Square dances are one of the many events that were held at the park over the years.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — In the 1800s residents really wanted a place to recreate, to hold events and dances, to play sports.
George Burbank answered the call.
The developer had built much the city's downtown with homes, a hotel, a theater, and many buildings in the North Street area. He had constructed some 300 buildings between 1885 and 1908.
It was in 1892 though when he took eight acres of his own property and built a baseball field. He also constructed a grandstand and on August 9 1892, the Albany Gises played a hastily assembled Pittsfield team at what would play the first baseball game at what would eventually become Wahconah Park.
"The first grandstand in Pittsfield was built at Wahconah Park by local contractor George Burbank in 1892 on about eight acres of land he owned there for the inaugural professional baseball home in Pittsfield on 9 August of that year," reads the National Register of Historic Places application.
"It fulfills a long-time need of Pittsfield for a centrally located site for ball games and athletic events of various kinds. On the initial baseball field, both the diamond and outfield were skinned. The park was fenced in and a half-mile track for bicycle races laid out along the outer edge of the park was planned."
The most known and longest use has been baseball but became the home of so much more. Baseball was rapidly expanding in those days and consisted much of traveling clubs that would play various games. The Pittsfields as they were known won the first game ever held at Wahconah and then the three following that August. In 1894, the team joined the New York State League but it was short-lived. Thirty games later, the team dropped out.
"In the early years, Wahconah Park was host to many of the professional African American teams of that era including the Cuban Giants and the Brooklyn Royal Giants who played at Wahconah in the late 1800s," the document reads. "The Boston Red Sox played two games in each of the 1921 and 1922 seasons against the Pittsfield Hillies and again in 1928 with the Hillies winning three."
The grandstand had deteriorated but demand for the park was there in the early 1900s. In 1909 Fred Osteyee built a new grandstand, which was completed that April. The new grandstand fit 1,100 people and bleachers for 450 more were installed on the east side. And even that wasn't enough to handle the crowds as it was common for some 2,400 people attending a ballgame.
The park is known for its "sun delays" because the current structure faces the west. But that wasn't the case. Documents show that the 1909 grandstand was "built on the extreme south end of the field (then existing) so that it faced north." The third, and the current grandstand was built in 1950 but it is unclear why the field's orientation had changed.
When Burbank died, Judge Charles Hibbard began an effort calling on the city to purchase it.
And in 1919, the city did just that. The city would later acquire more and more abutting parcels to eventually bring the park to 18.2 acres.
Jim Thorpe would play there in the 1920s as a member of both the Hartford Senators and the Worcester Boosters. Lou Gehrig played there five times in 1924 as a member of the Hartford Senators - with a notable home run shot in one of those games that sent the ball sailing over the center field fence. Casey Stengel played four games there and was even banned from the park by the umpire.
Reggie Smith and Carlton Fisk would call Wahconah their home stadium as a member of the Pittsfield Red Sox. Bill Madlock and Toby Harrah would do the same as members of the Pittsfield Senators. Local players would play there as youth and go on to become professionals including Mark Belanger, Earl Turner, Turk Wendell, Art Ditmar, Tom Grieve, and Jeff Reardon.
"Community people point with pride to the greats in baseball who have played at Wahconah Park. But they also derive great satisfaction in knowing that Wahconah has been on the circuit of minor league playing fields that have given young men with the dream of playing in the big leagues the opportunity to chase that dream before local appreciative fans," the city had written in the application.
In 1931, the Senior City Baseball League was there and the first recorded football game was held that Thanksgiving between the city's two high schools. While that is the first recorded football game there, news account at the time suggest games had been played there before. Both high school and semi-professional football games, however, were moved to other fields in 1931 but football would return in 1946.
But during the Great Depression usage of the park isn't well documented but during that time the grandstand was torn apart.
"This grandstand eventually fell into disrepair during the 1930s and it was vandalized primarily by people needing the wood to heat their homes during the Great Depression," the application reads.
In 1941, a five-year halt to professional baseball at the park went into effect as World World 2 was ongoing. Instead it became the home of patriotism.
"The the city-wide collection of scrap metal to help the war effort proceeded, all of that collected was brought to Wahconah Park," reads the application.
A new grandstand, however, was being discussed.
"Although it was never implemented, a proposal in March 1942 by the General Electric illumination laboratory showed a layout for a municipal stadium at Wahconah that included a scheme for converting bleachers at first and third bases to form one side of the grandstand for football with auxiliary bleachers set up in the outfield for the other side of the gridiron. This dual use of the ballfield manifestly reflected community sentiment for multiple uses of any playing field built at Wahconah" reads the document
The halt was lifted and in 1946, the park saw its most usage ever.
"The park was booked solid from early May until 13 September 1946 with 136 baseball games and 13 boxing events," the application reads.
The park had first got affiliated with boxing in 1917 when former heavyweight champion Jesse Willard made an appearance as part of the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show and Circus. Boxing matches themselves were held elsewhere in the city.
In 1946, the Shire City Athletic Club received its license from the state boxing commission and Wahconah often had boxing matches. Former champions Willie Pep, Sandy Sadler, and Paddy DeMarco would box there in the 1940s.
"Matches were held through at least 1949 with cards ranging from 10 to 19 bouts before as many as 2,800 spectators for the first annual playground boxing contest on 27 August 1947 to 900 fans on 13 August 1949," reads the document.
It was in the 1940s when dancing became frequent.
"Square dance festivals with nationally known callers were held periodically since 12 August 1949, drawing a large attendance even when the weather does not cooperate," the application reads.
The 1940s also featured plenty of circuses and carnivals including the Leon Washburn Big Show, the Robinson Franklin Bros Circus, Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey, and the Clyde Beatty Circus.
Lighting was starting to be used in 1940 when a baseball team from California brought a portable system. Pittsfield teams then started using a portable system until 1942 when permanent lighting was purchased by the Canadian-American League Pittsfield Electrics.
Old photos show the boxing ring set up in the infield with seats around it. The park hosted numerous boxing matches.
The annual Pittsfield Permanent Firemen's Association used the park to hold a muster in 1947 and that would continue for many years, attracting some 10,000 people. Eventually, the parade committee took it over and incorporated it into the Fourth of July celebration.
It was in 1950 when the current grandstand was constructed. It is one of the few wooden grandstands still remaining. That is also when the first scoreboard was installed.
"The grandstand's uniquely oriented ball field facing west is inseparably linked to the grandstand; it is the combination of the two that has provided historic significance to the venue and embedded them in the folklore of historic baseball parks that are unpretentious and accessible, parks that are in scale with the fans who attend events there," the document reads.
In the 1950s, thousands began to gather for the arrival of "downtown Santa." In 1964, boxer Sugar Ray Robinson would "demolish" Clarence Riley at Wahconah Park. In 1965, high schools competed in auto repair troubleshooting contest.
The 1960s featured one of several plays put on at the park when a 125-member cast performance of Oklahoma! was put on over five days, attracting 7,825 fans. Other plays would include Jesus Christ Superstar in 1981, Hair in 1982, and Dam Yankees in 2003.
Soccer would be played there starting in 1978. Concerts would be played there starting with Arlo Guthrie and Shenandoah playing a benefit concert in 1980.
The park saw a series of professional baseball teams over the years including the AA Berkshire Brewers, an affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers, the AA Cubs, and the single A Mets. In 1961 the Philadelphia Phillies held a two-day baseball clinic there. In 1982, the major league scouting bureau representing 18 of the 26 major league teams conducted tryouts and an instructional clinic.
In 1985, the park was featured on NBC's Today Show. Gene Shalit hosted the filming of the opening day of the Pittsfield Cubs on April 15, 1985, and there were some 4,000 fans in attendance.
The park didn't just host professional clubs but also youth and high school sports were played there. In 1952 the first Babe Ruth State Tournament was held there.
The park isn't just the grandstand and baseball field. On the other end of the park, there are two smaller fields and a basketball court the community uses. On one part of the chunk of land is the King Street dump, which used to burn garbage sending plumes of smoke into the air - the dump is now closed because of contamination from items being discarded by General Electric.
The park serves as the place where life-flights are flown from in emergency situations and hospital transportation. The first one happened in 1983 when a heart patient was flown to the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester.
In the 1970s, former mayor Evan Dobelle pitched relocating the playing field and that was not greeted warmly. Residents would later repeatedly voted against moving recreational opportunities away from the park.
"On three different occasions in the four-year period from 1997 to 2001, the citizens of Pittsfield flocked to the polls to defeat three different referenda that would have seen the Wahconah Park recreational activities moved to a different location," the document reads.
It was in 2001 when the hotly contested Civil Authority was defeated at the ballot box. The city was on the verge of losing professional baseball and a proposal was pitched to build a new stadium to host the team. But interest in Wahconah Park as former pitch Jim Bouton pushed to keep Wahconah Park and keep professional baseball there. Ultimately, the residents voted down the new stadium.
Later that year, the United States was attacked and the twin towers fell. The residents turned their grieving hearts toward Wahconah Park where a vigil was held.
"Wahconah Park has long been the place where the people of this community assemble for events important to them. When the community needed a place to join together to share their grief after 9/11/01 they chose Wahconah Park," the document reads.
It was that the 2001 year when the city pursued getting the park recognized as a historic place. Former Mayor Anne Wojtkowski headed the effort as part of a committee. She had been the main driver of the work and produced a report more than 100 pages long and recovered, printed, and created thousands of pages of documents which the city's Parks Department still has outlining every detail of the park.
Former Mayor Wojtkowski went through thousands of pages of documents to chronicle everything that happened at the park.
"It was really Anne Wojtkowski and myself and Dave Potts that really began to do research and, admittedly, much of the research was taken on by Anne because she had such an interest in it. She had the time at this point, she was retired well into retirement, and I think was looking for a challenge," said Jim McGrath, the city's parks and open spaces manager.
"This was kind of her personality, you know, find something to take on and, and just sort of do it with gusto. So we met often in those, you know, 2003 2004, I turned over to and many, many archival documents I made available to her all of the city's Park department scrapbooks."
The documentation of the history was featured on our latest episode of iBerkshiresTV, which you can see here.
It was in 2001 that affiliated baseball left the city. In 2002, the independent Berkshire Black Bears from the Northeast League took over but didn't last long. In 2005, the Pittsfield Dukes, a New England Collegiate Baseball League team, played there until 2008. The Pittsfield American Defenders played there for one season in 2009 and the Pittsfield Colonials as part of the Canadian-American League played there in 2010 and 2011.
The Pittsfield Suns of the Futures Collegiate Baseball League began playing there in 2012 and remain there today. The team has been honoring the 100 year anniversary this year with a series of TV shirt giveaways recognizing the teams that called the park home before them.
The park is also the place where a number of concerts are held, where the local football teams play, and where the community gathers on the Fourth of July.
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