November 20, 2009 The old field where Jesse Owens once dusted his toes and Satchel Paige trotted the bases is about to get a facelift.
Marsh Field, on the corner of Peck and Laketon, has hosted professional baseball stars, an Olympic track champion and high school games for nearly 100 years. But, it’s starting to show its age.
And officials from the cash-strapped city of Muskegon, which owns and cares for the field, think it might be time to forge a relationship for upkeep of the field with a private entity.
Enter the Lakeshore Baseball Club LLC. The new organization, led by Pete Gawkowski and Len Piasecki, hopes to make improvements to the facility so that it can host local and out-of-town youth baseball activities from tournaments to summer camps.
“Marsh Field has been in a state of decline over the past 10 years,” said Gawkowski, a West Michigan Subway sandwich shop franchise owner and developer of Extra Innings — a Norton Shores indoor baseball training facility.
A formal three-year agreement having the Lakeshore Baseball Club take over the operation and maintenance of Marsh Field is being put in final form by attorneys. The field would remain the home and practice field for the Muskegon High School Big Reds baseball team.
For other events, however, the club would have rights to the field’s gate reciepts and concession stand revenues.
“Marsh Field is one of the oldest minor league fields in Michigan,” Muskegon City Manager Bryon Mazade said. “It has a long history. The facility needs some work.”
For the city, an agreement with the Lakeshore Baseball Club would save city parks department resources during extremely difficult budget times. It’s a public-private partnership similar to the longstanding agreement the city has with a fishing group, which maintains and operates Fisherman’s Landing boat launch and camping facility.
Jim Grevel is a member of Lakeshore Baseball Club LLC and special events coordinator for Extra Innings. “Marsh Field is a very special place,” he said.
Marsh Field dates back to 1916. Founder Charles W. Marsh sold the site to the city in 1920.
Through the 1920, ’30s and ’40s, the covered grandstands held up to 4,000 screaming baseball fans on many nights. Those grandstands — built by Marsh who was the president of Muskegon’s Michigan State League team — survived until 1957.
Marsh Field reportedly provided a showcase for the likes of baseball Hall of Famers Charley Gehringer, Mickey Cochrane, Harry Heilmann, Johnny Mize and Satchel Paige to name some who played there. The baseball park was home to the American Legion leagues in the 1940s.
Marsh Field also hosted the Muskegon Lassies beginning in 1946. By 1948, the Lassies drew 78,000 fans and the Clippers courted 83,000 — the best attendance year for the ballpark, according to sports historians.
The Central League Muskegon Clippers faded in 1951. The last women’s baseball ended in 1953.
After the removal of the covered grandstands, the baseball field became home to the high school Big Reds. It has served Muskegon area high school and youth leagues ever since.
Gawkowski said his company wants to begin working on Marsh Field yet this fall in preparation for the 2010 season. Eventually, the group wants to build a new infield which could be up to a $40,000 investment. A new backstop, concession stand upgrades and security measures also are being planned, he said.
The Lakeshore Baseball Club has been asked to limit access to Marsh Field at the baseball field gates and not the facilities’ parking lot enterances. The Marsh Field property also has playground equipment, a walking trail and other general recreation areas that will remain open and free to the public.
The facility upgrades and Lakeshore Baseball Club’s sports contacts should boost the potential of hosting local and statewide youth baseball tournaments at Marsh Field, said Piasecki, president of the Muskegon ChannelCats youth baseball club. The potential is to have the facility used five nights a week by local and regional teams and host events for out-of-town teams every weekend.
Youth sports — like baseball, hockey, volleyball and basketball — have become big business as parents travel far and wide to have their children play on elite travel teams. All of that means tourism business for the community, according to Muskegon County Tourism Manager Jill Emery.
“Sports marketing is one of the top areas of growth for all convention and visitor bureaus,” Emery said. Sporting events generate hotel room nights and spending at local restaurants, gas stations and retailers, she said.
“Sporting events affect several sectors of our economy,” Emery said. “These events generate big bucks.”
For the owners of the Lakeshore Baseball Club, the Marsh Field initiative is simply about the love of baseball and the community.
“We want to polish a diamond in the rough,” Piasecki said