What’s in a name? In the modern world of ballparks and the profitable practice of selling naming rights, the answer, from a nostalgic point of view, is not much.
But for every O.co Coliseum and Petco Park, there are still ballpark names that stir both the heart and the memory bank. Particularly in Minor Leagues, the ballpark landscape is dotted with examples of former players, managers and owners forever memorialized as lending their names to the edifice. Some are well-known and others probably should be. With baseball season just about upon us, we found five examples of ballpark namesakes with famous and interesting backstories.
RAY FISHER STADIUM
It might not be the Big House, but Michigan’s Ray Fisher Stadium is every bit as iconic a college ballpark. Home to the Michigan Wolverines since 1923, the ballpark is named for legendary Michigan baseball coach Ray Fisher, who during his 38 seasons at the helm led the Wolverines to 15 Big Ten titles and the College World Series championship in 1953.
In 1970, twelve years after Fisher’s retirement from coaching, the ballpark was named in his honor. But as far as Major League Baseball was concerned, it would be another 10 years before Fisher’s good name was redeemed.
Fisher had been a successful Major League pitcher before his coaching days, playing for the New York Yankees from 1910-17, before being sold to the Cincinnati Reds before the 1918 season. He was a key contributor to the 1919 World Series champions against the “Black Sox,” winning 14 games during the regular season. But just as the Black Sox scandal was borne from poor player-owner relations, so too did Fisher run afoul of Reds president August Herrmann over a contract dispute entering the 1920 season.
After accepting a contract for 1920 and signing a one-year deal for 1921, again under dispute over salary, Fisher abruptly accepted the head coaching position with Michigan – having been recommended by former Michigan coach Branch Rickey – and informed the Reds that he was retiring as a player, but would be willing to rejoin the club after the college season ended in June.
At first, Herrmann agreed, but quickly changed his mind, placing Fisher on the Reds’ ineligible list, citing a clause that required players to give teams 10-days’ notice before leaving. Fisher had only provided the Reds seven days’ notice, and that was the hammer Herrmann used to ban Fisher. The ruling was then upheld by new commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, and Fisher’s playing career was over.
It was not until 1980 that Fisher was re-instated by commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Shortly before his death at age 95 in 1982, Fisher was invited to Yankee Stadium for Old-Timers Day, where the original Yankee received two standing ovations. A once-sidetracked career was finally and fully recognized and celebrated.
For anyone who watched the movie 42, about Jackie Robinson and his breaking of baseball’s color barrier in 1947, the baseball scenes evoked either a memory or an imagination of watching games at historic Ebbetts Field. However, what moviegoers were seeing in those baseball scenes was actually another ballpark, the equally iconic Engel Stadium.
Home of the Chattanooga Lookouts (Class AA; Southern League) from 1930 until 1999, Engel Stadium was considered one of the premier parks in the minors, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009. Some would say the man for whom the ballpark is named was also a historic treasure.
Joe Engel was always a baseball man, pitching the majority of his eight-year career from 1912-20 for the Washington Senators. He later became a scout for Senators owner Clark Griffith, signing such players as Joe Cronin, Bucky Harris and Doc Prothro.
In 1929, Griffith sent Engel to Chattanooga to take over the Lookouts franchise. Among his first duties was to build a new 12,000-seat ballpark for $150,000, which he named after himself. Engel would earn a reputation as a P.T. Barnum-style owner, who never met an outlandish promotion he didn’t like.
In 1936, he raffled off a house to a lucky fan. According to legend, the stadium became so crowded that many fans took seats in the outfield, prompting Engel to freeze the game balls, so that they would not carry and literally get lost in the crowd.
One opening day, he had his players enter the ballpark in elephant suits, chased by would-be hunters. And there was the time when the Yankees came for an exhibition game, and Engel trotted out an 18-year-old girl named Jackie Mitchell – the Mone Davis of her time apparently, as she reportedly struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
But Engel’s wild imagination was matched by a big heart. In 1930, before the ballpark officially opened, he welcomed in 11,000 Chattanooga residents, suffering through the Great Depression, for free meals, and used the park as a giant Santa’s factory, supplying 7,500 children with baseball-themed games for Christmas, practices he continued for two more years.
FOUR WINDS FIELD AT COVELESKI STADIUM
The current home of the South Bend Cubs (Low A; Midwest League) is called Four Winds Field. But to anyone who knows their baseball in the Midwest, the cherished ballpark is simply known as “The Cove.”
The full name of the facility is Four Winds Field at Coveleski Stadium, and is named for one of South Bend’s favorite residents, Hall of Famer Stanley Coveleski.
The ballpark opened in 1987 and was named for the former spitballer in the 1910s and ‘20s, primarily for the Cleveland Indians. Coveleski won 215 games during his career and was a key member of Cleveland’s 1920 World Series champions, winning three complete games in the victory over Brooklyn. His wins total remains tied for a single World Series record.
Coveleski was probably best known as one of baseball’s last spitball pitchers. The spitball was banned by baseball before the 1920 season, but active spitballers like Coveleski were grandfathered into the new era.
It was during that 1920 season that Coveleski started and defeated the New York Yankees on Aug. 16. But that game would go down in baseball infamy as the day when Indians shortstop Ray Chapman died after being hit by a pitch from Carl Mays.
After his retirement in 1927, Coveleski moved to South Bend, where he ran a gas station for a brief time before closing it because of the Great Depression. But he remained a fixture of the South Bend community until his death in 1984. Three years later, the ballpark bearing his name opened.
YOGI BERRA STADIUM
There are few more colorful players in Major League history than Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, who became universally known as much for his malapropisms as his play on the field.
It was only fitting that a ballpark roughly in the shadow of old Yankee Stadium, located in Little Falls, N.J., would carry the name of the Yankees legend. Yogi Berra Stadium, located on the campus of Montclair State University, opened in 1998 and has hosted teams in the Northern and Northeast Leagues and presently, the New Jersey Jackals (independent; Can-Am League). Berra lived in Montclair during his playing and managerial careers with the Mets and Yankees.
But as the man himself would say, you can observe a lot about Yogi Berra Stadium by just watching. In honor of its namesake, the dimensions of the outfield all end in Berra’s classic number 8 – 308 in the corners and 398 to straightaway center.
As well as the ballpark, the site at Montclair State also includes the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center, which celebrates Berra’s life and playing career. Opened in conjunction with the ballpark in 1998, the museum was the backdrop for a pivotal moment in Berra’s life.
After being fired as Yankees manager barely three weeks into the 1985 season by tempestuous owner George Steinbrenner, Berra severed all ties with the organization, starting a feud that lasted over 13 years. It wasn’t until January, 1999, at a public event at the newly-opened museum, that Berra and the Steinbrenners finally reconciled and Berra re-joined the Yankees family.
SAL MAGLIE STADIUM
Sal “The Barber” Maglie won a modest 119 games over 10 seasons as a pitcher, yet his career was one of the most unique in the history of the game. Nicknamed “The Barber” for his expert ability to pitch inside – he later became the mentor for Dodgers legend and brushback master Don Drysdale – Maglie is the only pitcher to play for all three New York teams: The Giants, Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers.
That was good enough to get a ballpark named for him. Sal Maglie Stadium resides in Niagara Falls, NY, and is currently the home of the Niagara University Purple Eagles. Maglie, who died in 1992, played for Niagara before his Major League career, and the ballpark was re-named in his honor in 1983. Throughout the 1970’s, ’80s, and ’90s, Sal Maglie Stadium hosted a variety of Minor League teams, including the Niagara Falls Pirates (Short Season A; NY-Penn League), for whom Maglie himself served as general manager.
Maglie was also among the few players to be banned from Major League Baseball and reinstated during his playing career. After debuting with the Giants in 1945, Maglie signed with the Mexican League, resulting in a ban by commissioner Happy Chandler until 1949.
When Maglie returned to the game in 1950, he became a central figure in a decade dominated by the New York teams. He started two of the most famous games in major league history, though he went 0-1 with a no-decision in those contests.
In ’51, Maglie started the iconic playoff game for the New York Giants against the Brooklyn Dodgers, after the Giants had erased a double-digit deficit to Brooklyn in the standings with a furious final six weeks, then split the first two games of a three-game playoff.
Maglie left the pivotal Game 3 trailing 4-1 in the eighth. But the Giants got a run back to make it 4-2, then Bobby Thomson hit perhaps the greatest walk-off homer in baseball history with a three-run shot off Ralph Branca for a 5-4 win, as Giants announcer Russ Hodges cried out, “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the Pennant!”
Maglie was with the Dodgers in 1956, when he took the mound for Game 5 of the World Series against the Yankees. Maglie was good that day, allowing just two runs. But his opponent on the mound, Don Larsen, was just a bit better.
Larsen became the only pitcher to throw a perfect game in the World Series, despite Maglie’s best attempt to break it up. Not known for his hitting prowess, Maglie somehow sent a line drive toward the gap in center field in the third inning. But Mickey Mantle, still somewhat fleet of foot despite mounting injuries, tracked the liner down for the only difficult out of Larsen’s day.
Photos: Ray Fisher Stadium courtesy of University of Michigan, Four Winds Field Courtesy of MiLB, Yogi Berra Stadium courtesy of Yogi Berra Stadium on Facebook, Sal Maglie Stadium courtesy of Niagara University.