A Ballpark and a History Worth Remembering

The homes of teams like Memphis Red Sox and the Dallas Giants no longer exist. (via The Dallas Express Publishing Company)

One of the misfortunes of baseball’s past is how the game’s demolished parks are remembered. Often they aren’t, save for a placard here or a signpost there that reminds us of the greatness that once occupied these places. The repurposing of real estate is too lucrative to linger in historic nostalgia.

Forbes Field, the wonderful park forever linked to the Pittsburgh Pirates, was torn down in 1971, its property now owned by the University of Pittsburgh.

Metropolitan Stadium, the Minnesota Twins’ first home, was razed in 1985. The Mall of America now sits in its place.

The Polo Grounds of the New York Giants — one of baseball’s irreplaceable landmarks — was indeed replaced for the expansion Mets, who moved to Shea Stadium in 1964. Public housing now occupies that site.

Municipal Stadium, where Kansas City’s Monarchs and Royals played, was demolished in 1976 and the property turned into a green space.

Sportsman’s Park (later, the first Busch Stadium) in St. Louis was torn down in 1966, its site now a Boys and Girls Club.

Ebbets Field, so synonymous with Walter O’Malley and the Brooklyn Dodgers, didn’t survive the team’s 1958 flight to Chavez Ravine. That New York urban corner is now home to an apartment complex.

And here’s another: Martin Stadium, the former home of the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro Leagues, was razed in 1961. A trucking company — Tri-State Truck Center — resides there today. A Tennessee Historical Commission marker planted on the sidewalk is the only tangible reminder of the site’s significance to baseball history and 20th-century African-American life in that city.

Martin Stadium’s legacy is empowered as much by what it wasn’t — a white-owned facility leased to black-owned baseball teams. Martin Stadium was built by a black Memphian, for black events — sports, concerts, rallies, community meetings — in a majority black neighborhood. For a time, it was the only black-owned park in the Negro Leagues, not to mention a source of pride among African-Americans in the South.

Like most cities with sizeable black populations, Memphis was home to numerous black teams after the turn of the century. They often played at Russwood Park, home of the Memphis Chicks, the city’s minor league team. In 1923, however, the Red Sox’ owner, funeral home director R.S. Lewis, built his team a 3,000-seat stadium and christened it Lewis Park. (When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at Memphis’ Lorraine Motel in 1968, R.S. Lewis and Sons Funeral Home took charge of King’s remains.)

The staunch segregation that ruled accommodations in the South at the time forced the Lewis family to do more than pay the players and operate the funeral home.

“They housed those guys, the players, because you couldn’t check into the Peabody (Hotel),” Andrew Jones, director of operations of R.S. Lewis and Sons, told Memphis’ WREG-TV earlier this year. “You couldn’t stay in other places.”

The Red Sox and Lewis Stadium changed hands in 1929, but they remained significant players in Memphis’ African-American communities. Lewis sold the team and facility to Dr. W.S. Martin and his brothers, who renamed the park Martin Stadium (the marquee said Martin’s Stadium) and preserved that corner’s prominence for black residents in west Tennessee and northern Mississippi.

Besides Red Sox games, Martin Stadium hosted high school and college football games, baseball games among other teams — white and black — and any number of religious, political and community events. In 1947, Martin Stadium was the site of the Tennessee State Negro Football Championship — dubbed the Blues Bowl in the press — before a crowd of 10,000. The Red Sox hosted the Negro Southern League All-Stars there in 1950. Martin Stadium was the site of a Thanksgiving Day football game between teams from historically black colleges and universities for more than a decade.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Throughout their life, the Red Sox barnstormed around the United States and played in several different levels of the Negro Leagues: the Negro Southern League, the Negro National League, and the Negro American League. Though rarely regarded as one of the best Negro League teams, their all-time roster includes Bill Foster, a 1996 inductee to the National Baseball Hall of Fame; Norman “Turkey” Stearnes, a 2000 Hall inductee; Buck O’Neill, one of the Negro Leagues’ most recognizable figures; Dan Bankhead, the first black pitcher in major league baseball; James “Cool Papa” Bell; and Charley Pride, whose career as a country music singer overshadowed his years in the Negro Leagues. Memphians saw all of those players, and more, play at Martin Stadium.

The slow tide of African-American players who integrated the majors after Jackie Robinson’s 1947 debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers was only one factor in the eventual demise of the Negro Leagues, which couldn’t retain fans’ interest after the game’s best black players signed contracts with previously white-only major league teams. The Memphis Red Sox played their final full season in 1959.

And still, Martin Stadium had the opportunity for one last hurrah.

On April 17, 1960 — Easter Sunday — Russwood Park, the home of the Memphis Chicks, which sat adjacent to two hospitals, hosted a major league exhibition between the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians before a crowd of nearly 8,000. (Fun fact: Russwood was originally called Red Elm Bottoms.) That evening, Russwood’s grandstands caught fire. Firemen responded, but there was little they could protect.

“It soon became obvious that attempting to save the stadium was useless. In the intense heat — temperatures at the heart of the fire reached 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit — water just turned to steam. Russwood was given up for dead,” a reporter for Memphis Magazine wrote in 1992. “Firemen concentrated on containing the flames, which were now spreading toward the maternity ward of John Gaston Hospital to the west, and Baptist Hospital to the south.”

Overnight, the Southern League’s Chicks became homeless. Their home opener was postponed. The team’s owner, Leo Burson, met with Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb and other city officials in hopes of finding a suitable temporary park that would keep the Chicks from either playing every game on the road or forfeiting the season.

A United Press International report that week detailed the Chicks’ options: one, play at Crump Stadium, the city’s football facility; two, play at Hodges Field, a smaller football facility; or, three, move into the black-owned and vacant Martin Stadium, built for baseball.

The Chicks and the city chose a hastily modeled Hodges Field.

Nine months later, with no Negro League team in Memphis and its use no longer needed, Martin Stadium’s life ended. Down came its concrete grandstand and wooden bleachers. Memphis lost two notable baseball parks — one for white players, another for black players — in less than a year, which hampered professional baseball efforts in the city for nearly a decade.

“Stadium to become truck terminal,” the headline on an Associated Press report said.

Phillip Tutor is a newspaper columnist in Anniston, Alabama. He blogs about baseball at www.ptonbaseball.com. On Twitter: @ThePhillipTutor
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4 years ago

Mr. Ernest Withers was a photographer and chronicler of life and baseball in Memphis (and throughout the segregated South) during that time, and in 2005 published a book of his artwork on the Negro Leagues. I was lucky enough to meet him and became a fan of his work. He had a bunch of pictures in his book of Martin Stadium and the players that passed through.

4 years ago

From one history teacher to another, thanks for the history lesson. As and African American, thank you all the more!