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VOL. 121 | NO. 237 | Friday, December 8, 2006

Potential Home Run

Civil Rights Game strikes chord in Redbirds founder

By Zachary Zoeller

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DOLLAR SIGNS: Memphis Redbirds founder Dean Jernigan looks over the diagram of AutoZone Park's season ticket sales for the 2007 season. -- Photo By Zachary Zoeller

As a youth in Memphis in the 1950s and 1960s, Redbirds founder Dean Jernigan enjoyed watching baseball games at the former Russwood Park on Union Avenue.

The park, which seated about 17,000, was known for its covered grandstands, "hit it here" bulls eye sign and Memphis Steam Laundry water tower behind the center field wall.

In 1934, the park hosted the New York Yankees with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, who played a game against a collection of Southern Association minor league players.

However, for all the happy memories of cheering on the hometown minor league team the Chicks, St. Louis Cardinals and others, one blemish marred the face of the stadium - segregation.

"I grew up in an awful environment as it relates to society," Jernigan said. "I grew up in a segregated high school, played baseball in a segregated league."

Because he remembers the days before most whites and blacks were allowed to sit, play or work together, Major League Baseball's Civil Rights Game on March 31 at AutoZone Park holds personal significance.

Civil Rights Game
March 31 at AutoZone Park
Cleveland Indians vs. St. Louis Cardinals
Tickets are $50 and are on sale at the AutoZone Park box office, www.mlb.com, www.memphisredbirds.com, www.indians.com and www.stlouiscardinals.com.

Play ball

Announced Monday at the annual Baseball Winter Meetings in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., the Civil Rights Game will commemorate blacks' contributions to MLB since the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson to become the first black player in 1945.

The St. Louis Cardinals will play the Cleveland Indians at 4:30 p.m., a day after the Cardinals play the Redbirds in an exhibition game.

MLB will donate to the National Civil Rights Museum, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Jackie Robinson Foundation, the Negro League Museum and other Memphis charities. The amount and the contribution date are undisclosed.

The civil rights museum's staff members are honored by the game's location in Memphis, said Ashley Jefferson, assistant to the museum's president, Beverly Robertson.

"What we hope is that this game will focus the attention of the nation on this vital history, and rekindle a spirit of enthusiasm among youth to become more actively involved in their communities and in America's national pastime," she said.

Tickets went on sale Tuesday and cost $50.

Jernigan anticipates that the proceeds from the single game will cover the $500,000 yearly expenses for the Redbirds' two charities - Returning Baseball to the Inner City (RBI) and Sports Teams Returning in the Public Education System (STRIPES).

"It's meaningful that this game has the ability to probably underwrite our kids' programs for the year," he said.

Frequent flyer

Jernigan, in Memphis for a Thomas & Betts Corp. board meeting last week, has been away from his hometown for several years as he, his wife, Kristi, and their two teenage daughters bought a home in London in 2002.

The family moved after Jernigan sold the company he started in 1984, Storage USA, and moved into semi-retirement.

In April 2006, the 60-year-old business mogul came back into the storage business as president and CEO of U Store It Trust, a real estate company focused on storage facilities.

"Retirement got a little boring," he said. "I'm still a pretty young guy and I'm happy to get back into the business world."

Today he splits his time between his home in London, U Store It's headquarters in Cleveland, Ohio, and his hometown of Memphis, where he has other family members.

PROPERTY SALES 103 137 4,008
MORTGAGES 84 131 4,521
BUILDING PERMITS 178 368 9,636
BANKRUPTCIES 50 110 2,995