Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Philly's Ugly Duckling

Among the ugliest ballparks in major league history, the Baker Bowl in Philadelphia was home to the Phillies for over fifty years. Whenever I conduct research on pre-war baseball I find myself drawn to this place with its ungainly dimensions and crumbling interior. The right field foul line was situated just 280 feet from home plate and, although a sixty foot wall and screen barrier was installed to deter cheap home runs, outfielders spent many long afternoons chasing the unpredictable caroms. There was little that could be done to compensate for a "hump" in center field, which was created by a railroad tunnel underneath. With measurements more suitable for Wiffleball, a staggering total of 1,187 runs were scored there in 1930--an average of 15 per game. The career of any Philly pitcher was apt to be quite short as the staff compiled the highest ERA in the National League every year from 1923 through 1934. During the offensive explosion of 1930, the cumulative team ERA was an astonishing 6.71.

Sportswriter Red Smith once appropriately referred to the stadium as a "rusty, cobwebby house of horrors." In addition to its odd dimensions, the park was structurally unsound as sections of the bleachers collapsed on two separate occasions, killing a dozen while injuring more than two-hundred. Owner William F. Baker and his successor Gerry Nugent were notoriously frugal, trading away the club's best players year after year. Baker was so cheap that he prosecuted an eleven year-old fan named Reuben Berman in 1923 for not returning a foul ball he had caught. A judge sided with the poor kid, ruling that he couldn't be blamed for wanting a souvenir. Aside from a World Series appearance in 1915, the club fared quite poorly at the Baker Bowl, allegedly prompting a wise-cracking graffiti artist to spraypaint an editorial comment on the famous Lifebuoy billboard in right-center field. After the jokester had added his finishing touches, the sign read: "The Phillies Use Lifebuoy Soap...And They Still Stink."

Midway through the 1938 campaign, Nugent finally decided he had had enough, moving the club into Shibe Park, which was jointly occupied by the Athletics.

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