Where was Pittsburgh baseball played before Forbes Field was built? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Where was Pittsburgh baseball played before Forbes Field was built? 

Question submitted by: Joe Forbes, South Side

The whole point of baseball, in case the Pirates have forgotten, is to travel in a giant loop. You start at home, make a few stops along the way, and end up where you set out from. And in Pittsburgh, professional baseball has done just that.

For more than six decades, the Pirates played in Oakland's legendary Forbes Field. But prior to that park's opening in 1909, the team and its predecessors played over on the North Side, very close to their current home.

The early days of loca baseball are murky: Ballparks came and went, and with them went teams and even entire leagues. Little record remains of Union Park, for example, which saw some action in 1878 … and few remember the Pittsburgh Stogies, who played for a single season in 1884. (The name reflected Pittsburgh's once-sizable cigar-rolling industry.) The Pirates themselves only begin charting their official team history back to 1887 — the year their forerunners, the Pittsburgh Alleghenies, played their first game as a National League franchise.

But in his survey of major-league ballparks, Green Cathedrals, Philip Lowry documents the regularly scheduled pro games taking place in 1882. That was the year Pittsburgh Alleghenies took the field at Exposition Park — just west of where PNC Park stands today.

It was a natural location: While the area is now known as the city's North Side, back in the 1800s it was a separate municipality: Allegheny City. And while Pittsburgh itself was almost literally exploding with new industry, the pace of life in Allegheny was more suited to baseball: a bit more elegant, even laconic. "As a city, Allegheny had only begun to grow when the nineteenth century passed the half-way mark," notes Story of Old Allegheny City, a nostalgic 1940 history. "The city on the north bank … [had] desirable home sites, and ample space to be converted into parks."

But there was one problem with putting a ballpark right by the river: all that water nearby. With flood-control projects a half-century in the future, crippling floods were not uncommon. In fact, after spring flooding swamped much of the field in 1883, team officials quickly built another field, partially overlapping the first but on slightly higher ground. The next year, the Alleghenies moved even further away— to Recreation Park, located a few blocks away near present-day West Park.

Much like Giants Stadium, Recreation Park is perhaps best remembered for whom is said to be buried beneath it. Legend has it that catcher Fred Carroll, who kept a pet monkey that served as an unofficial team mascot, buried the creature in the park. "When the pet died, he was buried with honors during a pre-game ceremony, directly beneath home plate," writes Lowry.

Recreation Park served as home for the Alleghenies through 1890. During that final season, there were actually two operating ballparks — each boasting a different league. In 1890, a breakaway "Players League" had been founded, and lured away many of the best players. In a synopsis of early local baseball history published in the Western Pennsyvlania Historical Magazine, former Pirates President William Benswanger noted that 1890 "was a disastrous season for the riddled Nationals at Recreation Park." The team went 23-113 and once "lost three games — in one day."

So take comfort, Pirates fans: The team will never be that bad again. After all, they don't play three games a day any more.

When the Players League collapsed, the Alleghenies made two key moves. They poached the contract of Players League infielder Louis Bierbauer, who had been slated to return to his team in Philadelphia. That move was denounced as "piratical" in Philly, and the name stuck.

And like true buccaneers, the Pirates plundered their enemy's real estate as well. Exposition Park had been upgraded, and was a newer, more handsome facility than the team had in Recreation Park. And so the Pirates comandeered it (yaaaar). Thanks to acquisitions like Honus Wagner, Pittsburgh became a powerhouse by the turn of the century. And in 1903, Exposition Park co-hosted the very first World Series, which Pittsburgh lost to the Boston Pilgrims

In fact, wasn't until 1909, when the team moved to Oakland, that it won a World Series. And at the rate things are going along the riverbank these days, maybe we should think about moving back.



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