Monday, May 4, 2015

May 4, 1901: The Ballpark Goes Up In Flames

     On May 4, 1901, disaster struck in St. Louis, as a discarded cigar lit the grandstands on fire at League Park. The fire broke out in the bottom of the ninth with the Cardinals looking to break up a 4-4 tie with the visiting Cincinnati Reds, however, this game would come to a sudden and dramatic end that had fans jumping over the wall, rather than the ball flying over it. Luckily, there were no major injuries. However, the ballpark was a shell of its former self, as it was assessed $30,000 in damage had been caused. Today that $30,000 would equate to nearly $850,000.

     The ballpark that sat at Vandeventer and Natural Bridge was the home of the team from 1893 to 1920. It was a largely wooden structure, as were many ballparks of the day, so they were susceptible to fire. The fire on that day in 1901 was the second time the park had burned. The first time came on April 16, 1898 when Chris Von der Ahe owned the club. The 1898 fire was far more disastrous, as panic struck, which led to at least 100 injuries and 1 death.

     As mentioned before all of those in attendance escaped the 1901 blaze without injury. Although, the owner of the Reds, John T. Brush was nearly trapped in Stanley Robison's private box. Brush suffered from rheumatism, which left him without the use of his legs. While the fans were jumping over the wall onto the field, Mr. Brush had to make his way up the stairs as the structure burned around him. Considering the magnitude of this blaze it was a miracle that no one was injured.

     As the fans, players, and owners made their way to safety the fire department arrived and battled the flames. They had a battle on their hands with it being a windy day in St. Louis. Before the firefighters could get control of the blaze flames had spread across the street to a racetrack known as the Jockey Club. Meanwhile, a row of streetcars had gathered outside of the park in anticipation of the game's end. As the ballpark burned it was said the cars were forced to drive through a wall of flames, scorching the operators of the cars. The Jockey Club was saved, however, the ballpark was almost completely destroyed by the time the firemen could douse the flames.

     When the blaze of 1898 happened Chris Von der Ahe did not have insurance, which led him to
scrambling to rebuild the park on the same day that the fire happened. All of the Cardinals players pitched in on that effort, so they could play a game the next day. On the other hand, Stanley Robison did carry insurance, which would help get the park rebuilt at a rapid rate.

     The Cardinals played one game at Sportsman's Park on May 5th, which had housed the Cardinals from 1882 to 1892. The park had been converted into a fairgrounds that featured a track, and was a year away from being converted back to a ballpark to house the American League Browns. This led to a diamond being laid out quickly inside of the track, which was hardly big enough for a baseball diamond. This led to a special set of ground rules, as a great deal of the crowd of more than 6,000 were put behind ropes in the outfield. One of the ground rules was that any ball hit into the crowd would be ruled a double, so what would normally a routine fly ball ended up in the crowd ended up a double. The Sporting News said the general opinion of that game being played under those conditions was a mistake. However the show must go on, so by the time it was in the books the Reds won 7-5, before the Cardinals embarked on a road trip that lasted nearly a month.

    The road trip gave Robison ample time to rebuild a structure that could at least be used for games. The team returned to St. Louis on June 3, 1901 to play in the park that had looked like it may have been completely lost just a few weeks before. There was still a ways to go until the park was complete, however, it was usable. The building commissioner in the city would only grant permits to rebuild if the club used fire retardant materials, and put a distance between the three new structures that were built in order to avoid the spreading of flames if another fire struck the park.  An article in the Sporting News said that those in charge of the club in 1898 ordered lumbered while the fire was still burning, so they wanted to make sure to not repeat the mistakes that had been made after the first rebuild.

     The days of wooden ballparks went to the wayside as time marched on, as steel and concrete became the material of choice for modern ballparks. Sportsman's Park was rebuilt an opened in 1902  for the American League's Browns. Stanley Robison eventually did invest in steel and concrete for the grandstands, before he passed away in 1911. His niece Helene Britton took over the club, and ran it until it was sold in 1917 to a group of investors that included Sam Breadon. Just three years later, with the ballpark in need of major renovations, Breadon and company made arrangements with the Browns to share the site at Grand and Dodier.

     The park that was known as League Park became nothing more than a memory as time marched on. However, there had been 27 years of baseball played there and it would be a memory that is still preserved in the tales that came within its confines. Including the tales of the fires that became a part of the history of the club that has proven time and time again they can be knocked down, but they will get back up.

The site where League Park stood is now the home of Beaumont High School. If you would like to read more about the park check this out:  The park was also known as The New Sportsman's Park, Robison Field, and Cardinal Field.

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