Many old-timers will remember Fans Field on Bloomington’s south side, where the gone-but-not-forgotten Bloomers played most of their baseball games during a nearly four-decade run, 1901-1939, in the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League.
Yet before the Bloomers and Fans Field there were the Bloomington Reds of the late 1880s and their ballpark on South Center Street. The Reds were likely the city’s first professional baseball team and the South Center Street venue was likely the city’s first ballpark built specifically for the national pastime.
Situated 10 or so blocks south of the courthouse square downtown, the ball grounds, roughly speaking, occupied what’s now the elongated residential block bounded by Wood, Center, Miller and Madison streets. Back in 1887, South Center Street terminated at Wood Street, with the six-acre ball grounds running to the southwest of that “T” intersection.
The ballpark, which never had a formal name, included reserved seating and bleachers, as well as a press area with writing desks and chairs for reporters, and concession stalls with vendors selling peanuts, lemonade and the like.
The park’s grand opening was held June 14, 1887, with the Reds falling to the Champaign Clippers 7-5. Spectators included “many ladies and numerous prominent businessmen,” reported the local press, “and despite the heat and dust, the crowd was amply repaid by witnessing one of the prettiest contests in the local history of the game.”
The Reds lineup included future National Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Clark Griffith, whose mother ran a boardinghouse and took in washing for Illinois State Normal University students. Griffith, 17 years old at the time, would go on to win 151 games for the National League Chicago Colts and Orphans (early names for the Cubs). He would then become one of the founders of the American League (established in 1901), and after that serve as the longtime manager and owner of the Washington Senators.
Griffith remains one of the most influential figures in all baseball history, and he got his professional start at the South Center Street ballpark.
“The Old Fox,” a nickname the wily Griffith would soon earn, pitched the inaugural June 14 game, but was stung for five runs in the first inning due to several fielding miscues by his teammates. “Griffith is a jewel,” it was noted the following day. The righthander struck out seven, “fielded and batted in fine form,” and even hit the Reds only home run.
In an era when many associated baseball with gambling, liquor, hooliganism and all-around ungentlemanly behavior, promoters of the new park strived to establish a more genteel atmosphere. For instance, spectators were repeatedly told that liquor would not be sold on the grounds. The De Molay Band of Bloomington also performed concerts at the ballpark three nights a week, tickets going for 10 cents. “Ice cream, fruits and refreshments can be had on the grounds,” read one De Molay notice during the summer of 1887.
Still, baseball remained the park’s bread-and-butter attraction. Over a typical five-day stretch, July 12-16, 1887, the Reds played El Paso, Danville and North Indianapolis, Ind. The following week was much the same, with Crawfordsville, Ind., on July 19, Hoopeston, Ill. July 20-21, and Springfield July 22-23. Game time was usually 3:30 p.m., with admission 15 cents for ladies and 25 cents for everyone else.
The following season, 1888, the Reds played in the Inter-State League, a short-lived Corn Belt circuit featuring low-minor professional ballplayers. That year the eight-team league included Danville, Decatur, Peoria and Rockford from Illinois (in addition to Bloomington); Davenport and Dubuque from Iowa; and Crawfordsville from Indiana, though the league apparently experienced some club turnover during the season.
That same summer another ballpark opened on Bloomington’s south side when German brewers Meyer & Wochner drained and graded one of the ice ponds on their property (today Highland Park Golf Course). Wochner Field, as it was known, opened June 10, 1888, with the Bloomington Reds topping Decatur 5-3. The playing conditions, though, were a tad rougher than the South Center Street grounds, as a nearby creek was considered in-play, and the opening game included an inside the park homerun when an outfield throw bounced off a tree.
At one point during the 1888 season Milwaukee of the Western Association signed the teenage Griffith away from the Reds, and he finished the season playing 26 games for the “Creams” (as the Brewers were also called back then).
Griffith wasn't the only member of the Bloomington Reds to play Major League ball. His teammates included George Treadway, who would become a day-to-day outfielder for two early National League clubs, the Baltimore Orioles in 1893 and the Brooklyn Grooms in 1894, and Art Twineham, who played 52 games over the same two National League seasons for St. Louis.
The end for the South Center Street ballpark came in late 1892 when the six-acre grounds were sold at public auction and subsequently subdivided for residential development. In the spring of 1894, the city further reconfigured the site to open Center Street and straighten Madison Street, so both would run south through the abandoned ball grounds.