Jacksonville’s historic J.P. Small Park, where officials once denied Jackie Robinson a chance to play but also hosted Negro Leagues ball and where Henry Aaron helped integrate the old South Atlantic League, may be renamed after Aaron.
Aaron was part of the 1953 Jacksonville Braves, which was one of two desegregated teams in the South Atlantic League that season. (The other: the Savannah Indians.) This was not the current Sally League but the precious incarnation of the circuit that became the Southern League. He was not the only person of color on that team: Felix Mantilla and Horace Garner were brought in by Jacksonville owner Sam Wolfson as well. Both Aaron and Mantilla ended up jumping to the big leagues the following season.
The ballpark, previously known as Durkee Field, also played host to the Jacksonville Red Caps of the Negro National League in 1938 and then again in 1941-1942. However, the city fought segregation at Durkee Field, denying Jackie Robinson and his Montreal teammates a chance to take on the International League’s Jersey City Giants, training in Jacksonville, with officials saying local ordinances prohibited white and Black players from participating on the same field. That happened twice; the second time the city simply locked the gates to the ballpark and refused both teams admission.
Durkee Field opened in 1912 and then was rebuilt in 1936 after a fire wiped out much of the facility.
Since the Red Caps/Braves/Royals incidents, the city has undertaken improvements to the ballpark and installed a small museum to highlight the facility’s long history. It was renamed for local high-school baseball coach James P. Small in 1980. The City Council is discussing the issue today; if approved, the facility would be renamed Henry L. Aaron Field at J.P Small Memorial Stadium.
RELATED STORIES: Ballparks That Live On: Former Negro Leagues ballparks; J. P. Small Memorial Stadium to Receive Upgrades