Houston's peculiar center-field mound joins ballpark quirks of yesteryear
By Matt Kelly
Astros fans will have to adjust their eyes to a new sight when they make their first trip to Minute Maid Park next season. For the first time since the ballpark opened 16 years ago, center field will be completely flat.
Center fielders will likely welcome the removal of Houston's infamous Tal's Hill, seeing as they never knew which deep fly ball would be the one that sent them up the steep incline -- or worse, into the giant flag pole. But, in some ways, Tal's Hill was the final link to a bygone era in Major League parks -- when each outfield seemed idiosyncratic and complete with its own set of quirks and challenges for the players tasked with traversing it.
As an ode to that strange mound in Houston, here's a look back at some of the other lovable outfield oddities that Tal's Hill will join in baseball lore:
Watch out for that pole!
While the flag pole that sat atop Tal's Hill garnered plenty of attention, it was certainly not the first to grace a Major League field. A 125-foot flag pole stood just inside the left-center-field fence at Tiger Stadium all the way until its closing in 1999. It moved onto the field at Detroit's Comerica Park as an homage to the old park until the fences were moved closer to the field in 2003.
Another pole famously stood tall on the dead-center warning track at old Yankee Stadium -- soon to be joined by bronze plaques commemorating Miller Huggins, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth that laid the foundation for what later became Monument Park.
In fact, poles and monuments were commonplace among the old "Jewel Box" stadiums, with other parks including Forbes Field in Pittsburgh (which also contained batting cages in fair territory), Sportsman's Park in St. Louis and the Polo Grounds in Manhattan flying the stars and stripes right on the field. A pole even graced center field at Fenway Park from 1934-70. All of them, remarkably, were designated "in play," occasionally taking away a towering home run or causing a considerable headache for hapless center fielders.
Baker Bowl wall
State of the art when it was built and decrepit by the time it was abandoned, Philadelphia's Baker Bowl ranked among the most unorthodox parks in early 20th-century baseball. In attempting to shoehorn a diamond inside four rectangular streets, the Baker Bowl's designers created a right-field porch that was equal parts tantalizing to sluggers and daunting to visiting pitchers. Only 280 feet stood between home plate and the right-field wall -- which originally towered 40 feet in the air.
Phillies owner William Baker tacked a 20-foot screen on top of the fortress in 1929, reportedly saying, "Home runs have become too cheap at the Philadelphia ball park." Some speculated at the time that Baker built it to slow down Chuck Klein's dizzying home run pace, so he wouldn't have to pay Klein a healthy bonus. True or not, at a final height of 60 feet, the Baker wall stood roughly 23 feet taller than Fenway's iconic Green Monster.
The right-field wall wasn't the only attraction bordering Baker Bowl's outfield. A brick-and-mortar players' clubhouse, built over the top of the rumbling tracks of the Reading Railroad, made up part of the dead-center-field barrier. Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby was said to have lashed a ball through one of the windows of the clubhouse, which also housed a swimming pool -- more than a half-century before the famous pool was installed at Arizona's Chase Field.
The bandbox in Brooklyn
The location of Ebbets Field -- stuffed between the corners of Bedford and Sullivan, and McKeever and Montgomery in Flatbush -- created a short right-field porch similar to the one at Baker Bowl, albeit with its own challenges for fielders. A curved wall and a high chain-link fence created plenty of unpredictable caroms for visiting right fielders, who seemed almost close enough to the infield to shake the second baseman's hand.
It was a more pleasant experience for those in the crowd. Foul territory was nearly nonexistent at Ebbets, creating one of the most intimate settings between fans and players of any park in big league history.
Baseball in the backyard
When a fire destroyed a wooden baseball park in northern Washington, D.C., the owners of the Senators built a new steel structure in the span of half a season. But when they built what came to be known as Griffith Stadium, they were unable to convince the owners of five duplex houses to sell their property in center field.
That's how one of the strangest center-field walls in baseball was born, with a section of fence jutting directly back into the field at a right angle to accommodate the row of homes. The houses were so close to the field that one of them featured a yellow line of paint on its exterior as part of the stadium's ground rules. The landlords showed their entrepreneurial sides by constructing bleachers in their backyards.
Griffith Stadium was demolished in 1965, but many of the homes on U Street are still standing today.
Back, back and ... way back there
The Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan wasn't the only big league stadium to feature a deep center field. As previously mentioned, the tendency back then to shoehorn parks in between existing downtown streets -- instead of clearing out the area -- created a lot of short porches and the corners and deeper stretches to dead center. But no ballpark is as associated with its dimensions as the Giants' home diamond. While it was just 258 feet to the right-field pole and 279 feet to the left-field pole, the distance to the seats in straightaway center was an incredible 483 feet.
Though it seemed a mile away from home plate, the center-field display was as ornate as any in baseball. Like the Baker Bowl, the clubhouse was located above the wall -- adorned with a memorial plaque for war hero Eddie Grant and colorful advertisements through the years for Chesterfield cigarettes (which puffed smoke after Giants home runs) and later Knickerbocker and Rheingold beers. It was on those clubhouse stairs that Vin Scully consoled late Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca after Branca gave up Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round The World" in 1951.
While the short porch in left helped Thomson become a hero, others similarly became legends due to their ability to tame the vast expanses of center field. Willie Mays made "The Catch" a good 440 feet from home in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series. As for hitters, it is believed that only four players ever reached the center-field bleachers with a home run -- with the last two hit on consecutive days by Hall of Famers Lou Brock and Hank Aaron, respectively, on June 17-18, 1962.
Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.