Crosley memories worth searching for
CINCINNATI -- So there I was, crossing the Ohio River along the way to driving a mile or so north of downtown Cincinnati on I-75, and I did what I've done for decades in this scenario. I glanced to the left, nodded with a smile and embraced the visions of Crosley Field dancing in my head.
This time, I did more than that.
But let's begin with those visions ...
The ballpark, of maybe 29,000 seats, designed for a neighborhood with odd angles and blue-collar industries. The massive scoreboard that was left-center field. The Bleacher Gate, which led to the Sun Deck during day games and the Moon Deck when stars filled the sky. The hill that was part of left field. The famously immaculate grass. The Cincinnati heroes in spikes, ranging from Ewell Blackwell to Ted Kluszewski to Pete Rose. The other notables of that era such as Jim "Peanut" Shelton hawking you know what in his push-cart and Paul Sommerkamp serving as the Reds' Bob Sheppard over the public address system.
Officially, Crosley Field died 44 years ago this week with its last Major League game on June 24, 1970. Unofficially, Crosley Field lives, and this goes beyond somebody deciding in the late 1980s to use many of the ballpark's former parts to build a fairly decent replica in a Cincinnati suburb.
Crosley Field lives because it was among the inspirations for baseball's explosion of old-new ballparks. You had the Giants squeezing AT&T Park into a San Francisco city block. You had the Astros adding an incline as part of center field at Minute Maid Park. You had the Orioles keeping the B&O Warehouse close to Camden Yards. You had Miller Park, Coors Field, PNC Park, Citizens Bank Park and all of the rest copying the intimacy of Crosley Field, which was a combination of Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and baseball nirvana.
So, with Crosley Field's old stomping grounds threatening to hit my rear-view mirror any moment, I did something different. I left the expressway in search of the area where the Reds' former home served in the Major Leagues from April 11, 1912, until June 24, 1970. And get this: The Reds began playing at that same corner of Findlay and Western Avenues in 1884, which was 15 years after they became baseball's first professional team. Their ballpark was called League Park, then The Palace of the Fans, then Redland Field.
I only knew about Crosley Field while going to Reds games as a Cincinnati resident during the late 1960s. Then came June 20, 1970, when my brother Dennis and I went to the last Saturday game at Crosley Field. That was four days before baseball ended forever at the place. That also was a long time ago. As a result, I used my gut feeling and distant memory to search for an area I hadn't visited on Cincinnati's west side since Dennis and I saw the Reds beat the Dodgers 44 summers ago on the NBC Saturday Game of the Week.
No problem, I thought -- except the Western Avenue exit on I-75 wasn't there anymore, and that always was the exit we took to reach the Bleacher Gate within minutes. Now there was a problem. After I took the next exit, I became a victim of Cincinnati's distinctive collection of hills and curves. I hadn't a clue of where I was, but as I weaved past the 1930ish-style houses and huge red-brick buildings with names of companies that sounded as if they've existed since horses pulled street cars, everything seemed so familiar.
It felt like Wrigleyville.
More than that, it felt like June 20, 1970. I could hear Frank Sinatra singing his soul-wrenching song called, "There used to be a ballpark here."
But it wasn't here on this part of Findlay Avenue near the Queensgate Glass Company, or even over there by what was the ancient yet solid-looking home for David Shoe Company. So I pulled over to the side of the narrow street to ask two middle-aged guys climbing out of a delivery truck if they knew where Crosley Field once stood. One shrugged, and the other mentioned while squinting, "It was somewhere across town where the casino is."
I knew that was wrong, but I thanked the guy anyway. I did the same with the 30-something woman walking her dog who responded as if I were asking her for directions to South Korea.
A police officer passing by knew about Crosley Field, and he sent me driving a few blocks before turning left on Dalton Avenue. When I arrived at the spot, my shoulders dropped. The distinctive old buildings throughout the rest of the neighborhoods were replaced by nondescript structures that were built sometime after, oh, say, June of 1970. Near one of those places at the corner of Findlay and Western avenues, there was a concrete monument with a bronze facing giving the story of Crosley Field.
I stifled a yawn.
Then, back on Dalton Avenue, which used to dead end at the ballpark, the street continued across what used to be the infield, and the dominant business on the street was Phillips Supply Company, which listed its address as One Crosley Field Lane. At the front door of the establishment was the design of a baseball diamond in concrete about the size of a large welcome mat. The whole thing was surrounded by several ballpark-style red seats, but don't get the wrong idea. These seats were plastic. The ones at Crosley Field were wooden.
I know, because I have one of the original ones.
The only other thing of note in this area was that the spot for Crosley Field's home plate was painted in white in a nearby alley. I'm still sighing. I wanted more. If not somebody walking from a cornfield in the parking lot across the way at the Gold Star Chili, then a few of Shelton's peanut shells in a glass cabinet on one of Crosley Field's old corners.
Just wait, though. Officials of the City Gospel Mission of Cincinnati are starting a $15 million project in the area for two entities: The homeless and nostalgic baseball fans. Not only will those officials build a facility for the needy, but they'll place a replica of a light tower from Crosley Field outside of the place, which makes sense. Baseball's first night game occurred at the old ballpark.
Mission officials also will have a replica of Crosley Field's left-field foul pole on the premises. In addition, they'll highlight the original spots of home plate and third base outside their place, and they'll place clear markings on the inside for first base in the lobby and second base in the dining room.
Guess I'll come back when it's done.
I know the way now.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.