Friday, July 6, 2018

Borchert Field's Big-Name Visitors at the Milwaukee County Historical Society

The Milwaukee County Historical Society's recently-closed exhibit "Back Yards to Big Leagues: Milwaukee’s Sports and Recreation History" continues to yield real gems.

Tucked in between the gallery of Borchert Field photos and a clice of bleacher seating from the ballpark's closing we have two additional displays detailing famous visitors to the ballpark.

The first display is a pair of photos showcasing the single biggest name in baseball, then and still today.

Yep, that's Babe Ruth tossing the ball around in the Orchard's foul territory in 1928. The Babe came though with Lou Gehrig on their famous post-season barnstorming exhibition tours, with the "Bustin' Babes" facing off against the "Larrupin' Lous".
Borchert Field played host to a number of sports and events in addition to minor league baseball. The Milwaukee Chicks played at the park for their one season. The Green Bay Packers appeared there ten times over 13 years. From 1922 to 1926 the NFL Milwaukee Badgers called Athletic Park home. Other semipro football teams like the Milwaukee Eagles and Ische Radios also played there, as did colleges like Marquette University and Wisconsin. Other events of interest included boxing matches, rodeos, circuses, and even the National Balloon Race in 1922. The park also hosted some of the most well-known people of their era, mostly baseball players, but also other athletes, musicians, actors, and even politicians. A partial list includes:

John McGrawMax Schmeling
Rube WaddellDizzy and Daffy Dean
Jim ThorpeJosh Gibson
Ty CobbJames "Cool Papa" Bell
Connie MackOscar Charleston
Nick AltrockWilliam "Judy" Johnson
Jackie PriceJackie Mitchell
Oscar "Happy" FelschBabe Didrikson
Knute RockneJesse Owens
Pat O'BrienTed Williams
Jackie RobinsonRay Cannon
Tris SpeakerPhil Rizzuto
Red GrangeJoe DiMaggio
Johnny "Blood" McNallyHeinie and the Grenadiers
Paul RobesonPresident Harry Truman
Fritz PollardEddie Mathews
Babe RuthVerne Gagne
Lou GehrigMickey Mantle
Wow. That's impressive.

Some of those baseball stars came to Borchert Field as players on other American Association clubs, like Mickey Mantle and Phil Rizzuto with the Kansas City Blues, and Ted Williams with the Minneapolis Millers.

Others wore the uniform of the Milwaukee Badgers. Fritz Pollard, Paul Robeson, and Johnny "Blood" McNally.

Still others were Brewers themselves. Oscar "Happy" Felsch was a Milwaukee boy who played for his hometown club in 1914 on his way to the Chicago White Sox and eventual infamy. John Thomas Reid "Jackie" Price was a baseball clown hired by team president Bill Veeck as much for his between-inning entertainment as his skills as a shortstop. Eddie Mathews was a Boston Braves prospect who came to town shortly after the formerly-independent club became part of Boston's farm system in the late 1940s.

And as the caption notes, the famous visitors extended beyond the realm of sports. President Harry Truman's visit in 1948 was a high point for the old wooden ballpark.

Others came through on barnstorming tours. The most famous of those was led by Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Here's another look at the Babe at the Orchard in 1928, this time posing with two famous native Milwaukeeans.

The gentleman on the right, wearing a handsome Detroit Tigers sweater, is George McBride. He was a member of the 1901 Brewers club, founding members of the American League. When they moved to St. Louis after the season, McBride stayed in Milwaukee with the new American Association club. He would return to the majors a few years later and carved out a sixteen-year big-league career, most with the Washington Senators. When Clark Griffith stepped down as manager of the Senators to focus on the front office, he chose McBride to be his successor. McBride's run was short-lived; halfway through his first season he was struck in the face by a thrown ball during batting practice, and suffered dizziness and fainting spells for a long time afterwards, resigning his job at the end of only one season. He later came out of retirement to join Ty Cobb's coaching staff in Detroit.

To the Bambino's right, wearing the livery of the Philadelphia A's, is Al Simmons. He was born Aloysius Harry Szymanski on Milwaukee's South Side to a pair of Polish immigrants. Known as "the Duke of Mitchell Street", for the boulevard running through the heart of the city's Polish community, he is unquestionably the best baseball player Milwaukee has ever produced. In 1928, he had just finished his fifth season with Philadelphia, on his way to a twenty-year career that would eventually land him in the Hall of Fame.

The second display of famous visitors to Borchert Field is equally as impressive.

On August 28, 1935 the Pittburgh Crawford played the Chicago American Giants in a Negro National League game at Borchert Field. The Crawfords featured Josh Gibson, James "Cool Papa" Bell, Oscar Charleston, and William Julius "Judy" Johnson. The Giants had Willie Wells, Turkey Stearns, and Mule Suttles. These seven players were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame when it began inducting Negro League stars.

Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics, appeared at Borchert Field three times. It was common for barnstorming teams to have added attractions to encourage fans to come to their games. Jesse Owens often traveled with Negro League teams like the Toledo/Pittsburgh Crawfords. At the games he would race challengers, including horses, varying the head start or advantages and disadvantages based on his opponent. In his first two appearances at Borchert Field, Owens beat all challengers, but in his last appearance in 1946, he finally lost... to a horse.
I can't tell if that's more whimsical or degrading, racing all comers including livestock, but at least Owens had a way to make some money off his Olympic success.

And in any case, it's amazing to think of the truly staggering number of famous citizens of the 20th century who paid a visit to the old wooden ballpark during its long history.

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