Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Part III: There used to be a ballpark in Shreveport

     (Part III, The life and death of SPAR Stadium)
     We got a big clue that the old ballpark in Shreveport, SPAR Stadium, literally might be falling apart during a major-league spring training game there in early April 1967.
      I believe it was the Cincinnati Reds -- not quite yet The Big Red Machine, but with parts of it -- vs. the Cleveland Indians, managed by Coushatta's own Joe Adcock. Big crowd, near the 5,000 capacity, for the first pro baseball game at the stadium since the Shreveport Sports left after the 1961 season.
      And a section of the upper grandstand down the third-base side simply collapsed to the ground. The people sitting there helplessly rode down with it, landing on or near the home-team clubhouse underneath.
      As I recall, about 15 people suffered injuries, but no major injuries. Still, it was ominously dangerous.
      Engineers recommended that all the steel beams in the stadium -- upper deck, reserved seating lower deck -- be reinforced to keep the place in use for college, high school, American Legion and recreation games.
      The MLB exhibition -- part of the barnstorming trips teams made in those days as they headed for their season openers after breaking spring-training camps in either Florida or Arizona -- had been arranged by city leaders to showcase that Shreveport again could be a viable home for a pro team.
      By the next spring -- when the first-year Oakland Athletics, with Joe DiMaggio as a coach, came into play a spring-training game -- Shreveport baseball was back in business.
      Not only did the Atlanta Braves bring their Double-A franchise from Austin to Shreveport, they combined with city officials to give the ballpark a makeover. Not a renovation -- which is what it really needed, although a relocation would have been better -- but a fresh look.
      The playing field was reworked, the outfield fence rebuilt, the clubhouse, dugouts, concession areas, offices ... everything was cleaned up best as possible, they built a press box -- which might hold a dozen people -- at the top of the grandstand, and there was fresh paint all over the place.
      Significantly, the stadium decor -- green for most years -- became mixed. The general manager the Braves brought in, Bob Morris, got the bright idea that it would be neat if the upper grandstand was a variety of colors. So it had sections of green, blue, red, orange, yellow. It was gaudy. Aw, heck, it was ugly.
      I was partial to that grandstand; that's where we sat in 1956 and 1957 when we first saw the Sports play. I remember my first pro baseball game: Sports -- the team of Ken Guettler, Ev Joyner, Les Peden, J.W. Jones, Ray Knoblauch (father of Chuck), Jim Ackeret, Dale Coogan and popular player-manager Mel McGaha -- vs. the Dallas Eagles on a Sunday afternoon in May 1956.
Try not to focus on the then 36-year-old, thick-haired sports
writer, sitting outside the press box covering a  Shreveport
 Captains' game in 1983; focus on the steel beams at roofless,
 decaying SPAR Stadium. That's what this blog series is about. 
      So the place was playable again in 1968, and the Braves had a loaded Double-A team, maybe the best talent a Shreveport team ever had. Managed by hitting guru Charlie Lau, they had 15 past or future major leaguers at one time or another that season. Some of the more familiar names: Ralph Garr, Wayne Garrett, Clarence "Cito" Gaston, Tom House, Walt Hriniak, Carl Morton, Ron Schueler and George Stone. 
      Didn't win the Texas League pennant, but came close. Mostly, it was fun to see pro ball back in town -- even in that ballpark -- and, with my senior year in college ahead, I got to cover a few games for The Shreveport Times. Big time.
      Each year, as the stadium situation declined, seemed as if it was the off-season paint job differed. One year, everything was gray; another year, blue. At least the upper grandstand was painted blue, and stayed that way.
      And each year, the stadium still passed the engineers' preseason inspection. Until 1977.
      More reinforcements for all the rickety beams and uncertain concrete standards were a must. City officials were willing to boost the lower reserved-seat section -- maybe 1,000 seats -- but not willing to spend the money to do the upper grandstand.
      Club officials, losing money each year with all the expenses (travel, uniforms, office and game personnel), didn't have the extra revenue to pay for the reinforcements, nor did they feel they should. The stadium belonged to the city.
      So the upper grandstand was closed, period. The only people going up there were those of us with business in the press box. It was OK to sacrifice us, if it came to that.
      Gone were the chances for any big promotional events. Why do so if capacity was only 2,500 or so?
      And why keep operating the ballclub? Why not try to move it to another city, or sell it to another owner, who probably would move it?
      Because Taylor Moore, the team president, and the other members of the ownership group, felt an obligation to Shreveport-Bossier and had the talk/promise (mostly empty) of a new ballpark in town. Several plans were put forth at various sites, one bond issue was passed by voters, but -- reality -- the money involved was woefully short. So that plan was scrapped, too.
      The years passed, the stadium got even worse and even creepier (without the roof, as we've written about previously), and the baseball was entertaining but never championship-caliber in the Texas League.
      Then Louisiana State Fair officials provided a rescue -- land on the eastern part of the Fairgrounds to build a stadium. Then-mayor John Hussey and his staff worked out a bond-issue plan -- and it passed -- and the patience of Taylor Moore and his owners, and the Captains' small group of loyal fans, was rewarded.
      I remember writing a good-bye column to SPAR Stadium for the Shreveport Journal on the day Fair Grounds Field opened for its first official game in 1986. It was a nostalgic look at my memories of the stadium, kind of like these blog pieces.
      Truth is, I didn't miss the place then and I don't now. It outlived its usefulness, stayed on life support far too long.
      Now Fair Grounds Field is in about the same shape. I read that the bats they have there now aren't the kind you use to hit baseballs; they're the kind that fly around blindly and roost, and leave their marks that drive people bat crazy.
       I don't see pro baseball returning to Shreveport. People would rather spend their money at the casinos, and the cost of renovating/revamping Fair Grounds Field might be too much, plus the corporate/public support for a ballclub doesn't seem at all feasible. 
       Building a new ballpark somewhere, downtown or southeast of town, would mean an output of, say at minimum, $25 million. Think Shreveport can afford that, with all its other needs?
        I checked on ballparks/cities where I've seen the stadium or are familiar with -- Knoxville (Sevierville), Jacksonville, Oklahoma City, (North) Little Rock, Memphis -- and at least a decade ago, the price tags were from $19.4 million to $34 million.
       When the Shreveport Double-A team left after the 2002 season -- Mandalay Baseball Properties had bought the franchise from Moore & Co. two years earlier and changed the team nickname to Swamp Dragons (for some reason the traditionalist part of me didn't agree with -- Mandalay moved it to the new Dr. Pepper Ballpark in Frisco, Texas.
        I drive by there often -- it's 45 minutes from Fort Worth -- and it's a beautiful modern stadium with 10,316 seats and a series of pavilions, upper box seats that look like chalets or vacation condos. 
        Taylor Moore, in our talks, has pointed out that Fair Grounds Field was constructed a few years before the retro brick-based ballparks you see often today and the wide walkways and seating arrangements, with outfield berms and scoreboards with many graphic features.
        Fair Grounds Field, mostly concrete-based, wore out quickly, maybe before its time. Its price tag was $3.5 million; perhaps that's an explanation. That, and the lack of upkeep and concern by Shreveport city leaders.
        Gee, sounds like another ballpark we used to know in Shreveport.         

Now the children try to find it,
And they can't believe their eyes
'Cause the old team just isn't playing,
And the new team hardly tries.
And the sky has got so cloudy
When it used to be so clear,
And the summer went so quickly this year.
Yes, there used to be a ballpark right here.

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


  1. From Ron Hill: I like your article, including the picture. Like Shibe Park and Ebbets Field, I miss SPAR Stadium. It had a lot of good baseball in its day.

  2. From Robert Boddie: It was a great old park. Great pitcher's mound. Dressing rooms sucked. No hot water for showers. Your car was fair game for thieves.

  3. From John W. Marshall III: Were you scribing to daylight from there? I claim the distinction of schlepping a bucket of beer up there (just for the experience).

  4. From Ed Sexton: Being from Ruston, it was a big deal to play at SPAR. My freshman year, we played Jesuit in the playoffs. I was called out for throwing my helmet off on a sacrifice fly from third base. Seems like only yesterday.

  5. From Ross Montelbano: Great post. Brings back a lot of memories. I remember Dick Howser, Leo Posada, Jim Kern, Alex George and Les Peden.

  6. From Joe Harris: Enjoyed this ... remember playing there against Seth Morehead, Bryan Bush ... was a fan of the (Shreveport) Sports.

  7. From Jim Robinson: Great close to the series. It is sad when we go to Shreveport and see what used to be a very pretty stadium just sitting there wasting away.

  8. From Jay Cheatham: Had some of my best games there. I remember we (Byrd High) played two night games
    against Fair Park to get a bigger crowd. Good memories.

  9. From Pris Wright: Loved the photo with you in flip-flops and the lyrics from the Frank Sinatra recording. Thanks for the stadium history lesson.
    I remember Joe Adcock. I think he played for the Tulsa Oilers waaaaaay back.

  10. From James Gibson: Do you remember Pete Rose's "single" in the 1967 Reds-Indians exhibition game (at SPAR Stadium)?
    Coach (James) Farrar got a bunch of tickets (for the Fair Park High baseball team). We were all sitting in the grandstand behind third base, right next to the grandstand section that fell in.
    In the 7th or 8th inning, Rose hit a ground ball up the middle to center fielder Vic Davilillo. Davilillo nonchalantly moved in and fielded it, and looked up to see Rose flying headfirst into second. (When I say ‘flying,’ Rose was sailing Superman-style three or four feet off the ground.) Davilillo never made the throw.
    Other than Rocky Colavito playing left field for the Indians, that is the only thing I remember about the game. I became a Pete Rose fan that day for his effort on that ‘single,’ in an exhibition game. You probably had to be there to appreciate it, but I was surely impressed.
    Thanks for the series on SPAR Stadium. That ballpark was heaven to me.

  11. From Anne Burford Griffin: Thanks. Jerry read all parts of your reminisces about the park, always letting your words dredge up his memories of visiting his aunt and uncle in Shreveport and going to SPAR Stadium.

  12. From Sharon Litton Burgess: Great picture. Yes, loved that ballpark, then it got too dangerous.

  13. From Steve Oakey: I forwarded your Shreveport minor league park stories to my teammate Tom Benedickt [Shreveport Captains' pitcher, 1971-72, Angels' chain) ... He said the SPAR anecdotes reminded him of their standing clubhouse rule to shake out all clothing items before putting them on because of the spiders, scorpions, etc.