Remembering the Wigwam
BU’s Nickerson Field: former home of the Boston Braves
Red Sox fans file into Fenway Park today for the Sox opening day game against the Baltimore Orioles. But there was another major league baseball team—now largely forgotten—with indelible ties to BU. In this two-part series, BU Today recalls the long and storied history of the Boston Braves, who played on Braves Field—known today as Nickerson Field. Read part two here.
A golf course couldn’t last long in Allston. In December 1912, James Gaffney bought the former Allston Golf Club, off Commonwealth Avenue, to build a modern ballpark for his National League Boston Braves. The “Tribe” was already a firmly established ball club in the city that sporting-goods king Al Spalding called “the Cradle of Baseball.” The Braves predated by more than a generation the upstart Red Sox of the rival American League, and they were the defending World Series champions when they moved into their brand-new Braves Field in August 1915.
You may know the spot today as Nickerson Field, where Boston University’s soccer, lacrosse, and other sports teams play their home games. It may be hard to imagine now, but for almost four decades this was home to America’s oldest professional baseball franchise. It was the site of the longest game (26 innings) in big league history, and the home field of Boston’s first black major leaguer, in 1950 (yes, almost a decade before Red Sox infielder Pumpsie Green). Fans watched up-and-coming pitcher Babe Ruth take the mound here in the 1916 World Series, and they watched him leave the batter’s box as an over-the-hill slugger during the Depression.
As our neighbor Fenway Park marks its 101th birthday, it’s worth remembering that plenty of baseball history is housed right here on BU’s campus.
The Red Stockings
The Braves organization traces its roots to Cincinnati, where the nation’s first professional baseball team, nicknamed the Red Stockings for their distinctive leg-wear, was formed in 1869. When the owners shut down operations in 1871, manager Harry Wright took half the players to Boston, where they resumed playing as the Boston Red Stockings, later the Boston Braves. Confusingly, the team’s original nickname was echoed decades later when Boston’s American League club eventually became the Red Sox.
“Yes, the Braves were the original Red Stockings,” says Tom Whalen, a College of General Studies associate professor of social sciences, who has published several books on local sports history. “They’re the longest running professional sports franchise in North American history.” And Boston, Whalen says, was “really the launching pad” for the game.
The team (also called the Red Caps or Beaneaters) dominated in the 19th century, winning four pennants in the old National Association of Professional Baseball Players, then eight pennants in the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs. The team would start losing ground in the 20th century, however, with the rise of the American League—which had its own Boston team (the soon-to-be Red Sox), victors over Pittsburgh in the first World Series, between the pennant-holders of the two major leagues, in 1903.
Gaffney bought the NL club in 1912 and introduced the name that finally stuck, the Braves, after the nickname for his old club: New York’s Tammany Hall political machine. On the land he bought in Allston, Gaffney erected a new style concrete-and-steel stadium to replace the team’s old fire-prone wooden home in Boston’s South End. While Braves Field was under construction, the AL Red Sox let the Braves play their 1914 World Series home games (against the Philadelphia Athletics) at two-year-old Fenway Park. (The Braves management would return the favor in 1915 and 1916.)
When Braves Field opened in 1915, it was the biggest baseball park in the country (and therefore, the world, as contemporary postcards pointed out). The stands seated 40,000, which would remain the largest capacity in the major leagues until Yankee Stadium opened in 1923.
What most stood out was the size of the field itself. From home plate, it was 402 feet to the left and right field walls, and a Herculean 550 feet to deepest center field—far larger than any park then or now (center field distances range from as low as 390 feet to 435 feet, tops). But Gaffney wanted to see a lot of inside-the-park home runs.
This made more sense at the time, when conditions favored pitching, defense, and baserunning strategy. In those days—the “dead ball” era—a single ball would be used (often surreptitiously smeared with spit or jelly) for an entire game or several games. Home runs were rare, and pitching duels were common, such as the one that first brought Babe Ruth to Braves Field.
In fall 1916, the Red Sox used Braves Field (for its larger-than-Fenway capacity) to play their home games of the World Series against the Brooklyn Robins (later the Dodgers). In game two, a lean 21-year-old lefthander named George Herman “Babe” Ruth started on the mound for Boston versus Brooklyn’s Sherry Smith. The pitchers battled for 14 innings of near-shutout ball. Each allowed just six hits and one run until the bottom of the 14th, when Del Rainor knocked in the winning run for the Red Sox, who went on to take the Series, their second in a row at the big park by the Charles River.
Ironically, Ruth would go on to make Braves Field obsolete. By the close of the decade, the skilled pitcher was morphing into a beefy power hitter—he hit an unprecedented 29 home runs in 1919 (his last season with the Red Sox). In 1920, Major League Baseball banned the spitball and mandated frequent in-game ball replacements, ushering in the “live ball” era. Ruth bashed 54 homers that year with the New York Yankees. Other teams followed suit, hiring or developing their own home run hitters. And fans loved it.
Tweaks to world’s biggest ballpark
Cavernous Braves Field suddenly looked dated. Compounding the challenges that batters faced there, the wind caromed off the river and blew infield (sometimes bringing with it a shower of coal dust from the railroad yard just beyond the outfield fence). For years, the only home runs hit there were inside-the-park jobs, not counting a few flukes, such as when a ball went through an open slat in the scoreboard or bounced out of play in fair territory (which counted as a homer then).
Indeed, the first two home runs hit over the right field wall didn’t come until 1917 and 1921—both hit by the same player, Walton Cruise (first with the St. Louis Cardinals, next with the Braves). And nobody hit a ball over the left field wall until the New York Giants’ Frank Snyder in May 1925—almost 10 years after the park opened. The most exciting thing that happened at Braves Field was a 26-inning game that saw Joe Oeschger of the Braves and Leon Cadore of the Dodgers both pitch a complete game—and that ended in a 1-1 tie. The May 1, 1920, contest stands as the longest ever.
But fans didn’t want to see 26-inning pitching duels. They wanted dingers. Attendance at Braves games had already dropped precipitously in the late 1910s as just down the street the Red Sox were racking up pennants. A mere four years after opening the park to a record-setting overcapacity crowd of 42,000, the Braves finished 1918 in seventh place (in an eight-team league), having drawn a paltry 84,938 for the season. The right field bleacher section (capacity 2,000) earned the nickname “the Jury Box” one day when a sportswriter noticed there were only 12 fans sitting in it.
A new Braves management team started taking action in 1927, when they built bleachers to ring the outfield, shortening playable territory by 70 feet. But when the Braves traded away young slugger Shanty Hogan, most of the home run balls that landed in these new seats were hit by opponents. So in the middle of the 1928 season, the Braves tore down the stands. Thus began a just-about-annual cycle of tinkering with the dimensions of the park.
Throughout the 1930s, the Braves tried a variety of tweaks, and not only with the field size. In 1936, they changed their name to the Bees, and the former Wigwam became the Beehive. (They reverted to the Braves again in ’41.) This period coincided with the managerial tenure of Hall-of-Famer Casey Stengel, before he found success with the Yankees in the 1950s. As the Braves manager from 1938 to 1943, he was better known as a comical character than as an effective leader. (Classic Stengel quote: “Being with a woman all night never hurt no professional baseball player. It’s staying up all night looking for a woman that does him in.”)
In 1935, two somewhat desperate parties found each other when the Braves hired an aging Babe Ruth to return to the city where he’d begun his career. At 40, Ruth thought this was his chance to transition to managing. He started the season strong, but grew disaffected when he realized the Braves had no intention of promoting him. He quit on June 2.
The next year, Braves Field hosted the All-Star game, but even this was a minor disaster, as a miscommunication with the media led to erroneous reports that the game was sold out. The result: 25,000 fans sat in a 40,000-capacity stadium while stars like Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Leo Durocher, and 1936 Rookie of the Year Joe DiMaggio played on the field.
One bid by the Braves to get fans in the seats is still fondly remembered by Bostonians of a certain age. The Knothole Gang was a promotion whereby youngsters received free admission to the left field pavilion. The club figured these kids would at least buy concessions, and maybe they’d grow up to become paying customers.
“It didn’t cost much for locals like me to be introduced to baseball in the early 1940s,” wrote Boston sportswriter George Sullivan (CGS’53, COM’56,’76) in a 2003 Bostonia article. “All we needed was a dime: five cents for the trolley ride to Braves Field, and five cents for the return trip.” On game days, a special trolley turned off Comm Ave, down Babcock Street, and right into the Braves Field complex.
In the Depression, not all kids could afford the trolley. Ed Radovich (SMG’53) relates the story of a trip to see the Braves play the Giants in the ’30s. “A whole gang of us walked all the way from Somerville to Braves Field,” he says. His friends had Knothole Gang cards, but all Radovich had was a penny. “The attendant at the gate looked at me and said, ‘Go ahead in, and keep the penny—you need it more than I do.’ I thought that was very gracious,” Radovich says.
“Of course, in those days, the Red Sox got all the big crowds. The Braves were lucky sometimes if they got 10 or 15 percent of the park filled. And they were a good team, too.” Indeed, the Braves had upswings as well as down—for example, pulling to within five games of first place behind the Giants in ’33, a pennant race that drew sellout crowds when the New York team came to town. “They gave everybody a tough time,” Radovich says. The Braves had a knack for being a thorn in bigger teams’ sides.
Read part two: How the Wigwam became Nickerson Field here.
Patrick L. Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared April 12, 2012.