Honoring Hoosier baseball 

click to enlarge Oscar Charleston as a Brooklyn Brown Dodger
  • Oscar Charleston as a Brooklyn Brown Dodger

The historical marker dedication on July 22 brings attention to Indianapolis' rich and diverse baseball legacy. The four-part celebration includes the 125th anniversary of professional baseball in Indianapolis, starting with formation of the Indianapolis Blues in 1876 and continuing to the present with the Indianapolis Indians organized as a minor league club in the American Association in 1902.

This celebration also marks the location of Washington Baseball Park — Indianapolis' first major league stadium — honoring Indianapolis native Baseball Hall of Famer Oscar Charleston and recognizing Washington Park as the site of the first Negro National League game, played on May 2, 1920, with the Indianapolis ABCs defeating the Chicago Giants in both games of a doubleheader.

The Indians played their first two seasons in various ball fields around Indianapolis until Washington Baseball Park was dedicated on April 1, 1905 with an exhibition game between the regulars and second-string players.

"I never experienced a game at the old Washington Park," says Max B. Schumacher, president and chairman of the Indianapolis Indians Board. He was born in 1932, the year the Indians moved to its new home on West 16th Street, where Schumacher says he gained his love of baseball. "The impetus for the move from West Washington St. was the desire of Indians owner Norman Perry to name a new ballpark to honor his brother James Perry, who died in a plane crash in 1929. The team moved September 1931 with two days left in the season."

Schumacher recounts how the name changed from Perry Stadium to Victory Field. Perry "wanted to sell, and Frank McKinney Sr. and Owen Bush bought the team but leased the stadium. For some reason McKinney arranged the closing sale for Saturday, Dec. 6, 1941. We all know what happened on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941. As a young man, McKinney ended up in military service and Owen Bush, a former major leaguer and manager, became the club's president."

In 1942, Bush decided to take Perry's name off the field and asked the public for a new name. "Well, we would greet each other by flashing a "V' with a forefinger and middle finger," says Schumacher. "We were unified in the pursuit of victory. Victory was on our minds so we were settled on Victory Field."

Schumacher explains that in 1967 public sentiment turned to naming the ballpark in honor of Owen J. "Donie" Bush, who had served the team for twenty-six years.

"What's interesting is despite the name change, the old-timers never stopped calling it Victory Field," recalled Schumacher.

"So if you fast-forward to the 1990s, when what was credited as a 'minor league architectural treasure' was in need of major renovation or replacement to meet ballpark standards, very few people knew why it was called Bush Stadium; 'Donie' had died and left no family. When the City's Capital Improvement Board announced plans for a new stadium on land made available by White River State Park, in my mind Victory Field was always a good name. So we're back to within a few blocks from where we started during our formative years as a club."

"We hope the historical marker will clear up questions about the exact location of Washington Park, which has been a mystery for over 70 years," adds Ball State University professor Geri Strecker. "In 1905, the park faced old Washington Street. It was torn down after the Indians moved to their new field on 16th Street at the end of 1931. The site then underwent many drastic transformations, most recently culminating in Washington Street shifting a block south and the landscape being redeveloped for the zoo. With no remaining evidence to indicate where the ballpark had stood, groups from Ball State University layered old maps and aerial photographs to pinpoint the site."

The first and the great

Indianapolis' rich baseball history goes beyond just the field. Negro League baseball in Indianapolis began in 1914 with the ABCs, named for its sponsor the American Brewing Company, which was located in a five-story complex that stretched from Market Street north to Ohio Street, just one block west of the state capitol building, according to historian Bob Ostrander. The ABCs joined the Negro National League when it was incorporated in 1920, making Washington Park their home until the team disbanded in the mid-1930s.

"People often think of Kansas City and Chicago as important cities in the formation of the Negro Leagues," says Ball State University professor Geri Strecker. "With the historical marker we wish to bring attention to the fact that Indianapolis ABCs owner C.I. Taylor was instrumental in organizing the league, and that our city hosted the league's first game. The new marker also celebrates Oscar Charleston, whom baseball statistician Bill James has ranked the fourth greatest player of all time, behind only Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner and Willie Mays."

R. Dale Ogden, Indiana State Museum curator and author of Hoosier Sports Heroes concurs. "Oscar Charleston wasn't a showman like Satchel Paige, or a pioneer in the Jackie Robinson mold, or a player in a big market like New York, but he may have had more pure talent than all of them."

Charleston batted .353 in his career. He played in 53 exhibition games against white major league players and hit .318 with 11 home runs. Charleston, born in 1896, died in 1954 and is buried in Floral Park Cemetery on Indianapolis' eastside.

"As we celebrate the 125th consecutive season of professional baseball in Indianapolis, we are thrilled the Negro League Conference is being held in Indy," said Chris Herndon, director of marketing and communications for the Indians. "The history of the Negro Leagues in Indianapolis is an important part of the professional baseball legacy in our community. We are excited to see the historic marker dedication at the site of Washington Park and we are honored to host a Negro League Baseball celebration at Victory Field."

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Rita Kohn

Rita Kohn

Rita Kohn has been covering craft beer and the arts for NUVO for two decades. She’s the author of True Brew: A Guide to Craft Beer in Indiana.

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