Milwaukee is known for being a city of neighborhoods. From Bay View on the south side and Washington Heights to the west, each neighborhood has a story — including the Borchert Field neighborhood on the city’s north side. The neighborhood got its name from an athletic field that spanned 8th Street to the west, 7th Street to the east, Chambers to the south and Burleigh to the north. I-43 now runs through the middle of what used to be.
Over the years, a handful of listeners have written in to Bubbler Talk asking about Borchert Field, and so we’re going back in time before County Stadium or Miller Park — now called American Family Field.
The year was 1888, Milwaukeeans wanted a new athletic field before Opening Day for the Milwaukee Brewers of the Western Association.
“It was built in three months,” says Bob Buege.
If you’re asking questions about Borchert Field, Bob Buege is the guy to talk to. He is the president the Milwaukee Braves Historical Association and director of the Old Time Ballplayers Association of Wisconsin. He also wrote a book entitled “Borchert Field: Stories from Milwaukee’s Legendary Ballpark."
He says around $40,000 was spent to build Borchert and $35,000 of that was the cost of the land.
“You could imagine it was a pretty simple ballpark to be built in that length of time. It was entirely of wood, it didn’t use any structural steel or concrete. It was a place that Milwaukeeans went to for a number of things besides baseball, but especially baseball for 64 years,” he says.
Buege says besides the Minor League Milwaukee Brewers, the Green Bay Packers used to host games at Borchert along with the lesser-known professional football team the Milwaukee Badgers.
Buege says almost every famous ball player from the 20th century took to Borchert Field.
“Babe Ruth played there, he and his partner Lou Gehrig traveled around the country at the end of some seasons and they played Ty Cobb, Red Grange, a very famous football player. The Milwaukee Badgers had a team that played all of the big stars in football. There was a game that was played in 1922 involving Paul Robeson,” he says.
Yes, that Paul Robeson. The iconic singer, actor and Civil Rights leader. He played for the Milwaukee Badgers at Borchert Field.
“He was going to school at Columbia Law School in New York and he would get on a train on Friday afternoon after his classes ended and ride overnight to Milwaukee play a football game and then go back home. He played this game against Jim Thorpe, the most outstanding athlete of the 20th century. Paul Robeson caught the only two touchdowns,” Buege says.
Milwaukee won that game 13-0.
Buege says the following year, in 1923, another baseball team called Borchert Field home — the Negro League Milwaukee Bears. He says there was one game that made people in the neighborhood, which was majority white at the time, uncomfortable.
“In 1923, it was not at all safe for African Americans to travel anywhere in the United States, of course. A caravan of fans, all African American, I believe, came up from Chicago to watch a game that the Bears played. They had fancy cars — Duesenberg’s, Stutz Bearcat. So they drove up in a group and they parked along 8th Street with probably about 20 really impressive automobiles and I’m sure it attracted a lot of attention. People must of wondered first of all who are all these people and where did they get all these cars,” he says.
The Milwaukee Bears only lasted one season because the team ran out of money. But others continued to play at Borchert Field through 1952. County Stadium opened in 1953 as the Major League Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee.
Buege says the decision to move away from Borchert was easy because by that time it was a dump.
“Because it was all wood, it would sometimes catch fire from abandoned cigarettes and cigars. Most of the men seemed to smoke cigars at those games. So the owner would hire kids to go around with a bucket and put out fires that started in the stands,” says Buege.
He says that when Borchert Field was being deconstructed, a sign was put up that read “Free kindling” and people from the community took the wood to heat their homes.
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