Distilled History

A Drinking Blog with a History Problem

Archive for the ‘St. Louis Sports’ Category

January 28th, 2014 by Cameron

Adding a Bit of Color to St. Louis History

Union General Ambrose Burnside

In recent months, I’ve noticed a trend in the world of digital photography that I think is pretty neat. In various blogs, social media feeds, and Internet articles, folks have been posting colorized versions of historic black and white photographs. Try googling something like “Civil War in color”, and you’ll find scores of Rebs in butternut, Yanks in blue, and battlefields scattered with dead versions of each. All of them are decked out in a full spectrum of color.

I know some people are opposed to the practice, but I’m a fan. Detractors suggest colorizing black and white photography destroys the artist’s original vision, and there is merit to that argument. Tell me a colorized version of Identical Twins by Diane Arbus is better than the original, and we’ll go a few rounds. But on the other hand, I think Civil War photographers like Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner would have used color photography if it was available during their time. Either way, the original will always be there to look at (and prefer) if one chooses to do so.

Actually, I think the entire argument is a waste of time. Most of the colorized historic photographs I’ve seen online don’t look sufficiently realistic to begin with (the image of Burnside by Mads Madsen being a notable exception). Few get the flesh tones right, vegetation is often overwhelmingly monotone, and finer details get largely ignored. It still doesn’t bother me in the least, because I think it’s all just good fun. For me, it’s simply entertaining to look at a color version of a moment in time that I’ve never seen in color before.

Imagination is fun, and that’s as far as it goes in my book.

Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967 by Diane Arbus

When I was a photography student in college, one of my favorite classes was a techniques class in which colorizing our own black and white photography was at the heart of several assignments. This was back in 1992 (yikes), and Photoshop was a long way off. Instead, we colorized by hand using Marshall Photo Oils, tinting agents, and a variety of chemicals. Of the several photographs I colored, maybe one or two at were good enough to put on a wall. Maybe the others weren’t, but I still had fun seeing what I could do.

Anyway, in continuing my streak of unfortunate months of January, I recently emerged from a three-week trip to the gates of Hell. Others may know this experience as having a bad case of the flu. Unfortunately, this was no minor case of sniffles and mild coughing. I thought I was a tough guy and didn’t need a flu shot this year. Instead, I missed two weeks of work, lost ten pounds, and nearly landed in the hospital. I even vomited on my cat.

Kitty survived the ordeal, but I spent weeks without an ounce of the energy needed to come near this blog. Even the thought of drinking one of my beloved Manhattans made my stomach turn (which is also the reason a drink doesn’t accompany this post). In order to preserve my sanity while I waited for various drugs to kick in, I surprisingly found working with Photoshop to be a good way to pass the time. Turns out pushing pixels around a computer screen is the perfect low-impact flu activity. It also didn’t require any deep thought, providing a welcome respite for my perpetually aching head.

With that in hand, I went about trying to figure out how to add a bit of color to St. Louis’ past.

Before I display my initial attempts at this new hobby, I can’t resist taking the opportunity to show off one of the more… amusing reasons I first chose to dabble in Photoshop many years ago. My good pal Hopkins knows this all too well. The experience certainly helped me in this new endeavor.

Musical Hopkins!

When I got down to it, I found that colorizing photographs is not difficult, but it’s extremely time-consuming. This post probably required more hours of work than any other in the life of this blog, and looking at the result, I’m not sure it was worth it. I also think that if I didn’t have a 102 temperature, coloring leaves for eight hours straight would have sent me off completely off the edge. But in the end, I think I produced a few examples worthy enough to display here. Most importantly, I had fun. And now that I’m nearly healed up, I promise to put this new hobby aside and get back to a the historic, long-winded, and drunken Distilled History posts that many of you are used to.

While I took a stab at this with a few images from previous Distilled History posts, I also found a few new images that helped me figure this out the necessary techniques (in other words, portraits with sharp focus are ideal). Notably, I was delighted to find numerous photographs by the legendary Lewis Wickes Hine in the photo archives of the Library of Congress. Hines became famous for using photography as a tool to promote social reform, most notably as a means to get child labor regulations implemented. In the early 20th century, he photographed many truant children on the streets of St. Louis working long hours at various street jobs.

This photograph shows three young “newsies” on Jefferson Avenue. It was taken on May 9th, 1910.

Newsies at Skeeter's Branch by Lewis Hine

Colorization of Newsies at Skeeter's Branch

I tried colorizing an image from the 1904 World’s Fair, but I was quickly overwhelmed. However, many images from the 1904 Olympics are perfect for colorizing. This photograph shows American Fred Winters competing in the weightlifting competition. He went on to win the silver medal.

Read more about the 1904 Olympics in this post and this post, both published in the summer of 2012.

Weightlifter Fred Winters at the 1904 Olympics

Historic photographs of daily life are by far my favorite. I often wish I could just leap into an image such as the one below and ask the subjects what their lives are like. In this case, I want to ask these two kids why they didn’t choose a spot away from the public toilet to play a game of marbles.

Boys Playing Marbles in an Alley

Colorized version of Boys Playing Marbles in an Alley

In May 1896, one of the deadliest and costliest tornados in American history ripped through the heart of south St. Louis. The aftermath was photographed extensively, and several remarkable images are available online. While the tornado made short work of a bandstand in Lafayette Square Park, the statue of Thomas Hart Benton (that still stands today) survived unharmed.

Read more about the 1896 Cyclone in this Distilled History post published in November 2012.

Aftermath of the 1896 Cyclone in Lafayette Square Park

Colorization of 1896 Cycle Aftermath

James “Cool Papa” Bell led the Negro League St. Louis Stars to two World Championships in 1928 and 1930. One of the greatest ballplayers to ever call St. Louis home, many believe the speedy center fielder was one of the fastest men to ever play the game.

Read more about St. Louis baseball history in this Distilled History post published in April 2013.

James

On May 5, 1910, Lewis Hine photographed a boy named “Gurley” selling newspapers at the corner of Washington and 18th in downtown St. Louis.

Gurley on 18th & Washington

Gurley on 18th & Washington Colorized

Water sports at the 1904 Olympics were contested in a man-made lake located at the present-day corner of Skinker and Wydown. Unfortunately, livestock from nearby World’s Fair agricultural exhibits used the same lake to bathe and defecate in. As a result, many competitors became severely ill. Four water polo players died of typhus within a year.

Read more about the 1904 Olympics in this post and this post, both published in the summer of 2012.

1904 Olympic Swimmers

When I first thought of this project, I knew colorizing one or more of the St. Louis Motordrome images taken by J.R.Eike in the early 20th Century was a must. Men like the two guys below risked death by racing motorcycles at speeds over 100mph on steep track embankments. The St. Louis Motordrome that once stood at Grand and Meramec in south city had a 62 degree embankment, which was one of the steepest tracks ever built.

Use of J.R. Eike’s photographs are courtesy of Thomas Kempland. Read more about the St. Louis Motordrome in this Distilled History post published in September 2012.

St. Louis Motodrome

St. Louis Motordrome Colorized

This photograph shows the main entrance to Schnaider’s Beer Garden, which thrived at the intersection of Mississippi and Chouteau in the late 19th century. Located across the street from his brewery, up to 10,000 people at a time could pack Schnaider’s and fill their bellies with beer. Another fun fact about Schnaider’s is the band that played nightly at Schnaider’s would eventually evolve into the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Read more about Schnaider’s Beer Garden in this Distilled History post published in October 2012.

Schnaider's Beer Garden

Colorization of Schnaider's Beer Garden Photograph

 

April 1st, 2013 by Cameron

The Bygone Ballparks of St. Louis

Baseball

Opening day! There are few days on the calendar that I look forward to more than this one. By far my favorite sport, I love the start of a new season. It won’t be long before I’m sitting on my porch listening to ballgames and drinking good gin.

Baseball is another reason why I love this city. Imagine re-writing baseball history without St. Louis. Imagine eliminating the Gashouse Gang, Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, and Ozzie Smith from that narrative.  Eliminate the St. Louis Browns, “Cool Papa” Bell, Sportsman’s Park, Branch Rickey, eleven World Series championships, and  two (maybe three) Negro National League Championships. Without St. Louis, the story of baseball suddenly becomes significantly diminished. Best of all, the fans here are passionate, they drape themselves in Cardinal red, and they fill Busch Stadium no matter where the Cardinals sit in the standings. It is a great baseball city.

Now that I’ve probably made every Cardinal fan who reads this blog a little warm and happy inside, I’ll make a confession that may alienate each and every one of them.

I loathe the St. Louis Cardinals.

I Don't Like the Cardinals

That’s right. I am no Cardinal fan. I could barely handle it when St. Louis won those improbable championships in 2006 and 2011. I despised those Mark McGwire years when he was crushing balls off facades and breaking the Roger Maris home run record.  I still roll my eyes when I see David Eckstein shirts being worn at Cardinal games. Eckstein? Seriously?

My fellow St. Louisans, before you unsubscribe from this blog and hunt me down like a lippy Cub fan, please hear me out. We aren’t that much different. I love this city and the people in it. I love the buildings, the parks, the neighborhoods, and obviously, baseball. I just happen to come from a different part of the country. Born and raised in upstate New York, my baseball loyalties were firmly established long before I set foot in this city. From the moment of my entry into this world, I was bred to be an unapologetic disciple of the Evil Empire.

Before I get to the real purpose of this post, let me provide an infographic to detail the history of my Yankee heritage. Hopefully, it will help my St. Louis friends and neighbors understand that shifting my allegiances based on a current address (which is something I am told to do often) simply isn’t going to happen.

My Yankee Family Tree

With that unpleasant business out of the way, let’s get to the real purpose of this post. With baseball being such a rich tradition in St. Louis, I wanted to find out more about where the game has been played in this city. Since I enjoy seeing where old structures used to be, I hatched a plan to find out where every pro ballpark once stood in St. Louis.

The Ballparks of St. Louis

Fortunately, this turned out to be a pretty simple task. While scouring baseball books and articles, I kept stumbling upon one particular name. A St. Louis baseball historian named Joan Thomas had researched this topic in great detail already. After reading a few fascinating articles written by her, I purchased her book St. Louis’ Big League Ballparks. It told me everything I needed to know except where to find a good drink along the way.

The Plaque at Federal League Park

I also discovered most of the ballpark locations in St. Louis have commemorative plaques erected where they stood. These plaques were put in place by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). Many of the ballpark histories written for SABR’s project were also written by Joan Thomas. Each plaque contains a brief history of the team, significant facts, and a diagram of the layout. Kudos to SABR, Ms. Thomas, and anyone else who had a hand in this project. I believe it’s a great way to celebrate baseball history in St. Louis.

I strongly recommend baseball fans go out and find these locations on their own. It’s fun to stand where these ballparks once stood and think about how the game of baseball was once played there.

Follow along as I visit each of the bygone ballparks of St. Louis. The parks are listed in order of their closing, starting with one that I knew absolutely nothing about.

Red Stockings Park

I have driven or bicycled over the Compton Avenue railroad overpass hundreds of times, perhaps thousands. Until reading an article by Joan Thomas, I had no idea that beneath that bridge once stood one of St. Louis’s earliest ballparks. In fact, it is where the first professional baseball game in St. Louis was played on May 4, 1875.

Red Stockings Park

Although not recognized by Major League Baseball as a Major League, the first professional baseball league ever formed in the United States was the National Association of Professional Baseball Players. In 1875, two St. Louis clubs opted to move up from amateur status and join the league. The Brown Stockings, who played their games at the Grand Avenue Grounds, and the Red Stockings, who played in a new park on Compton Avenue just north of the railroad tracks. That park, known as “Red Stockings Park”, is where the two St. Louis teams met and played that historic first game.

Red Stocking Park Location

Loaded with a roster of  “imported” quality players from around the country, the Brown Stockings easily beat the Reds 15-9 (the score was 15-1 until the eighth inning). This was controversial, since many believed teams should consist of local talent, such as the Red Stockings St. Louis-based roster. Success on the field settled the argument. The Red Stockings lasted just a few months before leaving the league and dropping back down to amateur status. The Brown Stockings continued to play winning baseball. They’d become a charter member of the National League the following year.

Red Stockings Park would continue to be used for amateur baseball games and other contests until it was torn down in 1898.

Red Stocking Park Diagram

Union Base Ball Park

In 1883, a St. Louis millionaire named Henry Lucas decided to get in on the blossoming baseball craze. He created and funded the Union Association, a new baseball league that began play in 1884. Lucas also owned the dominant team in the league, the St. Louis Maroons. The Maroons played their home games at Union Base Ball Park, located at the northeast corner of Cass and Jefferson Avenues.

The 1886 St. Louis Maroons

Being the owner of the league, Lucas selfishly made sure his St. Louis club was the team to beat. At the expense of other teams, he stacked the Maroons with the best talent. As a result, the St. Louis Maroons dominated, winning the title with a 94-19 record (an .832 winning percentage). Many baseball historians don’t consider the league a major league because the St. Louis club was the only one with any legitimate talent. Fred Dunlap, lured to the Maroons when Lucas offered him the highest salary in the league, batted .412. It was eighty-six points higher than his career average.

The farce caused the Union Association to fold after just one year of play. With a quality roster, the Maroons joined the National League the following season. After playing in St. Louis in 1885 and 1886, the team was relocated and became the Indianapolis Hoosiers.

Union Ball Park Location

According to historian Joan Thomas, Union Base Ball park had a capacity of about 10,000. An enthusiastic supporter of sports, Lucas had the park surrounded by a cinder track for running and bicycling. The outfield was planted with blue grass and clover.  Center field contained a scoreboard, called a “bulletin board” that would display game scores from around the Union Association sent by telegraph.

Union Base Ball Park Diagram

Federal League Park

In 1915, a third major league was created to compete with the established National and American Leagues. Deemed an “outlaw” league by its competitors, the Federal league didn’t utilize the reserve clause, which forced a player to be bound to the team that signed him even after a contract expired. This fact, and the lure of higher salaries, caused many big name players such as Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown”, Chief Bender, and Eddie Plank to sign with Federal League Teams.

Harry Chapman of the 1915 St. Louis Terriers

The St. Louis entry into the Federal League was the Terriers. The team played their games at Federal League Park in 1914 and 1915 before a failed anti-trust suit against established leagues forced the Federal League to cease operations.

Although the league lasted only two seasons, the Federal League delivered one very large contribution to baseball. Wrigley Field in Chicago was originally named Weegham Park, and it was built for the Federal League Chicago Whales. The Cubs didn’t move there until 1916 when the Federal League folded.

Handlan's Park Location

Federal League Park was also called “Handlan’s Park” after the owner of the plot, Alexander H. Handlan. After the Federal League folded, the field was used as the St. Louis University Athletic Field. During the 1920 and 1921 seasons, the St. Louis Giants of the Negro National League played some home games there.

Handlan's Park Diagram

Robison Field

In researching this post, I played a little game where I asked several of my St. Louis friends a simple question. I asked them “Can you tell me the names of the four ballparks that the St. Louis Cardinals have called home?”. It was a fun bit of trivia to throw at them. The results were a bit surprising. Not a single person could name all four. Everyone was able to rattle off “Sportsman’s Park, Old Busch Stadium, and New Busch Stadium”. Not a single responder could give me the name of Robison Field,  the ballpark where the  St. Louis Brown Stockings/Browns/Perfectos/Cardinals played baseball from 1893-1920.

1911 St. Louis Cardinals at Robison Field

The history of the St. Louis Cardinals could be a library in itself, so for the purpose of this post, I’ll briefly describe how the Cardinals came to play their games at Robison Field. The St. Louis Cardinals started as the St. Louis Brown Stockings. After stints in the National Association (as mentioned in the game against the Red Stockings), the National League, and the American Association, the Browns would become permanent members of the National League in 1892. The team played their games at “Grand Avenue Grounds”, which would officially become “Sportsman’s Park” in 1886. In 1893, the owner of the club, Chris von der Ahe, built and moved the team to a new ballpark named “New Sportsman’s Park” just a few blocks away at the corner of Vandeventer and Natural Bridge. In 1899, the Browns changed their name to the “Perfectos”, along with changing the team colors from brown to cardinal red. The color change was so popular that the team name was changed to the “Cardinals” the following year.

Robison Field Opening Day

The ballpark at Natural Bridge and Vandeventer would be the home of the St. Louis Cardinals until 1920. It was here that Rogers Hornsby began a career that would make him one of the greatest hitters in baseball history. Cy Young was a member of the 1899 team. Other notable players include the future manager of the Yankees, Miller Huggins, and Bill Doak, who twice led the National League in ERA.

Robison Field is also home to some notable off-field events. In 1911, Helene Britton inherited the Cardinals when team owner Frank Robison died. She became the first female owner of a professional sports franchise in United States history. In 1919, Branch Rickey, the man who integrated baseball, became president and manager of the club.

Robison Field Location

Robison Field was the last professional ballpark that was made primarily of wood. It caught fire numerous times, notably in 1898 and 1901. By 1920, the structure had deteriorated and the team looked to relocate. The last Cardinal home game at Robison Field was played on June 6, 1920.

Fire at Robison Field

Robison Field continued to be owned by the Cardinals until the property was sold to developers. In 1926, Beaumont High School was built on the site. Beaumont has since created a rich baseball history of its own. The school has produced dozens of major league baseball players, managers, and coaches. Earl Weaver, the famous manager of the Baltimore Orioles, graduated from Beaumont in 1948.

Robison Field Diagram

Giant's Park

The St. Louis Giants were a Negro League baseball team that competed independently in the early 1900’s. Although the team played at several different ballparks around St. Louis, most of their home games were played at Giants or Kuebler’s Park on North Broadway Avenue.

Kuebler's Park in 1909The St. Louis Giants would become one of the charter members of the Negro National League, the first long-lasting professional league for African-American players. The league was founded by Andrew “Rube” Foster, a legendary man known as the “father of Black Baseball”. The Giants played at Kuebler’s Park for two seasons before being sold, renamed, and moved.

Crowds as large as 5,000 would fill the seats at Kuebler’s Park to cheer on the Giants. Their best player was Oscar Charleston, a future Hall of Famer who batted .436 during the 1921 season.

Kuebler's Park Location

Stars Park

The St. Louis Giants didn’t have to move far when they were sold in 1922. The new owners renamed the club the St. Louis Stars and built them a shiny new ballpark at the corner of Compton and Market.  Stars Park, as it would be called, was one of the few ballparks built specifically for a Negro League Team.

The 1928 St. Louis Stars

Stars Park is the field where one of the greatest players to ever step on a diamond began his baseball career. James “Cool Papa” Bell started as a pitcher for the for the Stars in 1921 at the age of nineteen. Like Babe Ruth a few years earlier, Bell began playing outfield on non-pitching days. By 1924, he became the teams full-time center fielder. Considered one of the fastest men to ever play the game, “Cool Papa” Bell led the St. Louis Stars to Negro National League titles in 1928 and 1930.

The famous pitcher Satchel Paige once said about Bell: “One time he hit a line drive right past my ear. I turned around and saw the ball hit his ass sliding into second.”

Stars Park Diagram

Along with “Cool Papa” Bell, the St. Louis Stars boasted two other future Hall of Famers. George “Mule” Suttle and Willie “Devil” Wells played with the St. Louis Stars until 1931 when the league folded. The Stars had the best record at the time the league folded, so they were declared champions in that final year. This title is disputed by many baseball historians.

According to baseball historian Joan Thomas, Stars Park had a capacity of 10,000 people. It was known as a hitters park, with a home run to left field only 250 feet away. Today, the same field is used by the Harris-Stowe University baseball team.

Stars Park Location

After folding in 1931, the St. Louis Stars were reincarnated in 1937 and again 1939 to play in the Negro American League. This team had no relation to the earlier version other than reusing the Stars name. According to Philip J. Lowry in his book Green Cathedrals, the 1937 team played at Metropolitan Park, the same site as Giants or Kuebler’s Park. The 1939 team played at South End Park, which was located on South Kingshighway, just south of Tower Grove Park. In my limited time to research this post, I’ve been unable to find any photographs, diagrams, or articles to further describe these ballparks.

Sportsman's Park

Sportsman’s Park, perhaps the most famous baseball park in St. Louis, began its tenure as the Grand Avenue Grounds in 1867. Few sites in the United States can claim a baseball heritage as rich as the plot of land that sits at the corner of Grand and Dodier in north St. Louis.

1910 St. Louis Browns

Baseball was played at that intersection for over ninety years.  Ten World Series and three Major League Baseball All-Star games happened there. The names of great players who competed at Sportsman’s Park is like a Cooperstown roll call: Stan Musial, George Sisler, Lou Brock, Satchel Paige, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Grover Alexander, Willie Mays, Lou Gehrig, and many others.

Grand Avenue Grounds

When Chris von der Ahe moved his club to Robison field and changed the name, the Browns name, colors, and ballpark were now available. In 1902, the Milwaukee Brewers relocated to St. Louis and adopted them all. They built a new stadium, aptly naming it “Sportsman’s Park” For the next fifty-one years, Sportsman’s Park would be the home of the American League’s St. Louis Browns.

Sportsman's Park LocationIn 1920, the St. Louis Cardinals became tenants of the St. Louis Browns when they moved from Robison Field to play home games at Sportsman’s Park.  However, it was the renters that soon began winning pennants. Although more successful during the first twenty years of  century, the Browns slid into a long tenure at the bottom of the standings.

Despite a notable Browns vs. Cardinals World Series in 1944, it became apparent by the early 1950’s that St. Louis could no longer support two major league teams. In 1953, the Browns sold the stadium to the Cardinals and relocated to become today’s Baltimore Orioles.

Sportsman's Park

1953 is also noteworthy for it is the year that Anhueser-Busch purchased the St. Louis Cardinals. The owners wanted to change the name of the stadium to “Budweiser Stadium”, but the Commissioner feared a public backlash against a stadium named after a beer. In response, August Busch simply named the stadium after himself. Sportsman’s Park was officially renamed “Busch Stadium”. In a peculiar coincidence, Busch beer was introduced to the American market just two years later.

Sportsman's Park Diagram

Busch Memorial Stadium

The final ballpark in the Distilled History stadium tour is one that has only been gone for about eight years. What many people now call “Old Busch Stadium” was built in 1966 in downtown St. Louis. The first of the multi-use “cookie-cutter” designs to be built during the 1960’s, Busch Memorial Stadium was the home of the St. Louis Cardinals until the end of the 2005 season.

Busch Memorial Stadium

I was never a fan of the cookie-cutter stadiums (thankfully, they are all gone), but I think St. Louis had the best of the bunch.The ninety-six arches that surrounded the roof added a nice touch to the design.

Old Busch Stadium is also where my darkest baseball memory occurred. The one time that I can say I rooted for the Cardinals like I was born and bred in this city was during the 2004 World Series against the Boston Red Sox. Just as the Yankees failed to do in the American League playoffs that year, the Cardinals couldn’t stop that wretched organization from winning its first title since 1918.

Busch Memorial Stadium

Busch Stadium had a capacity of over 57,000 when it closed in 2005. Old Busch Stadium hosted the 1966 All-Star game and six World Series (1967, 1968, 1982, 1985, 1987, and 2004). The stadium was the site of Mark McGwire’s 62nd and 70th home runs in 1998.

Busch Municipal Stadium Location

The Drink

Vallerie's Sit & Sip Cocktail Bar

When it comes to finding a drink for a baseball post, there isn’t one more appropriate than cold beer. I certainly have never ordered a cocktail at a ballgame, and I should be justifiably heckled if I did.

Except for Old Busch Stadium, few of the old ballpark sites are anywhere near a bar. But one park stands out in this list, and that’s where I had to get my beer. Sitting at the corner of Sullivan and Spring, just across the street from where Sportsman’s Park once stood, sits Valerie’s Sit and Sip Cocktail Lounge.

These days, most St. Louisans know the neighborhood around Sportsman’s Park has fallen on difficult times. It’s not a neighborhood where a guy driving a Honda with a notebook and camera goes looking for a drink. But as I stood on the field trying to guess where Babe Ruth caught the final out to win the 1928 World Series, Valerie’s Lounge beckoned.

Since it was early in the day, I figured the place had to be empty. I could get a cold beer and maybe ask Valerie (if there really is a Valerie) if she knew anything about the ballpark that once stood on the opposite corner.

I’m still at a loss to describe what happened next. I opened the door to Valerie’s, and I was confronted with a bar packed with people.  It looked deserted outside, but at least seventy-five people were inside drinking like it was going out of style. A deejay was in the corner playing loud music, and many people were dancing (if grinding can be considered “dancing”).

When the door opened, seventy-five heads snapped around and looked at Wally Cleaver standing in the entrance.  Gathering my surroundings, I smiled, pushed my way to the bar, and tried (very unsuccessfully) to convey an aura of knowing what the hell I was doing.

Miller High Life at Valerie's

Since it was so loud, all I could do was point at something to place an order. Although I planned to get a Busch, the only beer I saw people drinking was Miller High Life. A very stern woman stood behind the bar serving drinks. I’m not sure if it was Valerie, but I could tell no monkey business was allowed in this bar. When it was my turn to order, I simply pointed at an empty High Life bottle.Getting my beer, I tipped Valerie very well and smiled broadly while I did so. There’d be no talk of ballparks today.

(update! Since publishing this post, a gracious reader forwarded me this link with a full history of the famous bar I picked by chance. I’m glad to report I picked a very appropriate place to get a drink)

The only person to engage me in conversation was a woman who walked by and said “How you doin’ baby?”. I stumbled over my response, but people around me seemed good-natured and amused. When I tried to explain what I was doing there, I noticed my new friend had started to tickle my lower back.  I quickly decided to cap my visit to Valerie’s with just one beer.

I worked my way back outside and was harshly reminded by the glaring sun that it was only one p.m.. I walked back across the street and took another look at the empty space where one of the most famous baseball fields in American history once stood. It’s where Stan Musial once hit five home runs in a double-header, where Enos Slaughter’s “Mad Dash” won the 1946 World Series, and where three-foot seven-inch Eddie Gaedel was sent in to pitch hit for the St. Louis Browns. It’s where my beloved Yankees won two World Series titles in 1928 and 1943. In turn, the Cardinals would best the Yanks for three championships on that same field, and add four more against others. It all happened, and much more, on just that one city block.

Feeling sufficiently nostalgic, I jumped back into my Honda and drove away.

Along with the book by Joan Thomas, a few other baseball books were very helpful in writing this post. Before they were Cardinals : Major League Baseball in Nineteenth-century St. Louis by John David Cash, Green Cathedrals by Philip J. Lowry, and Baseball in St. Louis 1900-1925 by Steve Steinberg. Although it wasn’t used for this post, David Halberstam’s October 1964 is a must for any Cardinal/baseball fan.

September 10th, 2012 by Cameron

The St. Louis Motordrome

St. Louis Motordrome Racer Wells Bennett - Photograph by J.R. Eike, courtesy of Thomas Kempland

One of the joys of starting this blog is how I sometimes just bump into the hidden past of St. Louis. These days, when I bike to work, drive around, or explore new parts of the city, I’m always on the lookout for something new. This city is filled with history. As a result, I have started filling up notebooks and blog drafts with ideas and topics that I plan to investigate at a later date.

Recently, I found records of a St. Louis structure that I had never heard of before. I was clicking through some St. Louis websites looking for ideas, and I stumbled upon a webpage filled with a fascinating collection of old photographs.

The collection contains about 100 photographs taken by a man named J.R. Eike between the years 1914 and 1917. They come from a collection of glass plate negatives recently rescued from the trash heap by a St. Louisan named Thomas Kempland. Knowing he had quite a find on his hands, Mr. Kempland took the time to digitally scan the plates and post the images on the Internet for others to enjoy.

Even better, I was able to track Mr. Kempland down and get his permission to use them for this post. The images in this post are copyrighted and are not public domain. I am grateful to Mr. Kempland for allowing me to share them on this blog.

The photographs provide a fantastic look at St. Louis nearly 100 years ago. Included are images of Forest Park, random street scenes, parades, and various church groups. It also contains noteworthy images such as the aftermath of a tornado, construction of an Anheuser-Busch Brewery, and the opening of Bevo Mill. Back in his day, Mr. Eike was obviously a prolific photographer.

The images that really drew my attention were a series of photographs of men posing on old-time motorcycles. As I looked them over, I also noticed the peculiar track they were posed on. One particular photograph, taken on September 6, 1914, shows the track from above. The word “Motordrome” is written across the image. I had never heard of a “motordrome” before, but the steep banking curve in the photograph looked completely insane. People raced motorcycles on tracks like this? And one existed in St. Louis? I had to find out more about this structure.

The St. Louis Motordrome

After a bit of research, I was able to find more information about motordromes. It turns out they were arena-like structures built for a popular sport during the the 1910’s and 1920’s called “Board Track Racing”.

Board track racing evolved from the European velodrome, on which bicycles would race on circular or oval tracks with banked curves. Eventually, unique structures for motorcycle racing were built with higher banks that enabled faster speeds. They were made entirely of wood, which made them cheap to construct. Even the track surface was made of 2×4 wooden planks, hence the name “board track racing”. In time, the wooden structures came to be known as “motordromes”.

And St. Louis had one of the most remarkable motordromes of them all. It was located in Priester’s Park, an amusement resort that was located at the intersection of Grand and Meramec in south city. Priester’s Park is also noteworthy in that it was the first park in St. Louis to host hot air balloon racing competitions. That tradition continues to this day in St. Louis, notably with the Forest Park balloon races that are held each year. In this early plat drawing, the St. Louis Motordrome can be seen as a circular 1/4 mile track. It was twenty-four feet high and could hold fifty thousand spectators.

St. Louis Motordrome Map

(plat image courtesy of carlylehold)
 

Today, no trace of Priester’s Park or the St. Louis Motordrome remains. Over the years, several houses and businesses have been built on the triangle-shaped corner of Grand and Meramec. The image below looks toward the general area where the motordrome once stood.

(Update: A friendly reader took a close look at the map above and pointed out that I had identified the wrong corner where Priester’s Park was once located. Turns out he was exactly right! As of September 6, 2013, I have updated this post with a new photograph below displaying the correct corner.)

Corner of Grand & Meramec Today

The first motordrome in the United States was built in 1909 in Los Angeles. The banking curve of that track had an angle of about twenty degrees. As the sport grew in popularity, tracks started being designed with steeper banks in order to increase speeds and give racers an easier time handling a motorcycle. The person (or should I say “maniac”) who designed the St. Louis track gave it a banked curve with a whopping sixty-two degree angle. It was the steepest motordrome banking curve in the world. On such an angle, racers could “ride the boards” at speeds over one-hundred miles an hour. To make it even more interesting, the motorcycles didn’t have a suspension, clutch, throttle, or brakes. It was simply full-go. To slow down or stop, racers had two choices: 1. Use a kill switch to stop the engine and coast, or 2. Crash.

It was an extremely dangerous sport for competitors and spectators. Faster speeds brought higher casualties. Deadly crashes became common since racers wore minimal safety equipment. Even if a crash was avoided, racers had to worry about being impaled by splinters or hitting loose nails. Fans watched board track racing from above and looked down on the action. If a rider lost control, it usually resulted in a motorcycle and rider flying off the track and into the crowd. Unfortunately, St. Louis was not immune to such tragedy. Here are two clippings from St. Louis newspapers at the time depicting horrible crashes.

St. Louis Motordrome Crashes

(images courtesy of carlylehold)

The most notable board track racing tragedy occurred in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1912. Eddie Hasha, dubbed the “Texas Tornado”, was racing at about ninety-two miles an hour when he lost control of his machine. As a result, he rode directly into the upper rail surrounding the track. His machine struck a post, throwing Hasha into the grandstands and killing him instantly. At least five spectators were also killed, most being teenagers who had leaned their heads over the rail to watch the crash. While Hasha flew out of the track, his motorcycle kept going. It dropped back down onto the racing surface and collided with another racer. That racer was knocked unconscious and died four hours later in a hospital. Several people suffered broken bones and wounds from the panic of the crowd as it attempted to get out of the way. It was such a tragic event that it made the front page of the New York Times. Many point to that crash as the beginning of the end of board track racing in the United States. The shorter 1/4 and 1/2-mile circular tracks (such as the one in St. Louis), were quickly nicknamed “murderdromes” by the media. Soon after, the national organization that oversaw motorcycle racing banned tracks shorter than one mile.

Another reason board track racing fell out of favor was the high cost of maintenance. Since motordromes were made of wood, the tracks needed constant upkeep. Adequate weather proofing was not available at the time, so continuously putting in new wooden tracks became expensive. By the early 1930’s, board track racing in the United States all but disappeared. Although board track racing is no longer a competitive sport in the United States, it still maintains a fanbase in Europe, particuarly Germany.

The St. Louis Motordome is long gone, but thanks to the efforts of people like Mr. Kempland, we have some great photographic records of the track and the racers that competed on it:

Board Track Racer Wells Bennett

Unknown Bicyclist at St. Louis Motordrome

Unknown racer at St. Louis Motordrome

Group photo at St. Louis Motordrome

St. Louis Motordrome Racer Paul Schmidt

Board track racer John B. Hoefeler

Board track racers at St. Louis Motordrome

Unknown Racer outside St. Louis Motordrome

Unknown Racer at St. Louis Motordrome

The Drink

 

The Feasting Fox

Finding a drink for this post was a piece of cake. On the opposite corner of what was once Priester’s Park now sits one of the most noteworthy eating and drinking establishments in St. Louis. Built in 1913, Al Smith’s Feasting Fox in St. Louis was originally built and operated by the Anheuser-Busch brewery.

The Feasting Fox was originally known as “Busch’s Gretchen Inn”. It’s a distinct building with a timber and stucco construction. It has a steeply pitched roof and a unique corner turret. It looks like it was plucked out of Bavaria and dropped in south St. Louis. The style reflects the early German population of St. Louis and the Dutchtown neighborhood it sits in.

Bush’s Gretchen Inn and Bevo Mill were built in an effort by Anhueser-Busch to show that beer could be served in respectable family establishments. At the time, alcohol was generally served in seedy saloons filled with ruffians and drunkards. It was places like these that gave the prohibition movement momentum.

In 1920, the 18th ammendment was enacted, prohibiting the sale, manufacturing, and transportation of alcohol. Anhueser-Busch was able to stay in business by selling a range of non-alcoholic products. As a result, its two restaurants in St. Louis city also remained open. However, when prohibition was repealed in 1933, new anti-trust laws forbade breweries from operating drinking establishments. The restaurant was leased to a man named Al Smith, who changed the name of the restaurant to “Al Smith’s Feasting Fox”.

Tasty Dopplebock

The Feasting Fox evolved over the years. It had some ownership turnover and even sat empty for several years in the 1980’s. It was purchased and rehabbed to its current condition in 1993. It’s a striking when one drives towards in on Grand Avenue. And despite my years of poking through the corners of St. Louis, I had never been inside. Since it once sat in the shadow of the St. Louis Motordrome, it was time to get a drink at the Feasting Fox.

I visited the Feasting Fox in the late afternoon on a Saturday. It had just opened, so the few customers inside made it seem like a relatively quiet tavern. The inside decor is eclectic, historic, and inviting. The bartender (a very friendly fellow) identified me right away as a Feasting Fox rookie. After learning that I was doing a little research, he recommended a Weihenstephaner dopplebock. Due to the Anhueser-Busch origins, getting a beer at the Feasting Fox seemed far more appropriate than a cocktail. Along with a variety plate of tasty German sausages, I kicked back and enjoyed a few beers.

I look forward to heading back to the Feasting Fox with some pals. It’s historical and it’s cool to think that you are drinking in the same building where motordrome racers and spectators would throw a few back after a day of racing (and if there was a crash, they probably needed more than a few). It doesn’t seem to be a place to go for cocktails, but it’s a definitely a unique place to bring out of town guests for a few beers and some German food.

The Feasting Fox

 

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