In Old North Dayton, to the north and east of that collection of cottages and bulky double houses, the size of the Hungarian Kossuth Colony, is a grassy, barren field of about five acres. Older Daytonians will recall that this is the place where, on a cool October day in 1928, the mighty figures of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig cavorted with members of a Dayton amateur and semi-pro baseball team on one of their barnstorming trips across the country.
In the boom and bust years of the 1920s and early 1930s, this was the locale for activity of other baseball heroes of that era. Baseball immortals, the “Dutchman,” Honus Wagner appeared here with the Pittsburgh Pirates; Grover Cleveland Alexander pitched for the bearded House of David team; and “Chief” Bender came here as manager of the Central League Erie team.
Fans in those days witnessed the early development of other Hall of Famers: Chuck Klein, the powerhouse hitter of the Ft. Wayne Chiefs and Billy Herman, the star second basemen for the 1928 Dayton Aviators.
Rookie years of other major league stars were spent here: notably, Johnny “Moose” Marcum, Jake “Pants” Powell, and Johnny Vander Meer, of double no-hit pitching fame. Former major league stars appeared here as mangers. Heinie Groh, with his “Bottle Bat,” owned, managed and played with Canton. Bill Wambganass, holder of the only unassisted triple play in the World Series, managed and played with Ft. Wayne.
While blacks were prohibited from playing in the major leagues, they formed their own league and included some of the greatest players of the day. Dayton had its introduction to the high quality play of black ball players when the Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh Crawfords, Kansas City Monarchs and other black professional teams played here in exhibitions.
North Side Field was the scene of action for many black stars; some would be named to baseball’s Hall of Fame. They were “Cool Papa” Bell, Ray Dandridge, Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Buck Leonard and “Satchel” Paige.
Fans followed the unique careers of Julie Tangeman and Harvey Reese as they performed in the North Dayton Park as professional minor league, semi-pro, and amateur players.
The growth of the popularity of the sport of professional boxing in Dayton in the 1920s was reflected by the crowds who witnessed summertime evening bouts in the ring set-up in the North Side Park infield. Joe Sekyra, Dayton’s most famous boxer, fought another great, Johnny Risko, in two memorable battles. Also outstanding were the classic encounters between Blockie Richards and Young Webb, Richard and Frankie Bob, and Shifty Dando and Syd Conn.
Old North Dayton
North Side Field was surrounded by farmland to the north and east. Farther to the east was the St. Adalbert Catholic Church, school, and surrounding parish. Beyond the left and center field a short distance was the Holy Cross Catholic parish and its Lithuanian followers. Next to the right field corner was Baltimore St. which extended to the south into the Holy Rosary parish and church that served the predominantly German Catholic members of the community. A sprinkling of parents and children of Irish, Welsh, English and eastern European nationals were housed in the neighborhood. Here and there in the vicinity were Lutheran, United Brethren and Methodist churches.
This variety of folk became employees of the industries of Dayton and many became fans of the Aviators and later the Dayton Ducks. Some of the youth became members of amateur and semi-pro teams supported by the churches, industries, businesses and other organizations of North Dayton and the Greater Dayton area and played at one time or another at North Side Field.
Carl Larke, a World War I veteran, assisted in building the park and served as caretaker throughout the years of its existence. He was an outstanding softball pitcher and played on the North Dayton Merchants semi-pro football team. Aside from his grounds keeping, he sometimes made himself available to the professional baseball teams as a batting practice pitcher.
Roland Larke acquired the inspiration for this presentation out of his experience as a youth in Old North Dayton as a tag-a-long kid brother of Carl Larke, caretaker and grounds keeper at North Side Field in most of the years of its existence.
Later he became clubhouse boy for the Louisville, Kentucky baseball club’s farm system team, the Dayton Aviators, and the Dayton Ducks, whose home grounds were North Side Field.
The sponsorship of the Dayton and Montgomery County Public Library came about through his friendship with Lindy McDonough, the library’s display artist, who was his student in the Greenhills, Ohio school system where he conducted art classes.
Construction and Design: 1928
In order to fulfill the request for additional seating to support the St. Louis farm club’s Aviators of 1928, the North Dayton Amusement Company hired neighborhood carpenters, plumbers, painters, and cement workers. They constructed two additional stands and bleachers to increase seating to 4,000 fans. The stands were simple and solid, without ornamentation, and painted a flat dark green similar to other ballparks around the country. The grandstands were covered with a light green tarpaper and had a functional aspect in that it was grass under the seats so that trash fell to the ground below. Anything of value dropped could be recovered by getting a small boy to crawl under the seats and drop to the ground below.
The playing field was typical. Some minor league infields were “skinned” or without grass, but North Side Field had a grassy, well-kept infield. Left fielders sometimes had problems fielding balls on the gravelly surface. The surrounding fences were of average ballpark dimensions: 370 feet in left field graduating to 420 in center field. Right field had a taller fence and was only 285 feet from home plate, similar to the Polo Grounds in New York.
The press box originally was under the stands behind home plate but since it was found to be too chilly, damp, and gloomy, it was moved atop the center stand. It was normally comfortable, but sometimes a breezy and extremely hot place for local sports writers Carl Finke, Bob Husted, Ben Garlikov, Art Routzong, Si Burick, Bill Rudy and visiting team scribes.
It was a simple process to set up a boxing ring at the pitcher’s mound were fisticuff fans could sit on surrounding benches or in the less expensive grandstand and bleacher seats.
A clubhouse was built under the stands for the Louisville farm team in 1929. A bench on one wall faced 14 open wooden cubicles with one shelf, which served as lockers. A small shower room was at one end. An adjoining separate manager’s office was at the other end where valuables were kept and from which the dreaded notification of release from the team was given. The secretary’s office was at the main entrance and ticket booth. Umpires dressed in an unfurnished gloomy area next to the caretakers’ room and no shower was provided. Visiting teams dressed at their hotel, rode a bus to the ballpark and were on their own thereafter.
North Dayton Amusement Company
John P. Naas, President
S. W. Sullivan, Vice President
Pete Best, Secretary
Al F. Kinzeler, director
Charlie Schell, treasurer
Ben Boekman, director
Raymond Boll, director
Helped build the ballpark
Hall of Famers
Grover Cleveland Alexander, Pitcher
Dave Bancroft, Shortstop
Cool Papa Bell, Outfield
Chief Bender, Pitcher
Jim Bottemly, First Base
Max Carey, Center Field
Oscar Charleston, First Base
Ray Dandridge, First Base
Frankie Frisch, Second Base
Lou Gehrig, First Base
Josh Gibson, Catcher
Chick Hafey, Left Field
Jessie Haines, Pitcher
Billy Herman, Second Base
Travis Jackson, Shortstop
Judy Johnson, Third Base
Chuck Klein, Right Field
Buck Leonard, Third Base
Fred Lindstrom, Third Base
Ernie Lombardi, Catcher
Rabbit Maranville, Shortstop
Mel Ott, Right Field
Satchel Paige, Pitcher
Branch Rickey, Official
Babe Ruth, Right Field
Casey Stengel, Manager
Bill Terry, First Base
Pie Traynor, Third Base
Arky Vaughn, Shortstop
Honus Wagner, Shortstop
Lloyd Waner, Center Field
Paul Waner, Right Field
Despite the destruction of the stands by fires in the fall of 1934 and winter of 1935, the area was to retain its usefulness as a baseball diamond into the 1940s. Joe Gemza recalls helping clean up the area so the kids in Kossuth Colony could play ball. Tom Johnson remembers that later Clyde “Chief” Gehring, teacher and baseball coach at Kiser High School, directed the team in a down-to-earth learning experience. They skinned the old infield, reestablished basepaths and the pitchers’ mound and thus provided a regulation ball field for high school interscholastic games. Later the City of Dayton supported the effort by assisting in grounds keeping duties.
Kiser High School star athlete Bob Borkowski, known then as “Bush” Borkowski, became a major leaguer and played with the Chicago Cubs, Brooklyn Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds.
Umpires prominent at North Side Field were Sammy Fleet, Charlie Thompson, Claude Norris, Shorty Menzler, and Dutch Heid.
Sometimes a carnival would settle in at the parking lot for a week of entertainment, with rides, freak and tawdry girly shows, games of chance with their flimsy prizes, pork tenderloin sandwiches, cotton candy and other confections.
In those depression years, baseballs were valuable items and fouls and home-run balls hit outside the park were usually returned to the dugouts for additional use. Special cops and boys were hired to retrieve these balls. It was an exciting game for the kids in the neighboring Kossuth Hungarian Colony to chase after fouls and homers, escape the ball boys and special cops, either keep the ball or present it at the bleacher gate for admission to the game. Sometimes these balls were presented to local team players and visiting stars for signatures. But usually after months of service as mantelpiece items, the signature of the famed became scuffed and faded as they returned to their primary functions as game items in the streets, lots and playgrounds.
House of David – Shroyers Exhibition – 1931
Night baseball was introduced to Dayton fans when the House of David team from Benton Harbor, Michigan, erected their portable lights at the North Side Field for a game with the William A. Shroyer & Son’s semi-pro team. The House of David team, a group of talented long-haired, bearded players, introduced the novelty of baseball under artificial lighting in many American major and minor league parks during the summer of 1931. There was mixed reaction from baseball followers to the effects of illuminating a ballpark with eight sets of bucket lights on poles powered by a 200,000-watt generator in this game.
Pre-game entertainment was provided by several of the bearded boys putting on their famous, often imitated “pepper” game: a skillful and comic exhibition of fielding bunted baseballs.
An added attraction was the appearance of 44-year-old Grover Cleveland Alexander, the all-time great major league pitcher. Unlike the bearded boys, Alexander was clean-shaven and pitched the ninth inning, allowing no hits.
Later, the same Shroyer team had to substitute for the House of David for the introduction of night baseball using the House of David lighting equipment at Redland Field against the Reds who were reluctant to experience baseball under the lights. The substitution was necessary since the House of David team had too many outlawed players for an exhibition game against an organized major league team abiding by Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis rules.
Women played a minor role in sports at North Side Field. Local amateur girls teams sometimes played preliminary games at the ballpark. Women also participated in exhibition donkey baseball games in which the players would ride donkeys around the bases. Another popular event at North Side Field was the 1931 “Hollywood Girls” exhibition game in which the visiting team of young starlets lost to the Dayton Shroyers. Although the girls lost in Dayton, they won nearly half the games they played around the country that season. Before the start of the game, other girls in the visiting troupe staged a revue performance.
Thanks to the following:
For their encouragement, information and technical assistance
William Furst, Jr.
Hillerich & Bradsby, Co. Inc.
Mrs. Mac Hummon
Interlibrary Loan staff of the Dayton & Montgomery County Public Library
Kiser Middle School Library
Kenneth J. Kuntz
Magazine Room staff of the Dayton & Montgomery County Public Library
National Afro-American Museum & Cultural Center
Negro League Baseball Museum
Wilberforce University Library