Forbes Field is long gone, but fans mark its 100th birthday
June 28, 2009 8:00 AM
Forbes Field, shown here in July 1960, had a revolutionary design that featured lavatories specifically designated for women, public telephones, an underground parking garage and ramps instead of steps.
The Rev. Billy Graham emerges from the Pirates' dugout at Forbes Field to deliver a sermon in his first visit in September 1952.
"Opera Under The Stars" presentation of Aida at Forbes Field in 1943.
Bob Donaldson / Post-Gazette
Memorabilia from Forbes Field, including a bat from Roberto Clemente, at the exhibit commemorating the 100th anniversary of Forbes Field at the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the Sen. H. John Heinz History Center.
Bob Donaldson / Post-Gazette
Memorabilia from Forbes Field at the exhibit commemorating the 100th anniversary of Forbes Field at the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the Sen. H. John Heinz History Center.
This was the view from Schenley Park on July 5, 1909, when Forbes Field was only a week old.
Bob Donaldson / Post-Gazette
Tickets for a World Series never played in 1938 at the exhibit commemorating the 100th anniversary of Forbes Field at the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the Sen. H. John Heinz History Center. The Pirates lost the National League title at the very end of the season.
By Robert Dvorchak Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Where else but Pittsburgh would the citizenry mark the 100th anniversary of something that's not there anymore -- and hasn't been there for four decades or so?
But when it comes to Forbes Field, the iconic ballpark set against the backdrop of Schenley Park in Oakland, the memories are as vivid as ever.
Nicknamed the House of Thrills in its later years, Forbes Field was the stage for some of the most dramatic moments and some of the biggest stars in baseball. But it was also the place where Pitt became the Panthers and chalked up national football titles, where Art Rooney's NFL franchise was born, where boxing champions stepped into the ring, where crowds enjoyed everything from the circus to soccer but never saw a pierogi race.
Franklin D. Roosevelt once campaigned there. Billy Graham brought his crusade. Mahalia Jackson sang gospel, and Benny Benack and the Iron City Six blazed a trail for all the sports ditties that grace today's airwaves.
The combination of sports, politics, religion and music made it the city's unofficial community center. It was more than a place. It was a state of mind.
Tuesday is the 100th anniversary of its opening day, when the defending champion Chicago Cubs -- yep, it was their last title -- defeated a Pirates team that would win its first World Series title four months later.
With the Cubs in town to play at PNC Park on Tuesday, the Pirates are celebrating history. Among the returning dignitaries is a certain Hall of Fame second baseman who set a major league record for double plays and who hit a home run of note at 3:36 p.m. on Oct. 13, 1960.
As part of Tuesday's festivities, the club will announce the top Forbes Field moment, as determined by fan voting on the Web.
In addition, the Sen. John Heinz History Center has opened a Forbes Field exhibit called A Century of Memories. It will be displayed until Nov. 8, the last possible date the baseball season can go this year.
"Forbes Field lives on," said Anne Madarasz, director of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the History Center. "There were so many great moments that people shared together and are still sharing."
It's appropriate that the anniversary falls on a day that the Cubs are in town to face the Pirates, and not because the Cubs have the longest title drought in North America and the Pirates are on a record-setting pace for most losing seasons in a row.
The first National League game played in Pittsburgh in 1887 was against the team that became the Cubs.
When the local club moved to Exposition Park in 1891, the opponent was Chicago. And when Exposition Park closed in 1909, the game matched the Cubs and Pirates.
The two teams christened Forbes Field, and they were involved in the finale on June 28, 1970, when the Pirates swept a doubleheader.
The father of Forbes Field was Barney Dreyfuss, the Hall of Fame owner who wanted a fireproof structure of steel and concrete to replace Exposition Park, located in an industrial neighborhood on the North Side that was prone to flooding.
With $1 million of his own money ($24 million in today's currency), he built the park on land acquired with the help of Andrew Carnegie, acclaimed at the time as one of the richest men in the world.
Had Mr. Dreyfuss had some other hobby than betting on horses, Forbes Field may not have been a one-of-a-kind destination. Architect Charles A. Leavitt Jr., who had designed the grandstands at Belmont and Saratoga racetracks, was brought in. Forbes Field was his only ballpark, and the day it opened, the newspapers called it the greatest baseball palace in the world.
Its revolutionary design featured lavatories specifically designated for women, public telephones, an underground parking garage and ramps instead of steps. (One could, however, sit in the left field bleachers and not be able to see home plate because of obstructed views.)
The place was named after John Forbes, the British general whose forces built a road through the Pennsylvania wilderness to evict the French from Fort Duquesne in 1758. In his after-action report, the general called it "Pittsbourgh," and the name stuck even if the spelling didn't.
An overflow crowd of 30,338 -- to that point the largest throng ever to witness a baseball game -- attended the opener as Mayor William Magee threw out the first pitch. Days later, during the Fourth of July weekend, Forbes Field was the altar upon which the marriage of baseball and fireworks was consummated. Pyrotechnics were set off in the evening there following an afternoon baseball game.
The Pirates gave the city its first World Series title and first championship parade the year Forbes Field opened as Honus Wagner outplayed Ty Cobb in a showdown of superstars.
When it closed 61 years later, the Pirates were within percentage points of first place and went on to win a division title in 1970 at Three Rivers Stadium.
World champions were also crowned in 1925 and 1960, with the 1927 Pirates losing the World Series to the Yankees and their Murderer's Row.
All-Star games were staged there in 1944 and 1959.
The last "tripleheader" in the major leagues was played at Forbes in 1920, with the Pirates losing two of three to the Reds.
The Pirates weren't the only baseball occupants, however. The Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords of the old Negro Leagues played at Forbes, but in those infamous days of segregation, the players were denied use of the clubhouses and showers.
Two of the greatest sluggers of all time left spike marks in the batter's box -- Josh Gibson, of the Grays, and Babe Ruth. While playing for the Boston Braves in the twilight of his career, The Babe smote the final three home runs of his career on May 25, 1935. No. 714 cleared the grandstand in right field.
The last of the 10 sluggers to clear that formidable barrier was Willie Stargell, who launched seven balls out of the park over the years.
With an area so expansive that a gridiron could be fitted over the diamond, the ballpark has a rich football history.
At various times, Pitt, Duquesne and Carnegie Tech used it for home games.
Fans will recall baseball nicknames like the Tiger, Kitten, Dog, Quail, Duck and Possum. But the menagerie also includes the Four Horsemen and Seven Mules of Notre Dame, who tore up the place against Carnegie Tech in 1924.
Then on a Wednesday night in 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, the NFL franchise that became the Steelers played its first game and later got its first victory at Forbes Field.
The last time the Steelers appeared there was a preseason game in 1969, Chuck Noll's first year as coach. It was a loss to the Bengals.
Jock Sutherland left his mark on the place. A native of Scotland, he was an All-American who played on two of Pitt's national championship teams, and he later coached the Panthers to a handful of national titles. What's more, he later coached the Steelers, who played their only postseason game at Forbes Field in 1947.
From fights to tights, boxing and wrestling found their way to Forbes.
Hometown boxers Harry Greb, Fritzie Zivic and Billy Conn -- champions all -- delighted local crowds. Jersey Joe Walcott knocked out Ezzard Charles in the seventh round to win the heavyweight title at Forbes Field in 1951.
Jersey Joe returned 13 years later as a special referee for a wrestling match between Classy Freddy Blassie and Bruno Sammartino, who was unable to continue after a low blow.
Raise the window
Forbes Field witnessed its share of broadcast history in 1921.
Not only did KDKA put Pirates baseball on the radio for the first time, it also aired the first collegiate football game, the Backyard Brawl between Pitt and West Virginia.
As a baseball announcer, Rosey Rowswell endeared himself to his audience with a home run call that implored Aunt Minnie to raise her window. He passed the torch to Bob Prince, whose colorful phrases included the Green Weenie and a can of corn, neither of which was a foodstuff.
The Gunner's best-known sidekick was Jim "Possum" Woods, but he also worked with Nellie King. That means the final game at Forbes had a royal broadcasting tandem of a Prince and a King.
The dimensions of Forbes Field changed over time, but who can forget the batting cage parked in center field during games.
The walls were so distant that when the Pirates acquired slugger Hank Greenberg, left field was shortened in hopes of producing more home runs. Greenberg Gardens, as it was called, was just a temporary characteristic.
The only advertisement allowed on the outfield walls was a plea to buy war bonds during World War II. Part of that campaign was the 32-foot-tall figure of a Marine in dress blues.
The original version of the movie "Angels In the Outfield" was filmed in 1951 at Forbes. And the all-Alou outfield appeared for real in 1963.
Roberto Clemente, a promising rookie outfielder, got an infield hit in his first at bat in 1955.
Elroy Face won his 17th straight game, still a record for a reliever, at Forbes in 1959.
On what was considered the worst infield surface in the major leagues, Bill Mazeroski and Gene Alley set a record for double plays with 215 in 1966. Not only did Maz hit the home run that beat the Yankees in 1960, he stepped on second base to record the final out in the final game played at the ballpark.
Demolition began in 1971. The site is now part of the campus of the University of Pittsburgh, which bought the property in 1958 to allow for expansion. Plans to close Forbes Field were delayed until Three Rivers Stadium was built.
Only in Pittsburgh
Remnants of the ballpark can still be found, including portions of the brick wall where people gather every Oct. 13 to listen to a broadcast of Game 7 of the 1960 Series.
Those remnants, by the way, are not far from where Tom and Jerry's Custard Stand and the Big Isaly's used to be. If you don't understand, it's a 'Burgh thing.
Fans of a certain age can still recall the aroma of boiled hot dogs or the El Producto cigars that were sold for 15 cents at concession stands. They were as much a part of Forbes Field as the seat cushions rented for two bits and the orange drink that made you thirstier after you drank it.
Here's one perspective on Forbes Field: It opened six years after the Wright brothers introduced powered flight, and it closed a year after astronauts left boot prints on the moon.
And when the reminiscences reach critical mass, it's possible to hear a gravel-voiced announcer in a loud sports coat saying, "Good night, Mary Edgerly, wherever you are."
Correction/Clarification: (Published July 4, 2009) Jersey Joe Walcott knocked out Ezzard Charles in the seventh round of a heavyweight title fight at Forbes Field in 1951. This story as originally published on June 28, 209 on the 100th anniversary of Forbes Field incorrectly reported the result.