The Secret Tales of Two Disappeared Ballparks

Forbes Field saw its fair share of baseball greats in its time. (via Marc Rochkind)

I still remember my first time at a ballpark. It was late October, 1971. My beloved Navegantes del Magallanes visited the Tiburones de La Guaira at the stadium of the Universidad Central de Venezuela in Caracas. My dad couldn’t come, so Uncle Rubén took me.

I marveled at the light towers from the highway. We went into the stadium through the third base entrance. The first 10 or 12 rows from the dugout up to the stands were filled with benches. There we took a seat. I was paralyzed. There it was — all that green grass, the light blue outfield bleachers and, the monster scoreboard. The game stayed scoreless for a long time. The church silence of the bottom of the eighth inning was broken only when a dog ran out into right field. Any time I have gone back to that ballpark, I remember the crowd shouting during the ninth inning, the sound rebounding from the mountain beyond the stadium. I remember crying because Uncle Rubén decided to leave before the game was over.

That archaeology — that sentimental chemistry — felt by any baseball fan about the places they met the game for the first time, remains intact. You can always go back to it, even if the place where you found it is gone.

La Guaira was beating Magallanes 1-0 in the eighth inning, a pitchers duel between Jorge Lauzerique for Magallanes and Aurelio Monteagudo for La Guaira. As the game got to the final innings, I started to listen to a rusty voice, from a middle-aged man who talked about one game he had watched from the center field bleachers of that stadium.

His recollection went something like this:

“Maybe there are some other unforgettable games that I’ve seen at this stadium but that one of December 7, 1968, will remain forever as the most unbelievable game I’ve experienced in this ballpark. Magallanes played as home club against its hated rival the Leones del Caracas. The game was tied 2-2 in the bottom of the 13th inning. Cito Gaston came to bat against Bob Lee, who at the moment was undefeated with an 8-0 record. On the first pitch, Gaston smacked a big line drive. It landed in the middle of the center field bleachers and I had to run away to avoid being rolled by a wave of jumps, shouts, and pushing to get the ball.

“Any time I’ve gone back to this stadium, the first thing I do is to watch the spot where that walk-off home run ball hit the bleachers. The Magallanes fans got euphoric and ran to home plate, all of them wanted to congratulate Gaston for that fantastic homer.”

***

The way that man moved his hands, the excitement reflected in his eyes, reminded me of my fifth-grade PE teacher. Back at the beginning of the 1970s, there was a kind of educational exchange between Venezuelan and U.S. elementary schools. We had the opportunity to have some volleyball classes with an American teacher. At first, it was hard to follow him, maybe because we didn’t understand his Spanish, maybe because we didn’t know anything about volleyball. The teacher understood many of the boys liked baseball a lot. He made a deal with us: He would tell us some stories about baseball on the condition that we tried our best at learning to play volleyball.

He started by asking us if we knew about Forbes Field. It was the ballpark where the Pittsburgh Pirates played their games before they built  Three Rivers Stadium. Besides the Pirates, there was another baseball team from Pittsburgh, a Negro League team–the Crawfords. It featured five future Hall-of-Famers, including counting Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and Cool Papa Bell. In 1934 the Pittsburgh Crawfords had a newcomer, Curtis “Popeye” Harris. Harris’ dream was to become the regular shortstop at Forbes Field. Forbes Field was in front of the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning, the teacher said. Any time he could, Popeye Harris went all the way to the cathedral’s 42nd-floor rooftop to gaze into Pirates games.

The voice of the volleyball teacher got darker as he spoke. But he gained some fluency in his Spanish when he told us that Harris stopped playing for the Crawfords, signed a contract to play for the Philadelphia Stars, but four years later he disappeared from baseball. For two years, nobody knew about him. It was suspected that he possibly had died. Then, in the summer of 1942, some people saw Harris outside the cathedral. A former Crawfords teammate tried to talk to him, but Harris went inside and ascended to the 42nd floor. He never came back down, and could never be found again.

Here is what I remember of the end of the teacher’s story:

“Afterwards, a Negro League All-Star team played an exhibition game at Forbes Field; Jackie Robinson was the star of the game. A journalist informed Robinson that they were the first black players to ever play at Forbes Field and told him the curious tale of Popeye Harris. Robinson made the long trek to the 42nd floor of the cathedral and experienced the ethereal view of Forbes Field. He stayed there for a considerable time but would never discuss what happened up there.

“Next spring, Robinson broke the major league racial barrier, playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He wore number 42, a number the multi-sport athlete had never worn before for any team in any sport. When Robinson first visited Forbes Field as a major leaguer, a fan asked him why he chose number 42. Robinson didn’t say anything and instead offered a wry smile, jogged over to second base, stared to the top of the cathedral, and tipped his cap. This is a ritual Robinson kept doing before every game he ever played at Forbes Field.

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“To this day, some people say that on a cool summer’s eve, if you go to the place where second base at Forbes Field once stood, look high into the sky at the top of the cathedral, and tip your cap… you might see the faint shadowy image of a man on the 42nd floor tipping his cap back.”

I’ve never found confirmation of the story, so who knows if it’s true, but you can guess the effect it had on all of us.

“Now, it’s time to do your part,” the teacher told us. And so we learned how to play volleyball, and from then on, the teacher told us a new baseball story before each practice.

“Do you know about the flag on Memorial Stadium parking lot? It‘s about a home run Frank Robinson, one of the two Orioles’ Robinsons, hit a long time ago. It cleared the left-field bleachers, very high over spectators and landed in the parking lot beyond. It was the only home run anyone ever hit out of Memorial Stadium. Someone had the idea of marking the place where the ball landed. The flag was orange with black letters spelling ‘HERE.’ The flag stood from a pole beyond the bleachers for the next 25 years.

“The legend says that on May 8, 1966, Robinson hit a ball off Luis Tiant, the Cuban pitcher of the Cleveland Indians. He had hurled three consecutive shutouts before this Sunday start at Baltimore. It was the first inning of the second game of a double-header. The pitch was a fastball, low and inside. Robinson made contact and the ball traveled 541 feet before rolling to a stop. There were 50,000 fans that day at Memorial Stadium, and they gave Robinson a standing ovation that lasted an entire minute.”

***

As I remembered the volleyball teacher’s tales, the middle-aged man in the stands looked to a woman making gestures and shouting. He said he hadn’t attended a single game in that stadium when he didn’t see that woman supporting the La Guaira team. “She’s even more passionate than Pepe El Gritón. He runs through the whole stand when La Guaira is threatening to tie the score, or one of the players makes an outstanding defensive play. But this woman is like a furious bull! She stays shouting at the umpires, hollering to the players, even when La Guaira is losing by more than seven runs in the eighth or ninth inning. Now she’s shouting at Monteagudo to keep battling, to hide the ball, to put more rosin powder on the ball. She looks as if she were another manager.”

Now when I think of that woman at the stadium of the UCV in Caracas, it’s impossible not to think about an article I recently read on the internet, about a woman who was the most passionate Orioles fan you could imagine–who scheduled her life around Orioles games, who continued to watch every day even when she broke her hip. That woman eventually threw out the first pitch at an Orioles game, a reward for her decades of devotion.

I don’t know which one of the two women was more passionate for her respective baseball team. Because the La Guaira fan even talked to Enzo Hernández, José Herrera, Angel Bravo, Remigio Hermoso, each time an inning ended and the players got back to the dugout. It seemed like if she was a suspended manager who was watching the game from the stands.

***

When Uncle Rubén decided to leave the early stadium at the top of the ninth inning, I really had two pangs of sadness to deal with. I couldn’t watch if Magallanes could come from behind to beat the Tiburones de La Guaira. And I couldn’t ask the man with the rusty voice if he talked to Cito Gaston that night or finally determined the exact stair where that homer landed.

We left the ballpark behind that night. It is a ballpark that no longer stands. But the memory of the evening never left me. It never will.

References & Resources

Egan, Pete B. “My Baseball Heaven.” The Story Hall, December 15, 2018.

Rodricks, Dan. “Frank Robinson and the Legend of the Orioles’ HERE flag.” The Baltimore Sun, February 8, 2019.

Rowe, Peggy. “The Baltimore Orioles Stepped Up to the Plate for This Longtime Fan.” Guideposts, Angels on Earth. December 6, 2018.


Alfonso L. Tusa is a chemical technician and writer from Venezuela. His work has been featured in El Nacional, Norma Editorial and the Society for American Baseball Research, where he has contributed to several books and published several entries for the SABR Bio Project. He has written several novellas and books and contributed to others, including Voces de Beisbol y Ecología and Pensando en tí Venezuela. Una biografía de Dámaso Blanco. Follow him on Twitter @natural30.

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kdsPirates Hurdleseely225Barney CoolioJim Recent comment authors
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Jim
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Jim

In 1957 I went to Ponce de Leon ballpark in Atlanta with my dad to watch the Crackers play. I still remember it, especially the deep green color of the grass.

Barney Coolio
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Barney Coolio

Cool story.

The volleyball guy said, “If you try really hard at volleyball, I will tell you stories about baseball,” in not great Spanish no less.

Um, I am a teacher now, and I think nowadays it would be more like, “If you listen to my baseball stories, I will let you play volleyball.”

Pirates Hurdles
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Pirates Hurdles

I realize you are joking, but youth participation in baseball and softball is on the rise over the last 5 years, up 3 million kids, a 21% increase. All this while youth sports participation in general is decreasing.

https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/27448703/youth-baseball-participation-rise

eely225
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eely225

Great stuff, thanks

kds
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kds

The photo may have been taken from the Cathedral of Learning, the angle to the field seems right, I’m less sure of the height.

For a considerable time there were two Negro League teams in or around Pittsburgh, the Crawfords and the Homestead Grays. The Grays used Forbes Field as one of their home parks, (another was Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C.), so a 1946 exibition game with Jackie Robinson was not close to being the first for Afro-Americans at Forbes Field.