Thursday, July 5, 2018

Borchert Field at the Milwaukee County Historical Society

One of the fantastic displays in the Milwaukee County Historical Society's recently-closed exhibit "Back Yards to Big Leagues: Milwaukee’s Sports and Recreation History" was devoted to our favorite wooden ballpark.

Simply amazing. That's the preserved section of Borchert Field bleachers off to the right.

The main display has a great series of photos of Borchert's Orchard.

It's worth looking at these much more closely. Click to enlarge, as always.

Much of Milwaukee's sports history can be learned by looking at the history of Athletic Park, later renamed Borchert Field in 1927. It was primarily a baseball field, but as the most significant stadium in the city for more than 60 years it hosted numerous events, athletic and otherwise.

We've seen that photo before; a wall-sized blowup is posted at the entrance to the Milwaukee Public Museum.
Athletic Park was originally built for the minor league Milwaukee Brewers of the Western Association at a cost of $40,000. It was located on a rectangular block bounded by North 7th and North 8th Streets and West Chambers and Burleigh Streets. Because of the layout the field had short foul lines and a deep center field, the dugouts were angled, and the stands were U-shaped meaning fans could not see the entire playing field. The park opened May 20, 1888 with a crowd of 6,000 to see the Brewers play. A semi-pro team, the Cream Citys, also used the park when the Brewers were not in town.
The location of Athletic Park meant that it was completely integrated with the neighborhood. While thousands would sit in the stands at the games, hundreds of others would watch from the porches, balconies and roofs of surrounding houses. There were "employment" opportunities for local children selling concessions in the stands and retrieving calls outside the park. There were two taverns near the ballpark that did great business and sold tickets, and there was a bar behind home plate in the stadium. For many the park was the center of both entertainment and commerce every summer.

I love this photo of the Orchard; it really emphasizes the neighborhood quality, surrounded by houses in all direction. Well, houses and a couple taverns.

That open space at the top of the photo is Clinton Rose Park, where Borchert Field's historical marker stands today.
In 1897 the Brewers moved to the newly built Milwaukee Baseball Park on Lloyd Street between 16th and 18th Streets, which was also known as Lloyd Street Grounds. After serving as a National Guard drill ground for five years, Athletic Park was refitted for baseball when the American Association Milwaukee Brewers formed in 1902.

Lloyd Street Grounds was another neighborhood ballpark; check out the houses just over that right field fence.

Now we get to the man himself, Otto Borchert.

I need to learn more about the "Childrens Fee Day".
In 1919 a group of investors purchased the Brewers and Athletic Field for $87,000, with Otto Borchert becoming the sole owner in 1925, Borchert died of a heart attack while speaking at the Brewers' annual preseason banquet in 1927. His widow, Idabel Borchert, inherited the team and ballpark and appointed herself president, though most baseball decisions were made by Borchert's friend Henry Killilea. In 1928 Kilillea bought the team from Idabel for $280,000, and renamed the park Borchert Field. He allowed Idabel to retain the title to the park with a generous rent agreement.
The ballpark remained in Idabel's hands until she sold it to the city in 1952 so the Brewers could break their lease and move into the then-new County Stadium.

Killilea died of a heart attack in 1927 and his daughter Florence took over as president. Unfortunately, she died in 1931 at age 29 and the team and park passed to new owners. By the 1940s the team and Borchert Field were languishing. Bill Veeck bought the team and park in 1941 and made significant improvements to both, but the park continued to need constant maintenance. By 1950 plans were in place to build a new stadium for the Brewers with public funds (to be named County Stadium) and Borchert Field's days were numbered. The final season was 1952 and the stadium was torn down in 1953.
So much death to strike the club in such a short time.

We end with a rare color photo of the Orchard:

I love the "MILWAUKEE BREWERS" lettering across the top of the park. Those go back at least as far as 1945, and at one point were joined by an image of Owgust, the beer-barrel-chested club mascot who cheers on the Brewers to this day.

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