The grounds crew nervously scrambled as they saw the rain pour down on the old Derks Field late one Saturday night.
It was April 11, 1964, and the crew needed to have the field ready the next day for a spring training game between the Triple-A Salt Lake Bees and the major league Milwaukee Braves.
They knew it would be a well-attended contest, a game that would be remembered for years to come. So as the field was drenched and the wind threatened to blow away the infield dirt, the crew pulled out an old-timey, last-ditch trick. They burned gasoline to dry out the base paths and dumped some fresh dirt onto the field. The hope was to burn the field now, so the stars of the diamond could burn an indelible memory tomorrow. It did the trick.
That Sunday, over 6,000 people converged at the Salt Lake ballpark to get a glimpse of Major League Baseball. Future home run king Hank Aaron was among the Braves in the lineup card that day.
It ended up being an unforgettable moment for some, one in a century full of them for the baseball stadiums that have occupied the corner of 1300 South and West Temple in Salt Lake City.
On Tuesday, the Salt Lake Bees announced they are moving out of the beloved ballpark at the end of the 2024 season and will build new digs at Daybreak in South Jordan.
For the first time since 1927, pro baseball will no longer be played in Salt Lake City. The site has been home to two different ballparks in its time. It was Derks Field until 1994, when the city tore it down to build Franklin Quest Field on the same plot. The park was later called Spring Mobile Ballpark from 2009-14 before being given its current name, Smith’s Ballpark.
But no matter what it was called, the site that housed the Trappers, Stingers, Gulls, Buzz and Bees, has been the epicenter of baseball in Utah. It played host to not just Aaron, but also Babe Ruth, the cast of “The Sandlot” and so much more history along the way.
An unlikely history
Utah’s never had a Major League Baseball team. So the fact that it could jam as much baseball history into a stadium just five minutes from the state capitol might be surprising to some. But that is what happened in over 100 seasons as the stadium fittingly housed a cast of equally unlikely suitors and attracted dozens more.
The first iteration of the Bees became the heartbeat of the city as far back as 1915.
“There isn’t a red-blooded citizen in this burg that hasn’t at least heard something [about the Bees],” the Salt Lake Telegram wrote on April 22, 1915.
There were the Trappers, too — a band of misfits and undrafted baseball players who took over the city in the summer of 1987. That’s when the Trappers won 29 straight games and set the record for most consecutive wins by a professional team at any level.
The day the record was set, legendary comedian and part-owner Bill Murray was in attendance at Derks Field and took the team out for beers later.
Through the years, the attendance was generally good as people followed the likes of players like Sam McDowell. In fact, McDowell — nicknamed Sudden Sam for his delivery — embodied the players that called Derks Field home.
He was good, and went on to be an All-Star caliber pitcher in the majors. But he was also a character. He ended up being the inspiration for the character Sam Malone on the award-winning show “Cheers.”
A cast of visitors
It wasn’t just the mainstays that made 1300 South and West Temple a historic baseball venue. It was also the passersby.
There was Aaron, yes. But Ruth also came through the stadium three times in 1927, 1930 and 1940. The first time was well-documented as he spent a week in Salt Lake trying to make a buck in the offseason by putting on camps. The last time, closer to his death, he could barely hit the ball over the Derks Field fence in his hitting clinic.
There was the aforementioned Murray, who spent many an afternoon in the shadow of the Wasatch Mountains consuming Trappers baseball.
Then there was “The Sandlot.” The classic movie was filmed almost entirely in Salt Lake City and Ogden. The cast visited the ballpark multiple times for city-wide screenings and for anniversaries of the movie. Although the sandlot itself wasn’t at the ballpark, the stadium became a key piece of the movie’s history.
In 2018, “The Sandlot” cast came out for a Bees game in front of almost 15,000 fans.
“As soon as I got into Salt Lake … you could just smell it in the air. There’s something special about it,” Tom Guiry, who played the character Smalls, told reporters that day.
Walk around what is now called Smith’s Ballpark today and there isn’t as much magic.
The Bees averaged 5,873 fans per game, a little over a third of the capacity of 14,511. Salt Lake, meanwhile, is fighting to curb crime in the Ballpark neighborhood.
But while the team will leave, the history will live on in the heart of the Ballpark, defined by stories of Ruth and Aaron.
On Aug. 12, 1992, Aaron came back to Salt Lake City one last time. He was in town mostly to promote his Big Brothers and Big Sisters campaign. But before he left, he took a car to Derks Field to take in a Salt Lake Trappers game. He threw out the first pitch and reminisced about his old playing days.
“I think too often in this country we get caught up in heroes,” Aaron told reporters that day as he took it all in.
The Babe might’ve disagreed.
“Heroes get remembered,” as the saying goes.
And on the corner of 1300 South and West Temple, Salt Lake’s baseball legends will never die.