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An Ode to Forbes Field: Part Two

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Brett Barnett

� Bettmann/CORBIS

This is Part Two of “An Ode to Forbes Field.” Part One can be found here.

Forbes Field contains a lot of history, some which was chronicled and some not so much. Take, for example, this picture of the infield ablaze around the time a game was to be played, given the number of people in the stands. I couldn’t find any information directly relating to this image; however, I did discover that after it rained, apparently the team’s ground crew lit the infield on fire so as to dry up the dirt and make it playable. That idea wouldn’t be warmly received today.

An infield fire, likely intentionally set to dry the dirt

Other historical instances involve Babe Ruth. When with the Boston Braves to round out his career in 1935, the Sultan of Swat smacked the final three home runs of his career, numbers 712, 713, and 714, a feat that wasn’t surpassed until Hank Aaron achieved 715 on April 8, 1974.

Forbes Field is also home to the final triple-header ever played in major league history, which came on Saturday, October 2, 1920. The Reds were in town and the Pirates needed badly to win because they were three-and-a-half games out of third place with a week remaining in the season. When the Friday game was rained out, that’s when Barney Dreyfuss suggested the team’s play a triple-header. The Pirates dropped games one and two before capturing game three, 6-0. They concluded the season on October 3 in Chicago against the Cubs. They won, 4-3. They finished behind the Reds by the same amount they were back four games ago, three-and-a-half.

Apart from being a top of the class ballpark at the time, Forbes Field was also the first baseball stadium to install an elevator; this installation led up to the third-tier seats. The field also included what are called “crash pads” on the right and right-center outfield walls.

Indeed, beyond the Forbes Field walls were green hills and trees, not a trace of city life. These days, the only way to capture that original feel is in pictures of video games. On MLB The Show, for example, one can control a team and play on the original Forbes Field. Like something you’d see on a postcard (because you would), Forbes looked like a haven, stretched out just far enough to escape the city’s overhang of smog. It was a land all to itself. With an exterior like a carnival, a theater, or a museum, “The House of Thrills,” as Bob Prince remarked, was just that, providing a home for three World Series titles, and for providing a stage for some of the greats, including Honus Wagner, Ralph Kiner, Roberto Clemente, and many more.

Roberto Clemente in Uniform

By the time the 1950s and 1960s rolled around, consensus seems to be that Forbes began to look its age. So, in 1958, the Pirates Forbes to the University of Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, the franchise had its sights set on an even bigger stadium, one that would accommodate multiple sports. According to SABR, Bob Costas had the following to say in regard to this dealing, among other similar moves by a swath of organizations, “Amazingly, baseball didn’t grasp what it had – that intimate was better. It wanted something bigger, to accommodate football.”

Bob Prince, the Gunner, seemed to have a deep antipathy for the desertion of Forbes Field, saying, “Leaving Forbes Field, they took the players away from the fans. It was unique. So what if girders needed replacing? You could do it, add bleacher seats. They had a way – just not a will.” In those two paragraphs, SABR concluded, “It is likely that no baseball team ever suffered (more) by leaving one site for another.”

Via SABR

Not long thereafter, on June 28, 1970, Forbes Field saw its final two games that we mentioned in part one – two games that the Pirates won over the Cubs. Fans at the packed ballpark took to taking pieces of “memorabilia” home as souvenirs post-game, such soil and seats. The Pirates then shifted into Three Rivers Stadium, a venue in which they paired up with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The cookie-cutter Three Rivers was perfectly circular, including symmetrical wall distances, and sight lines unsuitable for baseball.

Via Ballparks of Baseball

In July, 1971, shortly before its demolition, Forbes Field was damaged by two separate fires.

Via Brookline Connection

Eventually Three Rivers was replaced, as well. After three decades of lackluster service, Three Rivers made way for PNC Park (and Heinz Field for the Steelers). To circle back to the question in the beginning: without having Forbes first, could PNC Park have existed? It’s unlikely, given the priority on mimicking some of Forbes’ best features.

SABR sums up the design process of PNC as such: “Designed by a Forbes II Task Force, PNC’s brick, steel, terra-cotta-tiled plasters, masonry arches, corner pens, 16 light towers, and flat green roof evoked the Bucs’ Oakland dinghy. Like Forbes, wall height and distance varied, the farthest seat a big-league smallest 88 feet from the field.”

Of course, there are still pieces of Forbes saved and memorialized, as well as dedications to the stadium. From home plate encased in glass to the Forbes wall to go along with a plaque for Mazeroski’s home run, among other things, Forbes Field rests with reverence in all of our minds, even for those that never experienced it. Where Roberto Clemente Dr. cuts through what used to be center and right field, many are well aware of what used to lie there – a piece of history, just as the street name suggests. As we move past the mid-century point since the stadium was demolished, the historical presence seems to grow stronger – Forbes Field, a pillar of the Pittsburgh community, something that is not soon to be forgotten, and likely never will.

Via Brookline Connection