Crazy for Baseball

Going to bat for our National Pastime.



As February turns into March, we start to hear scores from Bradenton and other grapefruity towns. Spring training always seems too early, too winter-oblivious. Call it Florida flaky.

But there’s something reassuring about such goofiness, reminding us that the groundhog’s terrified prediction is for only six weeks, and as March starts, winter is (or will soon be) fading fast. Real baseball starts March 31, and in spite of steroids and a string of losing seasons, folks will soon be quietly sneaking out of work for the home opener on Monday afternoon April 7. When people talk of playing hooky for baseball games, those of us who work in Oakland try to imagine what it might be like if Forbes Field were still here, still sitting on the edge of Schenley Park along Bouquet Street. How tempting would that be? Would any spring or summer work get done at WQED? Or CMU or Pitt? Would there be summertime patients, doctors or nurses at UPMC?

Well, a few years ago, my favorite University of Pittsburgh archivist, Miriam Meislik, showed me this photo that she had come across in one of the collections at Pitt’s Archives Service Center in Point Breeze. It’s a 1912 image of two enthusiastic baseball fans who have found free seats beyond the outfield. Their horses and wagon are parked just below their perch, and they obviously didn’t need the ladder to get up the telephone pole they’re sitting on.

Men dressed differently back then, and these guys climbed the pole wearing coats and hats. I guess we wouldn’t be surprised to find out they have neckties on, too. In the photo, the hat on the man on the right is aligned exactly with one of the Carnegie Institute’s smokestacks, and it looks as if he’s blowing smoke out the top of his head. Who knows how the Pirates were playing that day.

If the photographer had just taken three or four steps toward the men, he might have snapped them silhouetted against the sky, and it would have been an even better photo, but maybe he didn’t want them to know he was immortalizing their frugal resourcefulness.

But the landscape of Oakland in the shot is interesting, too. Just to the right of the two gawkers, down at ground level, you can see the railing of the famous Bellefield Bridge across Saint Pierre’s Ravine, the end of which appears near the right edge of the photo. That ravine was a small valley between Forbes Field and the Carnegie Library that would be filled in about three years later when the topography of the neighborhood was being adjusted to make Schenley Plaza. The bridge was buried in the process, and there’s something oddly intriguing about a massive stone-arch bridge that’s still there, just quietly biding its time under the ground.

But the center of the photo is the subject: People will go anywhere for sports. And if you can avoid doing some work, it’s all the sweeter. The contours of the Earth may change, the internal combustion engine may replace horses, men’s fashions will come and go, but it’s always fun to sneak away on a spring day and climb a telephone pole to watch the game, especially for free.

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