The Baker Bowl: Some Brotherly Love for a Lost Diamond

Posted on 08 January 2013 by Trish Vignola

The Vet. Connie Mack Stadium. Shibe Park. The Baker Bowl. Doesn’t ring a bell? Known as Philadelphia Base Ball Grounds from 1887 to 1895 and later as National League Park from 1895-1913, the Baker Bowl was considered groundbreaking for its time. Yet, it was still lost within the footnotes a city’s proud sporting history until recently. Why?

BakerBowl

The Baker Bowl was located on a small city block bounded by North Broad Street, West Huntingdon Street, North 15th Street and West Lehigh Avenue. Still doesn’t ring a bell? William F. Baker, a former New York Police Commissioner, owned the Philadelphia Phillies from 1913 to 1930. It was during his tenure that the Philadelphia Phillies captured their first and only pennant until 1980.

When the Baker Bowl opened, it was considered a technological fete. Unfortunately, a ballpark boom would follow soon after. Capitalizing and improving on ideas established by the Baker Bowl, this bandbox was outdated quickly. By the time the team left the Baker Bowl, it was considered an embarrassment. Today, all that is left is a plaque and a ghostly footprint located by the SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Train Authority) North Broad train station.

In 1883, Alfred J. Reach, the sporting goods magnate, bought a cellar-dwelling professional baseball franchise from Worcester, Massachusetts. He moved that team to Philadelphia with the help of his partner, Colonel John I. Rogers. Reach turned the “Philadelphias” (also known interchangeably as the Quakers until 1890) into a relevant contender within the National League. In fact, the “Phils’” original home – Recreation Park (located at 24th and Ridge) – could no longer handle the mounting spectators surging through the turnstiles. Plans were made, ground was broken and a ballpark built specifically for the team opened in 1887.

At the time of the park’s opening, the media praised the Baker Bowl as state-of-the-art. Note that this particular version of the Baker Bowl is not the cantilever structure, commonly associated by historians with the Baker Bowl today. That structure and why the ballpark would need to be rebuilt will come later.

This first Baker Bowl was entirely made of wood (except for outside walls). This original ballpark was the first to offer pavilion seating for customers. Yes, thanks to the Baker Bowl, you get to sit in an actual seat at the ballpark today. The 1943 issue of the Sporting News Guide has a descriptive sketch of the original facility. Being that photography in the late 1800s was not easy to come by, this sketch is pretty important in visualizing how the ballpark first looked.

The Sporting News Guide stated, “The Phillies National League Park completed in 1887 at the cost of $80,000 was one of the finest pavilions in the United States.” By all media accounts, this is true. However, final costs of constructions are debated. It been quoted as a high in some sources as $101,000.

The original Baker Bowl had a setting capacity of 12,500. That’s about twice as many as Recreation Park. There were 5,000 seats in a pavilion behind home plate. There were also 7,500 seats in the grandstands that extended down the left and right field lines.

A relatively low wall surrounded the outfield. Center field was fairly close and railroad tracks ran behind it. When the park became known a bandbox, which was hard to accomplish being that we’re speaking about the deadball era, the tracks were lowered. The field was extended over top of them, allowing the outfield fences to be pushed further back.

When the first Baker Bowl opened, left field had a four-foot fence. The center field clubhouse had a thirty-five foot fence and right field proved to be pretty interesting. The right field wall was originally twelve feet high. With the foul pole a mere 280 feet from home plate, the team felt it was a tempting target. Frank Jackson of “The Hardball Times” argues that perhaps it was “too tempting.” By the time the park closed, the right field wall was forty feet high and consisted of tin over brick. It was extended to approximately four times its original height.

Almost the entire ballpark burned to the ground on August 6, 1894. It began at 10:40 AM. The Phillies were preparing for a game against the Baltimore Orioles, when one of the players noticed a fire in the grandstand. The players ran toward the fire in an attempt to put it out, but they were ultimately pushed back. Unsuccessful in extinguishing the flames, the fire began to spread quickly in the mostly wooden stadium.

The players escaped without harm. However, that was not confirmed before third baseman Tricky Charley Reilly’s shirt caught on fire and pitcher George Harper had to jump from a window. Fans were seated in temporary stands for home games for the duration of the 1894 season. When the new stadium was constructed, only part of the exterior outfield wall remained. It was incorporated into the newly constructed stadium.

There are theories about the fire’s origin. Most point to a potential spark caused by a nearby locomotive. The $80,000 in damage (equal to $2,148,923 today) was covered fully by insurance. It did however spread to the adjoining properties, causing an additional $20,000 in damage, equal to $537,231 today. The Evening Bulletin, a popular Philadelphia paper of the time, went as far as to blame a tramp starting a fire to keep warm. Nonetheless, the cause of the August 6th fire was never substantiated. The Phillies finished their season at the University of Pennsylvania and Al Reach immediately began the rebuild. This time though, Reach vowed there would be no fires.

The second incarnation of the ballpark opened on May 2, 1895. The Baker Bowl’s upper deck was notable for having the first cantilevered design in a sports stadium. Cantilever is a structural design where there are vertical supports. The fixed end is in compression and the free end is in tension. Basically, any and all ballparks since the Baker Bowl are based on this idea. The second Baker Bowl was also the first ballpark to be constructed primarily from steel and brick.

Ironically the first and second Baker Bowl looked nothing like an actual bowl. Alliteration most likely supported the popularity of the park’s moniker. There is evidence though that the park was also used as a velodrome, or a cycle-racing track. Velodromes typically had steeply banked curves and were found in stadiums of the time. The perimeter of the field was slightly banked, which happened to also give it the appearance of a shallow bowl. It was probably created to capital on the cycling craze of the late 19th century.

During a game on August 8, 1903, a fight on 15th Street caught the attention of fans in the bleachers down the left field line. Many of them ran to the top of the wooden seating area to see what was going on. The added stress on that section of the bleachers caused it to collapse into the street, killing 12 and injuring 232. The Baker Bowl officially had a body count. This tragedy led to more renovation of the stadium and forced the ownership to sell the team. The Phillies temporarily moved to the Philadelphia Athletics’ home field, Columbia Park, while the Baker Bowl was repaired. The Phillies ultimately played sixteen games at Columbia Park in August and September 1903.

During a game on May 14, 1927, parts of two sections of the lower deck extension along the right-field line collapsed. This time it due to rotted timbers and again triggered by an oversize gathering of people. This time spectators were seeking shelter from the rain. No one died during the collapse (this time), but one individual did die from heart failure in the subsequent stampede that injured 50. The Phillies rented from the Athletics while repairs were being made to the old structure. This was the second and far from the final time the Phillies would look to the Athletics as renter.

In 1915, the right field wall was raised to forty feet in an attempt to keep deadball home run hitters, the few that there were, in the ballpark. By 1929, the Phillies added a screen. Frank Jackson of “The Hardball Times” attributes these renovations to the introduction of a livelier baseball. The total height of the wall was now sixty feet.

BakerBowlLifeBuoy

There is evidence that the Baker Bowl’s right field wall set precedence and was a forerunner to such classic ballparks as Fenway Park. We see evidence in the right field wall at Baker Bowl in what would become the Green Monster of Fenway. Like the Green Monster, the Bowl’s right field wall was initially cluttered with ads. Eventually, that gave way to a well-documented enormous Lifebuoy soap advertisement. The ad boasted that “The Phillies Use Lifebuoy.” The iconic ad was known to prompt the response from a local vandal, “And they still stink.”

Beyond the mere use of Cantilever design and a Green Monster-esque wall, references to the Baker Bowl can be seen in other modern of ballparks today. The main entrance of Baker Bowl was an octagonal turret. Although not octagonal, the turret as main entrance would show up in a later iconic ballpark, Ebbets Field. Ebbets Field opened in 1913. That entrance would be referenced again. The New York Mets open declare that Ebbets Field’s entrance inspired the Jackie Robinson rotunda of Citi Field, which opened in 2009.

The Phillies were respectable in the deadball era; nonetheless once a livelier ball was introduced they almost always finished in last place until the mid 20th century. The livelier ball along with the bandbox specs of the Baker Bowl was a big reason why the team hit the underwhelming milestone of 10,000 losses on July 15, 2007. During its last two decades, the Baker Bowl was for lack of a better word, hell, for the Philadelphia Phillies’ pitching staff. Although, it is interesting to note, the team did not fare better they made the move to Shibe Park.

During an astounding fifty-one and a half seasons at the Baker Bowl, the Phillies managed only one pennant. That was in 1915. Nonetheless, the 1915 World Series was significant for a couple of reasons. First, the team would ultimately lose. It was also the first time a sitting President of the United States of America attended a World Series game. President Woodrow Wilson threw out the first pitch prior to Game 2. The Series was also the first (of many) post-season appearances by Babe Ruth. He was a pitch hitter. Also noteworthy, Pete Alexander picked up his first World Series victory in Game 1.

If futile is the politest word you can use to describe the Phillies’ history at the Baker Bowl, the World Series of 1915 is technically not the only World Series to be played there. The Baker Bowl of Philadelphia was one of three sites (the others being in Baltimore and Chicago) to play host to the very first Negro League World Series. It was a 1924 match-up between the Kansas City Monarchs and the Hillsdale Daisies. The Hillsdale Daisies were a local team that played regular season games in suburban Darby, Pennsylvania.

Other historical footnotes in the Baker Bowl’s oft-forgotten history included a moment in 1929. Rogers Hornsby hit a homerun through the clubhouse in centerfield. On June 9, 1914, Honus Wagner hit his 3,000th career hit at the Bowl. And, as he made his first post-season appearance at the Bowl, Babe Ruth would also have a second milestone there. He played his last major league baseball game at Baker Bowl on May 30, 1935.

When Baker Bowl was first opened, it was praised as the finest baseball palace in America. By 1938, the Phillies abandoned it. At this point, it had been the punch line for years. The Chicago Tribune in fact ran a series of articles on baseball parks during the summer of 1937. The article about Baker Bowl was exceptionally brutal in its ridicule.
The Phillies chose to move 5 blocks west on Lehigh Avenue. They made the newer and more spacious Shibe Park their home, renting from the Athletics for the third time in their history. The team’s president at the time, Gerald Nugent, cited the move as an opportunity for the Phillies to cut expenses, as stadium upkeep would be split between two clubs.

The diamond of North Broad Street fell quickly into disrepair. In the early days of its vacancy, the stadium was used for sports ranging from midget auto racing to ice-skating. Its old centerfield clubhouse even served as a piano bar. Nonetheless, by the late 1940s, all that stood were the four outer walls and a field of weeds. The remains of the ballpark were finally demolished in 1950. The footprint has since featured a gas station where the centerfield clubhouse once stood, garages, a car wash and a SEPTA station.

Fifty years after its demolition, the Baker Bowl was finally given its due when a marker was dedicated on August 16, 2000 at Veterans Stadium (also known as the Vet). Unveiled by former-Phillies shortstop Bobby Stevens, who played for the team at the Baker Bowl 1931 and then-current-Phillies pitcher Randy Wolf during a pre-game ceremony, the marker was displayed through the end of the 2000 season at the Vet. It was then moved to the footprint of the Baker Bowl, just behind where the right field foul pole would be.

Standing on Broad Street just north of West Huntingdon Street, the marker stands. Titled “Baker Bowl National League Park”, its text reads:

The Phillies’ baseball park from its opening in 1887 until 1938. Rebuilt 1895; hailed as nation’s finest stadium. Site of first World Series attended by U.S. President, 1915; Negro League World Series, 1924-26; Babe Ruth’s last major league game, 1935. Razed 1950.

Philadelphia has always been known for an immense respect of its history, especially its sports history. Nonetheless, the Baker Bowl was lost to its footnotes. Ironically like every other home the Philadelphia Phillies ever occupied throughout the franchise’s history, the Baker Bowl opened to praise and closed to scorn. (Good luck to Citizen’s Bank Ballpark.)

Condemned to a history of rubble, as its successors rose like a phoenix in the distance, the Baker Bowl is undeservedly the most forgotten of Philadelphia’s diamonds. Yes, the Phillies abandoned the Baker Bowl before historians were thinking to respect the footprints and importance of sports and the impact of its venue on their culture. Absolutely, they had a pretty horrific record at the Bowl. For that case, they also had a body count. Nevertheless, aspects developed for the Baker Bowl and consequences of what happened there can still be found in the architecture of the game today.

It was the Baker Bowl that made moments like President Bush throwing the first pitch out at the 2001 World Series a common and welcomed occurrence. It was the Baker Bowl that also allows you to have an actual seat at the ball game. For the people of Philadelphia, the Baker Bowl was also the first home its professional football franchise, the Philadelphia Eagles. That made the ballpark the first dual-use stadium in Pennsylvania history. Ironically, their record was not much better than their spring brethren. Most importantly though, it was an angry fan at the Baker Bowl that is why we’re allowed to keep foul balls today.

The fires that besought the Baker Bowl influenced Shibe Park’s pioneered use concrete and reinforced steel. Learning from the mistakes of the Baker Bowl, this new design led to safer parks and greater capacity. The use of the outfield wall to prevent home runs as well as to generate revenue (as advertising space) is still seen in ballparks like Fenway. The grand entrance with cupola in the Baker Bowl upgraded it from a mere park to a grand stadium. That type of entrance was later seen in classic ballparks like Ebbets Field and is still seen today in places like CitiField.

1 Comments For This Post

  1. Chris Williams Says:

    Hi-

    Love your site. Great stuff!

    Here’s a link to an article I wrote for Yahoo on a fellow who played his whole career at Baker Bowl-Buzz Arlett:

    http://voices.yahoo.com/the-one-year-buzz-incredible-story-russell-12024269.html?cat=9

    If you know a bit about his career,I think you’ll find this new piece interesting. If “Buzz Arlett” doesn’t ring the proverbial
    bell, here’s chance to meet a guy with one of the most unusual careers in major league history.

    I hope you decide to check it out.

    Sincerely,
    Chris Williams
    a.k.a. “Bill Christopher”

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