SANTA FE, N.M. — Michael Wright remembers the first time he saw Oscar Huber Memorial Ballpark.
It was shortly after he and his wife moved to Madrid in 1994. The dilapidated wooden grandstand was caving in on itself. Cholla cactus choked the outfield.
“But you could feel the history,” he said.
The history goes back nearly 100 years when in 1919 Oscar Huber, the superintendent of the Albuquerque and Cerrillos Coal Company, got the ball rolling to build a ballpark and form a company team, the Madrid Miners. It was a source of town pride for 30 years.
From 1920 to about 1950 Madrid fielded winning teams, made better by a few hired guns recruited by the coal company for the ability to swing a bat rather than a pick ax.
A few barnstorming teams, including the legendary House of David, played exhibition games against the Miners.
The ballpark is believed to be the first west of the Mississippi to be outfitted with lights, powered by the coal plant’s generator.
The history continues today with more modest incarnations of the Miners seen in men’s and coed teams in Santa Fe city softball leagues.
And its history is being revived by the current restoration of the ballpark, where thousands of fans used to show up to see the Miners play.
Wright is among a group of Madrid residents restoring the old ballpark to its glory days.
“We’re trying to restore the ballpark to the way it was in the 1930s,” said Dale McDonnell, another volunteer who plays for and coaches today’s version of the Miners.
From ghost town to artist colony
After the mine closed in the 1950s, Madrid nearly became a ghost town. But it experienced a revival in the 1970s, largely due to the influx of free-spirited hippies and artists.
It is now a quirky artists’ community and a favorite tourist stop along the N.M. 14 Turquoise Trail. It doesn’t have a town government – and likes it that way.
“We’re definitely unincorporated and no one here wants us to be incorporated,” says Ellen Dietrich, who’s head of the ballpark committee. “We’re like the Wild West.”
Ballpark restoration efforts have been channeled through the Madrid Landowners Association, a nonprofit that looks after the interests of its townspeople, and Madrid Cultural Properties, its fundraising arm.
“The main focus of the landowners association when it started was restoration of the ballpark,” Dietrich says. “It’s the only community space we have here.”
The ballpark, nestled among the Cerrillos hills on the north end of town, has long been used for community events, concerts and festivals. It’s the town’s only park, per se, equipped with a playground, basketball court and picnic tables in foul territory down the left-field line.
With the help of then-state Rep. Rhonda King, funding to help restore the ballpark was first secured in 2004 when the state allocated $275,000 in capital outlay money.
But it wasn’t until 2010 that work on the grandstand started. And in 2012 the state granted an additional $300,000 to complete that part of the project.
To avert the state’s anti-donation clause, ownership of part of the property, including the grandstand, was transferred from the association to Santa Fe County, which serves as the fiscal agent for funding received through the state.
While work on the grandstand is substantially complete, using some of the same materials from the old structure, much work remains.
“We’re trying to keep the original feel from the ’20s and ’30s,” McDonnell said of the newly installed scoreboard.
Though paid for as part of a $17,200 grant from PNM, the new scoreboard is manual, not electronic, just like in the 1920s.
Most of the PNM grant money was used to make the infield playable. A special kind of dirt was hauled in and compacted to create a smooth playing surface.
The outfield remains dirt, except for the weeds. Some consideration was given to trying to grow outfield grass, but it would be expensive. And Dietrich points out that old photographs don’t show grass on the field.
It’s good enough for today’s Miners softball teams to use for practice, but other conditions at the field, including two trees growing near the backstop, prevent it from being used for league games.
The men’s team has played for several years in a Santa Fe softball league, winning its division two years ago. The newer co-ed team requires at least six men and six women on the roster.
“We always have enough players,” O’Donnell said.
Lights before majors
An in-depth account of Madrid’s baseball history was published in the 2005-06 edition of “The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture” in a chapter titled “Miners, Miners, and Minors: Baseball and Identity in a Company Town.”
Authors Margaret Frisbee and Jason Strykowski write that though a team called the Madrid Miners was playing at the site in 1920, the wooden grandstand wasn’t built until 1928. Stadium lights were installed at that time, seven years before the first major league game was played under the lights in Cincinnati.
The restoration committee would like to have LED lights installed at the stadium, but funding is an issue. And there are higher priorities, including repairs to the arched rock walls that rim the stadium.
“I’m sure a lot of it was done in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps,” Dietrich said. “A lot of it is crumbling and needs to be stabilized.”
Frisbee and Strykowski write that the stonework was initially started by miners. But Works Progress Administration records that show during the Great Depression Madrid received allocations in 1935 and 1936 that might have included funding for the construction of the sandstone walls.
Enthusiasm for baseball in Madrid peaked in 1930s, but during its heyday the Miners fielded competitive teams.
The Miners won the Central New Mexico League pennant in 1933, playing against such teams as the Albuquerque Maroons, Bernalillo Lumberjacks, Isleta Indians and Santa Fe Stationers, the latter sponsored by a book and stationery store.
In 1936, the Miners played exhibition games against the House of David – a barnstorming team made up of players from an American religious community that eschewed shaving and so wore long hair and beards – and the Detroit Colored Giants, a team of African-American players.
There’s also record of the Miners playing the Zulu Cannibal Giants, an all-black team whose players wore grass skirts and played games barefoot.
Newspapers from the day referred to players being “signed” and “released,” suggesting baseball was taken seriously by team owners.
While Madrid’s team was mostly made up of local coal miners, it appears a few “ringers” were recruited from outside the company.
Company ledgers show the names of Jack Duffy, Pop Stowers, Lalo Barreras and E.J. “Chief” Bowles, whose credentials as professional players are documented. Like Archibald Wright “Moonlight” Graham, a real-life player depicted in the classic baseball film “Field of Dreams,” Bowles, a right-handed pitcher from Oklahoma, appeared in just one major league baseball game.
Babe Ruth in Madrid?
Some of the history gets embellished – especially after a couple of rounds at the Mine Shaft Tavern.
Some say Babe Ruth played in Madrid, though there’s no evidence, and surely a visit by baseball’s greatest player would have rendered some mention in local newspapers.
Oral history includes tales of the Brooklyn Dodgers and St. Louis Browns playing games there in the 1930s, accounts that, as Frisbee and Strykowski put it, are “conspicuously absent” from recorded history.
More believable is the story that “Shoeless Joe” Jackson played at least one game in Madrid.
Banned from Major League Baseball after the 1919 Black Sox scandal, Jackson couldn’t give up the game and continued to play until about age 50 for “unorganized” and semi-pro teams, according to the Society for American Baseball Research.
As the story goes, Shoeless Joe was playing a game under an alias (much like the scene from “Eight Men Out”) at the Madrid ballpark when a house beyond the center-field fence caught fire. Word spread that there was a baby trapped inside on the second floor. Shoeless Joe hopped the fence, ran into the house and saved the child.
“Then he came back and hit a home run,” says Wright, recounting the story.
“While still holding the baby under his arm,” Clayton Bain, embellishing the story beyond belief, adds with a smile.
While it’s unlikely Shoeless Joe set foot on the dusty diamond at Oscar Huber Memorial Ballpark, there’s no doubting there’s history there. And for their love of the game, for their little ballpark, and for the love their town, the dream is to restore it.
BASEBALL MAY BE GONE, BUT SOFTBALL LIVES ON
The outfield dimensions at Oscar Huber Memorial Ballpark are no longer conducive for baseball, but the game’s and the ballpark’s history are remembered annually with a series of softball games.
Coming up on Monday is the annual Memorial Day softball game between the Madrid Miners and the East Mountain Riff Raff. The home team will be trying to break a 35-game losing streak when the teams take the field at noon. Admission is free.
Next, the Madrid Challenge Softball Tournament for men’s teams will be on June 10-11. Openings remain for classes D and E men’s teams, with the entry fee set at $150. Proceeds from the tournament go toward ballpark restoration efforts and maintenance. Players on the first-place team win T-shirts; prizes will also be given to the runner-up.
The deadline to enter is June 1. Teams can register through the tournament’s website at madridchallenge.weebly.com.
On July 4, townspeople get together for a fun and informal game. Anyone can play in the game that usually starts around 10 a.m. and is finished in time for Madrid’s Fourth of July parade, which begins at noon.
“This field, this game, is part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.”
– From the 1989 film “Field of Dreams”