Fenway Park opened its doors on April 9, 1912, and has hosted Boston fans for more than 100 years. Two years and three days later Wrigley Field hosted its first game in Chicago.
While both household-name ballparks have stood the test of time, neither of them can boast the title of the longest continuously used ballpark in America.
Sims-Galle Baseball Field in Mobile, Alabama can.
Located on the campus of Spring Hill College, Sims-Galle Baseball Field has been the home for Badger baseball games since 1889. But the full story of the field goes back further than its first game. And for that, we need Father Viscardi.
Father Christopher Viscardi, a professor and Chair of the Theology Department at Spring Hill, is the “resident historian” of the college. He started working there in January 1979, and while not a huge sports fan himself, he knows a thing or two about the field.
Civil War Beginnings
The first interesting moments involving the field came from the Civil War. There were some troop exercises performed on the field and around campus. Both were occupied for a short period when Mobile fell to federal troops, but once troops left, the field returned to its original use with some souvenirs from the conflict.
“We have discovered at least one or two cannonballs buried in the field area,” Viscardi said. “They are Civil War cannonballs. We don’t know if they came during a battle or during exercises. No one has any record of when they were shot off, but they were buried in that field and were dug up. They’re in a museum now.”
For a while after the war, the field was mixed use.
“It was used for more than just baseball,” Viscardi said. “It was a baseball field, but a portion of it was used for tennis, a portion of it was track. It was kind of a combination field.”
Before students were allowed to travel outside of campus to compete in competition, the field was mainly used for games between groups on campus. Occasionally servicemen, teams from Mobile or other ball clubs would travel to SHC, but most of the competition was within the college.
Big Stars, Bigger Impacts
It wasn’t until 1913 when students were first allowed off campus to play, as long as games didn’t interfere with their studies, Viscardi said. By 1920, SHC was competing in interscholastic competition between other colleges, traveling and hosting league play, ushering a new era for the stadium.
“When that happened, then the field became a dedicated field for baseball,” Viscardi said.
Before adopting a modern class schedule in 1935, Spring Hill relied upon a European system. With a six-year plan for students, the first three years were “like high school” before the final three more college-like years. Students in their first three years were classified in the junior division, and students in their final three years fell in the senior division.
Viscardi said the junior division field played host to one of baseball’s first superstars, Babe Ruth.
“He hit some balls and played some exhibition on the junior field,” Viscardi said. “Now, it’s a large parking lot, but it used to be the field.”
While it might have only been batting practice for Ruth, he wasn’t the only Major Leaguer to grace the field. Viscardi said the Cincinnati Reds stopped in town to play a game on a Sunday in the early 1900s. While that might not seem like a big deal to those of us used to a 1:35 ET first pitch on the sabbath, it was unheard of for those up North.
Viscardi explained that the Puritan influence “looked down upon” and forbade playing games on Sundays in the North. However, in Mobile where there was more of a French Catholic influence, playing Sunday baseball was “just fine.”
So they played ball.
“There were some comments that they were surprised, pleasantly surprised, but surprised that they were able to play on a Sunday,” Viscardi said with a laugh.
Spring Hill’s stadium also has ties to the birth of Cuban Baseball. Brothers Nemesio and Ernesto Guillot attended the college in the 1860s, learning the game and bringing it back to Cuba. The two later founded the country’s first national team.
Retained Character for New Generations
The field has seen few renovations during the years. Fences were moved back and metal bleachers were added. The junior field was replaced with a parking lot.
But one renovation is still part of a campus mystery. An old oak tree used to keep the outfield fence from being regulation size – until someone took matters into their own hands.
“At one point in the early ‘80s, on one weekend – maybe on college break or something – someone destroyed that oak tree,” Viscardi said. “Poured stuff on it, burned it, ran a chain saw around it. They tried to save the tree, but no one ever found out who did it.”
While some speculate it could have been members of the baseball team, no one knows. As a result, the fence was expanded to fill the spot of the tree and helped complete the full field.
For much of its life, the field was simply known as “The Pit.” The field sits in a natural low spot, with the dugouts built into the hill surrounding the field. It held this name until the 1990s, when it was changed to Stan Galle Field, in honor of coach Stan Galle who led the Badgers for 26 years. The name was changed earlier this year to its current name – Sims-Galle Baseball Field, in honor of Coach Frank Sims. Sims is part of the recent history of the field. In his 37 years coaching, he tallied over 1,000 wins.
He retired last season after winning six conference championships. He said the feeling on the field is hard to capture.
“There’s just so much history to that field it just kind of oozes out while you’re there,” Sims said. “One of the things I’d do after practice is sit in the dugout or sit on the wall that we have and kind of take it all in. It’s hard to put one word to it, but it’s a really neat, wonderful baseball field.”
Part of that history comes from the collection of Satchel Paige, Hank Aaron, Billy Williams and other Black players. While SHC was fully integrated by 1954, Black baseball players from Mobile had come to campus to use the facilities before then.
“Those players used to sneak on the field,” Sims said. “They used to come up and play the collegiate team. To think that (these players) played on the field, it’s incredible. It kind of gives you the chills just thinking about it.”
Some of the field’s features haven’t changed. The college’s administration building runs parallel to the first base line, with netting serving as a barrier between the field and building. The brick backstop behind the plate has been there for most, if not all of its life.
Students take part in its history as well. Carrying on a decades old tradition, students sit on top of the metal roof of the dugouts. They fill out the administration building’s verandas and open corridors to get the best view offered. Sims said the layout, with fans eight to ten feet above the field, helps everyone feel close.
The stadium is close, close to the hearts of students and faculty at the school. With over 160 years of history surrounding it, much can be said about the field, but Coach Sims does a pretty good job of summing it up …
“It’s a neat ol’ place.”
Editor’s Note: Spring Hill College is a client of Trestle Collective, which owns and operates Beyond The Trestle. Our team chose to tell this story because, well, we think Sims-Galle Field is one of the coolest ballparks we’ve ever seen.
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