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ON HISTORICAL GROUNDS

Baseball's Deadliest Disaster: "Black Saturday" in Philadephia
By Robert D. Warrington

"From the lips of a frightened little girl came a cry of terror yesterday afternoon that lured hundreds of panic-stricken men to death and injury at the Philadelphia Base Ball Grounds." So begins the front-page story in the Philadelphia Inquirer describing the deadliest disaster ever to occur at a major league ballpark. On August 8, 1903, part of the top left field bleachers' balcony at the Philadelphia Phillies' ballpark collapsed, hurling hundreds of people headlong to the pavement and street below. Twelve people died and 232 were injured. What follows is the heartbreaking story of "Black Saturday" and its dramatic consequences for baseball, its fans, and ballpark construction.

Early Ballparks

Nineteenth-century baseball parks were cramped, single-decked structures built entirely of wood.1 Typically, the grandstand encircled the area behind home plate and extended a few feet past first and third bases on either side. The grandstand had a roof that was supported by wooden pillars spaced evenly throughout the structure. Single-decked bleachers without a roof extended in foul territory down the first and third base lines into the outfield. The expense of acquiring the land for a ballpark and excavating it often exceeded the ballpark's construction cost, given the cheap building materials used and its modest dimensions.2

The Phillies' first ballpark—Recreation Park—was characteristic of ballparks of the era. Hastily constructed in 1883 after Philadelphia had been awarded a National League franchise, Recreation Park was a single-decked structure built entirely of wood and held just 6,500 people.3

Phillies' owner Alfred J. Reach quickly became aware of the inadequacies of Recreation Park, and his dissatisfaction rested primarily on two factors. First, wood was susceptible to fire and decay. Second, the seating capacities of single-decked wooden ballparks could not keep pace with the growth in urban populations and the increasing popularity of baseball as a spectator sport. As Reach became frustrated watching his patrons get turned away from Recreation Park because they could not be seated, he would seek to build a larger and more grandiose facility for the club.4

Toward the Modern Ballpark Era
The site selected by Reach for his new ballpark was in North Philadelphia—about three miles north of Independence Hall. The first base foul line ran parallel to Huntingdon Street, right field to center field parallel to Broad Street, center field to left field parallel to Lehigh Avenue, while the third base foul line paralleled 15th Street.5 Christened Philadelphia Base Ball Park by Reach, its seating capacity was 12,500. Built at a cost of $101,000 and considered the finest ballpark in the nation when it opened, brick was used extensively in the structure in place of commonly used wood, and it was the first such facility to offer pavilion seating for customers. The massive brick pavilion at the main entrance—dominated on the outside by a central turret 165 feet high and two end turrets 75 feet high—was as revolutionary in ballpark construction as it was medieval in appearance. The double-decked grandstand between first and third bases held 5,000 seats, while 7,500 additional fans could be accommodated in the grandstands that extended down the left and right field lines. There were no seats in the outfield.6

Philadelphia Base Ball Park still contained a great deal of wood in its construction, however, the drawback of which became apparent on August 6, 1894. That morning, the Phillies were preparing for an afternoon game against the Baltimore Orioles when, at 10:40 A.M., one of the players noticed a fire in the grandstands. The fire quickly spread and largely consumed the ballpark. Its cause was never determined, although various theories for the fire included sparks from a passing locomotive and a torch that a plumber was using to make repairs.7

Although there were no fatalities and only minor injuries, the fire caused $250,000 in damage and destroyed the ballpark with the exception of part of the outer brick wall that enclosed it.8 While three shifts of workmen toiled around the clock to remove the debris and construct temporary stands seating about nine thousand people, the Phillies played their next six games at the University of Pennsylvania's University Field, winning five of the matchups. On August 18, the team returned to its home field to finish out the season.9

"The First Modern Ballpark"

Determined to avoid such catastrophes in the future, Reach planned a new ballpark at the same location that would be elaborate, elegant, and fireproof. Constructed mostly of steel and brick, the new structure contained no wood except for the floors and seats of the grandstands.10 It also was the first ballpark to feature cantilever construction, a radical new architectural technique in ballpark design.11 Using cantilevered concrete supports and iron girders, architects could eliminate most of the columns supporting the upper deck and roof that made for so much "obstructed view seating" at ballparks.12

Dubbed National League Park13 when it opened in 1895, and seating 18,800 people, the ballpark's construction was a defining moment for the future of baseball.14 According to baseball historian Michael Gershman, Reach "created the first modern ballpark."15 Seeking to reassure fans that ballpark conflagrations were now a thing of the past, Reach wrote in an invitation to Opening Day, "The new structure is mainly of brick and steel, containing no wood or other inflammable material except the platform and seats."16

Reach's foresight and willingness to embrace improved building materials and innovative architectural features in his new ballpark moved baseball decisively away from the small, crowded firetraps that had previously housed ball clubs. Preventing fire from consuming new ballparks propelled, in part, the fundamental shift that occurred when National League Park opened its doors. Al Reach's new structure, moreover, was intended to be a lasting part of Philadelphia's architectural landscape. Brick and steel endured while wood decayed. Reach had this sense of permanence in mind when he wrote that his new ballpark "adds so novel and unique a structure to the many other ornamental edifices of our beloved city."17

Reach was right in assuring fans that his new ballpark did not pose the fire hazard previous structures presented. No fires occurred, and the most modern ballpark of its era stood without any major architectural changes for nearly a decade.18 Potential catastrophe was the furthest thing from Phillies' patrons' minds when they came to the ballpark to cheer on the hometown crew.

The Deadliest Disaster Ever
Although National League Park had remained essentially unchanged when the 1903 baseball season started, ownership of the Phillies had not. Reach and his partner John Rogers sold the team for $170,000 following the 1902 season to a coterie of "millionaires" from Philadelphia and Cincinnati who together had formed the "Philadelphia Base Ball and Entertainment Company." James Potter, the chief stockholder, became the club's president and led the new owners—totaling a remarkable twenty-four in number. Reach and Rogers, however, retained ownership of the ballpark itself.19 This arrangement would become important in sorting out the torrent of lawsuits, verbal recriminations, and accusations of responsibility and liability that were to follow in the disaster's wake.

A doubleheader was scheduled between the Phillies and Boston Braves on Saturday, August 8, 1903. A crowd of some ten thousand saw the Braves take the first game in twelve innings, edging the Phillies by a score of 5–4. In the second game, the teams were locked in a 5–5 tie in the fourth inning. At 5:40 P.M., the Braves' Joe Stanley was at the plate with two outs. However, the attention of fans in the bleachers down the left field line had been drawn to an incident occurring outside the ballpark on the street below.20

Two drunken men were walking slowly down 15th Street followed by a small group of boys and girls who were teasing them. Suddenly, one of the men turned toward the children and grabbed one of the girls by the hair. In doing so, he stumbled and fell on top of her. The child, who was later identified as thirteen-year-old Maggie Barry, shrieked in terror as did her companions. They cried, "Help!" and "Murder!" The commotion drew people in the ballpark to the top of the bleachers to see what was happening below.21

They congregated on an overhanging wooden balcony at the top of the outer wall that ran along 15th Street and continued around the corner on Lehigh Avenue. The balcony was seven-to-eight feet wide and protruded beyond the wall by about three feet. It was intended as a footway for people to use for entering and exiting the grandstand and bleachers. The balcony had a handrail but was not independently braced underneath. Instead, the same joists that were used to support the grandstand and bleachers held up the balcony. The joists extended through the top of the wall to provide support. The wall itself was approximately fourteen inches thick. According to newspaper accounts of the time, an estimated three hundred people jammed onto the balcony to witness the incident that was unfolding approximately thirty feet below on 15th Street. The Philadelphia Inquirer described what happened next in a headline story that ran the following day:


Suddenly, jammed with an immense, vibrating weight, the balcony tore itself loose from the wall, and the crowd was hurled headlong to the pavement. Those who felt themselves falling grasped those behind and they in turn held on to others. Behind were thousands still pushing up to see what was happening. In the twinkling of an eye the street was piled four deep with bleeding, injured, shrieking humanity struggling amid the piling debris.22


The crash was as horrifying as it was deadly. In an instant, 15th Street was piled high with more than two hundred "bleeding, injured, and shrieking" individuals. More people continued to fall off the balcony as those still in the bleachers, hearing the noise and screams, pressed forward to see what the commotion was all about. One of the first police officers on the scene, Sergeant Bartle, told reporters:


There must have been one hundred men and boys, and every one of them was covered with blood. Some of them had their clothing almost torn from their bodies, while others were so bespattered with blood and mud as to be almost unrecognizable. Under the debris were the forms of those who were unconscious. You could not tell whether they were dead or alive. Timber, rubbish, and bricks were piled everywhere.23


An alarm for the accident was turned in almost immediately by Policeman Robinson who was on duty outside the ballpark and saw the disaster. Within minutes, patrol wagons and ambulances were rushing to the ballpark, but the extent of the calamity was simply too great for them to handle. Streetcars were emptied of passengers and loaded with the injured. Delivery wagons and automobiles were commandeered by police to rush victims to local hospitals. The injured were taken initially to Samaritan and St. Luke's Hospitals. When they became overwhelmed tending to the many people, victims were sent to the Jewish Hospital.24

Back at the accident scene, the best and worst of humanity were on display. Neighbors opened their houses to the wounded, Good Samaritans tried to give comfort to the fallen, and doctors rushed to the ballpark when they heard of the disaster. At the same time, pickpockets sought to loot the injured and dying while curiosity-seekers simply looked on without offering any relief to those in need.25

The game stopped immediately when the calamity occurred. Shock quickly turned to panic as people in the leftfield bleachers started jumping onto the field fearing that additional sections of the ballpark would collapse. Some players armed themselves with bats to keep from being overwhelmed by the wild stampede. The game was canceled.26


To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Spring 2008 issue.

—EFQ

ROBERT D. WARRINGTON was born in Philadelphia and works for the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of Society for American Baseball Research and the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society.

© 2008 Robert D. Warrington

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