In 1862, when the United States Civil War was in its second year, and Confederate supporters clashed with Union backers on the fields of Antietam and Fredericksburg, history was also being made in Fort Wayne. The nation was in an era of war, but it was also approaching a new time, as organized baseball had spread to Fort Wayne.
While figures like Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant dominate history in the middle of the 19th century for being instrumental in settling scores on the battlefield, two men in the Summit City were vital pieces of settling scores on the ballfield.
The names Shoaff and Brackenridge will ring a bell to anyone who’s lived in Fort Wayne, with Shoaff Park just six-and-a-half miles away from Parkview Field and Brackenridge Street bordering the ballpark on its southern end. Those two landmarks are named after Thomas Shoaff and Charles Brackenridge, the two men responsible for forming the city’s first baseball team, the Summit City Club, in 1862. Although that team didn’t stay together for long, as some of the players went to fight for the North in the Civil War, baseball was in Fort Wayne to stay, creating a legacy that’s been going for 151 years.
During the 2012 season at Parkview Field, the TinCaps averaged nearly 6,000 fans per game. However in May of 1871, when the first-ever professional baseball game in the United States took place, only 200 fans, perhaps not realizing what they were going to see that day, showed up to watch the game that was held not far from Parkview Field, as the Fort Wayne Kekiongas defeated the Cleveland Forest City Club, 2-0.
The pitcher in that game for Fort Wayne, Bobby Matthews, is said to be the inventor of the curveball. At the time that game was played, the pitcher threw the ball underhand and the mound was only 45 feet from home plate.
That team didn’t stick around for very long, though, disbanding after one year with a 7-21 record. Just 12 years later, on June 2, 1883, another baseball first took place in Fort Wayne: a professional game played under lights. Although it’s something we take for granted now, more people showed up for the game to see the lights than they did to see the baseball being played, according to newspaper accounts from that time.
“It was a unique and brilliant spectacle,” one scribe wrote. “The diamond appeared a charmed enclosure where the sun had focused its rays. The grandstand was as light as day, and the elegant garb of the ladies showed to as good advantage as in a ballroom because the electric light shows colors the same as the sun.”
One of the Summit City’s earliest baseball stars who shined nearly as bright as those first stadium lights was Bill Wambsganss. As the second baseman for the Cleveland Indians, he turned an unassisted triple play on October 10, 1920, in game five of the World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Wambsganss was born in Ohio, but was raised in Fort Wayne and attended Concordia College, now Concordia Theological Seminary, where the gymnasium is named in his honor. After his 13-year playing career, he returned to Fort Wayne to coach several teams.
Fort Wayne was also home to a short-lived all African-American baseball team, the Fort Wayne Colored Giants. Loosely affiliated with the Negro Leagues, the Colored Giants only lasted two seasons in the 1920’s. The team’s arrival and subsequently quick disappearance was not out of the ordinary in that time. Leagues and teams could come and go overnight, as players found better opportunities elsewhere or funding ran out. The Colored Giants disbanded because when they took a trip to Pittsburgh, their bus broke down and most players didn’t have enough money to get back. Instead of trying to find their way home, they picked up jobs in Pittsburgh and settled in Pennsylvania, marking the end of the Colored Giants.
One of the city’s greatest moments of baseball folklore took place in 1927, when Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees were in town on a barnstorming tour. The Yankees, which featured the likes of Lou Gehrig, were at League Park taking on a team of folks who worked for Lincoln Life. Ruth hit a home run that is said to have landed on a train that was passing by, and is the longest home run he ever hit. A gentleman whose father worked at the food stand for that game wrote a note to The History Center in Fort Wayne, saying that his father sold Ruth six hot dogs and four Coca-Colas that day. The Great Bambino, indeed.
Baseball took another turn in Fort Wayne in 1945, when the Fort Wayne Daisies of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) came into existence. The league was founded by Chicago Cubs owner Philip Wrigley in 1943 to hold the American public’s interest in baseball, as World War II was concurrently taking place.
Players came from all parts of the country, some even from overseas like Isabel Alvarez, who came from Cuba and joined the Daisies in 1951. Dottie Collins was playing fast-pitch softball in Inglewood, California, earning a bag of peanuts per game as compensation, when an AAGPBL scout invited her to try out and join a team where she could make anywhere from $90-$150 per week. During the 1948 season, she pitched until she was four months pregnant. Collins was also instrumental in helping the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, form its “Women in Baseball” exhibit in 1998. The AAGPBL received widespread recognition with the 1992 movie, A League of Their Own. Even the coaches of the Daisies carried name recognition, with Wambsganss and Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx each leading the team at separate times throughout its 10-year tenure.
Professional baseball existed only in the memories of Fort Wayne residents for a long time after the 1950’s. In the late 1980’s the Midwest League (MWL), which has been in existence since 1960, had its entry in Wausau, Wisconsin looking to move elsewhere. The MWL board of directors voted, 13-1, in late 1988 to approve the move of the Wausau Timbers to Fort Wayne, pending “the acquisition of a suitable stadium lease for play.”
In 1989, the Fort Wayne City Council approved funding for a ballpark in the city. In that same meeting, city councilors argued over whether it would be wise to sell beer at the stadium. To be fair, the ever-popular “Thirsty Thursday” had only been invented six years earlier in Asheville, North Carolina.
The Wausau franchise eventually moved to Geneva, Illinois, because there was not enough financial support to move the team to Fort Wayne. That team is now known as the Kane County Cougars, and has been a member of the Midwest League since 1991. In January of 1992, however, another Wisconsin-based team, the Kenosha Twins, was purchased by businessman Eric Margenau, who moved the team to Fort Wayne. The Kenosha franchise was losing money and drew only 45,349 fans in its final season in Wisconsin. The Wizards’ first season in Fort Wayne, which kicked off on April 19, 1993, saw more than 300,000 fans pass through the gates.
The Wizards became the TinCaps in 2009 and moved into beautiful Parkview Field, which drew a record attendance of 408,044 fans in 2012. Since professional baseball retuned to Fort Wayne in 1993, 117 players (as of this writing) have gone on from Fort Wayne to play in Major League Baseball. That’s nearly six players from each season that make it to the big leagues. From the championship team of 2009, 11 players have reached MLB.
So when you next enjoy a game at Parkview Field, take a lap around the concourse to view one of the 19 signs that hang above each section, paying tribute to some of the biggest names in Fort Wayne’s baseball history. Former Major League Baseball commissioners (Ford Frick), managers (Eric Wege) and players (Jake Peavy) have lived and worked in the Summit City, and 151 years later, that legacy carries on.