Late to the Game: Goodbye Billy Goat Hill

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Assistant editor Chris O’Connell isn’t from Texas; he’s from New Jersey. That’s OK though—he’s here now. But without growing up in a place that cherishes college sports the way many parts of the South—and especially Texas—do, Chris has taken it upon himself to learn more about all aspects of college athletics in a series we like to call Late to the Game.

A recent LTTG column on the Texas-OU rivalry was set at UFCU Disch-Falk Field, where Texas baseball has played since 1975. The ballpark experience was quite nice, if not nondescript; there’s nothing really idiosyncratic about the field or the stadium, which is par for the course nowadays. In fact, short of having some weird swimming pool out in right field, the Dell Diamond (where the Rangers’ AAA affiliate plays) is pretty similar to the Disch.

Between 1928-74 the Longhorns played in a jewel-box ballpark, a relic of the so-called “golden age” of baseball defined by its concrete and steel guts, asymmetrical outfield, exposed stone, and an “intimate, yet palatial feel,” according to some Wikipedia editor. Clark Field, in this way, was akin to Fenway Park or Wrigley Field, the only two jewel boxes still in use in the majors. But there’s one major difference between the former home of the Longhorns and the once-mighty archetype for big-city baseball stadiums: the treacherous mound in centerfield known as Billy Goat Hill.

No, that’s not the group named the Country Music Awards’ 2009 New Artist of the Year. It was an actual hill on the field of play, so named for the goat path that acted as its only course of entry. In centerfield, there was a limestone cliff, which reached a height of 30 feet in one spot. For Longhorn players this was actually a home-field advantage. Some players would actually play on top of the hill, as they wouldn’t have to run up the hill blindly to chase a fly ball, and a prerequisite for playing center was knowing the nooks and crannies of Billy Goat Hill inside and out. When a player on the home team would smack one onto the hill or off the scoreboard perched on top, the opposing defender would usually become befuddled by the terrain, leading to an inordinate amount of extra base hits for the Longhorns. Texas used this advantage to the tune of 37 Southwest Conference championships and two College World Series championships. Longhorn pitchers threw six no hitters at home on the smaller, safer, regulation infield hill we call the pitcher’s mound.

In fact, Clark Field was such a standout that former Daily Texan editor Willie Morris wrote lovingly about it in his book Always Stand in Against the Curve:

“Directly across the street from the football stadium had been the most lovely and harmonious baseball field in the United States, the most unusual baseball diamond I have to this day ever known. It was called Clark Field, and it had been carved out of the earth from the limestone all around it. Its roofed grandstand and bleachers had a patina of time, and its entire surroundings were touched with an unhurried grace that behooved the best and most complex of all American games. I loved this field, and it came to represent for me the most enduring spot on the whole campus of the University of Texas. Indeed, to me its became the best place in all this frenetic, pulsating state  … Was there a finer place in God’s creation to spend a placid afternoon in the sunshine with one’s favorite coed and one’s best pals from Breckenridge Hall, watching the Longhorns in their burnt-orange and white embarrass the loathsome Texas Aggies?”

I’m not crying, I swear.

Clark Field is also the setting of a major-league legend, one that is impossible to prove. In 1930, the Yankees played an exhibition game at Clark Field. During the game, Lou Gehrig allegedly hit a towering, 550-foot home run straight over Billy Goat Hill. That’s a very long, seemingly impossible distance for a baseball to travel, considering the longest verifiable home run in Major League history is Babe Ruth’s 575-foot shot at Tiger Stadium in 1921. I know what you’re thinking: That probably didn’t happen. I know. Apocrypha isn’t just an episode of the X-Files.

In 1975, Disch-Falk Field opened, a symptom of every level of baseball moving away from the jewel box. It was also probably time to triple stadium capacity to almost 7,000, add outfield seats, and provide a stadium for the team that was built after the start of the Great Depression.

Today, long gone is the iconic limestone, the crowds gathered behind the right field fence, and the famous, terrifying slope of Clark Field’s Billy Goat Hill, but the Longhorns can say that for nearly half a century, they played home games on the most unique baseball field in the country. And they didn’t bunt so darn much.

Illustration by Melissa Reese.

Here’s the audio version:

 

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