Pondering next pitch
It's quite a list of events: pro wrestling matches, outdoor theatrical performances, firemen's musters, the circus and square-dance festivals.
And, of course, there's baseball. The game was first played on the Wahconah Street site in 1892. Lou Gehrig hit one out of the park in 1924; Casey Stengel was thrown out of a game at the stadium one year later. Jim Thorpe and Greg Maddux also have played there.
Wahconah Park was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005, but the 115-year-old Pittsfield landmark, built in the floodplain of the west branch of the Housatonic River, is deteriorating. The mostly wooden structure is a fire hazard, the park's electrical and plumbing systems need to be replaced, the lights are spotty, the field needs a do-over, and the bathrooms and locker rooms could use a major upgrade.
Is Wahconah doomed?
As the New England Collegiate Baseball League's Pittsfield Dukes prepare to begin their third season at the park on Saturday, some community leaders say yes; others say no.
Twenty years ago, Wahconah was home to a Class AA affiliate of the Chicago Cubs. A decade ago the Class A Pittsfield Mets of the New York-Penn League called the park home. But it's been five years since the last in a long line of Pittsfield professional baseball teams, the Northern League's Berkshire Black Bears, left town.
With the exception of Wahconah Park Inc.'s plans to renovate the ballpark and bring an independent-league team to Pittsfield three years ago, no one has offered to bring professional baseball back to the city since the Black Bears left, Mayor James M. Ruberto said.
"I think it's unrealistic to think we can play pro baseball at Wahconah Park again. The costs to upgrade the field are staggering," Ruberto said, putting the estimate at "millions of dollars."
"We were planning to spend $1.25 million to turn the park into what it needed to be," said Donald B. "Chip" Elitzer of Great Barrington, one of three partners in Wahconah Park Inc., which conducted a structural analysis of the stadium in a failed effort to have it renovated in 2004.
Considering Wahconah's current condition, plus the luxury boxes and other amenities found in new minor-league parks that cost millions to build, it might be a stretch for pro baseball to consider Pittsfield as a viable site.
Miles Wolff, commissioner of the independent Canadian-American League, formerly the Northern League, said Wahconah would have to undergo extensive changes before his league would consider placing a team in Pittsfield again.
"It has great atmosphere," Wolff said. "But as a revenue-generating park, it doesn't really do a lot for you."
Bob Wirz, a Connecticut-based baseball consultant who helped bring the Black Bears to Pittsfield in 2001, said independent-league teams cannot operate if they make less than $1 million in revenue each season. Wirz said the Black Bears brought in only $300,000 to $500,000 during each of their two years in Pittsfield.
But the absence of pro baseball wouldn't mean Wahconah Park doesn't have a future.
Ruberto said he believes that the park "has defined itself as an outstanding provider of amateur sports."
"All of the youth-driven baseball organizations I would hope would view Wahconah Park as a special place to perform," he said.
Currently, two of Pittsfield's high schools St. Joseph's and Pittsfield hold their home football games there. Other events at Wahconah include American Legion and vintage baseball games as well as Bob Dylan concerts in 2005 and 2006.
Ruberto sees Wahconah's entire 18.2-acre parcel, which includes a basketball court, a sandlot baseball field and room for playground equipment, as the beginning of a riverway naturewalk along the Housatonic River's west branch, which would extend to the Wild Acres Conservation Area on South Mountain Road, near Pittsfield Municipal Airport.
The city already has begun to explore ways to remove the 87-year-old Tel-Electric dam on Mill Street, which spans the river roughly two miles south of Wahconah Park. And Pittsfield plans to address the chronic flooding in the park's gravel parking lot, a problem that has existed for years.
Ruberto has earmarked $275,000 for that purpose in his fiscal 2008 budget proposal. The pipes that carry water underneath the parking lot to the river frequently back up because they are not wide enough to handle the flow.
James McGrath, Pittsfield's director of community services, said the city has preliminary designs and has obtained permits to address those issues. McGrath, who served as an environmental planner for the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission before assuming his current job five years ago, said he will have more time to address long-term issues surrounding the city's parks once the City Council gives final approval to a restructuring of the Community Services Department, which monitors the parks.
Not everyone, however, has the vision for Wahconah that McGrath and Ruberto do. Some believe that the site the park is built on isn't suitable to be renovated. Others think a total renovation is possible.
Park Commission Chairman Charles P. Garivaltis said Wahconah Park is unsalvageable.
"We built a park on swampland," Garivaltis said, "and we've never been able to solve the problem for the past 50 or 60 years."
Pittsfield resident David Potts, an amateur historian and preservationist who helped compile the information that the National Park Service used to place Wahconah on the National Register of Historic Places, said the city should use "creative funding" to pay for renovations. He said funding could come through a mixture of state infrastructure grants, historic and preservation funding, and part of the funds the city hopes to get to construct the riverwalk, Potts said.
Potts also suggests trying to obtain private donations from ballplayers who started their careers in Pittsfield.
"I'm not going to project a future for Wahconah Park until our elected officials get serious about doing something here," Potts said. "They've got to recognize the value, the hidden gem that's there."
Potts said Wahconah Park contains the same tourism possibilities as the Colonial Theatre.
"I mean, who would've wanted to go and sing in Miller's three years ago?" Potts said, referring to the Miller Supply Co., the arts business that occupied the Colonial before its $21.6 million renovation last summer.
"No team's going to look at Wahconah Park the way it is now. But give it the same amount of attention we gave the Colonial Theatre, and they'll be tripping over themselves to sign a contract to play in Pittsfield."
By virtue of its inclusion on the National Register, Wahconah is eligible for up to $100,000 in state preservation grant funding. National Register sites also are eligible for federal assistance for historic preservation when that funding is available.
Despite Wahconah's hazards, which include concession-stand kitchens directly under the wooden grandstand, "the bones of the park are good," said Elitzer, who, along with former New York Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton of North Egremont and part-time Stockbridge resident Eric Margenau, were the principals in Wahconah Park Inc.
The group's renovation plan collapsed following a controversy over whether the project should be subject to the state's public bidding laws, but Wahconah Park Inc. proved that nostalgia can be a marketing tool. A vintage baseball game the group promoted between the Pittsfield Hillies and the Hartford Senators on Independence Day in 2004 drew 5,000 people to the 3,100-seat Wahconah Park and was broadcast nationally on ESPN Classic.
Wahconah Park Inc.'s plans drew national publicity mainly because of Bouton, who followed his 1970 baseball classic "Ball Four" with "Foul Ball," a book detailing his group's first attempt to obtain a lease to renovate Wahconah following an unsuccessful plan to build a new stadium in 2001.
It was Bouton's relationship with baseball historian John Thorn that brought international publicity to Pittsfield in the form of a 1791 bylaw that makes the earliest known reference to the game of "base ball" in North America. Pittsfield has capitalized on the discovery since Thorn made it in 2004.
To get Wahconah Park renovated in a way that his group envisioned, Elitzer said another group would need someone with the public-relations savvy of Bouton.
"Jim has fabulous contacts," Elitzer said. "When we announced the formation of the Vintage Baseball Federation, it was in Sports lllustrated. Jim is real good at that. He can keep it going."
Ruberto, however, would rather look to the future.
"Wahconah Park is a historic landmark," the mayor said. "It has meaning to a great majority of Pittsfield residents. It has to be considered integral to all we do."
|» Baseball at Wahconah|
1909: The second grandstand is built.
1919: The Wahconah Park property is deeded to the city of Pittsfield.
1924: Lou Gehrig hits a home run into the Housatonic River during a minor-league game for the Hartford Senators.
1930: The first night game is played.
1941-51: Canadian-American League teams call Wahconah home: the Pittsfield Electrics (1941-48), Pittsfield Indians (1949-50), Pittsfield Phillies (1951).
1949: Rumors that the Wahconah Park site was once used as a city dump are proved false by an excavator.
1950: The grandstand still in use today is constructed.
1965-88: Eastern League teams call Wahconah home: Pittsfield Red Sox (1965-69), Pittsfield Senators (1970-71), Pittsfield Rangers (1972-75), Berkshire Brewers (1976), Pittsfield Cubs (1985-88).
1989-2001: New York-Penn League teams based at Wahconah: Pittsfield Mets (1989-2000), Pittsfield Astros (2001).
2002-03: Independent-league Berkshire Black Bears play home games at Wahconah.
2004: A crowd of 5,000 attends a vintage game between the Pittsfield Hillies and Hartford Senators. The game was televised live by ESPN Classic.
2005-07: Pittsfield Dukes of the New England Collegiate Baseball League use Wahconah as home park. Mayor James M. Ruberto says he'd like the team to stay beyond its current contract, which expires after this season.
Source: Eagle news services