One hundred years ago today, on Saturday, May 30, 1914, the first game of baseball was played at Berwind Park.
That first game pitted the newly formed, salaried team of the St. Marys Base Ball Association against the visiting P. & E. Renovo squad. "P. & E." stood for "Philadelphia & Erie," referring to the railroad that passed through both St. Marys and Renovo. The game ended up being a 10-inning contest, with St. Marys emerging victorious 2-1.
Formed in 1913, the St. Marys Base Ball Association considered several sites before purchasing the land on Berwind Heights that would become home to the ballpark. The Association held subscription drives and fundraisers and spent over $8,000 to purchase and improve the land, as well as to construct a large wooden grandstand on the site.
Work on the facility was only completed two days prior to the first game, with the St. Marys team under the direction of manager C.J. McBride, of Homestead, getting to practice on the field for the first time on Friday, May 29.
Special trains brought baseball fans from neighboring communities to St. Marys on Saturday morning for the game, and it was estimated that over 1,500 people were in attendance at Berwind Park.
Inclement weather earlier in the day gave way to sunshine by the time both teams paraded from South St. Marys Street to the ballpark around 2 p.m. The game itself got underway shortly after 3:15 p.m.
The Elk County Gazette reported that the contest "rivaled in many ways the game as played in the big leagues."
The two teams met again the following day, also at Berwind Park, and the home team emerged the victors in that contest as well, this time by the score of 12-1.
From that successful beginning, Berwind Park has seen a number of highs and lows over the past century. While the St. Marys team saw a great deal of success in its first two seasons, the Association's ability to pay for top players and the community's willingness to support such an endeavor declined over the years. The ballpark's wooden grandstand was struck by lightning in August of 1920 and was a complete loss. The Association held fundraisers to construct a new metal grandstand in time for the following season, but struggled to get the community support it once had. A new grandstand was built in time for the 1921 season, but the Association's team folded midway through the summer. Berwind Park went up for sheriff's sale two years later, with the Borough of St. Marys purchasing it for $250 in 1923.
While the St. Marys Base Ball Association's demise marked the end of a salaried baseball team, local ballplayers had also been using the facility since its inaugural season, and the middle of the 20th century gave rise to the heyday of some of the more prominent local teams, including the Colts.
The St. Marys Area School District entered into an agreement with the Borough in 1946 to lease the facility to athletic events, with the school district paying $1 each year of the 99-year lease.
Today, Berwind Park is home to both the St. Marys Area Flying Dutchmen and the Elk County Catholic Crusaders, as well as the St. Marys American Legion Post 103 baseball team and St. Marys Little League Baseball Senior League team. The ballpark has been the site of numerous District 9 and PIAA playoff games, the American Legion Region 8 Tournament, and the American Legion State Baseball Tournament.
The ballpark has changed in appearance several times, and over the years a variety of other sporting events have been held there as well, including football and soccer games. South St. Marys Street Elementary School also currently utilizes the facility for their annual Olympics; however, Berwind Park remains best known for its intended purpose–baseball.
ECC Crusader baseball head coach Fr. Eric Vogt referred to Berwind Park as being "one of the quality parks in the area," and added that "it's well laid out."
"It's a privilege to play there because they take good care of the field and they do it year in, year out," Vogt said.
St. Marys Area baseball head coach Tony Azzato may currently be leading the Dutchmen in their home games at Berwind Park, but he also has firsthand experience playing on the field as a member of that same squad. Azzato was on the Dutch high school team for the first game played after the park's current grandstand was installed. He recalled that it was March 1999 and there were 32 professional and collegiate scouts in attendance to watch St. Marys Area's TJ Gornati, a Pitt commit, take on Port Allegany's Brian Stavisky, who was committed to play at Notre Dame.
"I can't remember the final score, but I do know that we beat them pretty easily," Azzato said. "Afterwards, the pro scouts asked Port's coach to throw BP to Stavisky so they could further critique his swing being that he didn't get too many at-bats with how well TJ threw that game. Just the year before we were playing in the same field with a cinderblock concession stand and equipment shed and dugouts half the size, and now we were on one of the best ball fields in the state with the American Legion State Baseball Tournament set to take place in four months."
Azzato added that being able to now coach the Dutchmen and play at Berwind Park is "quite an honor."
"The ball players that have come and gone in my time at SMA have all had the privilege to play at this top-notch facility," he said. "To be able to walk in there on a daily basis and call Berwind Park our home field is an honor. I guess I never realized how well we have it until it is pointed out to me throughout the high school season. At various times throughout the year different coaches will always comment on how they wish they could play us more than once a year at Berwind or how they enjoying looking out to the outfield when the trees come in and see how the landscape takes over the skyline, especially with the addition of our new nine-inning scoreboard. When it comes down it, you can say that we are spoiled to be able to have this kind of facility in our hometown and to be able to be on it day in and day out."
Baseball was played in St. Marys long before Berwind Park came into existence, but the ballpark has provided a special place that has seen generation after generation of local ballplayers take to the same field. Local historian Ray Beimel perhaps best captured the ballpark's significance with the following remarks:
"Baseball was the first team sport played in St. Marys going way back into the 19th century," Beimel said. "We have had neighborhood teams, informal teams, factory teams, school teams, semi-pro teams, Knothole and Little League teams, American Legion teams, and more. Playing baseball a little or a lot is a common thread from great-grandfathers to great-grandsons. Just as St. Mary's Church is the monument to the faith of the early settlers, so Berwind Park is the monument to our community's involvement in baseball. There are only a few things that we have been doing in St. Marys for a hundred years or more. They are: Corpus Christi processions, Memorial Day parades, brewing beer, making carbon products, and now playing baseball at Berwind Park."