Kalamazoo’s Earliest Baseball Fields
Oscar Coleman was an early Kalamazoo resident who helped organize the first “official” village baseball team about 1858. According to Coleman, many of the town’s earliest baseball matches were held in Bronson Park, that is, until village president Latham Hull put a stop to such play for fear it would harm the trees in the park. As the game grew more popular, large crowds would gather in the field along the north side of Water Street, behind what was then Sheldon Dodge’s North Rose Street foundry, to watch in wonder as their favorite local players had a go at the new sport.
During the early 1860s, hundreds were beginning to make the trek northward past the Michigan Central Railroad depot to watch the matches being played at the “new grounds” on North Burdick Street. Warm summer afternoons could be passed in pleasurable fashion while relaxing with family and friends and consuming picnic lunches, as teams like the Kalamazoo Champions took on local rivals and teams from other nearby communities.
By the end of the Civil War, the local “junior nines” were holding their matches in the open lots at the west end of Cedar Street, while games that attracted larger audiences typically took place in the field opposite the National Driving Park (National Fair Grounds) off Portage Street in today’s Edison Neighborhood.
“The base ball grounds of the city are now on the square north of the canning factory and the boys keep it pretty hot; every day there are games going on there, and the mercury cannot get too high to scare away the base ballists.”
—Kalamazoo Telegraph, 25 July 1885
Indeed, Kalamazoo’s earliest baseball teams fought their battles on whatever grounds they could find; from cornfields to cow pastures, sandlots to schoolyards, hayfields to horse tracks. But after nearly three decades of local play, Kalamazoo sports fans had yet to see the home team perform on a proper local baseball field. That all changed, however, during the spring of 1886 when leading local players Bill Doyle and Ollie Hungerford spearheaded an effort to build a brand new ballpark on what was then vacant land along the north side of Wheaton Avenue near Davis Street in today’s Vine Neighborhood. Work on the new field began in early June, and was completed in time for a scheduled home opener against the National League champion Chicago White Stockings on June 18th.
The ticket booth and public entrance were located along Wheaton Avenue near the southeast corner of the park, just a block from the end of the West Street (Westnedge Avenue) streetcar line, about where Oak Street crosses today. A grandstand stretched diagonally across the northeast corner of the park, with enough seating for 450 spectators. Batters faced westward, with the far limits of the outfield bordering along Wheaton Avenue and the hill below Davis Street. The infield was scraped and manicured, a metal railing was installed to separate the spectator area from the playing field, and a high wooden fence was placed around the perimeter of the park. Michael O’Neill and Henry Cope operated a refreshment stand on the grounds, where visitors could purchase fine cigars, refreshing lemonade, and a variety of “temperance decoctions.” The new field immediately became a community showplace for the would-be local pennant contenders.
Lake View Park (1894-1896)
Despite the overall popularity of baseball, Kalamazoo was by the 1890s once again without a first class baseball field. A decade had passed since Hungerford and Doyle put up their ballpark on Wheaton Avenue, but that field was abandoned after a couple of seasons when league play fell apart, and the property was quickly consumed by residential development. When the old National Driving Park off Portage Street was dismantled in 1893, many believed that building a baseball field at Lake View Park, the newly developed recreation area at the end of the new electric streetcar line near Woods Lake, might be a winning proposition. After hosting an impromptu game at Lake View between the Morning News and the Daily Telegraph, two local entrepreneurs, John Culver and Neal Nicholson, picked up the challenge and began soliciting funds to build a proper baseball field near Woods Lake.
“The location of the grounds is an important matter, but there is plenty of land in the vicinity of Lake View for a fine diamond. I think it would pay the railway company to take hold of the matter.”
—Charlie Ganzel, Kalamazoo Telegraph, 28 February 1894
Culver and Nicholson built their baseball field in the spring of 1894 on William Wood’s property directly across the road from Woods Lake along the eastern edge of Asylum Road (now Oakland Drive), about where Oakwood Plaza is currently located. A high wooden fence enclosed the playing field, and a grandstand was erected near the intersection of White’s Road; batters faced toward the northeast. Bleacher seats were added near the grandstand, and unique “box” seats were fashioned along the northeastern edge of the outfield in a row of recently deaccessioned horse-drawn street cars.
On Decoration Day (Memorial Day), 30th May 1894, Culver and Nicholson opened their new field with a morning exhibition game between the Sam Folz nine, and the remains of Kalamazoo’s former state league team dubbed the “Old Timers.” The feature game of the day, however, was to be a mid-afternoon clash between the Folz club and a top-notch team from LaGrange, Indiana. More than a thousand local fans packed the grand stand and bleacher boards at Lake View to witness the hotly contested two hour afternoon battle.
“Kalamazoo boasts one of the best base ball parks in the state.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 21 June 1894
The North Street Park (1895-1896)
The following year, a new Michigan State League was formed, with teams from Battle Creek, Jackson, Adrian, Owosso, Port Huron, Lansing, and Kalamazoo. Evidently not satisfied with the accommodations at Lake View Park (or perhaps not happy about private ownership of the field there), Kalamazoo banker Ed Dayton and other local businessmen (some evidently in association with the street railway company) developed plans for a new baseball field on Edward Hawley’s land at the corner of North Street and Woodward Avenue near downtown Kalamazoo. A two year lease was arranged, and by April, John Blaney and his crew were hard at work on the new park. Thanks to local investors, more than $1,000 was raised toward making the new ballpark a “first-class” (Telegraph) playing field.
A grandstand, “constructed in a substantial manner” (Telegraph) with seating for five hundred, was erected along the southern edge of the 269-foot-wide park. The diamond faced northward this time, with the outfield fence some 354 feet from home plate. During May, the street railway company added side tracking near the park to make room for more streetcars, and to make boarding and exiting the cars more convenient.
After a few practice games and an out-of-town league opener, manager Harry Mittenthal brought his Battle Creek Adventists to Kalamazoo for the May 30th home opener at the new North Street Park against the Kalamazoo Kazoos. According to the Gazette, “Every seat in the grandstand was taken, and there were at least a hundred carriages and buggies on the ‘foul’ ground, beside a large congregation that was compelled to stand.”
The Kazoos enjoyed a reasonably successful season with a third place finish overall, but the league itself didn’t fare so well and collapsed at season’s end. For the 1896 season, the Kalamazoo College team took over the otherwise empty ballpark on North Street, while local independent and semi-pro games returned to John Culver’s field at Lake View Park. Without the support of a professional team, the North Street Park was abandoned after the lease expired at the close of the 1896 season.
The exact fate of the Lake View baseball field on Billy Wood’s farm remains uncertain. A few minor games were held at Lake View early in the 1897 season and even a late May cricket match, but by that time, Culver and Nicholson had taken their business elsewhere, and all organized (or at least advertised) activity at the Lake View ball field apparently ceased. A Fourth of July cricket game, which had originally been scheduled for Lake View Park, was moved to the college campus and aside from a lone Labor Day morning ball game between the Victors and the Clover Leafs, there is little evidence that other promoted activities were ever held there again.
Riverview Park I (1905-1915)
In the absence of league play, another decade passed after the ballpark on North Street was abandoned, and much like its predecessor on Wheaton Avenue, the property was quickly swallowed up by urban development. In August 1900, the long-awaited replacement for the old National Driving Park became a reality when developers announced plans to build Recreation Park, a new athletic and recreation facility on the former Field family farm east of town on the south side of Lake Street. One of the key features of Recreation Park (today’s fairgrounds) was to be a new baseball field, although several more years would pass before that portion of the project would materialize. In the interim, city league games were played on the Kalamazoo College athletic grounds, located at the southwest corner of Academy Street and Michigan Avenue. Accommodations at the college field were less than ideal, however, as there was little or no permanent seating.
In April 1905, it was finally announced that work would soon begin on a new baseball field on the north side of Lake Street, across the road from Recreation Park, just a short walk from the streetcar line. The new field was to feature a grandstand large enough to seat 1,100 spectators along the southern edge of the park, plus additional bleacher seating for 500 along the west side near the entrance. Batters again faced northward.
The Kalamazoo Gazette held a contest among its readers to decide what the new park should be called. Ganzel Park (in honor of Kalamazoo’s famous baseball family), Progressive Base Ball Park, Riverside Park, and Fair View Park were among the hundreds of suggestions received, with a free season ticket promised for the winning entry. Ultimately, Riverview Park was the name chosen, largely due to its close proximity to the Kalamazoo River. The new field opened in May with the Kalamazoo White Sox defeating the Grand Rapids N.A.C.s by a score of 6 to 0. Games continued at Riverview until October.
In November, after the close of the 1905 season, a road expansion project made it necessary to relocate Riverview Park before the coming year. A new site was selected nearby, just west of Recreation Park on the south side of Lake Street, and within days, work on the new park was well underway. In April, the grandstand, bleacher seats and fences were dismantled and moved across the road to the new, somewhat larger park, and everything was made ready in time for the opening game in May.
“Isn't Kalamazoo proud of her beautiful baseball park?”
—Kalamazoo Telegraph, 18 May 1906
With the support of the Kalamazoo Baseball Association, and a brand new home field, Kalamazoo joined the Southern Michigan League for 1906. “This city has never had a better park than the one planned,” wrote the Gazette, “and the team is sure to give satisfaction.” State and city league games were held at Riverview Park on Lake Street through the 1915 season and after.
Oakwood Park Field (1916-1919)
After a decade of play at the Lake Street grounds (Riverview Park), it was time for another change. To capitalize on the overwhelming nationwide popularity of baseball and the popularity of the amusement park phenomenon, a new field was built for the 1916 season at Oakwood Park, the local amusement resort near Woods Lake. In contrast to the 1894 Lake View Park field in the same general locale, the Oakwood Park ball field was placed on the opposite side of the lake in the northwest section of the park, part of today’s Winchell Neighborhood.
The Oakwood Park baseball field served several local independent teams like the Strands, the Hawthorne Independents, the Kalamazoo Paper Mill All-Stars, and Joe Stoher’s Goodale Eagles (later the Goodale Kazoos) until after the First World War. In fact, by the end of the 1919 season, the Goodale Kazoos had become a strong statewide contender, successfully taking on teams like the American Oils of Jackson, the Lansing Reos, the South Bend Studebakers, and the Paige Detroits.
Stationery Park (1919)
In March 1919, Kalamazoo Stationery Company general manager Bertrand Hopper announced that he had purchased the old circus grounds at the corner of Harrison and Frank streets on the city’s northeast side, where he hoped to eventually expand his company's operation. In the meantime, however, Hopper intended to set aside a portion of the ten-acre parcel for use as a baseball park where his team, the Kalamazoo Stationery Independents, would play. In an effort to broaden the sport’s local appeal and shake off certain objections to the “roughneck” image earned in part through its association with the amusement park at Oakwood, Hopper opened Stationery Park in May 1919, promising “absolutely no ‘rough stuff’ allowed... nothing to offend even the most fastidious” (Gazette).
“I am going to give Kalamazoo a baseball plant the whole community will be proud of.”
—Manager Rube Vickers, Kalamazoo Gazette, 14 March 1920
Stationery Field (c.1920-1925)
After a year of independent play, Stationery Park was slated to become the home of Kalamazoo’s newest state league team, the Celery Pickers. In March, work began in earnest to make the park ready for the home opener in May. Engineers Billingham & Cobb prepared the construction plans and H. L. Vanderhorst was contracted to install the new grandstand, bleachers, and fencing. Renamed Stationery Field, the newly refitted park was 500 feet square with bleachers and grandstand in the southeast portion of the park—batters faced toward the northwest. Grandstand seats were 75¢ for adults, bleacher seats 50¢, and children’s seats in the bleachers were a quarter.
Accessibility was a prime feature of Stationery Field. Unlike the ballparks at Oakwood and Lake Street, the new park was but a short walk from the center of town, and located just blocks from the nearby streetcar lines. Special tracking was added along the east side of the park to accommodate those who would be arriving via the newly opened Grand Rapids-Battle Creek interurban line, and in consideration of the growing number of spectators who would travel to the park by automobile, some five hundred parking spaces were to be provided.
Riverview Park II / Sutherland Field (c.1925-1988)
As the City League continued to grow during the 1920s and 30s, games were moved to a newer more spacious facility south of Michigan Avenue along the banks of the Kalamazoo River in what was then called Riverview Park (today’s Mayors Riverfront Park). Following Sutherland Paper’s championship run during the late 1940s and early 1950s, the field at Riverview Park was renamed Sutherland Park in 1951 to honor Louis W. Sutherland, president and founder of the Sutherland Paper Company, and a strong supporter of local baseball. Lights were added in 1958, but the overall public interest in city league baseball eventually waned, and by the 1980s, the field had fallen into a sad state of disrepair. A last-ditch effort was made in 1985 to revive the park with a $12,000 Kalamazoo Foundation grant, but it was ultimately abandoned after the 1988 season. “The field needs so many improvements,” said one team manager in an April 1989 Gazette interview, “that we can't afford to use it.”
Other Kalamazoo Baseball Fields (Since 1930)
From the late 1920s until the mid-1950s, the popularity of city league baseball in Kalamazoo exploded. Several new baseball facilities came into play during this time; a few are still in use to this day, while others have since succumbed to urban development.
During the early 1930s, the Kalamazoo Vegetable Parchment Company (KVP) built KVP Park (Kindleberger Park) in Parchment where the KVP baseball team saw attendance of more than 8,000 during its heyday. This field was later converted to a Little League and softball complex.
When Milham Park first opened in May 1911, band concerts and family picnics were key attractions. During the 1920s, a popular tourist camp greeted tens of thousands visitors each year, and by the 1930s, a menagerie of peacocks, swans, monkeys, and black bears filled the Milham Park zoo. Also a popular feature at the park during the 1930s was its new baseball diamond.
Hyames Field, known today as Robert J. Bobb Stadium at Western Michigan University, was opened in the spring of 1939 as part of an athletic field renovation project that included the construction of Waldo Stadium. Named for Judson Hyames, who coached baseball at WMU during the 20s and 30s, Hyames Field has seen a wide variety of college and city league play over the years, including a 1948 exhibition matchup between the Sutherland Paper Company team and the Chicago White Sox.
VerSluis Park and Dickinson Field
VerSluis Park appeared on Douglas Avenue in Kalamazoo’s Northside Neighborhood during the 1940s, and neighboring Dickinson Field followed a few years later to its north. Both now make up the VerSluis/Dickinson Softball Complex where city league softball still reigns.
When the Kalamazoo Lassies came to Kalamazoo in 1950, the team’s first home games were held at Lindstrom Field, once located on the west side of Portage Street, just north of the intersection with Lovers Lane. The area is now occupied by local businesses.
Homer Stryker Field (Since 1995)
After sitting largely unused for nearly a decade, Kalamazoo mayor Ed Annen spearheaded an effort to revitalize Sutherland Park during the 1990s with the hope of attracting professional ball back to Kalamazoo. With a $750,000 grant from the Upjohn Foundation, the stadium was rebuilt in 1995 to include new aluminum seating, additional bleacher sections, and a press box above the old grandstand. A year later, the Frontier League’s Mid-Missouri Mavericks moved to Michigan to become the Kalamazoo Kodiaks, marking the local community’s much anticipated return to professional baseball.
As the subsequent home of the Kalamazoo Kings, an additional $3.5 million renovation project in 2001 under the guidance of Kings co-owner and president Bill Wright added a new clubhouse, new office facilities, a new scoreboard, and other improvements. “We have completely redone the infield to exact major league specifications,” said Wright in a 2001 Gazette interview, “You couldn’t find a better infield.” A year later, the Stryker family purchased the naming rights and renamed the field in honor of Dr. Homer Stryker, founder of the Stryker Corporation. Today, Kalamazoo looks forward to new life at the park with the arrival of the Northwoods League and the Kalamazoo Growlers.
Like many of our Local History essays, this article is by no means a definitive study; rather it may be viewed as a work-in-progress. If you have new information, corrections, or items to share, please contact the author or the Local History Room.
Portions of this article were published on the official Kalamazoo Growlers website in 2013.