Stadium Sites Recall Glory Days Of Black Baseball

POSTMARK: BALTIMORE'S NEGRO LEAGUE BALLPARKS

July 24, 1994|By WAYNE HARDIN

There still might be a ballpark down there.

Beneath the tons of dirt and landfill that rise up into a great flat hill off Old Annapolis Road once sat Westport Stadium, a baseball park where Negro League teams played.

"The concrete and bleacher foundations are under all that dirt," Robert V. Leffler Jr. says of Westport Stadium. Mr. Leffler, who runs a sports marketing agency, studied Negro League baseball in Baltimore for his master's thesis at Morgan State University.

"Westport was concrete in a natural earthen bowl," he says. "The stadium was just buried instead of knocked down."

Westport, built in 1950, and the long-gone Bugle Field across town near Edison Highway are the two parks last identified with Negro League baseball in Baltimore.

If Westport is the Lost Ballpark of Baltimore awaiting a great archeological uncovering, Bugle Field, built around 1910, exists only in memory. The wooden grandstands and the fences that bordered the spacious outfield were demolished in 1949, after the land was sold to Lord Baltimore Press. Rockland Industries Inc. now occupies the site, on the commercial side of Edison Highway at Federal Street.

Westport Stadium was built to replace Bugle Field. Bert Simmons, of Columbia, used to play at Westport. On a windy, cool morning, the 69-year-old Mr. Simmons stands in the parking lot behind the Super Fresh grocery store headquarters looking over at the landfill that once was a ballpark. He talks about his first season there -- 1950 -- as a knuckleball-throwing relief

pitcher with the Baltimore Elite Giants, and two more seasons with the semi-pro Yokely Stars.

"I remember how the dust blew through the infield and that you could see Cherry Hill beyond the fence," says Mr. Simmons, who retired from the city school system and now operates a custom sportswear business.

"I wasn't a highly paid player for the Elites. I was just happy to be on a team; I was 26 when I came here and I wanted to play baseball."

Richard D. Powell was the same age in the mid-1930s when he launched a successful campaign to return Negro League baseball to Baltimore. It had been absent since the Black Sox folded during the Depression. Nashville's Elite Giants became Baltimore's team in 1938 and Mr. Powell eventually became the Elites' general manager.

Mr. Powell, now 82, has no good words for Westport Stadium, where the Elite Giants played after Bugle Field was shut down. (The team spent its last full year at Westport in 1950; in 1951 it played mostly on the road and then moved back to Nashville.)

"It was a terrible field in every respect," he says. "I can't think of words to say how bad it was. It only looked like a baseball diamond." (According to one source, the stadium was hastily constructed.)

But he has pleasant feelings for Bugle Field, the first and main home for the Elite Giants. In the ballpark's last year, Mr. Powell's team featured future Major Leaguers Joe Black, a pitcher, and Jim Gilliam, an infielder, and won the Negro American League pennant. "Bugle was an excellent place to play. I never had a complaint about the diamond."

Bugle, where the Black Sox also had played, seated about 6,000 people (1,000 more than Westport), but "we could squeeze in 7,000," Mr. Powell says.

Leon Day, a pitching star whose professional career began in 1934 with the Black Sox, also played for the 1949 Elite Giants.

"I spent most of my time in the Negro Leagues with Newark," says Mr. Day, 77, of West Baltimore. "I loved to come here with the [Newark] Eagles. Bugle was a nice park; the crowds always were good."

Mr. Day got to play the 1934 season, his first, in a Baltimore field that's been gone even longer than Westport and Bugle -- Maryland Baseball Park, at Bush and Russell streets. The ballpark is identified with the earlier era of black baseball here. Built in 1918, it was torn down in 1934 after the Black Sox folded.

"It had a good field, was fairly spacious and had the typical ramshackle wooden stands you'd find in the minor league parks of the day," Mr. Powell says.

Few around today remember this park and those with first-hand knowledge of Bugle Field and Westport Stadium are seniors. Westport Stadium, better known later for its one-fifth mile auto track, survived into the 1980s before being buried under the landfill, says Mr. Leffler.

The auto-racing track was built inside the stadium in 1951 and such events as rodeos and wild-animal races were held there in addition to baseball and softball games. For a time, it was the home of the Baltimore Broncos, a minor league football team.

Today, in a time when Major League baseball worries about its declining appeal to blacks, Negro League baseball, born out of segregation, still is remembered fondly by many.

As Bert Simmons drives his van back down Old Annapolis Road away from the landfill, he passes Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the palace of modern-day baseball.

"I've been asked if I'm bitter about the color line," says Mr. Simmons. "But that wasn't a problem with me. My great ambition growing up was to play in Negro League baseball and I did."

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.