Miller Park is perfection, a wonder, a technological marvel of engineering.

But, oh, for the slapdash days of bygone baseball, when grandstand fans in bleacher seats could smell the grass and taste the dust kicked up on a sunny afternoon.

In other words, any of the days when Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige played at Milwaukee’s rough and tumble Borchert Field.

“It went back to 1888, and it stood until 1952 — 64 years,” says Bob Buege, who brings the field back to life in his new book, Borchert Field: Stories from Milwaukee’s Legendary Ballpark.

Largely forgotten today, Borchert Field lasted the same number of years as Miller Park and County Stadium — combined.

Borchert Field was built so long ago that it predates some baseball standards. “Casey at the Bat” was published two weeks after it opened, and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” would not be written until a decade later.

But tales of baseball’s legends can blind us to real concerns of fans at the time.

Fire was such a threat that children were hired to look for burning cigarette butts that dropped beneath the stands. The field was already creaky in 1940, when a blizzard collapsed part of an infield wall. In 1944, a windstorm flattened the entire left field fence. Two months later, during a game, wind lifted and carried off half the grandstand roof.

The field’s structures were built completely of lumber. “Some of it was used lumber,” Buege says. “They signed the contract to build it in February of 1888.” The contractor’s agreement specified that the park “had to be ready by opening day,” which was in May. And it was completed. From that, you can draw your own conclusions about the — strength, let’s say? — of the superstructure.”

The field took up a full city block bordered by North Seventh, Eighth, Chambers and Burleigh streets. The area was excavated to build I-43.

“For a city the size of Milwaukee, that was somewhat exceptional,” he says. Still, it was a tight fit, and accommodations had to be made for its shape.

“It was just shoehorned into a neighborhood, says Buege. “Thirty feet away, you had houses.”

The left and right field fences were close, and whichever side you sat on, you saw only one-half of the outfield. The owner of an opposing team once quipped, “To see the whole field at Borchert Field, you have to buy two tickets. One for today and one for tomorrow, and then sit on opposite sides.”

Leagues back then had to fit parks into available spaces. “It’s not like they bought up land for many acres around,” says Buege. “There was no open land outside the park. There was no parking whatsoever. Of course, there were no cars when it was built!”

Tales of legends

In addition to his new book, Buege is the author The Milwaukee Braves: A Baseball Eulogy, as well as Eddie Mathews and the National Pastime. He’s president of the Milwaukee Braves Historical Association, director of the Old Time Ballplayers Association of Wisconsin and a member of the Society for American Baseball Research.

As such, Buege knows baseball’s stories intimately.

Countless legends crossed Borchert’s home plate, he says. The field was home to the Milwaukee Chicks, part of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, as well as the Milwaukee Bears, the city’s National Negro League team. Shoeless Joe Jackson and five other of his fellow “Black Sox” played as All Stars there.

Connie Mack finally gave up being a catcher when he managed the original Milwaukee Brewers at Borchert from 1897 to 1900. That organization, one of the oldest in baseball, survives today under a different name: the Baltimore Orioles.

Borchert Field was by far the oldest standing major league ballpark when it was demolished in 1952, after County Stadium opened. Its remains were given away as kindling to anyone interested.

In bookstores

Borchert Field: Stories from Milwaukee’s Legendary Ballpark by Bob Buege was recently published by Wisconsin Historical Society Press.

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