Grandstands Make Great Kindling

In May 1949, Fort Worth’s LaGrave Field burned completely to the ground. (via The Mark Presswood Collection)

Fort Worth’s LaGrave Field is located on the banks of the Trinity River two blocks east of Main Street, halfway between the city’s downtown area and historic Stockyards in an area referred to as North Side. The home Rogers Hornsby bought after he became a star with the St Louis Cardinals is a five-minute walk away, still standing and tucked behind a busy gas station.

This incarnation of the stadium was built in 2002 for the then-new Fort Worth Cats independent minor league team that started play in 2001. The field was built in the same location as the 1926–1967 version of the stadium, with the team taking the name of the historical Texas League squad that first started play in the 1880s and was a dynasty in the 1920s.

Currently abandoned, LaGrave has not been used by the Cats since an abbreviated season in 2014. However, if you were to see the stadium in person, you would think it has been abandoned for far longer. The grass on the field is waist high, graffiti mars walls where promotional banners once flew, doors have been busted open, and the cart that once sold programs is now pushed down the entrance steps.

Then on July 1, 2017, sirens began to be heard as news helicopters circled overhead with talk on social media sites asking what was happening.

The initial fear among fans looking for baseball to return to the city was that this was the final demise of the site as they watched the footage streaming on area news stations in the city. Word spread that it was arson, and from the images shown live from news helicopters, it could be seen that flames and smoke were coming from inside the third base-side concourse, but the stadium itself appeared to be undamaged.

This was not the first time a LaGrave Field at that location caught fire. On May 15, 1949, the original LaGrave grandstands burned completely to the ground. The team “played a game the next day with the stands still smoldering,” as Fort Worth baseball historian and current listing real estate agent of LaGrave Field, Mark Presswood notes.

Arson initially was suspected, and the Brooklyn Dodgers Texas League affiliate–with future major leaguers Dick Williams and Carl Erskine among its players–had to switch several series locations with the San Antonio Missions and Houston Buffaloes, with Houston even giving the Fort Worth team the home share of their gate. To make the situation even worse, within days Fort Worth experienced significant rains, and the levee behind left field overflowed with the rushing waters from the Trinity River, turning the ashes of the stadium into mud.

Branch Rickey and Walter O’Malley flew to the scene and determined baseball would continue in Fort Worth, and by the time the cause of the fire was revealed to be an electrical short, a solution was thought up by Dodgers and Cats execs. The season would continue with fans sitting in metal folding stands while a new grandstand was being built. Operating like this, LaGrave was to host the Texas League All-Star Game that year, with the Cats besting a select squad of All-Stars from the other seven teams despite the stadium having been nearly destroyed months before.

Fires of this kind were more commonplace in baseball’s early years for a very simple reason. Early stadiums were made of wood, and as anyone who has ever seen a campfire, fireplace, fire safety video, Smokey the Bear public service announcement, high school football homecoming bonfire, etc. knows, wood makes a great fuel for fire.

In 1911 alone, both the New York Giants and Washington Senators lost their home ballparks due to fire, leading to the creation of the now-iconic Polo Grounds, as well as Griffith Park, the Capitol City’s home for two different versions of the Senators.

Another indication of how common fires were prior to concrete-and-steel structures becoming the standard is exemplified by how, after the Philadelphia Phillies’ home National League Park was left in ashes on Aug. 6, 1894, a newspaper article in the African-American-run Pennsylvania newspaper named The Christian Recorder was simply titled, “Another Baseball Park Fire.”

The article does not say which specific stadium or stadiums it was referring to in the headline. A quick flip through Green Cathedrals, the well-researched and thorough guide to over 400 Major and Negro League stadiums, shows just how regular a danger this was. Boston’s South End Grounds burned three months prior and was the other high-profile fire that season. The home to the Beaneaters, the current Atlanta Braves, was known for flying long, thin flags from the top of its turrets, but that came to the end as the result of a group of children playing with matches.

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In a quick and over-generalized history of stadium construction, early ballparks were simply a few rows of wooden bleachers added when the games began to gather more spectators than players. In the 1860s, the first more specialized structures began to be built to suit the sport.

The first actual specialized baseball stadium began in 1862 when an ice skating rink in Brooklyn, New York named the Union Street Grounds repurposed the facilities to gain customers in the summer months. The ballpark fit the general look of a small stadium with a standard-sized field, benches for the players, and a small wooden grandstand that was later expanded for the fans. The only unusual feature, and it is a very unusual feature, is that a one-story pagoda for the ice skaters was stuck in shallow center field not far from second base.

For the next twenty years, new ballparks were basically a long wooden grandstand along one side of the playing field that would then expand to more grandstands being built and a larger, flat surface for standing in the outfield. With the sport growing in popularity, a new wave of baseball stadiums began being built that started to resemble what we would consider a baseball stadium.

Seating was now increased to accommodate thousands of fans, with box seats and press seating now being included. Stadiums would feature grand facades that resembled palaces, with spires and towers several stories tall. And all these structures would primarily be built of wood with iron used for support.

At the time, wood made perfect sense for the venues. It was inexpensive, readily available, and easy to work with. However, wood gets brittle and dry as it ages. This can contribute to structural issues, and the ease with which a row of bleachers can turn into kindling is dangerous, especially when coupled with this being an era of unfettered tobacco smoking.

From 1887 through 1938, two permanent and one temporary stadiums were used by the Philadelphia Phillies in the same location. The most common name used was The Baker Bowl; however, it was officially the National League Park, but also named Huntingdon Grounds depending on the structure and date. Examples like this show that modern corporate naming rights are not the only cause for confusion over a stadium’s true name at a given time.

The incarnation built in 1887 could have served as the archetype of the ballparks of the era. Built to accommodate 15,000 spectators, the pavilion leading into the stadium was flanked by four spires 75 feet tall, with another central one looming 122 feet over the intersection of Huntingdon & 15th Street. It also reflected the bicycling craze of the time and had an embankment for bike races along the entirety of the outfield fences.

In early August of the 1894 season, Big Ed Delahanty and the rest of the Phillies dealt with a smaller, simpler foe than the league champion Baltimore Oriole led by Wilbert Robinson and John McGraw–an open-flamed stove. A plumber knocked over a small stove while doing simple repairs late in the evening of Aug. 5, and soon thereafter National League Park and surrounding buildings including a stable, street car shed, saloon, and provision store were left with considerable damage. There were no fatalities, but over $100,00 worth of damage hit the area as the result of the plumber’s error, roughly equivalent to $2.7 million in today’s dollars.

A new stadium was begun almost immediately and was ready by the opening of the following season. This became what is commonly referred to as the Baker Bowl, and owners of the stadium learned from the earlier fire and built a stadium consisting of brick and steel instead of wood, as well as featuring the first cantilevered upper deck in a sports stadium.

These innovations led it to be a forerunner of modern stadiums but also to an incident deadlier than the 1894 fire. On Aug. 3, 1903, the crowd in one section ran to the upper corner of a bleacher section to watch an altercation between two drunks and teenage girls whose pigtails they were pulling when the steel buckled under the weight of the crowd and collapsed, killing 12 and injuring 282 more.

In a bit of fatal irony, the imperfections of the fireproof material used as a reaction to prevent another incident like in 1894 were responsible for more deaths than any blaze at an American sports stadium.

While the name National League Park is lost to only a specific sort of baseball or Philadelphia historian, the Philadelphia Phillies are still active. This is not true of all their National League opponents the year their park burned.

The Louisville Colonels dated professionally to the American Association as far back as 1882 and joined the National League 10 years later. In the Colonels’ inaugural 1892 National League season, the team finished with a record of 63-89, and as lacking as that was, it was good enough for ninth out of 12 teams, besting the seasonal marks of the Washington Senators, St. Louis Browns, and Baltimore Orioles. They also beat those teams in number of stadium fires with one.

Before midnight on Sept. 26, 1892 a fire began in the team’s Eclipse Park, a stadium that deserves its own trivia question as being the first stadium with a luxury skybox when one was built for the 1884 season. Arson was suspected but never proven, and despite considerable grandstand damage, games resumed the following day, with an entirely new stadium built for the team prior to the 1893 stadium.

The new facility, known as Eclipse Stadium, opened on May 23, 1893, several weeks after the season began. The team never experienced much success during the years that followed, but as the century was approaching its end, the team began to assemble a roster that featured such young talents as Honus Wagner, Rube Waddell, and Fred Clarke. Despite this, the team still struggled in both the National League standings and in attendance. There was even talk about the team disbanding or even being contracted by the league.

Fewer than five years after Eclipse Park’s fire, nature helped the club and league decide the team’s future. A strong storm swept through Kentucky on Aug. 12 that featured lightning and thunder in addition to high winds and rain. Witnesses described electrical wires that ran beside the stadium being crossed by the high winds, causing a flurry of sparks to descend upon the press box. The fire quickly spread to the grandstand, steadily growing larger, and by the time the fire department arrived, the stadium and grandstand could not be saved, so instead htey focused on making sure the blaze did not spread to the surrounding neighborhood.

The Colonels were on the road when the storm hit, and after returning home 10 days later played four more series in the previous Eclipse Park, which–despite what had happened in 1892–was in a more salvageable state. However, the situation was not good for the team, and the owners petitioned the league office to play the rest of the season’s games on the road.

On Saturday, Sept. 2, the Colonels soundly defeated the Washington Senators, 25-4. This victory would be the last major league game ever played in the city, as the league office had allowed Louisville to become a road team, and 37 games later the franchise was finished as a member of the National League. During the offseason, Colonels owner Barney Dreyfuss sold his shares of the team and with the proceeds bought controlling interest in the Pittsburgh Pirates and almost immediately arranged a trade that brought 14 players with him, including the trio of future Hall of Famers consisting of Wagner, Waddell, and Clarke.

In Lost Ballparks, Lawrence Ritter’s seminal book of stadium nostalgia, he states that the Polo Grounds were second only to Yankee Stadium in terms of having a storied history. While fans in Boston and Chicago’s North Side might argue that point, and broken-hearted Dodger devotees in Brooklyn have created a cottage publishing industry saying otherwise, the success of the Giants in the stadium prior to leaving after the 1957 season–as well as appearances by the Yankees and Mets–give Ritter’s words a level of fighting validity. The stadium was built 1912 and was iconic with its horseshoe shape and clubhouses located in between two sections of bleachers in a very deep center field.

Following the convoluted naming and stadium version history of the Baker Bowl, it is technically the second stadium with the same name built in the same location. The first was a wooden structure built in 1890 in the shadow of Coogan’s Bluff, and despite it and its successor’s name, never hosted a polo match. Given the nature of this article, it should come as no surprise what happened to the stadium during April of 1911.

Christy Mathewson won 26 games that season, though his start on April 13 was not one of them. In eight innings, he gave up 14 hits and six earned runs to the Philadelphia Phillies, although he did allow only one walk, which does indicate the control that earned Mathewson election to the Hall of Fame with the initial class in Cooperstown–before even Cy Young. For most teams most nights, that sort of loss from the staff ace would be the lowlight of the day. That night was different, as sometime around midnight embers were seen coming from the lower section of the grandstand.

The wind was strong that day, and the embers grew into something more, with the gusts were feeding and spreading the blaze. Shortly thereafter a fire department was called, and by the time they had arrived, the lower grandstand was on fire along with nearby structures, including storage facilities for the adjoining train yard. It was several hours before everything was contained.

The following morning when John McGraw gathered his team, it was not to prepare for the final game of the series but to survey the steel uprights and outfield seating that was all that was left of the Polo Grounds.

The Giants did not despair following those disastrous 24 hours. Using the Yankees Hilltop Park and an ad hoc version of their own stadium, the Giants won the National League pennant that season with a decisive 7.5-game lead over the second-place Cubs. They lost the World Series to the Frank Baker-led Philadelphia Athletics with his two home runs spread over six games, which in the Dead Ball Era was enough to earn him the lasting nickname of Home Run Baker.

Sick’s Stadium in Seattle never reached the iconic level the Polo Grounds did, but it still holds a prominent presence in the baseball history of the Northwest. It played host to incarnations of the Seattle Rainers ranging from the legendary Pacific Coast League of the midcentury to a Class A team in the 1970s. It also played a part in major league history when it was the 1969 home of the Seattle Pilots during their sole season in existence, a year famously chronicled by Jim Bouton in Ball Four.

It opened in 1938 as a replacement for Dugdale Park in the Garlic Gulch section of the city’s Rainer Valley area. Dugdale Park was built as a wooden structure in 1913 by Seattle Indians owner Dan Dugdale, with design help from Philadelphia A’s manager Connie Mack, who was in the region on a tour with his team. It was the first stadium on the West Coast with double-decker bleachers and hosted the Indians in their season with the Northwest League and as the team was sold in 1919 and transitioned into the Seattle Indians/Rainers of the Pacific Coast League.

The fire that overtook the Park on July 4, 1932 was not one caused by a carelessly disposed of cigar or faulty wiring but due to a serial arsonist who plagued the Seattle area for years during the 1930s. Robert Bruce Driscoll spent his time as too many men did in the 1930s, searching for employment and waiting in bread lines. These frustrating circumstances were even further maddened by Driscoll having no fixed home, causing the man to sleep in box cars and wherever else he could find shelter. This existence wore on him, and he developed a release from his tensions. Unfortunately for Seattle, his release cost the city over $1,000,000 in damages.

His spree had dated back at least four years, when he was caught following the attempted torching of the Saint Spiridon Russian Orthodox Church by the owner of a restaurant across the street in May of 1935. The woman, who was also a parishioner of the church, saw a shadowy figure striking at kindling on the church and gave chase. The suspect was apprehended, and in his handwritten confession he stated, “I done this because of my destitute circumstances and because I was sore at the world in general.”

During the police confession, Driscoll was connected to other fires and threatening letters that had been sent to local businesses, and he also confessed to other unsolved blazes. Of these over 140 earlier crimes, he said he committed them because they made him “feel better” whenever “people picked on me.”

And apparently one evening a passerby picked on Driscoll and unwittingly set into motion a series of events that ended with Dugdale Park in flames and future short-term major league venue Sick’s Stadium built in its place.

In the case of Dugdale Park and Robert Driscoll, the case of arson was clear. In another midcentury Pacific Coast League stadium fire, many felt arson was to blame, but the allegations never were proven.

Organized baseball in Sacramento dates to the 1880s, and in 1903 the city was one of the charter members of the Pacific Coast League. The teams typically used the name Solons, and by the 1940s the franchise was in its heyday, having won its only PCL championship in 1942. The team played at Edmonds Field, originally Moreing Field, which was built in 1922 using a certain natural material, which astute readers likely will surmise was not suitable for a sustainable long-term and safe stadium.

Before midnight on July 11, 1948 a fire was reported at Edmonds Field, and shortly thereafter witness recounted “spewing flames, cinders and huge chunks of burning wood” flying over the top of the grandstand. In addition to the usual assortment of equipment, personal belongings, and team mementos expected to be lost in a blaze of this nature, 28 chickens being raised by scoreboard operator Harold Jordan also were lost in the fire.

An official cause of the fire was never released, but speculation was directed to a cigarette not purposely disposed of. Sacramento Bee reporter Stan Gilliam would tell people he even believed it was his cigarette that was the cause.

However, scuttlebutt around the city felt the team itself deserved to be investigated further. Edmonds Field had an undersized seating capacity and was outdated in other regards, including being made of wood. Two weeks prior to the fire, the insurance policy on the stadium was increased from $140,000 to $250,000, and several days prior the fire department was called to extinguish another suspicious fire in the grandstands that was “undetermined” in its cause.

Whether the insurance increase and previous fire were coincidence or were justified in the suspicions they raised, it was never revealed. No matter the cause, the Solons were without a home and spent the final 11 weeks of the season as a road team. After no suitable facility was found in the Sacramento area, the team began construction of a larger stadium built of concrete in a modern-for-the-period style that was completed in time to begin the 1949 PCL schedule.

Thankfully, not all wooden ballparks were lost to fire or demolished to make way for new facilities. With has been decades since a major league team has played in one, and it is unlikely we will ever see one constructed on a major scale again, communities across the nation and world still have wooden stadiums in frequent use for their local schools or in parks department.

Some of these stadiums have deep histories, with noted players or teams having crossed over their foul lines to the playing field. While most of the others may not have had Ernie Banks or Satchel Paige play nine innings on the field, they still are important to the thousands of local and regional players, families, and fans who have spent time there on summer evenings.

When asked about the connection fans feel toward their local stadium, Mark Presswood answered, “The game of baseball is and always has been an emotional, almost religious tie to the community, and the fans that cheer for their team. Just as a congregation mourns for the loss of their sanctuary, the baseball fan mourns for the loss of their cathedral. To paraphrase comedian George Carlin, baseball fans call their arenas parks and fields.”

One such sanctuary was–and will be again–Tink Larson Field in Wascea, Minn. The original was built in 1938 by the Works Progress Administration, and the small stadium served as a youth baseball hub for the area between the Twin Cities and the state’s border with Iowa. It was unique in that it was not named in honor of a local dignitary, or a retired figure associated with the field, but after Tink Larson, the head coach of Wascea High School who has looked after the field for over 50 years. Minnesota Twins All-Star and 2009 American League MVP Joe Mauer has not only played on the original Tink Larson Field but told Coach Larson earlier this summer that Wascea was where the Minnesota baseball icon was discovered.

But the wood grandstand met the fate of too many other in April 2016 when a suspect fire took the 200-seat historic wooden grandstand. It was a devastating loss for the city, but a loss that the community knew it could do something about. While the police and fire department were still investigating the fire, work began on replacing what had been taken from then.

Plans were drawn and work was put forward to bring a modern equivalent of the WPA project back to the city and region. However, even with money from insurance and other sources, there was not to cover the proposed cost of the new Tink Larson Field. The community launched a fund-raising campaign to cover the close to $2 million cost of the ballpark, with donations even coming from the Minnesota Twins and the Minnesota Vikings.

With this outpouring of support, Tink Larson Field will reopen in time for the 2018 season, just as the season started again for the New York Giants in the new Polo Grounds, the Washington Senators in Griffith Stadium, in Seattle, in Sacramento, and in the other cities that lost stadiums to blazes. And while it did not work out for the Louisville Colonels to stay in the National League, baseball stayed in the city, and next year fans will be able to see the Triple-A Bats play in Louisville Slugger Stadium, fewer than four miles from where fans watched Honus Wagner play in Eclipse Park.

As for LaGrave Field in Fort Worth, Pressword reports it was just a vandal who damaged little more than a wooden kiosk, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram is reporting that plans are afoot to bring baseball back to the city’s North Side. Whether an area’s hope is anchored to its favorite team rebuilding through a productive offseason or the rebuilding of a stadium damaged through arson, as the saying goes, there’s always next year.

References & Resources


Eric Robinson has written and presented on various baseball history topics. He is a Fort Worth area native and occasionally updates his website, Lyndon Baseball Johnson, and/or Facebook page.
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maumannts
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maumannts

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 cost the White Stockings both their home ballpark and their equipment, in essence putting the team out of business until 1874.

Paul G.
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Paul G.

Actually, Chicago managed to finish out the 1871 season, playing their last three league games after the fire. After that, they did have to drop out of the league until 1874.

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