Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The House of Thrills

I saw my first major league baseball game at Forbes Field, which opened one hundred years ago today. Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Sandy Koufax, Henry Aaron, and too many others to count showed me what a Hall of Fame player looked like in person there. Built at a cost of $1 million, it was the first of the great concrete-and-steel stadiums that were meant to last, and the Pirates played there for 61 years.

Babe Ruth hit his last home run there, over the grandstand roof in right field; he hit three that day. The expansive dimensions in left and center field allowed for the batting cage to be stored on the playing field during games; the bases for the light towers were also on the field. Those generous dimensions helped the Pirates to hit eight triples in the game played May 30, 1925; the record still stands. The distances to the fences made Forbes a pitcher-friendly park, but the enormous gaps created by those deep fences contributed to its lore: in 4,700 games, a no-hitter was never thrown at Forbes.

Possibly the most famous home run ever hit cleared the left field wall on October 9, 1960, when Bill Mazeroski took Ralph Terry deep to win Game 7 of the World Series. New Yorkers may vote for Bobby Thompson’s “Shot Heard Round the World,” but Thompson’s Chinese home run at the polo Grounds only won a pennant; Maz’s 400-foot shot won the World Championship. (I may be a little prejudiced myself, as Maz’s homer is my oldest conscious memory, as a four-year-old listening to the game in the family car.)

Forbes Field is gone now, abandoned in 1970 for the late, unlamented Three Rivers Stadium, which was in turn razed when the Pirates moved into PNC Park in 2001. The University of Pittsburgh’s Posvar Library now stands on much of the old Forbes Field site. Pitt has done its best to preserve Forbes Field’s heritage. A line of bricks running along the Schenley Drive sidewalk shows where the left field wall used to be. A plaque marks the spot where Mazeroski’s homer run left the yard. The bricks extend across Roberto Clemente Drive to the last remaining section of the ivy-covered wall; the 435-foot marker is still visible.

Maybe the best tribute is in the library itself. Home plate is about where it used to be, prominently mounted in the floor, encased in acrylic. The covering has to be replaced periodically, as students facing difficult exams slide into home for luck. The House of Thrills (as announcer Bob Prince called it) is gone, but its traditions grow even after its demise.

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