Photos by Marc Viquez and Fans of Valley Field
If you are heading to Grand Rapids, Michigan, this summer to see a Whitecaps game, there is another ballpark to visit. Valley Field, AKA Sullivan Field, is receiving a $4.2 million project that will restore the WPA ballpark close to its original design of 1937.
The non-profit group Fans of Valley Field raised $3.7 million, including $1 million from the city of Grand Rapids. The restoration will be completed in several phases, with the first phase completed by the spring or summer of 2024. Its mission is to preserve the heritage and promote the usage of the ballpark.
The ballpark has a new roof, a refurbished grandstand, a new main entrance, and a museum that chronicles its history. The visitor's dugout has been removed and lowered to prevent blocking views from the first rows of seating down the third base side.
During a recent visit, the group's vice president, Paul Soltysiak, took me on a tour of the battered structure. He shared memories growing up on the field, from when he was a bat boy to when he played on the diamond as an adult. His efforts, along with many others of the volunteer group, have made an effort to restore the old ballpark to its former glory.
“The grandstand was made of very strong and very dense timber. It was built to last; only 10 percent of the structure needs replacement, and the rest needs refurbishment.”
We walked through a storage area and an old umpire room that was full of moments, which included a squalid groundskeeper jacket, an old wooden seat back, an outdated chalker for the baseball lines, a rusted can of Stroh’s beer, and the old lamps that once lit the stadium for ice skating.
The ballpark opened in 1937 between the Dutch Kraft Paint team and the American Seaters. A newspaper ad promised 1,000 bags of peanuts to fans. Since that game, there have been several teams who have called the ballpark home.
The Grand Rapids Black Sox of the Negro Leagues, Union High School, and the Grand Rapids Sullivans were the most prominent tenants. The Sullivans, managed by local businessman Bob Sullivan, led his club to four NBC World Series in Wichita and five tournament titles in Haarlem, Netherlands. The ballpark was renamed Sullivan Field in 1996 and is known by both depending on the fanbase.
Interestingly, the ballpark was never fitted with lights. Lighting was used only during ice skating in the winter months. Other tidbits include that vendors were once forbidden to sell during games due to city compliances, and the ballpark never housed a minor league team during its history.
There was more than enough talent that came through the gates of the ballpark. It includes over 70 men who would find themselves in the major leagues. Kirk Gibson, Mickey Stanely, Willie Horton, and Stubby Overmire all went on to play for the Detroit Tigers. Hall of Famers Ted Williams and Satchel Paige played games during visits.
Soltysiak shows me various photos of the makeshift museum/concession stand/ restroom building. The walls include newspaper clippings, old team photos, scorecards, and images dating back almost 90 years. The photographs were donated from private collections.
The photograph of the ice skating rink is the only known picture of the stadium suited for the winter tradition. Soltysiak added that there would be two to three full-time guys who would manage the ice. The right side was for skating, and the left side was for hockey.
We walk towards the grandstand from the first base side and see what needs to be repaired. It will include replacing the wood seatings with synthetic dark green bleachers, pushing out the concourse three feet, and adding proper netting around the front of the grandstand. A majority of the wood in the grandstand will be sandblasted and repainted.
The volunteer group is focused on keeping the diamond functioning. In the past few years, the stadium has hosted a Wiffle Ball tournament, an Easter Egg hunt, Blues Festivals, block parties, a Chili Cook-Off, and amateur and high school baseball games. There was a game that offered its version of Banana Ball played with a Halloween theme.
“The upcoming phases will be funded by public and private money that we have raised,” Soltysiak added. “We are at about 91 percent of our $4.25 million goal. Over the winter, we need to figure out how the cash flow will affect the rest of the renovations and additions and if they will be done in two or three phases.”
The ballpark will continue to host events during the renovations next year, and Soltysiak hopes to see all aspects of the phases completed in 2025. What was once a deteriorating ballpark is slowly coming to life again in Grand Rapids, a place where baseball and the community can enjoy for several more decades.