NU Recognition Elusive for South End Grounds and Early (1871) Boston Baseball

South End Grounds

A few years before I ever trekked Northeastern’s hallways and tunnels looking for classrooms and classmates, I was aware of its accurate, yet tenuous, link to Major League Baseball history. My cousin was an accomplished Husky chemistry major in the early 1960s (he was four years older), and when we attended an occasional Red Sox game he always parked at the university and we would at some point walk past the Cabot Gym and its famous Huntington Avenue Grounds (HAG) “first World Series” site plaque. It took another 20 years for me to realize that that was less than half of the university’s complete baseball history connection.

On May 16, 1956, that ornate bronze reminder was placed outside on the gym’s Huntington wall with the help of then-baseball commissioner Ford C. Frick and a small cadre of celebrants, including Northeastern President Carl S. Ell and former shortstop Freddie Parent, at 81 years old then-last living member of the 1903 Boston Americans, the first “modern” World Series winners. Twenty-six-year-old Arthur “Bud” Collins wrote about it for the Boston Herald. It is a deserved marker for the Grounds and the city’s significant baseball history.

But because of Northeastern’s unique location, that is less than half the tale. The older South End Grounds (SEG), located across the railroad tracks and parallel to the former Berlin Street intersections with Coventry, Cunard and Burke streets, should have its own acknowledged status in Hub baseball lore as well.

South End Grounds

South End Grounds stadium in Boston before it was lost to fire in 1894 (Image courtesy National Baseball Hall of Fame)

On January 20, 1871, Mission Hill businessman and “base ball” zealot Ivers Whitney Adams assembled his deep-pocketed friends at the Parker House. Looking for financial backers, Adams introduced them to the best team he could pay to play in the soon-to-be-born National Association of Base Ball Players (1871-1875). Part of his master plan included greatly upgrading the rudimentary Union Grounds used by amateur teams. The South End Grounds was christened on April 6 when a “Fast Day” exhibition game with a “picked nine” was held before 6,000 onlookers.

Professional baseball began there May 16, 1871 (yes, exactly 85 years before the Huntington plaque unveiling), when Boston’s touted Red Stockings hosted the Troy Haymakers and were shockingly thrashed 29-14. Embarrassed, the Red Stockings never lost by that large a margin again and, actually, seldom lost at all for the next five years, running up a record of  225-60-6 for a winning percentage of .789, including 117-22-1, .836 at home. 

Adams’ “dream team” finished second that initial season because of technicalities involving two other teams, but then captured the next four pennants. Hall of Fame brothers Harry (outfield-manager) and George Wright (shortstop), pitcher Al Spalding, slugger Cal McVey and hot corner defensive star Harry Schafer so dominated the Association that in February 1876, the National League was formed in response to fan boredom and Association financial chaos.

With the NABBP and champion Red Stockings summarily dissolved, Boston’s 1876 National League entry was simply known as the Nationals and eventually was dubbed the “Beaneaters.” Several players made the league transition, continuing on as descendants and playing in the same ballyard. Those teams won flags in 1877, 1878 and 1883 and were the best of the “Gay Nineties,” winning five pennants in 11 seasons, behind the star power of future Hall of Famers Charlie Kid Nichols (300-game winner), Hugh Duffy (.400 hitter) and Jimmy Collins, plus the talents of Bobby Lowe, Jack Stivetts and shortstop supreme Herman Long. They did so under the watchful supervision of Hall of Fame manager Frank Selee, a brilliant judge of each player’s capabilities.

When the championship roster aged and dispersed, the first decade of the 20th century finally saw the demise of the Boston Nationals (aka Doves, Rustlers, Braves), but in 1914 the team sprang to life for one last stellar campaign that started at the old and worn, railroad sooty South End Grounds and ended at sparkling, three-year-old Fenway Park with a storybook World Series victory sweep over Philadelphia. When the curtain fell in August 1914 (in a 0-0, 13-inning finale), the ancestors of the 20th century Boston/Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves had compiled a record at SEG of 1,500 wins, 1,053 losses and 41 ties, for a winning percentage of .578. Those Hub teams scored 15,246 runs during their regular seasons in that time frame.

During the 44 years from 1871-1914, three ballparks stood along Berlin Street, which was upgraded and renamed as part of lengthened Columbus Avenue in 1895. The original – South End Grounds I, aka Union Grounds and Walpole Street – from 1871 to 1887 served well but disappeared in October 1887 in favor of “the grandest base ball palace in the country,” the South End Grounds II. It was designed for the 1888 season by Philadelphia architect John Jerome Deery under a contract with Boston owner Arthur H. Soden. Its witch-hat towers were magnificent and alluring, its Grand Pavilion double deck proudly loomed over the field, and the fan amenities were many and modern. Though it overran its predicted cost, it was too spectacular for anyone to care, even the miserly Soden.

Sadly, its life was short. A wind-driven fire May 15, 1894, erased it in a few hours of blazing horror. Miraculously, no one died, but baseball’s grandest park was left in ashes, along with 180 other Roxbury buildings.  

Being in midseason, the grandstand was quickly rebuilt and opened in July but, lacking sufficient insurance, reconstruction funds were at a minimum, and the resulting South End Grounds III was a very plain ball yard once again.

I learned about all of this in the 1980s, when I first explored more than just casual baseball history. As the years zipped by, I went spelunking into 19th century baseball and eventually the exposed SEG loomed large. By the 21st century, I was hooked on the Red Stockings-Beaneaters-Braves and have written about them for several baseball outlets.

Simple are the comparisons of service time and success between the South End Grounds and the Huntington Avenue Grounds. The SEG operated from 1871-1914, Huntington from 1901-1911. The SEG housed the first pro team ever in Boston, and the first National League club; Huntington sheltered the first American League entry. SEG witnessed 12 championships and the 1892 World Series win over Cleveland. HAG saw two pennants and the 1903 first “modern” World Series, Boston’s eight-game victory over Pittsburgh.

Defined by their eras, Huntington Avenue was limited to AL usage in its only decade, while the much longer active SEG saw two leagues and just about every 19th century ballplayer who had a career of more than a year or two.

Though Hall of Fame icon Honus Wagner played in the 1903 World Series at Huntington, he starred for Louisville and Pittsburgh at SEG starting in 1897. In all, no fewer than 60 19th-century Hall of Fame players performed there, including the 1890s visiting nemesis, Cy Young (14-14). A few more stars came after 1900.

Boston Globe sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy covered Northeastern’s Cy Young statue unveiling in the quiet area between Churchill Hall, Hayden Hall and an alley named World Series Way on Sept. 29, 1993. It is fairly close to Cy’s actual Huntington pitching box locale, but he is looking slightly in the wrong direction for his 1903 catcher Lou Criger. Nonetheless, Young had already pitched valiantly at the SEG for 11 seasons with Cleveland and St. Louis before ever hurling a single fastball at Huntington Avenue for the upstart Boston Americans.

Sculptor Robert Shure created the monument at the behest of the Thomas Yawkey Foundation. Then-Red Sox general manager Lou Gorman and 1967 Cy Young Award winner Jim Lonborg were among those present at the unveiling.  Even the most casual university campus stroller is aware of Cy and the HAG even if they are not baseball fans and are bemused by the fuss.

Problem is: What does the South End Grounds get for its much larger role in Boston baseball? 

NU Science Building

Northeastern’s new Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering building is constructed on the site of the South End Grounds

Northeastern’s $225 million Interdisciplinary Science & Engineering Building sits upon what was most of the SEG’s space. What this futuristic-looking building seems to us is probably what the SEG Grand Pavilion seemed to fans on Opening Day in 1888. The grandstand was so magnificent in its time that the Baseball Hall of Fame chose to feature it as one of the three most dynamic old ballparks – along with Chicago’s Comiskey Park and Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field – for its “Sacred Ground” special exhibit back in 2005. Current Hall patrons can still be “droned” through the SEG’s Grand Pavilion via amazing, digitally created videos.

A plaque of some kind is needed to mark the South End Grounds historical presence, and plenty of room exists for one, either on the barren inside walls of the ISEB or outside in the landscaped plaza. 

The University of Pittsburgh has a spiffy plaque commemorating Forbes Field (1909-1970) by the still-standing centerfield brick wall near where Bill Mazeroski’s dramatic smash left Forbes and gave the Pirates the 1960 World Series.   

Boston University has a classy marker just beyond the entrance booths to old Braves Field (1915-1952). It was dedicated Aug. 6, 1988, by Boston University, the New England Sports Museum and the Society for American Baseball Research.  

In Chicago, the Illinois medical community welcomed elegant signage to commemorate its West Side Grounds heritage, the famed home of the 1893-1915 Colts/Orphans/Cubs at South Wolcott Avenue and West Polk Street. The fine plaque was a combined effort of the Way Out in Left Field Society, the Illinois Medical District, the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Illinois State Historical Society.

In comparison, we have Northeastern’s cavalier dismissal of any warranted stewardship it should feel from sitting atop two “sacred baseball grounds.” 

Starting in January 2017 a simple strategy was put to work to investigate whether the university would be interested in having a plaque ceremony.  Pleasant emails and cordial in-person meetings happened at intervals from January-July. There was seemingly real interest and excitement among lower-echelon administrators who were told of the Grounds history. But when the higher brass got involved, suddenly excuses were formulated. 

As one vice president shortsightedly decreed: “Our policy is against plaques because then more would be requested. Our feeling is to look ahead and not in the past.” 

Translation: We see no cash coming to our coffers.

Forget the baseball history, forget your area’s legacy, ignore your own historical participation.

Northeastern cannot elude its own cleat marks in this situation. By November 1914, it was clear that the uncomfortable but cozy SEG was doomed, and that major league games would never be played there again. City newspapers diligently reported that some type of commercialism would surely take over the valuable land.  That happened, but not very quickly.

Local schools commandeered the grounds for more than a dozen years. One of those was the YMCA-housed Northeastern College Cooperative School of Engineering, and, by spring 1920, its obsessed student-ballplayers started an unsanctioned team and used the field for practice and games.

Bored with interclass play, they finally persuaded neighbor Wentworth Institute to give them a scrimmage. On April 29, 1920, Wentworth won 7-0 at its own campus field.                            

The easily foreseen setback only energized Engineering Class of 1922 mates Irving “Rosie” Rosenblatt and Bertrand “Bertie” Robbins to organize what was a combined interclass group into a “minor sport” team that advanced to varsity status within two years.

Though quite unpolished at first, they scheduled matches with other colleges just for the opportunity to engage a real opponent. A bit nomadic, Northeastern played at various fields, including the marginally kept-up SEG. By chance, this allowed one more future Hall of Famer to ply his then-secondary sports skills there. Boston University’s acclaimed gridiron star Gordon “Mickey” Cochrane caught a game versus Northeastern on Patriot’s Day 1922. He went 3 for 4, with three RBI in BU’s 7-2 win, the first ballgame ever played between the institutions.

This is part of the 50-year-plus SEG history Northeastern finds so simple to ignore. Perhaps the next time the university asks for a donation, kindly reply, “Sure, when I see a South End Grounds commemorative plaque.”