Forbes Field relics score rare memories
The day calendar of Pirates' owner Barney Dreyfuss noting the opening of Forbes Field on June 30, 1909.
This shirt is part of one of only two Homestead Grays uniforms known to be in existence. It is on display at the John Heinz History Center's exhibit marking the 100th anniversary of Forbes Field.
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It's a restrained but rare collection of memorabilia that celebrates the 100th anniversary of Forbes Field now on display at the Senator John Heinz History Center and Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum.
From the well-preserved uniform of a Homestead Grays player to the diaries of Barney Dreyfuss, the owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates and builder of the ballpark, "Forbes Field: A Century of Memories" is a microcosmic portrait of what once was Western Pennsylvania's sports mecca.
Anne Madarasz, director of the center's Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, said several items, including Dreyfuss' diary, opened to June 30, 1909, the day the park opened, have never been displayed before.
"The rarest is the Grays' uniform," she said. "We think it's only one of two still in existence." (The other is elsewhere in the museum.)
Michael Napier, son of Euthumn Napier, a second-string catcher for the Grays in 1946, loaned the rough wool blouse and pants that were kept in a family cedar chest for years.
The Grays divided their home games between Forbes Field and Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., in the 1930s-'40s, the era when the team won nine Negro League championships.
Another piece of clothing is the boxing trunks of Ezzard Charles worn in a 1951 prize fight at the park.
"We're presenting the history of a place that was more than just a baseball park, but an important part of the larger community," Madarasz said.
Forbes Field was a true multi-use stadium, a venue for football teams from the Pittsburgh Steelers to the-then Carnegie Tech Tartans, political rallies, Pittsburgh Symphony concerts, conventions, circuses, soccer leagues and even the Ice Capades.
Shortly after the park closed June 28, 1970, it was the site of a national gathering of a religious organization that complained about the widespread damage done by vandalizing fans at the last game.
Other artifacts include one of the arched windows that graced the park's exterior, a pair of spindly wood and cast-iron seats, a "Knothole" gang sign, Paul Waner's spike shoes, a display of Pirate year books dating to the 1950s and programs from Steeler games of that era as well.
When it opened in 1909, Forbes Field was just the second all-steel stadium, following Shibe Park in Philadelphia by only a few months. It was designed to blend with its Oakland surroundings, Schenley Park and the Carnegie Institute, but it became expendable in the urban redevelopment era of the 1960s and the expansion plans of the University of Pittsburgh.
Other first-time artifacts:
• A 1909 caricature of Barney Dreyfuss as a swashbuckler holding a Detroit Tiger by the tail. Pittsburgh defeated the Tigers in the World Series that year.
• Architect Charles Leavitt's album of construction photos. Building started in March and the park was ready by June 30. It cost Dreyfuss about $1 million
• Opening day postcards and a train company advertisement for excursions to the game.
• A baseball autographed by Babe Ruth May 25, 1935, after the Forbes Field game in which he hit his final three home runs. Ruth spent his last days in the Major Leagues playing for the then Boston Braves.
• Unused tickets printed by the Pirates when it seemed they would win the National League pennant in 1938. The team even built a press box for the World Series on the roof of the grandstand behind home plate, but a devastating hurricane on the East Coast and a fluke homer in the darkness of Wrigley Field sunk the Buccaneers' plans.
The Pirates will mark the centennial of Forbes Field when they play the Chicago Cubs tomorrow night at PNC Park, 100 years to the day the Cubs defeated the Bucs, 3-2, in the first game at the park.
Players and team staff who played and worked at Forbes Field will be recognized as well. A limited number of $4 tickets will also be offered, the same price charged for box seats at the park's last game.
Forbes Field: A Century of Memories runs at the history center, 1212 Smallman St., Strip District, until Nov. 8. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. every day. 412-454-6000.
First Published June 29, 2009 12:00 am