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City's first ballpark had view and water hazard

Friday, July 10, 1998

By Diana Nelson Jones, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Exposition Park lies in the layer just below us, representing a time in history when a river could creep into the outfield and 15,000 people could pack the house.

Dennis Repp shows first base near Three Rivers Stadium -- "I go back every year to reapply the paint" (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette)

Between the Pirates' first home and the one almost certain to come, there are most of the 20th century, several hundred yards and an idea that had lost its way for some time before reasserting that a baseball park is only that.

Though inadequate for the 20th century, Exposition Park had at its core the attributes baseball cities are seizing on today. It afforded a skyline view in an intimate setting in what was then a neighborhood with an outer periphery of river -- the same river. But the first home of the Pirates, now that the fourth is all but certain, has almost slipped from most memory.

In ballpark history, Exposition Park was short-lived. After just 19 years, the land and the social order had proved too low for Pirates' owner Barney Dreyfuss, who was quoted explaining why the Pirates needed a new ballpark, in words that echo the sentiments today: "The game was growing up, and patrons were no longer willing to put up with 19th-century conditions."

His defense of Forbes Field, which was built in Oakland in 1909, also cast aspersions on Exposition Park's working-class neighborhood: "The better class of citizens, especially when accompanied by their womenfolk, were loathe to go there."

The Pirates played their last game at Exposition Park on June 29, 1909. In the ninth inning, Charles Zieg, a North Side musician known as the "Commodore," blew "Taps" from his trumpet in centerfield as the Cubs' Jimmy Archer went down swinging for the last out of an 8-1 Pirates win.

Built almost entirely of wood in what is now the parking lot just east of Gates B and C at Three Rivers Stadium, in what was then Allegheny City, it had gone to seed by the '20s, when only kids played there. Today, cars park on what was home plate. Yesterday, it was a silver Buick Century.

Dan Bonk, an engineer who co-created the Build-It-Yourself Forbes Field kit, and Dennis Repp, a long-distance phone technician, are two of four local men who decided in 1995 to rediscover what they could of Exposition Park, to give it some kind of life. They are all members of the Society for American Baseball Research, known as SABR.

Bonk found 19th-century insurance drawings that indicated the grandstands. The men figured home plate based on the dimensions: left and right fields were 400 feet, straight-away center was 460. The steps leading down to the parking lot from the new pedestrian bridge would be just outside the left field fence.

Bonk made an innocuous little mark where home plate was, and in 1995, when SABR had its national convention here, Repp was a tour guide who showed out-of-town SABR members the spot.

"I went over with a can of white spray paint and drew home plate," Repp said. "I got more ambitious in subsequent years and marked the bases. I go back every year to reapply the paint."

Home plate is just north of parking section 4R. The bases are marked with their numbers and circled. The right field wall would be along the stadium's outer shell from Gate C to Gate B.

"This is where Honus Wagner played the first World Series," Repp said, when asked what made him care about the ghost of Expo. That series, in 1903, was really two years before the first automatic playoff for the championship of baseball's old National League and newer American League, but 1903 was the first time the two leagues agreed to play.

"Cy Young played here," he continued. "Any bit of history you can keep is good to keep."

He said the park was named after The Allegheny Exposition, which was built around the time of the Civil War where Three Rivers Stadium and the Carnegie Science Center are now.

"It was the 19th-century version of a convention center," Repp explained, "where local merchants displayed their wares. There was open ground for circus and horse races. Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show was there. It was also a good place for a ballpark."

The group petitioned SABR and then the Pirates to help pay for a site marker for Exposition Park: Both agreed, and the marker is tentatively scheduled to be dedicated sometime in September.

Though it was built in 1890 for the Burghers, Pittsburgh's team in the short-lived Outlaw Players' League, the park served the Pirates until 1909. It brought the outfield in considerably during heavy rains. In fact, on July 4, 1902, during a double-header, a flood from the encroaching Allegheny River inched in on the outfield as the day wore on, Repp said.

"The entire outfield was under water, so they made a special rule: Any ball that hit the water was a single." A ball was not known to have landed in the river when it was inside its banks, he said. But it might have, just as it might someday.

Staff writer Bob Hoover contributed to this report.

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