PITTSBURGH, Pa. — The crowds pouring into the Pirates brand new ballpark had every reason to be excited on June 6, 1909. The team’s winning streak was going strong and they’d eventually make it to the World Series and win their first championship.
Just a 10-minute trolley ride from downtown Pittsburgh, Forbes Field replaced the wooden Exposition Park on the flood-prone and smoke-choked North Shore. Situated among the green hills of still-growing Oakland and adjoining Schenley Park, Forbes Field also bumped up capacity significantly, from 16,000 at Exposition Park to 25,000, the largest in the major league at that time (a further expansion in 1925 would raise that to 35,000).
Named in honor of John Forbes, a British general in the French and Indian War, it was one of the first concrete and steel ballparks. Designed by Charles Wellford Leavitt, Jr., a landscape architect who specialized in gardens at wealthy estates, the palatial grounds of Forbes Field and the ornate details on its multiple decks place it highly in fans’ sentimentality as a “classic” ballpark.
Despite the excitement of a new ballpark, the Pirates had a lapse in that first game. After Pittsburgh Mayor William Magee threw the ceremonial first pitch, the Pirates lost to the Chicago Cubs, 3-2, in front of an overflow crowd of 30,000 fans.
The ballpark developed a reputation for triple plays due to the generous outfield and also, in part, to its light poles, statues, flags and batting cages located in the field of play, which tended to create helpful defensive ricochets.
Forbes Field also served as the home of the Pitt Panthers from 1909 to 1924, and the Pittsburgh Steelers played there from 1933 until 1963, alternating locations with Pitt Stadium after 1958. Duquesne University of the Holy Ghost and Carnegie Tech football teams also called the ballpark home turf in their early years.
The Homestead Grays, a Negro League team, played all their home games at Forbes Field from 1922 to 1939.
The first radio broadcast of a baseball game happened there in 1921, with the announcer using a telephone as his microphone. Other league firsts for the ballpark include the first rain tarpaulin and the installation of pads on the outfield walls.
Roberto Clemente began his career at Forbes Field and Honus Wagner retired there, living just long enough to see his statue (now at the front entrance of PNC Park) placed behind the left field wall in 1955. Another legend, Babe Ruth, hit his final three home runs over the walls in Oakland. The last one landed on the roof of the rowhouse at 318 South Bouquet Street and was retrieved later by the chief usher.
Inevitably, as the University of Pittsburgh expanded, the ballpark’s era came to a close. The university purchased the land in 1958, but repurposing the site was contingent on the ballpark’s replacement, Three Rivers Stadium, being completed.
The lame duck ballpark’s decay became more and more evident as no one was interested in improving a doomed structure, but “The House of Thrills” wasn’t done making memories.
Among the sweetest moments for fans remains Bill Mazeroski’s game-winning home run in the 1960 World Series that sailed over Yogi Berra’s head and into the trees outside the park. As Mazeroski crossed home plate he waved his hat, a gesture immortalized in a bronze statue that was rededicated and which now stands outside PNC Park at the end of Mazeroski Way in front of the actual “406” section of the left-center field wall. The dramatic finish is still considered by many to be the greatest game ever played in baseball history.
The last game, like the first, was played against the Chicago Cubs on June 28, 1970. Unlike the first, the Pirates won and fans rushed the field and plundered the ballpark for souvenirs, ripping numbers from its hand-operated scoreboard. Shortly after, several fires sealed the fate of “The Old Lady of Schenley Park” and demolition began in earnest during the summer of 1971.
A portion of the outfield wall was left behind in tribute along Roberto Clemente Drive, from its former deepest point of 457 feet near left-center to the 436-foot marker at center field. Baseball fans still seek out the remnants of Forbes Field hidden among the University of Pittsburgh campus, where home plate sits under glass in the hallway of Wesley W. Posvar Hall.
The Pirates would move on to Three Rivers Stadium, which they would share with the Pittsburgh Steelers for a 30-year stint before it too was demolished to make way for a dedicated ballpark.
PNC Park opened in 2001 and sits just east of the where Exposition Park was located, which is remembered today by a marker and home plate.
The legacy of Forbes Field lives on at PNC Park, which was heavily inspired by its predecessor. The current ballpark corrected the concrete sterility and distance Three Rivers Stadium imposed between fans and players and restores intimacy and asymmetry to the field of play, which immediately won praise from the fans.
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