Before every Tyler Junior College baseball home game, the announcer welcomes fans and players alike to “historic Mike Carter Field.” Mike Carter Field has been through a lot of ups and downs all the while providing a venue for America’s pastime and in 2015, the Tyler, Texas ballpark will turn 75 years old.
Baseball has had a long history in East Texas. The first baseball game played in Texas was at Camp Ford in Tyler during the Civil War. The first minor league team in Tyler was the Tyler Elbertas who played in the South Central League in 1912. Tyler had various teams who played until 1955. The only times there weren’t teams was from 1913 to 1923 due to the Great Depression and from 1941 to 1945 due to World War II.
According to “A Chronological History of Smith County, Texas” by Donald Whisenhunt, construction on what would become Mike Carter Field began on June 12, 1940. This was a Works Progress Administration Project. The WPA was the largest New Deal agency. Projects such as building the ballpark helped local employees find jobs to help sustain them through the struggling economy. The WPA also renovated the football stadium and the fairgrounds. The ballpark was opened in 1941 but didn’t host any games for at least five years due to World War II. The Tyler Trojans played their first season in the new Trojan Park in 1946.
The newly built park was almost completely destroyed due to a devastating fire, which happened at the park in 1948. According to a Tyler Courier Times Telegraph article from August 6, 1948, a student at Butler College reported seeing the fire from his dorm room. The fire chief at the time, Henry Ginn, said that the firefighters had to fight fires at several locations in the park. The space underneath the wooden slants in the grandstand and the roof were both on fire at the same time. The fire burned from approximately 11:30 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. Ginn stated that part of the reason it took so long to put the fire out was because they had to connect their fire hoses to a hydrant nearly 300 feet away from the park. The fire destroyed the dressing rooms and the concession stand. Most of the roof of the grandstand had collapsed. Harry Faulkner, the Trojans business manager requested that the grandstand be torn down so the park could be used and no harm would come to spectators. The Tyler Trojans lost all their equipment in the fire including their uniforms. Local teams offered help as well as the parent club of the Trojans, which was based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Trojan park was repaired in less than two weeks. All of the hazards from the fire including the damaged roof were demolished to not cause any harm to fans. The undestroyed bleachers from either side of the field were brought behind home plate. The Trojans played their first home game on August 17, 1948. After the season was over, the complex was repaired.
Minor league baseball continued in Tyler until 1955. According to “A History of Minor League Baseball in Tyler” by Patrick Whitham, in June 1955 J.C. Stroud, club owner of the Tyler Tigers, realized he could no longer finance the team. The Tyler Tigers folded and minor league baseball didn’t return to Tyler until the Wildcatters in 1993.
Although minor league teams no longer used the field, Trojan Park was still the home of Robert E. Lee and John Tyler high school baseball games as well as Tyler Junior College baseball games.
One standout player from this time period was Mike Carter. He was an ace pitcher who led the way for the John Tyler baseball team during the 1968 season. The team made it to playoffs and only lost two games in the duration of the season. After he graduated from high school he was offered a contract with the Cincinnati Reds, which he turned down to play for TJC. On December 6, 1969, he collapsed in his home and died of a brain aneurysm a few hours later. Carter’s sudden death shocked the team and prompted TJC’s head coach Frank Martin to form a group to rename Trojan Park in his honor. In the spring of 1970, the field was renamed Mike Carter Field.
According to a Tyler Courier Times article from June 16, 1991, TJC had not fielded a baseball team since the early 70’s. The athletic director at the time, Dr. Billy Doggett, said if a playing site ever became available the baseball program would be restored.
Mike Carter Field fell into disrepair and teams no longer played at the facility. Wooden bleachers were broken in two. The once green grass had turned into brown weeds and dirt. Several people remember the field being used for extra parking during football games. Cars were allowed to park in center field.
In 1991, the Tyler Baseball Commission was formed. According to former head coach Jon Groth, the commission was made up of businessman and fathers who had sons growing up that wanted to play baseball. However, there was not a playing facility up to par for teams to play in. According to a Tyler Courier Times article from July 7, 1991, the Tyler City Council approved the lease of Mike Carter Field to the Tyler Baseball Commission. This allowed the Commission to begin renovations on the field.
There were many renovations over the course of the next two years. Some of the repairs included the old turf was excavated, new topsoil was installed, an irrigation process was set up, the backstops were taken down, the dugouts were cleaned out and the seats were replaced.
Many events were held to help raise money to fund these renovations.
“They held several fantasy events,” said Groth. “They would bring in major league players and local businessman would pay to play in exhibition games with these players. They also had silent auctions with things like Nolan Ryan paraphernalia.”
Another event was a baseball clinic that was held on Nov. 9, 1991. There were several Texas Rangers coaches who helped with the clinic. All the money raised went to Mike Carter Field renovations. Players could get pitching tips from Tom House, hitting lessons from Tom Robsen and learn how to run efficiently and play defense from Toby Harrah.
John Tyler High School and Robert E. Lee High School helped raise money for the renovations by selling tickets for an exhibition game between the schools that was to be held at Mike Carter Field. This one time “Standing Room Only” night raised more than $7,500 in ticket sales. This was the first game played on the restored field.
In 1992, the Tyler Baseball Commission was recognized for their hard work when they received the Historic Tyler’s Preservation Award for the work they had done at Mike Carter Field.
The Tyler Wildcatters played at Mike Carter Field for four seasons. They helped with the renovations by fixing the locker rooms, updating the concession stand as well as adding big bleachers on either side of the field. The Wildcatters were moved from Tyler to Lafayette, Louisiana after the 1997 season leaving behind a trail of debt. They left owing one embroidery company over $10,000.
The Tyler City Council turned over ownership of the park to the Tyler Independent School District in 1998.
It would be another four years before a minor league team would call Mike Carter Field Home. The Tyler Roughnecks played in Tyler for the 2001 season before they were transferred to another city. Since then Mike Carter Field has been used by high school teams as well as TJC.
The history of the field is rich and diverse. There have been several high profile players that played at Mike Carter Field or once called the park home.
Louis Santop played in the African-American leagues in the Tyler area. With his strong swing and batting average to back it up, Santop was known around Tyler as “the black Babe Ruth.” Santop was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York in 2006.
Fellow Hall-Of-Famer George Sisler also played in Tyler. He played 15 years in the major leagues before relocating with the Shreveport Sports to Tyler in 1932. Sisler was the player-coach of the team. He was released in June of 1932, before the second half of the season, because he refused to take a pay cut. Sisler held the major league record for hits in a season when he was with the 1920 St. Louis Browns. The record stood at 257 hits in a season and remained unbroken until 2004 when Seattle Mariner Ichiro Suzuki broke it with 262 hits.
Another Tyler great was Dean Stafford.
“I remember watching Dean play when I was a little boy,” said TJC English professor Charles Johnson. “I went to Corpus Christi with Coach Peterson and the tennis team. I had heard that Stafford had settled in Corpus Christi and was now a State Farm agent.”
Johnson looked Stafford up while in Corpus Christi and called him. This began a lifelong friendship.
“We’d talk about once a month over the phone and when he came through Tyler, we’d have lunch together,” said Johnson. “He could tell some great stories. He got married at home plate. He also served as a combat navigator in World War II.”
Stafford also held many records and is widely regarded as one of the best baseball players to ever play in the minor leagues. He had many home run records. In his career he hit 277 home runs, 1,397 RBI’s and a .351 batting average. According to Johnson, he never forgot the field where he once played.
“Sometimes he would talk about the field,” said Johnson. “There used to be an old stone wall that ran along the outfield and he would ask if the wall was still there. He would tell stories of how he had to be careful when he played in the outfield and how dangerous running into the wall could be.”
The main grandstand at Mike Carter Field is named for Frank Martin. Martin was a former TJC baseball coach who also played six years of professional baseball. He also went on to be a scout for the Houston Astros.
Mike Carter Field has a long history and will continue to shape baseball history by producing the players of tomorrow in a beautiful ballpark from yesteryear.