Baseball Ground

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The life and times of the Baseball Ground

When Francis Ley laid out a sports ground for employees of his foundry in the 1880s, he could not have imagined that one day part of it would be the site of one of football’s greatest theatres.

The Ley’s baseball ground – no initial capitals were need in those days – was part of a 12-acre area which included cricket and football pitches and it was almost certainly Ley’s pride and joy.

The local industrialist, who was subsequently knighted, came back from a trip to the United States in 1889, and introduced baseball to Britain. The Derby club, with the legendary Steve Bloomer at second base, won the English Cup in 1897.

By then, Derby County had made the ground their permanent home following difficulties in staging matches at the County Ground.

In April 1895, a packed meeting at the Derwent Hotel heard the club committee unanimously recommend a move to the Baseball Ground where the Rams had occasionally played.

Derby Recreation Company, which leased the County Ground and Racecourse from Derby Corporation, was making life difficult and that very Easter Monday, Derby County had been unable to fulfil an attractive fixture against the Corinthians because of racing later that week.

Ley had already spent £7,000 improving the Baseball Ground and was prepared to finance a further £500-worth of work which included adding six yards to the Normanton Side and five yards to the Railway Side, and transferring stands from the County Ground to increase the capacity from 4,000 to 20,000.

On September 14, 1895, 10,000 people saw Steve Bloomer score both goals in the Rams’ 2-0 win over Sunderland at the Baseball Ground. It was the first match there since it had become the club’s new home and fears that attendances would not be maintained were banished.

Indeed, housing for employees of both Ley’s factory and the railway works meant that many supporters lived close by.

Just over a year later, Derby County became a limited company and the prospectus stated that the new company would take over `stands, cinder heaps, iron railings, turnstiles, etc.’ The report added that the directors had every confidence that, in a few years time, a considerable sum of money could be set aside for the purchase of the Baseball Ground.

The famous tale of the gipsies’ curse – the Rams were alleged to have moved them off the site and been cursed never to win a major trophy – might be true, although some gipsies appeared to have a cordial relationship with the club and one, named Old Mallender, cut the grass and rolled the pitch.

In 1895/96, the Rams finished as Division One runners-up and the boost in attendance brought in useful extra revenue, Derby started the season £1,200 in debt, spent a similar amount on ground improvements and managed to wipe off the entire deficit in little more than six months.

In 1923, it seemed that the Rams might move to the Municipal Sports Ground on Osmaston Park Road.

Plans were drawn up to provide seating for 4,000 spectators, modern dressing-rooms, gymnasium and offices. Assurances were given that the Municipal Sports Ground would be ready for the Rams to take up residence for the 1924/25 season.

In March 1924, however, the Rams withdrew.

On July 4, 1924, the Baseball Ground became Derby County property. Negotiations for its purchase from Ley, for £10,000, were completed that day. Rams’ president Bendle W. Moore gave the news to a shareholders’ meeting at the Royal hotel a few hours later.

Derby County also became owners of Ley’s Institute, which adjoined that part of the ground at the Osmaston End known as `Catchers Corner’, a relic of the baseball days.

The guarantee to the bank rose to almost £20,000, but that was now covered by the club’s assets and the Rams continued to improve the Baseball Ground.

Promotion to Division One in 1925/26 heralded major new work. On September 4, 1926, a new £16,000 stand, seating 3,300 and running along Shaftesbury Crescent, was opened as `B’ Pavilion. It was still incomplete, but its provision, together with other improvements, led to people talking of the `new Baseball Ground’.

Dressing-rooms, which had been behind both goals at one time or another, were now under this new main stand.

The increased crowd capacity to more than 30,000 was welcomed by supporters who had stayed away from the more attractive fixtures for fear of not gaining admission.

During the 1932 close-season, £750 was spent on increased cover for the Popular Side and in eight years since Derby bought the Baseball Ground, the club had spent £40,000 on it.

By the start of the 1933/34 season, a new double-decker stand rose behind the Normanton goal.

The ground did not escape war damage and in January, 1941, the Osmaston Stand was hit during a German air-raid.

The home leg of the 1945/46 FA Cup tie against West Bromwich Albion saw the highest Baseball Ground attendance since 1938, when supporters, desperate to see the game, put themselves at risk by climing into the bomb-damaged stand.

After the Second World War, there was once again talk of Derby moving to the Municipal Sports Ground, to a stadium designed by the architect of Wembley.

Again, the proposals came to nothing.

In March, 1953, notts County provided the opposition for the official switching-on ceremony of the floodlights.

The lights, set on the corners off the Osmaston and Normanton Stands, gave the 15,585 crowd that night a new dimension to football at the Baseball Ground. The Magpies, with Leon Leuty and Frank Broome in their side, were beaten 3-0.

There were no further developments at the ground until 1969 when, in the wake of promotion to Division One, the construction of a new cantilever stand was started on the Popular Side.

Ley’s Malleable Castings co-operated in providing additional land and contractors worked against the clock to have the £150,000 stand ready for the first home game in August, 1969.

The stand originally bore the Ley name – it became known as the Co-op Stand and consequently, the Toyota Stand – and increased the capacity to a theoretical 42,000. A record crowd of 41,826 jammed into the Baseball Ground, when the Rams beat Spurs 5-0 in September, 1969. In 1980, despite relegation, executive boxes were installed at the rear of the Ley structure.

Derby County had kept pace with the growing need for commercialism in soccer and in 1971 the Sportsman’s Club was opened above the offices. A further 1,500 seats, installed in the middle tier of the Osmaston Stand, brought the seating accommodation to 14,000 out of a reduced capacity of 40,000.

European football in 1971 meant that the Rams had to install new floodlights to meet the standards required for colour television. Some œ50,000 was spent on the flights which were on more familiar pylons.

With an all-seater stadium in mind, 1,000 seats were installed in the Normanton Stand middle tier, bringing the capacity down to 38,500, but the club also set aside part of the Popular Side for standing season ticket holders.

In 1973, a new police office was provided at the Normanton End to meet the growing menace of soccer violence and, two years later, with the Rams now League Champions for the second time, the infamous Baseball Ground pitch was dug up and relaid.

The new sand-based pitch cost £40,000 and pieces of the old one, the mud-heap on which so many famous matches had been played, were put into souvenir plaques and sold to supporters.

In 1975 and 1976, more seats were put in the Paddock below the main stand, but a less pleasant development was the erection of fencing all around the ground. Crowd violence had cost Derby County many thousands of pounds that could have been usefully spent eleswhere.

A more pleasing aspect was the introduction of a family seating area on the Osmaston terrace. The idea was popular but the placing of the seats, near visiting supporters, was not ideal and in 1983, the area was returned to terracing, first for the use of Rams supporters and then for accommodating visiting spectators.

In 1984, the ground capacity was 33,700 and the Baseball Ground was held by the National Westminster Bank as surety against the club’s largest overdraft, reported to be £750,000.

First Robert Maxwell and then the club directors were reported to be near to buying the ground as the Rams entered their centenary season.

The story of Derby County’s recovery from those dreadful days of the early Eighties has been well-documented.

The end result of it all was that the Baseball Ground became the property of Robert Maxwell.

After Derby County celebrated their centenary, further work on the Baseball Ground included the introduction of greater safety measures implemented in the wake of the fire which claimed 56 lives at Bradford City’s Valley Parade in May, 1985.

That made everyone acutely aware of shortcomings at sports grounds up and down the country.

The work involved taking out seats to widen gangways and it reduced the capacity of the Baseball Ground to around 26,500. The club was able to take down fencing along the Paddock in front of the main stand and at the Normanton end where a family enclose, the Key Club, had been introduced. Members gained access by using a key linked to a computerised system.

This, a new area for the disabled and the links with Derbyshire and Derby Councils, won praise from Sports Minister Colin Moynihan when he visited the ground in March, 1988.

The Baseball Ground pitch still caused headaches, despite the much-publicised digging up of the old playing surface in 1975. Drainage in and around the ground had long been a problem, but the demolition of old property meant that improvements could be made.

A £150,000 `package’ which included new drains and an undersoil heating system gave rise to hope that the trouble had at last been cured.

Derby County’s home was one of the best places to watch and play football. The closeness of the spectators to the pitch and the high stands which seemed to hold in the noise of a full house, made the Baseball Ground a great stadium.

But change was very much in the air.

The perception of fences changed at Hillsborough in 1989, when the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest had to be abandoned.

The death tally on that April afternoon was 95, all Liverpool supporters at the Leppings Lane end. Many suffered crushing because the fences designed to contain them prevented escape when there was a major safety crisis.

As a result, Lord Justice Taylor was commissioned to write a report and football authorities were obliged to act on it, for practical as well as moral reasons.

Fencing at the Baseball ground went in 1989. When Derby were promoted in successive seasons under Arthur Cox, management and players had to accept the crowd’s applause through heavy wire mesh.

At such moments, the whole safety system looked awful, demeaning, inhuman and, as Hillsborough proved horribly flawed. The combined brains of football, governments, the police and safety authorities ultimately produced a bad solution.

With the departure of Robert Maxwell in 1994, the Baseball Ground was now his, under the parent company Derbyshire Enterprises Ltd.

Derby, meanwhile, became one of the 13 cities granted Government aid after competing successfully for one of the City Challenge Awards and Derby County began to investigate the possibility of a move to Pride Park.

The site was there, but not the funding, despite one apparently attractive packages.

In January, 1996, the Rams decided that they would redevelop the Baseball Ground into a 27,000 all-seater stadium. That involved the disappearance of a landmark with the demolition of the Baseball Hotel, although the fittings were retained.

A local architectural practice, Hall Grey, set about designing three stands. By then, Derby were already on overtime, having received an an extension to the 1994 deadline for becoming fully seated.

The old Pop Side was, therefore, reshaped in 1995, the first major change since the Ley Stand, by this time known as the toyota Stand, was built in 1969.

Other installations had involved bolting seats to existing terracing but, despite the bitty nature of alterations, upkeep of the Baseball Ground was a financial drain.

The thinking was about to change again. Derby Pride bid to stage the Millennium Exhibition but, good a case though they made, were always outsiders with London involved.

So it proved when the decision was made in December, 1995. Here was an opening for Derby County, who could provide a central feature for Pride Park and, in turn, have the space for associated commercial developments.

Vice-chairman Peter Gadsby, whose construction company Birch plc, is notably successful, saw it as an opportunity not to be missed.

Pickering had always hankered after a new stadium, as he told an annual meeting when the decision to stay put had been taken. Activity has been intense ever since, first the negotiations, then the construction by Taylor Woodrow.

No new stadium can replace the particular atmosphere of the Baseball Ground, but that would have gone anyway. Redevelopment on Shaftesbury Ground was going to change the nature of the ground to comply with modern requirements.

The site would have been the same and the Toyota Stand was due to be a survivor, at least in the short-term. But nothing else was the same and when the current Main Stand was dotted in on scale drawings, in had the status of a garden shed.

With a sense of theatre, the announcement was made on February 21, 1996, about 20 minutes before the Rams kicked off against Luton Town.

The chance to move to a new stadium was seized after all.

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