Sunday, February 17, 2008

back home again

expo park 3
Expostion Park III from Ballparks of Baseball

The Pirates spent 61 years, half of their existence, playing ball in the green cathedral of Forbes Field in Oakland. Since 1970 they've called the North Shore home, hosting their opponents at TRS and PNC Park. It was a return to their roots.

In 1876, Pittsburgh teams were playing at Union Park (the alter ego of Recreation Park in Manchester, then a part of Allegheny City), and the Alleghenies played their first game there against a local amateur nine known as the Xanthus. The next season it became their home park when they joined the International League, a minor league outfit. It folded the following year.

They picked it up again in 1882, hooking up with the fledgling American Association and becoming Pittsburgh's first representative in professional major league baseball. They took over Exposition Park, a field built for various events like horse racing and circuses (it even hosted a Wild West show) connected with Exposition Hall, the hub of the 1875 Allegheny Exposition.

It was the entertainment heart of the Pittsburgh region. Unfortunately, it was also located on the flood plains of the Allegheny River, right about where the current stadium is, several decades before flood control projects tamed the annual raging springtime torrents.

After a water soaked first season, they moved from Expo I to an adjoining upriver field, dubbed Expo II. However, the "upper" field, although on somewhat higher ground, was actually nearer to the river (I guess engineering wasn't a very exact science back in the day.)

Both fields were wooden structures and lacked a grandstand. The fans paid a quarter and got to stand behind a roped off area to watch the game. They also got to practice their aquatics. The Alleghenies weren't very good at anything but treading water in either flood prone field.

It didn't help matters any that they had a beef over $250 in rent and the split of the gate with the Exhibition Society, owners of the Park. The Society declared the lease null and void, although they reconsidered when Expo Hall burned down and they needed a draw. But it was too little, too late.

Tired of the hassles, the team trooped off to Recreation Park, where the Mexican War Streets are now situated. It was tucked between Galveston (then Grant), North, and Pennsylvania Avenues and could seat 2,000. The Union Association Stogies, a White Sox minor league team, played there in 1884 with the Alleghenies. Their league went belly up the next year, and the Alleghenies were the only game in town in 1885, sharing the field with Pitt football for a couple of seasons.

They had a couple of memorable moments there, although the brand of baseball played wasn't generally one of them. Their highlight was the Allegheny's National League opener in 1887, when they drubbed Chicago 6-2. It would be one of the few shining moments at Recreation Park.

Later that year, catcher Fred Carroll's pet monkey died. Not only was the chimp Fred's boon companion, but served as a team mascot (and you mock the Pirate Parrot!) The Alleghenies had a pregame ceremony for the dearly deceased primate, and buried it with honors beneath home plate.

In 1890, they set a record that will hopefully never be approached - they had a paid attendance of 6 against Cleveland. The total crowd was 18. (I suppose a dozen neer-do-wells sneaked in and saved a quarter.) Later in the year, they managed to lose all three games of a triple-header at Recreation Park, finishing the season with a woebegone 23-113 record. Maybe those 6 guys deserved a refund.

It was also the first venue to see them sporting "Pittsburg" jerseys, when in 1890 they officially made the switch from Allegheny. They would become the Pirates in 1891, so we can trace the transition to the modern Bucs back to then. During their Allegheny years, they never had an official team nickname.

1890 was their last year at Recreation Park. It was converted into a bicycle track, the rage at the turn of the century, and dubbed the Coliseum. The Pittsburgh Athletic Association, a local club, bought some of property later, and today it's a maze of storefronts, apartments and warehouses. There's not a remnant of the old ballyard left.

The Player's Association had a Pittsburgh team in 1890 and built a spanking new Exposition Park. They gave up the ghost after a season but left a spiffy field - Expo III - for the Pirates to commandeer. It had double decker grandstands, twin spires, and could hold 10,000 fans. The park was a pitcher's dream. The lines were 400' and center field stretched 450'. It was claimed that only 11 home runs were ever hit out of Expo III, all to right field.

This park didn't fare much better than the others. There were still water problems. One memorable flood event happened on July 4th, 1902. The Pirates were playing a twin bill against Brooklyn when the Allegheny overflowed its' banks. Much of the outfield was covered in water, which was a foot deep in some places and came within 20' of reaching the infield. And they still played ball, with a special ground rule for the day - any balls that splashed down and died in the outfield morass were singles.

And until Barney Dreyfuss came aboard, the baseball was still generally appalling. But Expo Park did lay its' claim to fame under his reign. It became the first National League Park to host a World Series game in 1903 when the Boston Pilgrims came to town.

That would be the only pennant won there. The Pirates played their last game at Exposition Park on June 29th, 1909 (fittingly, Charles Zeig, a Northsider known as the Commodore, blew Taps on his trumpet as Cubbie Jimmy Archer went down on strikes for the last out.) The Bucs would clinch the flag and host the World Series at brand new Forbes Field.

Besides the water, Dreyfuss had another reason for leaving - the North Side rowdies. The Post Gazette wrote that he said "The better class of citizens, especially when accompanied by their womenfolk, were loathe to go there (Exposition Park.)" Ouch!

The Baltimore & Ohio RR eventually bought the site. The Federal League's Pittsburgh Rebels used it for a couple of seasons in 1914-15, but by the 1920's it had become part of a massive railroad yard as the Point and North Shore became an urban industrial park.

Pittsburgh's renaissance eventually cleared away the smokestacks, and the new stadiums found a home on the North Shore as the Bucs returned to the future, virtually on top of their birthplace. The ghost of Honus Wagner and all the other Bucs that plied their trade on the Allegheny's shore should be proud.

One last bit of history. You may notice the plaque by PNC Park marking the spot where Expo Park stood. It's there thanks to the work of baseball nuts Dan Bonk, Dennis & Jeanne DeValeria and Denis Repp, members of the Society for American Baseball Research. Using yellowing drawings, they replicated the old parks' position and every year Repp came by and spray painted the bases of Expo Park on the asphalt and stone that covered its' bones. The state finally recognized their efforts by placing a marker at the site.

expo marker
Exposition Park marker from Ballpark Review

I tip my baseball cap to them for their hard work and sleuthing skills. Baseball is a game of tradition, and when you lose its' connection to the past, you lose its' soul. Thanks, guys.

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