JAMESTOWN, NY - The game of baseball has remained a part of the very fabric of the City of Jamestown and its surrounding communities for over a century.
For the past 70 years, the game has called Russell E. Diethrick, Jr., Park home. Countless Jamestown fans have walked through the turnstiles and taken in a ballgame from the venerable stadium’s grandstand and bleacher seats. Nearly as many young ballplayers, all with a vision of playing on the game’s biggest stage one day, have roamed the field in the name of chasing down a dream.
The echoes of the cracking of bats and cheering fans reverberate through the walls of the park, each sharing a story from America’s pastime.
With the name Municipal Stadium, the park hosted its first professional game on May 6, 1941 as Jamestown’s Falcons lost to Batavia, 9-2. General admission tickets that day were 44 cents for gentlemen, 28 cents for ladies and 15 cents for children. Jamestown mayor Leon Roberts tossed out the first pitch, throwing a ball used by the sport’s first professional club, the Cincinnati Redlegs during the 1870s.
|Nellie Fox would spend his early days of what would become a Hall of Fame career playing at Jamestown's Municipal Stadium. (Photo courtesy of Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame)|
Baseball in Jamestown dates back further than that day – Jamestown teams had played since before the turn of the century, with the first pro team playing in 1939 under the banner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, joining the newly formed Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York (PONY) League. Their games were played at Celoron Park in ‘39 before the Pirates moved because of a lack of a deal in place for a new stadium.
Jamestown convinced Niagara Falls owner Harry Bisgeier to move his Rainbows to town midway through the 1940 season when mayor Roberts appointed a committee to provide a new ballpark, with a first site considered on Baker Street. Later that year, the Jamestown Citizen’s Stadium Committee purchased 20 acres of land on Falconer Street for $3,000 and turned the deed over to the city. Excavation began in the fall and a spot for history was born.
Jamestown’s Municipal Stadium was aptly named as its creation became a reality through a community effort. Along with purchasing the land the stadium sits upon, the citizen’s committee pledged $10,500 toward its construction, which would ultimately have a price tag of $60,000. Bleachers were donated by the Jamestown Board of Education, labor groups of firemen and policemen banded together to build the outfield fence, and the scoreboard was donated by the city Moose Lodge.
An announced crowd of nearly 4,000 celebrated the city’s new church of baseball on the stadium’s inaugural day - the first of many packed houses in those early years. Shortstop John O’Neil, who would later become the first player to call the stadium home to reach the major leagues, became the first Jamestown batter to step into the batter’s box, one of 467 at-bats he would take that year.
The city filled its new stadium in the early years – 143,016 fans took in Falcons games in 1942 in the days of 120-game seasons in town, a record at the time for the PONY League.
They were greeted by powerhouse teams – Jamestown had five league all-stars that first season, on the way to claiming the league pennant. Slugger John Newman batted .358 and set league records for home runs (29), RBIs (96) and walks (101) as he carved out a career to be talked about in the city for decades. Manager Greg Mulleavy earned all-star status, too – for his work as a second baseman.
Jamestown won the pennant in 1941 and captured the league title in 1942 before reaching the finals again in 1943. Not even a World War could completely shut down baseball in Jamestown.
Looking at pictures from those first games, seemingly little has changed about the park. Perhaps the biggest difference comes from the land around the stadium – the view beyond centerfield appeared much different in those days as the land remained mostly clear of development. The park held more seats, with bleachers all the way down the foul lines to accommodate over 4,000 fans per game. Renovations over the years altered the stadium’s front gate and added a new press box, widening the old media area which accounted for just two boxes atop the grandstand.
|The 1941 Jamestown Falcons were the first team to call Russell Diethrick Park, then Municipal Stadium, home. (Photo courtesy of the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame)|
Jamestown’s winning ways continued – the league championship in 1944, a co-pennant win shared with Batavia in 1946, a league title in 1947 and finals appearance in 1948; back-to-back championships in 1952 and ’53.
The stadium would have its bleak times, however. Dwindling attendance numbers across the minor leagues hit Jamestown particularly hard and monetary losses forced the Falcons to fold during the 1957 season.
Pro baseball returned to the city with the Jamestown Tigers, affiliated with Detroit, in 1961, and won the pennant in 1962. Municipal Stadium started going by a new name in 1964 – College Stadium, in reference to the newly built Jamestown Community College beyond the outfield fence. After several bad seasons on the field and at the gate, the Tigers left town, replaced by the Los Angeles Dodgers as a parent club in 1966, beginning a revolving door of major league affiliations. In 1967, after a year as the Dodgers, Jamestown took the Braves moniker in affiliation with Atlanta. The name Falcons returned in 1968, but with a new affiliate – the Boston Red Sox.
Over $50,000 was raised, in part by the stadium’s future namesake, Diethrick, to renovate the park before 1971 as the Montreal Expos joined with the Falcons. Baseball continued to languish in the city, though, resulting in the loss of the franchise, the stadium again robbed of professionals between 1974-76.
The longest partnership in Jamestown’s pro baseball history would begin in 1977, though, as the Expos returned to town, taking control of the franchise, now known by the same name. The Jamestown Expos would be a part of the area’s lexicon for the next 16 years. Montreal sent future major league all-stars Randy Johnson, Marquis Grissom, Wil Cordero, Mark Grudzielanek and Delino DeShields to town as the Expos grew a nucleus of young talent in Jamestown. The Expos even ended Jamestown’s three-plus decade championship drought by capturing the 1989 NYPL championship.
Montreal would sell the franchise following the 1993 season to an owner from Vermont, leaving Jamestown briefly without a team once more. In a strange twist of fate, a franchise from Niagara Falls once again moved south as the Jammers were born.
JAMESTOWN’S ‘MR. BASEBALL’
Baseball in Jamestown owes much of its history to the man whose name stands etched across the stadium’s façade. Russell Diethrick has remained a key figure throughout the decades, championing the sport within the city even when all seemed lost.
He first joined the team’s board of directors in 1963, taking control of the team’s front office along with another Jamestown man, Marty Haines. Diethrick’s connections helped bring in major league partners, including a key assist in facilitating the arrival of the Expos in 1977, and again when baseball seemed lost in town, Diethrick involved himself in helping put together a partnership with Rich Baseball Corporation, the owners of the Jammers. He strived to ensure the stadium remained up to minor league code, putting together the funds necessary to keep professional baseball in town, much of which came from his own pocket. Fittingly, the stadium received its second rechristening on August 9, 1997, to honor Jamestown’s “Mr. Baseball.”
A LONG LIST OF NOTABLE ALUMNI
Today, Diethrick Park stands as the second-oldest stadium in the NYPL, behind only Williamsport’s Bowman Field. Of the six charter members of the league, only two remain – Jamestown and Batavia.
|The view of a game at Diethrick Park remains much the same as it would have been during its first season of 1941. (Photo by Scott Eddy)|
Along the way, some of the game’s greats have stepped onto Diethrick Park’s field of play. Perhaps the most well-known remains Hall of Famer Nellie Fox, who wore the Falcons colors in 1944 at the tender age of 16 before turning in 19 spectacular major league seasons primarily with the Chicago White Sox.
The first team to play in Jamestown set the tone – on that club, Earl Rapp, Frank Carswell and O’Neil would crack the majors, and first manager Mulleavy had previously been in the big leagues, and would coach with the Brooklyn and LA Dodgers after leaving Jamestown.
In all, well over 100 major league players have got their start in Jamestown and wore the team’s colors at Diethrick Park. Names like Jim Rooker and Pat Dobson would win over 100 major league games, and other alumni include MLB all-stars Cecil Cooper, Dwight Evans, Ben Ogilvie and Andres Gallaraga. Still more big league managers and coaches began their climb up the ladder here.
Some unassuming Jamestown players and coaches would go on to big success – Mike Illitch would play in Jamestown in the 50’s before launching the Little Caesar’s Pizza chain and take ownership of the Detroit Tigers. Jim Leyland was a back-up catcher here before turning into a World Series-winning manager.
Even more future stars have played on this field as visiting players – well-known names such as Cito Gaston, Jorge Posada and Ryan Howard span the generations. Former Jammer Francisco Cordero, now a closer with the Cincinnati Reds, recently notched his 300th big league save. Today’s budding stars Mike Stanton, Chris Coghlan and Gaby Sanchez with the Marlins continue the tradition of Jamestown alumni achieving major league dreams.
They’re the same type of dreams held by Jamestown’s baseball fans more than seven decades ago which made this stadium a reality; dreams which have kept professional baseball here all these years. In the way baseball was a staple for Jamestown citizens 70 years ago, Diethrick Park has become such a constant for generations of fans – a defining piece of city history.