Friday, September 2, 2011

Raise the Roof. Literally.

As the Northeast picks up the pieces from Hurricane Irene (and I return all the furniture to my roof deck), I am reminded of a storm which struck Borchert Field on the evening of Thursday, June 15, 1944.

During the seventh inning of a game with the Columbus Red Birds, high winds ripped off a 120-foot section of the first base grandstand roof.

The storm also knocked out the floodlights, plunging the park into darkness. When the roof collapsed, hundreds of fans sitting along the first base line were trapped underneath the timbers. The remaining five thousand fans swarmed on to the infield to escape the flying debris.

Large sections of the roof were carried across the street to the homes which faced the ballpark. The debris crushed cars and smashed into front porches.

Inside the ballpark, Borchert Field ushers guided the patrons to center field, where they were able to organize an orderly evacuation of the park as emergency lighting was turned on. Brewers employees and players worked to free the trapped fans from the rubble, and in the commotion, George "Bingo" Binks lost his treasured baseball glove.

By the time the dust settled, thirty-five people were injured, four seriously enough to warrant hospitalization. The worst suffered a skull fracture, but most endured only cuts and bruises, including three boys who had been standing on the front porch of one of the 7th Street houses. Among the injured was the pregnant wife of Brewer pitcher Dick Hearn.

The damage to the neighborhood was extensive. The Milwaukee Sentinel provided this look at the damage across the street:

A closer look at the photos gives us some idea of the chaos that ensued:

North 7th Street bordering Borchert field on the east was a shambles last night when a powerful wind ripped the grandstand roof from its moorings and sent it soaring, in pieces, in all directions. A section of the huge roof flew across the street, tearing off the front porch shown here, and crushing several parked automobiles in the street.
Sentinel photos

One huge section of the Borchert field grandstand was thrown across N. Seventh St. to completely cover the front of a duplex in the N. 3000 block. Part of the roof fell in the areaway to the south. Large sections of the tar paper roofing were ripped from the roof itself and scattered about the neighborhood.
Sentinel photos
Not to be outdone, the Journal followed up with an amazing full-page photo essay, chronicling the damage done to the ballpark and neighborhood.

Fierce winds ripped off part of the Borchert field grandstand roof and slammed it on houses on N. 7th st. Thursday night in the midst of a Brewers-Red Birds game. Firemen put a ladder up against the house at 3032-A N. 7th st. to remove the ball park roof. More of the flying roof can be seen on the house at right and on the ground at left.
Journal staff
The spot where the roof was blown away is shown in this photo taken from the center of the field looking southwest. The arrow points to a large wooden roof beam, the only part of the roof that fell inside rthe park. It crashed onto four persons as they sat in the grandstand and seriously injured them. They were taken to county emergency hospital.
Journal staff
Here's what happened to the houses hit by the ball park roof. The upstairs porch of the home at left was completely removed. George Buchholz (arrow) had just left it when the roof hit. He and his family fled the home, thinking lightning had struck.
Journal staff
Some of the 5,100 fans left in terror. Fand behind the visiting team's dugout who could see the falling roof fled in such haste that a popcorn vendor's basket, a case of beer and chairs were overturned.
Journal staff
This is the scene in the stands where the beam hit. Note the personal belongings, including glasses (arrow), left by the injured.
Journal staff
Curious people inspect the damages in the park and to N. 7th st. on Friday. Note the leaning grandstand, the badly wrecked car and the lamp shade.
Journal staff
Some automobiles parked on N. 7th st. were badly damaged when they were struck by parts of the roof. This scene along the east fence of the park shows two automobiles covered by the roof and two hit by it.
Journal staff
The Journal also put a human face on the disaster, introducing us to some of the people affected.

Here are some of the victims of the Borchert field accident Thursday night. When the wind tossed part of the grandstand roof on top of their home at 3032-A N. 7th st., Mr. and Mrs. Buchholz (top) snatched their daughters, Annette (left), 5, and Sharon, 2, out of bed and fled to a neighbor's. Bottom, William Winzensten, 29, of 1521 W. Orchard st., now in county emergency hospital with a fractured back, was one of four fans injured seriously when hit by a large wooden beam.
Journal staff
Finally, the Journal offered its readers this sketch drawn by a fan who watched the accident from his seat inside the park.

'This is an eyewitness sketch of the accident that put the lights out and sent many fans fleeing. First time in 20 years I saw the Brewers play and this happens'—Reg Hardie
In the aftermath of the storm, the city expressed concern about the Orchard's structural integrity. Deputy building inspector William Gaethke reported that the park, which had been inspected prior to the start of the season, was still safe to host games. Here we see Milwaukee Mayor John L. Bohn touring the wreckage two days after the storm:

Mayor Bohn inspected the damage at Borchert field Friday caused when a windstorm wrecked part of the grandstand roof. He is shown with Rudy Schaffer, general manager of the club.
Journal staff
Hizzoner proclaimed himself satisfied with Gaethke's report, telling the Journal:
"That was a terrific wind and there was nothing the building inspector's department could have done to prevent such an accident. It's a miracle that there wasn't more damage with some fatalities."
If there had been fatalaties, the storm would have been a tragedy. As it was, the "raising of the roof" became another celebrated chapter in the whimsical annals of Orchard lore, earning a mention of this delightful one-panel history from the Brewers' 1947 programs:

Right there among the ballpark's most memorable moments, even if the Brewers were slightly off on the date.

All part of the rich history of the old wooden ballpark at 8th and Chambers.

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