Exposition Park

Decades before Willie Stargell’s We Are Family vibe, Bill Mazeroski’s legendary World Series home run, and Roberto Clemente’s demonstrable power, professional baseball in the Pittsburgh area lived in Exposition Park.  It holds distinction as the first ballpark for Organized Baseball in the Pittsburgh environs—the “Alleghenys” débuted in the American Association in 1882.  “Professional” in this narrative means playing within a league structure.

Constructed in Allegheny City—then a separate metropolis from Pittsburgh, across the Allegheny River—Exposition Park had a location that proved disastrous when a flood and a fire combined forces, destroying the ballpark after one season.

In 1883, the team played in Exposition Park II, built closer to the Allegheny River than its predecessor; it also had a one-year tenure as the home site for the Alleghenys—Exposition Park II flooded as well, opening the path for Union Park to be a major league facility in 1884.  The following season, Union Park underwent a name change to Recreation Park.

An article in the March 5, 1885 edition of the Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette highlighted  the park’s multiple uses that would have made baseball überpromoter Bill Veeck stand up and applaud:  “Another feature of the park will be a roller skating floor.  It will be built in one corner of the outfield, where there is sufficient room without interfering with the ball playing.  There will be no roof, and it is thought that it will be a pleasanter place to skate on rollers than in any of the inclosed [sic] rinks, for all out of doors is certainly pleasanter on a hot evening than any building can be.”

The article also mentioned the team’s name change:  “The report that the old name was to be retained is untrue.  The club will be known as the Pittsburghs.  It will work under the old charter and legally be the Allegheny, but in all advertising and in general usage Pittsburgh will be used.”  This label switch might have been slightly confusing because the absorption of Allegheny City into Pittsburgh did not take place until more than 20 years later.

Pittsburgh joined the National League in 1887.  A few seasons later, it faced competition for baseball fans in Steel City—the Players’ League débuted in 1890 with the Burghers as its Pittsburgh franchise, which played in Exposition Park III.  It was located “about two blocks where PNC Park stands today,” stated the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  The Players’ League only lasted for the 1890 season.

Pittsburgh’s National League team rebranded, became the Pirates before the 1891 season, and moved to Exposition Park III for its home games.  In 1903, when the Pirates faced the Boston Americans in the first World Series, Exposition Park III became the first National League ballpark to host a World Series game.

In the middle of the 1909 season, the Pirates moved to Forbes Field.  Built of concrete and steel, Forbes Field signified a new era of ballparks with grandeur compared to their predecessors—Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, and Ebbets Field emerged within five years.  Forbes Field’s unveiling inspired awe from Pittsburgh’s fans:  “If there had been no ball game at all the masses of sweltering humanity would have paid for their coming, for the stands on Forbes Field [sic] look out on some of the prettiest scenery to be found in Pennsylvania.  And the stands themselves are pretty enough to draw sightseers even if there were nothing else for them to see,” wrote R. W. “Ring” Lardner in the Chicago Daily Tribune about the June 30, 1909 contest between the Chicago Cubs and the Pittsburgh Pirates, which ended in a 3-2 loss for the latter squad.  Approximately 36,000 fans attended the game.

“The women came dressed as if for the greatest society event of the year, and perhaps it was for Pittsburg’s [sic] year,” Lardner added.  “Gorgeous gowns, topped by still more gorgeous hats, were in evidence everywhere.”

Forbes Field’s début, however exciting, could not swipe away the indelible imprint made by the three incarnations of Exposition Park on the genesis of Pittsburgh’s professional baseball auspices.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on August 29, 2015.

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