The 1909 Pirates Find a New Home

When I left off last week, the 1909 Pittsburgh Pirates had just run their record to 44-14 after an 8-1 win on June 29th over the Chicago Cubs. They now had a 7.5 game lead in the National League over the Cubs and a ten game lead over the New York Giants. The reason I stopped on that particular date is because the Pirates went through a big change the following day. On Wednesday June 30,1909 they moved from Exposition Park to the newly built Forbes Field. The differences between the two stadiums were immense.

The Pirates had started playing in Exposition Park in 1891. The ballpark saw them win three NL titles and it played host to the first ever modern day World Series in 1903. It was a small stadium that suffered from flooding from the nearby Allegheny River almost anytime it rained. The stadium also held just 10,000 fans and the Pirates were continuing to draw large crowds for some of their bigger games that pushed past the park’s capacity.

Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss decided to build a modern stadium that would last many years as opposed to the wooden stadiums that went up quickly around the land, yet were susceptible to fires or often in need of repair. He wanted his new stadium to be built out of steel and concrete to help withstand the tests of time and he was willing to pay a lot of money for it, over $1,000,000 in just the stadium costs alone. He had previously purchased seven acres and work began on the land on New Year’s Day, 1909. By the end of that June the Pirates new home was done and it was named Forbes Field in honor of John Forbes, a British army general who gave the city of Pittsburgh it’s name back in 1758.

Forbes Field in 1909

This new stadium held more than twice as many fans as Exposition Park thanks to three tiers of seating. Dreyfuss was so proud of his new stadium that he didn’t allow advertisements on it’s new outfield walls. The city of Pittsburgh was anxious to view this new stadium and just one day after drawing 5,545 fans for the last game at Exposition Park, the team drew over 33,000 fans to the opening of the new stadium, with many of those fans actually sitting in sectioned off areas on the field. The first game was a huge event for the city with many big name people and plenty of former players coming out for the game as guests of the owner.

After many ceremonies for the opening, the two teams began play with Vic Willis on the mound for the home team and Ed Reulbach taking the hill for the Cubs. The crowds filled the stadium on that overcast 80 degree day at noon as soon as the gates opened (they were lining up by 9am) but the game did not begin until 3:30 when leadoff hitter and future Hall of Famer Johnny Evers became the first batter in the history of the park.  Evers would be hit by a pitch and come around to score the first run in the park’s history. The first hit for the Pirates was a single in the second inning by catcher George Gibson, who also recorded the last Pirates hit in Exposition Park.

The Pirates ended up losing that day by a 3-2 score but Dreyfuss said that he considered it the happiest day of his life. He had set up to build the stadium of his dreams and although some criticized him for both the location of the park(outside of downturn Pittsburgh) and the size of the park, saying they would never fill such a big stadium, he proved all the naysayers wrong that day. The 1909 Pirates would end up drawing nearly 535,000 fans, a new franchise record that would last until the 1921 season.

The Pirates manager Fred Clarke played a strong role in the field design of the new park and on opening day of the stadium, prior to first pitch, he was quoted in The Pittsburg(there was no H at the end of the city name during that time) Press as saying “Pittsburg can now boast of the world’s finest baseball park. It is a marvel of which people in other cities can have no adequate conception until they come here and see it.” He goes on to say(and I’m paraphrasing) that the town and stadium needs one thing it doesn’t have yet, instead of a flag saying Forbes Field in center field, they need a banner that says “Pittsburg, Champions of the National League and of the World”. Clarke also said that much like Forbes Field seemed like a dream when it was first mentioned but it came true, so might the Pirates dream of winning the World Series in 1909.

While the Pirates had a strong start towards his goal of winning their first World Series title, it was still very early in the season and a loss in the stadium’s opener to the second place Cubs surely didn’t help their case. The Pirates and the entire National League were off on July 1st, all the games were canceled due to the passing of the Philadelphia Phillies club president, Israel Durham. On July 2nd they would play a doubleheader against the Cubs, who they now led by 6.5 games in the standings. When we pick up next week we will see how the Pirates did as they tried to stave off a strong Cubs team that was looking for their fourth straight National League title.

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About John Dreker

John was born in Kearny, NJ, hometown of the 2B for the Pirates 1909 World Championship team, Dots Miller. In fact they have some of the same relatives in common, so it was only natural for him to become a lifelong Pirates fan. Before joining Pirates Prospects in July 2010, John had written numerous articles on the history of baseball while also releasing his own book and co-authoring another on the history of the game. He writes a weekly article on Pirates history for the site, has already interviewed many of the current minor leaguers with many more on the way and follows the foreign minor league teams very closely for the site. John also provides in person game reports of the West Virginia Power and Altoona Curve.

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