Welcome to BB&T Ballpark, Williamsport, PA.
2nd Oldest Minor League Park Operating in the United States!
One of baseball's oldest and most distinguished ballparks is Williamsport's own BB&T Ballpark. It has been the one enduring feature during the years of Williamsport's professional baseball experience, providing Williamsport fans many thrills, disappointments and excitement.
The origins of BB&T Ballpark (formerly Bowman Field) occurred at a meeting of Williamsport baseball officials and city officials at the Ross Club late in the summer of 1924. The meeting concerned the building of a new ballpark, on land owned by the Williamsport Water Company, in Memorial Park. (Williamsport's professional baseball teams had been playing at the Williamsport High School athletic field at the corner of West Third and Susquehanna Streets, now the site of the Pennsylvania College of Technology). Negotiations on this matter continued into the summer of 1925. In July, both parties were able to reach an agreement to construct a new ballpark. Prominent businessman and baseball booster, J. Walton Bowman was put in charge of fundraising efforts to finance the $75,000 needed to build the facility.
Bowman contributed a sizeable sum himself and also solicited donations from such businessmen and businesses as: Jim and Irv Gleason, Max Jaffe, Joe Mosser, J. Roman Way, Ralph "Pat" Thorne, the Reese-Sherriff Lumber Company and Harder's Sporting Goods.
A statement of principles by these investors that appeared in the Gazette and Bulletin at the time of the ballpark's opening explains their generosity, "While the primary object of this movement is to provide the Williamsport Baseball Club a suitable playing field, the ultimate and more important aim is give eventually to our home city a modern and public ballpark for the benefit and use of all its' people..."
Ground was broken for the ballpark in the fall of 1925. It was modeled after a ballpark in Johnson City, New York.
Bowman Field's original dimensions were quite cavernous when compared to today's measurements. The Williamsport Gazette and Bulletin reported dimensions of: home plate to right field: 367 feet, home plate to centerfield: 450 feet, and home plate to left field: 400 feet.
The first game played in the new ballpark was an exhibition game between the Williamsport Grays and the Bucknell University baseball team on April 22, 1926. The Grays defeated the collegians 5-3. The first professional competition occurred when the Grays played the Harrisburg Colored Giants on April 27. In that game, Oscar Charleston, Harrisburg first baseman and manager, hit the first home run at the new ballpark. Charleston was one of the all-time greats of the Negro Leagues and was later enshrined in Baseball's Hall of Fame.
During its first three years the uptown ballpark was known as Memorial Field because of its location in Memorial Park. By 1929, the Grays club officials deemed it appropriate to name the field "Bowman Field" in honor of Gray's club president, J. Walton Bowman, who had done so much for baseball in Williamsport and who was the main catalyst in raising the money to build the facility.
The field was formally christened "Bowman Field" on June 29, 1929. Over 2,200 fans looked on as Bowman was presented with a Swiss watch by Grays players. Bowman's grand-daughter Mary Louise Lentz raised the American flag and a blue-and-white banner that read "Bowman Field." The ever-present Tommy Richardson, who would preside over so many notable occasions at Bowman Field, was the Master of Ceremonies.
Bowman Field has seen several structural and cosmetic changes over the years.
The first occurred when lights were erected in 1932. The money for the lights came from a joint venture by the Williamsport School District and the directors of the Williamsport Grays. Irv Gleason was the Gray's director who took the lead by putting up the Grays' part of the money by contributing half of the $9,600 cost. Over 2,000 curious fans turned out to see the first night game at Bowman Field on June 6, 1932 as the Grays took on the New York White Roses. The new lights produced about 400,000 units of candlepower in light. The Grays disappointed the curious crowd by losing.
The next major change to Bowman Field was in its outfield dimensions in 1934. A short eight years after the ballpark opened, Grays directors thought that the field's spacious dimensions needed reduction. From the time of its opening through the 1933 season only ten home runs had been hit there! When the Philadelphia A's and other Major League teams appeared at Bowman Field for exhibition games, there sluggers considered it a major challenge to clear its' fences with homers. Very few did. The reduction of the dimensions would be accomplished by the construction of a "temporary" inner fence around the area of the light standards and throughout the outfield. This temporary fence lasted until 1961.
The March 1936 flood almost caused the demise of Bowman Field with heavy damage. There was a crisis about how the funds could be found to make the necessary repairs. The answer came when the City of Williamsport was able to get the "New Deal" Work Progress Administration to provide the labor and some of the money to make those repairs. repairs were completed quickly enough that the Grays were still able to open their season at Bowman Field in May.
One enduring feature which marks the area around Bowman Field was the signboard that was placed at the West Fourth Street entrance to Memorial Park in May of 1936. The sign initially stated "The New York-Pennsylvania League, Bowman Field-Home of the Grays." The lettering on the sign has changed over the years. The most memorable inscription on the sign read from the late 40's until the early 60's, "Bowman Field, Gateway to the Majors".
The next changes to Bowman Field came after World War II, in 1947. Some of the changes were necessitated by damage done by one of Williamsport's recurrent floods the previous year. The Detroit Tigers, Williamsport's Major League parent club that year, spent over $40,000 in repairs. These repairs included the installation of some of the old grandstand seats from Detroit's Briggs stadium. Some of these seats remained for over 40 years. They also laid the concrete base for the construction of new box seats. In addition, for the first time at Bowman Field a sprinkler system was put in to irrigate the outfield and infield.
By the late 1950's, Bowman Field was beginning to deteriorate due to lack of investment of funds to make periodic repairs. It became so bad that in 1957, the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry condemned parts of the bleachers and grandstands. This occurred during a year in which there was no professional baseball in Williamsport and there was uncertainty about its return. City officials were reluctant to use public funds to make repairs because of the uncertainty. It was seen at that time as a albatross. This resulted in them offering Bowman Field to Little League Baseball, Inc., for their annual World Series, but even they didn't want it. They said that it would be too costly to renovate the field to their specifications.
When the city saw that it was going to be "stuck" with Bowman Field it decided to establish a body to administer the field, regulate its use and coordinate with the city the maintenance of the field. This was why the Bowman Field Commission was established late in the summer of 1957. Long-time baseball booster Joe Mosser was named its first chairman. Past commission chairman Bill Pickelner was among the first members of that commission. When baseball returned in 1958, Bowman Field was put back into proper shape.
The New York Mets, who were affiliated with Williamsport in 1964, added a historic and unique touch to Bowman Field, installing lights from the recently vacated Polo Grounds, former home of the New York Giants and Mets. These lights illuminated Bowman Field for the next 23 years. At the same time, Bowman had its first ten-foot warning track put in near the outfield wall. Bowman Field again fell into a state of disrepair and declined in the late 70's and 80's. There was not professional baseball during most of this time. By the time baseball returned in 1987, extensive renovations were required to put the field into decent condition.
Over half a million dollars in repairs and renovations were made. The grandstands and bleachers were replaced with aluminum seating. The old wooden box seats were replaced with auditorium-style chairs that had been discarded by the Montgomery High School.
The old Polo Grounds lights were replaced. The new lights had to be bright enough to meet Triple-A standards because of the anticipated temporary use of the facility by the Philadelphia Phillies AAA team. Of course, Triple -A ball never came to Williamsport, but Bowman Field had one of the best lit fields in the Eastern League.
In 1988 the old left field bleachers were removed and made way for a picnic area that could be rented out to groups during games. This reduced the seating capacity from over 5,000 to around 4,200.
When the Cubs came to town in 1994, new locker room facilities were constructed. Additionally, 900 new box seats were put in, the press box expanded, and some of the fences were padded. The cost of these renovations plus others was around $400,000, bringing the cost of all renovations in the 80's and 90's to well over one million dollars.
In July, 1998, Lt. Gov. Mark Schweiker presented Williamsport Mayor Steve Cappelli with a state check for $750,000 as part of a matching grant to renovate Bowman Field. In all, $1.5 million was put into renovations that began at the conclusion of the 1999 season.
In September of 1998, the then owners of the team, Geneva Cubs Baseball, Inc., elected not to renew their affiliation with the Chicago Cubs. Instead the team signed a 4 year Player Development Contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Soon thereafter the team introduced their new name, Williamsport Crosscutters, in recognition of the area lumber heritage.
The affiliation with the Pirates lasted for eight successful seasons (1999-2006). During their time as a Pirates affiliate, the Cutters set numerous Williamsport short-season attendance marks and captured the NY-P Championship in 2001 and 2003. The '01 title being shared with the Brooklyn Cyclones after the events of 9/11 forced a cancellation of the series.
At the conclusion of the 2006 season, the Pirates moved their affiliation to State College, home of the new State College Spikes. This move would bring about the dawning of a new era in Williamsport baseball.
In the fall of 2006, the Crosscutters announced their new affiliation with the locally popular Philadelphia Phillies, which continues to this day. The two cities were also partners from 1933-1942, 1953 and 1958-1962.
In a new naming rights agreement between the City of Williamsport and BB&T Bank (formerly Susquehanna Bank), Bowman Field officially became "BB&T Ballpark at Historic Bowman Field".
BB&T Ballpark can truly be regarded as one of the most important sporting and social institutions in the Williamsport and north-central Pennsylvania region. It holds a special and lasting place in the hearts and minds of the people of the region, as well as having an important place in its social history. It has survived the ravages of time and remains a living symbol of a vanishing past, a simpler and gentler time. It has served to unite people of diverse social, ethnic and religious groups in their love of our National Game.
- for Crosscutters.com by Lou Hunsinger, Jr.