Was there a baseball field that the Pittsburgh Pirates played in before Forbes Field in Oakland? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Was there a baseball field that the Pittsburgh Pirates played in before Forbes Field in Oakland?

Question submitted by: Bob Crytzer, Coraopolis

For many fans, the story of the Pittsburgh Pirates begins with Forbes Field, which opened in 1909, the same year the Pirates won the World Series. But every story has a bit of exposition before the narrative really begins. Pittsburgh -- like a storyteller who doesn't know quite how to start -- had a couple of ballparks with the same apt name: Exposition Park.

Each of the facilities was built on the city's North Side (which was then a distinct municipality known as Allegheny City, as one is obliged to point out for fear of being dressed down by militant North Side separatists). In the early 1880s, the first Exposition Park was the home field for the forerunner of the Pirates, the Alleghenies. (Presumably they were afraid of North Side separatists as well.) Actually, the park was too close to the river, given the likelihood of flooding. So within a few years, the Alleghenies moved a bit further away from the water, to a site bounded by railroad tracks that was called Recreation Park.

In 1890, a rival baseball league started up a team of its own, the Burghers, who built their own Exposition Park near the Alleghenies' field. The rival league promptly collapsed, and the Alleghenies scooped up some of its players -- earning a reputation for piracy that soon gave the squad a new name -- and took the newer park. (Recreation Park "was turned into a wooden saucer for motor-paced bicycle riding" called the Coliseum, Frederick G. Lieb tells us in his team history, The Pittsburgh Pirates.)

This final Exposition Park stood not far from the current site of PNC Park. It served as the home of Pittsburgh baseball for a quarter century. It was the site of the first World Series, in 1903, and an historic marker still identifies the spot today. Even so, its "location was not ideal," writes John McCallister in his team history The Bucs! The story of the Pittsburgh Pirates. "During the spring, when the snow melted and the rivers overflowed, sometimes the water would creep into Exposition Park, making the territory more appropriate for swimming meets than baseball games." Often, the team scheduled a series of road trips in the early part of the season, just to avoid the flooding.

Eventually, the need for a new facility became obvious, and the Pirates ownership decided to leave the North Side behind. At least for awhile.

In a widely quoted admission, the Pirates' then-owner, Barney Dreyfus, acknowledged that when he first pitched the idea of Forbes Field, "people laughed at me. ... [T]here was nothing there but a livery stable, a hothouse, while a few cows roamed over the countryside."

But the fact that it was cows roaming the outfield -- rather than, say, carp -- was a point in the new location's favor. What's more, Dreyfus was convinced that "we had to get out of Exposition Park" for that oldest of reasons: snobbery. "The game was growing up, and patrons no longer were willing to put up with nineteenth-century conditions," he maintained. Sounding like a man who feels no fear of North Side separatists, he added that the old park "was located in a poor neighborhood, and many of the better class of citizens, especially when accompanied by their womenfolk, were loath to go there."

The very last game at Exposition Park was played June 29, 1909. The Pirates beat the Chicago Cubs 8-1. (Ironically, they'd lose to the Cubs when playing the first-ever game at Forbes Field, the next day.) During the game's final at-bat, a bugler named Charles Zieg began to play "Taps," as the park's American flag began to be lowered. (All of which suggests a confidence in the Pirate bullpen that more modern Pirates fans must envy.) Upon the third strike, reported the Pittsburgh Gazette-Times the next day, "[t]he crowd stood, silent and hatless. Then, in silence still and with many a lump in many a throat, it drifted down, out and away. And Expo Park and its glories were history."

The final game's attendance was 5,545. Which, at the rate things are going, will be roughly the same number of fans who will show up to see the last game at PNC Park.

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