It could be more than a year in the making, but McLennan County Historical Commission members are moving forward with plans to place a state historical marker on the site of the former Katy Park, the history-laden baseball field in downtown Waco that played host to Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Theodore Roosevelt and Joe Louis.
Ken Brittain, chairman of the McLennan County Historical Commission, said he has been contacted by at least two people who want to donate to the $2,000 cost of the state historical marker, and that members are working on the narrative for the commemorative plaque that will be submitted with the marker application to the Texas Historical Commission.
If things go as planned, Brittain said the marker could be erected in the fall of 2020 in the area of Eighth Street between Webster Avenue and Jackson Avenue, better known these days as the parking lot of the immensely popular Magnolia Market at the Silos.
Before Chip and Joanna Gaines made the area a shopping and tourist destination, Katy Park was a popular family fun stop for six decades and served as an inviting ballfield to a variety of leagues and teams, including the Waco Pirates, a farm club for the Major League Pittsburgh Pirates.
Brittain and others think a historical marker for the site is long overdue.
“I came to Waco in 1955 to go to Baylor, and a lot of people in Waco remember that park,” Brittain said. “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.”
The historic park was built in 1905, just in time for a visit by Roosevelt. It was rebuilt after the 1953 tornado that killed 114 people, injured 600 and destroyed much of downtown Waco, including the park. It was razed in 1965, and the owners sold it to a businessman, who put a wrecking yard there.
Brittain said the commission cannot submit its application for the Katy Park marker until September. If approved, designs will be sent to a foundry, and the city of Waco has offered to install it, Brittain said.
In the meantime, the Gaineses and their Magnolia empire are developing a master plan for the Silos area and have not ruled out the possibility of incorporating the marker into their plans, Brittain said.
“We’re still in the process of finalizing our specific plans, but we will definitely be honoring the location and its significance,” Magnolia publicist John Marsicano said this week in an email.
Brittain told the Tribune-Herald in November that the commission contacted the Pittsburgh Pirates organization in 2014 about getting a marker for Katy Park and possibly helping pay for it. Pirates officials said they were aware the club had a minor league team in Waco from 1952 to 1965 but expressed no desire to help pay for a 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.”
Honoring her son
Mary Brewer, whose family has been in the furniture business in Waco for many years, said she will donate money to the project to honor the memory of her son, Billy, who played ball there, won baseball scholarships to Hill College and Sam Houston State University, but was killed at 20 in an accident while working on a highway crew.
Brewer asked that the amount of her donation not be disclosed, but Brittain said it will take other donations to fund the entire project. He said donations can be sent to the McLennan County Historical Commission, 333 Old Mill Creek Drive, Waco, TX, 76712.
In an event that drew thousands to the park in 1929, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and rest of the Yankees came to Waco to play an exhibition game against the Waco Cubs at Katy Park. In the early 1950s, legendary boxer Joe Louis boxed an exhibition match at Katy Park against a Fort Hood soldier who had been an Olympic boxer.
In 1930, 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.
The Cardinals 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 Katy Park owner A.H. 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.
Throngs of shoppers making the pilgrimage to Magnolia Market likely don't know about the hallowed ground where Babe Ruth, Theodore Roosevelt and Joe Louis once drew thousands.