News From Terre Haute, Indiana

March 13, 2010

Terre Haute once built 'finest minor league baseball park'

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Only a select few saw Memorial Stadium from Ernie Woods’ vantage.

Under the summer sun, he roamed the outfield for the Terre Haute Phillies in 1950. The ballpark turned 25 years old that season. By contrast, Woods was just 26. But he’d already seen a lot of minor-league baseball cities, suiting up for teams in Missouri, Ontario, upstate New York and Delaware. Front-office legend Branch Rickey discovered him at a tryout camp in New Orleans, Woods’ hometown. He and future Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda had been teammates with the Schenectady Blue Jays. He’d played in five different pro leagues.

So Woods knew a special ballpark when he saw one.

That’s exactly what Woods found when the Philadelphia Phillies sent him to their Terre Haute farm club in ’50.

“The way it was built, the whole building itself — it wasn’t a football stadium,” recalled Woods, now 86, “it was a baseball stadium.”

Shortly after becoming its proprietor, Indiana State University demolished Memorial Stadium in 1969 and replaced it with a football facility, also called Memorial Stadium, which still stands. Only the Bedford-stone arch honoring World War I veterans and the outfield wall remain from the original structure that was officially dedicated May 4, 1925.

Until this winter, the community hadn’t seen a major baseball stadium construction since that time. The recently completed, $2.5-million renovation of Bob Warn Field at First and Locust streets has created a new 878-seat ballpark for the ISU baseball team, as well as the Terre Haute Rex. The ISU Foundation funded the project and owns the Rex — a club comprised of offseason collegiate players who’ll compete in the Prospect League. The city hasn’t been home to an organized summer-league team beyond the American Legion level since the professional farm club left town for good on July 3, 1956.

A successful run by the Rex could lead to minor-league baseball returning to Terre Haute, someday.

But it’s hard to envision any local team, ever again, possessing a home park as impressive as the old Memorial Stadium.

“It was pretty spectacular,” said local historian Mike McCormick, who worked in various roles for the Terre Haute Phillies in the 1950s.

How spectacular? Imagine current Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig throwing out the first pitch for the first Terre Haute Rex game at Bob Warn Field this summer. The equivalent of that improbable scenario actually happened on May 4, 1925.

A legend’s seal of approval

Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, big-league baseball’s first commissioner, traveled to Terre Haute that day for the official dedication of Memorial Stadium. More than 9,000 fans roared as the crusty, charismatic Landis — tall, with swirling gray hair — entered the stadium just a few minutes before the Terre Haute Tots played Three-I League rivals the Peoria Tractors. Surrounded by other pro baseball dignitaries, including the president of the Cleveland Indians, Landis got a box of cigars, a bouquet of roses from local Exchange Club representative Birch Bayh (grandfather of current U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh), and a serenade from a barbershop quartet.

Then, Landis settled in to his box seat to watch some baseball. He lit up one of the cigars, laid the flowers on the concrete ledge, pulled his slouch hat down above his right eye, and rested his chin on his walking cane, according to the May 5, 1925, Terre Haute Tribune story.

Landis and the crowd were treated to a dramatic 11-inning, 5-4 victory by the home team. Another appointment at another nearby minor-league town, Danville, Ill., forced Landis to leave before the extra innings began. (In those days, the big-league commissioner also oversaw the governing body of the minor leagues — the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues.) But clearly, Memorial Stadium caught Landis’ attention.

He told Tribune reporter Harry H. Hamby, “It’s the finest thing of its kind I ever saw in a city of this size. I expected something fine, but nothing like this.

“When I stepped into the bowl, I was held speechless,” Landis continued. “I never dreamed a minor-league club could have such a home as this. It is all too wonderful for words, and the good people of Terre Haute should be deeply appreciative of it.”

From then on, people in Terre Haute billed Memorial Stadium as “the finest minor league baseball park in America.”

“I don’t know how much of that was home cooking, and how much of it was fact,” McCormick said of that label, “but it was pretty spectacular.”

“The dimensions,” McCormick added, “were almost unbelievable.”

City bankrolled project

The horseshoe-shaped coliseum was 600 feet long and 375 feet wide. The baseball playing field measured an unconquerable 546 feet from home plate to the center-field wall. Only New York’s original Yankee Stadium had a larger athletic field at the time, according to historical lore.

The stadium bowl featured 9,000 permanent, stainless steel grandstand seats and 1,200 moveable box seats covered by a roof, according to McCormick’s book “Queen City of the Wabash.” Unroofed bleachers flanking the right- and left-field lines brought the stadium’s seating capacity to 16,000 people. A Bedford stone archway marked the south entrance. Attached to the arch were bronze tablets, memorializing the names of 6,780 Vigo County residents who served in World War I.

With Mayor Ora Davis pushing the project, the city of Terre Haute funded the $425,000 cost of building Memorial Stadium through bond sales. The stone arch accounted for $90,000 of that pricetag.

It was a progressive era for the town. Just a couple years earlier, in 1921, the city paid local banker Demas Deming $155,000 for the land that became Deming Park.

A modern comparison to the Memorial Stadium project can be found just 70 miles away, where the Indianapolis Indians play. Victory Field — also often regarded as one of America’s best minor-league stadiums — seats a similar 15,695 fans. Victory Field’s construction, completed in 1996, cost $18 million.

The community seemed to get its money’s worth out of the old Memorial Stadium. In addition to its primary function — housing the local minor-league baseball club from 1925 to ’56 — the stadium also was the site of high school, college and semi-pro football games, boxing and wrestling matches, circuses, fairs, carnivals, conventions and fireworks displays, according to McCormick. Even major-league baseball clubs used it for tryout camps and spring training during World War II.

But minor-league baseball gave Memorial Stadium, and the town, an identity.

Its reputation wasn’t as a home-run-hitter’s park. “The stadium was a nice stadium. The only thing was, it didn’t have baseball dimensions,” said Al Gindele, who played second base for the Terre Haute Phillies in 1948. A temporary fence reduced the center-field distance to 410 feet from 546 feet. In their title season of 1950, for example, the Phillies hit a modest 57 homers in 126 games, partly because of the outfield depth.

“Nobody hit too many homers, because it was just too deep,” Gindele said.

“You could hit an inside-the-park home run if you hit it between the fielders,” Carney explained, “because it could roll a long ways, and a guy could make it around.”

The gap between the permanent wall and temporary fence was large enough for city parks department ponies to graze on the grass.

The Terre Haute pro teams played in the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa (or Three-I) League. It was a Class B league, which is the equivalent of today’s Class A level — the second rung on the four-step minor-league ladder to the bigs.

Seats well occupied, until …

For most of the stadium’s 31 years of pro baseball, a healthy number of local fans filled its seats. In 1948, the Three-I League drew an all-time record of 783,000 fans. Terre Haute was often in the top two or three in attendance. That was the case in 1950, when the Phillies won the Three-I pennant. But a new technological invention, television, kept all but the most loyal fans at home, fixated on the “boob tube.” The champion Phillies drew only an average of 1,765 paying customers a night.

“Up until television, they had pretty good crowds,” recalled Joe Carney, who served as bat boy for the club in 1946.

“That was the biggest problem with minor-league baseball, back in those days,” Woods said. “TV was just coming on strong, and people would stay home.”

Still, at least one night drew throngs every year. That’s when the club gave away a car to one lucky fan.

“The only night they ever filled [the stadium] was Chevrolet Night,” said Carney, now 75 and a Terre Haute businessman.

While interest waned, the ballpark’s physical structure stood up decently through the years, McCormick said.

Its interior amenities for coaches and players were a bit sparse, Carney explained. “The manager had an office,” he said, with a desk and a shower, “and the rest of it was like a high school lockerroom.”

As Gindele recalled, “The facilities — the dressing rooms and what not — were fair to midland.” Gindele, just 23 then, played nine years of pro ball, from Florida to the Caribbean to the Northeast, but married a girl he met while in Terre Haute and still lives here. And while Memorial Stadium didn’t distinguish itself from most of the other ballparks Gindele encountered, the 86-year-old New Jersey native labeled it “a good-lookin’ stadium.”

Its fate, though, was sealed when the last big-league affiliate — the Detroit Tigers — abruptly shut down the Terre Haute club on July 3, 1956. Though the stadium continued to host high school and college football, and other events, the absence of daily summer baseball diminished its upkeep by the city. “I was surprised to hear the city did not take good care of it after the baseball club left,” McCormick said.

A decade after the team folded, ISU bought the lease on the stadium and its grounds from the city. Soon, plans for a 20,000-seat football stadium began formulating. The wrecking ball demolished all but the memorial arch and the outfield wall, which encircles the current Memorial Stadium.

The wall and arch are more than 85 years old now. “I think that may be a testimony to [the original stadium’s] structural soundness,” McCormick said.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or