Where the field was warm and green.
And the people played their crazy game
With a joy I'd never seen.
And the air was such a wonder
From the hot dogs and the beer.
Yes, there used to be a ballpark right here.
One of my favorite Frank Sinatra songs is an obscure one, recorded in 1973 -- There Used To Be A Ballpark. It is slow, a bit sad, and certainly nostalgic, befitting what I am about to write about: the old ballpark in Shreveport.
Written by Joe Raposo for one of Sinatra's albums, and given Sinatra's New York/Jersey roots, perhaps it had in mind the old Brooklyn Dodgers' Ebbets Field or the New York Giants' Polo Grounds.
For us who grew up in Shreveport-Bossier or North Louisiana, or nearby, in the '40s, '50s, '60s and maybe even '70s, it's Texas League Park -- or the name it carried for its final 30 years or so, SPAR Stadium.
Every city, especially those where professional baseball was played, had one of these relics built decades ago and home for your beloved team. Even smaller towns had their parks or fields that had been in use forever.
This is for those of us who have always felt at home in ballparks/stadiums, even the ones about which we had mixed feelings.
I loved that place in Shreveport. Don't like the word "hate," so I'll say that I also disliked much about it.
It is gone now, although a smaller facility stands on the same grounds because some good folks wanted baseball preserved there. Thus, Galilee's Stewart-Belle Stadium, which is being used -- I guess -- for recreational and high school games.
I am writing this partly because every time I pass Fair Grounds Field, the stadium which in opened in 1986 and replaced SPAR Stadium as home of the Class AA Texas League Shreveport Captains, I see a decaying, unused facility. Reminds me, sadly, of the ballpark we left after the 1985 season.
Fair Grounds Field looked beautiful when it opened on the Louisiana State Fairgrounds just off Interstate 20, and we were so glad to have it.
Because I can't imagine that Texas League Park, its name when it opened in 1938, was ever considered beautiful. This was the ballpark of our youth and middle age, but not of our dreams.
About the best I can say is it was a useful, functional stadium; it really was a good place to watch games. It could be a fun place to be if you liked the sport (or the promotion); and it was historic in that thousands of players played on that field -- and many went on to the major leagues, some to being highly paid stars.
And we did root for those Sports, Braves or Captains, although there were only four Texas League championship teams in 38 seasons there -- and none over the last 23.
For most of those last 23 seasons, attendance was among the worst in either the Texas League or Southern Association (1959-61). Shreveport's first "golden age" of baseball was the 1946-55 era when all minor-league attendances blossomed. (The second "golden age" was the first decade at Fair Grounds Field -- three TL championships and lively, interested crowds, a lot of full houses.)
Now Fair Grounds Field has the same problem as SPAR Stadium had -- a location that scares people. More on that later.
|My favorite SPAR Stadium moment was personal: Our son,|
Jason Key, then 5, checks with Captains catcher Bob Kearney
just before the 1976 season opener. This photo was on the
front page of The Shreveport Times the next morning.
Learned a lot there. It was, as I noted in a blog piece three years ago about pro ball in Shreveport -- http://nvanthyn.blogspot.com/2012/06/sports-and-captains-made-our-summers.html -- the first place I saw baseball played at a fairly high level, not long after we arrived in the United States in 1956. When we got here, I barely knew what baseball was.
So after so many Sports/Captains games there, plus high school, American Legion, college, semipro and Junior A (kids 14-16) games, it was almost like I had part ownership of the stadium.
In fact, one little person thought I did own it.
When he was 3, 4, 5 years old in the late 1970s, our Jason had run of SPAR Stadium and Centenary College's Gold Dome (where I was sports information director). He could go on the field or the basketball court before and after games, and play his games.
When we moved to Hawaii in 1980, he had to sit in the stands and watch games. He soon told his mother, "I want to go back to Shreveport, where Daddy owns everything."
By the 1982 season, we had moved back. But SPAR Stadium -- already ancient and, well, awful in so many ways, had changed even more drastically: The roof was gone.
There are people who write about minor-league ballparks, and have photo albums (copyrighted), and here are two good sources for the old park in Shreveport, each with historical facts: http://ballparks.phanfare.com/2414551
Read those, and I don't have to give you all the history of this ballpark. But I will give you some.
So I have to write about the roof, because it pretty much sums up what happened to the stadium itself.
The roof covered the grandstand area and went from a little past the first-base bag around to past the infield dirt on the third-base side. The press box was on top of the roof.
By the time the Shreveport Sports left for good after the 1961 season -- poor attendance was one reason; the main reason was it was against Louisiana law to have integrated games (and many visiting teams now had black players) -- the roof was rotten.
No kidding. Rotten. So rotten that when I began covering Legion games there in 1963, I was told to be careful when going on the roof to retrieve foul balls (which ended up in a gutter than ran the length of the back of the roof by the fence up there). The press box was mostly boarded up, unusable, off limits.
I weighed 120 pounds, really. So it might not have been as dangerous for me as for much heavier people. But I was careful; you could hear the roof creak in spots. If you stayed on the main walk leading to the press box or the path nearest the fence, it was fairly stable. But it wasn't safe to venture into the middle.
I did peek into the press box a few times, just to imagine what it was like to cover games from there, like Shreveport media stalwarts such as Jack Fiser, a young Bill McIntyre and Irv Zeidman (IZ, the Sports' radio announcer) had done in the 1950s and in 1960-61. Bird's eye view, almost directly above home plate. Not a great seat, in my opinion.
For Legion games and other games there in the six years (1962-67) that Shreveport had no professional baseball team, they put a long table at the top of the grandstand -- right by the fence and walkway up to the roof and old press box. Each night the P.A. announcer would have to carry his equipment up there; it wasn't safe to leave it there overnight.
Finally, by 1982, the roof was deemed so unsafe, and the expense of rebuilding it too great -- that had been the case for 20 years -- that it finally was torn down. Thus, all you had was the steel beams that had held it -- exposed, an ugly sight.
Taylor Moore -- longtime Sports/Captains fan and, from 1976, the team president -- said, "It looked like something out of the Bronx that they started tearing down and did not finish."
But this stadium's problems were far greater than the roof.
(Part II: SPAR Stadium, the old ballpark)