Photo | Shane Rice
Despite years of hosting minor league baseball and some major league exhibition games, Mobile’s Hartwell Field met its fate in the early 1980s. It was torn down and its history lost to make way for a jail that never came.
If that scenario sounds familiar, it’s because the future of city-owned Hank Aaron Stadium is very much still up in the air after hosting Southern League baseball for more than 20 years.
NAI Mobile Principal John Peebles was on the city’s Board of Adjustment when the decision to bring down Hartwell Field was made.
“I thought it was horrible,” Peebles said of the decision to tear the historic stadium down. “I thought it was a waste.”
In contrast, Peebles doesn’t feel the same nostalgia for the stadium near the intersection of interstates 10 and 65, despite also attending games there.
“I didn’t get the warm and fuzzy feeling there,” he said.
Vincent George, a Mobile native and Fairhope resident, said he remembers attending events at Hartwell Field even after the Mobile Bears baseball team left town. In addition to the occasional men’s fastpitch softball match, George and his family attended an Oakland Athletics’ exhibition game at the stadium on the corner of Ann and Virginia streets.
“The A’s came to town when I was 10 years old,” George said. “It was fun. We chased foul balls and did all of that kind of stuff.”
In addition to the A’s, a number of Major League Baseball teams played in Mobile going back as far as the 1920s, George said. Teams like the Pirates, Reds and Yankees would play exhibition games while on the way back from spring training in Florida, he said.
“The Mobile Bears beat the Pirates in a game once,” George said.
Like Peebles, George admits he didn’t attend BayBears games regularly; however, when he did go, he was disappointed by the crowd size.
Peebles believes the cost to attend a minor league game, as well as the stadium’s location, may have driven some early fans away and ultimately hurt attendance.
Lease and location issues
For one, Peebles takes issue with the way the city entered into a ground lease in 1996, saying the stadium was “tailor-made for one client.”
The lease between the city and McGowin Properties does specify that only a Double-A baseball stadium can be built on the lot, unless the city is given written permission from the landlord to do other things. The lease, from April of 1996, included the construction of an ice skating rink, but that provision was deleted via an amendment in September of that year, according to documents obtained by Lagniappe.
While the city continues to grapple with what to do with the stadium it owns, it might not be their decision. Councilman John Williams pointed to an area in the lease that gives control to the landlord after two years without baseball.
“My position is until the mayor proceeds with a plan, we have an obligation to the land-use agreement,” Wiliams said. “We were fortunate to have a Double-A team for a number of years.”
Like Peebles, Williams said the home of Hank Aaron and Satchel Paige apparently lost its taste for minor league baseball after 22 years.
“It’s a different time,” Williams said. “Mobile didn’t support the BayBears as much as I would’ve liked. I’m not blaming anybody.”
The 99-year lease is in effect unless the stadium no longer holds a Double-A team or equivalent, or if the city no longer holds events there for a period of two years. If that happens, McGowin Properties, under the direction of Joe Little III, can request the stadium be demolished, according to the lease.
Despite this clause, the city and McGowin agreed that after the 49 years, use of the premises must include a facility that can host a professional or semi-professional team affiliated with any of the major sports, including tennis. The affiliated team must be “equivalent to” a Double-A baseball team, or one of greater status.
Looking back it’s easy to judge a ground lease that could cause the city to lose control of an asset, but former Mayor Mike Dow, who helmed the city at the time the agreement was approved, said it was a win-win at the time.
“It was a good deal for them and a good deal for us,” Dow said of the agreement. “I did my job. I brought it here.”
Also at issue for the city’s plans is that the team’s owners still have a lease agreement with the city, at least for now. Ralph Nelson, owner of the team now based in Madison and known as the Rocket City Trash Pandas, wrote in an email about “ongoing conversations” on the topic, but he was not able to elaborate by press time.
Peebles believed from the beginning the new stadium should’ve been placed downtown. He admits though that the timing wasn’t right. Looking at the success of downtown stadia in other Southern League cities like Pensacola makes it clear now, he said.
Dow agreed, saying there was a push to put the stadium downtown initially before changing course.
The stadium was going to be placed in James Seals Park initially, Dow said, before nearby residents complained about parking and noise issues.
“If it was downtown I think it would be more of an entertainment venue,” Dow said.
The city has put more than $500,000 into the stadium since 2015. That year both Major League Baseball and the Arizona Diamondbacks requested improvements to drainage and lighting for the safety of prospects.
The city has also improved the stadium’s audio equipment and has replaced a number of seats. The BayBears have most recently been up-to-date on quarterly rent payments, even as game attendance has fallen.
For the 2019 farewell season, the BayBears were last in the league in total attendance at 95,087. For comparison, the Birmingham Barons drew 379,707 fans this season, tops in the Southern League.
The BayBears also had the fewest number of home games at 60, due to rainouts. While the Barons, with 70 openings, had an average attendance of 5,424 fans, the BayBears only averaged 1,585. Nearby teams, like the Pensacola Blue Wahoos and the Biloxi Shuckers, did significantly better in attendance this season than the BayBears. Penscola averaged 4,354 fans per game, which was third in the league and Biloxi averaged 2,482 fans per game.
Photo | Shane Rice
Hank Aaron’s childhood home, which was moved from Toulminville to the stadium grounds is pictured behind lock and key. The city has said it wants to preserve the house regardless of what becomes of the stadium.
Mobile isn’t the first Alabama city to deal with the loss of a Southern League team. Both Huntsville and Hoover have recently dealt with teams leaving stadiums behind. While representatives from Huntsville could not be reached, Hoover’s events manager, Erin Colbaugh, said the city has made the best of it after losing the Birmingham Barons to a downtown stadium.
Among the events hosted at the Hoover Metropolitan Complex each year is the SEC Baseball Tournament, Hoover High School football and a high school baseball tournament held during spring break. The total number of events varies by year, Colbaugh said.
Three years ago, the city expanded the complex with the Finley Center to allow for indoor sporting events, as well as additional baseball and tennis courts.
“In the last three years we’ve increased the events,” she said.
For Hoover, the absence of professional baseball actually opened up “flexibility” in the stadium’s schedule.
Without a professional baseball presence, Hank Aaron Stadium could become more available to host special events, Mobile Sports Authority Executive Director Danny Corte said.
The stadium has already hosted the Babe Ruth World Series and the University of Alabama baseball team, he said. There could be more options out there that could generate money for the city.
“There are a lot of things we could do that would have a better economic impact than the BayBears,” Corte said.
However, Corte said the organization is in a holding pattern until the contract issues are cleared up.
It’s unclear how Mobile will proceed in dealing with the Baybears departure, but city-owned Ladd-Peebles Stadium already hosts a number of local high school football teams. Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s office doesn’t yet have a clear vision on what to do either, as officials are waiting for the Trash Pandas’ ownership to formally notify them they’re no longer using the stadium.
Initially, Stimpson’s office seemed confident a deal with another baseball team could be struck, but more recent comments seem to suggest the mayor has changed his mind. Jen Zoghby, a city spokesperson, confirmed the city has heard from “numerous” developers about possibly redeveloping the site.
Redeveloping the site, or tearing down the stadium, would leave questions concerning what to do with the childhood home of Hank Aaron, which was moved from the Toulminville neighborhood to the stadium’s grounds.
Zoghby called Aaron a “legend” and said the city was honored “to have his house” and museum.
“That’s in conversations,” she said. “There’s a lot of possibilities. We’re going to make it a priority.”
As for what might happen to the stadium affectionately known as “The Hank,” George hopes it can be saved.
“I thought it was a great stadium,” he said. “I would hope they could turn it into a great high school venue. I’d hate to see it be torn down.”
Dow and Peebles believe the stadium will be demolished, with Dow adding the space will eventually be used for retail.
Democratic State Rep. Sam Jones, who served two terms as mayor of Mobile, said he is disappointed by the BayBears decision to leave and hopes the stands can once again be filled.
“A lot has been put into that stadium. I’d hate to see it sit there empty,” he said. “Mobile was one of the towns that got Alabama started in minor league baseball.”
When the 72-year-old was growing up in Mobile it was a “baseball town,” he said. He’d like Mobile to stay that way.
“I would really love to see us do something to keep the stadium viable,” Jones said. “I hope there are efforts going on to do that. I hope we can get a team for that stadium.”
As for Hank Aaron’s childhood home, Jones thinks it should be moved somewhere permanently in order to remain a museum.
Jones remembers playing high school football at Hartwell Field, but said the stadium had fallen into disrepair by the time it was torn down in the 1980s. As for the plans for the jail, Jones said gravesites were discovered on the site and it’s now used as the city’s impound lot and a grazing field for police horses.
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