Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com on April 29, 2013, and is reprinted here by permission.
Driving south from Tucson on Arizona Highway 80, beyond the Wild West outpost-turned-tourist trap of Tombstone, past an endless landscape of sagebrush and cactus, you enter a tunnel carved into the Mule Mountains near the Mexican border. When you exit that tunnel, it’s as if you have traveled back in time. Welcome to Bisbee, Arizona.
For a brief period at the beginning of the twentieth century, Bisbee was America’s largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco, boasting a peak population of nearly 30,000 residents. Copper was king then, and this mile-high mining camp had the good fortune of being one of the richest mineral sites in the world. The mines around Bisbee, operated mostly by the Phelps Dodge, Calumet & Arizona and Shattuck mining companies, ultimately produced eight billion pounds of copper until they were shut down in the mid-1970s. For most mining towns, that was a fate worse than death. But Bisbee survived, thanks to the emergence of a vibrant artists’ scene, and is thriving in the twenty-first century — and so is its unlikely crown jewel, Warren Ballpark.
Warren Ballpark, built in 1909, is one of the oldest professional baseball stadiums in the United States. (Its supporters claim Warren is the oldest1, but several other existing ballparks, such as Rickwood Field2 in Birmingham, Alabama, have stronger claims to that title.) It has hosted beloved baseball luminaries such as John McGraw, Connie Mack and Honus Wagner and disgraced “outlaws” such as Hal Chase, Chick Gandil and Buck Weaver. Thousands of minor league, semipro, high school and amateur players have called it home. Since its centennial anniversary in 2009, it has also hosted the annual Copper City Classic vintage baseball tournament, which raises money to help the nonprofit Friends of Warren Ballpark keep the park in good shape for years to come.
Spectators still enter the concrete-and-adobe grandstand — where else can you find a ballpark made of traditional adobe brick? — to watch a game with the same striking view of the Warren district hills as they did 100 years ago. The effects of copper mining are readily visible at the ballpark, from the bright red sulfide streaks running down the plateau beyond first base to the manual scoreboard in left field with a crumbling Phelps-Dodge sponsorship sign.
As Bisbee baseball historian Mike Anderson wrote, “It is a living history museum … a direct connection to those ballparks and to all of the long-vanished fields that were once a vital part of community life in hundreds of towns and cities across America.”
From its earliest days, thanks to the railroad line running directly behind the outfield fence, Warren Ballpark was a frequent stop for barnstorming major league teams. On November 7, 1913, manager John McGraw of the New York Giants brought two teams to Bisbee for an exhibition game that included future Hall of Famers Tris Speaker, Sam Crawford, Ray Schalk and Red Faber, along with Olympic champion Jim Thorpe. The game was part of an around-the-world postseason tour organized by McGraw and Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey, intended to introduce baseball to other nations. After crossing the United States and sailing across the Pacific Ocean, the Giants and White Sox staged exhibition games in Japan, China, Egypt, Italy, France, England and other exotic locales. The tour was a wild success. Warren Ballpark is the only baseball stadium to host a game on the 1913-14 world tour that survives today.3
On the field that day were Buck Weaver and Hal Chase, who several years later were implicated for their involvement in the Black Sox Scandal, the plot to fix the 1919 World Series. Weaver was banned from organized baseball for life for “guilty knowledge” of the fix, while Chase — long rumored to be baseball’s most notorious game-fixer — was quietly blackballed from the game. Weaver and Chase resurfaced in the mid-1920s in southern Arizona as part of an independent “outlaw” league known as the Copper League (or Frontier League) which was outside the jurisdiction of organized baseball. Chase persuaded Weaver and his exiled Black Sox teammates Chick Gandil and Lefty Williams to join the league in 1925. Bisbee began fielding a Copper League team a year later, but their management was adamant that banned major leaguers not be used. This stance hurt Bisbee’s performance on the field, but put the city in the good graces of baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who in 1928 awarded Bisbee its first professional minor league team in the Arizona State League.
Warren Ballpark hosted low-level minor league baseball off and on from 1928 to 1955. Among the notable players to come through Bisbee were Syd Cohen, who served up Babe Ruth’s last home run as a Yankee in 1934; Tuck Stainback, an outfielder for 13 years in the big leagues; Jim Tobin, who threw a no-hitter for the Boston Braves and is the only modern pitcher to hit three home runs in a major league game; and Clint “Scrap Iron” Courtney, the bespectacled catcher known for his long-running feud with the Yankees’ Billy Martin. That feud began in 1947, when both were in the Arizona-Texas League. Another Bisbee minor league alum, Bert Shepard, was shot down over Germany during World War II but made an inspiring return to baseball in 1945, when he became the only major leaguer to make an appearance with an artificial leg, pitching five strong innings in a game for the Washington Senators.
Warren Ballpark’s baseball legacy is only a piece of its history. In 1917, it played a role in one of the most notorious incidents in the American labor movement, the Bisbee Deportation, an event that still divides residents today. On July 12, a heavily armed posse led by Cochise County Sheriff Henry Wheeler rounded up more than 1,500 striking copper miners in downtown Bisbee and marched them at gunpoint four miles south to Warren Ballpark. Two men were killed during the roundup. It was just four months after the United States entered World War I, and tensions were high, especially in industries like copper mining that were considered essential to the war effort. The mineworkers were members of the International Workers of the World, or “Wobblies,” and local newspapers portrayed them as unpatriotic anarchists, German sympathizers and Bolsheviks.
After the long march, which drew a large crowd of onlookers, the 1,500 strikers were detained for hours in the grandstand at Warren Ballpark, guarded by machine guns. The strikers were given one final chance to go back to work; most refused. Soon, 23 special boxcars pulled up on the railroad outside the ballpark. The estimated 1,182 strikers were ordered to board the boxcars. No food or water was given to them. The train took a long, slow ride into New Mexico. When it reached its destination — a small Army facility in Columbus — the cargo was refused because there were no accommodations. On the train’s return trip, the guards abandoned the men in Hermanas and told them never to return to Bisbee. They were left there without shelter for two days until U.S. troops arrived. Families may have been torn apart, but the mines went right back to business as usual.4
Today’s Bisbee residents know Warren Ballpark as a high school stadium. In the twenty-first century, the Bisbee Pumas baseball team — diminished in stature for a generation after Phelps Dodge shut down the mines in 1974 and the town’s population tumbled — won Arizona state championships in 2002 and 2008, and the football team carries on Arizona’s oldest high school rivalry with nearby Douglas High.
Thanks to the attention given to it in recent years by Mike Anderson and the Friends of Warren Ballpark, this historic venue nestled deep in the mountains of southern Arizona has also returned to its roots as a gathering place for the community to watch baseball. There are not many places left where you can watch a ballgame from the same vantage point as Connie Mack or John McGraw. Warren Ballpark is one of them.
1 It is probably impossible to determine which surviving baseball park is actually the oldest. Warren Ballpark opened on June 27, 1909, 14 months before Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama. Rickwood opened on August 18, 1910, and is widely considered to be the oldest continuously used professional ballpark in the United States. However, Rickwood’s original concrete-and-steel grandstand, built in 1910, is still largely intact, while Warren Ballpark’s original wooden grandstand was torn down in the 1930s and a new concrete/adobe grandstand — with the same dimensions and specifications as the old one — was built in its place by the Works Progress Administration in 1937. Centennial Field in Burlington, Vermont, home of the Vermont Lake Monsters of the Class A New York-Penn League, is older than either of them: It was built in 1906, with the current grandstand constructed in 1922. Other parks with a possible claim to the unofficial title include: League Park in Cleveland, Ohio (1891); Fuller Field in Clinton, Massachusetts (1878); Labatt Memorial Park in London, Ontario; and Colt Meadows in Hartford, Connecticut (1874).
2 Rickwood’s first game in 1910 was a sanctioned Southern Association game between the Birmingham Barons and the Montgomery Climbers. The Barons called Rickwood home from 1910 to 1987 (with a few brief gaps in between), and have played one game a year there since 1996. The Black Barons of the Negro Leagues also called Rickwood home from 1920 to 1960. Meanwhile, the last affiliated minor league team to call Warren Ballpark home was in 1955.
3 According to author James Elfers, the only two other playing fields used in the 1913-14 world tour that still exist are in nearby Douglas, Arizona, and Blue Rapids, Kansas. Douglas’ baseball diamond dates to 1913, but its grandstand was not built until 1948. The field used in Blue Rapids (no grandstand existed then or now) is part of the Marshall County Fairgrounds
4 For more on the infamous Bisbee Deportation, visit the University of Arizona Library web exhibit at http://www.library.arizona.edu/exhibits/bisbee/history/overview.html.