Lost Pittsburgh: Beauty and Baseball at Forbes Field

View up the left-field line at old Forbes field. Library of Congress.

Baseball’s fans and players are waiting for a way to enjoy their favorite game safely in a time of Coronavirus. With solutions still a ways off, there’s never been a better time to be nostalgic.

Forbes Field stood for more than sixty years as the home of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball club. Opened on June 30, 1909, for a game against the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs, Forbes Field was unique at the time. It was the first ballpark to be constructed out of steel and concrete and featured a two-tiered grandstand (a third tier was added in 1938), luxury suites and ramps to take fans from one level to the next. It cost between $1 million and $2 million to build and could seat twenty-three thousand spectators. But on the warm, sunny afternoon that marked its opening, more than thirty thousand fans crowded into Forbes Field, with people sitting on the outfield walls and standing in the aisles.

Barney Dreyfuss, president of the ball club, called the day “the happiest day of my life,” as he probably felt no small measure of satisfaction. When he bought the land on which the ballpark would stand, critics called his plan “Dreyfuss’s Folly.” Many people felt the site was too far away from downtown Pittsburgh to attract many fans. Dreyfuss, for his part, wanted to move away from the Allegheny River, where Exposition Park, the Pirates’ home, was located, because it often flooded.

Dreyfuss had faith and money, and the land he purchased with the help of Andrew Carnegie was cheap. The inexpensive price allowed him to spend more of his money on the ballpark itself, and he believed that it was only a matter of time before the city would spread out to engulf the neighborhoods surrounding the structure. He was right, and by the time construction began on Forbes Field, there were very few public critics. The ballpark was so successful that, in 1925, its capacity was increased to forty-one thousand.

Designing Forbes

The architect was Charles Wellford Leavitt Jr., and he brought his experience using streel and concrete on New York’s Belmont and Saratoga horse-racing tracks to bear in following Dreyfuss’s conception of the facility. Fred Clarke, the manager of the Pirates in 1909, added his two cents, and they were valuable: he designed and patented a device that would allow grounds crews to cover the infield with a canvas tarp when it rained.

Forbes Field was a monster of a ballpark. The outfield wall in left field stood 360 feet from home plate—and that was the shortest distance to the stands. The right-field line was 376 feet away; straightaway center was 442 feet away. The farthest point was in left-center field, an astounding 462 feet away. As if that weren’t enough of a challenge for home run hitters, the outfield wall in 1909 was 12 feet high.

Forbes Field’s centerfield wall is virtually all that is left standing. Fans gather there every October to celebrate Pittsburgh’s victory over the New York Yankees in the 1960 World Series. Image sourced from Iconic Pittsburgh.

image from iconic pittsburgh, page 68. caption:

Forbes Field could be a strange place to play baseball. For starters, the infield was rock-hard, and balls could take strange bounces. Bob Prince, the Pirates’ colorful radio announcer from 1948 to 1975, dubbed the ground “alabaster plaster.” Outfielders had their own set of challenges. Near the outfield wall were a flagpole and two light towers; all three were in play. In addition, the Pirates would “store” the pregame batting cage along the wall near the 457-foot sign, with the fencing facing home plate. With all these “distractions,” it is no wonder that the park was famous for triples and inside-the-park home runs—in one game, the Pirates hit eight triples. In more than 4,700 games over sixty years, no pitcher ever threw a no-hitter at Forbes Field.

Frank O’Donnell, native Pittsburgher and amateur baseball historian, explained that the park’s playing field was designed to maximize run production during what was known as the “dead ball” era.

“Players didn’t hit many home runs back then,” O’Donnell said. “Teams played ‘inside baseball’ playing for one run at a time. Larger outfields promoted doubles and triples, and rope was strung in front of the walls in the outfieldif there were large crowds,where fans would pay to stand to watch the game. Owen ‘Chief ’ Wilson, playing for the Pirates in 1912, hit 36 triples—a record that probably never will be broken. Players don’t hit 36 triples in their careers now.”

During a renovation in 1925, when stands were added in right field, the right-field line was reduced to 330 feet and the wall was shortened to 9 feet. Dreyfuss countered this, however, by placing a 28-foot-high screen atop the wall. Outfield dimensions were altered for various reasons over the years, and by the time the park closed in 1970, they ranged from 300 feet down the right-field line to 457 feet in the deepest part of center field.

On the field

In its inaugural season, Forbes Field helped usher in the Pirates’ first World Series win. Pittsburgh would go on to win two more Series there; in 1925, against the Washington Senators; and in 1960, against the New York Yankees. The latter served as a bit of payback for the drubbing the Pirates received from New York in the 1927 Series. The park hosted the All-Star Game in 1944 and 1959, and in 1935, it was the site of Babe Ruth’s last three home runs. His last shot cleared the red slate roof in right field, which stood eighty-six feet high. The feat, which has been matched only seventeen times, is believed to be the longest home run in Forbes Field history.

In addition to the Pirates, the Homestead Grays of the Negro League called Forbes Field home. But the park served as much more than a baseball diamond. The NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers played there from 1933 to 1963 before moving to Pitt Stadium and, then, to Three Rivers Stadium. The Pitt Panthers also played football there from 1909 to 1924, racking up five undefeated seasons in that period. For a short time, it played host to the Pittsburgh Phantoms professional soccer club, and fight fans flocked to the park to watch scores of professional boxing matches over the years.

The ballpark closed after a double-header against the Cubs—who else? The Cubs also were the opponents for the first and last games at old Exposition Park—it was run-down and in need of repair. Bob Prince thought it tragic that the park was closing. He once said that in moving to Three Rivers Stadium, the Pirates “took the players away from the fans.” He believed the park could have been saved. But Forbes Field’s fate had been sealed twelve years earlier, when the University of Pittsburgh bought the property for $2 million—coincidentally, what Dreyfuss had paid for the land and construction of the ballpark. From then on, it was a matter of time before Forbes Field would become only a memory.

Gone, but not forgotten

Not entirely, however. Pieces of Forbes Field survive; home plate can be seen—under glass—on the first floor of Pitt’s Posvar Hall, and sections of the left-center-field wall are still standing. On October 13 every year, a group of fans gather at the wall to listen to a broadcast of the seventh game of the 1960 World Series, in which second baseman Bill Mazeroski’s ninth-inning home run lifted the Bucs to victory. The tradition was started by, and nearly died with, Saul Finkelstein, a Squirrel Hill resident who came to the site on that day in 1985, sat by the flagpole and listened to a rebroadcast of the game by himself. He did this for eight years before anyone joined him, but since then, as many as one thousand fans a year have come to honor the 1960 World Series champions.