What man grows up out of range of most big-league broadcasts, still falls in love with old Crosley Field and self-funds a baseball museum across the street from the home-plate entrance of Coors Field in Denver?
“It’s an incredible passion,” Bruce Hellerstein said of his National Ballpark Museum. “It might seem strange, but I really felt my (baseball-fan) needs were met during my childhood growing up in Denver.”
At 68, Hellerstein is old enough to remember attending games at 20,000-seat Bears Stadium before it was expanded into multi-purpose Mile High Stadium, eventually the first home of the Colorado Rockies in 1993. Triple-A baseball with the Bears was the highest level Hellerstein witnessed, watching the likes of Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubek, Carl Yastrzemski, Don Larsen and Marvelous Marv Throneberry either play for the home team or come through town in the American Association.
“We outdrew three to four major-league teams,” recalled Hellerstein. “We had the best seats in the house.”
Hellerstein said he never felt deprived almost literally being out of broadcast reach of big-league baseball in the 1950s and 1960s. As a non-MLB market, Denver received NBC’s and CBS’ weekend Games of the Week, but no other baseball telecasts in pre-superstation decades. Hellerstein does not recall ever picking up the voice of Vin Scully on Dodgers’ broadcasts on 50,000-watt KFI out of Los Angeles. Giants broadcasts could not reach Denver at night on 5,000-watt KSFO in San Francisco. 50,000-watt KNBR did not pick up the rights until 1979.
“I listened to the Royals a little, sometimes I’d get a very faint broadcast (out of the Kansas City network),” Hellerstein said. “To this day, I (generally) don’t watch games on TV. For me, my romance of the game came from baseball cards, Sport magazine, the Game of the Week, World Series and All-Star Games.”
Falling in love with Crosley Field
Eventually, the yen for classic ballparks became predominant in Hellerstein’s portfolio when he wasn’t cutting his teeth as a CPA, his “day” job today. His epiphany was a visit to Cincinnati and Crosley Field in 1968, two years before the 29,000-seat bandbox with the rise in the outfield closed in favor of cookie-cutter Riverfront Stadium. Hellerstein did not actually watch a game at Crosley, but still was hooked for life.
“I get off on the romance, the big light standards,” he said. “To this day, I still have dreams of Crosley. I have dreams of walking in a deserted (old) ballpark. There’s a reason someone built an exact replica in Blue Ash, Ohio. It was very, very special.
“I went to personal development and growth seminars. I was asked to picture paradise. I envisioned ballparks.”
So two threads began in Hellerstein’s life. He started collecting artifacts from the classic ballparks through a cozy network of collectors. And he began assembling a semblance of a museum in his Denver-area basement.
“Would I rather have a light fixture from Crosley or usher jacket from Yankee Stadium?” he said. “The answer was obvious. I work with the curator from the Reds museum next to Great American Ballpark.”
In addition to vintage items from Wrigley Field and other old ballparks, Hellerstein also snared a rare item – an unused ticket from the final game at Forbes Field against the Cubs on Sunday, June 28, 1970. How a full ticket survived is the big question when a monstrous overflow crowd of 40,918 showed up at the 34,000-seat ballpark to first watch the Pirates sweep a doubleheader amid a 12-game Chicago losing streak, then storm the field hunting for souvenirs after the final out.
Eventually he gathered memorabilia from 14 classic ballparks. He struck out only on Washington, D.C.’s Griffith Stadium.
Hellerstein began scouting locations for a museum in the late 1980s, but it remained in his basement for the better part of two decades. He finally found a 2,000-square-foot store across from Coors Field and opened in 2009.
Selling off baseball cards for a museum
“My regret is when I financed the museum, like an idiot I sold my baseball cards I started collecting at 7 or 8,” he said. “I used the logic I’d replace them. It was a hard pill to swallow.”
But Hellerstein opened his doors in a great location, playing off Coors Field – for which he served on the design committee – and a nearby entertainment district.
“My relationship with the Rockies is very amicable,” he said. “We both give tours. They refer people over to here.
“I want people to have a visual experience and get a sense of old ballparks,” he said. “The old ballpark is cozy and cramped. Hopefully what I have mimics it.”
Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for children 6 to 12, and free for seniors, children under 6 and military personnel. Hellerstein draws additional fans when popular out-of-town teams like the Cubs hit town in mid-summer. They won’t be disappointed with a Wrigley Field display.
“Comparing Crosley and Wrigley is like the choice of steak or prime rib,” he said.
Time stands still at the National Ballpark Museum.
“I feel so passionate about it,” Hellerstein said. “I want the old ballparks to live on.”Category Chicago Baseball History Feature, Chicago Baseball History News Tags