Sunday, March 1, 2015

There Used to Be a Ballpark Right Here - Washington Park

Recently, I was contacted by three gurus of baseball board game collecting: Butch, Kerm and Win (they wish to remain otherwise anonymous). The trio of passionate collector/historians run a web site devoted to this niche hobby, and in the past have helped me with a number of research requests. This time, however, they came to me with a question ... one which led me to write this post, the third installment of my "There Used to Be a Ballpark Right Here" series.

They were curious about a game produced in 1886 titled, simply, "The Game of Base Ball."

The Strong National Museum of Play

Published by McLoughlin Brothers, the leading board game manufacturer of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the game was made available in two versions: a high-end model, complete with hand-painted metal ballplayer tokens, and a low-cost model called "Home Base Ball."

Specifically, Butch, Kerm and Win wanted to know more about the artwork found on the game board of the low-end version:

They alerted me to an advertisement they found for the game in a McLoughlin Brothers catalog from 1886:

Intrigued by the statement that "the design is an accurate picture of one of our leading Base-Ball grounds," Butch, Kerm and Win asked if I happened to know what park it might be? Or did I think that the catalog description was mere hyperbole and the image simply a fictional, generic ballpark, the whim of one of McLoughlin Brothers' many talented artists?

These were great questions, so I decided research the problem.

Working under the assumption that the illustration was indeed of an actual ballpark, I took a close look at the specific characteristics depicted.

First, the presence of numerous buildings and smokestacks beyond the outfield walls implied an urban setting. Second, the field appears to well-below ground level, as massive, sloping banks are seen in the outfield. And third, while only a small portion of the seating area is seen, what little there is shows a single-deck structure of a rather simple construction.

All three characteristics suggested one likely ballpark: Brooklyn's Washington Park. There have actually been a few ballparks in Brooklyn named Washington Park, but the park that fits the bill was the first to bear the name. That first version of Washington Park was home to Brooklyn big league baseball from 1884 to 1890.

Brooklyn, of course, satisfies the first characteristic: an urban setting. Bounded on the west and east by 4th and 5th Avenues, and north and south by 3rd and 5th Streets, the park was situated in a deep basin that some historians claim to have been over two dozen feet below street level. In fact, in the winter the outfield slopes of the park lent themselves perfectly to tobogganing. The following note was published in the New York Times of November 11, 1886:

Washington Park, Brooklyn, presents many facilities for a good toboggan slide. The ground lies many feet below the surface of the roadway, making it easy to construct a slide with a great declination. President [Charles] Byrne, one of the lessees of the park and manager of the Brooklyn Baseball Club, has had plans drawn for an 18-foot slide, to start from the Fifth-avenue entrance to the ground. The incline will stop at the home plate, about 180 feet. The distance then to the end of the ground would be another 520 feet. Should the project be carried through three slides will be made and extra facilities will be introduced by which they will be saved the trouble of tugging their sleighs back up the hill.
At other times during the off-season, the park was partially flooded for ice-skating. The following woodcut titled "Base-Ball on Skates, Washington Park, Brooklyn" was published in the January 24, 1884 issue of Harper's Weekly:

Take a close look at the background of the woodcut and you can see wooden walls situated atop a steep incline, not unlike those seen in the image on the baseball game board. This incarnation of Washington Park clearly satisfies the second characteristic.

Alas, there are very few images of the park that show its grandstand. This one, from a May 30, 1887, doubleheader pitting the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers against the St. Louis Browns, was taken from deep right field:

... and this one (quite possible from the same day) from deep left field:

The first image (taken from right field) reveals that the grandstand on the third-base-side has a single deck, thus satisfying the third characteristic of the image on the game board.

Though I was not able to track down any other large overview images of the park, a few images showing details from the ballpark can be found ... if you know where to look. In 1888, Joseph Hall took a number of photographs of baseball clubs at the ballpark. He seated the ball players near the end of the third-base-side grandstand for their portraits. For example, here are the St. Louis Browns of the old American Association:

Now compare this cabinet card with the top photograph of Washington Park. The red arrow points out the corner of the grandstand that can be seen in both images:

This "Old Judge" tobacco card of Brooklyn third baseman George Pinkney is one of a number of such cards taken in 1887 that show one of the grassy slopes at the sunken ballpark. Apparently, some seating was even built into the incline, though this is not seen in the game board picture.

Despite the fact that there are very few images of this first version of Washington Park, there's little question that the picture on the "Home Base Ball" game board depicts that very Brooklyn ballpark.

1 comment:

  1. Tremendous work as always, Tom -- thanks for coming through for us once again!