Friday, September 19, 2014

Diamond in the Rough

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Filled with the ghosts of Hall of Fame baseball players and mistreated miners, a ballpark in Bisbee reasserts its claim as the nation’s oldest.

“Older than Wrigley,” Mike Anderson says, gesturing expansively at the 114-year-old baseball field on which he’s standing. “Older than Fenway.”

He lives nearby and has spent countless hours here over the last few decades. But he still can’t keep a tone of awe out of his voice. “It’s a beautiful ballpark in a beautiful city. It’s in a time warp.”


Anderson is speaking of Warren Ballpark and Bisbee, Arizona, respectively. The Illinois native, who moved to Bisbee from Tucson in 1989, fell in love with the venerable venue the first time he saw it, as a high school sports stringer for the Tucson Daily Citizen. By day a case manager for a health care access firm, Anderson is also a historian and founding member of the Friends of Warren Ballpark, and the author of Warren Ballpark, an upcoming book on the subject.

The time warp effect is palpable while standing on the grassy infield of the stadium, located on the southern outskirts of Bisbee and surrounded by the austere beauty of the Mule Mountains. But it’s stronger still when Anderson unlocks the door at the end of the grandstand and enters the bowels of the park’s clubhouse. Walking down the dark, angled passageway, one has the sense of entering the catacomb of a European castle. At the far end, in the home team’s clubhouse, Anderson turns on the light and gestures toward the urinals, here and there crosshatched by time into a mosaic pattern. “They’re original,” he says reverently. “Some of the greatest players of all time took a whizz there. Honus Wagner took a whizz there!”

The time warp will be amplified on April 6 and 7, when players in old-time baseball uniforms will pack the field, observing the rules of the game circa 1860 for the Arizona Territories Vintage Base Ball League’s annual Bisbee Copper City Classic. Among those time-traveling players will be Mike Anderson, playing “second sack” – second base, in modern parlance – for the ATVBBL’s Bisbee Black Sox.

“It literally reeks of the early 1900s,” says Lance Busch, Commissioner of ATVBBL and Captain of the Glendale Gophers, one of two Valley teams participating in the Classic. “It’s like playing on any other field once you’re on the grass. But the atmosphere of the clubhouses, the history, some of the names that played there – it’s kind of eerie, but you can feel the presence.”

According to Anderson, those names include at least 16 Major League Baseball Hall-of-Famers, a who’s-who of bygone greatness including Philadelphia Athletics skipper Connie Mack, New York Giants slugger Mel Ott and Pittsburg Pirates shortstop Honus Wagner, whose rare 1909 baseball card is the world’s most valuable (Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick reportedly paid $2.8 million in 2007 for one well-preserved specimen). Many played at Warren as minor league or semi-pro players before hitting the big time.

The ballpark was also the site of a 1913 exhibition game between The New York Giants and the Chicago White Sox, as part of a post-season world tour promoting baseball. The centennial of this game is being celebrated at this year’s Classic.

Yet even without such visitations, Warren Ballpark’s claim to greatness would be sound. Named after legendary Bisbee prospector George Warren and unveiled in 1909, it’s the world’s oldest baseball park “in continuous use,” according to Anderson: “It’s actually the oldest multi-use sports facility in the United States. And when we’re talking about multi-use, we’re talking exotic sports. It’s been used for cricket, soccer and rugby by the English-speaking immigrants to Bisbee. They played their sports in organized leagues and were avidly followed.”

The park was also used for circuses, rodeos, Wild West shows, and epic silent movies. “Lowell Theatres would bring in blockbuster movies, and when they wanted a bigger venue they’d show them in Warren Ballpark [on an outdoor screen],” Anderson says. “The neighbors wouldn’t complain because there was no noise.”

Today, the stadium is ground-zero for the Bisbee-Douglas high school football rivalry, which has raged unabated since 1909.

The ballpark also has a place in non-recreational history. “The U.S. Army, during the Mexican border troubles, used it to zero in their machine guns,” Anderson says. “They’d fire at a known point on the hillside [from the field] to calibrate their sights.”

Most notoriously, Warren Ballpark was the initial site of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917, in which more than a thousand miners who had signed with the Industrial Workers of the World were rounded up by Cochise County Sheriff Harry Wheeler’s union-busting posse, herded onto boxcars, and sent to the New Mexico desert. “It’s the largest mass crime in U.S. history until 9/11,” Anderson argues. “It was kidnapping.”

But baseball is the venue’s raison d’être. Countless teams have played there throughout the decades, sometimes with an odd, irreverent touch – the Bisbee Copper Kings, for instance, held a “Ted Williams Popsicle Night” promotion in 2003 to honor the Hall of Famer’s cryogenic freezing at Scottsdale-based Alcor Life Extension Foundation.

Anderson offers an explanation for Warren Ballpark’s longevity. “The reason this park has survived when so many others have been torn down is that it’s been owned by Bisbee Unified School District since 1936.” Phelps Dodge, in the thick of the Depression, unloaded the park to the school district that year “for $10, so that they could ask the WPA (Works Progress Administration) to rebuild the grandstand. It became a state-of-the-art minor league ballpark.”

But Warren Ballpark’s status as the world’s oldest baseball stadium is not unchallenged. Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama, built in 1910, a year after Bisbee’s park, also calls itself the country’s oldest.

“It’s a beautiful park with a storied history,” Anderson concedes. “Willie Mays played there. They say they’re the oldest because their grandstand is original. My question is existential: Who was playing baseball there the longest?”

 

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