The other ballpark debates: City’s history repeats itself

jwilkinson@thestate.comMarch 9, 2014 

After USC wouldn’t let a minor league professional baseball team play in their new park, Columbia business leaders, the mayor and a team owner began pushing hard for a new park to boost economic development in the city.

Sound familiar? Perhaps so. But the year was 1926.

Since the first professional game was played in Columbia in 1904, teams have struggled to find and keep a place to play. And that struggle is taking place again today, as Mayor Steve Benjamin, along with a team owner and a developer for the Bull Street property push for a $35 million stadium to be located at the site of the former State Hospital.

“Minor league baseball has always been on the edge of solvency,” said Fritz Hamer, curator of published materials at the University of South Carolina’s South Caroliniana Library, who in the 1990s put together a special exhibit on Columbia baseball as curator of the State Museum. “The early teams here went from pillar to post to look for a place to play.”

Adding to the difficulties, he said, was the strong presence of the South Carolina Gamecocks college team and its backers, which often view professional baseball as a competitor for fans and advertisers.

“The university (traditionally) has feared that the pro team would affect the college team financially,” he said. “It’s difficult to come up with a reason why.”

‘BOOTED OUT’

Lindsay Smith, an armchair historian who has long studied baseball in Columbia, said keeping a team has always been a problem. And ballpark debates like the one being conducted today are nothing new.

“It sounds like a soap opera,” he said. “They got booted out of one place after another.”

Professional baseball began in 1904 when the Columbia Skyscrapers played at Elmwood field, the site of the former State Fairgrounds, located where the Elmwood Park neighborhood is today. The bleachers were grandstands for the racetrack.

City residents, who could buy stock in the team, and others would gather at the Sweeney house, at 901 Elmwood Ave., to watch the game from the roof of its large wraparound porch.

After the first year, the team changed its name to Gamecocks – something that likely didn’t sit well down at The Horseshoe.

During those first years at Elmwood, Ty Cobb and Shoeless Joe Jackson played in Columbia. Major League teams played exhibitions as well.

In 1908, the team moved to the football field at the new State Fairgrounds, on Assembly Street near Olympia Mill Village, but it was deemed too far from trolley lines, and the team moved back to Elmwood.

Although the team set South Atlantic “Sallie” League attendance records, it lost its park in 1912 when the local school district tore down the grandstands and dugouts and built Logan School.

Homeless, the team left Columbia.

THE $11,000 STADIUM

In 1914, banker Edwin Robertson built a stadium for $11,000 to bring a team back to Columbia. It was located on property just north of the Columbia Mill, now the State Museum.

The team was named the Commissioners, which was shortened by sportswriters at The State and the Columbia Record to Commies and finally Comers, to save type space.

“They named it that after a new form of city government that had commissioners,” Smith said.

But that park, too, was short-lived. A group of investors, led by Columbia Record publisher W.B. Sullivan, tore the ballpark down two years after it opened to make way for a quarry.

Enter USC.

When Robertson’s park was torn down, the team moved to Davis Field, USC’s ballfield located next to Longstreet Theater.

Baseball had been played there since 1867 when Union soldiers garrisoning Columbia after the Civil War used the area as a parade ground and ball ground. They played local club teams like the Robert E. Lees and the Ku Klux.

The Comers and USC shared the field from 1915 through the 1925 season. Babe Ruth played there during an exhibition game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees.

“USC and a minor league team played in the same park back then,” Smith said. “I wish they would do it again.”

‘No other grounds available’

But, foreshadowing tensions to come between professional and amateur sports in Columbia, USC officials in the 1920s began complaining the field’s schedule was overcrowded and the Comers had to go.

The city began looking for a new site. Maxcy Gregg Park was chosen, but the city had no money to build a park and the neighbors didn’t want it.

So, the team moved to the State Fairgrounds on Assembly once again. But a year later, the wooden grandstands burned down.

Grandstand fires were frequent then because of discarded cigarettes, Smith said. It had been the third fire that summer.

“No other grounds available for immediate use,” The State headlines shouted the next day. “City has no funds for erection of stands.”

Finally, in 1927 Pittsburgh Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss built a ballpark for the Commissioners on Assembly Street, on land once occupied by a stagnant pond that Olympia Mill Village officials said threatened the health of their residents.

“The question of drainage was also brought up,” The State wrote in 1926, “and the supposition was put forth that portions of the land might be soggy in wet weather, but it was said that almost any baseball field would have this characteristic.”

‘Nothing historic about it’

Dreyfuss Dell, as the stadium was called, was a soggy home for minor league baseball for the next eight decades — off and on depending on whether the town had a team.

It hosted teams named the Sandlappers, the Senators, the Reds, the Gems, the Reds again, the Mets and, finally, the Capital City Bombers, which left in 2005.

The park was remodeled often. So much so that any historic character was lost long ago, Smith said. It feels worn and some say it is stunningly ugly.

“There’s nothing historic about it except its location,” Smith said.

The last pro team left in 2005, when the Bombers moved to a new stadium in Greenville and became the Drive. Greenville’s Bob Hughes, who is the developer of the Bull Street property and is pushing for a new stadium there, used the Greenville park as an anchor for the redevelopment of that city’s Main Street, in which he played a large part.

And today, even USC Athletics Director Ray Tanner has been supportive of a minor league team.

“He’s saying, ‘We have two national titles,’” USC historian Hamer said. “‘If you want to have a minor league team, that’s just fine.’”

Just not in his stadium.

“There has always been a certain arrogance in the university community about that,” Hamer said.

At least since 1926.

Reach Wilkinson at (803) 771-8495.

BASEBALL IN COLUMBIA

The first baseball game was played in Columbia Sept. 8, 1867, by Union soldiers garrisoning Columbia after the Civil War.

Early games were played on the soldiers’ parade ground, where USC’s Thomas Cooper Library is now located. The soldiers were billeted on The Horseshoe.

Soldiers often played games against local club teams like the Robert E. Lees and the Ku Klux.

Columbia’s first professional team was called the Skyscrapers. They were named after the Barringer Building on Main Street, the state’s first “skyscraper.”

Columbia was a founding member of the South Atlantic, or “Sallie,” League. After Skyscrapers, the team was named Gamecocks, then Comers or Commies, short for Commissioners.

The manager of the Comers on Opening Day from 1927 to 1930 was Charles "Gabby" Street. He left Columbia to become the St. Louis Cardinals manager, and went to the World Series in his first two seasons. Street later became a broadcaster and the mentor of the late Harry Caray.

Early ballparks were located at the site of Logan Elementary School in Elmwood Park, behind the State Museum, at USC’s Davis Field and the State Fairgrounds.

The first game the Skyscrapers played in 1904 was against the Augusta Tigers. Ty Cobb, who played for the Tigers, hit a home run. Cobb and "Shoeless" Joe Jackson played against Columbia’s minor-league team when it was at Elmwood field.

Major League teams, including the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees, played exhibition games in Columbia. Babe Ruth went 0-2 in a game.

Among the first African-American players to play for a professional team in Columbia was Frank Robinson, who played here in 1954. Robinson became a Hall of Fame player for the Cincinnati Reds.

The site where Capital City Stadium is now located on Assembly Street was a stagnant pond that was considered a health hazard to the residents of the nearby Olympia Mill Village. It still floods today and owners have complained about it for decades.

SOURCE: Lindsay Smith, the S.C. State Museum, newspaper clips, the book “Baseball in Columbia” by Mark Bryant

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