Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Von der Ahe And The Sportsman's Park Fire Of 1898, Part 2

From The Sporting News, April 23, 1898:

Panic Ensued

Fire Destroys Stands At Sportsman’s Park

Ball Players Heroically Snatch Spectators From The Seething Flames

During the last half of the second inning of the Chicago-St. Louis game on Saturday April 16, fire broke out in the grandstand at Sportsman’s Park.

The 1898 season opened with the Browns hosting their Chicago League rivals on Friday, April 15. Coming off the worst season in franchise history, the Browns dropped their opener by a score of 2-1. The next day saw over four thousand people come out for a Saturday afternoon game between the two teams.

Sometime in the second inning, a spectator sitting in the grandstands dropped a lighted cigar. The cigar fell beneath the grandstands onto a pile of canvas bags and a small fire broke out. Those in the immediate vicinity began to move away and the game was halted as the umpire investigated the source of the disturbance. The majority of the spectators at the game were unaware of what was happening and cries of “Sit down” and “Play ball” could be heard. Many believed that the commotion in the grandstands was the result of a fight having broken out.

Once the umpire became aware of what was happening in the grandstands, the game was called. As the players left the field, many began to shout at the fans, trying to inform them that a fire had broken out and that they needed to leave the ballpark. Most of the spectators were still sitting in their seats in “bewildered amusement” and hoping that the game would continue. As they became aware of the fact that the game had been called due to a fire, some of the fans “slowly started for the exits, exchanging opinions as to how soon the fire department would appear to put the ‘damn thing out.’”

“The progress of the fire was slow at first,” The Sporting News wrote, “but as it spread, it gained in fury…(and) terrified men and women…sought safety in flight.” Most tried to escape by way of the exits. “As the heat from the burning structure increased in intenseness, the people hastened their efforts to escape. Hundreds rushed up the exit from the grounds between the club and saloon only to find the gate closed.” A frenzy ensued amidst the “furnace like heat and smoke” and the crowd battered the gate down. Many fans were pulled onto the field by the players of both teams, who showed “commendable courage” in helping people to escape the grandstands. The cool demeanor of the players helped to calm a crowd that was beginning to panic “and prevented them from trampling each other to death.”

Within thirty minutes after the discovery of the fire, the grandstands, the left-field bleachers, the other buildings and saloon were all in ruins…Von Der Ahe was desperate in his despair at the culmination of his ill-luck, and had to be restrained by his friends, who feared for his sanity. He lived above the saloon, and all of his personal effects were destroyed.

Over 100 people were injured in the fire. At least three of the injuries were described as “serious,” including a woman “who’s life was feared for”. Another person seriously injured both knees when they jumped from the grandstands. Other people suffered burns and blistering to their hands, back, and neck. Luckily, their were no fatalities.

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, thought was given to transferring the remainder of the series to Chicago but the idea was rejected by Browns manager Tim Hurst. Instead, that night, “a gang of men were set to work…and the fences repaired and temporary stands erected ...” Hurst and his players assisted the workers Saturday night “under electric lights” and enough was accomplished so that a game was played on Sunday as scheduled. Before a crowd of 7,000 people, the weary Browns lost to Chicago by a score of 14-1.

The Sporting News concluded their report of the fire by stating that “(the) grandstands and clubhouse at Sportsman’s Park will be rebuilt at once, and it is expected that work will be completed by July 4.” Von der Ahe used what cash reserves he had to rebuild a scaled down version of Sportsman’s Park. Gone were the saloon and the cycling track and the water ride. The latest version of Sportsman’s Park was a modest creation that sported only a baseball field and a grandstand.

As a result of the Sportsman’s Park Fire of 1898, Von der Ahe’s prominence in the baseball world would come to a quick end. Cash wrote that “the fire hounded (Von der Ahe). Some spectators, trampled in the rush to flee the burning ballpark, filed personal injury lawsuits against him. Confronted by too many creditors, Von der Ahe declared bankruptcy.” On August 10, 1898, the club was forced into receivership and would have new owners by March of 1899. Although Von der Ahe would not go quietly, the era of Der Boss President was over.


Richard Hershberger said...

This is a much more plausible depiction of the park. It still has very wide foul territory, but there is photographic evidence of such things in parks of the era, and putting in the bicycle track probably forces the layout to be a bit odd, like the joint-use stadiums of forty years ago. The grandstand looks much better suited than in the previous image. Are there no photographs of the park?

Jeff Kittel said...

There are a few photographs taken at the Grand Avenue park but most of the ones I've been able to get a hold of are team photos. There's a nice picture in The National Game of Sportsman's Park taken from the outfield that shows the grandstands but, again, this is most likely the Grand Avenue park rather than the new park on Vandeventer.

I took a quick look at the park factors at Baseball Reference for Sportsman's Park from 1893 to 1898 and it looks like it usually played pretty neutral, maybe a slight advantage to the pitcher. You would think an extreme amount of foul territory would make the place a serious pitcher's park. In 1898, it was definitely a hitter's park and this was probably a result of the new configuration of the park after the fire.

There's references to a horse track that ran through the outfield at the new park and it's possible that all the foul territory was used for that. I don't know much about horse racing but a horse track that would circumference a baseball field seems kind of long.