‘Small’ Jacksonville baseball stadium is historic diamond in the rough

A look at the rich African-American history connected to J.P. Small Municipal Stadium

The stadium saw the dawn of a new era with the Negro Leagues opening the door to Blacks playing in Major League Baseball.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It has been home to the Great American Pastime for more than 100 years. Known at various times as Barrs Field, Joseph E. Durkee Athletic Field and the Myrtle Avenue Ball Park. Today it’s J.P. Small Municipal Stadium.

Renovated a few years ago, this field in Jacksonville’s historically Black Durkeeville is steeped in African American history. One of the original Negro League teams, the Jacksonville Red Caps, played on the field in 1938.

The team was made up of a group of local Black train porters, who were employees of the East Coast Railroad. They played together when they were off duty. The porters wore red hats as part of their work uniform, and they were called the “Red Caps” during their workday.

The list of baseball greats who graced the field is unbelievable. “Babe Ruth, Satchel Paige, Lou Gehrig and Ty Cobb,” said Lloyd Washington, president of the Durkeeville Historical Society.

Satchel Paige starred in the Negro League and was the first Black pitcher to play in the American League. He was quite a character. His antics on the field were known to intimidate the batters who faced him.

He was also known for his quotes like: “I never rush myself. See, they can’t start the game without me.”

In 1953, a new era of history for Jacksonville and baseball began when the stadium became the home of the Jacksonville Braves. They were the farm team for the Milwaukee Braves.

In 1953, Samuel Wolfson racially integrated the Jacksonville Braves by adding three Black baseball players to the roster. Among those playing for the Milwaukee Braves' farm team was a 19-year-old by the name of Hank Aaron. (Courtesy: Jacksonville Historical Society Times-Union Collection)

The team’s new owner, Samuel Wolfson, introduced major changes, including racial integration. Three Black players were added to the roster, including a 19-year-old by the name of Hank Aaron.

Howie Brigance’s father was a batboy for the Jacksonville Braves when he was 14. His dad told Howie and his brother, Jerry, stories about the man we now know as Hammerin’ Hank. He called him a trailblazer and talked about the obstacles he had to overcome in those days.

The history of JP Small Memorial Stadium and the role that it has played in Jacksonville's history.

“There were three people of different race on the team that year,” said Jerry Brigance. “They could not eat in the restaurants and they would have to ride in the back seat of the bus. They would have to stay in a different hotel. It was very difficult in general.”

“Mr. Aaron was here for one year and then he moved up,” Jerry Brigance said. “He overcame adversity.”

There is more to this stadium’s rich Black history. After Wolfson Stadium was built Downtown and Durkee Field was replaced as the city’s municipal ballpark, a renamed Myrtle Avenue Field provided members of the African American community another chapter in sports history.

Teams from Stanton practiced there. Edward Waters College teams practiced and played on the field.

Matthew Gilbert High School had a standout who graced the track in his youth. He eventually became an Olympic sprinter.

That Olympic standout from Jacksonville, Bob Hayes, won a gold medal and earned the nickname “Bullet Bob.” After his Olympic career, he moved to the gridiron with the Dallas Cowboys as a wide receiver.

That Olympic standout from Jacksonville, Bob Hayes, won a gold medal and earned the nickname “Bullet Bob.” (Archive photos)

Lloyd Washington said race relations have come a long way in the years since the Red Caps played in the River City. But, to use a baseball metaphor, Jacksonville has not hit a “home run.”

“No, we haven’t, we have a long way to go,” said Washington. “We haven’t made it to the outfield yet. We have a long way to go. But at least the fact that we are looking in that direction makes a difference.”

Washington agreed that baseball opened the door to racial and cultural change in Jacksonville and he believes it can bring about more change in the future.

“It can be used,” he said. “But, I think all athletic organizations and groups should help push it through. Not just baseball. Let’s not put that on baseball’s shoulder.”

Washington talked about the fact that J.P. Small Municipal Stadium reflects not only Black culture but the culture of all Northeast Florida residents and can be a conduit for improving the racial divide that still exists.

Acknowledging this city and this nation still has a ways to go, he looks at the history made in this stadium and how far we have come and says philosophically, “Hopefully, it won’t take forever to get there.”

One last bit of history: J.P. Small Memorial Stadium is the only historic sports park still standing in the city of Jacksonville.

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This Emmy Award-winning television, radio and newspaper journalist has anchored The Morning Show for 18 years.