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With Magnolia's rise, new crowds flocking to site of long-lost baseball mecca

  • 6 min to read
Katy Park

The throngs of shoppers making the pilgrimage toward Magnolia Market at the Silos this holiday season likely do not know they are strolling past the hallowed ground where the likes of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Theodore Roosevelt and Joe Louis once drew thousands.

The area of Webster Avenue between Sixth and Eighth Streets has become a wildly popular tourist destination under the auspices of Chip and Joanna Gaines’ Magnolia empire. But it was previously a centerpiece of downtown for six decades as the former baseball mecca known as Katy Park.

The historic park built in 1905, just in time for a visit by Roosevelt, and rebuilt after the 1953 tornado wrecked it, was a vibrant hub of activity in a simpler time when kids walked everywhere and chased down home run balls. Some of those kids, now gray-headed, remember that if the lights were on at the ballfield, their parents knew where they were.

Katy Park was at Eighth and Webster, now a parking lot for the Silos. Before it was razed in 1965, it played host to baseball games from a variety of leagues and teams, including the Waco Pirates, a farm club for the Pittsburgh Pirates of Major League Baseball. The grounds hold such local historical significance that many have wondered why it has not joined the 230 other McLennan County sites commemorated with a state historical marker.

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Katy Park

Aerial of Katy Park

The McLennan County Historical Commission contacted the Pittsburgh Pirates organization in 2014 with the idea of getting a marker for Katy Park, commission Chairman Ken Brittain said. Representatives of the Pirates said they were aware the club had a minor league team in Waco from 1952 to 1965 but showed no interested in underwriting the $2,000 cost of the historical marker, Brittain said.

“We never got anyone interested in buying a marker for Katy Park,” he said. “We would love to have a marker there. We have done the research, but we need someone who is interested in funding a marker.

“I came to Waco in 1955 to go to Baylor, and a lot of people in Waco remember that park. I know some of the fellows who went there. They used to be part of the knot-hole gang. Around the country, every ballpark had fences, and they had knot-hole gangs who watched the game through holes in the fences.”

Brittain said if Chip and Joanna Gaines were interested in helping fund the marker, the historical commission would help them file the application.

“All they have to do is pay the money,” he said. “We’ve got the research. They would just have to fund it.”

Magnolia publicist John Marsicano said Magnolia officials are “definitely aware” of the site’s historical significance.

“We are exploring ways we can honor its rich history in our master planning for the Silos property,” he said in an email.

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Katy Park

Waco barber Tito Martinez watched and played baseball at Katy Park in his youth, and also helped set up the boxing ring for a match featuring Joe Louis at the location.

Downtown Waco barber Tito Martinez, 82, grew up on Clay Avenue in South Waco and has fond memories of Katy Park in the 1950s and ’60s. He watched games there as a kid and played there as a young man with the semipro Waco Missions. He was paid $5 a game, but “the guy with the car” was paid $10 a game, extra for gas money, he said.

As a youngster, Martinez was among dozens of kids who would walk to the park and chase home run balls the Pirates and their opponents would hit out of the park.

If the ball flew into the adjacent lumberyard, kids would try to climb the fence, only to find a mean security guard who would shoo them away, he said.

Kids would keep the balls they shagged and play with them until the next Pirates game, when they could exchange the ball for a free ticket to watch the game. Martinez’s face lit up and he cracked a wide smile as the memories came rushing back.

“You know, there should be a historical marker there,” Martinez said. “Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig played there. They had some big-time players there. I heard that Teddy Roosevelt had a rally at the park, and even Joe Louis fought there. There is a lot of history there. At one point, it was the number one field in the whole state of Texas. They would come and study it and they copied it for other parks they built. But we were there all the time. There were a bunch of crazy kids out there scrambling for home run balls on Webster (Avenue).”

Martinez got to meet the great boxer Joe Louis in the early 1950s when Louis came to Katy Park for an exhibition match against a Fort Hood soldier who had been an Olympic boxer.

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Katy Park

Longtime downtown Waco barber Tito Martinez has fond memories of chasing home run balls at the old Katy Park.

Martinez and fellow members of the Waco Boys Club helped set up the boxing ring on the infield of the baseball stadium.

“We are the ones who put the ring up for Joe Louis,” Martinez said. “The Waco Boys Club had a boxing ring. Back then, the Golden Gloves used to be a big thing, so we had a deal if we put the ring up and took it down, we could come watch the fight.”

He met Louis briefly when the legendary fighter known as the “Brown Bomber” came out before the fight to check out the ring and test the ropes.

“He said, ‘You mullets did a good job on this ring,’ ” Martinez said with a grin.

Martinez wasn’t around in 1929 when the fabled “Sultan of Swat,” Babe Ruth, and the original “Iron Man,” Lou Gehrig, came to Waco with the rest of the Yankees to play an exhibition game against the Waco Cubs at Katy Park, but he has heard plenty of stories about that day.

A large crowd came out, well beyond the grandstand’s 4,000-seat capacity, and officials allowed fans to stand in right field. Gehrig collected six RBIs, Ruth hit a line drive into the crowd in right field and hit a kid, and the Yankees beat the Cubs 13-3. Those at the game tell the story of how Ruth, concerned about the boy, went out to see how he was and brought him an autographed baseball.

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A photo shows the outside of Katy Park from the street.

Dave Campbell was 4 years old at the time and would go on to become a legendary Tribune-Herald sports editor and founder of Texas Football magazine.

Campbell does not remember that game but remembers plenty others over the next few decades. One of the most exciting times was when Pittsburgh general manager Branch Rickey vowed to bring in a winning team after the 1953 tornado, which killed 114 people forced the Waco Pirates to finish the season playing in Longview.

The Pirates won the 1954 Big State League title with a 105-42 record, Campbell said.

After the tornado, Katy Park owner A.H. Kirksey spent $400,000 to rebuild the park, replacing the old wooden stands with better seating and installing an improved lighting system. Rickey did his part, too, agreeing to a three-year contract with Waco and sending some big-time players to the Pirates, including Roman Mejias.

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An aerial photo shows damage to Katy Park after the 1953 tornado. The park was rebuilt, and the Waco Pirates won 105 games the next season on their way to the 1954 Big State League title.

Campbell remembers Mejias well, especially his towering home runs that bounced off the Percy Medicine Building on Webster, and his 55-game hitting streak. Mejias later signed to play for the 1962 Houston Colt .45s, the forerunners of the Astros.

“Branch Rickey put together a good team here, and everybody was excited,” Campbell said. “That park would fill up every night. The Pirates were the talk of the town then. They had the best winning percentage of any team in organized baseball in 1954. They were something to see.”

Campbell also agrees that the old site is worthy of a state historical marker.

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1915 Waco

1915 Waco Navigators

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1916 Waco

1916 Waco Navigators

Waco’s minor league history started in 1889 with a team that competed in the young Texas League. A well-known baseball player and ballfield designer, Henry Fabian, came to Waco in 1904 to start a team called the Waco Tigers, and he opened the field in 1905. He was arrested three times for violating a city ordinance against Sunday amusements, before challenging it in court and winning, according to an article by the Baylor-run wacohistory.org.

A new owner bought the team in 1906 and renamed it the Waco Navigators. The team tied Houston for the 1914 Texas League title before winning outright championships in 1915-1916.

After the club was sold to Wichita Falls after the 1919 season, Waco rejoined the Texas League in 1925 with a new team, the Cubs.

The 1930 season featured notable events. Cubs outfielder Gene “Half Pint” Rye became the only player in baseball history to slug three home runs in one inning.

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Playing for the Waco Cubs at Katy Park in 1930, Gene "Half Pint" Rye hit three home runs in a single inning, a record that still stands.

In the eighth inning of a game against the Beaumont Exporters, Rye led off the inning with a home run and added a three-run shot in his next at-bat. He added insult to injury with a grand slam, as the Cubs scored 18 runs in the inning in a 20-7 win.

That season, the Waco Black Cardinals played host to the famous Kansas City Monarchs in the state’s first pro baseball game played at night. The Monarchs brought their own portable lighting system and won the game.

After that game, owners saw how night baseball could benefit the league, and the first night game was played at Katy Park in June of that year. The team relocated to Galveston during the Depression years, but minor league baseball returned to Waco after the war in 1947 when the Waco Dons joined the Class B Big State League.

The Dons became the Pirates after Kirksey persuaded the Pittsburgh Pirates to take over the struggling team in 1948. The Pirates played their last game in 1956, but the ballpark continued to be used in the late 1950s and early 1960s for Baylor varsity baseball, semiprofessional and exhibition games. Moore High School, an African-American school in Waco, competed in the state baseball championships there in 1959.

With the rise of televised sports, the old ballfield saw less and less use, and in 1965, the Kirksey family sold it for $37,500 to a local business that put a wrecking yard there.

Staff writer at the Waco Tribune-Herald covering courts and criminal justice. Follow me on Twitter @TSpoonFeed.

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