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  • Writer's pictureLloyd Brown

Pittsburgh’s Ballparks of the Past and the Present


 

The city of Pittsburgh has always been regarded as a great baseball town, despite being one of the smallest markets in MLB, based on population. Baseball’s beginnings in the Steel City can be traced back to 1857.

A new book, Pittsburgh’s Historic Ballparks, takes a look back at the many homes of baseball that have graced the city. With the exception of Forbes Field, all of these stadiums have been located in the Northside district of the city, across the Allegheny River from Downtown Pittsburgh. The book is filled with photos of the various homes of the Pirates through the years, as well as news clippings about each of the ballparks. The book is published by Arcadia Press as a part of their Images of Baseball series.


The first ballpark in Pittsburgh actually began its life as a skating rink. The owner was looking for a way to make money during the warmer months of the year and thought the new game of baseball might be an answer. This began in 1876, with fans standing along the side of the field or sitting on the grass of a nearby hill. Later on, wooden grandstands and an exterior fence were added to the park. This venue was known as Union Park in the beginning, becoming Recreation Park in 1885, as a nod to its multiple recreational activities. This served as the first home of the Allegheny, Pittsburgh’s first professional baseball team.


In 1891 the team moved to its second home at Exposition Park. This park served as Pittsburgh's baseball home from 1891-1909. This structure was also on the Northside, located in what we would call a fairground, along the shores of the Allegheny River.


Soon other competing teams were forming in the area. Baseball at this point was the hot new game, and many business people saw it as a way to make money. Team loyalty went to the highest bidder, and teams were known to “pirate” players away from other teams overnight. This is the origin of the Pittsburgh Pirate’s moniker. The newly christened Pirates were purchased in 1900 by businessman Barney Dreyfuss. He would own the team for the next 32 years, and be responsible for building a stadium that would serve the team’s home for 61 years. The Pirates and Exposition Park would be involved in the first modern World Series in 1890. Overflow crowds stood in the outfield behind ropes, which determined if a ball was in play or not. As a result, larger grandstands were added from year to year. Soon an upper-level seating was added, with stairwells covered by a steepled roof providing access for the fans. Another feature of the park was a view of the growing Pittsburgh skyline across the river, something that would come full circle to the Pirate’s present home at PNC Park. One other unique feature was that fans exited the park by crossing the playing field, as there were no exits in the outfield stands.


Unfortunately, Exposition Park was a little too close to the river, resulting in frequent flooding of the park. A 1907 flood destroyed the Union Bridge, which connected Downtown Pittsburgh to the Northside. Fans on the downtown side of the bridge no longer had a way to cross the river to the ballpark. Barney Dreyfuss knew a change was needed. The old park had suffered both floods and fires, a common event in the wooden ballparks of yesteryear. After the Pirates left Exposition Park, it stayed busy with minor league teams, independent leagues, and Negro League teams.


During these same years, Negro baseball leagues were developing in the Pittsburgh area. In 1887 the first Negro League team, the Pittsburgh Keystones used Recreation Park as their home base. Many of these teams would be boom-to-bust adventures, due to poor financing options. There was such a demand for ballparks that another ballpark began construction. In 1920, Central Park opened for business. It was the home ballpark for a new version of the Keystones. The team only lasted for two years. Central Park then served as the home field for a variety of Negro leagues and teams. Only five years after it was built, Central Park was torn down.


Ammon Field was another Northside ballpark serving the Negro Leagues. It served as the home base for the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords. It was a municipal stadium so it could not charge admission. Despite this restriction, the ballpark survived for nineteen years. Probably the most interesting ballpark was owned by a black bookie. His name was Greenlee, and he named the stadium after himself. He also owned the Pittsburgh Crawfords, one of the most successful Negro League teams. The stadium was built of brick with arched entrances. Greenlee kept the stadium busy throughout the year with a variety of sports. Eventually, business slowed and Greenlee Stadium was torn down in 1938.


Following the flood of 1907, Barney Dreyfuss was determined to build a stadium that would not be prone to fire or floods. He moved across the Allegheny River to the Oakland area of Pittsburgh, far from any river. He also decided this stadium would be built of concrete and steel, which was plentiful in the area. The new stadium was christened as Forbes Field. It pioneered the use of these construction materials, but it also featured more entrances, ticket offices, and seating than any competitors. It also featured the first mechanized tarp, which is very important, as it dramatically cut down the number of rainouts the Pirates would have. Dreyfuss was always looking for ways to improve the ballpark, which often meant more seats. He also had the first electronic scoreboard in the major leagues.


The Pirates had a great team during Forbes Field’s early days, as they won two World Series. These wins help pay for even more expansion of the seating. In 1932 Barney Dreyfuss died, after leading the team for more than 35 years, and leading baseball parks into a new era. A monument was built in his honor at Forbes Field. This monument has traveled to each ballpark the Pirates have played in since then.


After a long drought of good teams, the Pirates' fortunes began to turn with the arrival of Roberto Clemente and Bill Mazeroski in the mid-1950s. In 1960 the Pirates made the World Series, with Mazeroski hitting the winning home run in the 7th game to take the pennant. Even with this success, Forbes Field’s days were numbered. In 1958 the University of Pittsburgh was expanding its campus and had bought the stadium. They allowed the Pirates to lease the park each season until their new park was completed. The 1969 season was to be the last season in Forbes Field. However, it received a short reprieve, as construction on Three Rivers was behind schedule. The Pirates moved into their new home midway through the 1970 season. Forbes Field was then torn down after serving as the Bucs home for 61 years.


The Pirates then recrossed the Allegheny to the Northside neighborhood. Three Rivers Stadium came in an era of round cookie-cutter multi-purpose stadiums. Ironically the original design for the ballpark had the river side of the venue left open to provide a view of downtown Pittsburgh and the river, just like Exposition Park of the past and PNC Park of the future. This was vetoed, as the owners wanted as much income-producing space and seats as possible. The Steelers were also tenants and had the same concerns. The fancy dining areas did provide a salute to its predecessor, as parts of Forbes Field were incorporated into the Allegheny Room, including a portion of the Bill Mazeroski home run wall.


By the 1990’s the round cookie-cutter stadiums were no longer popular, and retro stadiums were “in”. This was led by the building of Camden Yards in Baltimore. The Steelers moved to new digs right down the shoreline to Heinz Field (now Acrisure Stadium). After only 31 years after its opening, Three Rivers Stadium closed. Willie Stargell attended the last game at Three Rivers Stadium. He would pass away just hours before the PNC Park opening day game.


Pittsburgh’s Historic Ballparks closes with the opening of PNC Park in 2001. In many ways, Pittsburgh’s stadiums have come full circle. The ballpark has gotten rave reviews for its retro looks, which resemble a park of yesteryear. It also sits on the same ground as Exhibition Park from many years ago. Best of all, the players who created the greatest memories in the various ballparks of Pittsburgh past are honored with statues in the plazas that surround the stadium.


Oh, by the way… the Pirates spring training stadium in Bradenton, Florida turned 100 years old in 2023. Barney Dreyfuss would be pleased.

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