.  Graves said he saw Doubleday diagram the game of a baseball field.  Spalding wrote to Graves asking for proof.  Graves told Spalding that no copies of the diagram survived and that almost all of the players were dead.  He did, however, send Spalding a diagram he claimed looked just like the one Doubelday had drawn up.  That was enough for Spalding, the 1907 report by Mills gave Doubleday–and America–credit for inventing the game.

There are some problems with that version of history.  Doubleday wasn’t in Cooperstown at all during 1839.  He was a cadet at West Point–a first year cadet, to be exact, one who would have rarely been given leave.  Doubleday left a prodigious body of written work, with only one mention of baseball–in 1871.  Graves, if he did see the diagram, would have been five in 1839.  Graves was also committed to an insane asylum as an old man.  Mills’ bias was obvious, too.  Remember the Theosophical Society?  Mills donated money to the organization.

Despite evidence to the contrary, the myth is resoundingly resilient.  The National Baseball Hall of Fame was built in Cooperstown, New York in 1939, site of Doubleday’s mythical first game.  In 2010, Tim Arango of the New York Times revealed that Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig had written a letter, satating: “I really believe that Abner Doubleday is the ‘Father of Baseball’.”  History is forgotten, but myth dies hard…especially when there is money to be made.

This week’s statue was photographed by Abner Doubleday’s 5th great-grand nephew, Scott Nelson.  The statue stands on Reynolds Avenue.  The statue stands nine feet tall on an eleven foot tall granite base.  The sculptor was John Massey Rhind.  It was dedicated on September 25, 1917 by the State of New York.