BEAUTIFUL DUNCAN PARK
The 2014 Major League Baseball season officially got underway in Sidney, Australia, on March 22. The game was played between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Arizona Diamondbacks at a revamped cricket field. Dodger Clayton Kershaw, a two-time Cy Young Award winner as the best pitcher in the National League, won the season opener 3-1 against the Diamondbacks. Vin Scully was in the Dodgers’ broadcast booth for the start of his 65th season.
On Sunday afternoon after church I made a trip to the public library. On my way back home I drove past beautiful Duncan Park, pausing just a moment to admire the old ballpark.
In 1874, Major David Duncan, a Confederate officer during the Civil War, was an attorney in Spartanburg. He served as a trustee of both Wofford College and Converse College. He also sat on the board of Spartan Mills. He was elected to both the State Legislature and the State Senate and served as the president of the Spartanburg-Asheville Railroad Company.
Major Duncan purchased 300 acres of land off Union Road. He built an elegant home on the estate where he resided until his death in 1902. His family remained in the home until 1937.
In 1923, the land surrounding the home was donated to the City of Spartanburg. In the deed, the Duncan family specified that eleven acres of land should remain public for all to enjoy. That property became known as Duncan Park.
The historic stadium was built in 1926 just prior to the Great Depression. Duncan Park Lake was constructed during the 1930s as a Works Progress Administration project to provide folks with jobs following the Depression. My grandfather told me that the lake was dug mostly by hand with pick and shovel. The many small dogwood trees removed from the lakebed were transplanted along Converse Street. Those now mature dogwoods are in full bloom this time of year.
When I drove by last week, the ballpark was picture perfect. Fresh paint and green grass made Duncan Park seem ready for an umpire’s shout, “Play ball!”
On July 8, 1926, a crowd of 2,500 people watched the first game played at Duncan Park. The Spartanburg Spartans defeated the Macon Peaches 5-1.
The largest crowd to ever attend a sporting event in Spartanburg – nearly 21,000 fans – packed the ballpark for the deciding Game 5 of the 1936 World Series of American Legion baseball. Duncan Park was also the site of the 1938 American Legion World Series.
In 1946, Spartanburg returned to professional baseball with a franchise in the Tri-State League as an affiliate of the St. Louis Browns. Switching back to the Cleveland Indians organization the following season, the newly renamed Peaches won the pennant. Following the 1955 season, the Tri-State League disbanded.
In 1952, my grandmother rented a small room just off the screened back porch of her home at 288 South Converse Street. The tenant was a baseball player, the nineteen-year-old tall, lanky Italian from the Bronx, Rocky Colavito. I was only seven years old at the time, but I remember seeing Rocky play right field for the Peaches. He went on to become a Major League Baseball All-Star nine times.
It was at Duncan Park that I lost the one and only game I ever pitched. I usually played third base for a little league team sponsored by the Sertoma Club. My good friend Tommy Stokes played second base. I was pressed into service due to a series of unfortunate circumstances. As a third baseman, I threw side-armed. Every pitch was a hard curveball. I pitched three innings and struck out the side in every frame. Trouble was I also walked twelve batters and gave up seven hits. When I left the game we were behind 12-10. We lost.
The Philadelphia Phillies had a farm team in Spartanburg from 1963 through the 1994 season. Pat Williams, the general manager, was a gifted promoter who knew how to draw a crowd. Even the Phillie Phanatic, the official mascot of the Philadelphia Phillies, came to Spartanburg.
The Spartanburg Phillies topped Class A baseball in attendance in 1965 with more than 100,000 fans. I was among them. My dad, my brothers, and I picked up a bag of hotdogs and devoured them in the parking lot before the games.
The success of the Phillies – both on the field and at the gate – brought the Commissioner of Baseball William D. Eckert to our town. He was in the crowd of 6,953 on August 9, 1966, to witness the Spartanburg Phillies win their twenty-third straight game.
The team joined the South Atlantic League in 1980, the same year Clare and I moved back to Spartanburg with our four sons. Of course, taking my boys to baseball games at Duncan Park was something I did frequently. We were there the night buxom blonde Morganna, known as the “Kissing Bandit,” rushed onto the field to kiss unsuspecting baseball players and one umpire. Many Major League Baseball players – including Nolan Ryan, Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, George Brett, Steve Garvey, and Cal Ripken, Jr. – each received an unexpected smooch from Morganna.
In 1991, the Macon Braves came to town to play the Phillies at Duncan Park. Before the game I bought several packs of baseball cards for our son Kris. Included in the pack was a rookie card for the Macon Braves’ shortstop, Chipper Jones.
During the game Kris and I went to the seats above the visiting team’s dugout. I handed a felt-tip marker with the rookie card over the fence to a Braves player. Nineteen-year-old Chipper emerged from the dugout, signed Kris’ card, and shook his hand. What a treasure!
Chipper Jones is among several baseball greats who have played the game at Duncan Park. In 1937, on their way to New York from spring training, the Yankees played an exhibition game in Duncan Park. Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig both played. They might have been the first two well-known major leaguers to kick the dirt around home plate. The Cleveland Indians, traveling north from spring training, stopped to play exhibition games against the Peaches several times in the 1950s. On those occasions Bob Feller, Early Winn, and Bob Lemon pitched a few innings. Herb Score, Vic Wertz, and Al Rosen were also on those Indian teams. Future major leaguers who played in Duncan Park include Denny Doyle, Larry Bowa, Ryne Sandberg, Dale Murphy, and Tom Glavine.
Even the seats at Duncan Park have a major league connection. Connie Mack Stadium was home to the Philadelphia Athletics and to the Philadelphia Phillies. The green wooden seats were removed from Connie Mack Stadium and sent to Duncan Park after the Phillies moved into Veterans Stadium in 1971.
Wofford College and the University of South Carolina Upstate played home baseball games at Duncan Park until they each moved into on-campus stadiums in 2003. The stadium has been used by two collegiate summer league teams. Spartanburg High School now plays their games at Duncan Park.
Spartanburg has a proud baseball heritage, much of which took place in Duncan Park. I have seen the Cubs play at Wrigley Field in Chicago, and I have seen the Red Sox play at Fenway Park in Boston. Like those two-storied places, Duncan Park is a throwback to another era. It deserves to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Kirk H. Neely © April 2014