On Rams’ wish list: A new 7,000-seat stadium

Johnston Field in the 1940s. (Library of Anniston-Calhoun County)

The plan was so grandiose that it reeked of preposterousness. Neither of the two parks used by Anniston’s professional baseball teams sat 7,000 fans. Not the field at today’s Zinn Park, which hosted the Steelers, Moulders and Models, and not Johnston Field, home to the Nobles and Rams. Neither park featured concrete grandstands. But early in 1946, as the United States was emerging from World War II and the reconstituted Rams were about to embark on their lone championship season, the plan saw light.

As part of the city’s postwar improvement plan, Anniston asked the federal government to fund construction of a “concrete permanent park” that would replace Johnston Field’s wooden grandstands. The field, owned by the city’s Board of Education and shared with Anniston High’s teams, had opened in 1927 and fallen into a bit of disrepair during the Rams’ war hiatus. Mayor J.F. King told The Anniston Star that February that he hoped the new facility would be ready for the 1947 season. The Sporting News, then the undisputed bible of baseball news, reported that the new park would seat 7,000 — roughly double Johnston’s capacity.

At the time, the request may have been grandiose but it wasn’t rare. In fact, Anniston was no different from hundreds of other American cities taking advantage of the federal government’s postwar development ideas. Anniston’s wish list carried a $5 million price tag and included new gyms and auditoriums for several of its public schools, storm sewer and sanitary sewer projects, and road improvements. The Federal Works Agency quickly approved those requests.

A 1946 clipping from The Anniston Star.

But also on Anniston’s wish list was a new medical arts building; a civic center that would house a new city hall, fire department and city auditorium; a new junior high school building; and what The Anniston Star described as a “gigantic” development of the city’s recreational facilities. Besides a new park for the Rams and its high school, Anniston also sought funding to improve Zinn Park (which no longer housed a baseball diamond), the prep football stadium, the municipal golf course and most public playgrounds.

And yet, that wasn’t all. Anniston also wanted Washington to pay for new public swimming pools and parks for both white and black residents, a municipal incinerator plant, and enlargements of the public library and Regar Museum. Amid that shopping list, Johnston Field’s replacement hardly stood out.

The punchline is obvious: Anniston never built a “concrete permanent park” for the Rams. The federal government didn’t rubber-stamp the entirety of the city’s extensive wish list. And the park at the corner of Christine Avenue and 18th Street hosted every home game in the team’s 10 seasons.

Two details inject curiosity into the notion of a large concrete baseball park in Anniston.

A 1937 clipping from The Anniston Star.

The first is that the city’s education board never wanted pro baseball to again play at Johnston Field. The Nobles of the Georgia-Alabama League had played three seasons at Johnston (1928-30), but the board in the ’30s became obsessed with protecting the grass for football season. (Anniston High played there until the city built a football stadium across the street; the school’s baseball team played elsewhere, also to keep the turf pristine for the fall.) On more than one occasion prior to the Rams’ birth, the school board rejected requests to enlarge the park, add lights for night games and allow a professional team to move in.

Specifically, the school board’s protection of Johnston’s grass prevented both Anniston and Gadsden from joining the Southeastern League in 1937. (The league needed two expansion teams for scheduling purposes.) Gadsden was ready; Anniston wasn’t.

The second detail is pure math. The Rams didn’t need a 7,000-seat park because they never averaged more than 1,000 fans a game prior to the war — in other words, prior to the city’s request for federal funding — though other events at the park occasionally drew well. The Rams’ best attendance year was 1946, when they won the SEL title and averaged nearly 1,500 a game. Some games drew that much or more, particularly playoff games, though they were hardly the norm.

The Star’s sports editor, Marshall Johnson, was pointed with his criticism of the school board’s reluctance.

“The city is still in as bad a shape as last winter,” Johnson wrote in April 1937. “There are hardly any lots in likely places for ball parks. Those suitably located are privately owned and of almost prohibitive cost — prohibitive at least for a baseball park in a minor league.

“Unless some fair godmother or a good godfather steps in, Anniston may just as well forget organized baseball. The outside world is not going to force baseball into the city, so it remains the job of the residents to prepare a place for it.”

Enter, the Anniston City Council.

By the time the Southeastern League called again, the tug of war between the school board and the city’s pursuit of professional baseball had found a resolution. In January 1938, the council passed a resolution that promised to repair the wooden grandstands and install lights. The rest of the money needed to kickstart the franchise would be raised through donations and stock sales. The Rams were born. And they had their home.

Johnson, the sports editor, was, well, enthusiastic.

“Welcome news that organized baseball apparently now depends upon Annistonians and not also the consent of some other city starts hopes a-soaring,” he wrote. “It may confidently be expected that as the birds swing northward this spring, as the flowers bloom and the eyes of lads and lasses shyly meet, the sap also will rise in the veins of hardened Anniston sports fans as they listen to the crack of the bat and baseball in violent collision.”

Absent a federally funded concrete park, the city kept slapping Band-Aids on Johnston Field’s grandstands, bleachers and outfield walls. When the team died in 1950, Johnston’s deterioration grew amid an endless schedule of Little League and high school games, rodeos, football games and civic events. The wooden elements rotted; the city tore them down. And by the 1970s the park looked largely as it does today — a high school field slightly reoriented to make room for a running track and surrounded by chain-link fencing, its heyday essentially forgotten.

Johnston Field today. (Google Maps)

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