Thursday, November 18, 2010

Milwaukee's Original Athletic Park, Part I (1888 – 1891)

By Dennis Pajot

Editor's Note: This is the first of a three part series detailing the early history surrounding Athletic Park at North 7th and West Chambers on Milwaukee's northside. The second part may be found here. Of course, later the second park at this location would be known as Borchert Field.

Milwaukee's minor league baseball clubs had played at Wright Street Park on 11th and Wright Street since 1884. The team had been in Northwestern League for the 1886 and 1887 seasons, but Wright Street Park almost was not the playing field used in 1887. As early as October of the previous year it was rumored the club would move to more accessible grounds. In addition to being inconveniently situated, the field was considered too small for outfielders. Suggested sites were the State Agricultural Society grounds or Cold Spring Driving Park. However, new manager James A. Hart soon signed a contract with the Kipp brothers for Wright Street Park. As the Milwaukee Sentinel stated: "The Wright Street Park, though by no means a perfect baseball ground, is better than the average and at present is undoubtedly the best park that can be secured in Milwaukee."

James A. Hart
Sporting Life May 11, 1901

The Northwestern League disbanded after the 1887 season, and in 1888 the Milwaukee club was in a new league—the Western Association. It was felt Wright Street Park was not acceptable anymore. The grounds were inadequate both for ball playing and comfort of spectators. A January report in the Milwaukee Journal claimed Charles Kipp disliked James Hart and would not rent the park to him for the coming season, while later reports stated the proprietors of the grounds on Wright Street were demanding a higher rental. The Sentinel put forth another reason: "The grounds just north of Wright Street Park will be broken shortly for the erection of a Catholic Church [St. Bonifactus—on 11th Street between Clarke and Center]. This is the principal reason why the directors of the Milwaukee Baseball Club did not want to lease the old grounds, as this will eventually prevent the playing of Sunday games."

It was thought the new grounds had to be more accessible, of more ample size, and better arranged for larger crowds. The baseball directors also wanted the new park to be suitable to any sport, such as lacrosse and football in the fall. A circular track of 1/5 of a mile was wanted inside the park. A shooting gallery and bowling alley were also proposed.

Four sites were proposed for the new park. John A. Hinsey, a cable car man, had two in mind. The first, between 20th and 21st, Cedar (Kilbourn) and State Streets, was a 600 x 300 foot plot of land. Of course, Hinsey’s lines would run there. Another was between 16th and 18th at Lloyd Street running north. This site depended upon the city council passing an ordinance enabling Hinsey to run his West Side Cable Company lines past there. On October 24 the council passed the Hinsey cable ordinance, seeming to assure the park there, as Hinsey promised to defray some of the cost of the proposed 7,000 seat double deck grandstand stadium, on the 800 x 465 foot tract of land. Peter McGeoch, of the Milwaukee Line, quickly offered to equal Hinsey’s cost. A third site was in Whitefish Bay, where the Whitefish Bay Railroad Company offered a 600 foot square tract of land rent free for five years. It was accessible by rail over the Milwaukee, Lake Shore & Western and the Chicago & Northwestern Roads. Plans for a streetcar to take 2,000 people to the site were also proposed. This site was looked upon favorably, as other improvements—including a planed hotel by the Blatz Brewing Company—gave promise this area would be the great summer resort by the next season.

On January 10, 1888, the Milwaukee Journal reported Harry D. Quin, secretary of the Milwaukee Baseball club, indicated new grounds for the park at 16th and Lloyd were "almost a certainty." However, Ephraim Mariner, the owner of the Lloyd Street grounds, didn't wish to sell, but would give a five year lease on the grounds. The club, however, wanted to buy the new site outright, so they favored the fourth site, between West Chambers and Burleigh and North 7th and 8th Streets. The Chambers Street grounds were 588 x 366, smaller than those at Lloyd Street, but larger than Wright Street Park’s dimensions. The Broadway, 3rd and 8th Street branches of the McGeoch lines, all ran to Chambers Street; Becker's 12th Street line was only five blocks away, and the Cream City Road was to build an extension. In February 1888 the club purchased the land on Chambers Street for $25,000 from A. L. Carey and Somers & Meagan. [Other sources reported the cost for the land was $21,000 or $26,000.] In accessibility it was no better than Wright Street Park, but centrally located grounds were impossible to find. The Chicago Times claimed the park was too far from the central city. The Milwaukee Sentinel disagreed, writing it took only 35 minutes from the center of town, while Wright Street Park took 30 minutes to reach. The Sentinel further reported that "there are but very few cities where the Baseball grounds are reached in less than a half hour street car ride." The horse car companies guaranteed it would only take 25 minutes to go from the corner of Grand Avenue and West Water Street [today's West Wisconsin and North Plankinton Avenues] to the park. In March Secretary Quin took a "bob-tail car" at West Water Street and Grand Avenue, and reached the new park in exactly 27 minutes, walking the last few blocks. In late May it was reported the 8th Street line was running to the park and the 3rd Street line went that far in June.

The architect of the new park was Edward V. Koch & Co. (later to be chief building inspector for the City of Milwaukee, at this time having offices in the Colby & Abbott Building at North Milwaukee and East Mason Streets). In March the contract for building the grandstand and fences was awarded to the local carpenter contractors Ferge & Keipper. [Henry Ferge and Philip Keipper, 889 2nd Street, later address 2429 North 2nd Street.] Their bid was $4,800, and it was reported around 400,000 feet of lumber would be used for construction. Work began on the new baseball park in late March, which was to cost $7,800. The grounds were above the level of the street and fairly level, but still 8,600 yards of dirt were needed for fill. Total cost for the field was $2,600. The Sentinel wrote of the grandstand, "…now that it has been topped off with a pavilion and cupola looms up majestically. From the top of the cupola there reaches heavenward a symmetrical pennant pole where the strip of bunting signalizing victory in the Western Association in its first year, is expected to fling itself to the breeze—perhaps." In July the grandstand and other portions of the park were painted "two shades of drab, which will be relieved by trimmings of dark maroon", at a cost of $941. Under the grandstand were buffet and smoking parlors, "where 500 people could witness the game while taking a lunch." Of course, the reporters and telegraph operators were not forgotten, "as they will have excellent quarters." Although the spring weather was very wet, the contractors worked hard, "resting not even on Sunday", to have the grounds ready for opening day. Shortly after this a scoreboard was erected, giving the inning by inning score of the game in progress, and scores of all the other Western Association games. Getting the score of the game in progress at Athletic Park out to interested parties had a few twists, as the Milwaukee Journal reported in May:
A year ago the Western Union Telegraph company succeeded in gaining an exclusive franchise to enter every park in the city, the right to hold good for two years. The franchise holds good in Athletic park, and the result is the [rival telegraph] Postal company, or rather the company's operator, is frozen out of the grounds and has been compelled to take up quarters on a friendly tree stump across the road. Of course the operator cannot see the games, but as necessity is the mother of invention, a scheme has been arranged whereby the Postal not only gets the news as rapidly as its rival, but even hustles out the scores ahead. A small boy with bushy red hair is stationed on the top of the grand stand. When the Milwaukees make a run he raises his right hand and jerks his right ear. When their opponents score up goes his left, and instantly the operator sends the news to all parts of the country.

Edward V. Koch’s drawing of Athletic Park
Milwaukee Sentinel February 15, 1888

The exact dimensions of this Athletic Park are not known, but an article in the February 27, 1895, Milwaukee Sentinel stated there was little more than 400 feet from the grandstand behind home plate to center field fence. The Milwaukee Sporting News correspondent wrote the park was 588 x 377 feet, enclosed by a double board fence 12 feet high, and "inferior to none in the country." This double fence—12 feet high on the outside and 10 feet inside—had the duo effect of strengthening the structure and to "prevent the wholesale amount of peeping through the cracks that was indulged in by economical persons at the old grounds."

Seating capacity at Athletic Park was only 4,800: grandstand 1,000, two covered pavilions 1,300, and bleaching boards 2,500. With 20 inches of seating room for each spectator, larger crowds on holidays and such could be accommodated without much inconvenience. The ticket scale was 50 cents in the grandstand, 35 cents in the pavilions and 25 cents on the bleachers. Also 16 private boxes on top of the grandstand were erected. These private boxes were to be let to clubs and parties of eight "thus extending the fashion of theatrical parties in full dress at base ball." These seats were sold "at the star prices, seventy-five cents." Manager Hart extended an invitation to "all ministers of the gospel" to secure complimentary tickets to the ball grounds. Women were also admitted to Athletic Park free everyday, except Sunday, "a privilege which is extended to their sex at no other ball park in the country," according to the Milwaukee Sentinel. The financial wisdom of this policy was called into question when only 200 people paid to attend the July 10 game. Pointing out the small crowds at the last three games, the Sentinel wrote: "The grand stand has been given up almost entirely to the fair sex who, while they are quite ornamental and very becoming to the wooden benches, do not add anything to the gate receipts." The same newspaper reported on another group who gained an advantage from the new ball grounds: "the real estate holders about the neighborhood of the new park, whose property had increased almost 50 per cent in value, as they now have street car lines running past their doors, while heretofore they were removed several blocks from the railways; in short, the new park has created quite a boom in its vicinity."

This new Athletic Park, which the total cost would be $35,000, was said to be the second largest baseball park in the United States; the Polo Grounds of New York taking that honor. But "in point of elegance of equipment will excel anything in the west, being far in advance of either Chicago or St. Louis."

The scheduled opening game at Athletic Park on May 19 was rained out. The first game played at the 7th and Chambers grounds was on Sunday, May 20, 1888, against St. Paul, in a Western Association contest. Between 7,000 and 8,000 saw the Milwaukees beat St. Paul 9 to 5. Promotions at the park started early, as it was advertised at the third home game of the year "each person (ladies included) occupying seats in the grand stand will be presented with a Souvenir Group Picture of the Milwaukee team." A scorecard could also be purchased at the park for a nickel. In addition to the score, the card contained playing rules, averages of the home players from week to week, the latest baseball news and various features.

As stated earlier, bad weather that spring had slowed progress on the finishing of Athletic Park, and it was reported this had cost Milwaukee a berth in the American Association in 1888. In July the Milwaukee Journal gave this report:
It has been a source of wonder to Milwaukeeans why the management of the home team should pay out a sum aggregating nearly $40,000 for baseball grounds when the old Wright-street park was plenty large enough for the attendance that would be given any of the association series of games, but the matter is now fully explained. The Milwaukees would have entered the American association this season, and in fact negotiations were pending for the attainment of that end, but as the new grounds would not be in condition for playing before the latter part of May, and the American schedule being made up would bring the locals at home three weeks earlier, it was decided to be impracticable to join at that time.
During this inaugural season at Athletic Park events other than Western Association baseball games took place. Amateur baseball games were played at the park, one such team, the powerful Maple Leafs, renting the park on the 4th of July and all Sundays on which the Milwaukees did not play at home. On August 2 a team representing the married men of Prospect Avenue lost to a nine of married men from Farwell Avenue by the score of 28 to 18. About 500 attended the game, mostly ladies, with the $200 in proceeds donated to the Emergency Hospital. It was reported the use of Athletic Park was free for this occasion. On July 22 a Greco-Roman wrestling match was put on at the park. A platform six feet high and thirty-four feet square had been erected in front of the grandstand, ornamented with bright ribbons and gay flowers. 1,128 people witnessed D.A. McMillan throw Otto Wagner three straight falls.

At the end of the 1888 season James Hart sold all his interest in the Milwaukee Baseball Association to the directors, giving Harry D. Quin and Robert W. Maguire the controlling interest in the club. Quin was the son of the owner of the Quin Blank Book & Stationery Co., located in the Broadhead Block Building at North Water and East Mason, and would inherit the business upon his father's death in 1891. Maguire was the cashier and paymaster of the Wisconsin Central Railroad.

Harry D. Quin
Milwaukee Daily News February 10, 1900

Going into the 1889 season it was reported the directors put the grounds "in splendid shape." Improvements included filling in the runways with clay except around the bases, "where a soft, spongy dirt has been laid so a base runner will not hurt himself in sliding." A water pipe was also installed running under the grandstand from the street so the grounds keeper could sprinkle the diamond after all games. Free admission Ladies' Days were abolished at Milwaukee Park this season. Women were charged 25 cents to the grounds, which included grandstand privileges, except on Sundays and holidays, when they also had to pay the full grandstand price of 50 cents. In May 1889 the Milwaukee Common Council granted Rudolph Giljohan a license "for the sale of vinous, spirituous, malt, ardent or intoxicating liquors or drinks in quantities less than one gallon, to be drank on the premises...Said Athletic park being a resort where the sale of such liquors is merely incidental or auxiliary to the business carried on in said park." Giljohan had formed the Cream City baseball club, "made up of well-known and able players," which would play strong teams from Wisconsin and other states at Athletic Park when the Western Association club was on the road. This club charged 25-cent admission and another dime for a grandstand seat, but ladies were admitted free. The biggest non-baseball event to take place at Athletic Park this year was the July 21 wrestling match between Evan Lewis, "The Strangler"—the American wrestling champion—and Charles Green, the Champion of England. "It was a contest between two giants and the gigantic American won."

For the 1890 season the pavilion was done away with and one grandstand was erected, seating capacity now being 6,500. The box office was also moved from 7th Street to 8th Street. Ladies were admitted free to Milwaukee Park this season, except on Saturday and Sunday. However, the admission policy was changed so that boys, even if accompanied by their parents, had to purchase a ticket—25 cents in the bleachers, 50 cents for seats in any other part of the park. Boys had ways of seeing the games free, however with some hazards on occasion, as we learn from this excerpt from the Milwaukee Sentinel's report of opening day the following year: "The big trees which have stood like sentries at the west side of the park, were more heavily weighted with urchins than usual, but even some of these incorrigibles who are, as a rule, impervious to all the vicissitudes of weather, were forced to desert their perches by the keen blasts from the west before the game was over."

Milwaukee Sentinel May 15, 1892

In a serious incident, in the spring of 1890, a 10-year old boy fell from a picket fence outside the park while trying to see a game, cutting a deep, long gash in his left thigh.

To the delight of the Sentinel "the wretched custom of peddling beer and other liquors through the grounds and grand stand which has been in vogue heretofore has been stopped and the beer boys will no longer run rampant among the spectators." However, other concessions were sold. Yenowine’s New—a Milwaukee weekly—in June had complained about the "obnoxious practice indulged in by peddlers of scorecards, cigars, lemonade, peanuts and gum, of shrieking out their wares in the grand stand during the play". The paper then printed a further complaint in July:
The peanut peddlers at Athletic Park are more vociferous than ever. At Wednesday’s game the Denvers had the bases full, two men out and two strikes called, and the entire audience waiting in breathless suspense for the next decision, when five of these noisy fiends trotted down into the front of the grand stand and began hawking their wares with deafening energies. During the actual progress of an inning, all gum peddlers and other necessary interruptions should be kept out of sight and sound.
The problem was not addressed, and beer was back at Athletic Park, as in August of the following year the Journal complained "these fellows yell singly and in groups; and in duos, trios and quartettes; howl peanuts, cigars and beer to the detriment and discomfiture of all …" The paper further commented: "Former appeals have seemingly slid from the directorate think-tank like water from a duck's back."

Early in the season one of the most conspicuous fixtures at Athletic Park was an immense sign advertising that the National Tailoring Company would give a pair of trousers to the Milwaukee player who hit the first home run at the park. On April 22 Brewer catcher E. C. Jantzen won the trousers with an eighth inning home run, in a 7 to 5 loss to Minneapolis.

Milwaukee Sentinel September 21, 1890

Late in the 1890 season major league baseball teams appeared at Athletic Park. Players' League (Brotherhood) baseball came to Milwaukee on September 23. The Chicago White Stockings beat the Boston Beacons 8 to 3 in an exhibition game at the grounds before two thousand spectators. The game had originally been billed as a championship game, but when it was found the teams had played each other the required number of times, the game was changed to an exhibition. Still, "the price of admission was elevated for this occasion to an eminence in keeping with the dignity and importance of the 'stars', and fifty cents was paid for the privilege of sitting in the bleachers, while it cost seventy-five cents to get into one of the grand stand seats." Adrian Anson brought his Chicago National Leaguers to Milwaukee in early October, and Milwaukee’s Western Association nine took three of four games from the Colts.

Amateur games, of course, were still played at Athletic Park in 1890. The most publicized of these took place on August 2, when about 4,000 "howling enthusiasts" paid 50 cents (reserved seats extra) to enter Athletic Park to see the Milwaukee Fire Department's team beat its counterparts in the Police Department, 27 to 20. Several members of the Chicago Fire Department traveled to Milwaukee to witness the contest. It was reported about $5,000 was brought in for the benefit of the two department's relief funds.

In September of 1890 the Sentinel printed a report the Wisconsin Central Railroad was seeking to purchase Athletic Park for $50,000, and build maintenance shops there. The report was quickly denied, and land was later purchased slightly north of the park for this and yard purposes by the railroad. After the 1890 season the Milwaukee Baseball Club was reorganized. Two offers were made to the new company for the use of Athletic Park. The Brewers could rent the park for $2,500 a year or obtain use of the park free provided the owners of Athletic Park retained all the privileges. The ball club took the first option, with an option to increase the lease to three years.

The Brewers of 1891 played in the Western Association. Prior to the season opening it was reported that Wyler Bros., the Grand Avenue cigar dealers, secured "bar privileges" in the park by paying $1,200. Western Union also received the telegraph rights at the park, which had been the Postal company’s rights the year before, paying $250. Once the season opened some thought more entrances were needed at the park to facilitate large crowds:


Kindly permit the use of your valuable paper to call attention to injustice done the many patrons of Sunday games (at Athletic park) who go there early for the purpose of avoiding a rush. Last Sunday the gate was opened at just 2:45 p.m. [for a 3:45 game], about 2,000 men had gathered up to that time, and the consequence was a tremendous jam, which lasted about three-quarters of an hour, as the only entrance at the turnstile would admit them only at a very slow rate. Of course the average baseball enthusiast will not stay away from a game on account of receiving a severe squeezing or getting his corns crushed, but a little consideration the part of the managers by having several entrances and places to purchase tickets, or by opening the grounds an hour earlier, will be greatly appreciated by many who contribute their mite to the success of the club.

PATRON, May 18, 1891
For the 1891 season the Milwaukee Baseball Club offered a coupon book of 70 grandstand tickets to their Athletic Park games for $20. The coupons were transferable and could be used any way the holder wished, including as many at one game as desired. It was advertised the offer was limited to 200 books, and had to be ordered and paid for by April 1—$5 more if purchased after this date. On occasion deals could be found outside the park. At Harry Quin’s blank book house on Water Street, 50 cents would get one a grandstand ticket and two street car tickets. The auctioneers Kaufter & Smithing in May sold grandstand tickets for two upcoming games for 30 cents a game. Ladies were also charged the same admission as men at Athletic Park this year. This did not seem to keep the fairer sex away, as it was said "the baseball men say that when a woman wants to see a game she wants to see it bad, and does not hesitate to pay for the best seats to be had."

Word was about in late May that the Milwaukee Common Council was considering passing an ordinance that would prohibit Sunday ball in the city. The Journal commented on this proposal: "Soon we fear, like our grave and potent ancestors, matters will come to such a pass, the physicians will be prohibited from administering physic on Sundays, for reasons too obvious to need an explanation." In a letter to the editor of the Sentinel, "A Subscriber since 1857" asked: "Has the Salvation Army converted them [the council] already?" The Sentinel reported Brewer officials were not worried about such a resolution, adding "if such a law should pass there would be no more baseball here, as the week-day attendance in Milwaukee is notoriously bad, and the expenses of the club could not begin to be paid without Sunday games." Sunday ball continued in Milwaukee.

The Brewers forfeited out of this minor league in August (the Western Association folded in September) and the Milwaukee club joined the major league American Association on August 17, 1891, taking over the record of the Cincinnati ball club. Admission price to the park remained at 25 cents for general admission and 50 cents for grandstand seating; season tickets from Western Association games were honored for American Association games. Crowds were good for these American Association games. The Milwaukee Sentinel reported of the September 13 game: "There were a reported 10,000 persons in the crowd [officially 6,753 by "actual count of receipts"] and if the seating capacity of the park had been half as large again many of them would have had to stand up. The bleachers were crowded to suffocation long before the time to call game, and for the first time since the park was opened the game began with both wings of the grand stand packed with spectators. After all the seating room had been taken up the people began to file on the field and find seats on the turf. A number of policemen looked after the alignment and made them range themselves in a line extending along the sides of the park". The next Sunday attendance was 7,500, with 1,000 or more fans inside a stretched rope "pen" between the diamond and the bleachers. The scene at the park must have been chaotic and dangerous, as the Sentinel described the next day:
Owing to the miserable management of the park the people trooped into the boxes upstairs, grabbed the chairs out and put them about where they pleased, so that there was an accumulation of chairs in some boxes, while the occupants of others had to stand up. In the press box, where chairs are mostly needed, there were two old chairs without backs and half their bottoms gone. Seats were improvised by means of a few dirty boards and some ginger ale cases. This condition of things led many to remark that the policy of the baseball men was to get everybody into the park that they possibly could, and then let them hustle for themselves. Many of the spectators climbed up on the roof of the grand stand, and sat with their legs dangling over the edges, in a manner that made the more timid ones nervous for fear somebody would tumble off and go plunging into eternity.
The club soon found trouble with city officials. The building inspector gave notice such large crowds would not be allowed in the grandstand, more particularly on the roof, unless the structure was strengthened. The next weekend it was reported streetcars were also "taxed to their utmost" to handle the crowd at Athletic Park, not only before the game but after, as the "cars were quickly filled, and hundreds of persons who could not get accommodations had to walk to the city." It was estimated 30,000 spectators attended American Association games at Athletic Park during this 1891 late season run. After this season four teams from the American Association merged into the National League and the others, including Milwaukee, were bought out.

In addition to Western Association and American Association professional baseball, numerous amateur clubs played ball at Athletic Park during the 1891 baseball season. After the baseball season football took over the field at Athletic Park, with goals placed in the outfield and ropes placed around the playing ground. In addition to the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee High School played games at the park.


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