Last year I began playing baseball again for the first time in five summers. The team was comprised of former high school players, and we were pretty decent. Went on an 18-game winning streak at one point, lost in a best-of-three championship series.
But the part of summer I most enjoyed was our home field in Munhall, Pa. West Field was built in 1937 as a Public Works Administration project, according to Deadball Baseball, and dates to a time when the surrounding neighborhood was home to thousands of Mon Valley steel workers.
Those days are long gone, as is the presence of Josh Gibson and other Negro League legends. The Homestead Grays were one of the first teams to consistently call West Field home — “when Forbes Field was not available.”
Read through that article, and you begin to get a sense of its deep history: Dan Marino, Mike McCarthy, Porky Chedwick and so many more. Not to get too melodramatic, but it’s neat knowing now that when I patrolled the outfield last summer, it was the same space over which Josh Gibson hit towering home runs. When I posted the above PG story to Facebook, a photographer friend and Mon Valley native who long ago moved to Erie had this to share:
I loved that field Ethan. No backstop so you best have a good catcher. 1984 I hit an RBI double off Steel Valley’s Curt Leskanic to win a playoff game there. He went on to win an MLB World Series ring with the Red Sox. My baseball career took a nose dive. I can still play a mean game of whiffle ball though.
Those are the kinds of memories a place like this will evoke a few decades later.
I stopped by the field on a recent evening to find it a different place. I had read our paper’s coverage earlier this summer and knew what was coming. Still, it’s a little different seeing a rendering vs. the actual work in progress.
For some reason, I looked at the virtual grandstand on the hill and those light towers all around and assumed what had stood there for 78 years would remain and just be patched up, rewired, polished and more or less made new.
Pulling into the parking lot above the field, I saw anything but. No rusty light towers:
That area used to be a grandstand with locker room underneath, long ago out of use but still an interesting remnant.
And that used to be the deep backstop area that my friend Jack referenced. It’s even deeper at the moment.
West Field held the water as well as any other local field in our summer league, but it’s nice to see there is an effort to make its drainage system even better.
Shamefully, I didn’t document the field itself very well last season. The announcement of its renovation didn’t come until the winter, and for some reason I didn’t feel any urgency to get back there once the team found a replacement field in nearby Whitaker for this summer.
And this crappy Instagram post.
Pittsburgh NABA first place on the line today in beautiful Munhall. #baseball #heaven #ducksvlions
I left the field and drove back down West Street to the Waterfront, another spot in the area that used to look quite different. Inching along in the jammed parking lot past the various retail outlets, I thought about the steelworkers who used to spend their days at the Homestead Works. The place they knew disappeared, too, and was transformed into something totally different.
I’m sure West Field will look gorgeous when the work is done. Baseball (and other sports) will still be played there. Perhaps even more often. We essentially had the field to ourselves every weekend last year — good for us but a bad omen for local sports participation.
I’m not a fan of playing on FieldTurf, though I do recognize how much easier it is to maintain. I hope a. the facility provides a great service for its neighborhood-in-need and b. the Borough of Munhall does not charge teams like mine exorbitant summer permit fees. But I will understand if they do.
There’s a price for progress.
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