Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Remembrance of Ballparks Past ( À la recherche du palais des sports perdu)

Sports fans like to talk about the stadiums and arenas they’ve visited. After comparing amenities and swapping anecdotes, the topic often becomes: how many have been demolished? I’ve been to ten, but two stand out because the stadiums that replaced them have been replaced. They had several commonalities: the first two steel-and-concrete American League ball parks, locations in blighted urban areas, shared by two baseball teams and a football team and on their last legs at the time of my visits.

The original Busch Stadium in St. Louis for most of its life was called Sportsman’s Park. It opened in 1902 as the home of the St. Louis Browns. The St. Louis Cardinals joined them in 1920, and both teams played there through 1953, when the Browns moved to Baltimore to become the Orioles and the park was renamed Busch Stadium for the new owners. Two years earlier, Bill Veeck sent 3' 7" Eddie Gaedel to pinch hit in a game vs. the Detroit Tigers; he walked on four pitches. After moving from Chicago, the St. Louis Cardinals played football at the stadium from 1960 to 1965.

Eddie Gaedel returning to the Browns' dugout after walking
Sportsman's Park, August 15, 1951

While visiting my friend Bill Glassman in Mount Vernon, Illinois, his grandparents took us to St. Louis to see a Cardinals game. Our seats were high up in the right-field corner but noticing the ushers didn’t patrol the aisles during the game, Bill and I sneaked down to the box seats.

 Ticket stub, Reds vs. Cardinals

The Cincinnati Reds played the Cardinals on the 90-degree evening of August 13, 1965. The Cardinals won the National League pennant the season before, catching the faltering Philadelphia Phillies during the last week of the season, then defeated the New York Yankees for the World Series championship. Although they would win that night, 7-2, the fans were not in the best mood, as the Cards would eventually slip to 7th place. Both teams featured impressive line-ups: for the Reds, Pete Rose, Frank Robinson, Tony Perez and Vada Pinson; for the Cardinals, Lou Brock, Curt Flood, Dick Groat, Bill White and Ken Boyer. The Cardinals moved to the new Busch Stadium in the middle of the 1966 season, and the stadium was demolished that same year.

Busch Stadium
1964 World Series (Mickey Mantle on deck)

Another stadium with a late-life name change was Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia. Called Shibe Park from 1909 to 1953, the Lehigh Avenue ballpark’s first tenant was the Athletics, owned by Ben Shibe and Connie Mack. The Phillies moved from the nearby Baker Bowl in 1938, and the teams shared the stadium until the A’s moved to Kansas City in 1955. The Philadelphia Eagles played there from 1940 to 1957, the most memorable game being the Eagles’ 7-0 victory over the Chicago Cardinals in a blizzard for the 1948 NFL title.

Shibe Park

As a Lehigh University freshman, three of us traveled to Philly on April 19, 1968, for the Phillies-Houston Astros game. Our seats in the upper deck just beyond first base seemed to hang almost to the field. Neither team got a man past second base, as the Phillies won, 2-1, Chris Short besting Dave Guisti before only 6,671 fans. John Bateman homered for the Astros, while Dick Allen hit his first of 33 home runs that season, a line shot that was still rising when it hit halfway up the upper deck (he was booed the next time at bat anyway), and Bobby Wine lofted his first of 2 round-trippers in 1968. This feat was so rare that when the guys sitting behind us returned from the concession stand, saw the score was 1-0 and were told that Wine had homered, one asked, “Now how did we really score?” Connie Mack Stadium was closed after the 1970 season and demolished in 1975. [Note: Glenn Diehl, who drove us to the Phillies game and almost got us killed returning from a Bulls-76ers game on a snowy night, passed away in July. Glenn was a great guy, and I’m happy he saw his Phillies win another World Series.]

Connie Mack Stadium

The late 1960s trend of circular, multiuse stadiums ended with the advent of retro baseball parks in the early 1990s. The last MLB-NFL shared arrangement ends in 2012, when the Florida Marlins open a new ballpark on the site of the former Orange Bowl, west of downtown Miami. The second Busch Stadium and Veterans Stadium, which replaced the predecessor St. Louis and Philadelphia ballparks, have been demolished after less than 50 years of life. Sure, they became obsolete faster than expected, but you still know you’re getting old when stadiums that replaced these and other grand old stadiums in turn have been replaced by new 21st century ballparks.

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