Forgotten Stadiums: Hartwell Field
Hartwell Field - Former Home of the Mobile Bay Bears, Photo Courtesy of DigitalBallparks.com
After a Hurricane destroyed Mobile’s Monroe Park in 1926, the Mobile Bears of the Southern Association were left without a home to play in. Monroe Park, which also featured an amusement park and was nicknamed “Coney Island of the South,” had been such a tourist attraction for Mobile, but sadly would be one no more. In the 1940s Brookley Field Air Force Base opened on the site, and any remnants that were once there are now long gone, except for the many live oaks that still line the waterfront.
With Mayor Harry Hartwell instrumental in the process, the ground was broken on a new baseball stadium that was more inland, on the corner of Tennessee and Ann Streets. The stadium would be named Hartwell Field, after the Mayor who had made the ballpark a reality. Hartwell Field would open just in time for the 1927 season, and over 9,300 fans packed the stands for the Bears’ first game. The ballpark lined the railroad, and its most notable feature was the huge freight warehouse that ran along the train tracks along the outfield wall.
View of Hartwell Field’s Grandstand in the 1950s, Photo Courtesy of Mobile’s Baseball Connection Facebook Page
During this time the Bears would welcome Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and the Yankees in 1929 and 1930, to play in exhibition games against the Bears, with Babe Ruth once crushing a home run to center, and hitting the roof of the freight warehouse. The Bears would also play in exhibition contests against the Red Sox, Dodgers, and Pirates in the 1930s as well.
Babe Ruth and the Yankees played at Hartwell Field Twice, in 1929 and 1930, Photo Courtesy of Mobile’s Baseball Connection Facebook Page
When the Bears played, stands at Hartwell Field were usually packed with over 6,000 fans. Sadly the Bears did not win many games during the early years and would relocate to Knoxville after the 1931 season. The Class B Southeastern League would place a team here in 1932 called the Red Warriors, but the team folded midway through the season.
In 1937 baseball would return with the Mobile Shippers, also of the Southeastern League – the Shippers, who were affiliated with the Cardinals, would win three League Championships before the league was suspended at the onset of World War II in 1942.
Aerial View of Hartwell Field, Photo Courtesy of Mobile Baseball Connection Facebook Page
Luckily Hartwell Field wouldn’t go dark for long, as the Knoxville Smokies moved back to Mobile in 1944, bringing back the Bears name. It was during this time that a young Hank Aaron and his brothers would often climb the trees above the outfield to get glimpses of the game he would become the biggest star in many years later.
Hank would also play for the Mobile Black Bears Negro League team that played at Hartwell Field in 1951 while he was still in high school; Hank only played weekend games and home games as a result of still being a minor.
In addition, before becoming one of Hollywood’s biggest stars in the 50s and 60s, movie star Chuck Connors played outfield for the 1947 Bears and led the team in Batting Average en route to the 1947 Southern Association Championship.
Hank Aaron leaving Mobile to join the Indianapolis Clowns Negro League team in 1952, Photo Courtesy of Black History Postcards
Before becoming a big-name Actor, Chuck Conners led the 1947 Mobile Bears in Batting Average,Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia
Throughout the 1950s Hartwell Field was used as the site of the Greater Gulf State Fair every year – in 1955 a young and relatively unknown Elvis Presley even played on a stage in the parking lot. In 1952 the city of Mobile would spend $50,000 on renovations to build a new grandstand and roof. Just seven years later that grandstand would be condemned, as its design was similar to the bleachers that collapsed at nearby Ladd-Peebles Stadium. The city then built a new steel grandstand at $1 million heading into the 1959 season.
Mobile Bears in the 1950s, Photo Courtesy of Mobile Baseball Connection Facebook Page
Bears Memorabilia on Display at Hank Aaron’s Childhood Home and Museum at Hank Aaron Stadium, Photo by Matt Colville, Stadium Journey
The Bears would win league titles in 1955 and 1959, and play in front of sellout crowds at Hartwell Field while being affiliated with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Indians, and Mets. However the League faced issues for refusing to integrate; only one black player ever played in the Southern Association, Nat Peebles, of the 1954 Atlanta Crackers, who played in two road games with the Crackers against the Bears at Hartwell Field. Peebles would be demoted to Single-A Jacksonville after his second game here. The Bears would then play in a racially segregated league through the 1961 season, which eventually led to the Bears and the whole Southern Association league folding after the 1961 season, as more and more parent MLB teams became integrated.
After the Bears folded, Hartwell Field stayed busy hosting other local baseball games, high school football games, and the annual fair. The 1964 Cincinnati Reds led by Pete Rose played the White Sox here in an exhibition game. In addition, Mobile was a stop on the territory wrestling circuit, with Hartwell Field serving as Mobile’s site during the regional Gulf Coast wrestling championship.
1966 Mobile A’s Game Day Program, Photo Courtesy of FunWhileItLasted.net
After the Southern Association folded, the brand new Southern League took its place in 1964, and Hartwell Field was the home of two Southern League teams, which each lasted one year, the Mobile A’s (1966) and the Mobile White Sox (1970). Both teams would be plagued by attendance issues, but the Mobile A’s were led by future Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa, who played infield for the A’s.
Hartwell Field would also host one more big league exhibition game in 1970 when the St. Louis Cardinals played the South Alabama Jaguars. In the lineup, that day for the Cardinals was two future Hall of Famers as well, Joe Torre and Lou Brock. After the 1970 season, the White Sox would move their team from Mobile to Birmingham, where they would eventually become the Barons, and that would be the end of professional baseball at Hartwell Field.
The Last Big Game at Hartwell Field was in 1970, when the Cardinals faced the South Alabama Jaguars, Photo courtesy of Mobile Baseball Connection Facebook Page
Over the next several years the park would continue to host high school baseball and football games, and even hosted a motorcycle jump in 1971 when daredevil Snake Blackwell jumped 10 cars on the infield. The park would continue to host the fair until 1974 when it was moved to a more permanent location. Sadly in 1979 Hurricane Frederic would make a direct hit in Mobile and, like its predecessor Monroe Park, Hartwell Field was susceptible to the forces of Mother Nature; the hurricane would cause enough damage to close the stadium for good.
Hartwell Field would be left to rot and nature would take its toll on the property until the city tore down the remnants in 1983. Today over 40 years after being condemned by Hurricane Frederic there is nothing left of the former ballpark that once welcomed American icons Elvis Presley, Chuck Connors, Lou Gehrig, and Babe Ruth.
The property was purchased by the Mobile Police Department in the 1990s, who constructed a branch of their offices where the stadium’s parking lot was located, while the location of the field itself is fenced in as part of the Police Department’s impound lot.
I could not get into the impound lot, but from what I noticed, old rusty cars now occupy the place where the infield would have been located, while overgrown weeds and tall grass have grown in the outfield. Train tracks run along the outfield wall and a large warehouse, used for storage, stretches from where right field to center field was. The only remains of the old ballpark in the warehouse that sat along the outfield fence, so you can judge where the ballpark would have been. The site is located west of downtown in a not-so-safe area of Mobile, so use caution if visiting.
Hartwell Field’s Outfield Wall ran along the Fence Line; the Rusted Volkswagon sits where the Outfield was, Photo by Matt Colville, Stadium Journey
Hartwell Field’s infield is now part of Mobile’s Police Impound Lot, Photo by Matt Colville, Stadium Journey
Overgrown Weeds and Tall Grass occupy Hartwell Field’s Infield now, Photo by Matt Colville, Stadium Journey
Babe Ruth once hit a Home Run at Hartwell Field that smashed the Roof of this Warehouse, Photo by Matt Colville, Stadium Journey