Unforeseen Memorable Moments – A Field of Dreams in Newport

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Unforeseen Memorable Moments – A Field of Dreams in Newport
Published in JOURNEYS INTO... | almost 2 years ago

A Journey into Hidden America - A Narrative from On the Road

Like in life, some of the best moments on the road are those that just arise unanticipated and unexpectedly.

These unplanned moments turn out to be the most precious and lasting memories. They are for more fulfilling than scripted moments and tend to compensate for those planned moments that too often just don’t work out as one had hoped.

I share with you such a moment recently experienced.

The place was Newport, Rhode Island. It was a beautiful summer’s day in this coastal city. Newport was sparkling.

But this visitor was disappointed. Two destinations I had anticipated visiting were closed – The Turo Synagogue (Sabbath) and the International Tennis Hall of Fame (A Private Function).

I did get to the picturesque Cliff Walk – nestled between Newport’s famous mansions and its equally famous rocky coastline – and to Thames Street, a street which felt like a boardwalk for the upscale.

But the highlight of the visit to town was an accidental discovery – just around the corner from the visitors center where we sought a town map and a parking spot.

The map we got. The parking space was more elusive, so as we turned on and into traffic on America’s Cup Avenue, there in front of me was looked like a baseball park. No, it was not any baseball park – it was not a stadium; it was not even a retro park. It was the real thing – in classic green, a structure of what appeared to be wooden structure. Looking like parts Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and Doubleday Park, it was a surprise Field of Dreams. It sported a sign “Game Today”.

The place, my Google search told me, was Cardines Field. It is said to be one of the oldest ballparks in the United States and has been called "a small urban gem of a ballpark". The field serves as a buffer between the residential and commercial sections of an older part of Newport, resulting in an oddly shaped outfield fence and dimensions by its proximity of residential housing.

Originally called Basin Field, references to the field can be found as early as 1893. At that time, the property was used by local railroads as a drainage and supply basin for steam engines. Complaints from neighbors about the stagnant water and mosquitoes prompted the drainage of the basin area, permitting baseball to be played. A local historical debate continues as to whether baseball was played prior to 1900, making Cardines one of the oldest existing ballparks in the country, or if play didn't begin until 1908, the earliest documented proof of stadium construction.

The Basin Field ballpark was later renamed for Bernardo Cardines, a Newport baseball player who was Newport's first citizen to die in World War I. Today, the ballpark continues to be the home of the historic Sunset League, as well as the Newport Gulls of the New England Collegiate Baseball League.

Built for unofficial sandlot baseball games by railroad workers from the adjacent Old Colony Division of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad Line, the field hosted many barnstorming all-stars, including Negro League teams like the Baltimore Elite Giants, Boston Royal Giants and the New York Black Yankees. Satchel Paige once played at Cardines. The original backstop dates back to as early as 1908, when the city organized its first six-team league at the park.

Cardines Field is described as a smaller cousin of other notable ballparks of that era, such as Ebbets Field, Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, with a stone facade and wooden bleachers with unique outfield angles. The exterior's elliptical arches reflect the facade of the original Yankee Stadium.

In 1936, the city of Newport took over ownership. Stone and concrete bleachers were built along the third-base line by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1936-1937. The plaque at the entrance that reads "1937" refers to this date. The current grandstand was built by the WPA following the devastating hurricane of 1938. The distinctive curving grandstand section behind home plate was built in 1939. Over the coming decades, the park continued to grow through construction projects to increase capacity, eventually creating the patchwork, overlapping stadium seen today.

During World War II, many former professional ball players were stationed at Naval Station Newport. Many of these players, including Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, and Bob Feller[4] participated in Newport's George Donnelly Sunset League, an amateur league formed in 1919. Wednesday night all-star games drew thousands and required construction of temporary bleachers in the outfield. The Sunset League was named because games began at 5:30 p.m. and ended at dusk, prior to the addition of lights at the park. It is the oldest continuous amateur baseball league in the country. With black players such as Larry Doby and Luke Easter, the Sunset League was integrated several years before Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. The league continues today as key chapter of Cardines' history.

The Sunset League still plays a full schedule throughout the summer, though the park's lighting system now permits games to go well beyond dusk. The field is home to baseball games for Rogers High School, Newport's Babe Ruth League, the historic Sunset League, Newport's American Legion team, Salve Regina University, Naval Academy Preparatory School and the Newport Gulls of the New England Collegiate Baseball League. In the January 18, 2004 edition of Baseball America, Cardines Field was chosen as one of the top five locations in America to play college summer baseball, in response to the jump in reputation the Gulls brought to the park.

The game day sign referred to a Gulls game. Regretfully, time did not allow me to be around for the game that night. I have come to learn that watching the Gulls is popular.

While most teams playing at Cardines average attendance in the dozens or, at most, a few hundred per game, the Newport Gulls, since moving to Newport in 2001, have helped to bring the field back to its former glory days of the mid-20th century, attracting hundreds of fans every night. During the 2004 regular and playoff seasons alone, the Gulls attracted over 50,000 fans through just 26 home games, often with sellout crowds. Following the 2010 season, the Gulls set a team and NECBL record for regular season home attendance, totaling 45,683 after 21 games.

Today more than a century after its opening Cardines remains a gem – a throwback to another place and time but fully engaged with hometown fans and Newport citizens of today.