Historical Oakland: neighborhood once the center for Pittsburgh sports

Patrick Wagner | March 27, 2012    

In 1909, The Pittsburgh Post situated Oakland as the apex of the sports world.

“World’s… In 1909, The Pittsburgh Post situated Oakland as the apex of the sports world.

“World’s finest baseball grounds,” wrote journalist James Jerpe, calling it “an athletic park far in advance of anything of its type.” Forbes Field and other structures made the neighborhood a sports paradise for much of the 20th century; Pittsburghers rushed into Oakland and witnessed teams like the PAA Seven hockey club and the Pirates play for civic pride.

“The turn of the 20th century is the period when Oakland began to develop as the recreational hub of the city,” said Anne Madarasz, director of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum.

Oakland attracted affluent residents and became a hub of museums and universities like Pitt and Carnegie Technical Schools. Sports culture soon followed.

“The Schenley Park Casino was Pittsburgh’s first arena, opened in 1894,” Jim O’Brien said. The sports writer and former sports information director at Pitt called the Victorian-styled structure a defining venue in the city’s hockey history. Not only was it the first arena in the city, it was North America’s first arena with an artificial ice surface.

A problem with the refrigeration system burned the wooden arena to the ground in 1896. If it still stood, the structure would be where the Frick Fine Arts building currently sits.

Three years passed before another ice rink opened. Just to the north, across Craig Street from St. Paul’s Church, Pittsburgh would watch hometown hockey again.

“Duquesne Gardens was initially a street car barn where they housed the trolleys,” O’Brien said. By 1899, the same barn was converted to an indoor hockey venue and had its first game. The illuminated marquis declared it “The Gardens,” but the imposing stone and brick structure was nicknamed “The Arena” for its formidable appearance.

“It was the largest indoor ice facility in the world,” Madarasz noted. It was significantly longer than NHL rinks, and it had to be retracted when the Pirates hockey team started playing there.

“The Arena” wouldn’t remain Oakland’s only sports venue for long, not once the Pirates baseball team started looking for a new home.

“Barney Dreyfuss, the Pirate’s owner, picked Oakland for Forbes Field because he wanted to get his new stadium away from the North Side and the audience it had there,” Madarasz said. “He built it purposefully in Oakland to appeal to that audience and area.” Opened in 1909, it included features that seem standard now, but at the time were luxuries — such as women’s restrooms and the modern look of steel and concrete.

“People called it Dreyfuss’ folly,” Madarasz said. “No one believed that they would fill the stadium, but it was overflowing the first day.” The Pirates, with the help of legendary shortstop Honus Wagner, would go on to win their first World Series that year against the Detroit Tigers.

The ballpark continued to change during the next 50 years, adding more seating and lights for night games, but it would take a home run in 1960 to define the legacy of the space.

“I was always a sports enthusiast,” O’Brien said. “But one month after I arrived at Pitt, the Pirates were playing the Yankees in the World Series a block away from my office in the Student Union.” In game seven, second baseman Bill Mazeroski hit a ninth inning home run to defeat the New York Yankees in a come-from-behind victory.

“You couldn’t write a better story for the final game,” Madarasz said. “That became a pinnacle moment in Pittsburgh’s history. A decade later, the steel industry was in decline and major changes started to happen in Pittsburgh and across the Midwest. That stays a shining moment when Pittsburgh was at the top.” The home run is still celebrated by a dedicated group of fans and former players every year.

“Everything you want could be found in Oakland,” O’Brien said. Pitt Stadium, located where the Petersen Events Center sits today, hosted a variety of events, including Steelers games, concerts and speeches.

None of these structures would last forever, though.

Forbes Field was torn down in 1970, and the Pirates and Steelers moved to the North Side and Three Rivers Stadium. Today, a small baseball field named in honor of Mazeroski sits along Roberto Clemente Drive, with only a few sections of the original stadium’s gate and wall remaining.

Home base, which technically lies in Posvar’s economics library, is recognized with a facsimile under glass in the main concourse of Posvar.

While stadiums and arenas may seem like the most obvious professional sports landmarks, a restaurant located where Hemmingway’s Cafe now is brought professional sports directly onto campus. Frankie Gustine, a former infielder for the Pirates, opened the eatery after he retired.

“That restaurant was there for 30-some years,” O’Brien said. Sports icons would often meet in the restaurant, which had walls lined with sports memorabilia, such as Forbes Field’s lockers.

“Frankie Gustine himself was always there, so Steelers and Pirates players went there,” O’Brien said. They shared memories with colleagues and fans alike, which is perhaps the greatest legacy of all these sports centers.

“Place is important in terms of memory and shared experience for a community,” Madarasz said. “People came together and shared something who otherwise might not have ever been in the same place at the same time.”

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