One of the oldest ballparks in North America still in use in affiliated ball (it opened in 1932), Cooper has added a few modern amenities like rooftop suites, a picnic area and some between-inning activities. But the main gist of a visit here is to experience old-time baseball in an old-time setting with old-time values. It is not hard to sit down, close your eyes and envision Nick Cullop hitting one of his 22 triples in 1933, Harry Brecheen sneaking strike three past an unsuspecting hitter or Willie Stargell flogging a shot into Dysart Park behind the right fence. Editor’s note: This story dates from the final season pro baseball was played at Cooper Stadium.
Year Opened: 1932
Owner: Franklin County, Ohio
Dimensions: 355L, 385LC, 400C, 365RC, 330R
Original Cost: $450,000
Playing Surface: Grass
League: International League
Parent: Washington Nationals
Address/Directions: 1155 W. Mound St., Columbus, OH 43223-2298. Directions from the north: take I-71 S or ST. RT. 315 S to I-70 W. Take I-70 W to exit 98 B (Mound St.). Go straight at the light to enter our main driveway, Driveway #1, or turn left to enter Driveway #2 or Driveway #3. Directions from the south: take I-71 N to I-70 W. Take I-70 W to exit 98 B (Mound St.). Go straight at the light to enter our main driveway, Driveway #1, or turn left to enter Driveway #2 or Driveway #3.
Written by: Dave Wright
Photos by: Jim Robins
Cooper Stadium closed a long run as home to the Clippers in September 2008. The team will play 2009 and beyond at a new downtown ballpark. This is our 2007 visit to the ballpark.
The first thing I noticed when I entered Cooper Stadium was the old-fashioned telephone at the main desk. It was a large red rotary-dial phone, the type you tell the kids about. If the woman running the desk had an ear piece and a microphone attached to it, you might have thought you had driven to the wrong place and you were really at League Park in Cleveland in 1948. All that would be missing was finding out whether Bob Feller was pitching that day.
It’s a very appropriate way to begin because going to a game at Cooper Stadium is like stepping into a time machine. One of the oldest ballparks in North America still in use in affiliated ball (it opened in 1932), Cooper has added a few modern amenities like rooftop suites, a picnic area and some between-inning activities. But the main gist of a visit here is to experience old-time baseball in an old-time setting with old-time values. It is not hard to sit down, close your eyes and envision Nick Cullop hitting one of his 22 triples in 1933, Harry Brecheen sneaking strike three past an unsuspecting hitter or Willie Stargell flogging a shot into Dysart Park behind the right fence. Listen closely and you might hear Jack Buck, who began his Hall of Fame career as the team’s broadcaster in 1950, call the game in his wry, humorous fashion.
A mural outside the ballpark lists the two previous names of the ballpark — Red Bird Stadium and Jet Stadium — and previews the new ballpark.
They have been playing minor-league baseball basically nonstop in Columbus since 1876. Over the years, the city has served as farm team to the Reds (when they were known as the Redlegs), the Cardinals, Athletics, Pirates and Yankees before joining hands with Washington in 2007. The list of legendary names that have played either for against the locals could fill up its own wing of the Hall of Fame. Walking underneath the grandstand gives you a sense of recent success when you see Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada — current New York Yankee mainstays — perfected their game at Cooper.
Displays throughout the concourse highlight Clippers teams of the past; this one shows the 1977 team, when the International League came back to Columbus.
Those names … and many others who have had (or will have) significant major-league careers adorn the hallway banners underneath and inside the ballprk. The fact that the Clippers have added such lesser known players as Andy Stankiewicz (who had four different tours here between 1988-2000) and Dave Pawlus to banners is a reminder this still is the minor leagues.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The Clippers have made a concerted effort to keep things as neat as possible. The ballpark (and the team) is owned by Franklin County. “The city used to own the stadium,” said Joe Santry, the team’s Media Relations Director who has been around the Columbus baseball scene since 1965. “But when the Jets left after the 1970 season, it just sat here for six years. When the county saw an opportunity to get back into minor-league baseball, they jumped at the chance to run the place. They had to spend a lot of money, though, because they installed turf and put in the roof boxes. They have done the upkeep over the years but it is getting hard to keep things up-to-date now. I am told the estimated costs to repair the place would be $44 million.”
Like Tiger Stadium in Detroit, a cure wasn’t fiscally possible or practical. So a new ballpark, scheduled to be built without raising taxes (Huntington Bank and Nationwide Realty, two of the city’s main businesses, are in for large amounts) will be going up near the NHL arena downtown.
In the Meantime…
Prior to the game, you walk around the park and discover a five-hole miniature golf course.
You head into a large souvenir shop and get dizzying choices of items to wear. I spent $20 for a sweatshirt that was the perfect tonic for a chilly (45 degrees) night. There were some nifty collectibles, too, ranging from tattoos ($1) to stuffed animals ($10).
You discover some very good bargains at the concession stands. It was dime-a-dog night with a limit of five to a customer. But the customer could come back as many times as desired. As one might suspect, this is very big with the college and the under-10 crowd. “This is dinner for two nights,” said one college-age lad. Need to wash that dog down? You won’t find many parks left that sell a 16-ounce beer for $4.25.
Old-fashioned courtesy was everywhere. Vendors actually said “thank you” when given a tip for good service. Those sitting in the box seats get a courtesy that used to be common in pro baseball — ushers wiping down their seats for them before sitting down. A fan with a haircut that would have made Oscar Gamble proud actually moved over a couple seats because he was blocking the vision of an elderly gentleman sitting behind him.
The majority of the seats here are reserved in a one large grandstand a la Fenway Park. With few exceptions, most offer an unobstructed view. (There are a couple of posts that hold up the roof suites and press box. Santry said he has never heard a complaint from a fan that he couldn’t see what is going on.) The Clippers have been in the upper tier of the International League attendance figures for the past several years. (They averaged 7,520 per date in 2006.) The roof suites offer a view of downtown Columbus and the ballpark’s quiet neighbor, Mount Calvary Cemetery that lies beyond the left-center-field fence. Several of those suites were in use the night of our visit.
But the Clippers made their name years ago as a meat-and-potatoes outfit. As a result, the majority of the folks — hardcore baseball fans – sit behind first and third base. When the game goes bad (as it did that night when the first nine Buffalo players to bat in the game reached base; it was 12-0 after an inning and a half and 17-1 at the finish.), fans and workers alike start remembering the ballpark’s glorious history.
Franklin Roosevelt kicked off his first presidential campaign at Cooper on August 20, 1932. At the time, the place was known as Red Bird Stadium (it was a Cardinals’ farm club.) In 1955, it was renamed Jet Stadium and Cy Young, a native Ohioan, tossed out the first pitch. (It also might have been his last trip to the mound. Young, who was 88 years old at the time, passed away later that year.) Santry, who is a font of historical knowledge, directed a visitor’s gaze beyond the outfield fence. “When this was a Cardinals farm team, the fences were a lot farther back,” he said, pointing to a brick wall well beyond the left field wall and Dysart Park, who has several plaques honoring former Columbus players and administrators, in right. “Rickey had two ideas here. He could sell a pitcher to another team by pointing out how few home runs he gave up and he was developing outfielders who could really run.” Lore has it Josh Gibson was the only player who ever hit a ball over the old left-field fence.
It is stories like these — and others told to me by ushers and fans — that helps pass the time between innings. (An usher told me proudly how he never leaves his post. This resolve was tested during an 18-inning game in 1997. “I made it but barely,” he conceded. “If the game had gone another inning, I might have had to go quickly.”)
The Clippers do a few between-innings promotions, such as rolling dice from the press box down the screen behind home plate, and the like. But one gets the impression this is being done mainly to appease anxious advertisers (perhaps the folks in the suites) and the few in the crowd who didn’t come to eat, drink, buy a T-shirt and watch baseball.
One of the most notable shortcomings at Cooper are occasional low beams located directly between picnic area and the concourse.
In recent years, this has been easy to do. During their time with the Yankees, the parent club sent a lot of prospects there (seven titles and 16 winning seasons in the past 20 years). The ownership has stayed stable (the county isn’t going anywhere) and several key employees have been here longer than is usually the case at minor league teams. (GM Ken Schnacke has been in Columbus since 1990. Santry dates back to the time when Steve Blass was the ace of the staff.) As a result, you know in advance what you’re going to get when you come to a game at Cooper.
The new partnership with the Nationals seem to be changing things a bit. Pitchers are batting in games again. The Nats’ prospects are…well…not like the future Yankees. Indeed, there is talk that once the new park is built, Columbus might be looking for a new major-league partner. How all this will sit in a city that reveres old institutions will be one of the riveting things to watch in the next two seasons.
For now, however, going to game at Cooper Stadium is a visit to the game of the baby boomers’ youth. It is a simple park meant to fill simple needs. For now, this seems to suit the locals just fine.