Thursday, July 23, 2015

There used to be a ballpark in Shreveport

And there used to be a ballpark
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.
       I haven't been near the SPAR Stadium site in maybe 15 years, but I figure I spent about two years of my life there.  And the number of games I watched over 30 years -- as I tried to figure out -- might be closer to 1,000 than to 500. About half those games I was the public address announcer and/or the official scorer (inefficient scorer, if you asked some).
        Learned a lot there. It was, as I noted in a blog piece three years ago about pro ball in Shreveport -- -- 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:
     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)


  1. From Sydney Boone: Great memories there. Watching as a member of the knothole gang and playing in high school, American Legion and semipro (remember those?). J.W. Jones handed me a ball one game and I thought I had gone to heaven; I was 8 or 9 years old, maybe younger. Scary area then, but my dad would drop me and a friend off and pick us up after game. Then driving there. I loved playing there; Field of Dreams for me. Even then we couldn't/wouldn't go back in the tunnel from the dugout; it smelled "to high heaven" and was crumbling. I only went to the clubhouse once -- when Pidge Brownie played. Man, was he fat in my little eyes. Wish I still had that team-autographed ball. Probably took it home and played with it afterward.
    Many many memories! Great and sad at the end.

  2. From Robert Levy: Been there many times. I played summer hardball for the B&N Barbers (surely you’ve heard of them) and the games were there. We had a dugout that smelled of urine and wine, but the field was great.
    When I was about 8 years old, I had an aunt and uncle who never missed a Shreveport Sports home game. I went to many of them, got to know who the players were, and loved the snow cones.
    Many years ago.
    Thanks for the memories.

  3. From Tom Arceneaux: Great writing, as always. Elizabeth and I will be taking our two-year-old grandtwins to see the Durham Bulls in action in two weeks. Great fun and memory creations. Lucas, in particular, has become a baseball lover, and Eva likes Wool E. Bull.

  4. From Jack Thigpen: I played a couple of American Legion games there when Ruston came to Shreveport. I thought I was in a major league stadium and was so excited to play on the field that so many great players had played on. Also worked in the concession stand for the Parkway booster club when I first came to Parkway to coach. Parkway worked the concession stand as a fundraiser. My uncle also spent a lot of nights at the stadium watching games. As a youngster whenver we went to see him on a Sunday afternoon, and the Sports were in town, he took us to the game. I did not grow up in Shreveport, but still have a lot of fond memories of that stadium.

  5. From Reg Cassibry: Yes, remember how excited we (Ruston's American Legion team) were to play there, Jack? It was Yankee Stadium to us. And, as I remember, we used to put it on the Shreveport teams pretty good there. I recall George Stone striking out about 18 in a seven-inning game at that field, which was a normal game for him.

  6. From Jim Shaw: Naturally, we had the same thing here at LaGrave Field (Fort Worth) where baseball and the Texas League sponsored many many major leaguers and some Hall of Famers. ... It was nice to see Jack Thigpen and Reg Cassibry comment. I'll bet Fred McGaha could tell you a thousand stories that you couldn't print.

  7. From Ike Futch: Nice article. Great photo of Jason. I played in a lot of the old ballparks during my pro baseball career from 1959-1966. Got to visit War Memorial Stadium last year when we had our Greensboro Yankees reunion. Part of the bleachers had been torn down and the stadium itself was in bad shape. However, the playing field itself was in great shape. A local college team plays its games there. Even though they have a new stadium in Greensboro, I think the city has reached an agreement to renovate War Memorial. More Yankees players came through Greensboro than any other Yankees minor-league affiliate (Jim Bouton, Phil Linz, Dooley Womack, Mel Stottlemyre, Tom Tresh and many more).

  8. From George Sylvie: SPAR was just a 30-minute walk from my Allendale home to get to see Ralph Garr, Dusty Baker, Vada Pinson, Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando and many, many more. Growing up in Shreveport was a unique experience, to say the least.

  9. From Dianne Webb Hamm: Great article; I remember going to the old ballpark with my dad.

  10. From Melvin Moses: Could you be talking about SPAR Stadium, where the Shreveport Sports played ... ? My first job was there, got paid one dollar a game and a nickel for every foul ball I retrieved. Sometimes I would make 12-14 dollars every two weeks. Thought I was rich. Good memories.

  11. From David Oliver: We went to several games during the Southern Association years (1959-61), making the trip from Summer Grove. They actually were in a race for first place one of those years but came up short.
    Part of the history has to include the New York Yankees coming to Shreveport early in the 1920s. My dad, who lived within a block or so of the ballpark, sometimes talked about seeing Babe Ruth take batting practice.

    1. In 1960, the Sports were just a so-so team until August. Starting on Aug. 13, they won 24 of 26 games -- including eight- and 13-game winning streaks, then lost two of their last 3-0 -- 1-0 at Memphis, 2-1 in the final game of the season at Nashville. And so they finished a half-game behind Atlanta for the regular-season championship. Had they won one of those two late losses, they would have won the regular season. What made it worse is that the winning hit in the final game was by Nashville outfielder Ev Joyner, who of course had played for the Sports in the mid-1950s and then made his home in Shreveport ... and he rode the Sports bus home because his season was over. The Sports made the playoffs, but lost three of four games against Little Rock. But it was a heckuva exciting final month. Dick Howser was the shortstop on that Sports team; the next year he was in the major leagues.

  12. From Jim Robinson: Great blog. I worked the old manual scoreboard for the Shreveport Captains during 1970 and 1971. I remember having to climb up the ladder to the back of the scoreboard and peek through the slot toward the field. There was just a speaker up there that they would call from the official scorer to tell you when to put up a run, hit or error. Even back in the early 70s, it was an uncomfortable feeling walking out into the dark parking lot of SPAR Stadium, when it was dark, dark after a game to go home.
    Oh, yeah, I got paid $1.23 an hour or about $5 to $6 a game to run the scoreboard, and if there was a doubleheader, you made about $10.

  13. From Donna Albritton: My Daddy played two seasons for the Shreveport Sports back before I was born, and later took me to a few games in that stadium.

  14. From Jim Pruett: Enjoyed your piece. Seeing pictures of the ballpark with weeds in the box seats and no roof is like viewing a skeleton of someone you love. Tough to see.

  15. From Rick Harrelson: When I was 10 my dad and I went to a game at SPAR Stadium. I kept asking about the count, number of outs, etc. He kept telling me it was all on the scoreboard. When we realized I could not see the scoreboard, I went to the eye doctor the next day. I've been wearing glasses ever since.

  16. From Jerome Vascocu: A big annual thrill for me as a young ballplayer in Minden in the late 1950s was riding on a school bus with my summer little league buddies to SPAR Stadium (different name then) to watch the Sports play. We got to do that one time each summer. It was a HUGE deal. There were no major-league teams in the South in those days, so the minor-league ball in Shreveport was as good as it got. It was like the big time for me. Of course, I also spent many, many summer nights watching my beloved Minden Redbirds in the Big Eight League as well. First time I ever saw James Farrar was in that setting, for example.
    Was also excited to watch many of the young men you’ve reminisced about over the years play “Legion ball,” including those great Fair Park, Byrd, and Bossier players -- especially the pitchers. Fun times. Thanks for regularly bringing those days back to my mind.