If you study baseball, and you study history, you begin to understand that both of these subjects are totally shaped and sustained by the same element of our existence: the element of time.
Because there is no clock in baseball, it is easy to imagine that the aspect of time has no bearing on the sport. A game can go on for hours if the pitcher’s pace is slow, and it can go on for days if the innings keep ending with a tie score.
In that way it seems like baseball is completely unattached to time.
Yet the game has hardly changed in 150 years and box scores have been kept from the start so, in effect, every single game today can be compared and contrasted to every game since the beginning. The players — no matter what decades of fashion their uniforms reflect — are compared and ranked to one another as if no time at all had elapsed between eras, between seasons.
The game you watch today could easily be the same one your great-grandparents watched. So, in this manner, the passing of time has little to do with the history of baseball.
Sadly, the passing of time has not been so benign when it comes to our baseball fields.
It is not difficult to find box scores for the games played in Mansfield in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is nearly impossible to find the old ballparks where these games took place.
Time and history, which have blessed and perpetuated the National Pastime, have rolled over, churned under, and all but obliterated the temporal diamonds where the resilient game was played.
A significant example of this is the story of Davey Field.
The old ball field
It wasn’t always called Davey Field. It started out as simply a low-lying meadow on the farm of Peter Bell, out West Fourth Street beyond the edge of town by the B&O tracks.
It was in the autumn of 1866 when the first game of baseball was played in Mansfield, and within only a few months the historic Fourth Street grounds on the Bell farm were in play.
In the 1860s there were three different fields where baseball was played in Mansfield. They were literally fields — grassy expanses mowed for the occasion — and not exactly groomed in the careful designs we have come to associate with ball diamonds.
The first of these fields was on South Main Street, where Lexington Avenue forks off, at the old county fairgrounds. Another was out Park Avenue East in the area where East Fourth Street ends. The third was on the Bell farm.
In some ways this last field was the preferred venue, especially for teams coming in from out of town. There was a small whistle stop station nearby where the visiting team could hop on and off the train. The tiny depot was located in what is now North Lake Park, at the terminus of the bike trail.
The farther the visiting team had to travel from the train depot to the ball grounds, the more opportunity there was for hometown baseball cranks to jeer and hoot at them. This sounds like a minor concern within the confines of a little article like this, but in real time circumstance it could be a fairly harrowing experience.
In 1875 the visiting Delaware team was attacked on the way to Union Station with potatoes and stones thrown by a local crowd of sore losers.
So having the railroad track running right next to the field was advantageous to the good health of everybody concerned.
Down by the old ball stream
The only drawback to the Bell farm ball grounds was found at the outer edge of the outfield. Many ballparks have a fence there to mark the edge of the field of play; the Mansfield grounds were delineated by Toby’s Run.
It sounds awkward chasing the home run ball across a wetfoot stream, but that was the least of the problems associated with this outfield boundary. In a stiff rain it could rise up and make a shallow lake of center field.
That’s what happened in 1869 when the Cincinnati Red Stockings came to Mansfield to play the Mansfield Independents. It had been raining for several days, before the June 1 game, and the home field was still a swamp when it was time for the first pitch.
A Cincinnati newspaper covering the game reported that play was removed from the flooded ball grounds upland to an adjacent field that was higher and dryer. When the Independents lost that game the local papers were quick to attribute the poor play to shaggy conditions of the borrowed field.
Today the site of these historic makeshift base paths would be found underneath the parking lot pavements adjoining Mid Ohio Conference Center and Startek on Fourth Street, just a few feet above the Davey Field site.
During the last decades of the 1800s and the first decades of the 1900s, as baseball steadily increased in popularity and influence in American society, the Mansfield ball culture similarly came to dominate the city’s summer spare time.
For a number of generations there were ball fields all over town, and scores of baseball teams sprang up in every level of play. The city had professional league teams during various years, that played at League Park on Newman Street, but there were dozens of very spirited teams representing local industries who also competed for field time.
These Industrial Leagues played on whatever ball grounds were free until 1920 when they got their very own ballpark.
It was built by the Davey brothers, who owned the steel mill, and it was built on the site of the old Bell farm grounds.
A Tyger field
When Davey Field was constructed it was located at the very edge of town, and the only other landmarks nearby were North Lake and Casino Park. In the mid-1920s however, the neighborhood changed considerably when the new Mansfield Senior High School was built nearby.
When Senior High first opened it used Davey Field for athletic events and practices. This was the original home of the baseball Tygers in the summer and the football Tygers in the fall.
Davey Field was also home of the Mansfield Bears, a semi-pro football team that played from 1924-1934.
The natural terrain of Davey Field was an advantage for most things sporting. The valley tended to shield the playing field from the effects of wind, which was appreciated not only by players chasing balls, but also by fans who sat in the stands.
It was the protective hill though, that eventually caused the demise of the ballpark. West Fourth Street was paved with bricks in the 1930s, and the hill became wildly treacherous for westbound automobiles. Cars had to negotiate a very narrow bridge right at the bottom of the slippery steep slope, and there were more accidents there than any other place in town.
A bridge intended to overpass the tracks was built in the 1940s, and in the shadows of that massive bulwark Davey Field was severely overwhelmed and truncated. Then Arlin Field opened nearby in 1947 and the Davey Field grounds were completely abandoned.
After the game
There is a dynamic arc of light created in the short life of a hotly contested ballgame that is like touching two hot wires together: so elemental, so directly infusing the warm pulse of the community, it welds a branded memory into the soul of every player and every witness at the game.
That’s why you see old men standing and staring at an old backstop like they’re not really in this world, while the image of home plate reconnects them for a moment to a hot wire of their youth.
This energy wanes only through the attrition of years, and dissipates only when all the witnesses pass from this plane of existence.
There are those, though, who will say that even when all those folks are gone, the glowing memory lives on as an invisible ember in the very plot of earth where the game took place.
It becomes the basis of shrines, of pilgrimages and memorials.
If you were to make this pilgrimage today, to pay homage at the historic baseball shrine, there is very little at the site that could reconnect you to Davey Field.
You always hope to find a point of reference, a touchstone to connect you with the past — in this case, a corner post from the grandstand or the pitcher’s mound, maybe the remnants of a foul pole.
The grounds of Davey Field are so completely transformed from its former life that the only landmark from which to pace off the base paths is the railroad bed. Once the B&O, today it is the Richland B&O Trail.
Between the grandstand gate and the outfield fence you will be hard-pressed to find more than a few feet of contiguous level ground today. Toby’s Run now pours right through the infield, and if there is anyone on base at the moment it would be a stray maple tree, a hickory stump or a thorny raspberry bush.
The only runners on the base paths are grape vines and the roots of hawthorn sprouts. The echoes from the crowds at Davey Field have long died away.
But there is a timeless resonance to baseball that is so powerful it can make even this forgotten overgrown lot hum with bygone dreams.