As major-league park, OPACY has storied tradition to uphold

Phil Jackman

April 01, 1992|By Phil Jackman

There has been a lot of talk about ballparks around here lately . . . or hadn't you noticed?

Anyway, with the Park at the Yards just hours away from joining the extensive cast of diamonds that have served Major League Baseball the last 120 years, here's a sampling of some of the things that might happen at OPACY before it too passes into antiquity.

For the most part, these are tidbits taken from Phil Lowry's splendid research effort culminating in the book "Green Cathedrals."

* With the Orioles expected to draw at least 3 million fans this season (for a gate of just under $30 million), it should be noted the all-time low attendance record is held by the Wilmington (Del.) Quicksteps of the Union Association (1884). And there's not much chance of its ever being broken. Tied maybe, but never broken. With not a soul in the stands for a September game against the Kansas City Unions, the manager of the Quicksteps called his players off the field and the visitors left town with a forfeit.

* Over the years, many fine throws were made during games at Memorial Stadium -- John Unitas and Bert Jones come to mind immediately -- but the best had to be the one Cleveland Indians pitcher Sam McDowell turned in one day. Having a terrible time with the plate umpire, Sudden Sam got the heave-ho and, as he crossed the first baseline, he attempted to throw the ball over the second deck. Almost made it, too, missing by just three rows.

* One of the reasons they found no need for fences at Rocky Point Park in Warwick, R.I., was that the entire outfield was surrounded by ocean. The National Boston Pilgrims played a couple of games there in 1903.

* Perhaps the most futile baseball team of all time was the Cleveland Spiders, circa the 1890s. One Sunday afternoon, the Spiders were in the eighth inning of a ballgame when a squad of policemen charged out on the field and arrested all the Cleveland players. No, it wasn't for the dastardly things the team was doing to the Grand Old Game, but for violating the Sunday blue laws.

* Easily one of the least enjoyable places to watch a game was Colt Stadium, first home of the Houston Astros. It wasn't so much the 100-mph wind that constantly blew in from rightfield, but the size of the mosquitoes, which could bench-press 200 pounds. Amazingly, a team owner in the Mexican League purchased the park and moved it to Torreon after the Astrodome opened.

* In 1956-57, when everyone knew the Dodgers weren't long for Brooklyn, they hijacked some of their games across New York Harbor to Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City (N.J.). Willie Mays of the hated Giants only got to play one game there, but he made it memorable, being the only player to ever belt a home run out of the stadium for a 1-0 victory. Similar to the present-day Meadowlands, Roosevelt, a Works Progress Administration project, was a landfill for materials excavated from the Holland Tunnel.

* First time I ever covered a ballgame in Kansas City's Municipal Stadium (1964), I had an eerie feeling that I had seen the huge scoreboard in right-centerfield before. Bull's eye! A decade before, it had decorated left-centerfield at Boston's Braves Field.

* The seating capacity of the "Field of Dreams" diamond in Dyersville, Iowa, is 84, a bleacher containing seven rows of 12 seats each. This sounds inadequate until you stop and consider a Worcester (Mass.) franchise in the early National League.

The Brown Stockings lasted for three seasons, 1880-81-82. Maybe the reason the team moved on is, during a three-game set in September against the Troy (N.Y.) Trojans, the teams drew 54, 18 and 25 fans.

* If the field dimensions of Lake Front Park in Chicago, home of the NL White Stockings in 1883-84, existed today, no doubt home run records belonging to Henry Aaron, Roger Maris and Babe Ruth would be wiped out: It was 186 feet down the leftfield line, 196 to right, 260 in the power alleys and 300 to straightaway center.

Conversely, the outfield walls of N.Y.'s Polo Grounds from left to right read 279, 447, 483, 505, 440 and 257.

* It was in 1911 when the New York Highlanders, formerly the Baltimore Orioles and on their way to becoming the Yankees, were looking to build a ballpark. One of the proposals was a floating ballpark situated out on the Harlem River. The idea soon drowned.

* It was a fierce home run by a guy with a classic baseball name, Bama Rowell, that inspired the climactic homer in the movie "The Natural," the one wherein Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) drives a line drive through an outfield clock setting off five minutes of fireworks. Rowell ripped a high drive through the clock above the rightfield scoreboard in Ebbets Field in 1946. Bernard Malamud must have been at the game.

* Back in the early days of the Polo Grounds in the upper Bronx, there were stables for horses under the third base grandstand. Artie Donovan recalls that the smell was no worse than that which used to waft up from the pizza ovens to the back of the lower deck in Memorial Stadium.

* The housing shortage was such in post-war Washington in 1946 that 10 Senators players had to sleep in the locker room at Griffith Stadium during April and May.

* Prior to taking up residence in Fenway Park in 1912, the Red Sox played at the Huntington Avenue Baseball Grounds in Boston. Centerfield went on to the New Hampshire border, 635 feet, which gave Hall of Fame ballhawk Tris Speaker ample room to maneuver.

* The same wrecking ball that was used to demolish Ebbets Field starting in 1960 was back at it four years later, knocking down the Polo Grounds.

* The reason the ballpark in Cleveland is so huge, cold and uninviting (the architecture is early American bathhouse) is it was originally built in hopes the city would host the 1932 Summer Olympics, and they needed all the room to accommodate a track and seats to accommodate the people. Los Angeles landed the Games, of course, and darned if the Coliseum didn't serve as home field for the Dodgers nearly three decades later.

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