Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Musings on Images of Detroit's Recreation Park

The University of Michigan has digitized many thousands of images at their "Early Detroit Images from the Burton Historical Collection" web site, including these wonderful photographs of Recreation Park in Detroit, the home of the Detroit Wolverines of the National League from 1881 to 1888.
(Clicking on an image below will open a new window and allow you to view larger versions).

The following image is a detail from the first photo, showing an intriguing poster:

Though it is difficult to decipher, some of the text on the poster reads as follows:
?? 16 17 18 19
2,342 MILES

Captain Paul Boyton was an adventurer who specialized in long-distance swimming with the aid of a special rubber suit and paddles. He would propel himself while on his back, something like a cross between kayaking and luging. In 1879, Boyton made his way from Oil City, Pennsylvania to the Gulf of Mexico in just 80 days, a distance of 2,342 miles. No doubt this latter number is the same as seen in the poster. This suggests that Boyton was making an appearance at Recreation Park sometime after his remarkable accomplishment, in mid-to-late 1879 or perhaps 1880.

These fantastic images of Recreation Park spurred my interest in looking for other photos of the ballpark, and in so doing I found that the last of the four photos above was the basis for this woodcut by Charles W. Sumner found in Silas Farmer's The History of Detroit and Michigan: or, the Metropolis Illustrated (1884):

The caption for the drawing reads "Recreation Park Entrance and Reception Building" and an accompanying paragraph describes the park as follows:

As a place for out-door entertainments, Recreation Park affords all facilities that can be desired. It is located on the Brush Farm, the entrance being a few blocks east of Woodward Avenue, on Brady Street. The grounds, embracing eighteen acres, are fitted up to accommodate exhibitions of various kinds. The Reception Building has every needful appliance for comfort and convenience. The Park was opened on May 10, 1879.
Since the book was published in 1884, this corroborates my guess that the photo was taken in 1879 or soon thereafter.

In tracking down still more images of the park, I stumbled on a bit of a mystery. The following photo of Recreation Park comes from page 81 of David Lee Poremba's Detroit: 1860-1899:

The note written near the top of the photograph reads:

JUNE 19, 1886

From the phrase "... where Brush St. is now between ...," we know that the note was not written contemporaneously. So how much do we trust this caption? Well, as it turns out, not much. A quick check of numerous sources reveals that Detroit and Chicago did not play a 13-inning, 1-0 game on that date. Is that date wrong? Or the score? Or the number of innings? Or some combination of any of the above?

At first, I thought the date had to be wrong, as I found the same photo (sans the notation) on page 53 of Picturesque Detroit and Environs, a book available at Google Books and purportedly published in 1883:

Since the publication date for the book was 1883, this would eliminate 1886 as a possible year. But after browsing through the book, I found that the author made mention of facts that took place after 1883. Indeed, various statistics for years up to and including 1892 are cited. It appears that the book was actually published in 1893, not 1883.

So I'm still left with the question: When was the photo taken? Alas, I don't have a definite answer, but my suspicion is that the date of June 19, 1886, is correct. The key is the enormous crowd, clearly evident in the photograph, and definitely on hand for the mid-June game.

That day, Detroit did indeed face Chicago in a much-anticipated game. The Wolverines had not lost a game at home all season: 18-straight victories at Recreation Park! As Chicago came to town, Detroit stood in first place with a record of 30 wins and just six losses (along with a tie game). Meanwhile, the Chicago White Stockings were in second place, just 2.5 games behind, with a 26-7 record (with one tie). A large contingent from the Windy City traveled to Detroit in anticipation of not just a single victory, but a series sweep, moving Chicago into first place. It was an audacious goal given the Wolverines unblemished record at home, but one that was embraced.

Fans of the White Stockings brought brooms with them to the park, each marked with the motto "Record Breakers," predicting the demise of Detroit's impressive victory skein. But Detroit fans had their own retort: a giant broom painted with the phrase "The Big Four and Five More." "The Big Four" was the nickname of the Wolverines' infield (Dan Brouthers, Jack Rowe, Hardy Richardson, and Deacon White), acquired in a controversial deal late in the season of 1885. "And Five More" referred, of course, to the rest of the starting nine.

The crowd was estimated at well over 10,000 and described as the most ever seen at the park. Coverage in The Washington Post of June 20 corroborates what we see in the photo:

The down-town ticket offices were thronged all the early part of the afternoon with people buying baseball tickets. The Woodward Avenue and Brush Street car lines tried in vain by putting on extra cars to accommodate the crowds going to see the first Chicago-Detroit ball game at Recreation Park. It was worse than any Fourth of July. The Chicago procession of carriages was noticeable for the brooms in the ship-socket of each. At 3 o'clock it was estimated that there were 10,000 people on the grounds. Rows of chairs were placed in front of the stand ten deep, and were all occupied by 3 o'clock. It was found necessary to stretch a rope about half way between the diamond at the back fence to keep the crowd back. This necessitated making special rules barring all home runs and three-base hits.
... as does this from The Chicago Tribune:

Ample accommodation had been made at the grounds to seat the immense crowd by placing 5,000 seats upon the lawn in front of the grand stand and open. Extending northward from both ends of the open and circling across the field was a line of spectators ten deep, and at 3:30 the diamond was literally enclosed by a living hedge of 13,000 people.
Chicago topped Detroit 5-4 (not 1-0) in nine innings, though Detroit came back to win the last two games of the series to remain in first.

Though I cannot say for certain that the photo is from this particular game, I think it highly likely.

Research Update: November 5, 2009

Baseball researcher Peter Morris made great progress on the handbill posted outside Recreation Park. He found that a note in the Detroit Free Press from June 15, 1879, confirmed that Boyton was scheduled to appear at Recreation Park from June 16 to 19.

I followed up on Peter's invaluable lead and found that starting in the June 13 issue of the Free Press there were a number of articles and advertisements about Boyton's visit. Apparently, his exhibitions were such a success that additional shows were scheduled for June 20 and 21. Here's the final advertisement from the June 21 issue of the Free Press:

Earlier ads heralded "CAPT. PAUL BOYTON, The World-famed Navigator, in his Rubber Life-saving Dress, in a New Original & Unique Entertainment. This is the first appearance in Michigan waters and his Nautical Exhibition, as given by him in all the leading cities in Europe and America, will be presented in its entirety. A splendid sheet of water, 7 feet in depth, adjacent to the Grand Stand, has been prepared especially for the occasion."

The article on June 15 stated that "Capt. Boyton has been engaged by the Recreation Park Company to give a series of exhibitions at the park next Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, at 5 o'clock each afternoon. A miniature lake seven feet in depth and 200x100 feet in area has been provided in full view of the grand stand and good music will be furnished during the exhibition."

This explains the water that is seen in front of the grand stand in the second of the four photographs above. Originally I thought this water was a feature of the park, but in light of the Free Press article it is clear that this "miniature lake" was created especially for Boyton's exhibition. Here's another look:

I think we can now state with certainty that the four photos of Recreation Park that were digitized at the University of Michigan were taken in mid-June of 1879.

I've tracked down a few other Boyton-related links, for those who wish to learn more about "The World-famed Navigator":


  1. Boyton did exhibitions of life-saving at Recreation Park from June 16-19, 1879 (according to the Free Press of 6/15/79, p. 1). So this has to be the event that the poster was announcing. Peter Morris

  2. Hey! Thanks for the great information!

    I downloaded the images from the University of Michigan and adjusted them for contrast and levels. They're punched up quite a bit. You may enjoy many of the other images I have posted of Detroit baseball stadiums. I'll be posting more soon. I ran through my monthly upload allotment.

  3. Just found this, great research. The game in question certainly dates to June 19th, 1886. There is a known imperial cabinet of this image with original photographer printing on back that reads:

    AT DETROIT, JUNE 19th, 1886.
    C.W. Earle, Photographer,

    The cabinet is believed to have belonged to Hardy Richardson. I can provide an image if interested. Joe Gonsowski (

  4. In the third photo, it is interesting to see how much space there is between the running/trotting track and home plate. Would this area be in foul territory, or did spectators sit there when games were on?