You know that saying “You’ll live to regret this”? I had one of those days where I wondered if I’d live at all. Now, that probably sounds a little dramatic, and maybe it is, but it was one of those days where I questioned if what I was doing, was what I should be doing… All the while doing it.
Our night before had stretched until 2am, and I was honestly debating whether I really wanted to get up or not. I’d been interested in checking out a few of the old Negro League markers that I had read about in Josh Pahigan’s book and was facing the internal struggle of whether or not it was worth it.
I chose the 7:20am wake up. I say there was a debate, but there wasn’t. When I’m on the road, I’m there to see everything I can. How do I know when or if I’ll be back? It’s that mentality that drives me pretty much from sun-up, to sun-down, and beyond.
I asked Ted if he wanted to go, but he told me to have a good time before falling back into a deep sleep. I left at 7:30am with a morning planned around giving me plenty of time to visit the sites of the past, the home of the Homestead Grays, along with West Field, Ammon Field, and Greenlee Field. On the way back I’d hoped to hit the University of Pittsburgh and the outfield wall and homeplate of Forbes Field, former home of the Pirates. What I didn’t know then, was the different experiences that were waiting for me through the rest of the day.
Bob Marley’s ‘Resurrection Song’ was playing on the radio as I drove into Homestead, and it set the mood for things to come. My first stop was Grays Field, or at least the parking lot where Grays Field use to be. There was a historical marker on the edge of a parking lot overlooking a mall. This edge of Homestead was clean and new, but the further I got into Homestead, the more the neighborhood showed its age. The old Municipal Building was boarded up and trashed, but in its day, it would have been impressive. I drove through the outskirts of Homestead, going away from the directions I had so that I could see what town was really like. That’s the biggest thing about these trips – Don’t be afraid to get off the freeway or the main roads, you’re missing the experience of what that area might be really like, sometimes warts and all.
Driving to Munhall through Homestead gave me a good read of the neighborhood. There was big difference between streets just on how the houses looked; a sad tale of two different extremes. West Field was on the back of the town’s Municipal Building and a fire station. It was in sorry shape.
The first thing that hit me about West Field was the smell. It reminded me of one of the girl’s overly moldy juice cups. Everything was dirty, cracked, or rusted. The steps to the bleachers were missing huge chunks that showed years of layered concrete. Both dugouts, while painted in the last few years, were tagged with graffiti, and so were the long, dark hallways to the locker room that smelled like urine. When I reached the doors to the locker room, I could see crusted hand prints on the door, but shuddered at the thought of what had been used to make them.
I went down the corridors to both locker rooms, stood at the door, took a deep breath… And pushed.
Both doors were locked tight. Here I was in Munhall, PA, wanting to go down into the old locker rooms, but at the same time a little fearful of what I might find behind them. I walked to the side of the farthest dugout where there was an old wooden man-door sized panel on the side, and it was open. I peered inside hoping for a gateway to history, but instead I was just greeted by a room filled with old road signs, fire hoses, rebar, and more. As near as I could tell (by tracing the lines of the stands,) I was looking at a portion of the old locker room. I crouched down through the dark and stepped in.
The creaking of the old signs and piping made walking tough, especially without a flashlight. I took two pictures with the flash on my camera (this was before iPhones, kids) hoping it would give me a better view, but no luck. I had to abandon my tour, a tour my wife (and definitely my Mom) would not have approved of. I tried to go in from the back, which was a city owned junk heap, ignoring the ‘No Trespassing’ signs, but the back was locked tight too.
I know what you’re thinking. ‘What the hell was I thinking?’ The locker room obsession started because the man at the hotel front desk said his kids had played there and had made their way into the old locker rooms. His son said the lockers were still there, just a bit dusty. After being there, there was no way in hell – his kid was full of crap, or he was. The junk on that side door had been there for years, and the guy at that counter wasn’t that old.
The field was in poor shape too. It was Little League sized now on the diamond. The dirt was hardened like stone, with deep bird prints that almost looked fossilized. The entire field was covered in bird crap, and the grass, while cut high, was filled with weeds. It had been a long time since anyone had played here. I took a few windups from the mount, wishing I had a glove and a ball – I wanted to give the dirt and grass the feel of being alive again, and give it the respect it deserves. It’s disappointing that for all of the historical markers locally, and in the city, that West Field looks the way it does; disrespected, missing even a marker of its former glory.
Going back to the story of total opposites, the former Ammon Field is now a Rec center in what is an obviously black neighborhood. At close to 10am on a Sunday, families were streaming from their churches, dressed for service. When I walked to and from the marker (which was next to a church,) I nodded and exchanged pleasant ‘Hellos’ to everyone I passed. Good bet that a few of them thought I was lost. I normally take pictures of the different sites I visit, but didn’t at the Ammon Field marker out of respect for those coming and leaving church, where from the street I could hear a choir performing inside. Looking down from the marker, I could see a new Rec baseball field below. It’s a shame that Munhall hasn’t shown or received the same attention.
The neighborhood in and around Greenlee Field has seen better days. The old Crawford Grill was out of business, and if there had been a marker for Greenlee Field, it was gone now. The only hope for the area were the signs for attempted renovation projects that were seeking women and minority ownership. It looks like an uphill battle.
From Homestead and Munhall, it was off to the University of Pennsylvania, and the remains of Forbes Field. The outfield wall, well most of it, still stands on the campus. Where the wall is missing, bricks are laid into the concrete tracing the rest of it, including under benches, which is a cool touch. There’s ivy growing sparsely on the wall, and across the way, you can step on the plexiglass covered homeplate, white flecks of rubber scattered in the encased coffin.
After a brief break, it was back to PNC Park, this time in the daylight. PNC is a must-see in the daytime. The Clemente Bridge is a glorious site to see in and out of the park. All of the time I didn’t have the night before, I had this afternoon. Pittsburgh does a good job paying tribute to the history of the Negro Leagues with their statues and kiosks, so it’s a shame that they haven’t tried to do something with West Field and the surrounding neighborhoods.
I had a Primanti Bros sandwich for lunch; it’s a hamburger style patty (that they call a ‘cheesesteak’) with provolone, a tomato, and covered with French fries and coleslaw. Gotta say, it was only so-so compared to Philly’s smorgasbord of grease. The sandwich either needed a heap of special sauce, or a half jar of mayonnaise.
Ted and I sat about 15 rows up from homeplate for $27, which at the time was face value. Ticket prices are amazing compared to other parks. To be able to just sit and stare out at the park – I didn’t want to leave the best view in baseball. Alfonso Soriano hit another HR and we almost saw an inside the park Grand Slam! (It was a foot short!) It looked like a routine double before the crowd erupted. The hair on my arms stood up and I jumped to my feet for the tag. Out. Damn! That would have been one of the coolest things ever, and it was still damned cool.
We had to leave the game early to get to the airport in time. I had pierogis at the airport, so I was already setting myself up for disappointment. They tasted like thick, kind of gummy, ravioli. I mentioned the ‘day I would live to regret’? No, I didn’t mean the pierogis, and while my adventure at West Field was a big part of it, I’d say the worst was the flight home. To date, probably the only flight I’ve been on (which is a lot,) where I wondered if I was going to die. Man, that turbulence was a doozy! But I made it, which is good news, because I had New York to look forward to in 2008.
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