August 8, 1903 started as a leisurely Saturday in Philadelphia. Over 10,000 people flocked to National League Park, more commonly know as the Huntingdon Street Baseball Grounds, to watch the hometown Phillies take on the Boston Beaneaters in an afternoon doubleheader. By the end of the day, however, several people would lay dead with hundreds more seriously injured after a catastrophic ballpark accident replaced the summer sounds of a ballgame with screams of pain and horror.
As they often did, the last place Phillies lost the first game of the twin bill, but managed to be tied as the Beaneaters took their at bats in the top of the fourth inning of game two. Perhaps bored by the hapless play on the field, a handful of fans seated at the back of the left field bleachers took notice of a row on the street below. Some accounts described the disturbance as a quarrel between two drunken men, while others reported it as the molestation of a young girl by a pack of boys. Whatever the cause, the small crowd watching from above soon attracted the attention of others seated in the bleachers, and before too long hundreds of fans had congregated on the narrow walkway that overlooked 15th Street. Then, without warning, all hell broke loose. The combined weight of the assembled crowd was too much for the support beams to hold and the walkway gave way, sending hundreds of spectators hurtling to the ground over 20 feet below.
“The sight was one never to be forgotten, and one which Philadelphians never before witnessed. In every direction the wounded were being borne upon stretchers, or mattresses borrowed from nearby dwellings, while others lay moaning with pain upon the baseball diamond awaiting assistance”. – The Star, Wilmington, DE, August 9, 1903
It was an indescribably gruesome scene. One witness likened it to a human avalanche, while another compared the sight of falling bodies to a human waterfall. Still another first hand account described the horrific event as an “army of boys and men trying to swim in the air”. By all accounts, the overwhelming tragedy was like no other the city of Philadelphia had ever seen. Hundreds of wounded spectators littered the street, their bones badly broken and blood flowing from fatal wounds. Still others lay pinned beneath the wreckage, while rescuers hurriedly tried to free them.
Meanwhile, the sound of the collapsing walkway caused a panic throughout the ballpark. The rest of the fans in attendance stormed the field and overwhelmed the shell shocked players. Before long, the crowd poured out of the ballpark and congregated around the tragic scene, adding to the confusion outside.
Several city officials were in attendance at the game, so a recovery effort was quickly orchestrated on the scene. Before too long, an army of police wagons and ambulances, assisted by teams of Good Samaritans, ushered the wounded to hospitals and nearby houses in an endless parade of suffering. As news began to spread about the accident, family members of those who had attended the game descended on the area, searching for word of their loved ones. There wasn’t much good news to report. By the time the smoke had cleared, the death toll had risen to 12 and the known count of those seriously injured approached 300.
The cause of the collapse was attributed to “rotten timber”. According to the New York Times, a spokesman for Phillies’ President Potter stated that “there was not the slightest suspicion that the supports were weak”, but Philadelphia Mayor John Weaver promised a full investigation. Meanwhile, the Phillies season was put on hold for 12 days as the city and team dealt with the aftermath of the tragedy. When play finally resumed, the Phillies were forced to play at Columbia Park, home of the American League’s Philadelphia Athletics, while the investigation and eventual renovation was conducted. The Phillies were eventually able to return to their home ballpark for the 1904 season, but the tragic events of that August 8th afternoon would not soon be forgotten.
Incredibly, those who did forget would be reminded when the tragic events of August 8, 1903 were revisited on May 14, 1927. This time, a 50-foot section of the lower deck stands located down the first baseline collapsed during a game against the St. Louis Cardinals. Once again, the event proved tragic as one person died and at least 50 were injured in the ensuing panic.
In its just over 50 years of occupancy, National League Park, which came to be known as the Baker Bowl in honor of the team’s owner from 1913 to 1930, had a very tumultuous history. After opening in 1887, the entire ballpark burnt to the ground on August 6, 1894. When it was reconstructed for the 1895 season, the park was expanded to 18,800 seats and utilized a then unique cantilever design that eliminated much of its obstructed seating. For this reason, the renovated ballpark is considered by many historians to be the first modern baseball stadium. Unfortunately, up until and after the tragic collapse in 1903, very little was done to keep the Baker Bowl up to date. By the time the Phillies vacated the ballpark in 1938, it was a badly dilapidated facility that became derisively known as the “Toilet Bowl” and “Baker’s Bowels”. The old ballpark finally met the wrecking ball in 1950, but despite its tragic history, it continues to hold a special place in Philadelphia’s baseball lore. On August 6, 2000, a historical marker was erected on the site.