The opening of the “World’s Greatest Ballpark” ended the
Jewel Box era; its abandonment marked the dawn of a new age –
through it all, the game remained a business.
The best stories should always be told last.
That is why, after a year of celebration marking Fenway Park’s centennial, some time should be reserved for another, more complicated stadium saga.
The beginnings of this tale have a familiar quality to them.
In the midst of the dead ball era, a jewel box ballpark rose a few miles west of the center of Boston’s downtown, accessible by excellent streetcar service. The park was universally acclaimed upon its opening. Serendipitously, it hosted a World Series in its inaugural year.
This is not, however, another Fenway tribute, but rather a testament to Fenway’s younger but ultimately somewhat shabbier sibling, Braves Field. The birth and subsequent demise of Braves Field serves as a “pivot point” in ballpark history, one that distinguishes two very different approaches to how baseball parks should be built and how they should relate to their host cities and its citizens.
Braves Field, the last of the jewel box ballparks, resulted largely from the genius of one man, built by him within a matter of five months. When it opened in 1915, it featured an unprecedented effort to integrate the workhorse of the urban transportation system, the streetcar, into the very fabric of the facility. When Braves Field was abruptly abandoned in 1953, it didn’t just take a village to replace it; it took an entire county. Milwaukee County Stadium was a publicly financed stadium, located on the site of an abandoned gravel pit. It took three years to construct. County Stadium was divorced from the urban fabric and reflected the increasing dominance of the automobile in American life.
Simply put, this one change changed everything.
The Rogue Visionary
More than anything else, Braves Field represented the triumph of James E. Gaffney, his vision of baseball as it should be played, and his appreciation for the fans, or cranks, which flocked to see it.
Who was James Gaffney?
That was the central question posed by Braves chronicler Harold Kaese in his landmark history of the franchise, first penned in 1948. Gaffney came to the franchise from New York cloaked in the intrigue, allegations and influence of the Tammany Hall political machine.
Kaese’s portrait of Gaffney can only be characterized as somewhat charitable. Gaffney was a self-made man who rose from street cop to Alderman. From there he wound his way into the lucrative construction trade through a variety of corporate vehicles, most notably, the construction company of Bradley, Gaffney and Steers. As the right hand man of Tammany chief Charles F. Murphy, he had ready access to cash and connections.
Amongst his closest friends he numbered the “Old Fox” Clark Griffith. Indeed, rumors abounded that Gaffney had, on behalf of Murphy, supplied the funding for Griffith’s 1911 purchase of an interest in the Washington franchise. Gaffney also reportedly sniffed around the possible purchase of two American league franchises before setting upon the course of acquiring the Boston Nationals.
That transaction was realized through a short-lived collaboration with John Montgomery Ward, a New York lawyer and former pitcher for the Providence Grays. Ward had also been an organizer of both the player-centric Brotherhood and the short-lived Player’s League. A third New Yorker, John Carroll collaborated on the purchase of the franchise in December 1911, with Ward serving as the baseball man, Gaffney as the business man, and Carroll as the bridge building “go between.” Boss Murphy was again alleged to have partnered with Gaffney, sharing profits and losses as they had supposedly done in the transaction with Griffith and in the operations of Gaffney’s construction business.
What are we to make of the string of allegations surrounding Gaffney, some 100 years after the fact? Here is what the record indicates: Boss Murphy, in 1913, insisted to newly elected New York governor William Sulzer, that if any change was going to be made in the office of state highway commissioner, Gaffney should get the job. When Sulzer demurred, Murphy delivered the message that it was “Gaffney or War.” Sulzer then became the first and only Governor of the state of New York to be impeached. Gaffney had been accused in one case of taking a $30,000 payoff, and in another matter had apparently benefited from the expiration of the statute of limitations. In one famous incident, a Grand Jury witness testified that he was “morally certain” that Gaffney had acted as a bagman for Murphy by seeking a five percent share of a construction contract. The same witness, however, could not testify that he was “legally certain” as to Gaffney’s identity.
In retrospect, it is clear that the New York Herald was understated in its assessment that “[a]s a power under cover, [Gaffney’s] position has been unprecedented.” It did not take long for the “power under cover” in the Boston franchise to emerge. Gaffney and Ward clashed almost immediately. Notwithstanding Gaffney’s “genial disposition, unaffected ways and his loyalty to friends,” by August of 1912, Ward had resigned as President of the team, which since its recent transfer had been renamed the Braves in tribute to the symbol of Tammany supremacy. Gaffney, originally the treasurer, although always the principal shareholder, then became president.
Even before this coup, Gaffney had been the man out front. Immediately upon purchasing the team, he had been quoted as pledging $100,000 to make the team an on-field success. The franchise itself had been a bargain. In 1912, a half-interest in the Red Sox sold for $150,000, a mere $37,000 less than a full stake in the Boston Nationals.
After Ward’s departure, Gaffney, decrying the inadequacy of the Walpole Street Grounds in Boston’s South End, first sought to replace the site. He quickly turned to the alternative approach of improving and expanding the tired facility, increasing the park’s capacity as well as removing the principal distortion in its dimensions, a left field fence within 250 feet of home plate. It would now take a 350 foot wallop to clear left field.
A body in motion tends to remain in motion, and when Gaffney’s Tammany-based expectation of immediate success met with frustration on the field, rumors began to crop up as early as June of 1912 that he might be looking to sell his interest in the team. Certainly, by the early months of his third season in ownership, Gaffney was nearing the limits of his frustration. Disgusted, he remarked to his manager, George Stallings, in early 1914: “do anything you want with them. Take them away. Drown them if you want to–I never want to look at them again.” On July 4 of that season, Gaffney’s Braves were languishing in last place.
And then the impossible happened.
The World’s Greatest Ballpark
The Braves’ World Series sweep of Connie Mack’s men may not have been the only miracle of 1914. Somehow, sometime during the Braves’ late summer surge, the whirling turnstiles of the Walpole Street Grounds transformed James E. Gaffney from disgruntled Tammany owner into arguably the most ambitious baseball visionary of the decade.
This all took a fair amount of courage, since 1914 did not present ideal economic circumstances for making an unprecedented investment in a baseball plant. The year had witnessed a months long closure of the stock exchange, the introduction of direct competition to Organized Baseball in the form of the Federal League and, as the Braves surge from worst to first was in full gear, the beginnings of a European War that would eventually engulf the world. Still, the turnout of bugs at the South End Grounds convinced Gaffney that his investment needed a new headquarters. Gaffney was able to secure the use of the two year old Fenway Park as home field for the Series from the new controlling owner of the Red Sox, Joseph J. Lannin, a hotelier who had only just previously acquired a small stake in the Braves franchise. The World Series triumph and the increased return stemming from the sizeable gate at the Jersey Street locale no doubt emboldened Gaffney to pursue a new facility, one that would surpass all other locations.
After Gaffney had titillated the public for over two months, members of the press were almost frothing when they gathered at the Braves’ recently refurbished offices in the Paddock Building at 101 Tremont Street at 5:00 on the evening of December 4, 1914. Gaffney, addressing reporters via telephone from New York City, unveiled the chosen location. Not surprisingly, it was a savvy real estate play, reflecting some very astute political connections.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts had earlier decided to construct an armory along Commonwealth Avenue at the site of the Allston golf course. In an ironic footnote to history, the architect for the armory, James E. McLaughlin, had overseen the recent construction of Fenway Park, a mere one mile to the east. Gaffney secured the right to purchase the western potion of the golf course and immediately determined to reserve the valuable frontage along Commonwealth Avenue for commercial use, sliding his ballpark towards the rear of the site, abutting the Boston and Maine railroad tracks at a point where the Charles River makes an abrupt turn. The contours of the former golf course had featured a sweeping valley thought to make the site less than desirable for building purposes, driving down the expected price. The cost of the acquisition was $100,000.
The location at first seemed ideal. Baseball Magazine, perhaps over-exuberantly, described Commonwealth Avenue as the “Fifth Avenue” of Boston. Gaffney set to work immediately, and became immersed in the details of the plans, serving as his own contractor, a decision that was likely equal parts economic and egotistic. He is said to have reviewed the plans for each one of the new or recently rebuilt jewel box parks, with the aim of incorporating the best features into his new home for the Braves. It is widely believed that he copied the grandstand from Detroit’s Navin Field (later Tiger Stadium) although the New York Times noted that the new field would be sunk below the street level “after the fashion of the Yale Bowl.”
On March 8, 1915, to much fanfare, Gaffney unveiled his design for the new facility. Work would be rushed in order to have the plant up and running by September 1, hopefully just in time for a defense of the Braves’ World Series Crown. A nine foot square model, which would later be displayed prominently in the window of a downtown department store, previewed what would later come to be called the “perfect park.” While the model featured a single deck grandstand extending from right field all the way around to left field, with seating for approximately 45,000 persons, some cost cutting changes were made before construction was completed. Through a process that today bears the more exotic label of “value engineering,” Gaffney trimmed his design, cutting costs and settling upon revisions that resulted in a much smaller bleacher section of 2,000 seats. In addition, the right and left field “pavilions” were left uncovered. For the second time in three years, Osborn Engineering was designing a major league park in Boston.
Time was the principal, but not the sole construction challenge. Gaffney had his leading engineer, one F.G. Collins, Jr., fresh from his role in the excavation and concrete work on the new Penn Station, create a natural amphitheater, with the diamond seventeen feet below street level. Painful attention was paid to making sure that drainage was superb.
Gaffney had both a specific vision and a core constituency in mind as he constructed his ballpark. First, he rejected the anomalies of geometry that characterized many competing venues. The short right field fence of the Baker Bowl and Fenway’s left field wall with its accompanying cliff were, in his view, detractions from the game as it should be played. The most exciting play in baseball was the inside the park home run. Gaffney was sure that was what the cranks wanted to see.
Hence, the playing field was enormous. Upon viewing the completed facility, Ty Cobb remarked “[t]his is the only field in the country on which you can play an absolutely fair game of ball without the interference of fences.” Cobb was utterly convinced, upon spying the 520 foot distance to the flag pole in right center field that “no home run will ever go over that fence.” Baseball Magazine calculated the distance to left field and to right field at 375 feet. Other sources estimate these distances at 400 to 402 feet.
In either case, the grounds were huge. A Boston bug that meandered from the edge of the right field pavilion seats to the last seat in the far reaches of the left field pavilion would have traversed a quarter mile in the process. Construction began in March, with a September 1 targeted completion date. Following the practice of their American League cousins, the Braves would transplant the infield from the old South End Grounds to their new Allston home. When the old grounds became unplayable, the Red Sox afforded the Braves temporary quarters on Jersey Street.
Gaffney’s demanding view of the game as it should be played was matched by his desire for his constituents to be whisked from the park with the ultimate convenience. While other fields had excellent streetcar service, Braves Field took things a step further, by incorporating a departure station into the ballpark itself, within the stadium walls. To do so, Gaffney used his persuasive and other powers to convince the Boston Elevated Railway System to construct a closed loop system that allowed trolley cars to depart from the Commonwealth Avenue mainline, swing down Babcock Street and enter a 600 foot long by 50 foot wide pen within the park’s perimeter. A departing patron could pay his fare at a mini pay station, enter a waiting car and be immediately returned to the mainline tracks and sent on his way home. Costs for the platform, capable of storing 20 trolleys at a time, exceeded $50,000, a cost that railway professionals doubted was worthwhile even given the fare paying throngs that flocked to the field during the two World Series played there in 1915 and 1916. It was also a cost that the Boston Elevated Railway Company, operating under increasing financial distress, could ill afford.
In an independent, but fortuitous development the Elevated (which ran at street level in this area and was only elevated in portions of the system) began adopting a new trolley car that would prove particularly effective at handling crowds associated with sporting events such as those at Braves Field. Entry into the car was afforded by a single door, located in the middle of the trolley car. Within a few years of the park’s opening, these center entrance cars known as “crowd eaters” would serve as the principal means of conveyance to the park and would retain that role for generations of Braves fans.
The Grand Opening…and After
Braves Field represented the last of the jewel box ballparks. Unlike many of that genre, it was constructed entirely of steel (some 750 tons) and an estimated 8,200,000 pounds of concrete.
Like a true Tammany man, Gaffney delivered when it mattered. The field was inaugurated ahead of the original scheduled delivery date of September 1, a daring feat in its own right. Yet no signs of a rush to meet the deadline were in evidence at the festive opening, which came on August 18 in a successful tilt against the Cardinals. Fourteen mayors including Boston’s own James Michael Curley attended, along with Governor Walsh of Massachusetts. The whereabouts of former New York Governor Sulzer were not reported in contemporaneous accounts.
Clark Griffith threw out the first ball to the delight of some 10,000 Boston school children who attended as guests of the Braves. At least 6,000 presumably less delighted fans were turned away. Paid attendance was 32,000 which excluded the schoolchildren and over 4,000 other guests classified as dignitaries. The Braves claimed attendance of some 56,000 despite the fact that there were only 40,000 seats. Some Tammany habits really do die hard.
Baseball Magazine was impressed, dubbing the field “The World’s Greatest Baseball Park.” F.C. Lane, who had earlier said it was a “mad policy” emblematic of baseball’s mismanagement to build another ballpark in the same city as the new Fenway Park, now declared, “The field at Boston is vast, simple in its line, Grecian in its architecture.” According to National League President Tener: “It [Braves Field] is the last word in baseball parks–and its building was the biggest single event in ten years time.”
Not everything was perfect at the opening of Gaffney’s “perfect park.” From an operational perspective, the interior loading of trolley cars at game’s end created a severe crush of humanity. The Globe reported that “[t]he rush for these cars was tremendous and for more than half an hour only the sturdiest were able to clamber aboard. There was a mad dash for every car and a battle at every step. Many climbed [in]… through windows and every car that passed out to Commonwealth Avenue was jammed, packed full. The women had no chance at all.”
An Opportunity To Do Business
But the events surrounding the opening of Braves Field that may have had the greatest impact on baseball history and the Braves franchise involved representatives of the Federal League, who had departed well before the opening day ceremonies. The fact that Gaffney had opening day “boxes reserved for the Feds” as well as all owners in Organized Baseball represented a major shift by Gaffney in his thinking regarding the Outlaws of the Federal League. In 1914, he had allegedly used his influence on the New York City docks to thwart the Federals’ effort to meet and sign major leaguers returning from their 1913-1914 world tour. He had litigated aggressively, indeed almost zealously, against the Federals in an effort to combat their efforts to raid the rosters of major league teams. Furthermore, when Gaffney sold the old Walpole Street grounds, he included, at the insistence of the National Commission, an “iron bound agreement” that the land could never again be used for baseball purposes in order to prevent “any undesirable parties [the Federals] from eventually getting control of the grounds.”
Most notably, he had pulled his team off the field earlier in the 1915 season rather than allow John McGraw’s Giants to use the services of “reverse jumper” Bernie Kauff, who had left his Federal League team for McGraw’s National Leaguers. This infuriated the Little Napoleon who screamed, “That’s a fine way to repay the favors I have done for you. I’ll get even. You can’t make a fool of me and get away with it.”
Like any good politician, Gaffney kept his options open and by shortly before the grand opening in August, Gaffney had definitively changed course. Not only did he offer a personalized tour of the new grounds to the Federals’ inner circle of President Gilmore, George S. Ward, C.B. Comstock, and Harry Sinclair (later of Teapot Dome scandal fame), he reportedly wooed these insiders with his pitch to have his construction firm build the proposed new Federal League Park in New York City. At the same time, he was reportedly feeling out the Federals’ reaction to possible peace negotiations.
Subsequent events revealed that the ballpark proposal, which featured the prominent display of an architect’s plans for a 40,000 seat stadium in a storefront window on 42nd Street, was part of the “Big Bluff” strategy of the Federals to secure more favorable peace terms. When peace between the Federals and Organized Baseball did come, the lion’s share of the credit for concluding a peace treaty on terms favorable to Organized Baseball went to the Nationals, and Gaffney was credited with getting the peace talks started.
A Legacy Assessed
The month after Braves Field opened, the Boston Red Sox sprinted onto the grounds in an effort to acclimate themselves to the park that would serve as their “home field” during the 1915 World Series. Included on this squad was George Herman Ruth, who although he would not pitch in the 1915 series, would take to the Braves Field mound in 1916 for perhaps the most impressive pitching performance of his career.
It was however, in his subsequent incarnation as a slugger, that Ruth would radically change the game, and, in so doing obliterate Gaffney’s vision of the game as it should be played. Ruth’s power display, beginning with his 29 home runs in 1919, relegated Braves Field to premature functional obsolescence. The vision had been irrevocably blurred and, as a result, the vast configuration of Braves Field would become a liability. In the years that followed, the diamond was the subject of almost constant tinkering. Bleachers and shorter fences were built and, in turn, demolished. The playing field was rotated toward right field; in all, Braves Field’s dimensions were altered more than those of any other ballpark, although in the end, as Kaese noted, no one could figure out how “to move 8,200,000 pounds of cement stands closer to the playing field.”
Less than one month after peace with the Federals was declared, Gaffney stunned the baseball world by selling the Braves to a local group headed by Percy Haughton. He made no secret of why he closed the deal. Denying any preexisting intention to sell the club, Gaffney stated “[w]hen I discovered I could secure a price…that would net me a substantial profit, I could not, as a business man, turn down the proposition.” The sale price was reportedly $500,000, making for a nice return on Gaffney’s original purchase price of $187,000. Gaffney retained ownership control of Braves Field and from the very first reports, skepticism was expressed as to whether the terms of the sale and the lease cost of the ballpark afforded a realistic opportunity for a successful operation by the new owners.
For the first time since 1903, the Boston National League franchise was in the hands of local owners. Gaffney, for his part, was at various times rumored to be a potential purchaser of the Giants (in tandem with Sinclair), Brooklyn or returning to Boston to rescue the beleaguered owners of the Braves. Gaffney would thereafter from time to time make himself available to Boston reporters, occasionally stirring the baseball pot in Beantown. For example, just after the 1918 World Series, Gaffney and Red Sox owner Harry Frazee discussed the possibility of sharing Braves Field, allowing Frazee to capitalize on the rising real estate values in the Fenway area by selling his ballpark. Nothing ever came of it. Apparently, Frazee found some other way to raise the capital he needed.
The New Visionaries
Financially weak ownership would continue to plague the Braves franchise for decades after Gaffney’s departure. Indeed, it seemed that simply owning the team was enough in itself to drive a once wealthy owner, Judge Emil Fuchs, into bankruptcy. The team languished for most of the twenties, teetered on the brink of collapse during the depression and did not begin to shake off the doldrums until a triumvirate known as the “Three Little Steamshovels” wrestled control of the team from their syndicate partners in early 1944. New Deal politics and wartime exigencies had killed Tammany Hall and replaced it with a less egregious, but still politically charged world of contracting. Lou Perini, Guido Rugo, and Joseph Maney were local construction men who mirrored that progression. In many respects, they were as much a product of their era as Gaffney was of his.
Like Gaffney, they saw an immediate need to improve the existing conditions at Braves Field, which had been allowed to languish over the years. Light towers were erected to introduce Boston to night baseball. The playing field was lowered by eighteen inches to improve sight lines. Fir trees were planted beyond the outfield fence to offer some buffer from rail yard emissions. Further renovations, including potentially covering the pavilions and enlarging the bleachers, were planned.
As the on-field performance improved under the new owners, Boston fans, who had briefly entertained thoughts of a subway series in 1915 and 1916, had their quite realistic hopes dashed in 1948 when the Red Sox unraveled in a one game playoff against the Cleveland Indians. While the Braves drew more than 1.45 million fans in 1948, the glory days of that season reversed themselves within four short years as the Braves sunk to seventh place and attendance slid back down to alarmingly dismal but nonetheless familiar levels. As attendance dwindled, losses mounted, reaching in excess of $580,000 in 1952.
But America was a different place by the early Fifties and baseball was changing, too. In an era of seemingly limitless American power, failure was less acceptable and futility no longer an option. A new postwar automobile driven prosperity brought with it greater disposable income and more leisure, but also more leisure time options. Baseball faced the issues and opportunities arising out of increased competition for the sports dollar, integration, more night baseball and the beginnings of a fitful dance with television.
Like Gaffney, the Steamshovels, first down to two when Rugo left the scene, then diminishing to one when Perini bought out all his partners in late 1952, knew that baseball was above all, a business.
And Then They Were Gone….But Never Forgotten
Lou Perini had a secret in the winter of 1952-53. A secret he held so closely, he did not divulge it even to his wife. Warren Spahn, his star pitcher, while already a five-time all star, was even further removed from this privileged information. Approximately one thousand miles away from Boston, meanwhile, the wave of the future was literally building, and the Braves would catch the early development of this wave just as surely as they had closed out the era of the jewel box ballpark in 1915.
Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, had undertaken the financing and construction of a new ballpark, originally aimed at replacing the outdated Borchert Field as the home of the Braves’ leading minor league affiliate. The readily expandable nature of the park’s design made it obvious that higher aspirations were in the minds of its sponsors. The site was a former gravel pit, known as “Story quarry” that was far removed from the Milwaukee equivalent of Fifth Avenue. The quarry was an automobile-centric location, reflecting the nation’s increasing reliance on the car; when County Stadium was completed, it was situated in the midst of a sea of parking.
Lou Perini’s secret was his intention to disrupt the baseball equivalent of the Congress of Vienna. Ever since peace had been hammered out between the American and National Leagues in the National Agreement of 1903, the major leagues of Organized Baseball had been the exclusive province of 16 teams in an elite cadre of 10 cities. This basic tenet underlying the National Agreement had withstood one baseball war (against the Federal League), the Great Depression, two World Wars and the collapse of the National Commission originally established to administer it.
Once Perini toppled these foundations by moving the Braves to Milwaukee, a flood of relocations and expansions followed. Perini, like Gaffney, had a vision and his had foreseen the trend of transferring franchises. He believed “other cities can take a page from the Milwaukee book by providing for major league facilities.” Walter O’Malley, the Brooklyn Dodgers owner, added ominously, “This is bound to start a chain reaction.” The decision to relocate was, in the finest traditions of Gaffney’s sale of the team in 1916, a good business decision, perhaps the best made by a Braves owner since Gaffney’s time.
Braves fans had a different perspective. As Kaese recounts things, the end was as sudden and painful as the plan had been secret. On March 13, 1953, the word leaked out that the Braves, already in Spring Training at Bradenton, would be playing that very season in Milwaukee County Stadium. Warren Spahn, who had planned to open his new diner across the street from Braves Field, immediately became an absentee owner. The 1953 All-Star game was quickly moved from Braves Field to Crosley Field. Braves fans, stunned, mourned the loss of the franchise in the only way appropriate, by stealing home plate.
The same year the Braves left town, one of the old “crowd eater” trolleys dropped a brake shoe in the downtown core subway tunnel, wreaking havoc with the Boston morning rush hour. The center entrance cars that carried the echoes of countless post Braves game celebrations and frustrations were immediately retired from service.
Boston University acquired James Gaffney’s overgrown “perfect ballpark” some four months later and, in the process of converting it to the university’s athletic purposes, demolished the majority of the plant. However, much of the old right field pavilion remains, and the Spanish Colonial ticket and administrative office building now serves as the headquarters for the Boston University police force.
The Boston Braves and Braves Field live on in the memories of a hardy group of preservationists known as the Boston Braves Historical Association. Over the years they have kept alive the spirit of their youth through a series of reunions and, as the ranks have thinned and grayed, by means of a newsletter and the bully pulpit of the Internet. Baseball, the game, and how the nation and its cities relate to that game, have changed several times over since that dismal March day in 1953. But somehow the love of the game, the love of one’s team whether that team is good or bad, and our memories, live on.
I told you it was a really good story.
This article, including comprehensive end notes was originally published in the Fall, 2012 SABR BaseBall Journal. To read the original article click here.