Sticking by an old friend to the end

With the Greensboro Grasshopper’s new season upon us, I thought it would be a good time to revisit an old friend for this fortnight’s N&R column.

With this, I am re-stoking the fires of my blog after an extended, mostly self-imposed, hiatus.  Thanks for your patience.

**********************N&R mast_1_27.jpg

4/13/07

Knowing I was such a strong proponent of keeping minor league baseball at War Memorial Stadium during the 2002 referendum, people often ask me if I ever darken First Horizon Park’s gate to take in a Grasshopper baseball game.  My answer: “Of course�.

You see, I’m an opportunistic pragmatist.  As much as I love, revere, and continue to advocate for Greensboro’s ever-more-decrepit 1926 stadium on Yanceyville Street; the beer, hot dogs, and people moved out of my neighborhood three years ago.  I could have staged a principled one-man boycott when the Bats turned into the Grasshoppers and occupied their new digs, but life is too short for that. 

I couldn’t beat them in 2002 so I joined them as soon as First Horizon opened.  I like the new stadium and gladly support the ‘Hoppers with my money and my words.

However, unlike the vast majority of Greensboro residents, now and again I’ll walk the two blocks from my Aycock Neighborhood house to check up on War Memorial.

What I usually find is that even though the lights might be on for some N.C.A.&T. or Greensboro College game, nobody’s home, save for fifty or so die-hard collegiate baseball fans.

The place has changed since most of you were there last.

Gone are the outfield billboards that marked the cheering point for thousands of home runs over the years.  The twenty-foot high scoreboard, the lights of which have displayed ‘at bat’ names like Jeter and Ripkin, has been replaced with a modest Little League-class scoreboard.  The ‘Grand Stand’, once billed as North Carolina’s largest outdoor sports bar, is still there, rotting in the weather along with the rest of the stadium.  The ticket booths still stand outside the Memorial’s grand entrance but they are superfluous.  Nobody needs a ticket.  Most games are free.  Just walk right in… please.

From my preferred and now-plentiful seating behind the dugout on the third base side, infrequent visits to the old stadium have the same feel as sitting alone with an old, terminally ill friend in an aging, blandly painted nursing home.  Fair-weather friends and family quit showing up some time ago.  The end-of-life stench is just too great.  The memories of the way things used to be are too precious to lose when faced with the bleakness of present-day realities.

Old people are routinely ignored and discarded so why should old stadiums be any different?  Besides, there’s that toddler of a stadium just down Lindsay Street.  All full of life, action, and the promise of creating fresh memories for a new crop of fans, the new ball yard is easy to love and adore.  You can buy a beer and watch fireworks at First Horizon; War Memorial offers barely-working water fountains and the occasional gunshot in its vicinity.

The voters had their say last year on a $5.5M bond to fix the place up.  They were adamant in their collective disinterest in pumping new life into Greensboro’s venerable, citizen-initiated salute to its World War I dead.  So, for now War Memorial’s future is one big question mark subject to the realities of severely limited capital improvement monies from the City’s coffers.

Hopefully the families of casualties from America’s current war are paying close attention to the ultimate fate of War Memorial Stadium.  It will soon be time to memorialize their sons and daughters in some tangible, honorable and permanent way.

But here’s a word of caution: Greensboro can sometimes have trouble grasping the concept of the third adjective above.

This entry was posted in My N&R columns, Preservation. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

4 Comments

  1. mebane
    Posted April 13, 2007 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    No other memorial in the city of Greensboro has every been allowed to degrade as this one has (at least not that I know of). What do you see as a possible future for the stadium?

  2. Wendell Sawyer
    Posted April 13, 2007 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    David:

    I enjoyed reading your column about the War Memorial Stadium. There are many folks in Greensboro who have fond memories that are associated with that old stadium.

    Back in the 1960s, the baseball team that played minor league ball at the stadium was called the “Greensboro Yankees.” At that time, they were a farm team of the great New York Yankees. When I was thirteen-years-old, I got a job selling peanuts and soft drinks in the stands during the games. I was paid a ten-percent commission on concession items that cost ten cents apiece. Since the average attendance for games was around 350 fans, it was hard to make more than a dollar or two per game. That didn’t bother me at all. I was just glad to be there.

    Later on, I got a job as a “ball boy.” The ball boys were hired by the general manager to chase down and retrieve baseballs that bounced out of the stadium whenever a foul ball or homerun was hit. I was paid one dollar per game (two dollars for a double-header). After that, I was hired to maintain the big scoreboard that was located between the outfield billboards. The pay was the same. Back then, there was no fancy electronic scoreboard. The only thing electronic about it was the lights that were used for the strikes and balls. Everything else was done manually. The numbers were painted on metal sheets that were almost as big as I was. Each inning, I had to slide the appropriately numbered sheet into the slots for the inning and, if needed, change the numbers for runs, hits and/or errors.

    Eventually, I was hired to be the batboy for the visiting teams whenever they didn’t bring along their own batboys. I had to buy my own uniform and the pay of one dollar per game was still the salary. The visiting teams had names like the Wilson Tobs, the Burlington Indians, the Durham Bulls, the Raleigh Caps, the Rocky Mount Eagles and the Winston-Salem Red Sox. Tom Cathy, a sports writer for the old Greensboro Daily News, was the announcer for the games.

    I loved baseball; so the low pay wasn’t an issue. I would have worked for free just to be a part of it all. And, that old stadium was just part of the magic. I loved the place.

    I was hoping that the city would renovate the stadium and that it would be used for the new baseball team. Unfortunately, the city’s movers and shakers didn’t see it that way. They saw the old stadium as impeding the progressive image of the city. So, they placed tremendous effort in building a brand new stadium as they abandoned the old War Memorial Stadium to deteriorate and decay. The new stadium is okay, but it is a sterile place. The old stadium has character and historical significance. The city should preserve this old palace; it’s part of our community.

    Unfortunately, I don’t expect any movement from the movers and shakers to save War Memorial Stadium. Instead, I expect them to begin claiming that the stadium is an eyesore and urging the demolition of the old structure. Unlike the leaders in other cities, the folks who run this city have never had much use for old buildings that had great historical significance. I remember when urban renewal projects resulted in the destruction of two such great structures: the O’Henry Hotel and the King Cotton Hotel. I hope that we can change this mindset before it’s too late for the War Memorial Stadium.

  3. dhoggard
    Posted April 14, 2007 at 7:18 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the memories, Wendell. And to Mebane’s question….

    As far as I can see, and unless some drastic changes occur among present or future Council members, WMS has bulldozers in its future.

    The city neglected the place for too long so it will likely be deemed unsalvageable in the not too distant future. The only thing that might be left standing is the triple arched entrance.

    This – hopefully erroneous – fate is exactly what WMS’s propnents were warning of in 2002. However, we were labeled as naysayers and the voters were given assurances by Greensboro’s ‘great white fathers’ that went along the lines of “nobody is talking about tearing it down”.

    Where is Action Greensboro, the Bryan Foundation, the City Manager’s office, Dick Grubar’s PAC and the others now that even WMS’s staunchest supporters are admitting that the bulldozers are getting gassed up and ready to roll?

  4. Posted April 15, 2007 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    What has happened to the plans to create a park-like setting with a smaller stadium? It would be great if the city would expand the tennis facilities at WMS.

    Is NC A&T a potential buyer/caretaker?