By Bill Price*
On June 30, 1909 a new era in baseball began with the opening of Forbes Field, Pittsburgh. It was the first decade after the peace agreement between the American and National Leagues. The owners of the ball clubs were in a period of prosperity. They might have simply deposited their profits in their bank vaults, but instead they wisely poured the money back into the game by erecting modem grandstands of concrete and steel. The first of these was Forbes Field. Later that same year Benjamin Shibe opened his new ball park in Philadelphia.
In 1910 Comiskey Park in Chicago and League Park in Cleveland were added. The next year, League Park (Griffith Stadium) in Washington, was rebuilt. One by one the other major league cities followed suit until the Boston Braves threw open the gates of Braves Field on August 18, 1915. This was to be the last of the new openings until 1923 when Yankee Stadium became the permanent home of the New York Yankees.
For 45 years the Braves had made their home in a tiny wooden ball park called "The South End Grounds." Then in 1914 picturesque owner James E. Gaffney, who had been looking for a new home for the Braves since he bought the team in 1912, chose the old Aliston Golf Club on Commonwealth Avenue for the location of a "perfect ball park." After the purchase of the golf links on December 1, 1912, ground was broken on March 20, 1915. The entire lot measured 850 feet by 675 feet. Rather than build the park right on Commonwealth Avenue, the shrewd Gaffney set it back to the rear of the lot, near the railroad tracks, so that he was able to sell the frontage at a handsome profit. The park was built for approximately $1,000,000 and reportedly used 750 tons of steel and 8,200,000 pounds of cement. The covered grandstand seated 18,000 and two uncovered pavilions, one down each foul line, seated 10,000 each and a smaller bleacher in right field, the famous "Jury Box," added 2,000 more for a total of 40,000 seats. A ten-foot high concrete wall surrounded the entire park.
Gaffney wanted the playing field to be large enough so that it would be possible to hit an inside-the-park home run in any of the three outfield directions. The players who moved from the comfortable confines of the South End Grounds to the spacious new park said it was like moving from a three-room apartment to a brand new mansion. The left field foul line measured 402 feet as did the right field foul line and it was 550 feet to deepest centerfield! The postcards of the era rightfully called it "The largest baseball park in the world." It was Ty Cobb who stood at home plate a few days before its official opening and, staring out at the distant walls, exclaimed that a ball would never be hit out of the park. And he was nearly right, too, as we will see later.
The gala opening was held on August 18, 1915 when the Braves' administrators invited just about everyone they knew. Among the invited guests were 10,000 Boston school children who jammed the left field pavilion. The Braves announced the attendance as 56,000 although the actual count was nearer 42,000. More than 6,000 fans were turned away. In any event, the crowd of over 40,000 was the greatest throng that had ever attended a baseball game anywhere until that date. With World Series hero Dick Rudolph pitching, the Braves made it a perfect day by defeating the St. Louis Cardinals, 3-1.
Unhappily, however, the Braves were unable to repeat their pennant of 1914 and fell to second place, seven games behind the pennant-winning Phillies. The decline on the field continued and was accompanied by a comparable drop in attendance. So, seeing the handwriting on the wall, Gaffney sold the Braves to a group of local bankers on January 8, 1916. In 1916 the Braves slipped to third place. In 1917 they slumped to sixth and in 1918 they just about hit bottom. They finished seventh and set an all-time record for attendance in reverse for the club when only 84,938 faithful fans showed up for the entire season.
* Assisted by Paul Doherty
In its early years Braves Field served as the site of two World Series when the Braves returned a favor of 1914. That fall the Red Sox allowed the Braves to use newly constructed Fenway Park. When the Red Sox played in the World Series in 1915 and again in 1916, they were permitted to play their home games in Braves Field, which had a capacity of about 8,000 more than Fenway Park.
In the first years of Braves Field, essentially all the home runs hit there were inside the park. We say "essentially all" because there were some flukes. In fact, the first fourbagger hit at the huge field was one of those difficult to categorize. On August 18, 1915, Doc Johnston of the visiting Pirates hit a fly ball which should have been caught but got by the rightfielder and rolled under a gate in front of the bleachers. On three other occasions, visiting batters hit balls that bounded through openings on the leftfield scoreboard where the score boy inserted numbers. And occasionally a player would bounce a ball into the stands, which in those days went for a roundtripper.
The first home run hit out of the park occurred on May 26, 1917, when Walton Cruise, the powerfully built outfielder with the Cardinals, parked one in the 25 cents stands in rightfield called the "Jury Box," which was beyond the 402-foot marker. This feat was not duplicated until August 16, 1921, when the same Walton Cruise, now playing with the Braves, hit a tremendous blast to the same area off none other than Pete Alexander of the Cubs.
The first home run hit over the leftfield wall did not take place until the park was nearly ten years old. The event, well publicized in the Boston papers, took place on May 28, 1925. Frank Snyder, the hard-hitting catcher of the New York Giants, dissolved a tie score in the eighth inning with a drive, slightly favored by the wind, which cleared the top of the fence by 20 feet and was about 15 feet inside the foul line. It went about 430 feet. The Boston writers were unstinting in their praise because they had been viewing inside-the-park homers with great regularity.
In 1921, for example, there were 38 homers hit in Braves Field and 34 were inside jobs. Of the 19 hit by the Braves, Tony Boeckel hit six and Ray Powell, five. Of the IS hit by the opposition, Rogers Hornsby hit three. Accounting for the other home runs, Max Carey and Milt Stock bounced balls into the stands; Dutch Ruether bounced one through a hole in the score board, and Cruise hit the only one out of the park. As another example, the visiting New York Giants on April 29, 1922, hit four inside the park homers in one game against the Braves, including two by George Kelly.
Finally, in 1927, with 21-year-old catcher Shanty Hogan being hailed as a new home run hero, the local fans clamored for more "over-the-fence" home runs. So bowing to the wishes of the fans in the fall of that year, the Braves' management decided to shut off the wide-open spaces and to build bleachers in fair territory in left and center fields. An eight-foot high barrier was constructed in front of the new bleachers, which shortened the distances for the home run slugger by approximately 70 feet. Also the right field foul line was shifted nearly 25 feet to the right, thus bringing the right field foul pole into the right field pavilion. Unfortunately, when the 1928 season opened Hogan was gone, having been sent that spring to the Giants as part of a package that brought Rogers Hornsby to the Braves.
Home runs fell like rain over the shortened fences into the bleachers that season. Unhappily for the Braves, most of them were hit by enemy bats. Then mid-way through the season, after 47 of the Chinese homers, it was decided to remove the fence and the new stands. About the only bright note for the Braves during that short period was provided by third baseman Lester Bell, who hit three of his ten home runs that year in a single game and just missed immortality when a fourth drive bounced off the right field wall for a triple.
There were many changes in the park after 1928, both in new fences and shifts of the diamond. Almost annually the bleachers in left field came and went. In 1936 the playing field was revamped with home plate being moved 15 feet closer to the grandstand. Even the name of the park was changed that year. Instead of being called Braves Field, it was called "National League Park."
On July 7, 1936 the All-Star-Game was played at the park for the first and only time. This, too, was an artistic disaster as an unfortunate mix-up in an announcement concerning the availability of tickets caused the turnout to be a disappointing 25,556 - the smallest crowd in All-Star-Game history! It was also in 1936 that the president of the team, Bob Quinn, made a very unfortunate decision. In his desire to remove the stigma of many years of losing teams, he abandoned the nickname of Braves and, appealing to the fans, conducted a poll for a new nickname. The unfortunate choice of the fans was Bees. But Braves or Bees they still finished in the second division even though they did manage to win 33 more games in 1936 than they had won the previous year. The new nickname lasted until the 1941 season when the Club once again used the nickname of Braves. But still the team finished a dismal seventh that year, a position the Braves occupied four years in a row under Manager Casey Stengel. They won only 59 games in 1942.
In 1944 the Braves finished sixth and drew only 245,000 fans at home, the smallest attendance in the National League that year. But now the team was purchased by three local contractors: Lou Perini, Guido Rugo and Joseph Maney, who called themselves "The Three Little Steamshovels." In an attempt to pep up attendance with home runs, the new owners decided to alter the dimensions of Braves Field while the team was on a western trip in May. The distance to right field was reduced to 320 feet and the fence at that point was only 10 feet high. Whereas only 59 home runs were hit at Braves Field during the entire season of 1943, 95 were hit in 1944. In 1945 spray-hitting Tommy Holmes set a team record for left-handed batters with 28 home runs. He found the right field fence a very cozy target, but so did a lot of others as 131 home runs were smacked at Braves Field that year. Braves third baseman-outfielder Chuck Workman walloped 25 of them that year, 19 at Braves Field.
The 1946 season finally saw an upturn for the beleagured franchise. The Steam Shovels spirited away Cardinal Manager Billy Southworth, an outfielder with the Braves many years before, by making him an offer he couldn't refuse. It was $35,000 a season with a bonus of $5,000 for finishing fourth, $10,000 for finishing third, $15,000 for second, and $20,000 for winning the pennant. That year, 1946, Braves Field became the 11th major league park to install lights. On May 11, the Braves played the first night game ever held in Boston before one of the largest crowds in the team's history, 35,945. Even though they lost the game, 5-1 to the Giants, things were really beginning to look up as night baseball caught on so well that the Braves drew 468,083 fans for the 24 night games played that season. The 1946 Braves moved up in the standings to fourth place.
It was in 1946 too, when about 5,000 of the 18,261 fans who turned out for the home opener with the Dodgers left the park with green paint covering much of their clothing because many of the newly painted grandstand seats had not completely dried. To their credit the Braves' owners ran an ad in the local papers stating: "An Apology to Braves Fans - The management will reimburse any of its patrons for any expense to which they might have been put for necessary cleansing of clothing as a result of paint damage." The claims poured in from all over the country and their wet paint opener cost the Braves more than $6,000.
Braves Field underwent major changes for the last time in 1946 when the field was turned slightly to the right and a part of the right field pavilion was blasted out to allow for the shifted foul line. Attendance soared that year to a record 969,673, almost doubling the previous record of 5 17,803 set in 1933.
The dimensions of Braves Field during the final years were 319 feet to right, 337 feet down the leftfield foul line and 390 feet to straightaway centerfield. The wall in front of the Jury Box was ten feet high and the one from the leftfield foul pole to right-center was 25 feet high and for most of these last years was covered with a double-decked row of ads.
The Braves hit one million fans for the first time in 1947 and then set an all-time record of 1,455,439 in 1948 while winning their first pennant since 1914. For the first and only time the Braves were able to use their home field for a World Series. They lost that Series in six games to the Cleveland Indians.
Things went steadily downhill for the Braves after 1948 until in 1952 they hit a disastrous low when the team finished seventh and only 281,278 fans showed up at the park for a full season's play.
In March of 1953 another new era in baseball began when owner Lou Perini announced that he was moving the team to Milwaukee. It was the beginning of the new era of franchise transfers. Unknown to players and fans alike, the final game played at Braves Field took place on Sunday, September 21, 1952 when the Dodgers clinched at least a tie for the pennant by drubbing the Braves, 8-2 before 8,822 fans.
Like all major league parks, Braves Field had its share of outstanding and unusual happenings. Many of these are cited in the opening page drawing by Gene Mack. For example, Braves Field was the site of the famous 26-inning, 1-1 tie game between Boston and Brooklyn on May 1, 1920 when pitchers Oeschger and Cadore battled the entire distance. On June 27, 1939, these same two teams battled to a 2-2 tie in 23 innings at Braves Field.
On October 6, 1923, Braves shortstop Ernie Padgett made an unassisted triple play against the Phils. On May 13, 1942, pitcher Jim Tobin hit three home runs. On a career basis the most home runs hit at Braves Field was 106 by Wally Berger, 1930-40. On July 6, 1945, Tommy Holmes bit in his 33rd and 34th straight games, to set the then modem NL record. No-hit games pitched at Braves Field included Tom Hughes (1916), Jim Tobin (1944), Vern Bickford (1950), all for Boston, and Cliff Chambers (1951) for Pittsburgh.
What has happened to Braves Field since the club left in 1953? The park was sold to nearby Boston University and drastically altered by removing most of its permanent seats and converted to a football only stadium. In the early 1960s, the Boston Patriots of the American Football League used the site for their home games. Today it continues to be used as the home field for the Boston University football team. But the baseball memories still linger on.