West Campus is where the jocks live. That’s something every BU student knows, freshman included. West hosts the Case Gym, FitRec, Agganis Arena, Nickerson Field, New Balance Field, and the Track and Tennis Center. Eating in the West dining hall means trying to find a chair that isn’t taken up by somebody’s lacross gear. There’s even a statue to Harry Agganis, our “golden greek” and local sportshero. But West Campus’s athletic culture runs much deeper than that–it is built on the foundations of one of baseball’s legendary stadiums: Braves Field. Our West Campus is only the topmost layer of Boston’s athletic history.
Although much of the park was razed when BU purchased the property in 1953, pieces of the old stadium still exist. Nickerson Field, built over the old baseball diamond, is sunk 18 feet below street level–at one time, this let baseball fans see more of the game. One of the steel-and-concrete stands, well, stands just as they did when they were build in 1915. The BUPD headquarters fills out the Braves’s old ticket and administration building. The orientation of the three dormitories maps to the construction of the original grandstands. Actually, a surprising amount of the original structure remains today, over a century later.
Braves Field was the pet project of James E. Gaffney, a New York construction company owner who purchased Boston’s National League baseball team in 1911. Playing games at their South End grounds, the Braves were limited by the small park and its wooden grandstand. Two years later, Gaffney announced on November 21, 1913 that he would construct a new, steel and concrete grandstand that could seat 27,000 fans “at a cost of upward of $375,000.”1 Although Gaffney said the new park would be built by the Fourth of July, it wasn’t until December 4, 1914, that he announced the site for the new park.
Gaffney found a large piece on what were then the outskirts of the city; it was bounded north by the Boston and Albany Railroad, south by Commonwealth Avenue to the south, east by Pleasant Street (later Gaffney Street, now Harry Agganis Way), and west by Babcock Street. Across the street was the new Boston Armory, which would later be replaced by Agganis Arena. The lot was huge, “having an area of 593,718 square feet,” more than enough space “to build the roomiest ball park on.”2 Gaffney purchased the lot for $100,0003. Its location on Commonwealth Avenue was important—Gaffney expected the streetcar to help bring a huge attendance, going so far as to build a station right under the stands—and he built commercial space along Commonwealth.
Three months later, the land was purchased for $100,0003 and Gaffney was ready to begin building. Gaffney owned the property under the Commonwealth Realty Trust and awarded his construction contract to, unsurprisingly, the James E. Gaffney Construction Company. The building began in March of 1915, with an updated capacity of 45,000 people, making it the biggest grandstand in the country at that time.4 The park was expected to be built before September 1, and indeed it was: the Braves won their first home game on August 18, 1915. A few months later, Gaffney sold the team off to Percy Haughton for a rumored price of $500,000. When asked about the surprise sale, Gaffney remarked, “[w]hen I discovered I could secure a price…that would net me a substantial profit, I could not, as a business man, turn down the proposition.”5
Although he left town, Gaffney’s field remained. Built in steel and concrete, Braves Field was ahead of its time. But with its huge infield and orientation towards “dead ball” play–at the time, baseball was still a pitcher’s game6– quickly dated it. After Babe Ruth ushered in the modern “live ball” era of home runs, audiences didn’t want anything but sluggers who could hit balls out of the park. To the dismay of the Braves’ owners, audiences dwindled since the stadium resisted home runs. The outfield couldn’t shrink, either: the hulking concrete stands could not be moved any closer.
Into the twenties and thirties, the Braves floundered, losing games and fans. In 1935 the president of the team, Judge Emil Fuchs, sold the last-place team for a $100,00 loss.7 The teams fortunes picked up again in the late 40s, leading them to the World Series in 1948. Riding high, the next year the team purchased their stadium outright from Gaffney’s Commonwealth Realty Trust (Gaffney had sold the team, but not the land—smart man) with plans to expand seating. But their luck ran out quick:
While the Braves drew more than 1.45 million fans in 1948, the glory days of that season reversed themselves within four short years, as the Braves sunk to seventh place and attendance slid back down to alarmingly dismal but nonetheless familiar levels.8
By 1952, the Braves were heavily in debt. By 1953, plans were made to sell the whole franchise to Milwaukee in March. Braves Field, overgrown with weeds, was sold in July to an expanding Boston University.9 BU’s purchase of Braves Field was prescient. Weeks later, BU’s Nickerson Field in Weston, MA would be taken under eminent domain by the Massachucetts Turnpike Authority.10 The Field was turned into a highway interchange and all of BU’s athletics moved to the former home of the Braves, most of which BU dismantled.
The purchase was one of the first in President Case’s mulit-million dollar campaign throughout the 1950s and 60s to unify Boston University within its Charles River Campus. The presence of Nickerson Field influenced the way the campus grew. This influence is still felt today, as Nickerson Field has attracted the development of BU’s entire athletic and dormitory complex involving millions of dollars more in construction. The daily flow of the campus body moves around and within the ghostly remains of Braves Field, and the grander plans of the University shape themselves around the remains of this structure.
The story of Braves Field shows how tightly our school is woven into the fabric of city it takes its name from. It is only one example of how the contours of the past continue to shape and support our present. Our campus’s landscape is the most recent layer of a continual procress of construction and renewal that has occured within Boston since its founding. The home of the Braves may now be elseware, but its lingering influence upon the structure and students of BU should not be understated.
“GRANDSTAND TO COST $375,000: New One for Boston National Grounds.” Boston Daily Globe. Nov 22, 1913. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Boston Globe (1872-1982). Pg. 9. ↩
“BOSTON BRAVES ARE TO MOVE TO ALLSTON.: New Park to Be on Commonwealth.” Murnane, T.H. Boston Daily Globe. Dec 5, 1914. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Boston Globe (1872-1982). Pg. 1. ↩
“NEW PART TO SEAT 45,000.: Braves Will Have the Biggest Yet Built.” Boston Daily Globe. Mar 17, 1915. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Boston Globe (1872-1982). Pg. 7. ↩
Sporting Life (January 15, 1916): 8. ↩
In fact, the longest baseball game ever–26 innings–was played at Braves Field. ↩
New York Times, August 1. ↩
“Braves Field Bought by Boston University.” Daily Boston Globe (1928-1960). Jul 31, 1953. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Boston Globe (1872-1982). Pg. 1. ↩
“Toll Road to End at Route 128: New Plan Designates Weston-Newton Line” Daily Boston Globe. Aug 4, 1953. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Boston Globe (1872-1982). Pg. 1. ↩