I'm a baseball fan and have always appreciated ballparks integrated into the urban fabric. The trend towards retro neighborhood-style ballparks, spurred by the success of Camden Yards, has been one of the most welcome trends in urban design of the last fifteen years. While some are more successful than others, and none approach the integration achieved by Fenway Park which is, of course, an urban ballpark which grew up with its neighborhood, they are far better than the multi-purpose stadia which sprang up in the 1960s and 1970s even if the HOK (the architectural firm for the Camden Yards stadium) aesthetic is now something of a cliche.
I know bad ballparks: I lived in Washington D.C. in the early 1990s and was at one of the last games played at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. A baseball fan friend (hi Tom!) and I also ventured out to Cleveland (Muncipal Stadium, a dreary cavern which seated 74,000) Pittsburgh (Three Rivers Stadium, a concrete monstrosity) and an exhibition game at RFK in DC, a field with dimensions better suited for wiffleball. I've also been to Twins games in the Metrodome, which is the worst baseball environment I've ever seen and that is something because I played at Raccoon Valley Little League, which had fields located in a river flood plain and has since been wiped out by a flood.
All of this meant the games I saw at Camden Yards were a welcome change. Perhaps the best new park I've been to is AT&T Park (née Pac Bell Park) in San Francisco, seen above. While it has its flaws (you can see how high up I am in the stands, and Barry Bonds plays for the Giants), the amenities are superb (Ghiradelli hot fudge sundaes!) and the view towards San Francisco Bay is unsurpassed. It is also easily walkable from Market Street and the Moscone Center and light rail runs right by the ballpark. Throughout the game I kept asking myself, "Why can't we have baseball on the water in Boston?"
When I moved back to Boston in the mid-1990s there had been some talk of a waterfront baseball stadium for the Red Sox, and the 1965 General Plan for Boston has an illustration of what appears to be a Three Rivers Stadium style multi-purpose sports center situated on the Fort Point Channel. Several years later and with a change of ownership, the Red Sox appear to be ensconced in Fenway for many years to come and the dream of a waterfront ballpark in my lifetime is likely dead.
Fast forward to two days ago. I'm holding an 1896 map of the area where Northeastern University now stands and I'm looking at the location of the South End Grounds, an old baseball park with frontage on Columbus Avenue, about where Northeastern has a parking garage/parking lot today and Ruggles Street T Station. Since it is baseball season, the South End Grounds seemed like a good candidate for a writeup in the City Record.
I knew that the South End Grounds had burned down in 1894 when Boston's National League team, the Beaneaters, was playing there, but I never had given it much thought. I also knew the stands were quite an architectural marvel in their day. The Boston Public Library has a picture here. What I didn't know was that while the park was being rebuilt after the fire, the Beaneaters played at the Congress Street Ball Grounds. The Congress Street Ball Grounds? My immediate thought was that there must be a Congress Street in Roxbury or Dorchester that I hadn't heard of. There couldn't have possibly been a baseball field on Congress Street in the 1890s--after all, I used to work at Russia Wharf and know the area well--where would it have been? Towards downtown? I checked my 1896 Annual Report of the Street Laying Out Department, saw only one Congress Street, and realized that it must have been in South Boston.
After a quick Google search, I came to the realization that Boston actually had what was likely the first waterfront professional baseball park in the United States, built in 1889-90 on Congress Street in South Boston. I find no small degree of irony that one of the sites where people would have loved to have seen a baseball stadium built in the 1990s was less than a hundred yards from the site of an actual professional baseball park from the 1890s.
This image, a crop of an 1891 ward map from the Boston Public Library (click here for more) shows the location of the ball grounds. Northern Avenue has been projected but not yet built, and the intensive land making to extend the shoreline and create more wharves has not yet occurred.
So what happened when the Beaneaters played at the Congress Street Grounds? Richard "Dixie" Tourangeau has written an essay, "Remembering the Congress Street Grounds" which can be downloaded as a pdf from the Society for American Baseball Research website. The essay covers the building of the grounds, the architecture, the teams that played there, and details of several Beaneaters games.
The essay also clears up a question which has puzzled me for many years. As baseball fans know, there are a few single game individual achievements which are very rare: perfect games, unassisted triple plays, and hitting four home runs in a game are among the rarely seen. The first major league baseball player to hit four home runs in one game was Bobby Lowe of the Boston Beaneaters on May 30th, 1894. This feat always seemed particularly heroic to me, given the dead ball of that era. As it turns out, the left field fence at the Congress Street Grounds was only about 250 feet away from home plate and home runs suddenly become much easier to hit when the Beaneaters began to play in South Boston. According to Tourangeau, the crowd showered the field with $160 in coins after the game in their appreciation of Lowe's achievement. Tourangeau also notes that in twenty-seven games, the Beaneaters and their opponents hit 86 home runs, a pace most modern teams can only dream of. So the next time you're on Congress Street in South Boston, look at the site of the old Congress Street Grounds, and imagine what might have been.
[Updated July 2007: Another post about the Congress Street Grounds]
The image below, from an 1899 map of Boston, shows the Congress Street Grounds as open space, but one can also see the projections for the new wharves. The rail lines shown on the 1891 map above are gone. Click image to enlarge. (Image copyright the City Record and Boston News-Letter, all rights reserved)