The Life, Death, and Afterlife of Braves Field

Some look back fondly at Braves Field, the home of Boston’s second baseball team. (via Boston Public Library)

There’s usually a boilerplate procedure, I have found, for the life, death, and afterlife of an old baseball stadium, the type of stadium you see in the old pictures floating around Twitter.

The ballpark will be erected in the middle of a densely settled neighborhood, a diamond-shaped slice of late 19th- and early 20th-century Americana. Tightly-packed rows of city-slicking streets prop its foundation as millions spend a handful of decades streaming in and out. Its heyday will come and go, with enough moments to garner the type of future nostalgia that isn’t quite strong enough to declare it sacred.

Then, maybe around the mid-20th century, the team will outgrow its urban enclave and jet for the shiny new land plot, where the stadium will hold 10,000 — no, 15,000 — more fans than the old one. The lights will be so bright you’ll almost be able to see your reflection in the new, state-of-the-art bleacher seat.

The old park will stand, robbed of its tenant, for a few years, maybe, while weeds creep in and integrity sags. Then, to the objection of some but to the indifference of most, the whole thing will get bulldozed; maybe the wrecking ball will even be painted with seams. Left behind will be a plaque, hastily jackhammered into fresh-layered concrete as a gesture for those few who still cared. Here’s the approximate site of such-and-such’s home plate.

The plaque will rust, and a niche subsection of folks with an eerie, unsettling longing feeling will come to see it while a new neighborhood builds around it, the locals too worried and bustling to pay it much attention. The people who come will stand where Bobby Thomson hit his famous home run. Where Jackie Robinson integrated baseball. Where Cy Young won his 400th game.

There is a level of sadness that comes with all that, both for the dread of missing out and for the lack of proper preservation — the memories of a thousand people in a thousand moments reduced to a metal rectangle. At Polo Grounds: a plaque. At Ebbets Field: a plaque. At the South End Grounds, now Roxbury’s Ruggles Station: a plaque.

But there is one exception to this. At the site of old Braves Field, now Boston University’s Nickerson Field, there is — well, okay, another plaque. It states, somewhat erroneously:

THE FANS OF NEW ENGLAND WILL NEVER FORGET THE EXPLOITS OF THEIR BRAVES AND THE FOND MEMORIES ASSOCIATED WITH BRAVES FIELD

There is more here, though, than the standard — much more. There are tracks, lying dormant just under the new asphalt, that used to route trolleys of fans in and out of the park. There’s the old administrative building, now BU’s police headquarters, where you used to be able to see the off-white stall where Babe Ruth went to the bathroom. There are so many wonderful pictures. There’s a hallway under the stands full of them. Of the park, of Ruth, of Jackie Robinson and Sam Jethroe, who broke Boston’s color barrier with the Braves, in 1950, nine years before the Red Sox employed a black player.

And there is, perhaps most notably, a massive piece of the field’s history hiding in plain sight: the right field bleachers, which you see as you pass the stadium on the adjacent highway to the right. The concrete behemoth wasn’t torn down when BU acquired the ballpark. It’s been thwarting off its own bottom of the ninth ever since.

I grew up nearby Nickerson, in Somerville, and lived for a year off the B-Line, which runs right by the park ground, but it took a New York Times article during last year’s Red Sox World Series run to enlighten and inspire a recent visit.

In an inverse way to the places with only a plaque, there’s something sad about that, too — that it took me 26 years to visit. I should have visited earlier. I should have known more about it earlier.

But who in our baseball town does?

***

A Bursting Beat: Excerpts from Aisle 228
Selections from AISLE 228, a collection of poetry about the 2016 Chicago Cubs.

Boston ceased to house two teams in the spring of 1953, when owner Lou Perini, rather than move to the suburbs, sold the team to new owners in Milwaukee. For the 280,000 fans who came to watch the Braves in their final season in Boston — the diehards — it was sad; the Braves were theirs, and they had no closure. For the rest, it was as if the acquaintance from college chased a job to the Midwest.

“They were down in Florida in ‘53 as the Boston Braves,” said Bob Brady, president of the Boston Braves Historical Association, during a recent interview. “They left as the Milwaukee Braves.”

The Braves were always second-class to the Red Sox. Their fans were more likely to be blue-collar. There was less of a divide between game-goer and game-player, partly because there were fewer people in the crowd.

But the field itself, colloquially dubbed the Wigwam, was a marvel in its earliest days. Its capacity was the largest in baseball. It was single-decked all the way around with a sloping concrete canopy bending behind home plate from shallow left field to shallow right field. It had its own trolley stop that would enter into the right-field pavilion. It hosted three World Series, including Cleveland’s last title in 1948, and was the final image of Babe Ruth’s career.

It was also briefly nicknamed the Beehive by the local press, when the Braves, looking for a brand reboot after signing Ruth in 1935, became the Bees for five years. (Before “wisely,” Brady said, changing back to the Braves in 1941.)

Now, the ballpark — Nickerson Field — is a breezy turf field enveloped between Commonwealth Avenue and I-90. When I wandered over, the gates were open and the place was mostly empty. Its foundation was warped when BU bought the grounds to host football games. (The Patriots were among the 20th-century tenants.) As a baseball field, it’s hard to recognize. Many of its walls have welcomed a charming layer of ivy.

To Brady, originally from Dorchester, what’s left is what keeps him coming back.

“Polo Grounds, Ebbets, all the other old ballparks, there’s nothing there other than a plaque or a marker,” Brady said. “You can actually sit in a piece of the stands and say you sat in a piece of Braves Field.

“The folks in Boston should be appreciative that we do have that remnant.”

In my mind, they should, but they aren’t. Maybe there isn’t time. Can you imagine throwing another pro team into today’s sports mix? Hell, would that mean another sports talk radio station?

On the other hand, can you imagine how enthralling a second baseball team would be? An offbeat, hipster alternative to the monopolizing Red Sox, who have gone from losers to growing the game in London, whose ballpark has gone from America’s sacred heckling ground to America’s Most Beloved Ballpark?

The Braves, with a toned-down or phased-out version of their offensive logo, of course, would maybe have gained some more of the city’s blue-collar sector over the decades. They would have created a history parallel to the Sox. Before they left town, young Hank Aaron was in their system. He won a title with Milwaukee, four years later, in 1957. What if it was the Braves who had broken Boston’s title curse?

Does a universe exist in which the Braves stayed, and won the arms race for the most popular team in town? Would the Wigwam be the beloved field today?

Brady has advocated for a Boston sports version of the freedom trail. A stop along the way would be Nickerson Field.

But: “It’s fallen on deaf ears,” he said.

In the Sports Museum in the Boston Garden, plenty of Braves memorabilia lies dormant in tucked-away storage, the demand for current-day sports teams too eclipsing, Brady has been told.

***

When the Braves were still in town, they used to open the season with an exhibition series against the Red Sox, the City Series. One, in 1948, ended in a brawl.

Now, at Nickerson Field, if you sit on a nice day and chase the shade, as I recently did, it isn’t too far-fetched to imagine the off-brand Boston team, playing for your attention and its own relevance, a mile and a half from Fenway Park.

Picture it.

Warren Spahn is on the hill. Ted Williams is at the plate. A heavyweight southpaw match-up looms. The left field pavilion is packed with young fans, whom the Braves used to let in for free, fresh off the trolley. The older fans have fresh faces, unburdened from the sting of a lost era. The Jury Box, the very right field pavilion you’re sitting in, which got its nickname when a writer observed only 12 fans in it, is suddenly full. Some like the Sox. Most like the Braves. The Braves fans jeer the Sox fans, telling them to go back to their own bandbox. The press box, sealed from the April chill, is lined with reporters representing the 10 or so Boston dailies of the day, ready to create a word salad for the hungry zeitgeist of a baseball-crazed town. The Post. The American. The Traveller. The Record. The Globe. Cigar smoke floats dormant. The spring of 1953 is a long way away. The Wigwam has a pulse. There is baseball to be played in a two-team town.


Sam is a writer living in New York City. He grew up in Somerville, Massachusetts and graduated from Emerson College in 2015.

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Samuel EversJackelderMustBuniqueapd2856 Recent comment authors
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apd2856
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apd2856

Great article, and as a younger Braves fan, marks a new stop the next time I’m in Boston.

MustBunique
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Great read. I have been there many times and even played a high school football game there about 20 years ago, and never knew it was the old Braves field. Thanks for sharing. I wish that some more attention would be paid and some sort of museum set up in the BU PD building.

Jackelder
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Jackelder

That was beautifully written and must have been meticulously researched. Thanks for creating and unearthing this fine story.