By Wesley Harris
Occasionally my dad took me out to Ruston’s Fraser Field in Woodland Park to see a baseball game. For a ten-year-old, a Fraser Field trip constituted an adventure.
The sights and sounds still linger in my memory. The aroma of roasted peanuts sold by a tiny one-legged lady we called Miss Birdie. The pistol-shot pow of foul balls pounding the tin roof of the stands. The stands themselves looking like they might collapse at any moment. Weathered planks supported by a framework of rusty pipe.
Dust floated in from the dark parking lot. Clumps of old men talked loudly and smoked cigars. Fascinating but a little scary. Dad’s presence comforted me. Watching real ball players ranked up there with playing ball with Dad in the backyard.
Admission, Cokes, and peanuts cost about three dollars, an extravagant expenditure. After Mom and Dad bought groceries and gas on credit at Goolsby’s Store and settled up on payday, little money remained for leisure activities.
To get to the press box, the announcers climbed a flimsy wooden ladder through a hole cut in the tin roof, then walked with utmost care across boards laid over the tin. Besides the announcers, few ventured up that ladder. No one took the trip unless they had to.
I don’t recall ever knowing what teams were playing or if “we” or “them” won the game.
A variety of leagues played at Fraser Field, sometimes drawing as many as 3,000 fans. There was American Legion ball with the T. L. James Contractors who won a state championship. I now know we watched the Ruston Ramblers, our semi-pro team in the Big Eight League. Along with the earlier Ruston Volunteers, these teams and their opposition from other north Louisiana towns produced many professional players.
From 1922 to 1938, Ruston’s baseball field stood in City Park on what later became the National Guard Armory site on Memorial Drive. The Boys & Girls Club now occupies the old armory. Roy Fraser, Ruston’s “Mr. Baseball,” and Ned Causey moved the wooden grandstand board by board to Woodland Park and reconstructed it. Attendance at ball games improved with the increased parking at the southside park. Around 1942, the grandstand burned down.
Fraser saw to the construction of a new grandstand, the one I sat in for games 25 years later. Steel piping for a sturdier framework was scrouged from area oil fields. While the grandstand looked like an oversized chicken coop, the immaculate field was considered one of the best in Louisiana.
A screen of crinkled chicken wire protected fans from errant balls. It wasn’t pretty but effective. At least until James Rodney Richard pitched. Richard, a Lincoln High and Grambling State alum, who would become one of the big league’s hardest-throwing pitchers, once threw the ball right through the chicken wire into the stands. No one had ever done that. No one ever did it after Richard
When I was in the sixth grade in 1968, my principal stunned me with news that four local guys were playing for the Atlanta Braves. It was the only year George Stone, Ralph Garr, Wayne Causey and Cecil Upshaw played together in Atlanta, but that early hometown pride made me a Braves fan for life. All four would have played games at Fraser Field before moving to the big leagues. I don’t know if I saw any of them play.
With few televised games on the three fuzzy channels we could get in Ruston, it would be in high school before I learned Ralph Garr was African American. He had played on a Ruston team Dad and I never saw at Fraser Field—the Black Sox. Segregation by race applied to the teams playing at Fraser just like the schools and public water fountains and restrooms. The Black Sox sought special permission from the mayor to even play at Fraser Field.
Woodland Park and Fraser Field served as community gathering places. Professional teams like the Boston Braves held open tryouts there. Louisiana Tech occasionally hosted opponents on the field, like the Purdue Boilermakers in 1939. During World War II, military units on the move bivouacked in the park. Enlistees in the Women’s’ Army Corps training at Camp Ruston picnicked there. In the 1950s, Tech used the field as the culmination of an orientation tour through Ruston for incoming freshmen. After the drive, they feasted on locally bottled Coca-Cola and ice cream. In 1969, CBS sent a camera crew and its top sportscaster, Heywood Hale Broun, to Fraser Field to watch J. R. Richard hurl 100-mile per hour fast balls.
Roy Fraser and others like Larry Fox and Walton McBride kept local baseball alive for decades. Coach Eddie McLane ran Ruston’s recreation program, which included Fraser Field, for many years without pay. They saw the value in baseball.
But even something as quintessential as baseball, like all of life, undergoes change. Woodland Park is now Mayfield Park in honor of Elmore Mayfield, a longtime city councilman for the neighborhood. The ball field, now rarely used, remains but the grandstand is gone, knocked down by the city in 1971 due to infrequent use and chronic vandalism. The local semi-pro teams disappeared. Ruston no longer participates in the American Legion league, which once had at least a dozen teams in north Louisiana. Now, Benton is the only one north of I-10.
With TV, video games, and so many other distractions, interest in baseball had waned.
While youth, high school, and college baseball remain healthy, the semi-pro game departed Ruston years ago, no longer one of the principal sources of entertainment in Lincoln Parish.
But memories of a field of dreams remain.