I have been traveling to various ballparks this summer with each one giving me a different perspective. They are three older facilities that are a combined 220-years-old and are home to collegiate wood baseball leagues that could be the future of older ballparks in North America. Older ballparks can still be great places for entertainment and with proper management, upkeep and ingenuity they can serve host to baseball for future years. Here is a look at three of these facilities: Wade Stadium in Duluth, Minn.; Athletic Park in Wausau, Wisc.; and Don McBride Stadium in Richmond, Ind.
Selling the world to Wade Stadium & Duluth
How unfortunate it must have been sitting in Wade Stadium during the early 1970’s; interest in minor league baseball was in a decline and both the Duluth-Superior Dukes and the Northern League would cease to exist by the end of the 1971 season. One can only imagine what a game in those waning years must have been like for a baseball fan. It is hard to imagine minor league baseball in such a disheartening state, but we live in a much different time 40-years later. However, Wade Stadium has not changed that greatly as it enters its seventh decade.
Baseball returned to the stadium in 1993 and since the 2003 season the Duluth Huskies of the Northwoods League have been tenants inside the massive brick walls. There is a simple elegance to this massive structure and many could argue that changing it from its current form would be sacrilegious; on the other hand, there are distractors who would simply shout knock it down to make way for a more impressive modern facility. It is a good thing that that the team is in good hands with a new ownership group who anticipates playing at Wade Stadium when reaches its’ centennial.
Andy Karon and Michael Rosenzweig are two local gentlemen who took over the Huskies before the start of the season; they love the stadium as much as any other local baseball fan who remembers catching a foul ball or hearing the occasional swearing from a ballplayer from the field. They are also two men who would like to modernize the place just a bit to make it among the upper echelons in the league. They have with them another native who grew up at the stadium by the name of Craig Smith to serve as the team’s GM.
“The stadium has not changed that much since I was a kid, except for the bleachers and tunnels down the right field line,” Smith chuckled as he pointed out to me the exact location of the tunnels that have been removed long ago.
I believe Smith when he tells me that the stadium has not change since he was kid. The wooden seats the two of us were talking on are the originals from the 1941 season and so are the field lights that hover above us. Smith would like to see both replaced-the wooden seats with theater style chairs and the lights with environmentally safe lighting. In 1970, such comforts were virtually ignored or either absent in an owner’s mind at the time.
Karon and Rosenzweig are two opportunistic men who have a wish list of changes to the city owned stadium. The field’s drainage system is number one on their list, since grass can be tricky to grow properly in parts Minnesota and at times takes until late June to fully grow. The 18-year scoreboard is something else they would like see disappear from the stadium and replaced with a more modern system, but there are the little things that could go unnoticed by the average fan or ballpark hunter.
Outside and above the stadium’s marquee entrance shows a tattered ceiling that is ready for a fresh coat of paint from union workers. Rosenzweig focused our attention to the exterior right field wall: part of the brick wall is slightly buckling. He would like to see part of the wall razed, but does not want to diminish the look and fabric of the classical ballpark.
“This is a ballpark with a lot of history and we want to make sure that we keep it that way,” Rosenzweig added as he also contemplates moving and improving the all you can eat party section to the right field area to create more shade during sunny games.
Wade Stadium has changed little since its construction of 381,000 bricks from a nearby neighborhood street 70-years-ago. Team management also identifies the fact that there has to be subtle changes that could benefit their plans of attracting local business sponsorship and new customers through the gates. However, all of them understand that there is a need to modernize the place just enough, that you do not disrupt the ambiance that has been nurturing before World War II.
“You don’t want to lose the feel of the WPA project when modernizing this place,” Smith added.
It does not get much cozier than Athletic Park & Wausau
In a small town called Wausau, Wisc., is smaller ballpark that seems to serve as the heart and soul of the neighborhood. There have been many other ballpark hunters who have used their own metaphors to describe the 75-year-old structure, but once you walk up to its entrance you truly begin to appreciate what it is in front of you.
“The place has not changed that much since I was kid coming to Timbers’ game with my father,” said local resident Trisch Blair who has seen her share of other minor league ballpark across the state.
The town has been playing baseball on the site for one hundred years and the ballpark is surrounded by residential homes, perpendicular streets filled with people parking their cars for the game, kids skateboarding and riding bikes home and folks waiting outside the ballpark making sure tickets are evenly dispersed amongst their party. This crowd almost could be interchangeable from any year of the ballpark’s existence.
Athletic Park was one of copious ballparks that were abandoned by minor league baseball during the early 1990’s. Larger, spacious and modern ballparks were constructed that began an epoch of mass exodus of minor league teams from small towns like Wausau. The last minor league team in town was the Timbers: they left for their current home in the western suburbs of Chicago after the 1990 season. A few years later the Northwoods League Woodchucks took up residency and have been playing baseball ever since.
The ballpark has been updated inside with a party deck down the left field line and a new concession shelter on the opposite side. Inside the main entrance is the same cramped space where there are people ordering food and buying merchandise from small concession windows and tables. The large crowd was here early for cap night; some even returned back their cars after buying their ticket and picking up their baseball cap.
Athletic Park’s iconic features are the large stone walls that serve as a reminder that all ballparks are not created equal. The covered grandstand and bleacher seating down the lines creates a simple atmosphere that serves as an aide-mémoire that an old beauty of ballpark can still be functional in the 21st century. They will not host professional baseball anytime soon, but time is moving at its own pace here in Wausau.
“It would be interesting to travel to other ballparks around the area to appreciate what we have here,” added Blair who was taking a liking to what I spend most of my summers doing away from home.
They have something good here in Wausau-an original ballpark that has a few modern twists inside, but does not seem too far removed from its original renderings. The fans inside watching the Woodchucks’ games should be proud of what they have here. I am not sure if I will make back to town, but it has been quite a pleasure taking in a game at Athletic Park.
Simple times at McBride & Richmond
There is a small quaint little ballpark called Don McBride Stadium standing in Richmond, Ind.; it probably looks the same as it did when it was first built in 1936. I am not positive, but after taking in a game on the hard wooden seats, there are probably splinters that were beginning to form during the 1950 Indiana-Ohio League season when the Richmond Roosters won 80 games.
One could argue on the merits of McBride Stadium, but when you get the right amount of folks underneath its covered grandstand the atmosphere is not too far off from a game 60-years-ago. The amazing fact is that after the 1951 season, professional baseball would not return until the Frontier League placed the Richmond Roosters 44-years later. That is a long time between teams, but television, air-conditioning and west coast expansion dissipated crowds at ballparks across North America resulting in the untimely death of many franchises and leagues during the 1950s and 60s.
Today, McBride is home to the Richmond River Rats of the Prospect League-a collegiate wood bat team that is a perfect fit for such a stadium. It would be just another inadequate stadium ignored by minor league baseball, but at one time during the mid-20th century would have served as an ideal spot for a Class D team; a time where even the smallest of towns had a ballpark like McBride to play baseball in during the spring and summer.
I might have been at the stadium on an ideal night; the River Rats were not at home, but two local vintage baseball teams were on the field to play nine innings. A curious crowd of almost 1,000 fans came out on a perfect summer night, collected underneath the grandstand and made themselves comfortable on the thick, wooden green seats to watch Indianapolis take on Dayton play baseball under 1864 rules-baseball’s infancy.
The game played tonight was similar enough to our current system of rules that whether an individual from the 1920s or 1950s were to be transported to the stadium would not have trouble understanding the game after a few innings. A ball caught on the bounce was an out sans glove, a ball striking fair territory was a live ball and a ballplayer spitting was a twenty-five cent fine and an apology to the fans were a few differences from today’s game.
The difference tonight was not solely that of the men dressed in 19th century garb, but the fans inside the stadium. They were entertained by the action on the field without the in between inning promotions or loud music, much like an event in another era of McBride. They were interested enough to stay the entire game and have their kids swing the thick, heavy piece of lumber at a chance to run around the bases.
I could have left the game, hopped into an old 1948 Ford truck, waved to neighbors who knew my full name and greeted my family on the front porch of our house. This was just imagery in my head when I left the park as I unlocked the car with my remote keys, but when watching a game at McBride Stadium how far away are you from such an image from a different time? Then again, these are the thoughts and feelings that run amok inside a ballpark hunter’s mind when at a 75-year-old ballpark situated inside a residential neighborhood in a town like Richmond
Marc Viquez is a contributing author for Ballpark Business (www.ballparkbiz.com). A fan of baseball for most of his life, Marc has been traveling around the country writing about minor league baseball since 2001 for various websites and print publications. When he is not searching down a ballpark, he can be found teaching middle school in Indianapolis, Indiana.