Published December 19th, 2019 at 6:00 AM
Kansas City needs a downtown ballpark.
At least, that’s the speculation sparked by the recent sale of the Kansas City Royals to a new ownership group led by John Sherman.
Indeed, there is a long history of downtown ballparks or ball fields in Kansas City – depending upon how one defines “downtown.”
Fans called one of these facilities “The Hole.” Another was located on a pre-Civil War cemetery. A third shut down for the season when a flood washed away much of its outfield fence.
A fourth closed when railroad tracks were built through it.
That, in turn, led to the construction of Kansas City’s most beatified ballpark – what became Municipal Stadium at 22nd Street and Brooklyn Avenue – at least before what is now Kauffman Stadium opened in 1973.
The story of baseball in early Kansas City is rich, detailed and sometimes weird, and for decades a devoted band of local scholars researched it along with the various clearings, fields or stadiums in which it was played.
These researchers can detail how the evolution of Kansas City’s ball fields to ballparks mirrors its evolution from rowdy frontier backwater to major league city.
They also discern how Kansas City’s early ballparks – in the early 1920s – served as neutral venues for enlightened racial relations some 40 years before Kansas City voters approved a public accommodations ordinance in 1964.
The defeat in a post-season series of the minor-league Kansas City Blues by the Kansas City Monarchs of the recently formed Negro National League in 1922 at a ballpark at East 20th and Olive streets provided public proof of the promise of equal opportunity.
“Every player on that Blues team was either a future or former major leaguer,” said Phil S. Dixon, the author of “The Dizzy and Daffy Barnstorming Tour: Race, Media and America’s National Pastime,” which was just published.
“Nobody expected them to lose that series.”
But they did, on a field that – unlike almost all these former area ballparks – can still be seen, or at least imagined.
ATHLETIC PARK, Southwest Boulevard and Summit Street.
The “Unions,” the Kansas City franchise of the Union Association, played what is considered the first local professional baseball game here on June 7, 1884.
“In that park, the right field fence was so short that when a ball was hit over it, it was ruled a double,” said Bill Carle, a local baseball scholar and a member of the Society for American Baseball Research, or SABR.
Baseball scholars like Carle trace professional baseball back to the early 1870s, when entrepreneurial team owners were pondering ways to make paying customers of free-loading observers.
Team owners laid out playing fields where they could find sufficient land, or sometimes where they couldn’t.
“They found that expanse of land and then put up some semblance of a ballpark there,” Carle said of the Southwest Boulevard site.
“But that kind of thing was true of most of the ballparks of that time, either in Kansas City or across the country.”
LEAGUE PARK, Independence and Lydia avenues.
In 1886, the Kansas City Cowboys played in what was called “The Hole,” on the location of a former pond.
The grassless playing surface, located about 10 feet below street level, proved sufficiently stifling that ballplayers poured water on their shoes between innings.
Kansas City fans also lacked decorum.
“Almost every umpire who called a game in Kansas City threatened to quit,” wrote longtime SABR researcher Lloyd Johnson. After one year league officials expelled the Cowboys in part for “hooliganism.”
SHELLEY PARK, Independence Avenue and Oak Street.
In 1910, the Kansas City Royal Giants, an African American team, played home games at Shelley Park, on what in the mid-1840s had been the city’s first public burying ground.
The park was named for George Shelley, a Kansas City mayor in the late 1870s who – about 15 years before a Kansas City charter amendment gave a city park board the power to condemn land – led a campaign to have the human remains removed.
The 1910 Royal Giants were managed by Jack Johnson – not the heavyweight African American boxing champion, but a Kansas athlete known as “Topeka” Jack Johnson.
Today, the Shelley Park site largely is occupied by the north side of the downtown highway loop. In 2016, a SABR committee dedicated a new grave marker for Johnson in Topeka’s Mount Auburn Cemetery.
GORDON & KOPPEL FIELD, 47th Street and Tracy Avenue.
From 1913 through 1915, owners of the Federal League, which challenged the established National and American leagues, fielded a Kansas City franchise known as the Packers.
A former Kansas City clothing company opened the stadium in 1910 along Brush Creek, near Electric Park, the former amusement park.
“Gordon & Koppel Field may be my favorite historic ballpark,” said Thomas Busch, a local baseball researcher who also serves as general counsel for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum as well as the Kansas City Sports Commission & Foundation.
The ballpark first served as an amateur athletic field built to lure the annual football game between the universities of Missouri and Kansas.
“It stood two blocks within Electric Park and was serviced by streetcars running past its entrance,” Busch said.
In that way it was similar to the ballpark built by railroad magnate and real estate developer William Strang, who in 1909 used baseball to coax Kansas City residents to ride his new interurban line to what is now downtown Overland Park.
The diamond, with its covered grandstand, stood near at West 79th and Marty streets, adjacent to Strang’s car barn, which still stands. “Strang had his real estate salesmen talking to the baseball fans in the grandstand during the games,” said Florent Wagner of the Overland Park Historical Society.
Back along Brush Creek, when the Federal League declared itself a major league in 1914, Gordon & Koppel’s ballpark was updated, with its left field fence extended higher.
“It was still a bit of a band box, as the left field dimension was only 270 feet or less,” Busch said.
“This short porch allowed for the first water feature in a baseball stadium in Kansas City as home runs hit over the left field wall landed in nearby Brush Creek, which ran directly alongside the wall.”
A 1914 Brush Creek flood washed away much of the outfield fence, and the league folded following the 1915 season.
ASSOCIATION PARK, 19th and Olive streets.
In the early 1920s, Kansas City beer baron George Muehlebach owned the Kansas City Blues, which played in the minor league American Association.
The team’s home field, Association Park, served as a crucial proving ground in local race relations.
In 1921 and 1922, the Blues and the Monarchs met in two postseason series, with the Blues winning the first and the Monarchs winning the second. The Kansas City Star declared the Monarchs “the new city champions.” After the Monarchs’ 1922 victory, American Association officials banned inter-league – effectively, inter-racial – contests.
Such competitions demonstrated that Negro Leagues teams were, at minimum, the equal of other professional teams, said Larry Lester, a founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the operator of NoirTech Research, a Kansas City sports scholarship firm.
The ballpark where these games were played helped establish their credibility, Lester added.
Skeptics have argued that records and statistics of some Negro Leagues games lacked validity, Lester said, because the athletes allegedly played in “cornfields” and used poor equipment.
“In my research I have found that to be totally false,” Lester said. “They used the same baseballs, and they used the same gloves and uniforms from Spalding.
“And they played in the same ballparks. The only difference was the complexion of the players’ skins.”
While George Muehlebach owned the Blues, he didn’t own the field they played on. In 1922, a railroad exercised an option to run tracks through the property, prompting Muehlebach to build a new field at 22nd Street and Brooklyn Avenue.
Today Blues Park, maintained at East 20th and Olive streets by the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department, includes a baseball diamond, with railroad tracks running behind its left field fence.
MUNICIPAL STADIUM, 22nd Street and Brooklyn Avenue.
When Kansas City baseball fans talk of a “downtown ballpark,” they are invariably referring to Municipal Stadium, which served as home field to several pro sports teams from 1923 through 1972.
That stadium stood not in downtown Kansas City proper, but in a largely residential district just east of what is now Lincoln College Preparatory Academy.
But the facility inarguably served as a communal Kansas City space for events of all kinds, most of them related to baseball.
Opening in 1923 as Muehlebach Field, the stadium was home to Muehlebach’s minor league Blues as well as the Monarchs. Jackie Robinson wore a Monarchs uniform in 1945, before he integrated Major League Baseball two years later.
The facility, upgraded and renamed Municipal Stadium, proved crucial in enabling Kansas City to achieve “major league” status when the Philadelphia Athletics moved there for the 1955 season.
After the Athletics left for Oakland in 1967, the Kansas City Royals played the team’s inaugural season in Municipal in 1969 before later moving to the new Royals Stadium in 1973.
Fans also watched football at Municipal. On Christmas Day in 1971, the Kansas City Chiefs played in the longest game in National Football League history there, a double-overtime loss to the Miami Dolphins. This October, former Chiefs linebacker Bobby Bell helped dedicate a new historic marker at the former stadium site.
John “Buck” O’Neil, former Monarchs player and local baseball icon, had no doubt of the location’s importance to Kansas City.
“This was some corner,” O’Neil recalled during the 2000 dedication of a separate historic marker at 22nd and Brooklyn. “On opening day, they would start from 18th and Vine and parade up Brooklyn right on up here. The band played and came into the back of the ballpark.
“And we’d fill it up.”
In 1924, Muehlebach Field served as the Monarchs’ home park during what was advertised as the first “Colored World Series,” hosting three games there before winning the 10-game competition in Chicago.
Five athletes who competed in the series today are members of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The Monarchs also would win the 1942 Negro World Series, which featured one game played at 22nd and Brooklyn.
“Until 2015, the Monarchs had more World Series titles than the Royals,” said Lester, who long has advocated that Major League Baseball teams in Kansas City and other cities with Negro Leagues champion teams like Pittsburgh and Cleveland should fly banners representing those victories.
“Imagine four championship flags flown at Kauffman Stadium – two for the Monarchs and two for the Royals,” Lester said.
The possibility of a new Kansas City downtown ballpark, debated during the run-up to the 2006 sales tax ballot measures that authorized the subsequent upgrades of Kauffman and Arrowhead stadiums, reignited earlier this year before the announcement of the Royals’ recent sale to John Sherman.
Speaking before downtown boosters this past January, Troy Schulte, former Kansas City city manager, estimated the possible cost of a downtown ballpark baseball stadium at $800 million, adding that the matter represented a “generational issue.”
Past generations of Kansas City leaders likely would agree.
In 1931 and again in 1945, city officials wrestling with the challenge of building a downtown stadium recommended against it.
One issue was the obvious expense of downtown real estate. A 1931 city committee concluded that any such facility “be built out away from the business part of the city” because the cost of acquiring the acreage necessary would be “almost prohibitive.”
Fourteen years later, the City Plan Commission – anticipating the end of World War II and considering building a stadium to salute the war’s Kansas City and Jackson County veterans – took a second look at a downtown location.
The commission conceded that a downtown facility would result in “increased business volume for the downtown merchants, hotels, restaurants, etc.”
Yet, each downtown location presented specific challenges.
A “North Side” site, from Independence Avenue to Fifth Street, between Charlotte Street and Forest Avenue, “would displace much of the remaining Italian Community.”
A location at Ninth Street and Troost Avenue would have closed two churches and a Masonic lodge, while another location at 16th Street and Troost Avenue would have complicated existing traffic routes.
A fourth possibility, near Broadway and 16th Street, then was being considered for a public housing project, the commission stated.
Although the commission preferred a downtown location, its members couldn’t get around the higher land costs.
The “inescapable conclusion,” according to its report, was that “this additional cost is unwarranted” given that the facility likely would sit idle for much of the year.
Ultimately the commission recommended two sites along Brush Creek.
Members preferred what they called the “Electric Park” site near 45th Street and the Paseo, where the former amusement park had stood before closing in 1925.
But the members, conceding that other city officials were considering a garden apartment development on that site, identified a second option at 45th Street and Cleveland Avenue, many blocks to the east, also near Brush Creek.
That stadium, obviously, was never built.
About a decade later officials fast-tracked the expansion of what had begun as Muehlebach Field when events conspired to bring the Philadelphia Athletics to town. The team played its first game in the upgraded and re-named Municipal Stadium in April, 1955.
Today on the former Municipal Stadium site stands Monarch Plaza, a handsome commemorative installation which features the likenesses of Satchel Paige, Buck O’Neil and other celebrated Kansas City athletes who competed at Municipal Stadium.
It’s dedicated to the glory of what once occurred there – even if the reality of the actual ballpark doesn’t quite match the memories.
“Municipal Stadium wasn’t such a great stadium and it wasn’t in a great location,” said Jeff Logan, president of the Kansas City Historical Baseball Society.
“Most minor league parks today are better than what Municipal Stadium was back then.”
Yet Logan is the same baseball fan who – after workers razed Municipal in 1976 – occasionally has returned to 22nd and Brooklyn to retrieve stray pieces of construction debris.
On a recent afternoon Logan, in his Overland Park office, pulled out a box containing what he described as concrete chunks of old Municipal Stadium, cradling them in his palms like recovered archaeological relics.
“Municipal Stadium was what we had,” he said, “and a lot of people like to look back fondly on their childhoods.”