I’ve written about baseball in Anniston, thought about baseball in Anniston, researched baseball in Anniston, lamented the lack of baseball in Anniston, and I’m too young — translation: not old enough — to have watched a game during the heyday of Johnston Field.
If only I were George Smith.
Smith is The Anniston Star’s longtime senior editor who ran its sports department for more decades than anyone can remember. He loves baseball. (A Red Sox fan, I believe.) And I know of no one around Anniston today who remembers Johnston Field more than Smith.
I’ll let a couple of Smith-penned passages from a 1965 story about the park’s downfall carry our narrative:
“One of the things this writer remembers most from boyhood farm days near Ohatchee was the rare opportunity of getting to come into Anniston on a Friday or Saturday night and watch the Anniston Rams play baseball at Johnston Field.
“To me, in those days, Yankee Stadium could not have been a more beautiful place.”
That may be a stretch. Johnston Field wasn’t Anniston’s first home for professional baseball — that was Zinn Park, though it wasn’t called that when Ty Cobb played there — but Johnston was the city’s largest park and its only legitimate minor-league facility.
By 1965, 15 years after the city’s last minor-league team, the Rams, had died, Johnston Field was in disarray even though it was still used for high school and Little League games. Its bathrooms didn’t work. The playing field was a mess. The bleachers were rickety. Smith wrote:
“Today, this grand old lady is not even a faded remnant of those glory years when hundreds, even thousands, pushed their way through the gates to see favorite heroes play.”
It never recovered. Today, Johnston Field is a high school field with a chain-link fence. Nothing about it resembles the minor-league park that opened in 1927 or the enlarged one that was so popular in the 1940s. Like Zinn Park downtown, there is no marker commemorating its place in Anniston history. That’s a shame.
Initially, Anniston built Johnston Field for Anniston High and named it for W. Frank Johnston, a member of the city’s Board of Education. Anniston hadn’t had a minor-league team since the decade of World War I, had turned that team’s field into a recreational park named for William Zinn, a local philanthropist, and built another baseball park on Noble Street to the south. Johnston Field, taking up most of a city block at the corner of 18th Street and Christine Avenue, was designed to give the local prep team a top-notch home, and did.
It also rekindled the notion of reviving professional baseball in the city.
(An Anniston oddity: The University of Georgia football team practiced at the newly built Johnston Field in November 1927 during a stopover on its travel west to play the University of Alabama. Imagine that happening today.)
Anniston returned to pro ball in 1928, naming its team the “Nobles” after the Noble family that founded the city in the 1870s. Extra bleachers were installed to accommodate the size of the minor-league crowds.
On May 28, 1,831 people attended the Nobles’ first game; 400 hundred more watched from the hill that overlooked the first-base line. (That’s the hill where Stringfellow Memorial Hospital sits today.) And what followed was year after year in which the city enlarged Johnston’s bleachers and grandstands, used it for baseball and football and co-opted it for other events: Boy Scout gatherings, May festivals, rodeos, horse shows, marble tournaments and adult-league softball. If you could do it outdoors, Anniston did it at Johnston.
The Toledo Mud Hens held their spring training at Johnston in 1930. Casey Stengel — yes, that one — was the Mud Hens’ manager. A handful of MLB teams played spring games against the minor-league Rams in the late ’30s and ’40s. By the mid-1930s, the city added lights.
Plus, the grandstand burned in the spring of 1938. Yes, burned. W.H. Deyo, president of the Anniston Baseball Association, was in Los Angeles that spring when he got word of the fire that may have been set by a “pyromaniac,” The Star reported. The city hurriedly rebuilt the grandstand so the Rams’ season could start on time, and a Works Progress Administration project the following year funded and supplied labor for more than $8,000 of improvements.
And then, despite the city’s efforts to save the financially strapped club, the Rams died, a casualty of Americans’ changing tastes in after-work entertainment. Johnston Field held its last professional baseball game in the summer of 1950. Anniston High became the main tenant. Jacksonville State University played games on its diamond sporadically through the years. I’ve even parked on it when covering high school football games at the stadium across the street. And the decay Smith lamented in his aforementioned story started. Neglect won out, as it often does.