John Roach's Column: Field of Memories
By: John Roach
Nearly the entire family made it.
We ventured from the west side to an east side landmark that, though changed, holds memories aplenty.
My nephew was in town from college. He was roaming the turf of a beautiful, yet oddly shaped field. It is a plot of land that is as rich with moments as any single location in Madison, including Camp Randall.
Outside the traffic was whizzing past the extinct Smart Studios and new Shopbop offices on East Washington.
Just down the street the Roach clan was gathered inside Breese Stevens Field.
To be inside that remarkable ballpark is to go back in Madison time.
Breese Stevens Field was built back in the ’20s. It was the first field in Madison to have lights. The façade and grandstand were added in the ’30s with Depression-era funding. The rock walls came from the Hoyt Park quarry on the west side.
Even Dad, now eighty-three, made his way into the bleachers this night. It was difficult for him. Not because he is infirm. No, the challenge for Dad was far more demanding than old age. Dad was at Breese because he had to watch his grandson play soccer.
He isn’t much for soccer.
Dad quickly changed the moment from “a game where no one scores” to his most powerful memory of Breese Stevens Field.
It took place more than sixty-five years ago.
In the fall of 1946, the Edgewood Crusaders, under the leadership of Coach Earl Wilke, went undefeated in football. It is said, at least by those on the team, that they were a juggernaut. They had guys named McCormick, Prestagiacomo, Maglio, Devine, Heilman, Schwartz and yes, even a Roach. At the end of their regular season someone (my grandfather) had the bright idea to challenge the Chicago City Champions, Mt. Carmel, to a battle. Mt. Carmel chuckled and agreed.
Sitting in the bleachers in 2012, Dad recalled how they covered the turf of Breese Stevens Field with straw that late autumn so it wouldn’t freeze. Mt. Carmel made their way to Madison. They thumped the smaller Crusaders in a tough battle.
Later Dad played Industrial League baseball at Breese Stevens, in a high level of competition with Madison guys back from the war. He poked a home run out onto East Washington Avenue. It exited the field outside the second light tower. Back then folks driving East Wash knew to expect the occasional baseball to rain down on them. If you hit one over the short wall in right it was only a double.
Traveling teams from the Negro Leagues played Breese. Dad seems to remember batting against a guy named Satchel Paige.
Later played baseball at Breese myself, in the Madison City Flyweight Championship Game, back when the city funded baseball for kids. Managed to break both tibia and fibula while clumsily sliding into home plate, never again to be as carefree an athlete.
Also played football there, but not as well as Timmy Healy, who in the late ’60s led his Purgolders to victory over the West Regents in one of the most famous high school football games in Madison history. I was witness to Healy’s winning field goal in front of a crowd that held close to ten thousand Madisonians.
In hindsight that might have been Breese Stevens’ last great moment, and a chapter closed for Madison.
The city and Breese began to change. New ball fields and shopping malls grew on the outskirts of town. Shops on the square were shuttered, leaving the heart of our city to the politicians.
The University grew rapidly, overwhelming the rest of the central city.
Fans drifted away from Breese Stevens, and also from its more obscure but colorful events, such as midget car races and wrestling matches with the likes of Art “The Sailor” Thomas and Flyin’ Fred Curry.
To sit in the bleachers at Breese is to hear the echoes of that smaller, more intimate, more connected Madison.
I am usually not one to wallow in the past, but laughing in the bleachers at Breese that night with my family was a wistful moment.
It was cause to remember a very different time.
A very different Madison.
Shortly after we left the bleachers at Breese it was announced that the Ace Hardware in Meadowood was closing.
Too much gunfire.
We were a town then.
We are a city now.
Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Reach him at email@example.com.
Find more of John Roach's columns here.
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