By Mark Hayden
What better way to explain baseball’s hold and history on Memphians than with a visit to the corner of Union and B.B. King? It is there that the steel figures of favorite sons Charlie Lea and Tim McCarver hold court inside a batting cage at AutoZone Park. The figures are a melding of talented players from the late 1900s, but the connection or bond between baseball and Memphis goes back much farther.
It’s a bond that basketball or football don’t hold or can’t appreciate. It started as early as 1877 but began in earnest soon after the Memphis Turtles appeared on the scene in the Southern Association in 1901. From names as exotic as the Egyptians to the Lambs, Chickasaws (Chicks) to the Fever Germs, Blues to the Redbirds, baseball sports a history here unlike any other.
Memphis teams have played in various venues as well, from Red Elm Park (later renamed Russwood Park) to a couple of high school football fields, a former American Legion Park and now to today’s magnificent AutoZone Park. Even Liberty Bowl Stadium – primarily home to the University of Memphis football team and the Liberty Bowl Classic — got into the action playing host to a Hank Aaron-led exhibition game in 1975.
The Negro Leagues
The city has also fielded a team in the Negro Leagues. From 1922-60 the Red Sox fielded teams in the National, Southern and American League. Notable players were Verdell Mathis, Joe Scott and Charley Pride.
Their most successful year came in 1938 when they were crowned first-half champions in the Negro American League. Martin Stadium, built at Iowa Avenue (now Crump Boulevard) between Lauderdale and LaRose (now Danny Thomas), and demolished in 1961, was built by Drs. J.B. and B.B. Martin. The stadium was served by the South Wellington trolley that ran from downtown on Third Street with a stop at Iowa and LaRose/Wellington before turning around at Walker Ave. It was the only stadium owned by its team owners, a rarity in the Negro Leagues. It held 3,000 spectators until it was expanded later to 7,000 seats.
Baseball Nicknames & Beloved Russwood Park
Nicknames for the various teams had meanings too. The name Turtles derived from the “turtleback” field as the Red Elm Park infield sank two feet for proper drainage, while the name Chicks or Chickasaws arose to honor the Chickasaw Nation. The city’s musical heritage was cited when the Blues came to town, and the AAA Memphis Redbirds of the Pacific Coast League embraced their name from the St. Louis Cardinals organization.
The Turtles won the Southern Association title in 1903 and 1904. After the team changed ownership in 1914 Red Elm Park was renamed Russwood Park, and the franchise was reborn as the Chicks.
Images and Memories of Russwood Park
Russwood ballpark was best known for being among the more uniquely shaped ball fields in the country. It was built on a six-sided, asymmetrical block, with the deepest parts of left and right fields being farther from home plate than straight center.
You could smell Russwood. The minute you walked into the stand’s, you could smell the hot dogs and the popcorn. And there was a distinct sound: The stands were made of wood and when the crowds got excited, they stamped their feet on the wood and it was incredibly loud. And sometimes they stomped their feet in rhythm.
Despite seeing the team winning four titles during the next few decades, Memphis baseball fans will forever remember the shattering events of the 1960 Easter weekend.
On April 19, the mostly-wooden structure burned to the ground leaving only memories of a Russwood Park that had hosted the likes of Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Stan Musial. It witnessed exhibition games between the Chicks and the New York Yankees in 1950 and the Chicago White Sox and the Cleveland Indians that fateful April day.
Nat Buring owned the stadium at the time. “My uncle told him upon his arrival at the Memphis airport that his ballpark was burning,” his son Raymond said in 2004. By the time he arrived at the ballpark the wooden grandstands were ablaze. The next day Russwood Park was a memory – pretty soon, so were the Chicks.
“Dad had just done a lot of renovations to the ballpark; he bought a new scoreboard and renovated the locker rooms and the concession stands. But it all fell victim to a dropped match. They suspected that it was a dropped cigarette that started the fire,” Raymond Buring continued.
Because of the high winds and the wooden bleachers, the park burned quickly and furiously. Fire Department Captain Gale M. Gafort said in a 1980 Chicks program column that “for the first time in my 18 years as a fireman, I was scared. Plenty scared. We were up under the third base bleachers trying to head the fire off. I looked up and saw heavy steel girders start to bend and bleachers begin to fall around us. That’s when we started backing off. I’ve never seen a fire go so fast.”
The Chicks finished that year at Hodges Field and Tobey Park but it wasn’t the same. The team folded and professional baseball didn’t return to Memphis for eight years, until the Blues were born, in 1968.
Click here to subscribe to the monthly print journal of StoryBoard Memphis.
The Memphis Blues & Tim McCarver Stadium
First at Blues Stadium and later renamed Tim McCarver Stadium in a former American Legion Field, the Blues were members of the Texas League. As the AA affiliate of the New York Mets, the Blues appeared in two championships. They then joined the AAA International League with one-year stints as affiliates of the Montreal Expos and Houston Astros.
During those years ’74-76 Memphis enjoyed the talents of Ellis Valentine, Warren Cromartie, Art Howe, Terry Puhl, Floyd Bannister and future Hall of Famer Gary Carter. But that success was fleeting, and with co-owner Denny McClain in charge – yes, the very same pitcher who won 31 games with the Detroit Tigers but also faced numerous major league baseball suspensions and personal bankruptcy — the club faced financial gloom. The city was, once again, without the “national pastime” until another favorite son emerged.
Enter local businessman Avron Fogelman who obtained a Double-A Southern League team in 1978 as the Chicks were reborn. Allie Prescott, in his first of two stints in Memphis baseball front offices, became vice president and general manager from 1979-82, when the team was the AA affiliate of the Montreal Expos. Those teams saw stints from prominent future major leaguers Charlie Lea, Tony Phillips, Tim Wallach, Bill Gullickson, Terry Francona and future Hall of Famer Tim Raines.
“I can’t think of anything else that made me feel sadder than Memphis without professional baseball; and when I got a call from Avron Fogelman to help him bring baseball back, it was a thrill and an honor for me to help him,” Prescott said.
After Fogelman became part owner of the American League Kansas City Royals in 1983, the Chicks became the Royals’ Double-A team. Prominent players of that era were Jim Eisenreich, David Cone, and the young phenom Bo Jackson. “We had a great rivalry with Nashville; we had the Medicine Man. Those were fun years,” Prescott recalled.
As co-owner of the Royals, Fogelman treated Memphians to a World Series rematch between the Kansas City Royals and the St. Louis Cardinals on April 16, 1986, at Tim McCarver Stadium.
Fogelman, who also had interests in the Memphis TAMS of the American Basketball Association and owned the Memphis Rogues of the North American Soccer League, sold the franchise in 1988. Both the team and the ownership makeup lacked stability as the team affiliation changed twice in the span of three years. The club drifted to the San Diego system for two years – Derrek Lee played for the team in 1994 – and joined an equally unlikely partnership with the Seattle Mariners in 1997.
The Cardinals, Autozone Park & The Redbirds
While the Memphis Chicks moved to Jackson, Tennessee, the next year most Memphians were hopeful that the St. Louis Cardinals, who were moving their long-time affiliate from Louisville, Kentucky, would relocate to the Bluff City. Two new expansion teams were added to major league baseball and AAA baseball needed to follow suit. So, one might say that a perfect storm led the Cardinals to Memphis.
With few teams east of the Mississippi River and with the strong signal of St. Louis AM radio station KMOX, Memphis has always been designated by many as Cardinal territory. “Without a team here, Dean and I went to St. Louis for what we thought was an elaborate presentation and we were able to convince them that Memphis still had a hotbed of Cardinal fans,” Prescott, working with Dean Jernigan then, said.
When AutoZone Park opened to a Cardinals-Redbirds exhibition game in 2000, a sea of red in the sold-out stands represented a dream come true for everyone, including Prescott who served as president and general manager from 1996-2001. “As a lifelong Memphian, that was the big leagues for us. That game was one of the most exciting games of my life.”
Initially during the early years, the Redbirds were owned as a non-profit community entity called the Memphis Redbirds Baseball Foundation headed by Dean and Kristi Jernigan. They operated the Redbirds until 2009 when management was turned over to Global Spectrum, a Comcast-owned company. Attendance skyrocketed over the first few years here but gradually dropped to an average attendance of 4,037 in 2015.
Crowds have begun to rediscover the Redbirds since the St. Louis Cardinals bought the team in 2014 and now with majority interest held by Peter Freund, principal owner of Trinity Sports Holdings. Average attendance records have since jumped to 5,000 per game.
On the field the Redbirds have succeeded like never before. Under one-time Redbird infielder Stubby Clapp, who took over the helm in 2017, the team won two successive Pacific Coast Championships and last year topped that by also winning the Triple-A Championship.
Clapp is now a coach with the St. Louis Cardinals. Ben Johnson takes the helm as the Redbirds begin their 22nd season. The Cardinals connection remains strong as Memphis fans have witnessed the talents of Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright in the early years of the Redbirds stay in Memphis. More recent call ups from the Redbirds have been Paul DeJong, Harrison Bader and Dakota Hudson. Memphis has truly been at the doorstep of the major leagues.
From Russwood Park to AutoZone Park, from Expos to Cardinals, Memphis continues its long-running passion with the sport of baseball. <>
Mark Hayden is the collections curator and archivist for the Center for Southern Folklore, at 119 S. Main St. in downtown Memphis. Mark also works during the baseball season for the Memphis Redbirds in Autozone Park.
Click here to subscribe to the monthly print journal of StoryBoard Memphis.