Centennial Celebration

Bisbee's Warren Ballpark turns 100 and stakes a claim as the nation's oldest

A mining company built the Warren Ballpark in Bisbee to give its workers and their families a chance to watch baseball on lazy summer nights. The tab was $3,600.

The return on that investment has been coming in for 100 years now, and this weekend, the semi-pro Bisbee Copper Kings, the team that currently plays there, will host a tournament in celebration of the park's centennial.

The games will give fans a close-up look at some pretty good baseball in an old-fashioned atmosphere, says team president and co-owner Tom Mosier.

"You're right on top of the game," says Mosier. "You can hear the ball hit the catcher's mitt and the smack of the bat. This is baseball the way it should be. It's like stepping back in time."

The team claims the Warren facility is the oldest continuously operated ballpark in the country. But because it opened as a town park and was renovated by Depression-era Works Progress Administration workers in 1937, some argue it should come in behind Rickwood Field in Alabama.

Rickwood, built for the minor league Birmingham Coal Barons, hosted its first game on Aug. 18, 1910. The Warren park's first game was June 27, 1909.

Bisbee resident David Skinner, a baseball historian and former teacher, says he isn't prepared to declare Warren as America's oldest, only because there might be another ancient yard out there somewhere that he's unaware of.

"But I spent three years researching the question and couldn't find one older than Warren," he says. "The reason some people don't want to recognize it is because it's in Bisbee, and who cares about little old Bisbee?"

Historically, copper has been the community's work, but baseball is its play.

In its opening two decades, the Warren field hosted town, company and semi-pro teams. The first organized minor league team, the Bisbee Bees, began playing there in 1928, in the Class D Arizona State League.

Bisbee teams have been farm clubs of the Chicago Cubs, the Los Angeles Angels and New York Yankees, and some famous names have passed through town. Future Yankees player and manager Billy Martin played at Warren for the Phoenix Senators in 1947.

In November 1913, the Chicago White Sox and the New York Giants battled it out at Warren as part of an international tour to drum up interest in baseball. Skinner says the game featured four future Hall of Famers: outfielders Tris Speaker and Sam Crawford, catcher Ray Schalk, and Giants manager John McGraw.

A history of the ballpark, posted online by Friends of the Warren Ballpark and written by Bisbee resident Mike Anderson, adds a fifth Hall of Fame member to that distinguished list: losing pitcher Red Faber. He'd go on to become the majors' last legal spitball pitcher.

Also present was 1912 Olympic hero Jim Thorpe, the famous American Indian athlete who was eventually inducted into the Football Hall of Fame. He hit a home run to help the Giants win.

The list of characters on the field that day doesn't end there. It included shortstop Buck Weaver, later banned from the game for his role in the 1919 Black Sox scandal, and the notorious Hal Chase, also banned.

The charismatic and thoroughly corrupt Prince Hal was one of the best-fielding first basemen the game had ever seen. He'd return to Warren in the 1920s, playing for a series of Southwestern teams that hired banished ballplayers in what came to be known as Outlaw Baseball.

The Warren Ballpark played a part in Bisbee's mining history, too.

In July 1917, during a bitter labor dispute, some 1,500 striking miners were marched from Bisbee to the field at gunpoint. In what might be called baseball's Long Walk, historical photos show miners being herded, shoulder to shoulder, along a winding dirt road.

Strikers who promised to return to work could do so. But the 1,200 who refused were loaded onto boxcars, taken out of town and dumped in the New Mexico desert near the tiny town of Hermanas.

The present-day Copper Kings team ranges in age from 19 to 29, with most on the young end. They come from community colleges, such as Pima, Cochise and Yavapai in Arizona, as well as four-year Division I schools like Georgia and Texas A&M.

The crowds, normally 300-400, often include a scattering of pro scouts.

"Last year, we had scouts from the Colorado Rockies, because our stadium is a mile high, same as the Rockies'," says Mosier. "We have kids who can't afford college tuition, and coming to Bisbee gives them an opportunity to play and be scouted."

This weekend's three-day tournament concludes on Sunday, July 5, with games in the morning, after which the park will shut down and open again at 4 p.m.

The evening's festivities will include a presentation of the flag by the Border Patrol Honor Guard, and entertainment by the Bisbee Community Chorus and Fort Huachuca's 36th Army Band, which will march and play songs by John Philip Sousa.

In the game that night, at 7:05 p.m., Bisbee will play the El Paso Sun Kings, bringing the little community's baseball history full circle. The Warren Ballpark's opening-day matchup, in June 1909, featured the El Paso Browns against the wonderfully named Bisbee Beautifuls.

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