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Deep Time Baseball Venues in St. Louis

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Part 1, Robison Field, Federal League Park

The collective memory of the Cardinal Nation only goes back so far.  If all you know is what you hear and read in the normal course of being a fan, recorded baseball history started at Sportsman’s Park in the 20’s.  Everything before that has mostly faded into the mist.  But consider that, at the time, St. Louis fans supported two Major League teams, and had for some time.  So where did they come from? Let’s have a look at the ooze which gave life to the primordial fans.


The first ‘Base-Ball’

I won’t argue if you say Baseball is made in America, but the concept of hitting a ball with a bat and running around four bases isn’t,  and  neither is calling such a game “Base- Ball”.

This illustration appeared in a children’s book published in England in 1744 and in colonial America in 1762.   The text for the olde English impaired reads:

“Base-Ball.  The Ball once struck off, Away flies the Boy to the next destin’d Post, And then Home with -Joy.”

The game depicted is some version of the ancient English game of Rounders which is described as “a striking and fielding team game, which involves hitting a small hard leather cased ball with a round wooden or metal bat and then running around 4 bases in order to score”.

So far as I know, this is the first time ‘base ball’ appeared in print.  Prove me wrong if you can.

Fair-minded readers will concede that cave-men were around for a very long time and one thing they all had in common is they started off as cave-boys.  Two things cave-boys would have had access to in abundance were rocks and sticks, so I’m certain that somewhere during the countless centuries one of them selected a sturdy stave, tossed a rock in the air and smacked the first line drive in the history of the world.  I imagine myself, in a striking leopard skin number, reclined on a boulder observing the event, adult beverage in hand.

The First Baseball Field

There are accounts of the game being played in the early 1800s but the rules varied from place to place as did the field of play.

If you happened to walk past the corner of 11th and Washington St. in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1845 you would have seen the first baseball field laid out according to the rules and diagram set down by Alexander Cartwright and the Knickerbocker Baseball Club.  It was called Elysian Field and was not enclosed by a fence.

Here is Mr. Cartwright’s diagram of how a baseball diamond was to be laid out.

Soon, the first baseball field enclosed by fence was built in Brooklyn, New York.  Union Grounds opened in 1862 in the block bounded by Harrison Avenue, Rutledge Street, Lynch Street, and Marcy Avenue.

Union Grounds, site of the first ever National League game, featured seating for 1,500 plus a lot of standing room.

The early parks that we know, like the Polo Grounds, started going up and Union Grounds saw its last Major League game in 1878.  It was torn down in 1883.

Here is a drawing of the Union Grounds which featured a flagpole atop a small pagoda in center field.

Crawford Boxes were added later.

Deep Time Venues in St. Louis

For our purposes, history began when Sam Breadon became majority owner and moved the Cards to Sportsman’s Park in 1920.  Everything before that is Deep Time, and that’s what we’re interested in.  The logical place to start is where they moved from, so let’s go to Cardinal Park.

That’s what it was called when Sam moved the team to Sportsman’s Park in 1920, but the venue was named New Sportsman’s Park when it opened in 1893.  New as opposed to the original Sportsman’s Park at Grand and Dodier St., which of course outlived the “New” one.  The original, which we all know and love, was called American League Park for a while when the A.L. Browns played there and the N.L. team played at the new venue.

History of  New Sportsman’s Park/League Park/Robison Field/Cardinal Field

In the 1880s, the St. Louis Browns of the American Association played home games at Sportsman’s Park at Grand and Dodier.  After the merger with the National League in 1892, the team that would become the Cardinals played there for a year until their new venue was ready, opening in 1893 as New Sportsman’s Park.  A fire in 1898 precipitated new ownership, the Robisons, who brought Cy Young with them from Cleveland.

They rebuilt the stadium, re-named it League Park and adopted a new nickname, the Perfectos.  The nickname didn’t stick, mainly because the new owners changed the team colors to red and white instigating a new nickname.  The venue became known as Robison Field.  The stadium was damaged by fire again in 1901.

The Robisons’ niece, Helene Britton, inherited the team in 1911 and officially changed the name of New Sportsman’s Park to Robison Field.  During that decade, competition from the American League Browns and Federal League Terriers led to financial problems, and Robison Field fell into disrepair.

In 1917, Ms. Britton, the first woman to own a major league baseball team, sold to a group including Sam Breadon who eventually renamed the venue League Park and then Cardinal Field before abandoning the dilapidated park and moving back to the original Sportsman’s Park in 1920 as a tenant of the Browns.

These photos show what the grandstand looked like after it was rebuilt sans skyboxes.

I would think this shows part of the stadium, the clubhouse at Prairie and Lexington St.?

The 1899 Perfectos, Cy Young labeled ‘1’ (at far left).

Anyone who says photos of Robison Field aren’t hard to come by is a liar, but here is a link to some more of them in the Missouri History Museum’s Helene Britton’s Cardinals Collection.

Opening day at New Sportsman’s Park

From old Sportsman’s Park at Grand and Dodier, we walk a couple blocks north on Grand and left on Natural Bridge Rd. heading west.  Fairgrounds Park is across the street, along the north side of Natural Bridge.  Two blocks and you cross Prairie Ave and are standing outside the stadium at the left field corner where the fence is over 400 feet from home plate.

There is an entrance here at the left field corner serving the wooden bleachers which extend from deep down the third base line in front of us and around to the left down Prairie Ave behind left field.  Behind center the wall is 500 feet from the plate, and above the wall is the scoreboard.  Behind that is the clubhouse, at the corner of Prairie and Lexington. This clubhouse might be the site of the 1899 Perfectos photo.  Turning West along Lexington St. are more wooden bleachers behind right field, on down to Vandeventer Ave. where the right field pole is only 290 feet from the plate.

Heading north up Vandeventer, the first base side of the park,  the newfangled electric street-car rumbles by headed for the turn-around at Natural Bridge right outside the main entrance.  The team’s offices adjoin the grandstand, a wooden structure supported by steel beams and served by four winding staircases, with additional pavilion seating behind the first and third base lines.  Atop the grandstand are three boxes, one being the press box, and the other two for high rollers.

Lucky for us it is Thursday, April 27, 1893, and it is opening day.  As the crowd of 12,230 makes its way to their seats, we can tilt one back in the beer garden located beneath the grandstand, and take in the opening day festivities which include Adolphus Busch’s son Gus (Gussie’s dad) making a delivery in a coach and four, and a copy of The Sporting News buried beneath home plate.  The home team goes on to defeat the Louisville Colonels 4-2 and even better, goes on to take the 1893 season series against Chicago, 9 games to 3.

So far, I haven’t come up with a photo of New Sportsman’s Park/Robison Field in its original configuration.  The 1898 fire, during a game against Chicago, destroyed the grandstand and left field bleachers and resulted in 100 injuries and one death.  The rebuilt version, pictured burning down in 1901, didn’t have the skyboxes because the high rollers had barely escaped the earlier fire.  The rebuilt version had a capacity of 15,200, and further improvements in 1908 brought it up to 20,000+.

Within a few years after the Cards moved back to the original Sportsman’s Park in 1920, New Sportsman’s Park/League Park/Robison Field/Cardinals Field was torn down and Beaumont High School was built on the site, opening in 1926.

Federal League Park/Handlan Field

In 1914, you could exit Robison Field, home of the Cardinals and walk a couple blocks east along Natural Bridge Rd to Grand.  Turning right you pass the American League Brown’s Sportsman’s Park and after another 1 ¾ miles, with the campus of St. Louis University on your right, you come to Grand and Laclede Ave.

Today, on nicely manicured greenery stands Marchetti Towers, high rise dorms for the University, but if it was April 16, 1914 you would have seen an opening day crowd of 18,000 filing into a ballpark so new the paint wasn’t dry.  It wasn’t wet either because they hadn’t had time to paint it.  Construction of the 15,000 seat stadium got under way two months before opening day.  Plans for the mostly wooden grandstand had been rejected due to the numerous fires over the years at Robison Field. So to assure the safety of the fans, the plans were changed to refer to it as “temporary grandstand” and up it went in the nick of time, the corpses interred in Wesleyan Cemetery, previous occupant of the site, having been removed ahead of time. Reportedly.

The single deck wood and steel grandstand with concrete footings and pillars sits at the corner of Grand and Laclede overlooking home plate with the first base line running south along Grand to Clark St. where a pavilion stood behind the right field fence 325 feet from the plate, and where pavilion seating was 50 cents.  Grandstand seats were 75 cents.  Along Clark east of the pavilion stood bleachers, where you could sit for 25 cents, and which stretched around the corner of Clark and Theresa St. where the center field fence was 375’, and a high wooden fence blocked the sight-line from the adjoining residential neighborhood.  At Theresa and Laclede, the short right field fence was 300’, and two homers were hit over it on opening day. A “lively ball” was suspected according the Post-Dispatch account of the game. (P-D, 4-17-1914, ‘Livelier ball’).

The Federal League didn’t last. The Terriers cut prices for the 1915 season but to no avail and the team and the league folded.  Here is a post-mortem from the Globe Democrat (9-13-1915).

“Salaries are out of all reason. Traveling is too luxurious and expensive. Clubs carry too many players, assistant managers, coaches, trainers, etc… The clever energetic man who works hard six days a week…becomes disgusted and disgruntled when he sees some great lazy, hulking fellow whose sole asset is his ability to hit a baseball harder and oftener or to throw a baseball faster and more accurately…getting $1000 to $3000 a month for playing a few hours a day.”

In 1968, MLB retroactively granted major league status to the Federal League so the stats from the league’s games are included in player’s major league stats.  So the way I see it, St. Louis fans supported three major league teams during the 1914 and 1915 seasons.

In 1915, future MLB Hall of Fame pitcher Eddie Plank threw one of his eight 20 win seasons as a Terrier, and won his 300th game, and fellow HOF pitcher Mordecai Brown (career ERA 2.06, lowest of all time by a pitcher with 200+ games) went 12-6 for the Terriers in 1914.  The other MLB HOFer to play for the team was Doc Crandall who went 34-24 in two seasons.

In addition, the St. Louis Giants of the Negro National League played some of their games at the venue in 1920-1921.  The Giants, renamed the Stars, played some games at the site until their own stadium was complete.  Among several notable players was center fielder Oscar Charleston, elected to the MLB HOF in 1976, and ranked 4th best baseball player of all time in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. James “Cool Papa” Bell joined the Stars in 1922 so would have played there too.

So whatever your position may be on the legitimacy of the Federal League as a Major League, fans saw some of the best players of all time at Handlan Park.

Part 2

Coming eventually.  We’ll have a look at where St. Louis fans saw the Negro league teams, along with some of the more obscure venues long since obscured by the mist of time.

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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