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Fans Go Out to Ballgame -- for 110 Years

Baseball: Massachusetts town seeks historic status for its stadium, which has a colorful history. Park is known for its odd shape and sun delays.

September 08, 2002|TRUDY TYNAN | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — It was the summer of 1892 when the sweet sound of ball meeting bat was heard for the first time in Wahconah Park.

Over the next 110 years, the misshapen minor league baseball park -- where dead center is 374 feet from home plate, the right and left field lines are about 334, and right center is a distant 430 -- has seen and cultivated its share of legends.

People still talk about Lou Gehrig's pasting one out of the park and into the nearby Housatonic River.

And they remember miscues, such as the night of July 30, 1970, when pitcher Bruce Kison hit seven Pittsfield Senators and narrowly missed opposing catcher Al Thompson -- who took his at-bat wearing full catcher's gear. Kison was forced to leave the game, but his career survived. He had a long career with Major League Baseball.

For those reasons and more, city officials say the quirky park known for its sun delays (because it faces west) belongs in the National Register of Historic Places.

"Wahconah Park reflects what baseball used to be and what is still best about it," Pittsfield Mayor Sara Hathaway said.

The city's request for nomination, launched in August, must first be reviewed and investigated by the Massachusetts Historical Commission.

If the state approves, the nomination will be forwarded to federal authorities.

"It's still very much a work in progress," said Pittsfield resident David Potts, who has spent months pouring through old newspapers and other records to help piece together the park's history.

Historic designation could open opportunities for the cash-strapped city to get grant money to help maintain and promote the park, which opened Aug. 10, 1892. The Pittsfields prevailed that day, 12-1 over the Gizes, a semipro team from Albany, N.Y.

But the park holds more than history.

On warm summer nights, Wahconah Park is filled with families -- just as it was in the summer of 1913 when the Pittsfield Electrics, the pride of a local trolley car company, drew 70,000 fans. (That team is not to be confused with the Electrics of the 1940s, which got its moniker from the city's main industry.)

On a recent night, the 2,300 or so fans didn't seem to mind that the Berkshire Black Bears, who are holding down the Northern League cellar in their inaugural season, were again losing.

Kids scampered along the bleachers. Parents chattered in the grandstand, creating a buzz that often drowned out the announcer. Groups of teenage girls giggled as they watched ballplayers not long out of high school.

"I've been coming to the games since I was shagging flies with the other kids in the parking lot 25 years ago," David Mallet said as he watched his son Daniel, 2, dance to the music from the stadium loudspeakers.

A cheery group of grandmothers commandeered some of the picnic tables on the first-base line, a few easy steps from the beer concession. Eddies of grandchildren, capped in black and blue Black Bear batting helmets, swirled around them.

And there was special magic when fans' voices rose in a ragged a cappella chorus of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" -- baseball's venerable anthem, which hadn't even been written when the ballpark opened.

(In fact, Wahconah Park predates the song by 16 years.)

"This is what baseball is supposed to be all about," said Don Winn, who was making his first visit to the park since the 1970s because his son was umpiring.

The grandstand was last rebuilt in 1950, but Jim Thorpe and Gehrig, who played here in the 1920s, would recognize it still.

The most distant seat is less than 100 feet from the action, and a series of fake owls dangle by their necks from ropes to keep the pigeons from befouling the patrons in the high-priced seats -- just as they have since the 19th century.

Those high-priced seats, by the way, are $5 and $7. Seats in the bleachers go for $4.

The tiny locker rooms, dugouts and concession stands are from another time. Still, the paint is bright and the grass on the diamond is manicured to a sheen.

New this summer are the bright blue box seats that the Black Bears installed to replace the old wooden folding chairs.

"We got lucky," said Mike Kardamis, president and general manager. "We got them cheap."

The seats were originally intended for the football stadium at Brigham Young University but turned out to be the wrong shade of blue.

There is even a luxury box of sorts: two white wicker lawn chairs with footstools immediately behind home plate.

"Compared to some of the places we played, Wahconah Park is luxury," said Mike Gladu, a former minor league pitcher.

Still, the city almost lost track of the park's history. In recent years, the date for the park's beginnings was often given as 1919, which actually is when the city acquired it for $1 from heirs of Charles Burbank, the local contractor who erected the park on Wahconah Street.

During a long and bitter political battle that ended last year with Pittsfield voters rejecting construction of a new stadium, Potts got interested in the park's history.

Puzzled by the lack of headlines about the park in 1919, Potts kept going back through microfilm of old newspapers.

Finally, just this summer, he found the stories about the opening day in August 1892.

"I love Wahconah Park," Potts said. "And I'm not even a baseball fan. I just go to the games because it's a fun evening out."

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