Using GIS to Relocate and Commemorate Historic Washington Street Ballpark

In the fall semester of 2010, Ball State University scholars from the Department of English, the Department of Landscape Architecture, and the University Libraries applied for and received a grant from the Ball State Office of Institutional Diversity. The project was to identify the original site of Washington Park Ball Field, where the first Negro National League game was played between the Indianapolis A.B.C.’s and Joe Green’s Chicago Giants. The project utilized a combination of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and traditional map and photographic sources.

The team included Robert C. Baas “Chris,” Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture, Geralyn M. Strecker, Assistant Professor of English, Trey Strecker, Assistant Professor of English, and Angela S. Gibson, GIS Specialist for the University Libraries.

Washington Park was constructed in 1905 as the home field for the Indianapolis Indians American Association minor league club and was razed by the mid 1930’s. Washington Park’s historic setting remained a mostly deserted industrial area west of the city’s downtown until the Indianapolis Zoo completely transformed the site in 1988.

Finding Washington Park’s historic location required georeferencing three separate images: a 1915 Sanborn Insurance map of the park and its surroundings obtained from the University Libraries’ Microfilm Collection, a 1936 aerial photograph obtained from the Indiana State Archives, and a 2005 aerial photograph obtained from the Indiana University’s Spatial Data Portal. To georeference something means to establish its location in terms of map projections and coordinate systems.

Common points located on all three images were linked in the GIS software. First, the 1936 aerial photograph was georeferenced to common points on the 2005 aerial, such as road centerlines, bridges, and building footprints. Then, the Sanborn Insurance Map image was georeferenced to the combination of the 2005 and 1936 aerial photography. Although the park is absent from the aerial photographs, both images contain common points associated with the C.C.C. & St. Louis Railroad’s brick roundhouse, Washington Street, and numerous rail lines. The resulting product was an overlay of three images representing the park’s landscape in 1915, 1936, and 2005. Since the infield’s ghost was still visible on the 1936 aerial, locations for home plate and the pitcher’s mound were easy to identify.

Now part of White River State Park’s Indianapolis Zoo, Washington Park’s landscape has undergone considerable changes. To maximize the zoo’s acreage, the Washington Street right-of-way was moved south in the 1980’s. The field’s location now lies to its north. An elephant biosphere and a petting zoo occupy the former park’s entry gates and grandstand. The former location of home plate, approximately 86° 10’ 54” W, 39° 46’ 1” N, lies on an interior, behind-the-scenes service road. The zoo’s main office occupies shallow center field.

After relocating Washington Street Park, the team was successful in applying for a historical marker to be placed at the site by the Indiana Historical Bureau. The research team worked with Indianapolis Zoo staff to make the unveiling of the marker a part of the Jerry Malloy Negro League Conference on July 22, 2011. Former Indianapolis Clowns batboys Cliff Robinson and Ludwig Johnson, along with former Negro Leagues player Johnny Wilson, were on hand to unveil the marker during a ceremony at the zoo. After the unveiling, the ceremony attendees were allowed entry to the staff-only area of the zoo where Washington Park’s home plate would have been located.

Attendees of the Jerry Malloy Negro League Conference were also able to attend a presentation documenting the research and GIS methods used in relocating the park. A poster presentation at the 2011 Society for American Baseball Research Annual Conference in Los Angeles and an article submission to the Journal of Sport History also stemmed from this grant.

For more information, contact Angela S. Gibson, GIS Specialist.   ◙

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