Still a Field of Dreams, Redbirds baseball at AutoZone Park never fails to inspire joy, nostalgia, and the renewals of spring
The crack of the bat. The cheer of the crowd. The crunch – and just the name itself – of good ol’ Cracker Jacks.
Yes, baseball is back. Spring is in the air, and so are the sights and sounds of minor league baseball. Which, for my money, is still one of the best bargains in town. And here in Memphis, we are blessed to have not just a Triple-A baseball team, but a baseball club with a long and storied history as affiliated with the Cardinals of the National League in one of our sister cities, St. Louis, MO.
Memphis baseball can claim the likes of Memphis’s favorite baseballer sons Charlie Lea and Tim McCarver, and over more than a hundred years teams like the Memphis Turtles and the Egyptians, the Lambs and the Chickasaws (Chicks), the Fever Germs, Blues, Red Sox and now the Redbirds. (check out Mark Hayden’s 2019 article “Blues, Chicks & Red Sox: Baseball in Memphis,” from 2019).
And ahh great the old Memphis ballparks: rickety and wooden Russwood Park until a tragic fire in 1960; the Fair Grounds’ Tim McCarver Stadium through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s; and Martin Stadium, which hosted Negro League baseball until the league’s dissolution in 1960, and which was cruelly demolished in 1961.
Today, Memphis can boast the beautiful AutoZone Park. The park is home to the Memphis Triple-A Redbirds and the Memphis 901FC pro soccer team, which made its debut in 2019. And as ballparks go, it is simply one of the best in all of professional baseball, major leagues or otherwise. Nestled in the middle of downtown, anchored at the corner of Union Avenue and B.B. King Boulevard, it’s a front porch gateway to the heart of downtown, one block east of the Peabody Hotel. It is, as Memphis sportswriter Geoff Calkins once said, “stunning,” “a piece of paradise,” and “something of a miracle, [that] looks and feels like a slice of heaven.”
With architectural echoes of Boston’s Fenway Park, Baltimore’s Camden Yards, and Chicago’s beloved Wrigley Field – the late and legendary Cardinal broadcaster Jack Buck said in 2000 that he thought it was “nicer is than Wrigley Field” – its brick facades and steel supports, rooftops, overhangs and light stanchions give it the look and feel of the those classic ballparks. Its surrounding downtown views gives the park a sense of intimacy, and its minor-league build a human scale rarely experienced in the newer, larger major league stadiums.
Once a downtown hole in the ground that Memphians joked about as they waited through delay after delay for its construction, the park has for twenty-two years settled right into its location – how on earth would it not be here? – and put fans in their seats against a dramatic backdrop of downtown. Outside, its brick facade along Union provides an instant and friendly street frontage that compliments and lines the avenue as though it’s been there for a hundred years. Inside, its round-the-park concourse provides safe cover from the elements and an ever-present peak at the action on the field, whether you’re picking up a souvenir or in line for a beer and a dog. With its classic features, its location, and its sounds – an organ is played between innings from the press box – it continues to be breathtaking with every visit, evoking oohs and aahs, joy and yes, even serenity. It’s a real gem.
After the last two years of global horrors and upheaval, nine innings here feels like heaven has returned.
Mark Fleischer is founder and Executive Director of StoryBoard Memphis. He loves his adopted hometown of Memphis, is a big baseball fan, and has visited over two-dozen major and minor-league ballparks across the country.