Sunday, May 20, 2012

There Used to Be a Ballpark Right Here - Ewing Field

With apologies to the folks responsible for the current Dos Equis advertising campaign: I don't always research minor league baseball, but when I do, I prefer the Pacific Coast League. (See my earlier posting titled The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of, featuring an appearance by the PCL San Francisco Seals and Hollywood Stars).

In this second installment of my "There Used to Be a Ballpark Right Here" series, I'm taking a look at a San Francisco ballpark that was built nearly a century ago.

Every season from 1907 to 1930, the PCL San Francisco Seals played their home games at Recreation Park, located at 15th and Valencia. Every season, that is, except for one: 1914. That year, the Seals played at Ewing Field, a brand new park built by (and named after) club owner James Calvin Ewing.

Built for some $90,000 just eight years after the great San Francisco earthquake and conflagration of 1906, Ewing Field was billed as the city's first fire-proof ballpark. But it was fog, not fire, that doomed the park in 1914. Though the Seals finished the long PCL season with a record of 115 wins and 96 losses (their .545 winning percentage was third-best in the league), the constant presence of fog ultimately forced the club to abandon Ewing Field and hightail it back to Recreation Park. Thus ended the one-year "career" of Ewing Field as home of the Seals.

The park wasn't completely abandoned, however. For years, the site hosted numerous baseball and football games, as well as other special events. For example, back in late March of 1922, a two-day circus and athletic demonstration was staged at the park to benefit the San Francisco Community Service League. A number of wonderful photos of that particular event can be found at the Online Archive of California.

Here's one showing some sailors from the U.S. Navy sitting atop giant medicine balls, with the Ewing Field grandstand in the background:

Courtesy of UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library

And who could forget the "royal feminine loveliness" (the San Francisco Chronicle's words, not mine) of Agnes Margaret Pape, the Queen of the Community Service Circus?

Courtesy of UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library

But back when Ewing Field first opened, May 16, 1914, optimism for the new park was running high. Nearly all of the park's 18,000 seats were filled as local photographer W. Wesley Swadley captured a scene of Opening Day at Ewing Field in a gorgeous panoramic image available at the Library of Congress website:

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-126031

Located at what is now the southwest corner of Anza and Masonic, the ballpark sat some a half dozen blocks north of Golden Gate Park's panhandle. Today, all that is left of the park is its name, as the looping Ewing Road lies atop what used to be the ballpark's infield.

Taking a closer look at the panoramic image above, just two features can be seen outside the park: the cupola of a building and a water tower, both looming just beyond the left field wall. Here is a detail from Swadley's photo:

And here's an even closer look, zooming in on the cupola:

(By the way, check out the young men operating the scoreboard. One is resting against a box that contains various number placards, waiting to be posted on the board.)

While the water tower looks somewhat generic, the cupola appears quite distinctive. A different view showing the cupola is found in a detail from another photo at the Online Archive of California. As in the panoramic image, we are essentially looking south from the ballpark toward the building with the cupola:

Courtesy of UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library

But atop what building did this cupola rest? After some digging, I found the answer in an article about the ballpark's ultimate demise. The story was covered in numerous papers. This article is from the Nevada State Journal of Sunday, June 6, 1926:


Flames Destroy Ewing Field, 12 Residences, Jumps Five Blocks


Worst Fire Since 1906 Levels Gomes, Factories; Destroys Hemp

SAN FRANCISCO, June 5.—(AP)—Fire, believed to have been caused by a lighted match being dropped in the wooden grandstand at Ewing Field in the Richmond district, today started a conflagration which terrorized a neighborhood, destroyed many homes, did property damage estimated at $207,500, defied the entire fire department and forced volunteers into service when a $100,000 fire in the Mission district started at the same time.

Carried by a stiff trade wind over Calvary cemetery down to Broderick street, a distance of five blocks, embers from the Ewing Field blazes furnished thousands of torches that fell on wooden roofs and started numerous small blazes.

A number of wooden homes surrounding the field went up like so much tinder and householders, caught unnwares by the quick spread of the blaze, escaped without hats or coats in most instances.

The water mains in the vicinity of the Ewing Field fire were unable to furnish sufficient water to meet the demands of the firefighters and the auxiliary salt water system, built for fires of major proportion in the downtown urea, was out of reach.

Banners of smoke from the blazing field were visible throughout the city and attracted throngs of
spectators. Directly above the fire zone rose Lone Mountain with its cross, and thousands of men and women watched the fire from its sides and summit.

The nuns at Presentation Convent, operated by the Sisters of the Presentation, at Masonic Avenue and Turk street, only half a block removed from Ewing Field, prevented a panic by their cool-headed work. When it appeared that the convent structure was doomed, the nuns collected their movable valuables and were prepared to depart at an instant's notice.
Exactly what part of "fire-proof" did Ewing Field not understand?

Could the cupola belong to the Presentation Convent at Masonic and Turk? More digging produced the following image of the convent as found on page 427 of "The Catholic church in the United States of America - Volume II" published in 1914:

The cupola on the convent matches that seen outside Ewing Field quite well.

Though the convent was threatened by the Ewing Field fire, it was apparently spared, as the same building (sans cupola) still stands today at the northwest corner of Masonic and Turk. Here's an aerial image taken from the east from Google Maps:

And here's the view from the north, showing the side that faced the ballpark.

Another view of the one-time convent, this time from the ground and also looking from the north, is available in Google Street View:

The convent building, renovated by Oculus Architects, Inc. at the cost of $3,5 million, is now owned by the University of San Francisco. Meanwhile, the Sisters of the Presentation are today headquartered at 2340 Turk, just one building west of their old convent.

The moral of this story? Well, back in 1914, if you were a member of the Sisters of the Presentation and were crazy for Seals baseball, you could simply climb to the top of the convent cupola and peak out for a free view into Ewing Field.

From a baseball standpoint, I suppose this would make you nun the wiser.

Monday, May 14, 2012

There Used to Be a Ballpark Right Here - Athletics Park

And there used to be a ballpark
Where the field was warm and green.
And the people played their crazy game
With a joy I'd never seen.
And the air was such a wonder
From the hot dogs and the beer.
Yes, there used to be a ballpark, right here.
It is likely that Frank Sinatra was thinking of Brooklyn's long gone Ebbets Field when he sang those words back in 1973, but there have been lots of ballparks that have disappeared over the years. In this and future blog postings, I'll take a look (and I do mean "look" ... we'll examine a number of images) at a few parks that are gone, but not forgotten.

First up: The old Athletics ballpark at 15th and Columbia in Philadelphia.

Though the park was home to the Athletic Base Ball Club of Philadelphia for just a few years in the mid-to-late 1860s, it was captured in a pair of oft-reproduced images. Perhaps the best known is this lithograph from 1867:

Titled "The Second Great Match Game for the Championship," the print depicts action from an October 22nd, 1866, match between the Athletics (at bat) and the visiting Atlantic Base Ball Club of Brooklyn (in the field). (The Athletics won 31-12.) The illustration was created and printed by John L. Magee of Philadelphia.

Note how this image shows a pickpocket "caught in the act" as seen in the bottom, left-hand corner. Here's a detail of the "action":

And bonus points to anyone who can explain the meaning of "My Toodles" written atop the paper held in the hands of a gambler(?) seen at the bottom middle of the image:

[See the update below for the solution to the "My Toodles" mystery.]

Another image of the park, this one illustrated by Joseph Boggs Beale, is found in this woodcut published in Harper's Weekly of November 18, 1865:

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ppmsca-17532

This picture represented an earlier contest between the same two clubs, this one taking place on October 30, 1865, and resulting in an Atlantic victory, 21-15. A detail from this image (seen below) shows two men (boys?) playing leapfrog, another man falling down (drunk?), and another pair in the midst of a fight:

And note that at the center of the drawing, as seen in the detail below, there is a small structure with "ATHLETIC 1860" posted across the fa├žade. Why 1860? Because the Philadelphia club was organized on April 7th of that year. This is assuredly the on-field clubhouse of the Athletic Club.

I recently came across an image of the Athletics home grounds at 15th and Columbia that was completely new to me. This one, found at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, dates from August of 1868 and was drawn by Francis H. Schell.

It is likely that the picture depicts the game of August 31, 1868, once again between the rival Athletics and Atlantics, with the Athletics winning, 18-9. While this image lacks some of the detailed crowd scenes found in the prior pictures, it shows (along with the Beale illustration) a distinctive, large building to the left of the grandstand. Here's a detail from the Schell drawing:

Here we clearly see the large building looming above and behind the Athletics' clubhouse. Here's another vintage illustration of the same structure, this one from the January 1874 issue of The Manufacturer and Builder and showing the opposite side of the building (facing Montgomery):

And here's a more recent photograph showing the south and east sides of the building, the same ones that are seen in the ballpark illustrations:

While the ballpark has long since disappeared, this majestic building still exists. It is the Wagner Free Institute of Science, located at North 17th Street and Montgomery Avenue in Philadelphia and first built in 1859. Thanks to Google Street View, you can "virtually" walk around much of the building, though it is generally obscured by quite a few trees. Click on the image below to take a walk around the building:

Take another look at the Magee color lithograph of the ballpark. Given the angle of the scene, it wouldn't surprise me if the illustrator was in the Wagner Free Institute building when he sketched the action.

Update of May 15, 2012:

My good friend Rob Pendell has solved the mystery of the meaning of "My Toodles."

First, it should be noted that I have access to an original Magee lithograph and, upon closer examination, the writing at the top of the paper more likely reads "Mr. Toodles," not "My Toodles." Rob did not have this advantage and thought perhaps the writing was "The Toodles." Here's what Rob calls "a wild theory," but what I feel is most certainly the explanation.
I have a wild theory about your "Toodles" inquiry. First, a question: are you sure the paper says "My Toodles" and not "The Toodles?" From the pictures posted it's not clear. I think it says "The Toodles."

I think the man holding the paper is supposed to be Edwin Booth. I think the man to whom he is gesturing is John Sleeper Clarke. "The Toodles" was a very popular play of the time, and the lead, a boozer, was one of Clarke's most famous roles. Booth and Clarke purchased the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia in 1863 or 1865 (depending on the source), or maybe Booth bought it and brought Clarke on afterwards, but either way they were running it together when Booth's brother shot the president. Clarke, who had married Booth's sister in 1859, was found to be in possession of letters written by John Wilkes Booth and subsequently arrested for some time. He eventually left his wife and ran off to London where he did 200-some performances of "The Toodles."

Random fact #1: Lincoln saw "The Toodles" performed by its credited author and first famous lead William E. Burton in Chicago in 1859.

Random fact #2: Months before the president was assassinated, Edwin Booth saved the life of Lincoln's son, Robert, during an incident on a train platform. The young Lincoln immediately recognized the face of his rescuer, presumably from his acting reputation, but Booth didn't discover who it was he saved until months later.

Magee did many political cartoons and lithographs, including a famous one of John Wilkes Booth titled "Satan Tempting Booth To The Murder Of The President."

I have more weird facts about all this, but I'll leave it there. That's my theory and I'm sticking to it.
Great job, Rob! I did some digging around and found an image of John Clarke from his title role in the play. The image comes from the 19th Century Actors Carte de Visite Collection at the University of Washington. The photo of Clarke is a dead-ringer for the fellow in the Magee lithograph. Here's a comparison:

University of Washington Libraries PH Coll 75.141

Case closed.