Farewell to Cooper Stadium

 Photo courtesy of the Columbus Clippers
Cooper Stadium, then known as Red Bird Stadium, first opened to public in June, 1932.

How many times can the words "The end of an era" be written about a ballpark at 1125 W. Mound St.?

In the case of Cooper Stadium, the end of a tale first started in 1932 will be penned this year when the Columbus Clipper’s season draws to a close and they move to Huntington Park, a new 10,000-seat stadium at the corner of Nationwide Boulevard and Neil Avenue.

The saga began 76 years ago when the Columbus Red Birds came to town and needed a place to play. Branch Rickey, the inventor of the baseball farm system, worked for the St. Louis Cardinals when he purchased the former Westside farm land and turned it into Red Bird Stadium.

"The stadium was built in the depths of the depression," said Clipper’s Historian Joe Santry. "It was an economic boom for the community and tickets were so hot for the first game that two women gave birth in the stadium on opening day.

"It was the first stadium built with lights. On June 17, 1932 they held the first night game and 21,000 people came to the game. It set a record that was not broken. There were so many fans that night that they broke down the gates."

The team was one in a network of 32 minor league clubs established by Rickey, who was also the first baseball executive to break the color barrier when he hired Jackie Robinson in 1945.

"Rickey was a great businessman and he made a lot of money, but he worked the system to his benefit," reported Santry. "He knew 9 out of 10 people were right-handed, so he built left field so far back so you couldn’t make it over the fence and then stacked the outfield with track stars who could run down the ball. It made all of our pitchers look like superstars.

"The first guy he traded went on to become a pitcher for the Cubs. When someone asked him why he made the trade, he said that you have to let one star go so you can buy the next 10 duds so people will continue to trade with you."

In 1954, Rickey moved the team out of Columbus.

Had it not been for Franklin County Commissioner Harold Cooper-the namesake of today’s stadium and a Red Birds clubhouse boy in 1936-along with a consortium of businessmen, Columbus would have been without baseball for the first time in almost 50 years.

The Jets were brought in, the complex renamed Jets Stadium, and the baseball heartbeat of the city continued beating. The team was affiliated with the Kansas City A’s in 1955 and 1956 and later the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1957-1970. Willie Stargill played in Columbus in 1962 before the team pulled up stakes and the Pirates moved the farm club to Charleston, W.Va. because of the aging stadium and the city’s refusal to renovate the park.

"The Jets were set up as a non-profit organization," Santry continued, "but profits were used to build playgrounds for the kids of Columbus. The IRS later ruled the profits couldn’t be used to renovate the stadium and eventually the roof started rotting away.

"Mayor Sensenbrenner worked out a deal for the city to buy the stadium and renovate it. However, M. D. Portman, a young councilman at the time, complicated the process, so the city couldn’t make renovations."

 For six years, crowds were silent as the stadium continued to crumble into disrepair. Baseball would not return to the city until Cooper again stepped in and guided a publicly-funded, multi-million-dollar renovation-including the first minor-league installation of artificial turf-following the stadium’s purchase by the county in 1975. Two years later, in 1977, the renamed Franklin County Stadium opened and the affiliation with the Pirates organization began anew as the Columbus Clippers.

In 1979, the team came under the Yankees umbrella, an association that lasted well into the next century, before the Washington Nationals took over in 2007. Cooper was honored for his service and dedication to baseball in 1984 when the complex was renamed in his honor.

Astroturf covered the "Coop" playing surface until 1998, when it was ripped up in favor of natural turf installed by the Scotts Company in Marysville. In 2006, plans were announced to replace Cooper Stadium with Huntington Park, which will open in time for the Clipper’s 2009 season.

Many future stars of baseball played in Cooper Stadium including Derek Jeter, Bucky Dent, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Cal Ripken, Jr., Deion Sanders, and Al Leiter. In addition to games, the stadium played host to concerts, state band competitions, and a Billy Graham crusade attracting 40,000 in September 1993.

Presidential hopeful Franklin D. Roosevelt kicked off his first campaign in the stadium in 1932 and Cy Young tossed out the first pitch after the Jets came to town in 1955. During the disastrous flood of 1959, the infield was underwater. Before the 1977 renovation, what is now office space at the front of the stadium were entrance gates.

"On June 16, 1982, the skies darkened in the middle of a game between the Clippers and Richmond," recalled Santry. "Suddenly, Columbus pitcher Lynn McGlothen pointed to the skies over the bleachers and cried ‘Tornado’ and bolted for the dugout. The rest of the Clippers glanced over their shoulders and didn’t see anything."

According to the team’s historian, not taking any chances, the rest of the team also headed for the dugout immediately before a thunderstorm hit, sending fans scurrying for cover. A bolt of lightning struck a light tower near the grandstand, knocking out power and phone lines to the stadium.

 In the confusion, Santry said one of the wire services suddenly flashed "Game is postponed due to a fatal tornado hitting the stadium resulting in fatalities and many injuries among the players."

 "With the telephones out, no one could call and verify the story," continued Santry. "CNN reported the story nationally."

Although the $56-million Huntington Park seats 4,000 less than its predecessor, the new, three-level field ballpark features a host of family amenities such as a pop-up water fountain, midway, and locker room for children; a rooftop bar, terrace seating, and outdoor grill; and a commitment to energy-efficient construction.

The final game will be played on Sept. 1 at 6:25 p.m. against the Toledo Mud Hens with free admission for two adults with an active or retired military ID, Dime-a-Dog Night, Party at the Park from 4-6 p.m. with Phil Dirt and the Dozers, Photo Day with the Clippers from 5-5:30 p.m., random drawing for Cooper Stadium replicas, and fireworks after the game followed by a fun run and games on catch in the outfield.

For more information, visit the Columbus Clippers online at clippersbaseball.com or call 462-5250.

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