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100 years ago, Forbes Field was MLB's first palace

| Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Roberto Clemente's first hit and Babe Ruth's parting shot occurred within the confines of the most spacious ballpark any major league baseball team called home.

So did Bill Mazeroski's 1960 World Series Game 7 homer, one so improbable, so magical that it seems certain to live in baseball's memory bank as long as the sport exists.

The first fireworks night and last tripleheader• Chuck Noll's first home game as the Steelers' coach• The first live broadcasts of major league baseball and college football• Forbes Field was home to all of that and much more during 61 eventful years that helped launch not one but, eventually, two ballpark-building construction binges.

Baseball's modern ballpark era was ushered in 100 years ago Tuesday when Forbes Field was christened in Oakland. Today, its treasures live on in a modern-day gem named PNC Park that copies much of Forbes' coziness, charm and quirkiness.

Named for British Gen. John Forbes, who forces captured Fort Duquesne during the French and Indian War in the mid-18th century, it was the National League's first modern concrete-and-steel park, a massive-for-its-era structure that towered above a picturesque city park and was so innovative that many of its touches can still be found in ballparks from coast to coast.

While the Philadelphia Athletics' Shibe Park (later, Connie Mack Stadium) predated Forbes by two months, nothing in baseball's relatively brief history to that time rivaled the two-tiered palace that Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss dedicated before a Cubs-Pirates game on June 30, 1909. Fittingly, the Cubs will honor the anniversary by playing in Pittsburgh on Tuesday night.

Built so the Pirates could abandon flood- and fire-prone Exposition Park, Forbes cost approximately $2 million for land and construction — about $48 million today — or more than three times Shibe's estimated cost. The opening day crowd of 30,338 was five times larger than for Game 5 of the Cubs-Tigers World Series the year before.

"This is the happiest day of my life," Dreyfuss said then, albeit he was initially criticized for building his baseball showplace a 10-minute trolley ride away from downtown.

Five days later, Dreyfuss invited fans attending an Independence Day doubleheader to stay for a post-game fireworks show. More than 40,000 did, and another tradition was born.

To preserve baseball's best grass playing field, Pirates manager Fred Clarke designed and patented the first infield tarp. The ballpark also was the first with elevators and padded outfield walls, later, and the batting helmet was invented there by Pirates executive Charlie Muse.

Dreyfuss disliked the long ball, and it showed in every one of Forbes' nooks and crannies.

The left-field line was 360 feet from home plate, center field was nearly a bus ride away at 457 feet. The grandstands towered 85 feet above the right field wall, a huge scoreboard had to be cleared in left.

The Pirates were so certain no player could hit a ball out to center, the batting cage was stowed inside the playing field during games. It remained there even after Dick Stuart carried it with a 1959 drive.

As cavernous as a national park, 35,000-seat Forbes Field didn't play host to a single no-hitter during the more than 4,700 major-league games played there, including the last tripleheader in 1920, when the Reds took two of three. All that open space helped the Pirates' Chief Wilson hit a record 36 triples in 1912.

Forbes' first tape-measure drive was Ruth's 714th and last, a May 26, 1935, shot for the Boston Braves that was his third of the day and the first to clear Forbes' right-field roof.

"I didn't think anyone could hit a ball that hard," Pirates pitcher Guy Bush said.

He should have known better. Ruth and Lou Gehrig put on such a home run exhibition during a 1927 World Series workout that it clearly intimidated the home team, and the Yankees promptly swept the Pirates.

"That World Series was over before it started," Ruth said.

The 1960 Series was much different. Led by the Ruth and Gehrig of the day, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, the Yankees were big favorites who flashed their prodigious power during victories of 16-3, 10-0 and 12-0. The Pirates countered by winning all the close games, and Mazeroski finished it off on Oct. 13, 1960, with the only homer to end a World Series Game 7.

Forbes Field was more than baseball, although the Negro Leagues' Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords also occasionally staged games there. The Steelers played there from 1933 until the mid-1960s, returning for a Noll-coached 1969 exhibition against the Bengals. Pitt football and the pro soccer Phantoms also briefly called it home.

For all of Forbes' charms — seats close to the action, no playing field signage, a right field screen that Clemente peppered for 15-plus seasons with line drives — the so-called House of Thrills was showing its age when it closed on June 28, 1970. Fittingly, Mazeroski made the final putout during a doubleheader sweep of, yes, the Cubs.

The entrances were narrow and dimly lit, the bathrooms tiny, onsite parking was nonexistent and, remarkably, a ballpark located near the Pitt and Carnegie Mellon campuses did not sell beer.

Still, Clemente marveled as Forbes shut down, "I spent half my life there."

Not long after Forbes was razed to make way for the Pitt Law School, Pittsburghers who initially embraced Three Rivers Stadium's spacious concourses and comfortable seats began longing again for a baseball-only park with grass, fewer seats and better sight lines.

Once baseball's retro-era ballpark boon began with Baltimore's Camden Yards in 1992, nearly every one of the 21 ballparks built since has incorporated qualities first seen in Forbes Field and Shibe Park. PNC Park, opened in 2001, copied Forbes' rectangular light towers, picturesque skyline, left-field bleachers and expansive outfield. The section of left-field wall over which Mazeroski's homer traveled was erected behind PNC's right-field stands.

In Oakland, Forbes' center-field wall still stands, and home plate is preserved under glass. A historical marker denotes Mazeroski's homer.

Pittsburgh gave up once on Forbes Field. It's much more reluctant to let go of baseball's first crown jewel this time.

A glance at Forbes Field

Facts about Forbes Field, which opened 100 years ago today:

Location: Oakland

Construction period: 4 months.

Cost: Estimated $1 million to $2 million, including land (about $24 million to $48 million today).

Type of building: Concrete and steel, the first for an NL ballpark.

Named for: British Gen. John Forbes, whose forces captured Fort Duquesne during the French and Indian War in the mid-18th century.

Opened: June 30, 1909, (Cubs vs. Pirates).

Closed: June 28, 1970, (Cubs vs. Pirates).

Demolition began: July 17, 1971.

Capacity: 23,000 in 1909, later expanded to 35,000.

Dimensions: Left field, 360 feet; center field, 442 feet; right field, 376 feet, reduced to 300 feet in 1925.

Distance between home plate and grandstands: 110 feet, reduced to 75 feet in 1959.

Distance to left field wall in 1947, after Pirates acquired Hank Greenberg: 335 feet. "Greenberg Gardens" was removed and the 360-foot distance restored in 1954.

Skyscraper located behind left field bleachers: University of Pittsburgh's 42-story Cathedral of Learning, for decades the tallest university structure in the world.

Nickname: the House of Thrills, by late broadcaster Bob Prince.

World Series: 1909, 1925, 1927, 1960.

World Series won there by Pirates: 1909, 1925, 1960.

All-Star games: 1944, 1959.

Number of no-hitters: 0.

Number of Alou brothers to play outfield for Giants on Sept. 15, 1963: 3 (Felipe, Matty, Jesus).

Year that third tier was erected: 1938, in anticipation of a World Series that the Pirates did not make.

Number of grandstand seats blocked by steel pillars: Unknown, but in the hundreds.

Bleacher seat cost during most of Forbes Field's existence: $1.

Number of home runs hit over right field roof: 18.

Number of home runs hit over right field roof by Willie Stargell: 7.

Date of first live major-league baseball broadcast from Forbes Field: Aug. 5, 1921, with KDKA's Harold Arlin announcing from a box seat next to the first base dugout.

Year that movie "Angels of the Outfield" was filmed there: 1951.

First night game: July 18, 1930, Kansas City Monarchs vs. Homestead Grays, Negro League.

First Steelers game: Sept. 20, 1933, New York Giants.

Final Steelers home game (regular season): Dec. 1, 1963, Philadelphia Eagles.

Heavyweight title fights: 1, Jersey Joe Walcott knocks out Ezzard Charles, 7th round, July 18, 1951.

Additional Information:

Forbes Field

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