MiLB arenas standing the test of time
With the Minor League Baseball (MiLB) (US) season kicking off on April 6th, 2021, it’s time for a rundown of 11 of those hallowed arenas which have served the minor league since 1914 to 1951.
Minor League Baseball (MiLB) is the second division of professional baseball in America ranked below the Major League Baseball (MLB). Recently, the MLB took 120 minor league clubs under its wings after a major realignment of the minor league teams.
Major League Baseball (MLB) is an American professional baseball organization and the oldest of the major professional sports leagues in the United States and Canada. A total of 30 teams play in Major League Baseball: 15 teams in the National League and 15 in the American League.
For the 2021 season, the new minor league classification system divides leagues into one of four classes – Triple A (AAA), Double A (AA), High A (A+), and Low-A (A).
The reassignment also permitted MLB franchises to maintain a rookie team that will play in two domestic leagues, the Arizona League or Gulf Coast League, the lowest rung in the North American minor league ladder, and one foreign-based league the Dominican Republic summer league.
The MiLB website reported that nine new ballparks would debut for the MiLB 2021 season, possibly the largest number in any given year. But, going down the annals of history are 11 stadia which has survived the test of time and are still serving minor league clubs.
With the MLB landscape having drastically changed in 2021 following the reconfiguration, an update of the list of its oldest ballparks – rich repositories of baseball history, American history, architectural history and the intersections thereof – is in order.
In ascending order
Jackie Robinson Ballpark (Daytona Beach, Florida)
Opened in 1914 as City Island Ballpark
First Minor League tenant: Daytona Islanders (Florida State League, 1920)
Current Minor League tenant: Daytona Tortugas (Cincinnati affiliate; Low-A Southeast; established as the Daytona Cubs in 1993)
In 1989, 75 years after it opened, the 4,200-seat Daytona Beach’s City Island Ballpark was rechristened Jackie Robinson Ballpark in honor of the events of 1946, when Robinson (Jackie Robinson was the first African American to play Major League Baseball in the United States during the 20th century) played at City Island Ballpark during the spring training. The American Professional baseball player broke the color code becoming the first African American to play in Major League baseball. His first appearance was as an active player in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization in 1946, more than one year before his epochal Major League debut. When City Island Ballpark had opened during President Thomas Woodrow Wilson’s administration (1913-1921), the place was little more than a playing field and wooden bleachers. The arena has undergone several revamp since then, the most recent being the installation of a HD videoboard to complement the vintage hand-operated scoreboard in the left field.
LECOM Park (Bradenton, Florida)
Opened: 1923 as City Park
First Minor League tenant: Bradenton Growers (Florida State League, 1923)
Current Minor League tenant: Bradenton Marauders (Pittsburgh affiliate; Low-A Southeast; established 2010)
LECOM Park, which also serves as the Pittsburgh Pirates’ spring training home, has hosted the Bradenton Marauders since 2010. This marked the first time that this iconic Spanish Mission-style facility had hosted MiLB matchups since 1926. Spring training has been a near-constant, however, beginning with the 1923 St. Louis Cardinals. The 8,500-capacity LECOM Park name was first used in 2018 after a 15 year naming rights deal was signed with the Pennsylvania-based Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine (LECOM); from 1962 through 2017, it was known as McKechnie Field in honor of Bradenton resident Baseball Hall of Fame, Bill McKechnie, who led ‘The Pirates’ in 1925 and Cincinnati Reds in 1940 to World Series wins.
McCormick Field (Asheville, North Carolina)
First Minor League tenant: Asheville Tourists (South Atlantic League, 1924)
Current Minor League tenant: Asheville Tourists (Houston affiliate; High-A East; established 1914; continuously in operation since 1966)
The MiLB website further reported that Asheville Tourists which dates back to 1914 is one of MiLB’s longest-standing clubs. In the more than one century of its existence, the league has witnessed many ups and downs – there have been many league and affiliation changes as well as several periods in which the franchise was non-operational but on the whole, the relationship between team and ballpark has been one of consistency. Named after the City’s only bacteriologist Dr. Lewis McCormick, who began the Swat the Fly campaign in 1905 to get rid of a large number of houseflies besetting the place, the 4,000-capacity McCormick Field provides a picturesque atmosphere, set part way up one of Asheville’s hills. It is a throwback ballpark with the appeal of the countryside featuring a hilly wooded backdrop and a carnivalesque atmosphere on the external concourse.
Modern Woodmen Park (Davenport, Iowa)
Opened: 1931 as Municipal Stadium
First Minor League tenant: Davenport Blue Sox (Mississippi Valley League, 1931)
Current Minor League tenant: Quad Cities River Bandits (Kansas City affiliate; High-A Central; established in 1960 as the Davenport Braves)
The Quad Cities, technically known as the Quint Cities, comprise five Cities of the US – Davenport and Bettendorf in Southeast Iowa and Rock Island, Moline and East Moline in Northwest Illinois. The 4,024-capacity Modern Woodmen Park, located in Davenport, is situated on the banks of the Mississippi River, and has a panoramic view of the Centennial Bridge crossing the river into Rock Island. A Ferris wheel, constructed on the left-field concourse in 2014, adds to the ambience. The stadium was renamed John O’ Donnell in honor of the Sports Editor of ‘Davenport Times-Democratic’ after he passed away. It was again rechristened as Modern Woodmen Park after the Rock Island-based Moden Woodmen of America purchased the naming rights, with McDonell’s name being retained on the press box. The River Bandits, stalwarts of the Class A Midwest League from 1960 through 2020, are entering their first season as a Kansas City affiliate.
Bank of the James Stadium (Lynchburg, Virginia)
Opened: 1940 as City Stadium
First Minor League tenant: Lynchburg Senators (Virginia League, 1940)
Current Minor League tenant: Lynchburg Hillcats (Cleveland affiliate; Low-A East; established in 1963 as the Lynchburg White Sox)
The 4,281-capacity Bank of the James Stadium adopted its current moniker in 2020 after a six year naming rights deal was signed with Bank of James. The City Stadium name has, however, stuck in throughout its history. The ballpark was built in conjunction with a football stadium located on the third-base side. Lynchburg was a member of the Carolina League from 1963 through 2020. The Hillcats name was adopted in 1995, 20 years prior to their ongoing affiliation with the Cleveland Indians. The Elmore Sports Group bought the team prior to the 2016 season and soon initiated a series of improvements that brought the facility up to current Minor League ballpark standards.
Excite Ballpark (San Jose, California)
First Minor League tenant: San Jose Owls (California League, 1942)
Current Minor League tenant: San Jose Giants (San Francisco affiliate; Low-A West; established in 1962 as the San Jose Bees)
The San Jose Giants appear on two notable Top 10 lists – oldest ballparks and longest affiliations, as their partnership with San Francisco dates back to 1988. With the exception of a two-year stint in the Pacific Coast League, the 4,200-capacity Excite Ballpark has the distinction of hosting a California League team in nearly every season from 1942 through 2020. In 2019, the San Jose Giants entered into a three-year naming rights agreement with Excite Credit Union. Excite is also home to the San Jose State practice fields for soccer, baseball and softball. Originally known as Municipal Stadium, the facility was constructed during the Theodore Roosevelt administration as a Works Progress Administration project. These days, it is popular for its whimsical concourse artwork as well as exemplary churros and barbecue.
Recreation Ballpark (Visalia, California)
First Minor League tenant: Visalia Cubs (California League, 1946)
Current Minor League tenant: Visalia Rawhide (Arizona affiliate; Low-A West; continuously in operation since 1977)
From San Jose, it’s an approximately three-hour drive to the next oldest Minor League stadium, Visalia’s Recreation Park – the smallest of ballparks with only 1,888 seats and another 580-capacity on the lawns. Also like San Jose, Recreation Park had a long history of hosting California League baseball. The Rawhide moniker was adopted in 2009, marking the first occasion in which Visalia’s team wasn’t named after its parent club. Recreation Park’s current grandstand was constructed in 1963, comprising dirt repurposed from Route 198 construction efforts and then poured over with concrete and a mix of cement, sand and water. Capacity and amenities have been expanded via recent renovation projects, resulting in expanded berm and group areas.
Funko Field (Everett, Washington)
Opened: 1947 as Everett Memorial Stadium
First Minor League tenant: Everett Giants (Northwest League, 1984)
Current Minor League tenant: Everett AquaSox (Seattle affiliate; High-A West; established as the Everett Giants in 1984)
The 2,468-capacity Funko Field is a misnomer as it was open for the better part of three decades before hosting a Minor League team. That team was the Everett Giants, who debuted in 1984 and became the AquaSox in 1995 following an affiliation change from San Francisco to Seattle. The Funko Field name was adopted in 2019, the result of a naming rights deal with the Everett-based toy company. The ballpark, part of a much larger athletic complex, is owned by the Everett School District. Everett will field a full-season team for the first time in 2021.
Grainger Stadium (Kinston, North Carolina)
First Minor League tenant: Kinston Eagles (Coastal Plain League, 1949)
Current Minor League tenant: Down East Wood Ducks (Texas affiliate; Low-A East; established 2017)
This 3,410-seat venerable stadium located at 400 East Grainger Avenue in Kinston has retained that name ever since inception in 1949. MiLB returned to Kinston, North Carolina, in 2017 in the form of the Down East Wood Ducks (named for a region of North Carolina located in close proximity to Kinston) after a five year hiatus. This marked the latest chapter in Grainger Stadium’s long Carolina League history, which began in 1956 and had its longest stretch of continuous operation between 1978 and 2011. One of the park’s most unique elements isn’t even in it – a water tower emblazoned with the Wood Ducks logo stands beyond left field.
FirstEnergy Stadium (Reading, Pennsylvania)
Opened: 1951 as Municipal Stadium
First Minor League tenant: Reading Indians (Eastern League, 1952)
Current Minor League tenant: Reading Fightin Phils (Philadelphia affiliate; Double-A Northeast; established in 1967 as the Reading Phillies)
The 9,000-capacity baseball-only stadium has the distinction of being named as the second best place to see a baseball game by ‘Minor League News’ in 2006. FirstEnergy Stadium opened in 1951 as Municipal Stadium and due to corporate sponsorship it received its current moniker. The stadium began hosting an Eastern League team from 1952. The Reading Phillies debuted in 1967, beginning an affiliation that is currently tied for the longest in MiLB. FirstEnergy Stadium has long had a reputation for its “best of both worlds” appeal, combining a throwback feel with an oft-zany larger atmosphere populated by beloved cult figures such as the Crazy Hot Dog Vendor and his pet ostrich, Rodrigo.
Nat Bailey Stadium (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada)
Opened: 1951 as Capilano Stadium
First Minor League tenant: Vancouver Capilanos (Western International League)
Current Minor League tenant: Vancouver Canadians (Toronto affiliate, High-A West; established in 2000)
The 6,500-capacity stadium is Canada’s oldest and only MiLB ballpark and has been a consistent presence in the Minor League scene for 70 years. Nat Bailey Stadium was christened as such in 1978 in honor of a local restaurateur, Nat Bailey, for his constant efforts to promote baseball. The Canadians spent the past two decades in the Class A Short Season Northwest League, but from 1978 through 1999, a Triple-A Pacific Coast League iteration of the Canadians called Nat Bailey Stadium home. This year marks a return to a full-season schedule.
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