Venerable fields preserve Utah’s baseball tradition
By Tom Wharton | The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Jun 30 2014 10:40PM
omehow it was appropriate that teams from Helper and Magna played for last year’s Utah American Legion baseball championship.
That’s because the squads play on two of Utah’s most historic baseball fields and carry on a small-town tradition dating back to the early 1920s, when the original diamonds were constructed.
These are diamonds where copper and coal miners played heated games against nearby cities, many of them gone and nearly forgotten. Semi-pro Industrial League teams with names such as the Helper Merchants, Magna-Garfield Millmen, Brigham City Peaches, Provo Timps and American Fork Steelmen competed on these fields of dreams before the advent of
television and professional baseball drew fans elsewhere.
These days, instead of being forgotten and abandoned like so many other historic parks, American Legion and Babe Ruth baseball players carry on their communities’ baseball traditions on summer evenings when smoke from concession stands rises into the air, lights from ancient standards illuminate the fields and friends and families gather to watch America’s pastime.
Golden memories of Copper Park • On a quiet Friday morning the week before the Utah Copper Community Park hosts Magna’s annual July 4th celebration, the old baseball field is quiet.
Large, gnarled trees surround the field. Light standards resembling something out of The Natural’s era loom over the finely groomed field with bases in place. The old cinderblock stands are empty as is the concession stand, which still sports Cyprus High’s 2014 spring baseball schedule on a sign. Cyprus’ blue and gold colors can be seen on the field near home plate. Sunken dugouts wait for players who have been coming to this spot since a park was constructed here in 1924.
Bob Fratto, who has coached baseball in Magna for the past 28 years, often cooks burgers on a barbecue near the back of the concession stand, no doubt hoping the smoke keeps the park’s legendary mosquitoes at bay.
"It’s pretty when the trees are out there," said Fratto. "People comment about how huge our backstop is. We love playing there. It is tucked back in there and is quiet. No one knows it’s out there. It’s a real pretty place to play."
Rio Tinto Kennecott spokesman Kyle Bennett said there used to be boating, fishing and ice skating nearby. Kennecott still owns the land under the park, but donated the facilities — which also include tennis courts, a skateboard park, playgrounds and covered picnic pavilions — to Salt Lake County, which now maintains them.
Ninety-five-year-old Magna resident John Coon remembered when Magna had a team sponsored by Kennecott Copper, which built the park next to the Copper Club golf course and community park.
"They were quite active as a ball team," recalled Coon, a World War II veteran who operated a Magna gas station for over 40 years. "They coached some of the good players to come there. They would get good players by offering them a job at Kennecott."
According to Irene Hulse, who wrote a book on the history of Magna called "From Rags to Riches," the town’s first baseball team formed in 1908, and a league started in 1911. In 1924, a team from Magna and nearby Arthur beat the professional Salt Lake Bees.
Magna native and long-time Utah baseball coach Sonny Sudbury remembered when his dad, Ab, started a Little League program in nearby Garfield. He said there was almost always a July 4th baseball game at the old park. In the late ’50s, the University of Utah used the lighted stadium as its home park.
Sudbury, who graduated from Cyprus in 1961, remembers getting some home-field help when he hit a home run playing against Jordan. Kennecott did not water the tailings piles north of the stadium then like it does these days, and when the wind blew from north to south, it made seeing difficult. He hit a pop fly 15 feet behind second base, but turned it into a home run because the Jordan outfielders could not see the ball due to blowing dust.
Helper field a community effort • About a two-hour drive to the southeast, Helper’s Ernie Gardner Field harkens back to a similar baseball era.
Though remodeled, the Helper field retains much of its old-time charm. According to long-time Carbon County baseball fan Walter Borla, it was built in 1923. His father was among the Italian, Greek and Austrian stone masons who worked for the Work Projects Administration during the Great Depression who built the rock wall that runs along the left side of the field. Some of the old railroad ties used to hold up the old wooden fence remain as part of a more modern chain link fence.
As for the ancient light standards, Borla said they were financed by a community celebration held each winter known as the Days of ’49.
"Most of the funds were derived from the casino operated for three nights of the event in the Civic Auditorium," recalled Borla. "Local and county law enforcement agencies turned their backs during the three nights, knowing the funds were to go to a good cause."
Funds helped put up lights at the ballpark, a new grandstand, fencing around the field and little league ball diamonds named after Borla.
He remembers that the old stadium was packed for a game between the Kansas City Monarchs, a famous African-American baseball team, and the House of David, a team of bearded players from a Michigan religious colony.
There was also a 1949 game between the Helper Merchants, who won the Utah Industrial League championship, and the Coors team from Denver, who won the Colorado semi-pro title. Helper lost.
Borla said the park is named after Ernie Gardner, a conductor for the Rio Grande railroad who lived with his wife for 52 years in the home next to the park’s parking lot.
"He was regarded as protector of the park," said Borla. "He kept a watchful eye on what went on there while involved in administrative positions with Helper baseball teams. If there was any vandalism at the park, the culprits had Ernie Gardner to answer to."
Long-time Carbon County resident Ron Jewkes said the field was remodeled about 10 years ago. New dugouts were built, a new section was constructed behind home plate and the old wooden fence was replaced by a wire fence. A new scoreboard was put into place.
The Helper field boasts of hosting the longest-running American Legion summer baseball tournament in Utah.
Helper American Legion baseball coach Jeff Cisneros loves the atmosphere at the park.
"It’s an older stadium and we’ve redone most of the playing grounds to keep it playable," he said. "But we’ve tried to keep as much of the original as possible."
He marvels at the fan support the Helper team gets from the community.
"Helper puts the American Legion schedule on the back of bills sent to residents of Helper," he said. "We get quite a bit of support from people in the town who have no relatives playing but just want to come out and watch us play."
The venerable parks, lovingly maintained, remain a part of the fabric of Magna and Helper, two of Utah’s most historic towns.