The Political Reality of Building a 19th Century Ball Park
Many baseball magnates of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century had difficulties building their ballparks. Much of this was political. Even though ballparks were not built with public money, public officials could hinder—or stop—construction with zoning regulations and the placement of streets through the area where the baseball men were planning to build. Perhaps the most famous case was in New York. But this happened on all levels. Presented here is the case in Milwaukee in the 1890s. It is interesting to compare what happened in this minor league mid-western city to the larger big league cities, and also look at how politics worked over a hundred years ago. Much of the information on location and individuals might only be of interest to a Milwaukeean (or someone with Milwaukee connections), but I believe the overall story will be interesting—both the politics (on a city level and baseball level) involved and the process of what went into the building of a ballpark in the late 19th Century.
The Milwaukee Brewers of 1894 were part of the minor Western League, playing their home games at Athletic Park, located at 8th and Chambers on the city’s north side. The ballpark was owned by Harry D. Quin, owner of a book binding company and sporting goods store. The Brewers finished in last place, but made about $800 according to its president, Matthew R. Killilea–a railroad lawyer “with plenty of money and backbone” said the Sporting News.
A new league was in the process of being formed for 1895–the American Association–and Milwaukee was rumored to be part of it. It was soon reported Harry Quin was after the American Association franchise for Milwaukee and would begin to sign players when Western League player contracts ended, after October 15. The players for the American Association would primarily come from the National League and Western League. The rhetoric for a baseball war was all over the press. Quin was quoted as saying “The American Association is organized in opposition to no baseball organization. We are organized on the principle that allows any merchant to come into a city and open up a business and compete with other merchants”.
The directors of the Western League Brewers saw the American Association activity in Milwaukee differently. The Brewer directors thought they were paying too much rent for Athletic Park, and believed Quin saw his chance to make them pay his price by threatening a Milwaukee entry into the American Association. The owners of the Brewers did not come to any agreement on their option on Athletic Park before it expired on October 15, and now Quin was making his move. Quin wanted $3,000 for rent of Athletic Park and said “before we would have leased them the park for $2,999.99 we woud cut it up into lots.” Matthew Killilea, doubting Quin would risk the high cost of the American Association and was bluffing for the rent money, stated the Brewers would have nothing more to do with Quin in a business way.
The Brewers considered sites for a new park. A club official said the Brewers had four sites at their disposal. Grounds at 27th and Vliet Streets had four electric lines, plus the St. Paul Road, running to it. On the south side, property at South 16th Street and West National Avenue could be had, and if the club desired it could make arrangements to use National Park, a little further west. However, a ballpark on the south side was not thought completely desirable in those times. Harry Quin had told the Milwaukee Journal when looking for a site for Athletic Park years earlier that he had chose a north side location, after looking over the south side, “because I saw it wouldn’t do to take chances on getting a baseball crowd to or from a game when they had to cross two or three sets of railroad tracks.”
The Brewers ended up leasing property owned by Charles M. Kipp at 11th and Wright Street, where an older ballpark had been located until it was demolished after the 1888 baseball season. Athletic Park (less than a mile away at 8th and Chambers) was the biggest park in the Western League and Matt Killilea planned to build an even bigger one on the 550 x 360 foot Wright Street site. [Harry Quin told a Sporting Life correspondent the lot was actually 300 x 420 feet.] In addition, four streetcar lines ran to the proposed site. It was estimated a new park would cost $6,000 to $8,00 to build.
On October 22, 1894, Harry Quin brought suit against the Western League club for $400 rent he claimed had been due on August 15. Matt Killilea said the money was in a local bank and he had intended to pay the rent, but now would fight the matter on the grounds that Quin took possession of Athletic Park before the lease expired. Quin denied he took possession of the park until after October 15. In November Quin went to Superior Court to get his money and was awarded the full amount in December.
Reports, propaganda and maneuvering continued by all three leagues until it appeared the National and Western Leagues had crushed the upstart American Association. By Christmas it was reported the American Association was “deader than a barrel of herrings”, and this quote was from Harry Quin. But this death did not stop the battle over Athletic Park.
In early February 1895 the stockholders of the Brewers held a meeting to discuss the playing field situation. When they learned Quin would not lower his price on Athletic Park, it was decided to build at 11th and Wright Streets. Plans for the new park were drawn up by the architects Oscar E. Guettler and Emil Riemschneider and formally accepted on February 12. It was reported the double deck grandstand would seat 2,800—1,600 on the first floor and 1,200 on the second. The bleachers would easily accommodate 2,800. [A report in the Milwaukee Journal about two weeks later gave the seating capacity as about 8,000—1,800 on the ground floor of the grandstand and 1,700 in the pavilion, and the bleachers comfortably seating 4,500.] The style of the architecture would be Swiss, being 340 feet long on the Wright Street side and 500 feet on 11th Street. [Another report gave the dimensions of the park as 320 by 450 feet.] A 12-foot fence was to surround the park. The whole structure would cost $8,000. Ten bids were received from contractors, with that of the contracting carpenter firm of Angove and Pierce (the firm that would also construct the new Athletic Park in 1902) accepted.
Some, however, felt this new park was a mistake. The Kansas City correspondent to the Sporting News thought abandoning Athletic Park would be a “grievous error, one that will do [the Milwaukee baseball directors] and their interests greater injury than would a succession of losing teams for the next five years.” He thought Milwaukee had had the “best equipped and most complete park in the Western League…in fact, Athletic Park is as much of a credit to the league as some of the parks were a disgrace”. He could not see why the Milwaukee directors would give up spacious Athletic Park for a park much smaller in size and join the “band box delegation, whose parks are a disgrace to themselves and the organization”.
Work on the new park was begun on February 18. On February 23 the Brewer’s new secretary, Theodore Engel, received notice from the Board of Public Works that the resolution passed by the common council and signed by the mayor granting the club permission to occupy the grounds at 11th and Wright was illegal. The notice ordered the club to remove all fences and obstructions erected. The board was acting on an opinion from City Attorney Charles H. Hamilton, who claimed it was illegal for the council to obstruct or close a public highway except upon a public petition or verdict of a jury. Hamilton further claimed it was incompetent for the council to grant a corporation a right or privilege in a highway for its exclusive benefit. The resolution also provided for the expenditure of money and was not countersigned by the comptroller.
Work on the park had begun and all the necessary materials were already there. Engel was sure Harry Quin was behind the whole thing to get the Brewers to use his park. Engel said the ball club would move to the south side if necessary. City Attorney Hamilton denied Quin put any pressure on him. Hamilton claimed he was presented with petitions protesting the closing of alleys and streets. When asked who presented them, Hamilton replied “H.D. Quin, but it makes no difference who gave them to me, however, as the resolution was illegal and it was my duty to call the attention of the mayor to the fact”. When asked if he was Quin’s attorney, Hamilton said “I have been his attorney at times…but I am not (now) retained by Mr. Quin”. Matthew Killilea accused Hamilton of being a friend and attorney of Quin’s and was “playing a very underhanded game”. The February 26 Milwaukee Journal gave the names of the petitioners and reported none owned property abutting the alley in question, some a block or more away. It was claimed some on the list said they did not object to the ballpark’s location and were glad to see it come as their property value would increase. The petition was said to have been circulated by “a stranger in the neighborhood, passing it around and after securing what he wanted, departed and has not been seen there since”. Killilea said “I will give my stock to George Washington Scott before I will allow the team to play at Athletic Park”. The Brewer president said work at Wright Street would continue until an injunction was issued. For his part, Quin sent this statement to the Sentinel:
The Milwaukee Baseball club has rushed into print stating I tried to force them to rent Athletic park the season of 1895. Please state to your readers through your columns they cannot have my park at any price, as I had enough trouble collecting my rent last year, necessitating my suing the Milwaukee club for balance due me, and I do not care about experiencing the same trouble the coming season.
Quin went even further in a letter published in Sporting Life on March 9, 1895:
The daily papers are all aware how promptly the Milwaukee Ball Club of 1894 paid their bills. The “Sentinel” had to garnishee their bank account last summer to collect their pay for advertising. The “Wisconsin” was not paid their account until 1895, and Mr. Parks, proprietor of the “Daily News,” stopped me on the street in February and informed me that they had not settled their account for the past season, and thought it advisable to pay last season’s debt before contracting new ones.
Gus Albert, the ex-Cleveland third baseman, who had charge of the grounds the past season, informed me he ran off his legs trying to get a settlement, which he managed to do at last, although discouraged by an exchange of bills, viz: Charles Polacheck, a director [of the Milwaukee Baseball Club] who is a plumber, had a bill against the Oberman Brewing Company, and Gus Alberts, who conducts a saloon on Third street, owed the aforesaid brewer a beer bill. After a meeting of the three parties the bill of Alberts, for services in 1894, was settled in 1895 by an exchange of debts. Here is a pointer for base ball clubs who have large ideas and small bank accounts to pay off their incumbrances [sic]. The Milwaukee Club is contemplating getting up a benefit performance, and the directors are now rehearsing the old standard play, “A New Way to Pay old Debts.” It is very apropos, and a number of Milwaukeeans, besides ex-Secretary [Phil] Lederer and ex-Manager [Charlie] Cushman, will witness it with great glee or thoughtfulness.
President Matt Killilea stated the Brewers made $800 in 1894, but Quin stated he was informed by a club director and ex-manager Charley Cushman, the club lost $10,400. Phil Lederer allegedly told Quin the Brewers lost $9,400.
The platted, but not opened, alley over which all the trouble occurred ran from Wright to Clarke, between 11th and 12th Streets.
On February 26 the Brewer’s directors met with Mayor John C. Koch, but the mayor said he would take no action to help the ball club. That same day one of the stockholders found a piece of property between West Lloyd Street and North Avenue, bounded by 16th Street on the east and Roundy’s subdivision on the west, that had never been platted and could be
rented. The property was 844 by 410 feet and owned by Milwaukee lawyer Ephraim Mariner. The directors found Mariner and signed a five-year lease within one hour. This land was about a mile and a half from Athletic Park.
Work began immediately by the contractors Angove and Pierce, using the same plans that had been used for the ballpark on Wright Street. The new park would be centrally located and hundreds could walk to the park. For those further away, half a dozen streetcar lines ran by or near it. The grounds were only ten minutes from downtown.
The steel framework grandstand was to be on the Lloyd Street side, with the entrance at Lloyd and 16th Street. This horseshoe shaped grandstand was to hold about 3,000. The fans would “not be called upon to rest their weary limbs upon benches. There will be the latest style of opera chairs, similar to those used in the grandstand in the polo grounds in New York”. A cupola was above the grandstand, elevated two feet higher than usual, “thus affording a perfect view of the field. The roof, too, is high, and a ball will be in full view even from the rear seats if it be knocked into the clouds”. The finished grandstand would “almost groan beneath gaily colored flags”. Among these flags would be eight “large strips of white” with the names of the Western League clubs in red letters. In the center of all this, and placed at the highest point of the grandstand, was a blue flag with “Milwaukee B.B. Club” on it in white letters. Two semi-circular bleacher sections, “constructed at a generous angle, affording a perfect view of the entire field”, held another 2,500 each, giving the park a total capacity of about 8,000. [These seating numbers differed in various accounts; these were taken from the Milwaukee Journal weeks before the season began.] These bleachers were apparently rather steep, as the Sporting News said this about them a few years latter: “The bleachers at Milwaukee closely resemble the sides of a house for steepness. There are 18 rows on the left and right hand sides of the grounds, and if a bleacherite on the top row should lose his balance he would shoot over the heads of those below him like a small boy on a toboggan”. A new feature for ballparks in Milwaukee was a clubhouse for the players in the southwest corner of the park, separate from the grandstand. The ticket office was placed at the southeast corner of the new park. Admission to Milwaukee Park Western League games was 25 cents, with another quarter for a seat in the grandstand. Ladies were 25 cents for any section.
The park was 640 feet long, compared to Athletic Park’s 400, and 440 feet wide. From home plate to the center field fence was originally to be 550 feet—but soon lengthened to 600 feet–, and home runs over the fence were “out of the question”. [The outfield did not run all the way to West North Avenue, as a report in the winter stated moving the fence back to North Avenue was being considered.] Milwaukee’s ballpark was reported to be the largest park in the Western League. However, one must conclude the distance down the foul lines to the fence was short. In early 1899 a rule was suggested by the National Agreement Rules Committee that a ball hit over a fence that was less than 285 feet away from home plate would only count as a two-base hit. The Sporting News of February 25, 1899, reported “In the Western League the rule might injure Minneapolis, and possibly Milwaukee, in the corners where the foul line runs. A distinctive line shall be marked on the fence at this point”.
At first called Sportsman’s Park by some reporters, the park was officially named Milwaukee Park, with the name painted in bold letters along the rear of the grandstand–the grandstand itself painted a deep brown hue. When Western League president Ban Johnson visited the grounds in July he told the press “they are the best in the Western League by long odds”.
The framework of the grand stand was up by early March. The lines were also laid out for the fence, but frost in the ground slowed the work of digging the postholes. Milwaukee Park was not ready for the players when they reported for spring training on April 1, 1895, so they reported to National Park (which covered West National Avenue to Greenfield Avenue, 27th St. to 31st Streets.) The new park on Lloyd Street was soon ready, and on April 28 “a large crowd” saw a split squad game (Colts and Regulars) play.
On Wednesday May 1, 1895, it was reported: “The sun shone down from a light blue sky hot enough to take the coolness from the wind that came up over the lofty shore line from the bosom of the lake, and in no quarter was a single cloud visible”. The Milwaukee and Minneapolis players paraded around town in uniform, starting on the south side, then to the courthouse, where Mayor Koch (who had never seen a baseball game before and “did not understand the first principals of the game”) and other city officials paraded with them and a brass band. Sixteen carriages were in the parade. At Lloyd Street Park between 5,000 and 6,000–including many city and government employees, who were given half-day holidays—saw the mayor give a short speech and “throw the first ball over the plate.” Unfortunately the Brewers lost to the Minneapolis Millers 4 to 3.
It was this ballpark at 16th and Lloyd that the 1901 American League Milwaukee Brewers would play their home games. Athletic Park at 8th and Chambers would be dismantled and turned into an army camp in 1897. However, it would be rebuilt in 1902, and the American Association Milwaukee Brewers would use that plant as their home for their entire American Association life (1902-1952). Milwaukee Park would be used by the Western League Creams in 1902 and 1903, and then be used by amateur ball clubs and other events until it was taken down in February 1905.
For anyone interested in the complete history of Milwaukee Park at 16th and Lloyd (and other 19th Century Milwaukee baseball parks), my complete manuscript on the subject is housed in the Milwaukee Public Library. Or I would be happy to supply those interested with a PDF file of the manuscript.