UA Archaeologist Digs Back Into America's Pastime

Excavation is underway of Bisbee's Warren Ballpark, the country's oldest, for insight into Southwestern life in the early 1900s.

In the grandstands of Bisbee's Warren Ballpark, along the foul lines and beyond the outfield, baseball fans have gathered for more than a century to watch everyone from miners to Hall of Famers take the field.

The artifacts those fans left behind — such as glass bottles, clothing buttons and spent shells — have stories to tell about the people, economy and leisure activity of American life, stretching back to the early 1900s.

Although he typically explores the Bronze Age, University of Arizona archaeologist Robert Schon is in the midst of an excavation project to investigate the off-the-field history of Warren Ballpark, which lays claim to being the longest continually operated ballpark in the country.

Almost as old as the World Series itself — which began in 1903 and resumes with its 2017 edition on Tuesday, Oct. 24 — the Bisbee ballpark and its grounds contain 108 years of history. While much is known about the players who took the field, little is known about the community members and out-of-town spectators who turned out to watch them.

Schon, an associate professor in the School of Anthropology and the Department of Religious Studies and Classics, began thinking about an excavation project after learning, to his surprise, that the country's oldest ballpark is one built on the frontier, in what wasn't even a U.S. state at the time.

"I've always been a fan of baseball, and when I learned that this park was here, I came and visited it as a tourist," he says. "I was looking around and talking to my wife, Emma Blake, who's also an archaeologist, and we thought it would be a fun place to do an excavation.

"This is an incredibly historic ballpark. The record of ballplayers who came through here is impressive. But we know almost nothing about the fans who came to these games. What the excavation is doing is digging underneath where the stands were."

Older Than Fenway or Wrigley

Built in 1909, Warren Ballpark pre-dates Boston's Fenway Park by three years and Chicago's Wrigley Field by five years. In the ballpark's early days, it hosted baseball legends such as Connie Mack, Honus Wagner, Jim Thorpe, Earl Wilson, Billy Martin and UA's own John "Button" Salmon. The ballpark was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on Oct. 15, 2010, as part of the Bisbee Residential Historic District. Items from the dig will be catalogued and displayed at the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum.

"As archaeologists, we dig the detritus of society, people's garbage, what they throw out or abandon," Schon says. "Because this park has been in continuous use, it's gotten cleaned up over time. Despite that, we are finding a good amount of material. We're finding a little bit of everything. Mostly bottles, but we've gotten some buttons, a bus token and a few firearm cartridges, which are very interesting."

With a College of Humanities Faculty Research Grant and a partnership with the Bisbee Unified School District, the ballpark's current owner, Schon began excavating last spring. Students from Bisbee High School and Cochise Community College join in the project, digging on Fridays during the school year.

"I've developed a wonderful relationship with the school," Schon says. "This can be a great training exercise for their students and can make them more college ready. I'm working with the students and using the exact same techniques that we would use in my Bronze Age excavations in the Mediterranean, or anywhere else."

Last year, Schon and the students dug along the left-field wall, where archival photographs showed a grandstand from the 1910s, and also along the right-field line.

"Back in the old days, the wealthier fans would just drive their cars right up to the outfield lines and watch from their cars," Schon says. "We found some automobile glass in our outfield trenches."

This season, the dig is concentrating near the dugouts and right behind home plate, to see what people in the good seats might have dropped, Schon says.

"Most of what we're finding are bits of broken bottles," he says. "There's some patterning to it. In the infield areas, we're finding mainly soft drinks and shockingly little beer. Normally you equate going to a ballgame with drinking a cold one, but we're not really finding that."

Earlier this fall, Schon and his team found the excavation's first pre-Prohibition fragment of a beer bottle, which was dated to somewhere between 1905 and 1917. The markings on the bottle indicate it was manufactured by Adolphus Busch and that it probably came from a factory in St. Louis.

"The bottle fragments usually have some markings on them, and as an archaeologist I just treat them as if they were ancient pottery fragments and look for diagnostic elements in the markings," Schon says. "We've found a whole slew of soft drinks, some of which were manufactured locally, either in Douglas or here in Bisbee, and some came from further afield. We have found Coca-Cola from 1916, Orange Crush from the mid '20s, Pepsi from the '40s, Delaware Punch from that period also."

From Purity Soda to Bootlegging

The dig has unearthed one almost complete bottle, which was restored by a team at the Arizona State Museum and identified as a bottle of Purity Soda, made in Tucson, dating to 1926.

"What's interesting about this is that six years later, in 1932, the owner of the Purity Soda Works was arrested for bootlegging," Schon says. "Who knows, maybe this wasn’t so pure after all. One of the goals of the project is to explain why bottles such as this one are here."

People like to speculate about the discoveries and what they might mean. Last year, a piece of a Vaseline jar from the 1950s was found, and the first thought was that a pitcher had been using the greasy substance to doctor the baseball.

"It's quite possible that happened, but you never know," Schon says. "The material we're finding really captures the imagination. Even before it's fully analyzed, we're getting a better understanding of what it was like to come down here for a game. The range of soft drinks people were drinking is really surprising to me."

Understanding who had the concessions at the ballpark, and what their relationship was to the mine owners, can shine a light on the economics and politics of the area. So, too, can discoveries about the presence of locally made refreshments and those shipped from the East Coast or Midwest.

In doing his historical research, Schon found a map from the 1940s that showed a cobbler had set up shop near right field. Later, the excavation discovered a piece of a jar of shoe polish that was made in New Jersey.

"That was pretty unexpected," he says. "I can imagine a cobbler being the perfect person to repair a glove or stitch up a baseball if you needed to, in addition to fixing people's shoes. Did he set up shop specifically to cater to the ballpark?"

The ballpark was built by the Calumet and Arizona Mining Co. and initially hosted all local teams, recreational games that pitted different sets of employees, such as machinists vs. bartenders. Each mining company had teams, and different communities in the area started fielding squads.

"We've also discovered the existence of an African-American baseball team," Schon says. "We know a lot about the Negro Leagues east of Kansas City, but very little about them further west. To find evidence of a segregated team here is really fascinating."

Debunking the Wild West Myth

Schon hopes to expand his project to include two other baseball fields in the area and begin a broader comparative study of baseball in southeastern Arizona. But for now, the discoveries are helping to establish a better picture of life in Arizona in the early 1900s.

"We're kind of debunking the myth of the Wild West," Schon says. "You think about Bisbee and this area at the turn of the century and you think about gambling and drinking and brawls. I read old accounts about people waking up on a typical day and finding a dead body on the streets.

"In contrast, here was a temperate activity. We don't find much drinking going on. It was a nice environment for families to congregate. This was a regular American suburb at that time, and thinking of Bisbee in that way adds a new wrinkle to the story of the Southwest, because that's not what the mythology of this area emphasizes."


Story written by Eric Swedlund, College of Humanities
Original story here


Published Date: 

10/25/2017 - 10:40am