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An Ode to Forbes Field: Part One

Brett Barnett

From Ballparks of Baseball

*This article is Part One of An Ode to Forbes Field.

Modern day PNC Park has made its mark on the city of Pittsburgh and on Major League Baseball, with stunning views of downtown, the Allegheny River, and the Clemente Bridge. For those fortunate enough to have been in the press box, the field and city spread out ahead of you is a thing of beauty. PNC Park is well chronicled among modern day baseball fans, but would it have been possible without one of its predecessors, Forbes Field?

In Pittsburgh Pirates lore, Forbes Field is high on the list.

What kind of images do the Pirates conjure? For a lot of people, I think it’s Roberto Clemente, Maz’s game seven home run, the “We Are Family” Pirates, and Forbes Field.

In the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh, where the University of Pittsburgh is located, a few pieces of Forbes Field remain, immortalized not only in our collective consciousness, but also in the real, physical world. A large portion of the left field wall still stands – a wall over which Bill Mazeroski hit a team-defining home run; a home run with such magnitude that it has yet to be replicated or duplicated in 60 years. Bottom of the ninth, game seven, a 1-0 pitch to the eight-hole hitter Maz, and just a few moments later, the Series was over as the ball sailed over Yogi Berra’s head, the Pirates win, 10-9.

Bill Mazeroski Crossing Home Plate

Pitt’s Posvar Hall sits on the site where Forbes Field was formerly located. When you enter the building, on the ground floor you are greeted by home plate encased in glass, a plaque explaining what the plate is, and the final time it was used. A double-header against the Chicago Cubs (the first team to match up against the Pirates at Forbes – a game Chicago won 3-2, but that over 30,000 fans crammed in to witness). By a score of 3-2, then of 4-1, the Pirates took both of final games played at Forbes.

When Shibe Park in Philadelphia was erected in 1908, Pirates’ owner Barney Dreyfuss had the need to conquer what the Phillies had done east of Pittsburgh. According to SABR, Dreyfuss told steel magnate Andrew Carnegie that he was to have a stadium constructed that, “will make people forget about Shibe.”

Not much was going on at the time in Oakland/Schenley area – or, I should say, the soon-to-be Oakland/Schenley area. When critics denounced Dreyfuss’ plans for the new Pittsburgh Pirates’ stadium, he sat idly by, all the while knowing what exactly he was sitting on. The impetus behind the location of Forbes was all too clear to Dreyfuss: the city’s smog lingered some three miles west, the park would be accessible by trolley, and space was plentiful for expansion.

Indeed, Forbes Field was to become a neighborhood ballpark, something that is arguably lacking in today’s game. With stadiums, née “parks,” today being constructed within metropolitans or around seemingly nothing at all, the old ballpark is of a bygone era; where stadiums like Truist Park, home of the Braves, which stands in an upscale suburb, north of Atlanta, have created a neighborhood unto themselves. Shopping centers, pricey hotels, and outrageous condominiums, it’s a far cry from yesteryear, a time when parks like Wrigley Field and Fenway Park were the stadiums du jour.

From “This Great Game”

As we move further away from the classic ballpark, it seems a duty to remember those cathedrals of a bygone era. At the risk of sounding like I’m harping on modern baseball, the palaces built for baseball in the early 20th century were unique and inspiring. Many of today’s modern installations are barren and boring, by comparison. I think baseball is at its height. The players are better than ever, there’s energy and personality, and teams are smarter and wiser than they once were. I’m also willing to concede that the modern-day stadiums are assuredly more comfortable, and sight lines have greatly improved – I, myself, have said many times of modern baseball stadiums, “There’s not a bad seat in the park.” These are necessary considerations when providing a retrospective of baseball stadiums and then for the subsequent (and obligatory) comparative analysis of parks “then” and stadiums “now.”

My gripe, I suppose, if I have one at all, is that the new stadiums, sans PNC, have come to resemble each other all too closely. An absurd amount of dining options, fancy clubs and suites, full restaurants and entertaining capabilities wreak havoc within the stadium. The traditionalist approach to baseball is that all these options are superfluous, and that they detract from the game. Is that true? Possibly. But I’m not naïve, I know baseball games have evolved to be much more of a social event and much less of a pure baseball game, and that’s okay. Whatever keeps baseball on the field will have to suffice. I, however, implore future stadium architects to keep a semblance of the interesting and abnormal architecture of a century ago in the modern picture of the game – baseball, after all, is really the only sport that can take such liberties.

The name “Forbes” comes from the British general John Forbes, who remained in present day Oakland during the French and Indian War, enabling the capture of Fort Duquesne, which he then renamed Fort Pitt.

When the stadium was raised, right field shared a boundary with Schenley Park, an area now on the National Register of Historic Places.

In the stadium’s inaugural season, the Pirates fared well against the competition. The 1909 Pirates not only won its first World Series, coming against Ty Cobb’s Detroit Tigers, Honus Wagner’s Bucs also won 110 games. To date, and by win total, that’s Pittsburgh’s best season in history. The only other time the team won over 100 games was in 1902, a year before the first World Series was instituted, in which the Pirates also took part.

Among the many things the Pirates did before anyone else, all coming at Forbes Field, was to implement the use of tarp in 1906 and put padding on the outfield wall sometime in the 1930s. Perhaps the most well-known “first” came on August 5, 1921, when they broadcast a baseball game on the country’s first radio station, KDKA, a station which broadcasts Pirates’ games to this day, nearly a century later.

Harold Arlin, who broadcast the first baseball game, with KDKA
Image taken from 1812 Blockhouse

The advent of this technology was what lead to many of the famous pictures and memories of people gathering around the radio at home to listen to a baseball game, or more likely in the early days, gathered around with total strangers at stores just to listen to the game – when players like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were playing and entering their prime in the ‘20s.

When the University of Pittsburgh’s construction on the Gothic-designed Cathedral of Learning in 1926, it was bound to increase the allure of Forbes Field. It gave us this picture, which is said to have been taken during the 1960 World Series:

Students overlooking the 1960 World Series

In an attempt to implement a plan to solve a lack of space problem the university was facing, the building was erected stretching towards the sky, and ultimately became the tallest education building in the western hemisphere, and second in the world – a feat that still stands to this day. By the time the cathedral was done in its entirety, it rose high above the left side of Forbes Field overlooking the ballpark.

For a period of time, the Negro Leagues’ Homestead Grays played a large portion of their home games at Forbes Field. The Grays, famous for utilizing some of the best baseball players in history, including Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, and Martín Dihigo, played games at Forbes in the late 1930s and throughout most of the 1940s, also playing games at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. during this time.

Once Dreyfuss died in 1932, his son-in-law Bill Benswanger took over as team President. In 1938, a year in which the Pirates finished two games back of the Cubs, Benswanger was certain the team was to make to the World Series. For that reason, he decided to add what was called the “Crow’s Nest,” which was to be built on the grandstand roof; this came after the 1925 extension of the right field grandstand in order to accommodate the increasing number of interested fans.

To honor Dreyfuss, a bronze and granite statue was built in right-center field. Later on, to assist with the war effort, a wooden US Marine soldier was constructed and placed in left field in 1943; the Marine stood 32 feet high, 15 feet wide at the base, and stood in play. Accompanying the soldier was an advertisement encouraging Forbes’ patrons to purchase war bonds.

In the background, the US Marine statue, as well as the war bonds sign, can be seen.

Almost a decade after Chicago’s Wrigley Field installed ivy in 1937, when Forbes field had brick walls replace the old wooden ones, Forbes’ right-center and left field line walls donned new ivy. Many of the seats at Forbes were blue, signifying box seats. This is an installation that would find its way into PNC Park, as well, where all the seats are blue, in addition to the steel beams holding the park in place.

When the Pirates landed slugger Hank Greenberg, the fence in left-center was brought in 30 feet, going from 365 ft. to 335 ft. The space left over became known as Greenberg’s Gardens for the year; after his departure and retirement, the area was renamed for Ralph Kiner.

In Part Two, we’ll dig a little bit deeper into some interesting facts, as well as the subsequent replacement of Forbes Field by Three Rivers Stadium.