MINDEN PARKS AND RECREATION
by Johnny Johnson, Class of 1979
Minden Parks and Recreation
Yeah, I knew I could get you to take a second look at this article by using that title. The subject seems to be a magnet for conflict. Now that you're here, please read on.
We are very lucky in Minden to have a first class recreation center. I have been all over north Louisiana, from Alexandria to Monroe to Mansfield to Junction City in my travels as an umpire, so I am speaking from experience when I tell you that what we have is second to none in this area. I am proud of it, and proud that my children get to use it. But even before this complex was built, we had better baseball fields than most other communities in our area, and I have had the pleasure of being on those fields for more than thirty years.
Just a few weeks ago, we started practicing our nine and ten year old baseball team to get ready for the fast approaching season. Practices are scheduled so that all teams have an equal time on the fields. The ones who want more practice can find a field around town on the days they are not scheduled at the recreation center. We ended up at Babbs Park on several occasions this year, and while it has become a little run down, it is still a great place to play ball. I write this story in tribute to that park, and more specifically Will Life field, or Little Babbs, and to all of the people who had a hand in making it such a great place to be for the many years it was used for little boys' baseball.
I don't expect anyone else to feel the way I do about a piece of ground with a fence. I'm sure there are people or places or things in everyone's life that take them back to a time of joy and happiness. If you do, think of that while you read this story. It may have been an old barn, a pool hall, a school, a playground, a creek, or a pond. This park is where I cultivated and grew a ton of great memories.
Do you remember what it was like to play little league baseball in Minden prior to 1973? If you do, you will recall the short green fence that they put up before the games at Victory Park for the little leagues. Victory was a nice place to play, but it was a field that was just too big for us little fellas.
Back then Babbs Park had one field and it was used for adult softball. The rest of the area was wooded on both sides of Yale and Watterman streets. On the other side of Horton, where there is now a nice playground, was a marshy area filled with snakes and rats and who knows what else. Being a neighborhood kid with lots of neighborhood friends, we explored that area time and time again. We also spent hours without end on the softball field.
In the summer/fall of 1972, the landscape changed. Directly behind the softball field, we saw workers putting up a fence and working on the landscaping. Seemingly overnight, a press box was built, and what a wonder that was to young eyes that had never seen anything like it. We watched in amazement as a state-of-the-art, youth-sized, baseball field took shape. Sometime that year, they finished little Babbs.
They kept the gates locked all that year, but it didn't keep us off of the field. We were in heaven. It was a whole summer of home runs to kids that had never been able to hit a ball over the fence. It didn't matter to us that the bases were paper plates, or that we had no umpires, because we finally had a place of our own. We kept our own stats, argued over the rules, and bragged between ourselves about the plays we made.
The next year we started our first official season on that field. That first night was magical. As I walked over the hill toward the park, I saw the new field in all its glory. All of the kids in their cotton uniforms, with real "legguns" like the pros wear, and "sanitary" socks, were an awesome sight. The stands were full of parents and the obligatory city officials for opening night. There were official umpires, and an official scorekeeper and a PA announcer. I still remember standing on second base thinking that this must be what it was like to play in the majors. I pray that these memories don't dwindle with time, for they make me smile even now, so many years later.
I got to play on that field officially for two years. I then helped my father coach for a couple of years, and just recently found an old picture of those days, with a full team of fifteen boys, all dressed out in their yellow cotton uniforms and two coaches with hair that was far too long. I grinned for a long time after seeing this picture, because it stirred some long gone memories. I owe Kodak a lot more than I could ever repay.
Since that time, I spent a full twenty years umpiring games on that same field. Oh sure, I called a few games at what we called "big Babbs", and a few games on the newer fields that came years later, but the majority of the time I was on that one field that I spent so much time on in my youth. Today, and I'm sure for many summers to come, I will miss that field. There is just something about it that brings me back, again and again, to simpler times. It had, and still has, to me, character.
We now have the brand new ten million dollar complex. It was time for it, I know. We had outgrown the area where my little field is located. Traffic nightmares were a nightly occurrence at Babbs since the addition of the girl's field, tee ball field, and the two additional baseball fields. Close calls were also in abundance as kids ran into the road chasing after foul balls. The new complex is safer, more convenient, and there is plenty of room for everyone.
There is just one problem with this complex. Forgive me when I say this, but I hate the way those new fields look, all clumped together, and the sterile feeling they have. They have no character. I guess I will survive the transition to the new complex, but I will never forget my little field.
I will always remember the character of that field and how everyone knew where you were talking about when you said "little Babbs". I'm sure everyone in our town has a memory or two from this field, but I have thousands. I remember the first official game there some 30 years gone now. I remember my father in the third base coaching box so many years ago, and also from these many recent years as he walked from park to park coordinating the umpires and scorekeepers. I can call up, at will, players and coaches names, and can almost hear Bobby Igo screaming "Nice Pitch" with emphasis to try to get me to change my call. I can see Robert Hill pitching and he is still the fastest throwing 12-year-old I have ever seen in all these many years. I remember parents sitting in between little Babbs and big Babbs so that they could watch both of their children play.
I can still remember the mat they hung on the fence behind home plate to protect the balls from hitting too hard, and can hear the thud the ball made when it hit that mat. I'll never forget J.R. Boyett and how he used to step on that old red mechanical pitching machine, say "here we go", and then release the ball with a push of the old white handle. I hope he forgives me for this, but I'm going to say it anyway. Ask him, but he'll never admit it. His strike zone was from about four inches off the ground to about knee high. He never got it right either.
How can I ever forget the white boards that served as foul lines in the outfield? That was one of the silliest things I had ever heard of, but I guess they were effective. The umpire didn't have to worry too much about getting a close call right when looking down the line. It either hit the board or it didn't, and you could tell by the sound. They eventually took them up after they rotted out and used regular line marking chalk for the remainder of the time the field was used for little league baseball.
I remember how the stands were painted red, white, and yellow, and I can almost smell the field after a summer rain shower. Corny? Maybe. But then again, what subject that has meaning only to a particular person is not considered corny?
The people are what I remember most vividly. Of course I remember my father, C.L. Johnson and how he spent thousands of hours at that park coaching and coordinating. He is probably the only person who can relate to this story, and is the only other person who spent as much time as I did at that park. I cherish those memories.
I remember my mother, Gloria, in the press box so many times, and Kathy Newer in the concession stand every night.
I think about some of the most dedicated coaches of that time and their names come quickly: C.L. and Red Cupples, Rod Shaffer and Bobby Igo. The McCoy boys, Charcoal Downs, and sweet Lew Coker. Gary Oller, Charlie Rose, Sonny Kennon, Rodney Rogers, and others too numerous to mention. I remember the nicknames: Weeble, Goo, Flick, Shorty, Sonny, and so many, many more. I could go on and on, but I don't imagine Jenny would give me enough room to finish talking of this park and my memories.
In every game I called that final year, I found myself drifting back to that first summer when we jumped the fence and played pick-up games of five on five. I was lucky enough to be able to umpire in the last official little league game here that last year, and my mother and father served as official scorekeeper and announcer, as they have for all of the all-star tournaments that I can remember. As we looked out of the press box after it was over, we reminisced and I think that we all shed a tear or two while we watched the children gather cups of dirt and lime for keepsakes.
I don't think that anyone can really understand my feelings for this field, because I don't really understand them myself. Maybe these feelings are corny. I don't care. All I know is that it is hard; knowing that my children will never experience the joy of playing here and never experience the character that this field has developed over these thirty years. Goodbye little Babbs. I will never forget.