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VOL. 128 | NO. 62 | Friday, March 29, 2013

Baseball History

Redbirds put focus on past and present during coming season

By Bill Dries

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The last time the Leftfield Loonies were heard from in Memphis, leftfield was near Early Maxwell Boulevard and Central Avenue at the Mid-South Fairgrounds and they were loony for the Memphis Chicks baseball team.

As the Memphis Redbirds gear up for another opening day at AutoZone Park next week, the team is finding ways to connect to the city’s history in its marketing plans. (Daily News File Photo/Lance Murphey)

But one of the retro promotions the Memphis Redbirds have on the summer calendar for the 2013 baseball season that opens next week is a commemoration of the past wave of fans for a past baseball franchise.

“We found pictures back in the Chicks days of the Leftfield Loonies. So we’re doing a Leftfield Loonies T-shirt giveaway in August,” said Adam Goldberg, marketing director of the Redbirds, who open their season Thursday, April 4, at AutoZone Park.

The team will also give away Memphis Chicks hats during the season to honor 1970s era Chicks pitcher Charlie Lea who played in the majors for the Montreal Expos and Minnesota Twins. Lea returned to the city after his playing days and died in 2011.

Lea’s unique profile as a pitcher is reportedly the model for the metal cutout of a pitcher featured in the ballpark’s plaza area at Third Street and Union Avenue.

Fans who like to soak up the atmosphere of baseball’s start each spring can come to AutoZone Park Tuesday, April 2, for a promotion the AAA baseball franchise bills as “Bird Watching.”

Redbirds players will take batting practice and fans can watch and get some autographs and pictures. It’s free from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Goldberg said the Redbirds will have fireworks after every Saturday home game and block parties with a live band in the plaza before Friday home games.

The team is also making a new effort to get more fans out for weekday home games, especially on Tuesdays, which have been branded “Twosdays” with connected promotions.

“If somebody hits a ground-rule double and you’re a twin you get in for free, things like that,” Goldberg said. “We’re trying to think of things we can offer our fans during the week. It’s no mystery that we do have some smaller crowds on weekdays. If you want a foul ball, you get a better chance during a weekday game. Regardless, when we’re home it’s going to be great baseball.”

Memphis has a baseball lineage that goes back to the 19th century.

The history of baseball in Memphis is recounted from the Turtles to the Redbirds in the 2012 book “Baseball in Memphis” by Clarence Watkins. The book can be found at Tiger Book Store near the University of Memphis campus.

Baseball is only one of the selling points to attending Redbirds games this season. The team will reference the old Memphis Chicks in promotions(Daily News File Photo/Lance Murphey)

Watkins, a native Memphian, even traces the Memphis game to the 19th century at long-forgotten fields named Olympic, Citizen, Cycle and Chickasaw parks before settling in at Red Elm Bottom.

Red Elm Bottom became Red Elm Park in 1896 with a wooden ballpark that was renamed Russwood Park in 1915.

Russwood burned Easter weekend 1960, a pivotal event in Memphis sports history.

Watkins links the fire to one of baseball’s many team curses.

The last game ever played at Russwood was an exhibition game between the Chicago White Sox and the Cleveland Indians. Indians star Rocky Colavito walked in the sixth inning and while he was on first base, Indians manager Joe Gordon walked from the dugout and told Colavito he had been traded to Detroit effective immediately. The ballpark burned that night.

One of the earliest teams to play there, before it was called Russwood, was called the Turtles, possibly because of the slope of the field. Watkins found a 1908 baseball guide that described the field as a “turtleback field” meaning it was sloped from the center to better drain water.

Meanwhile, the Tim McCarver brand that once adorned the team’s Mid-South Fairgrounds home could surface there again.

McCarver, a broadcaster and former St. Louis Cardinals catcher as well as Memphis native (and who is reportedly the model for the metal cutout of the catcher facing Lea in the ballpark’s plaza), is among those working with the administration of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. on a fairgrounds master plan.

The tentative plans include a set of baseball fields on the Southern Avenue side of the property on what is now the parking lot of the Mid-South Coliseum.

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