November 28, 2012 | 8 Comments
Editor’s note: Please welcome Dave England to the site. Dave is a longtime friend of BPP and contributed to my project for a Hall of Fame Inner Circle.
To my infant son everything is new: shapes, colors, sizes, the garden in the front yard with tomatoes growing on the vine, the ballpark seats flanked on either side of him as he takes in the sounds and smells.
I imagine this is what it was like when Elvis Presley stopped in Gainesville, Texas on April 14, 1955 and played in front of about 150 fans at Locke Field. The little town had not yet caught up to the phenomena that would be dubbed “The King of Rock and Roll.” But then again Elvis was not the King quite yet. He had just released his fourth single, “Baby let’s Play House/ I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s gone,” on April 10th. Rolling through Texas he was playing hayrides, high schools and ballparks. Later that summer things would explode for him.
Locke Field opened in 1946, was home to the Gainesville Owls and is one of the last baseball fields in Texas with wooden dugouts and covered wooden stands. It opened in a time when fans would dress up: female spectators decked out in hats, gloves and dresses; men in suits and top hats. It was an era of baseball that when a player homered, fans would put a dollar bill through the chicken wire fence for him. Locke Field operated as a Class D ballpark, a level of the Minor Leagues that no longer exists. Class D was the absolute bottom of the ladder and was wiped away in 1963 by television in an era before minor league baseball boomed again. The Society of American Baseball Research has identified Locke Field as one of the last Class D ballparks in existence.
The Gainesville Owls were a Class B Big State League [1947-1951] and a Sooner State League [1953-1955] baseball team, making Gainesville the smallest city in the nation with a Class B baseball team. Money was tight. Management provided uniforms but the players had to furnish equipment such as gloves and spikes. At the end of the first season the City of Gainesville purchased the team and Dr. W. Herbert Locke, for whom the field was named, became club president. In 1951 under manager Hal Van Pelt the team won the Big State League championship when players like Jodie Beeler [2B, 3B, 1944 Reds], Jim Kirby [PH/PR, 1949 Cubs] and Jackie Sullivan [2B, 1944 Tigers] who had previous cups of coffee in the majors helped bring it home to Gainesville. Other players who had stints in the majors who played at Owl Field included: Gibby Brack, Lonnie Goldstein, Hank Gornicki, Ed Cole, Hooks Iott, Earl Reid, Jesse Landrum, Eddie Carnett, John Buzhardt and Eddie Haas.
From 1953-1955 the team was affiliated with the Chicago Cubs. The team struggled for several years and poor finances and poor showings took their toll. In 1955 the team moved to Ponca City, Oklahoma and became the Ponca City Cubs.
Since then the stadium has, at various times, played home to the North Texas Central Texas College and Gainesville High baseball teams. The stadium is engraved into the history of the city nearly as deep as the courthouse and train depot. But now that the college has built a national powerhouse, they have their own facility in Darwin Fields and the high school still plays there and is in charge of maintenance although they may build a new park soon. So the city is set to tear down the 65 year-old structure and put in something to help bring money into the small town that is starting to blossom.
Thing is, Locke Field can help Gainesville if it doesn’t meet the wrecker’s ball. The park would be a great fit for the Texas Collegiate League – a league used by college players to hone their skills during the summer. The park could be leased out. It’s also suitable for summer tournaments which would bring money to local hotels and restaurants and employ people at the park.
The old Gainesville motto is having a “small town atmosphere with a global attitude.” This can mean honoring a vital part of the town’s history and character even as it grows. According to the Texas Historical Commission, Locke Field passes the three criteria to be designated a historical landmark- age, historical significance and architectural integrity. It’s a gem worth preserving.
There’s an apartment complex in Brooklyn where Ebbets Field once stood. Here’s hoping a similar fate doesn’t befall Locke Field.