The beautiful uncut hair of LaGrave

Business brought me to Fort Worth this past week, though a tight schedule prevented me from planning any baseball detours as part of the trip. Too bad since I’m currently working on the SABR Games story that took place in Fort Worth in 1952 and would have benefited greatly from even a few extra hours in town. But then I looked at the map. 🤔

Wait a minute! My meeting (at Tarrant County College) is only a mile from LaGrave Field?! Maybe, just maybe, I can pull this off.

Luck was with me as my event ended almost an hour early, so after saying my goodbyes and packing up my gear I set off on my mile-plus walk to the site of the Texas League’s first of two Dave Hoskins Nights. (If the name is unfamiliar, Hoskins was the two-way sensation who not only broke the Texas League’s Color Barrier in 1952 but was also the circuit’s top draw, top pitcher, and third best hitter. Previously he had starred in the Negro Leagues as part of the Homestead Grays Murderers Row!)

1952 Globe Printing baseball card

While the second Dave Hoskins Night was hosted by the ace’s home fans in Dallas, this first tribute, on August 28, came from the fans of his team’s crosstown rival, the Fort Worth Cats. Hoskins for his part pitched well enough to reward celebrants with a shutout and his 20th victory of the season. He even banged out two hits for good measure.

So this Dave Hoskins history was what was on my mind as I began the short walk to the ballpark, though Hoskins was hardly the most renowned player to take the field at LaGrave. Two of my favorite Dodgers, for example, were Fort Worth Cats en route to the big leagues: Duke Snider and Maury Wills, the latter breaking the team’s Color Barrier three years after Hoskins integrated the league.

The walk itself started out simple enough but got a bit dicey halfway through. Google’s walking directions had me take Main Street, which for several blocks became more highway than street. That there was no sidewalk over this stretch added adventure if not danger to this part of the journey. To boot, wearing a suit and carrying two travel bags wasn’t exactly optimal for dodging traffic, so I was fortunate that there weren’t many cars at this time of day. I was definitely happy to reach the stretch where the sidewalk resumed.

Abandoning the Google directions, I followed this street sign and turned off Main St. early to take a shortcut through a parking lot. I was quickly rewarded by a view of the ballpark. While taking my first photo, a car pulled up to me and asked if I was trying to get onto the field. Before I could respond fully, the driver warned me that the field was patrolled by a security guard whose car I could now see.

Just seeing the old shuttered ballpark, from any angle, made the walk worthwhile, but I had a second goal. To qualify for SABR Landmark status, abandoned ballparks, no matter how historic, need markers. Would my walk around the perimeter lead me to one?

Bingo!

Shadows didn’t permit a clean shot of the marker, but I could still make out the words.

FORT WORTH CATS HISTORIC LAGRAVE FIELD – Nearly 50 members of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown have played at LaGrave Field over the years.

In better days there was actually a bottom half to the sign, which named the Hall of Famers. In fact, the sign sells the old ballpark short as Satchel Paige and many other Negro League greats played here as well.

Having nabbed a picture of the marker, I also managed a picture of the old ticket office just before the aforementioned security guard interrupted my hardball voyaging.

The concerned watchman let me know they really didn’t like people walking around the ballpark, but he softened his stance somewhat when I told him I was from the Society for American Baseball Research. He asked how much longer I needed to be there and I told him I maybe needed just one more picture from a different spot. Reluctantly, he assented, and thanks to his largesse you are now looking at a shot of the centerfield scoreboard, complete with clock.

Here is an image from Google Maps that shows a much better view while testifying to the overall state of neglect and disrepair to which the ballpark has fallen victim. Graffiti runs the gamut from “Pimp” to “See God in everything.” (Click here for a photo not nearly as depressing.)

Between the watchful eyes of security and a plane to catch, my visit to LaGrave came to a quick end, though not without some humor. Having taken the most direct path to a spot I thought Uber could retrieve me, I sent my driver a helpful note.

“It’s Jason. I’m on Main and 7th, right across the street from…wait, what?!”

I enjoyed my short trek to LaGrave but also left saddened at the current state of the ballpark and its even more uncertain future. It’s easy to picture that even a year down the road, the history I was able to visit will be gone entirely, and with it, I believe, no small part of the cultural wealth and heritage of Fort Worth itself.

Baseball can be played in many places, but that isn’t to say they’re interchangeable. Some places are sacred, and I believe this is one of them. Walt Whitman sung of grass as “the beautiful uncut hair of graves.” Taking some liberty with his verse, here’s hoping the uncut hair of LaGrave might once again provide fans and yawpers alike with “the thrill of the grass.” Until then, if you’ll pardon the “potty” humor, I guess there’s always Bud Sellers. 🤣

The author’s Dave Hoskins collection

A Crusty Old Baseball Field in Brewerytown

Amid the noise of bouncing basketballs and splashing in the new pool at the Athletic Recreation Center, there exists a baseball diamond whose provenance is embedded in baseball’s past. Just outside the fence along the third baseline stands a Pennsylvania historical marker that details that background. Primarily funded by the generous donations of SABR members and dedicated in September 2017, the marker explains that the property played host to the first National League game, was the site of the first interracial baseball game and was home of the American Association’s Philadelphia Athletics.

Harry Stovey leads off second base at Athletic Park in 2017

In 2015 I went down a rabbit hole and discovered Jerry Casway’s biography of the Jefferson Street Ballparks. I was new to SABR and just developing my passion for 19th century baseball history. After learning about the extraordinary history that took place there, I decided to hop in my car and make the half hour trek to the Athletic Recreation Center and view the site with my own eyes. When I arrived, I walked onto the field where I was mentally transported back in time. I tried to imagine the sights, sounds and smells that would have been familiar to those who visited the ballparks during the 19th century. I’d like to take you on that journey.

The Jefferson Street ballparks were situated in a Philadelphia neighborhood called Brewerytown. Its proximity near the Schuylkill River, outlying farms, and lack of development attracted brewers and beer related industries to the area in the 1860s. The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin recalled the Brewerytown of the late 19th century with fondness. “…the air was as nourishing as vaporized bread…It was a place for family bakeries and rich delicatessens, a neighborhood scrubbed to within an inch of its life and resounding to the guttural language of Goethe and Schiller…” Railroad lines serviced the industry along the river while streetcar lines acted as the neighborhood’s public transit option, bringing fans to and from the ball grounds. The noises and smells of a developing Brewerytown enveloped this epicenter of Philadelphia baseball for nearly three decades.

Olympic Ball Club clubhouse along Master Street. 1860s

The property was used regularly for baseball beginning in 1864 when the Olympic Ball Club leased the grounds. On September 3, 1869, the first interracial baseball match between nationally prominent clubs was played at the Jefferson Street Grounds. The Olympic Ball Club, an all-white team, and Philadelphia Pythians, an all-black team, squared off in a match that was reported on as far away as Utah.

The Athletics called Jefferson Street home during their championship season of 1871, the first professional baseball league championship season in history. On April 22, 1876, all the inaugural National League games were rained out except the game in Philadelphia where Boston defeated the Athletics in the first National League game in history. But the Athletics were expelled from the League at the end of the season, ending Philadelphia’s affair with top-flight baseball. It would be six years before Major League Baseball returned to the Quaker City and Jefferson Street.

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. 10/6/1883

The Jefferson Street Grounds experienced change in the absence of top-flight baseball between 1877-1881. A school was constructed on the original field, while 26th street was cut through the middle of the lot. But in 1883, baseball returned to Jefferson Street when the American Association’s Philadelphia Athletics constructed Athletic Park at 27th and Jefferson streets. The first city championship game in years was played on April 14 between the Athletics and Al Reach’s Philadelphia Phillies. The account published in the Times noted that “the audience gave audible criticisms on the merits of both nines” when the squads were warming up on the field. Evidently, Philadelphia fans haven’t changed in 139 years. Toledo visited Athletic Park on May 26, 1884, and when Moses Fleetwood Walker, MLB’s first African American player, stepped to the plate for the first time, the Philadelphia fans rose to their feet and applauded him. Jackie Robinson received a different reception 63 years later.

I thought about these things as I stood in the baseball diamond at the Athletic Recreation Center. I could almost smell the beer, hear the fans yelling themselves hoarse, and see Moses Fleetwood Walker step into the batter’s box as the American flag lazily waved in deep center field. History buries its treasure deep.

In the case of the smells, sounds, and sights from within the Jefferson Street ballparks our imagination is almost all we have that will allow us to visit this space as it once was. Newspaper accounts the only vestiges of their existence. But they are lacking the context that I often enjoy, the fan experience. I left the Athletic Recreation Center convinced that I needed to do something to memorialize the place and the people who made it important.

Athletic Park as printed in the 1886 G.W. Bromley Atlas of Philadelphia

Finding what made the Jefferson Street ballparks special and worthy of a Pennsylvania State Historical Marker wasn’t difficult. Period newspaper accounts and images combined with secondary source work made this nomination a home run. I was confident the oversight committee would approve the marker. My concern was funding the marker.

The cost for the historical marker in 2017 was approximately $2,000. I had created a GoFundMe in late 2016 to fundraise and by late March, had raised approximately $500 of the $2,000. On March 27, 2017 I announced that the Pennsylvania State Historical and Museum Commission (PSHMC) approved my nomination. Once this announcement was made, full funding was achieved within a week!

The next challenge was finalizing the wording with the PSHMC. Ultimately everything I wrote made it onto the sign with one alteration: I stated that the April 22, 1876, game between Boston and the Athletics was the first Major League Baseball game in history. Despite explaining that MLB has held that stance since 1969, the PSHMC required the wording to be changed to “first National League game.”

Jefferson Street Ballparks historical marker

The Jefferson Street Ballparks historical marker was officially dedicated on September 30, 2017. Speeches were given by Dick Rosen, then Co-Chair of the Connie Mack SABR chapter, Rob Holiday, Director of Amateur Scouting Admin of the Phillies, a member of the Athletic Base Ball Club of Philadelphia (vintage baseball), and me. After the speeches and the unveiling, the Athletic Base Ball Club played a game of Philadelphia Town Ball and invited attendees and those in the community to join in the action. The Athletic club’s uniforms are almost exact replicas of the Athletics’ 1866 uniforms. It was surreal seeing those uniforms back on such a historic field. My favorite part was the young kids engaging in a 19th century game on a field where so much history had taken place, and their naivete to it all. The Philadelphia Inquirer covered the event and published a story in their October 1, 2017, issue

Philadelphia Town Ball played on the grounds of Athletic Park

Just days ago, the Philadelphia faithful packed Citizens Bank Park three straight nights as the Phillies hosted the Houston Astros in the 2022 World Series. It has been an exhilarating month for Philadelphia baseball fans, who have once again become a topic in the grand postseason narrative. I had the privilege to attend two postseason games, both Phillies victories, and they were both the loudest baseball experiences I’ve ever had. The crowd was authentic, bombastic and boorish. As we cheered our Phillies and jeered the opposition, the wind rustled leaves on an old crusty baseball diamond in Brewerytown, some five miles away from Philadelphia’s current baseball epicenter. Did our voices travel those five miles to Jefferson Street and transform into distant echoes of what once was a hotbed of baseball activity? Maybe that’s too mystical for the real world, but I’ll choose to believe it.

My Favorite (Oldest) Marker: Dreyfuss Monument at PNC Park

Since the Hardball Voyager blog was announced, I tried to pick a favorite local landmark to write about related to Pittsburgh baseball. I failed, as there are too many “favorites.” So instead, let’s talk “favorite oldest” landmark.

With recent improvements to the outfield concourse (stress on the word “improvements”), PNC Park is even more rife with reminders of the region’s baseball past than previously. Cartoonish bobblehead statues, club hall of fame plaques, and colorful, decorative signage are just some of the welcome additions to the home of a team with such a long (and occasionally) storied history.

While the new-fangled items are great and welcome, there’s one longtime object within the stadium that has my heart. It has stood steadfast through the years, far away from the glitz and color of PNC’s outfield. Amidst one of the busiest areas in the stadium, it somehow manages to quietly hide in plain sight–it’s the Dreyfuss monument, located at the top of the Peoples Gate escalator, a short distance from the entrance near the Honus Wagner statue. Aesthetically, there is nothing overly significant about the monument itself; a large, gray, tombstone-like slab ornamented with a small, circular bronze plaque. Most folks entering the ballpark probably don’t even notice it, as it seems to fit as a piece of the building’s structure. But given who it is there to memorialize, and given the history it has seen, the marker is a standout amongst so many others on the other side of the ballpark.

Barney Dreyfuss image (ca early 1900s) from Wikipedia, no indicated source

Following nearly two decades of (relative) historical anonymity, the Pittsburgh National League team really burst onto the national baseball scene in 1900. Barney Dreyfuss bought into and (essentially) merged the franchise with the soon-to-be retracted Louisville club, a team he’d previously owned. The combination of the Pittsburgh team with a number of players from Louisville (the previously mentioned Wagner included) turned the new club into a powerhouse in the NL standings immediately, and the success continued for the next decade.

Even though the shine faded a bit after 1912, Dreyfuss’s organization managed to rebound a few years later, and what followed was another period of strong finishes throughout the 1920s. Barney’s knack for finding the right people (both player-wise and management-wise) was evident from looking at the results during his stewardship; the team landed in the upper echelon of the NL quite a bit. They captured six pennants and finished as either runner-up or third place seven times each.

Barney and son Samuel from 1925 team photo, as reprinted in the 10/16/1925 Pittsburgh Gazette Times

As Dreyfuss aged, his intention was to pass ownership of the Pirates on to his son, Samuel. The younger Dreyfuss joined the club in 1920, and apprenticed as the team’s treasurer, as well as taking numerous other roles in the employ of his father during the Pirates’ resurgence. Unfortunately, tragedy struck in 1931 when Samuel passed away from pneumonia at the age of 34. It has been theorized that the loss of his son was the psychological and emotional blow that led to Barney’s decline and death only a year later.

Heydler wreath image from 7/1/1934 Pittsburgh Press

Two and a half years after Barney Dreyfuss passed away, a monument dedicated to both Barney and Samuel was unveiled at the game that marked the 25th anniversary of one of Barney’s crowning achievements—the opening of Forbes Field. NL president John Heydler and several local dignitaries were on hand for the ceremony. The memorial for the Dreyfuss men was placed in deep centerfield, near the flagpole. In the years following, the monument saw a good bit of action, as it was located within the field of play. Just like the early years of Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park, outfielders had to be aware of their surroundings, lest they become part of an unwanted collision.

After the Pirates moved in the early 1970s, the Dreyfuss monument was as well, transported from the Forbes outfield to a more fan-friendly (and less hazardous) concourse location in Three Rivers Stadium. In 2001, it was taken to the new digs on the concourse at PNC Park, and resides there to this day.

Early Pirates broadcaster ‘Rosey’ Rowswell image from 10/2/1948 Bulletin Index

If you come to a game in Pittsburgh, it’s imperative that you take in the statues and various markers celebrating the players and history of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Above all others, though, I ask that you be certain to stop by the simple gray slab, near the home plate entrance, to pay your respects to the two Dreyfuss men who left an indelible mark on Pittsburgh baseball history.

Remembering Milwaukee County Stadium

Growing up in greater Chicagoland, I had two baseball options. Despite pressure from my hardcore extended White Sox family, I became a Chicago Cubs fan. Perhaps my recessive genes kicked in.

Despite my local team affiliation, I attended games at both Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park. I remember when the Cubs played home games exclusively during the day, and when the White Sox played on the other side of 35th Street. As my baseball interests expanded beyond just my team, I became intrigued by ballparks. Each team had unique homes with rich histories. I established a goal to get out of my media market and visit every Major League Baseball park. Little did I know, the park closest to home is one I’d never visit.

During the early-1980s, my family spent substantial time visiting my paternal grandmother in Milwaukee. We enjoyed countless lunches at the nearby Ground Round. I threw peanut shells on the floor and accumulated more mini Brewers helmets than my Mom could stand. On our way home one day, my Dad took a different route. We looped around Milwaukee County Stadium, then the home of the Brewers, before one of the World Series games in 1982. My jaw dropped and my eyes widened. I had never seen so many cars in a parking lot. Even the Goodyear blimp hovered over the ballpark.

The Brewers continued playing their home games at County Stadium through the 2000 season before moving to Miller Park (renamed American Family Field in 2021). To the surprise of the 9-year-old in me, I never attended a game at County Stadium (I did see a Paul McCartney concert there in 1993).

Despite having a date with the wrecking ball, the Brewers guaranteed the memory of County Stadium would endure. Baseball fans can enjoy the home plate marker placed where Henry Aaron and Eddie Mathews powered the Milwaukee Braves to a World Series championship in 1957, and Robin Yount and Paul Molitor won the American League pennant in 1982. Just a few feet away, there’s a memorial honoring the Braves brief Cream City tenure. Speaking of Hammerin’ Hank, fans will find an added treat in the parking lot with a marker commemorating where the final home run of Aaron’s career landed.

Going to a game? Make sure to visit the Brewers Team Store in the Left Field Corner at American Family Field. There is a wall entirely constructed with bricks from County Stadium.

Heading to Milwaukee soon? The new SABR Baseball Map will provide the precise location of these markers, the Walk of Fame and the Wall of Honor outside of American Family Field.