Many Pittsburgh Pirates fans can recall Three Rivers Stadium or even Forbes Field, but few know Pittsburgh has been home to nine ballparks since the 1800s.
North Side native and self-proclaimed baseball fanatic Mark Fatla documented the Steel City’s dynamic baseball history in his recently released book “Pittsburgh’s Historic Ballparks” — a compilation of nearly 200 photographs that tell the story.
“Hopefully, I think I’ve added to the scholarship on the ballparks,” Fatla says.
Fatla’s inspiration for the book came from previous residents who lived in his over 150-year-old house in Allegheny West.
“When I’d be walking to games at Three Rivers Stadium, I’m thinking, ‘You know, the guy who was living in my house from 1870 to 1909, whoever those guys were, they were doing the same thing I am — blowing off work and going to a ball game,’” Fatla says. “I’m like, ‘I wonder what it was like for them. How is it the same? How is it different?’”
Fatla, who had been a member of the Northside Leadership Conference, is a known antiquarian of baseball memorabilia.
When he was finally getting ready to write his book he didn’t need to find the time, it found him.
“At the start of the (Covid-19) pandemic, I’m like, can’t go to bars, can’t go to restaurants, can’t go to The Elks (Allegheny Elks Lodge #339), can’t go to ball games, can’t go to concerts,” Fatla says. “What the hell am I going to do with all that time? I thought I’d write a book.”
Photos for the book were compiled from newspapers, universities, libraries, the Pirates themselves and other baseball archives. Distancing restrictions brought on by the pandemic became a primary difficulty for Fatla, as some materials were not digitized. Equally difficult was determining veracity.
“Preparing the book was a real research project because one thing you learn is just because somebody else wrote it down does not mean it is true,” Fatla says. “I was tracking things down through newspapers.com to get contemporary accounts, to confirm dates and events and whatnot.”
For example, one popular image of Forbes Field is commonly captioned as a photo from the inaugural game of the 1909 World Series. In front of the field, though, a newsboy is visible holding a special item — a panorama of the opening game printed on broadsheet — which, Fatla says, means it must be a photo of the second or third game in the series.
Falta says it took about two years to compile and create the book, which was published in March. The aforementioned photo of Forbes Field along with many others are on display at the Photo Antiquities Museum of Photographic History as a Special Gallery exhibit through the entirety of the baseball season.
“The gallery exhibit came about because I was talking to Bruce Klein, who heads the board (of Photo Antiquities), and their curator had left during the pandemic … . He (Klein) had no way to staff it and he said normally it takes two years of research to put on a Special Gallery exhibit. I said, ‘Well, I’ve got all the images, I’ve got the knowledge, I could put on an exhibit.’”
The exhibit takes up the entire first floor. It begins immediately to the right of the door with photos of Pittsburgh’s “Cradle of Baseball” and moves chronologically to modern day. Interspersed throughout the exhibit are artifacts and memorabilia Fatla has collected, including a 1960s planning model of Three Rivers Stadium and the North Shore, a Forbes Field ticket booth sign, vintage postcards of early stadiums from other cities, and two wooden chairs that are “reputed to be from Forbes Field.” Fatla bought them 30 years ago.
“They were on the loading dock at a church, and the old-timers would sit on them and just sit and chat,” Fatla says. “I saw them and said, ‘Can I buy those?’ and the guy said, ‘Oh, they’re from Forbes Field,’ I said, ‘I don’t care, I’ll give you 15 bucks,’ so I took them and refinished them.”
Fatla says that he thinks that if they are from a ballpark, they are from Greenlee Field, which was “the first African American-owned stadium in the Negro Leagues,” according to the Society for American Baseball Research. Fatla adds that he has not been able to confirm his suspicion, but if they are, they would be “a really unusual item and special.”
Although Greenlee Field is commonly referred to as the first African-American ballpark, NEXTpittsburgh coverage explains that Central Amusement Park in the Hill District was built nearly a decade earlier by Pittsburgh’s only Black architect at the time for Black teams, proving how tricky baseball history can be.
Although Fatla’s exhibit closes out with the baseball season, his work is not done. His next project, “Pittsburgh’s Historic Stadiums and Arenas” is set to release sometime next year, and will cover “the football, hockey and basketball venues of Pittsburgh going back to the 1890s.”
“So I’m sitting here doing my research,” Fatla says.
The exhibit is open at the Photo Antiquities Museum of Photographic History, 531 E. Ohio St., North Side, Thursday through Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. until Sept. 30. Admission is $10. Call ahead at 412-231-7881.