Hey, Green Monster, who’s your daddy?

When it comes to outfield walls, size matters. Oh, those nooks and crannies so cleverly woven into classic as well as modern ballpark design attract some attention, but what really sticks in the fans’ mind is size—or height, to be more exact. I think most fans prefer to witness a high arc of a home run as opposed to a line drive home run. After all, the more hang time, the more time you have to appreciate the blow.

Arguably, the most famous outfield barrier in baseball today is the Green Monster in left field in Fenway Park. Its 37-foot height (37 feet, two inches, to be exact) is firmly etched in the collective consciousness of Red Sox Nation. (Give yourself extra credit if you know the length of the Green Monster—answer at end of article.) Some might opine that the outfield wall at Wrigley Field is just as storied, but it’s the ivy, not the brick wall underneath, that is iconic.

The Green Monster is to outfield walls as Godzilla is to kaiju (strange beast) movies. Even people who couldn’t care less about the Red Sox have heard of the Green Monster. Likewise, Godzilla has a lot more name recognition than his peers (Rodan, Gamera, Varan, Ghidrah, et al.), formidable as they were. Godzilla is a household word even among people who never watch monster movies…or won’t admit to watching monster movies.

You can read the lore surrounding the Green Monster elsewhere—no shortage of articles in this the 100th year of Fenway’s existence. Indeed, the Green Monster is so storied it has been reproduced at the new Red Sox spring training stadium in Fort Myers, Fla. But as famous as the Green Monster is, it was not the biggest in baseball. In fact, it wasn’t even close. In retrospect, the most unusual aspect of the Green Monster is that it was in left field. Almost all the other big barriers were in right field.

In retrospect, it seems that the Monster’s fame is largely based on the fact that it is the last wall standing. It is something of a dinosaur, and Fenway Park is the major league baseball equivalent of Jurassic Park. Of course, the monster wasn’t even green until 1947. If the wall had a nickname before then, it should have been “Sears Catalog” because that’s what it looked like, thanks to its clutter of advertisements.

I don’t think 20th century ballpark architects suffered from wall envy and attempted to outdo each other by creating higher and higher fences, but it is noteworthy that once upon a time, “green-eyed monster” was a slang term for envy. Certainly, many fondly-remembered ballparks of the 20th century had a monster in the outfield…sometimes a wall, sometimes a screen, sometimes both:

Ebbets Field in Brooklyn: Among its other features, this Flatbush shrine had a formidable barrier in right field to compensate for the short distance (297 feet) down the line. The total height was 38 feet, 19 feet of screen on top of a 19-foot wall, which was angled at the mid-point, so the bottom 9.5 feet sloped towards the field. Almost every ball hit off the wall was an adventure.

Shibe Park/Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia: The right-field wall here was 34 feet high. Since it was a respectable 329 feet down the right-field line, the fence was not an attempt to compensate for a short porch. Rather, it was built as a spite fence (today they would likely characterize it as “revenue enhancement”) to thwart wildcat bleachers on the rooftops of 20th Street.

League Park in Cleveland: The 20-foot right-field wall was augmented by a 25-foot screen in 1910 to compensate for the 290-foot distance to the right field foul pole. In 1934 (after the Indians had moved some of their games to Municipal Stadium) the screen was reduced by five feet so the total height was 40 feet.

Forbes Field in Pittsburgh: A 27-foot screen covered the lower deck of the right-field seats from the foul line to the power alley. No line drive home runs down the line in this park!

Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C.:– The 31-foot wall ran all the way from center field to right field., but at least the distances were moderate.

Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis: Similar to the set-up in Pittsburgh, a 33-foot screen covered the right field pavilion from the foul line (310 feet, more or less) to the 354-foot mark at the power alley. For a home run, a left-handed pull hitter had to hit it on or over the roof.

The Metrodome in Minneapolis : This was far from a classic ballpark and many fans bade it good riddance a few years ago, but the famed plastic baggie (23 feet high, it was actually made of canvas) in right field, covering the retracted football seats, was a unique feature. Initially, the right field fence was only seven feet high, but the short power alley and excess of ground-rule doubles inspired the baggie in 1983.

The Coliseum in Los Angeles: Though the Dodgers played there only four years (1958-1961), the 40-42-foot screen in left field (250-251 feet down the line) is still renowned among ballpark buffs. Like the Green Monster, it was impossible to ignore and played a significant part in the outcome of games.

And that’s just a 20th century sampler for major league baseball. A careful study of minor league parks and 19th century parks would surely yield yet more notable barriers.

In looking over the statistics, one occasionally finds some slight discrepancies in the exact height of these barriers, but there is no getting around the fact that there were other formidable barriers out there besides the Green Monster and some of them were bigger.

For all the yammering about the retro ballparks that have come online in the last couple of decades, one cannot help but notice that they have largely avoided the big wall in their designs—a notable exception being left field in Minute Maid Park in Houston. That relatively modest 19-foot wall fronts the Crawford Boxes from the 315 mark at the left field foul pole to left-center field. AT&T Park in San Francisco added a memorable if modest touch with the 25-foot wall in right field to complement the splash zone. Probably the most inspired modern wall is at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, where the 21-foot right field wall is a tribute to Roberto Clemente (who wore number 21).

But the Green Monster and the aforementioned challengers were no match for the heavyweight champ of walls. It was in the same North Philadelphia neighborhood as Shibe Park (21st and Lehigh). Indeed, the beast was just seven blocks east at Broad and Lehigh! The park was known as Philadelphia Base Ball Grounds, National League Park, Huntingdon Street Grounds, and ultimately Baker Bowl, and it was the home of the Phillies from 1887 to the mid-point of the 1938 season.

The final name is semi-explicable. William F. Baker, a former New York Police Commissioner, owned the team from 1913 to 1930; but the stadium design in no way resembles a bowl. Perhaps alliteration was the culprit, but if that were the case Baker Ballpark would have worked just as well as Baker Bowl. Another theory pertains to the park’s use as a velodrome. The perimeter of the field was slightly banked, giving it the appearance of a shallow bowl.

Baker Bowl came into existence before the ballpark building boom of the early 20th century, so its shortcomings soon became apparent, even though it was rebuilt after a fire in 1894. Baseball history was not abundant at Baker Bowl. No All-Star game was ever played there. Only three World Series games (in 1915) were played there. Game One was notable because Pete Alexander picked up his first World Series victory. Babe Ruth made his first World Series appearance (as a pinch-hitter) in Game Two, and his last major league appearance on May 30, 1935. Game Two of the 1915 Series also featured the first-time a President (Woodrow Wilson) had attended a World Series game.

It is also worth mentioning that Baker Bowl was the site of the first Negro League World Series, a 1924 match-up between the Kansas City Monarchs and the Hillsdale Daisies, a local team that played regular season games in suburban Darby, Pa.

The Phillies’ 1915 pennant was the only one they captured during their tenure at Baker Bowl, so regular-season thrills were few and far-between. In fact, there were a few thrills off the field, but they were lamentable:

{exp:list_maker}On Aug. 6, 1894, a fire destroyed the grandstand.
Nine years later to the day (Aug. 6, 1903), a balcony on the third-base side collapsed, killing 11 or 12 fans (you’d think they could get the body count right) and injuring 200.
On May 14, 1927, a collapse of stands on the first-base side killed one fan and injured 41. Curiously, another source says this incident produced no serious injuries. {/exp:list_maker}

Small wonder that Baker Bowl is not fondly remembered. Since the Phillies moved out 74 years ago, hardly a man is still alive who remembers actually attending a game there. Given the lack of success of the Phillies, their measly attendance in their final years at Baker Bowl was understandable. Of the Phillies during this era, Dodger executive Fresco Thompson once remarked, “On a clear day they could see seventh place.” Fittingly, the last game played there in 1938 was a 15-1 loss to the Giants before a mere 1,500 people.

But we don’t want to dwell too much on the ballpark itself, since our theme is outfield walls overdosed on growth hormone. In this respect, Baker Bowl started out with a right field wall of modest height (12 feet), even though the foul pole was only 280 feet from home plate. Even for the deadball era, this was a tempting target – perhaps too tempting. So in 1915 the wall was raised to 40 feet.

Famed sportswriter Red Smith described the cozy confines thusly: “It might be exaggerating to say the outfield wall cast a shadow across the infield, but if the right fielder had eaten onions at lunch the second baseman knew it.”

Though the wall had finished growing, it sprouted a screen in 1929, likely because of the introduction of a livelier baseball. Total height: 60 feet. Personally, I think they should have made it six inches higher so they could boast that the height was the same as the distance from the pitching rubber to home plate. Not that there’s any cosmic meaning to it… it’s just cool.

Like the Green Monster, the right field wall at Baker Bowl was initially cluttered with an assortment of ads. Eventually, these gave way to one enormous Lifebuoy soap ad, which boasted that “The Phillies Use Lifebuoy,” only to prompt the knowing response, “And they still stink.”

A smaller sign below said, “Ladies Admitted Free Every Friday.” Unfortunately, even free tickets did little to boost attendance. Baker Bowl had a capacity of only 18,800, insufficient for major league baseball in the lively ball era, but more than enough to accommodate die-hard Phillies’ fans, whose team finished as high as fourth only once (1932) in all the Baker Bowl years after the team’s 1915 pennant. Though it was hopelessly outdated, it is sometimes referred to today as “the first modern ballpark” since the post-1894 version of the park featured the first cantilevered grandstand, as well as brick and steel construction.

One of the bright spots for the Phillies in the waning years of Baker Bowl was right fielder Chuck Klein, who mastered caroms off the wall. In 1930 he led the league in assists with 44—a 20th century record for outfielders. Klein, however, is largely remembered for his offense, and the left-handed slugger put up very good numbers, including NL home run titles in 1929 (Klein had 43 to go with 32 from Lefty O’Doul and 31 from Don Hurst to lead the way to a National League record of 158), 1931, 1932 (an MVP season for Klein), and 1933 while playing at Baker Bowl.

A pull hitter can do that when the power alley is only 310-320 feet, even with a 60-foot barrier. In one game, Klein even lined a ball through the rusty old hulk. That feat probably reflects Baker Bowl’s decrepitude more than Klein’s prowess. One wonders how the umpires interpreted the ground rules on that one.

Unfortunately for the Phillies teams Klein played for, opposing hitters also found the park to their liking, and opposing pitchers were generally more effective than Phillies’ hurlers. In 1930, for example, the Phillies were outscored 644-543 in 77 games at Baker Bowl. That total of 1,187 is still a major league record.

The right field wall was also involved in a humorous incident involving Hack Wilson. According to an oft-related tale, after a Cubs pitcher was taken out of a game, he was so annoyed, he hurled the baseball towards right field. When the ball hit the wall, it apparently woke up right-fielder Wilson, who quickly fielded the ball and made the throw to second base.

In most respects, Baker Bowl was your basic bandbox. In days of old, they were sometimes known as cigar boxes. Though cigars have made a comeback, that term (at least in reference to ballparks) has not. A bandbox, by the way, is defined in my Webster’s as “a cylindrical box of paperboard or thin wood for holding light articles of attire.” Silly me, all these years, I thought it meant a rubber band box!

Oh, and the answer to the trivia question posed a few paragraphs ago: The Green Monster is 240 feet long. Exactly four times the height of the right field wall in Baker Bowl, for what that’s worth.

I don’t want to get off on a numerology jag, but in truth, it would be interesting to know how team owners and ballpark architects determined just how high a wall should be. Was there some kind of arcane formula guarded by a coterie of adepts? Well, Baker Bowl was the first ballpark made of bricks, so if you want to indulge in any theories regarding Masonic conspiracies, be my guest.

References & Resources
SOURCES:

Big League Ballparks: the Complete Illustrated History by Gary Gillette and Eric Enders with Stuart Shea and Matthew Silverman, Metro Books (New York, 2009)

Green Cathedrals by Phillip J. Lowry, Walker & Company (New York, 2006)

Lost Ballparks by Lawrence S. Ritter, Penguin Studio Books (New York, 1992)

The Philadelphia Phillies: A Pictorial History, by Allen Lewis, JCP Corp. (Virginia Beach, 1981)

Professional Sports Team Histories: Baseball, ed. Michael L. LaBlanc, Gale Research (Detroit, 1994)

Storied Stadiums by Curt Smith, Carroll & Graf (New York, 2001)

Take Me Out to the Ballpark: an Illustrated tour of Baseball Parks Past and Present
by Josh Leventhal, Black Dog & Leventhal (New York, 2000)

http:.//www.baseball-alamanac.com

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Comments

  1. Vinnie said...

    The way I heard it, Hack was playing for the Dodgers at the time. Might want to just double check.
    Very interesting and enjoyable piece. Thanks.

  2. Paul G. said...

    So did the Baker Bowl behemoth have any impact on Gavvy Cravath?  He was a right-handed hitter so I wouldn’t think he would be aiming that way.

  3. mando3b said...

    I love any and all articles about old ballparks, so thanks! It is worth pointing out that the traditional “monster walls” were there because the builders had to fit the ballpark into a small lot and accomodate city streets and/or other unmoveable features of the local cityscape. The Green Monster is there because the Red Sox couldn’t move Landsdowne St. in 1912. (Interestingly, the Tigers apparently got Detroit to move a side street out a bit farther when Tiger Stadium/Briggs Stadium (etc.) was renovated in the ‘30s.) That is why you don’t see many big walls in contemporary retro parks. The best current example is right field at AT & T in San Francisco: McCovey Cove is even more immobile than Landsdowne St.!

  4. David said...

    Did any of these other walls have a nickname?  Was the Forbes Field wall called Kiner’s Corner, or is that something else?  Thanks and keep ‘em coming.

  5. Paul G. said...

    Kiner’s Korner (or Corner, as the case may be) was more or less the opposite of a high wall.  After Hank Greenberg threatened to retire because of a contract dispute, the Tigers sold him to the Pirates in 1947.  Forbes Field was an absolute miserable place to hit home runs, especially for right-handed pull hitters like Hank.  As part of the enticement to not retire the bullpens were moved out to left-field and fenced in, significantly shortening the distance from home plate.  This obvious attempt to placate Hank earned it the moniker “Greenberg Gardens.”  It was renamed “Kiner’s Korner” afterwards because (1) Hank retired after one season with the Pirates, and (2) Ralph was the primary beneficiary of the shorter fence hitting 51 dingers in 1947 after hitting 23 the year before.  (Note that Kiner led the league in homers in 1946 with 23.  He led the NL in homers for 7 straight seasons.)  After Kiner was traded away Forbes was changed back to the original configuration, once again a place where fly balls went to die.

    As far as I can tell, the fences at Forbes Field were reasonable in the 10 to 12 foot high range.  As Frank notes there was a high screen in right field to prevent “cheap” home runs.  And by “cheap” I mean “any”.

  6. Cliff Blau said...

    Boom-Boom Beck was the Brooklyn pitcher who threw the ball off the RF fence at Baker Bowl on 7/4/1934.

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