Wednesday, September 2, 2015

McClure Field Isn't Number Two? Say It Ain't So!

Detail of a panoramic photograph taken by the G.L. Hall Optical Company of Norfolk on opening day of the Athletic Stadium, Naval Operating Base Hampton Roads, on June 12, 1920.  In 1944, the stadium was renamed for Captain Henry McClure, a Navy Cross recipient and the base's commanding officer at the time (Hampton Roads Naval Museum Collection).
Like the setting of any competitive sport, the field of history is contested ground.

Never take it for granted that what you read or hear is the absolute truth, keeping in mind that the very concept of “truth” is something of an abstraction, much like the value of a negative number or the meaning of the slogan, “Louisiana Fast™.”  Accepted truths in history are frequently the result of an argument won, and some arguments reignite when new facts come to light.  And so it goes with sports history as well as naval history.  This week’s post deals with a Hampton Roads landmark well known to regular readers of this blog as significant to both.

In the performance of my duties as a public servant, many research assignments I take on are prompted by members of the public.  A recent email sent to the museum was different than most others we have received lately in that while most emails come in as queries, this one was more like a cease-and-desist order.
“Your description of McClure Field as being second only to Wrigley Field as the oldest brick ball field is incorrect,” its author tersely informed us, adding a reference to a Wikipedia page.
“Bosse Field in Evansville, IN, was built in 1915 and has been in continuous operation since,” the message continued.  “That would make McClure Field third to Wrigley Field as the oldest brick ballpark.”

“Please correct your literature and signage.”  

Bosse Field, built in 14 months on the orders of Evansville Mayor Benjamin Bosse after the collapse of a grandstand in another part of the city, is seen here during the 1920s.  Photographs of the stadium's construction on other parts of the "Historic Evansville" web site show only concrete being used as a building material (Willard Library-Knecht via     
Such a message would of course warrant scrutiny and due diligence on my part before changing said literature and signage.  After exercising due diligence in subjecting the claim in the message to scrutiny, this is what I have to report:

A cursory look at the Wikipedia entry on Bosse Field mentions that it opened on June 17, 1915, just shy of five years before McClure Field.  In this, the Wikipedia entry does seem to establish this “fact” definitively.  But does this entry convey the “truth” that the author of the message meant to convey when he instructed us to change all of our descriptions of this Norfolk landmark?  I frankly found the Wikipedia entry wanting, so I searched further.     

Thanks to early pictures of the Indiana ball field posted online and F.J. Reitz High School history teacher Jon Carl on the web site Feel the History, we now know that Bosse Field isn’t necessarily an older brick ball field than McClure Field.      

“The original stadium did not look as it appears today,” said Mr. Carl.  “It was not covered with brick but with white stucco.  The brick fa├žade that you see today when you come to Bosse Field, was done during a renovation during the 1930s.  Due to the quick pace of construction,” Carl continued, “the concrete was not allowed to cure properly during the 1914-1915 construction.  In 1957, the entire inside of the stadium, all the seating area, had to be torn out and redone because it was structurally unsound.  The wooden seats you sit in today when you go to Bosse Field were put in during that 1957 renovation.” 

This postcard shows the grandstand of a brickless Bosse Field during the 1920s.  The brick facing covering the stadium today would be added during the 1930s (ballpark
To be clear, it is not our position at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum that McClure Field is the oldest ball park in North America by any stretch.  According to the Guinness Book of World Records, “The oldest baseball diamond is Labatt Park in London, Ontario, Canada, which was established in 1877 and has hosted baseball games to the present day.”  Construction on what was simply known then as the Athletic Stadium at what was then called the Naval Operating Base started in August 1918 under the direction of Navy Yards and Docks Project Manager Lincoln Rogers.  It was to be the centerpiece of a multi-use sports facility encompassing not only a baseball field but also a track and football field.  A swimming pool was also added to the complex in 1942. 

The caption to this panoramic photograph by the G.L. Hall Optical Company of Norfolk, Virginia, reads:
“OPENING OF ATHLETIC STADIUM.  IN FOREGROUND READY FOR CONTEST, NAVAL TRAINING STATION & NAVAL AIR STATION BASE BALL CLUBS.  NAVAL OPERATING BASE, HAMPTON ROADS, VA, JUNE 12, 1920.”  The flattened look of the stands above stems from the type of camera used.  In this case, a panoramic camera lens swiveled during the exposure, viewing each section of the stands from essentially the same perspective as it rotated (Hampton Roads Naval Museum Collection). 

Off-duty Sailors play at McClure Field on the afternoon of September 1, 2015 (Clayton Farrington, HRNM).
As you can see by the less ostentatious roof and railings adorning the stands today, some things have changed during the 95 years the ballpark has been in operation, but the solid brick foundation remains the same. 

So does our longstanding claim. 
McClure Field is still the second-oldest American brick ball field in continuous operation.  Though by no means a professional stadium, designed solely for the Sailors defending our nation in mind, it has nevertheless hosted some of the greats of American baseball history, many of whom actually joined the Navy during World War II.  

History remains contested ground; the product of continuous research and dialogue, along with a generous helping of argumentation.  To borrow an expression from former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the known-knowns aren’t always known as well as you think you know them, myself included.  Therefore, if other verifiable information comes to light challenging McClure’s vaunted position in the annals of baseball history, I am standing by to receive it.

Meanwhile, fans of McClure Field, rest easy for now in the knowledge that you can still proclaim:

McClure Field’s still number two (albeit in its own particular way)! 

And that’s the truth.  


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