Manchester’s (nearly) 100-year-old ballpark

Gill Stadium from Valley Street, 2004 - photo from LittleBallparks.com

Fenway Park turns 100 today, and baseball fans in Manchester are probably nearly as excited about the centenary as those in Boston. But few people–even in Manchester–may know that the Queen City’s own venerable old ballpark, Gill Stadium, will be 100 itself next year.

Gill–originally called Textile Field–is one of the oldest surviving concrete-and-steel stadiums in the country; only three others, including Fenway Park and Harvard Stadium, are older. But organized baseball was played on the corner of Valley and Beech Streets even before Gill Stadium opened in 1913. Two structures preceded Gill on the same site–Varick Park from 1895 to 1913 and Beech Street Grounds from 1892 to 1895. That name even sounds like Fenway’s predecessor, Huntington Avenue Grounds.

Textile Field was built as part of the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company’s benevolence programs, and was intended at least in part to prevent workers from unionizing. It was the principal stadium of the semi-professional Manufacturers’ League, organized the year before among the city’s various manufacturing companies. While the players were officially factory employees, they were actually hired for their baseball skills. The all-star team of “factory workers” managed a respectable 3-1 loss to the 1912 World Series champions Boston Red Sox in a game to dedicate the new stadium in September 1913.

Gill–which was called Athletic Field from 1927 when the City purchased it until 1967 when it was re-named in honor of former Parks and Recreation Director Ignace J. Gill–has seen sporadic professional use since the Manufacturers’ League. Minor league teams that have played at the stadium include the Manchester Blue Sox from 1926 to 1930, the Manchester Giants in 1946 and 1947, who then became the Manchester Yankees in 1948 and 1949, and who returned in 1969 and played three seasons until 1971.

It wasn’t until 2004 that Gill Stadium saw the return of professional baseball, and received a much needed and deserved updating. When the Fisher Cats announced their move to Manchester from New Haven, where they were known as the Ravens, it was decided that the team would spruce up and play at Gill during their first season while the City built a new ballpark to Eastern League standards along the Merrimack River. So, for one season in 2004, Gill was the second-oldest professional stadium in use in the United States. The oldest, of course, was Fenway.

The Fisher Cats Ballpark, which suffered through the horrible name of MerchantsAuto.com Stadium from 2006 to 2011 before being re-named Northeast Delta Dental Stadium, is a fine home for Manchester’s minor league team and a great place to see a game. With its view of downtown from the stands and the river from the concourse, and the Hilton right against the outfield wall, the new ballpark is unusually intimate compared to many other minor league parks, which are often in far-flung suburbs. Like the Verizon Wireless Arena, it does a good job of bringing people–and events–downtown and getting people to visit downtown businesses before or after a game.

But the new stadium by the river still lacks some of the charm and grace of Gill. Sure, Gill’s grandstand is oddly splayed, creating huge foul territories, and it’s not right downtown, but those brick arches are hard to beat. And the buzz of activity right on the Valley Street sidewalk before  a game in 2004 is a lot more interesting than the long walk down South Commercial Street to Northeast Delta Dental Stadium. Of course, there’s also the less clumsy name.

It’s probably as good an idea now as it was in 2004 to concentrate major attractions and redevelopment downtown, with the idea that a concentration of urban revitalization would create a strong base and feed further reinvestment and interest in the neighborhoods surrounding downtown. The new arena and ballpark were part of the reason behind the downtown renaissance of the last decade-and-a-half, and that success led to the Neighborhood Initiatives project that began in Rimmon Heights in 2006. That idea stalled a bit during the recession, but with continued interest downtown and the expansion of the Neighborhood Initiatives to the Hollow–a stone’s throw from Gill–it’s clear that it still makes sense.

But Gill and Valley Street aren’t any farther from downtown Manchester than Hadlock Field is from downtown Portland. It’s certainly closer than New Britain Stadium is to downtown Hartford, or McCoy Stadium to downtown Providence, where both team names reflect their relatively suburban hometowns. With its view of downtown Manchester, its inherent charm, and the grace and history that come with its age, it’s not hard to imagine Gill Stadium as home to a minor league team bringing redevelopment to Valley and southern Elm Street.

After all, with private landowners offering parking near the new ballpark and its relative remove from the heart of downtown, it’s really less part of the neighborhood there than Gill is in Kalivas-Union, as the City officially calls the area once known as the Plains around Gill. Looking at it on a map, Gill really isn’t much farther from downtown than Northeast Delta Dental Stadium is.

Oh well, so Manchester now has two fine stadiums–one for minor-league use, and one for the high schools. Maybe the City could convince SNHU and St. Anselm to play some of their games, especially the intra-city games when they play each other, at Gill rather than at their own fields on the outskirts of town.

Here’s what would make a really fitting way to celebrate Gill’s 100th anniversary next year though:

Ignore their current standing, and imagine the Fisher Cats coming off their third league championship–their second was last year, but their first was won in their inaugural season in 2004 at Gill–and playing a game at Gill around Memorial Day next year–the old ballpark saw its first game around Memorial Day in 1913. Or better yet, imagine a fourth championship being won on the wide field of Gill Stadium in the Queen City twilight on a warm autumn night in 2013.

Let’s return professional play to Gill Stadium for a game or two next year, and honor the stadium that’s seen Manchester through the last century, from its manufacturing heyday through its post-industrial doldrums to its current resurgence.

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2 thoughts on “Manchester’s (nearly) 100-year-old ballpark

  1. There’s a sort of de facto barrier that lies on the south side of the Verizon and the foot traffic isn’t really willing to cross it to head that way. But with the new Market Basket going in and the rest of Elm lining up for development behind it, I’ll bet Gill starts seeing a little more traffic as that barrier is broken down.

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