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Sportsman’s Park, Part One: The Place

The St. Louis Browns on their home turf in a 1907 contest versus the Chicago White Sox.
The St. Louis Browns on their home turf in a 1907 contest versus the Chicago White Sox.
Public domain, courtesy of the United States Library of Congress

On May 8, 1966, after a day game in which the San Francisco Giants trounced the St. Louis Cardinals, the home plate at old Sportsman’s Park was jimmied out of the dirt and transported via helicopter to spiffy new grounds at the perfectly circular Busch Stadium downtown, marking the end of an era of professional baseball on the north side.

Baseball has been played in St. Louis at the corner of Grand and Dodier since the 1860s. Amateur teams such as the Empires, Unions, Turners, Terriers, Cyclones and Morning Stars hosted home games at the site.

Think the St. Louis Browns lost some one-sided games over the years? Nothing compares to the beatdown suffered by the St. Louis Unions in 1867, who lost to the Washington Nationals 113-26. Yes, at baseball.

The field was then known as the St. Louis Ball Park, or the Grand Avenue Grounds. The first National League game was held there in 1876, with the Brown Stockings nipping the Chicago White Stockings 1-0. That team folded quickly, but in 1882, Chris Von der Ahe, a brewer, saw baseball as a way to sell beer -- a man ahead of his time! -- and re-formed the Brown Stockings, joining the American Association (which did not ban beer and allowed Sunday games).

Von der Ahe built the original Sportsman’s Park, and foreshadowing a future owner named Bill Veeck, thrived on promotions having little to do with baseball – horse racing, a merry-go-round, a plume boat ride into an artificial lake, an all-girl band and a Wild West show. He strove to make Sportsman’s Park the “Coney Island of the West.”

Fire destroyed that all-wood park in 1898. The team was sold to the Robison brothers, who changed the color to red and name to the Cardinals, and relocated to a nearby field. But in 1901 the Milwaukee Brewers moved to St. Louis and became the Browns, playing in another version of the park at the same location as Von der Ahe's field.

The last incarnation of Sportsman’s Park was built of steel and concrete in 1909, extending the grandstand around the diamond and adding bleachers in right field and a pavilion in left field. Renovations over the years increased the stadium’s capacity to 34,000.

The Browns called this stadium home from 1909 to 1953, as did the Cardinals from 1920 to 1966; it was shared for 33 years by the two teams, the longest such span in Major League Baseball. When the Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Orioles, the Cardinals bought the field and renamed it Busch Stadium, playing there for another 13 years. The stadium was torn down after the Cardinals moved to the modern, cookie-cutter version of Busch downtown (which in turn was replaced with the retro-looking ballpark in 2006).

Sportsman’s Park was a classic, old-style stadium. The outfield walls and scoreboard were plastered with ads for products like Gem feather-weight razors, Stag beer, Winthrop shoes, Philip Morris cigarettes, Hyde Park beer, the Globe-Democrat newspaper and Life Buoy soap.

The left-field scoreboard was dominated for years by a giant analog clock. When August Busch bought the team in 1953, he added a giant Budweiser sign to the scoreboard; after a home run, the Budweiser eagle’s wings would light up with neon lights, and a Cardinal mascot at the left would hit a ball that moved across the scoreboard. (Urban legend has it that the same Bud sign is now located off I-64/40 near St. Louis University.)

George Koenemann, 75, grew up near the park and described the neighborhood as a mixed group of people of all economic means, with the streets lined with vibrant businesses and parks. He loved the fact that fans could attend a game nearly every day of the summer, with the big-league teams alternating home stands.

“Initially I was a Brown’s fan, and then a Cardinals fan, too,” Koenemann said. “The Browns were always in last place. What was the old saying? Number one in shoes, but last in the American League.”

A neighborhood mainstay was Palermo’s Tavern, at the corner of Spring and Sullivan, just outside the left-field gates – self-proclaimed as “America’s Original Sports Bar.” Palermo’s opened as a restaurant and hot dog stand in 1923, and expanded to a bar when Prohibition ended. Many ballplayers would stop by after a game, as would shift workers from the nearby Carter Carburetor factory.

In 1947 the Palermos brought in a 12-inch television, and bar games such as billiards and shuffleboard attracted fans. The walls were decorated with hundreds of cracked bats brought over by a bat boy who was friends with the owner’s son.

The bar closed after the Cardinals left in 1966, like many of the businesses along Grand Boulevard. The neighborhood, now known as JeffVanderLou, is a shell of its old self, scattered with many vacant buildings and a steadily declining population.

The Carter Carburetor factory, once a beehive of activity with shifts running 24 hours a day, shut down in 1984 and is now fenced off, abandoned and toxic, with broken windows and littered with debris. The property has been condemned by the EPA and is in the initial stages of an asbestos abatement program.

But baseball carries on in the footprint of Sportsman’s Park across the street. The land where the stadium stood was donated in 1967 to the Herbert Hoover Boys Club (now known as the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater St. Louis). A smaller-sized field was built at the site – and home plate is very close to where the batter’s box of Sportsman’s Park was laid out.

Kids now run the base paths and yell encouragement to their teammates from the dugout, much like the members of the Gashouse Gang of the 1940s or those lovable losers, the Brownies, did so many years ago.