A historic Jacksonville baseball stadium in the Durkeeville neighborhood will be getting some big upgrades, thanks to half-a-million dollars of state money.
The J. P. Small Memorial Stadium on Myrtle Avenue has been around for more than 100 years and has the history to show for it. Today, Edward Waters College uses it as its home field.
On Friday, Durkeeville Historical Society President Lloyd Washington was looking out over the baseball field, a place he said he’s been visiting since he was kid.
“My vision of this place is to eventually have a major league ball game here,” Washington said.
That’s a long way from when it was nearly demolished back in the 1970’s, Washington said.
“It had really fallen into disarray,” he said.
Over the years, City Council members including Sallye B. Mathis and Gwen Yates, introduced legislation to keep the ball park renovated. And last year, Washington said, state Rep.Tracie Davis (D-Jacksonville) and Sen. Audrey Gibson (D-Jacksonville) helped secure the grant to fund new field lighting, drainage and a community weight room. The Jacksonville City Council officially appropriated the grant money this week.
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But being a historian, Washington said he’s most excited about using some of the dollars to expand the small museum attached to the stadium.
“It’s a big story to tell,” he said.
The field was built in the early 1900s and rebuilt after a fire in the 1930s. It’s gone by the names Barr’s field, Durkee Field and Myrtle Avenue Ballpark before its current name, J. P. Small Memorial Stadium, after a former Stanton High teacher who served as band director, athletic director and coach.
In the 1930s the stadium was the home field of all-black Jacksonville baseball team the Red Caps. Lots of other teams in what was called the Negro League also played on the field. And some of the sport’s heaviest hitters ran the bases there too.
“You had players from Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron play in this place,” Washington said. “That history alone is amazing.”
Aaron was playing for the Atlanta Braves when he hit his 715th home run in 1974, breaking Babe Ruth’s record
Before that, Washington said, Aaron lived a few blocks from Durkee Field in the 1950s and walked to the stadium to play for the minor league Jacksonville Braves.
A lot of that history is told in the current exhibit, but he said there’s more for people to learn.
For instance, James Weldon Johnson and his brother John Rosamond Johnson, known for writing what’s referred to as the Black American National Anthem, "Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” played ball at the stadium.
Washington said he wants this field to become a tourist destination and hopes the grant will help that become a reality. The renovations will take place over the summer.