Thursday, July 23, 2015

Part II: There used to be a ballpark in Shreveport

And there used to be rock candy,
And a great big 4th of July
With the fireworks exploding
All across the summer sky.
And the people watched in wonder
How they'd laugh and how they'd cheer!
And there used to be a ballpark right here.

     -- second verse of There Used to be a Ballpark, recorded by Frank Sinatra, 1973

       (Part II, The life and death of SPAR Stadium)
       In my 31 years in Shreveport, I saw so many great players at Texas League Park, as it was known the first two seasons (1956-57) I saw games there, and then SPAR Stadium for the rest of the time.
       (OK, it was Braves Field in 1968-70, after the name Bonneau Peters Field -- named for the longtime crafty independent owner/operator of the Shreveport Sports but a product of his era, which meant he was a staunch segregationist, wasn't accepted by the city's minority leaders in 1968.)
       Many great memories of my time there, the best of which I've written about: That first year, 1956, when Ken Guettler of the Shreveport Sports hit a Texas League-record 62 home runs.

      The pitcher I remember most is Dave Righetti, Tulsa Drillers' left-hander, 1978 season. He was only 19, a California phenom who threw bullets. His record was only 5-5 that season, but he struck out 127 in 91 innings -- 21 in one nine-inning game -- and I was duly impressed when I saw him face the Captains a couple of times.
      That winter the Texas Rangers, who had drafted and signed him, were convinced by the New York Yankees to include him in a trade that brought Sparky Lyle -- my favorite Yankee player then -- to Texas. Righetti became the Yankees' top pitcher of the 1980s, helped them make the World Series in 1981 (they lost) and he was their closer to almost a decade. Now he is the pitching coach for the three-time World Series champion San Francisco Giants.  
Darryl Strawberry, Jackson Mets, 1982,
photographed at SPAR Stadium by Louis
DeLuca, our buddy at the Shreveport Journal
then and now with The Dallas Morning News.
This photo is part of Louis' DMN daily blog
in 2015 entitled "Career in a Year."
      The best player I saw play at the stadium, the best prospect? Darryl Strawberry, the Jackson Mets' right fielder in 1982. You might have heard of him.
      I've told people this for years: He hit the longest home run I ever saw at that stadium -- a drive so far into the trees behind the right-field fence. Or at least, I think that's where it hit. What it might've done was go into orbit, and might still be circling downtown Shreveport.
      Strawberry was also the subject of the worst thing I ever saw at SPAR Stadium.
      By 1982, the right-field area where the bleachers had once stood for African-American spectators had long been torn down and become the beer-garden area. (Those bleachers had been there from 1938 when the stadium opened through 1961, the era of segregated crowds).
      Shreveport, prevented by Louisiana law for having integrated games (which meant other Texas League teams could not bring their black players to town), lost its team after the 1957 season. After one year without baseball, the Sports returned in the all-white Southern Association in 1959. But that lasted only three years, and the team was gone again.)
      When the Atlanta Braves put their Class AA team in Shreveport for the 1968 season, moving it from Austin, not only was the Texas League fully integrated, so were the then-Shreveport Braves. Ralph Garr was one of those first black Shreveport players.
      So Strawberry came along for Jackson in 1982 and obviously was one of the TL's best players. Here's what I saw one night: As he returned to his position in right field, a group of "fans" in the beer garden began yelling at him: "Hey, Blackberry ... Blackberry." Etc.
      It was a sorry moment, and I'm sorry I saw it.
      It wasn't the only sorry moment in that beer garden. Wayne Tyrone was playing first base for the Midland Cubs in the mid-1970s and was being razzed enough -- racial content, I'm sure -- that he irately raced toward the beer garden, jumped the fence and went after the offending party. I know that non-"fan's" name, but darned if I use it here. I think criminal charges were filed, one way or the other.
      A few years earlier, there was a spitting match between one of my friends sitting behind the visiting team dugout and future MLB outfielder Billy North.
      So those were the extreme moments at the stadium. I saw a few bench-clearing brawls, too; one involving the Shreveport Captains and the El Paso Diablos lasted about 10 minutes. What I remember was the noise -- a low buzz -- coming from the field as the players flew around. It was what I imagined a "rumble" sounded like.
       There were lots of interesting umpire/manager "discussions" and player outbursts, and at one point, there was no tarpaulin to cover the infield, which meant something like 25 rainouts in the 1975 season (and lots of late-season doubleheaders to make up games, wearing out a Captains' pitching staff and contributing to the Captains losing what seemed like a comfortable division lead and not making the playoffs).
        A couple of years later, the ballclub convinced the city to invest in a tarp, but then because there was hardly any ground crew, we had to ask spectators to aid in putting the tarp down when the rains came.
      You could hear and see a lot at SPAR Stadium. One of the very best things was that the seats were close enough to the field you could feel the action -- especially from the box seats and the reserved-seat section that went around from past first base to past third base. Even the grandstand seats were good (only exception was the steel beams; they could obstruct the view a little.)
      The view from those old right-field bleachers, which could hold maybe 1,500 people, wasn't bad, either. Same for the small bleachers -- the Knothole Gang (kids) area of the 1950s -- down the left-field line.
      Another big plus for the stadium, always, was the playing field itself. First, the longtime and legendary groundskeeper/stadium manager, Albert A. Gaedke, and his crew kept the diamond and the grass in great shape. Then, after the City of Shreveport recreation department (SPAR) took over stadium management, the field condition remained a bragging point.
      Gaedke, a Polish-American with roots in Chicago, came to work for the Sports and Mr. Pete as far back as the late 1930s, I believe, and lived in a small shack under those right-field bleachers, next to the umpires' dressing room. He kept a garden -- maybe which is why the term "Gaedke's Garden" applied to the ballpark itself -- and I read that he also set up a golf course of sorts there for use during the off-season.
      When I first began covering games at the stadium in the mid-1960s, he was old and mostly infirm, obviously had trouble breathing and talking, but each night as we were closing up and coming down from the media table (no press box then), he would come around to make sure things were OK in his ballpark. He died not long after that; if I recall, they found him in his shack.
      One problem with the field for many years was that the outfield sloped downward toward the fence. If you were seated in the dugouts, you could not see the outfielders. It was that way until the Braves helped the city give the ballpark a facelift before the '68 season.
      Building up the outfield was one change. Another was that the wooden double-deck fence which had stood for years had gone rotten (just as the roof had, as I wrote about in Part I). So they tore down the fence, and rebuilt a single deck -- reducing the advertising revenue potential, but maybe saving an outfielder's life.
      The wooden scoreboard, always manually operated except for the ball-strike-out lights, remained in left, just behind the fence. A ball hitting it was out of the park -- a home run. 
      A green batter's eye backdrop stood behind the fence in straight center. That's where the flagpole was, too. The sign at the base of the wall there read "398" (feet) -- a good home-run challenge. Down the lines it was 320 to left, 321 to right. The power alleys, reachable but a fair distance, were about 350-360. If the wind blew out, it could be a hitter's park; otherwise, it was fair to pitchers.
      There were also significant grandstand changes. Keep reading.
      Shreveport's previous ballpark had burned down in 1932, forcing the Sports out of the Texas League for five years while a new park was planned and then built.
       Texas League Park was placed in the Allendale neighborhood, then an older middle-class area near downtown. The ballpark was southwest of downtown by only about a mile.
       It was built in a city block, facing northeast from home plate toward downtown. The streets were Gary Street (parallel to the left-field fence), Park Ave. (parallel to the right-field fence) -- the Gary and Park intersection was right behind straightaway center field), Sycamore Ave. (parallel to the third-base line, site of the small "home" parking lot) and Dove (parallel to the first-base line, with the bigger main dirt parking lot). The team had a Dove Street address.
        Don't know what it was like before the 1970s, but by then, the dirt parking could be a mess when it rained. The parking lot was owned by nearby Galilee Baptist Church; the city and ballclub had to negotiate each year for parking rights fees -- now that was a mess -- and had to hire church personnel to run things. I know parking was free in that big lot then, but reserved in the smaller lot for season-ticket holders and club personnel.
       The clubhouses weren't cramped, but not roomy, either -- and, significantly, not air-conditioned. It does get hot in Shreveport in the summer. Big fans had to do their work.
       The manager's offices (home and visiting sides) were big enough for three people; four was a crowd. The umpires' dressing room was closet-like. Two-man crews were standard; more than two, well ...
       By the 1960s and certainly in the 1970s and '80s, the ballpark roofs were leaky. Clubhouses, offices, concession areas, restrooms, storage space -- not much was safe from rain. There were critters there, too -- rats, scorpions (big ones), mice, whatever.
        But the biggest problems were smelly, antiquated restrooms, especially the women's ones, outdated concession areas and -- most significantly -- vandalism.
        The older the stadium grew, the more the neighborhood got older. What was once a working-class neighborhood changed; well, the complexion changed. Older white folks remained, but it became a predominately minority area.
         Physical crime wasn't a problem I knew of, but for sure there were lots of break-ins of cars and the park itself -- the club offices, concessions, clubhouses. The team's safe, far back under the grandstand in a secluded area, was vandalized a few times. So did players' cars, parked inside the stadium during the team's road trips.
         People were hesitant -- scared, maybe -- to come to the stadium, afraid to drive in the area. Street access to the ballpark wasn't that easy; there was no main road in there.
         Perhaps some of the reputation was more perception than reality. No matter, it made advertising and ticket sales a tough sell for club personnel.
         Most everyone in Shreveport-Bossier and North Louisiana knew where the stadium was located. But you had to want to go there. As long as I lived in Shreveport, people weren't all that eager to do so.
         So the attendance declined. That began in 1956 -- despite Guettler's heroics -- and never really let up much. For much of the next 30 years, attendance at the ballpark was woeful -- 250-300 far too many nights, 500 was good, 1,000 or more not all that often.
         There were still some crowds of 5,000 or so for special promotions (bat night, jersey night, the 1974 Texas League All-Star Game with the Texas Rangers, managed by Billy Martin) and the Captains did have a few significant games.
         The most significant was when the 1976 TL Eastern Division pennant race came down to one showdown game. The Captains won it, then had two playoff games with Amarillo at home -- the first playoff games for Shreveport baseball in 16 seasons.
        Those were exciting times for crowds in the stands and the gang in the beer garden, often raucous, was rowdy.
         They were also the last crowds of more than 2,500 at that stadium. Because one week before the 1977 season opener, ballclub officials were told the upper grandstands -- which could seat about 2,500 -- were unstable, unusable ... closed -- for good.
          Part III: The final days of SPAR Stadium


  1. From Anne Burford Griffin: Springhill's park, located right across from the paper mill, was a wonderful wooden affair. I loved it. I wish I had a picture of that old Big Eight park. I remember it as being painted green and remember wide spaces between the rows.

    1. Also from Anne Burford Griffin: The Springhill Big Eight park was cavernous compared to parks today. Jerry and I appreciated what you said about SPAR Stadium. Integration hurt North Louisiana sports; it is hard to imagine state law against mixed race athletic events. But when Jerry and I were at Tech, the Louisiana state legislature butted right into curriculum and required of every Tech student a course in Americanism v. Communism. Imagine that -- our own little propaganda piece taught to an auditorium filled with students.

  2. From Tommy Canterbury: Enjoyed, loved that place. Dad took me over couple times a summer. Long trip (from Simsboro) in those days.

  3. From Russell Wilks: I liked Les Peden and Lou Klimchock.

  4. From Ron Hill: Good article. I saw a Fair Park playoff game there and my first trip to the old ballpark was when I was six and my grandfather took me to a circus there.

  5. From Keith Annison: I can remember playing there in the early 1960s, mostly summer American Legion. It was an amazing field.

  6. From Elsa Van Thyn: Sparky Lyle lives around the corner from us (in New Jersey, near Philadelphia), but I have never seen him. I so remember you talking about Lou Klimchock. I think he was 21 at the time.

  7. From Dick Hicks: Good old SPAR Stadium -- remember it well, had some great times there.

  8. From Joan Fiser: I have such great memories of Sunday afternoons watching baseball and playing 20 Questions with Mom and (sister) Karen while waiting for Dad (Jack Fiser) to finish writing his (Shreveport Times) column for the next day. I had forgotten about Mr. Gaedke. I wasn't too surprised to read about Shreveporters' reception to black players. I wonder how they would feel about the number of African-American and Latino players in professional baseball now.

  9. From Pat Booras: I sent my cousin, Tommy Booras, the photo you have of Darryl Strawberry. Here is what he wrote back: "I was at SPAR Stadium when he hit a moon-shot homer that still hasn't landed. Never forget it."
    I was there, too. It was like a lifted missile. Very few balls are hit so hard and far that it seems you can hear it ripping through the sky.