Baseball, Sports

How the Boston Braves, now lost to history, once called BU’s Nickerson Field home

Ralph Evans was 5 years old when he took his first batting practice at Braves Field. It was 1947, and Evans’ father pitched peanuts to him outside the stadium after they had attended a Boston Braves ballgame together. Evans swung at the peanuts with a mini bat as a small crowd looked on.

“They would cheer, and boo when I missed them,” Evans said.

A postcard of the 1948 Boston Braves baseball team. Boston University’s Nickerson Field contains bits and pieces of the former team’s stomping grounds, Braves Field. COURTESY OF BOSTON PUBLIC LIBRARY VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Evans was —  and is — a diehard Boston Braves fan. He recalls attending his first game at Braves Field in 1946 when he was only 4 years old, the ecstasy of his team winning the National League pennant in 1948 and the devastation of the team leaving Boston for Milwaukee in 1953. 

Evans is 79 years old now, but he remembers it all like it was yesterday. He’s a historian with the Boston Braves Historical Association who specializes in Braves Field, and he worked at Boston University as a baseball coach and athletic trainer from 1970 to 1972.

This week, Evans has seen his Braves, now in Atlanta, play in the World Series for the first time in 22 years.

Today, the Braves’ old stomping grounds lie in the heart of BU’s West Campus.

Bits and pieces of Braves Field make up Nickerson Field — the home to the BU soccer and lacrosse teams, as well as a host of many club sports teams. 

Rich, Sleeper and Claflin Halls stand in place of the grandstands behind home plate, Walter Brown Arena is positioned near where the third-base pavilion once stood and high-rise dorm StuVi 2 is located near what was once right field. The BU Police Department’s headquarters, located across from Agganis Arena, was once the Braves’ headquarters and ticket office. 

Only the first-base pavilion of the original ballpark, now used as the stands at Nickerson Field, remains.

When Braves Field opened in 1915 as a replacement for the South End Grounds, the facility was state-of-the-art. At the time, the ballpark could house the most fans — 40,000 — of any stadium in the major leagues. 

The complex even included a streetcar line on Babcock Street that carried fans directly to Braves Field.

Braves owner James Gaffney, a wealthy businessman with ties to New York’s Tammany Hall political machine, spearheaded the plan to build Braves Field after the team won the World Series in 1914. 

“[Gaffney] wanted a palace, based on what he thought fans were looking for at the time,” Thomas Whalen, a College of General Studies associate professor and local baseball historian, said. 

As a result, Braves Field was primed for the Deadball Era of the early 1900s. It boasted an enormous playing field with deep outfield walls that could increase the potential for inside-the-park home runs. 

“It was kind of built for pitchers, a kind of small ball, hit-and-run, advance-the runner,” Whalen said.

Although the dimensions of the field were scaled down during the Live-ball Era, Evans said dead center field was a distant 550 feet away from home plate when the ballpark first opened. According to a list compiled by Bleacher Report, only two home runs in major league history have ever been hit farther than 550 feet — one by Babe Ruth, and one by Mickey Mantle. 

Evans noted that Gaffney also built the ballpark to compete with the American League’s Boston Red Sox, which had opened Fenway Park in 1912. 

According to Baseball Reference, the Braves and Red Sox attracted relatively similar attendance numbers throughout the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, but after the Braves won the National League pennant in 1948, the team’s success — and fan attendance — took a nosedive. 

The Braves attracted fewer than 300,000 fans to Braves Field for the 1952 season, which was dead-last in the National League and paled in comparison to Fenway Park’s 1.1 million attendees. 

A year later, Braves owner Lou Perini moved the franchise to Milwaukee and sold Braves Field to BU on July 29, 1953, for approximately $500,000. The University put the field to use as a new home for the Terriers’ football team and other athletic activities. 

The acquisition allowed BU to move its athletic facilities closer to the heart of campus — the university’s previous athletic field, also called Nickerson Field, was located over 10 miles away in Weston. 

The Boston Patriots shared the field with BU from 1960-1961 before the franchise moved to Foxborough in 1971 and rebranded as the New England Patriots. 

Rich, Claflin and Sleeper Halls were built in 1964, Walter Brown Arena opened in 1971, and while BU still hosted thousands of fans for football games in the latter part of the 20th century, the field quickly became a shell of its former self without the home-plate and third-base grandstands still intact. 

The University eventually shut down the football program in 1997. A few professional sports teams have shared Nickerson Field with BU since, including the Boston Breakers of the Women’s United Soccer Association from 2001-03 and the Boston Cannons of Major League Lacrosse from 2004-06. 

Since then, Nickerson Field has assumed the purpose it holds today. 

Whalen noted that the Red Sox nearly decided to leave Boston and move west instead of the Braves, which would have changed the entire landscape of Major League Baseball and impacted BU’s campus expansion. 

“The Braves were just unlucky,” Whalen said. “They were so close to staying here and making a go of it.” 

If the Red Sox, and not the Braves, had left town, Whalen thinks BU would have considered buying Fenway Park and could have expanded its campus into Brookline rather than Allston, since Braves Field would have remained standing.

“It is interesting to think about how Boston, development-wise, would have changed,” Whalen added.

George Cicero, a freshman in BU’s College of Engineering, said he had no idea the Braves once played on Nickerson Field.

“I find it really crazy,” Cicero said. “I didn’t know it was that historic.”

Evans said he has a bottle of champagne on ice for if the Braves close out the 2021 World Series, but he said a title wouldn’t have the same meaning a Boston Braves championship would have had.

“As much as I love them, they’re in Atlanta,” Evans said. “If they win, it’s not going to set off wild celebrations.”

Nevertheless, the site of Braves Field is a special place for Evans.

“If I ever get to heaven, the one thing I’m going to ask God is, ‘Rebuild this ballpark … and if you want to give me an apartment here, that’s fine,’” Evans said. “In my way of thinking, that would be a great way to spend eternity.”

3 Comments

  1. Not even a note that BU Football played there. Changing history at BU,too?SED70 & BU Football.

  2. How interesting! Always a Red Sox fan, I didn’t pay much attention to the Braves, but. Occasionally I would listen to a game and knew some of the players’ names. Now I find out about Nickerson Field being part of B.U. And that Ellie Wiesel taught there for many years. Just read Witness by Ariel Burger and wish I could have been a student there.

  3. What a great piece! I love connecting sports and history.