125 years in, stadium source of 'a lot of pride'

This photo, taken around 1940, shows the fairgrounds grandstand before it was turned into today's League Stadium. Photo courtesy of the Dubois County Museum.

By JONATHAN SAXON
jsaxon@dcherald.com

HUNTINGBURG — How many lives do you think you could live in 125 years? What kind of impact could you leave with that kind of longevity? Would you be remembered as a fixture of your space and time? These questions aren’t so much philosophical concerns as they are the concrete conditions that surround Huntingburg’s League Stadium, one of the oldest fixtures in Dubois County.

The historic ballpark has served as a focal point for social and recreational gatherings in the county since it was first erected in 1894. But in doing so, the venue has gone through its fair share of changes to evolve with the times and accommodate the various entertainment needs of the community.

When it first went up in the late 19th century, the structure that would become League Stadium was nothing more than a huge grandstand with a 1,500-person capacity, which served as the site for the county fair. Crowds flocked from all over for the summer spectacle, which featured carnival rides, games, horse races and livestock shows.

“The county fair at the city park was such a big deal,” said Ken Morgan, who grew up in Huntingburg in the 1940s and ’50s. “The county fair was a week-long deal, started at noon, ran until about midnight. Car daredevil shows were usually the feature on Friday night.”

But the grandstand wasn’t just a place for apple-bobbing and settling who would take home “Best in Show” rights for the season. Sports has been an integral part of the site’s history. With the construction of a baseball diamond came a couple of different semi-pro ball clubs that called the grandstand their home, and the local audience’s appetite for America’s pastime was immense. In an era before television and the internet were widespread, folks would pack themselves into the grandstand seats to take in games from the Merchants, Grays and Babes.

“Sunday afternoon, that big grandstand would be about 75 percent full,” Morgan said. “Those baseball games were the biggest show in town.”

Significant history passed through that field, including a visit from future Hall of Famer Satchel Paige. But by 1984, a major portion of the grandstand had fallen into disrepair and was torn down, leaving only the portion of the seats that stood behind home plate. But while time had taken its toll on the grandstand’s physical form, it did not rob it of its baseball spirit. In 1991, former mayor Connie Nass found out that Evansville officials were hosting a meeting with Columbia Pictures for the filming of “A League of Their Own,” and she seized the opportunity to invite herself to the meeting to sell the studio on her vision of Huntingburg baseball for the film.

Herald file photo
“Harold’s Naildrivers” worked into the night to complete renovation of Huntingburg’s stadium for “A League of Their Own.” Two new wings were added to the renovated 1894 grandstand.

“Penny Marshall was the director, and she was very interested when I presented our stadium and the history of the fairgrounds,” she said. “She made a secret visit to Huntingburg, and we met under the grandstand trying to visualize what [the film] would be.”

Nass regaled Marshall with tales of Huntingburg’s love for vintage baseball and her going to watch games in the stadium’s box seats with her grandparents, painting a mental picture of women with fancy cotton dresses and hats accompanied by gentlemen in their Sunday-best outfits.

“It was a very special time. It was really important for all of the citizens of Dubois County,” Nass said.

When it was all said and done, the old-time charm did what it was supposed to do. Marshall decided to move the film to Huntingburg, and with that, a fresh wave of excitement hit Dubois County during a time when it needed it most. Drought had hit Huntingburg during that time, but the coming magic of Tinseltown had a way of helping lift the spirits of the residents.

“You had people pretty fired up,” said former Huntingburg Parks Director Jim Reuger, who got to make his big-screen debut during the movie’s filming. “It was super exciting. They were asking for extras. You had to be at the set pretty early, and we did 12 hours every day. A lot of times you didn’t do anything, but you were there. Some people thought they would be seen in the movie more than they probably were.”

And so the grandstand went through yet another transformation, becoming what is now known as League Stadium. Extended wings were added to the center platform, new dugouts were constructed, and an old time scoreboard was built so that the production crew could recreate the look and feel of a World War II-era baseball stadium. A mixture of local and union work crews worked around the clock for about four months making sure all of the details — down to the faded look of the stadium paint — was just right. It only took three weeks of filming to shoot the necessary footage for the movie, but the impact of the stadium was felt long after Columbia Pictures packed up and left.

Another film, HBO’s “Soul of the Game,” was shot at League Stadium in 1995, and baseball finally moved back into Dubois County in the form of the Dragons in 1996. The Dragons made League Stadium their home from 1996-02. Three years after the Dragons’ departure came the Dubois County Bombers, who have thrilled the masses with summer college baseball for the past 14 seasons.

Throughout its 125 years, League Stadium has changed to serve different needs for Dubois County. But the one thing that has never changed is the sense of pride the stadium instills in county residents, and how much it means to the town it anchors.

“People showed a lot of pride,” Rueger said. “So many people came into town during the filming and afterwards just wanting to see things. It’s amazing how from the time I worked until I retired, there was somebody who came by and wanted to see that stadium weekly. Some of the companies like Best Chairs and Kimble brought in some of their outside reps and showed them where the movie was filmed. The whole area showed a lot of pride [in the stadium].”




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