Friday, August 7, 2009

I-85 Baseball: A Quick Baseball Pilgrimage Through the Southeast

I was driving up to my parents' house in southern Virginia for the 4th of July weekend which was not unusual in itself but due to various circumstances, I would be driving there and back by myself. No wife, no kids, no schedule, just me and the dog.

I have always wanted to stop in Royston, GA, the home of Ty Cobb but never seemed to have the time to do so. On this trip, I would. But the more I thought about the trip, the more baseball shrines began to pop into my head. Instead of mapping out a beer run, (like I normally do) I was turning this journey into a baseball pilgrimage through the south. Here's what I found in (generally) order from south to north.

Royston, GA

Royston is 92 miles northeast of Atlanta and was the home of Hall of Famer Ty Cobb. Cobb's exploits on the diamond are well know and can be found here.

After his playing days, Cobb invested well (including heavily in the fledgling Coca-Cola) and was a successful business man. He was a millionaire despite never making more than $40,000 a season during his playing career. In 1950, he donated $100,000 to build the Cobb Memorial Hospital (dedicated to his parents) in Royston. The hospital (now grown into a regional concern called the Ty Cobb Healthcare System) now houses a museum dedicated to Ty Cobb in one of its buildings. I was there far to early in the morning to see the museum so I drove out to the Rose Hill Cemetery to see Cobb's grave.

Once you find the cemetery, Cobb's grave is easy to spot. His mausoleum dwarfs the rest of the headstones and is up on a hill. Cobb is entombed with his parents.

Although he had a stellar baseball career and was successful in business, he confided in a friend shortly before his death that he wished he had made more friends.

Greenville, SC

I like Greenville a lot and one of my ancestors owned all the land that currently makes up the city and the surrounding area back in the 18th century. But today, the thrust of the visit would be Shoeless Joe Jackson.

The first stop was at Shoeless Joe Jackson Memorial Ball Park which is a lovely patch of green in the middle of a residential neighborhood. The park is on the site of a field that Jackson played on in his youth. At 13, he made the Brandon Mill Team (a team made up largely of workers at the local textile mill) and began his journey to the big leagues. More on Jackson's career can be found here.

The park is simple but lovely. The likeness of Jackson on one of the pillars is in need of repair and two plaques describe Jackson's career and the history of baseball on this field.

Moving downtown, you will find the new Fluor Field, the home of the Greenville Drive, the A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. The stadium has a Camden Yards-esque brick facade but on the inside the field is a replica of Fenway Park complete with a mini-Green Monster. Because it is a Red Sox affiliate, I would like to hate it but the park is beautiful.

Across from the stadium is the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum, notable in part because it exists in what used to be Jackson's house. (They moved it across town to be next to the stadium a few years ago). It's only open on Saturdays but admission is free. Between that and the minor league ball park, I have a good excuse to get up here for a game some weekend.

Finally, a couple blocks from the stadium, there is a Joe Jackson statue that was commissioned for a plaza in the middle of town a few years ago. The statue may be new but the brick pedestal it sits on isn't really; it was constructed from bricks left over from Old Comiskey Park.

If you've seen (or read) Eight Men Out or seen Field of Dreams, you know the story of Joe Jackson. (If not, you can start here.) It was nice to see that Greenville is embracing this native son and his place in baseball history.

Spartanburg, SC

My visit to Duncan Park in Spartanburg may have been my favorite stop on this little tour. First, a little history...

Duncan Park was built in 1925 and claims (along with a few other parks, to be fair) to be the oldest ball park in minor league baseball. It hosted an exhibition game with the 1937 New York Yankees (featuring Lou Gehrig and Joe Dimaggio) and was home to the Spartansburg Phillies from 1963 through 1994. Major leaguers who played at Duncan Park during their minor league days include Larry Bowa, Ryne Sandberg, Tom Glavine and Dale Murphy. In 1970, when the Phillies moved out of old Connie Mack Stadium (a stadium formerly known Shibe Park that had been used by the Athletics before them), Duncan Park got many of the old wooden box seats from the old park. Today, the field is home to an American Legion team and hosts high school games as well.

I pulled into a parking lot behind the outfield fence hoping to snap a few pics over the outfield fence since the old place looked to be locked up pretty tight. And it was...except for a gate out in right field. I saw some construction gear but figured I could get a good shot of the grandstand before somebody kicked me out.

As it turned out, nobody was there at all, the gate was just left open. S0 I proceeded to crawl all over Duncan Park, into the old grandstand, down onto the field, into the dugouts, around the side what was once the visitor's locker room, around the back of the grandstand to the old ticket booth and out to the rightfield "bleachers", a concrete version built into the side of a hill.

The grandstand was in pretty bad shape (when you get to the slideshow, you'll see what I mean) and the wooden grandstand under the roof was completely fenced off so you couldn't get the wooden bleachers or those old seats from Shibe Park (many of which were in various stages of decay). The place could use a paint job and evidently the whole grandstand could stand to be overhauled to make it usable again. The good news: the outfield fence and scoreboard looked new and it looks like there is some work going on to fix up the old place. I have no idea if this includes the grandstand but I did find this article that announces a deal for the city and the local school district to share in renovating and maintaining the park (along with private fundraising). That's a good thing because Duncan Park is a jewel. I'd love to come back and watch a game once everything's fixed up.

Greensboro, NC

I am enormous fan of the movie Bull Durham and while I was watching the commentary track with Ron Shelton, the director of this masterpiece, began talking about the great ballparks they went to during the filming of the road trip scenes. He gave enough information that, with the help of the internet, I was able to figure out were most of them were.

One of them was War Memorial Stadium in Greensboro. "The Bulls will attempt to end a 6 game losing streak against the Greensboro Hornets with Nuke La Loosh on the hill," says Teddy Cullinane as the Durham Bull bus pulls up in front of War Memorial. They shot some scenes inside as well but the stadium was locked up tight so I could only get snapshots of the outside.

The exterior has some deterioration. This article from 2008 indicates that the stadium was "crumbling" and that the city was trying to come up with money for renovations. Among the major leaguers to play at War Memorial are Johnny Mize, Hank Greenburg, Ted Williams, Carl Yazstremski, Curt Schilling, Don Mattingly, Derek Jeter, Jim Bouton, Otis Nixon and Mariano Rivera.

Durham, NC

The Bull Durham tour continues! I have been to a game at the new Durham Athletic Park but hadn't been to see the Historic Durham Athletic Park, the old park that the movie was shot in. The park was built in 1940 and has been used for college and high school games since the Bulls moved to new digs in 1995.

Lots of work was being done the day I was there. New coats of paint, some work on the fencing and the grandstand, which was a good sign. According to Wikipedia, the city is renovating the park which will be operated by MiLB for training of umpires and groundskeepers and be used bu nearby North Carolina Central University for home baseball games.

Wilson, NC

The last stop on the "Bull Durham" portion of the tour is at Fleming Stadium in Wilson, NC. Fleming Stadium was built in 1936, is located in a residential neighborhood and is in fabulous shape for a stadium of its age. Ted Williams, Richie Ashburn and (former Oriole) Robin Roberts all played on this field. What's the Bull Durham tie-in? This is the site of the famous rainout scene where a drunken Crash Davis and teammates break into the stadium late at night, turn on all the sprinklers and go sliding all over the infield. "Oh my God! We got ourselves a natural disaster!"

The North Carolina Baseball Museum is housed on the stadium grounds but was not open. There was some general maintenance going on so I was able to get in and walk around the grandstands a bit. Again, really interesting looking stadium.

Home since it's inception of the Wilson Tobs (Tobs short for "Tobacconists"), the stadium now hosts a Coastal Plains League version of the Tobs in a college summer wood bat league.

Rocky Mount, NC

Nearly 20 years ago, when I was still collecting baseball cards, I found an autographed card of Buck Leonard in one of my packs, a player for the old Homestead Grays of the Negro National League. I had no idea who he was at the time but I was curious to find out.

Buck Leonard played first base for the Homestead Grays from 1934-1950. The Grays were the dominant team if the era and won 9 consecutive pennants from 1937-1945. Leonard was known as the "black Lou Gehrig" (batting behind his teammate Josh Gibson, "the black Babe Ruth")

A few teams toyed with the idea of signing Leonard as early as 1938 but nothing ever came of them. By the time he received a solid offer in 1952, he was 45 and declined the offer stating that he "didn't want to embarrass anyone or hurt the chances of those who might follow."

Leonard made it into the Hall of Fame in 1972. A historical marker stands near the place he was born in Rocky Mount. A lovely park dedicated to him is a Leonard line drive away from this marker.

edit: a quick extra...

Chattanooga, TN

I took the kids up to Chattanooga last weekend and added a couple more stadiums to my list.

Joe Engel Stadium is used for high school and college games these day but was the home of the Chattanooga Lookouts from 1929-1999 before the Lookouts moved to AT&T Park downtown. Harmon Killebrew, Edgar Martinez, Mike Marshall and Fergie Jenkins are among the players who called this field home when they were Lookouts.

The stadium looks to be a little dilapidated on the outside but generally looks to be n good shape. She was locked up tight not no chance for indoor pictures.

AT&T Park is another matter. It a quirky looking park in terms of its layout and the shape of the grandstand but is charming nonetheless. Built in 2000, it is the new home of the Lookouts. After a 20+ year association with the Cincinnati Reds, the team is now the AA farm team for the LA Dodgers. (New Orioles prospect were Josh Bell and Johnson were Lookouts until very recently.)

The Lookouts are one of the oldest minor league franchises, originally founded in 1885. Since I've moved to Atlanta, we've probably been up here once a year for a game and it's always a good time.

Slideshow on Jalbum:

Southern Baseball


BR Bullpen

Roadside Baseball by Chris Epting
: Great book and he has a new edition out this year!

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