My first contact and memory of the Mid-South Fairgrounds was in
the late 1950s when I was the bat boy for the First Baptist Church peewee
baseball team, coached by Art Pople.
Peewee Baseball Player
First Baptist Church
I was too young to play, and this huge
responsibility was handed to me because my older brother, Curt, was a team
member. I was a tag-along for sure, but bat boy was an exalted position for any
"little brother." As a bat boy, I was allowed to wear a team uniform.
We played our games in the "sunken diamond" near the north entrance to the old
fairgrounds amusement park. The ball field was about 8 feet below street level,
and some years was filled with water for boat rides during the annual Mid-South
At the last game of the season, Mr. Pople (with a big lead) called me over and
told me to report to right field. I was petrified. Sure enough, a ground ball
was hit between the first and second basemen and headed at the speed-of-light in
my direction. I fronted the bounding ball, spread my legs, bent over and closed
my eyes, waiting for the ball to find my glove. It didn't and I was mortified. I
was too embarrassed to cry and that bounding ball really was not coming all that
fast and did not roll too far past me. I guess that it was a good thing that I
did not get to bat that year.
In the late 1950s, the Memphis Park Commission was yet to
develop the multidiamond baseball-softball complexes around the city that we
know today, so the seven diamonds at the fairgrounds were the largest collection
of baseball and softball leagues in the community.
The fairgrounds had an odd combination of ball fields with the largest being No.
3, built of adult baseball dimensions with an outfield wall, small press box and
some tall light poles. Later, No. 3 became the home of the AA minor league
baseball teams of the 1960s-90s (eventually renamed Tim McCarver Stadium), until
AutoZone Park was opened. Imagine seven fields of action, day and night, seven
days a week from May to August — for all ages, male and female, from the entire
city. All this and a swimming pool — a rather large swimming pool too. There was
even the Children's Theatre in an old Quonset hut.
My other baseball memories include coaching quite a few baseball
and softball teams from First Baptist Church that played at the fairgrounds. In
the late 1960s, I remember seeing Larry Mansfield hit a long, long home run over
the right-field wall while playing for the Bill Speros American Legion team but
was not there the night in the 1980s when Bo Jackson hit that monstrous drive
almost to Central Avenue (that about 50,000 Memphians still claim to have seen).
I did see Michael Jordan play minor league baseball there.
The Mid-South Coliseum and Liberty
Bowl Memorial Stadium
(originally Memphis Memorial Stadium) rise out of the
ground at the Mid-South Fairgrounds in this aerial photograph
by Tom Barber of the Memphis Press-Scimitar dated
26 May 64. From the files of The Commercial Appeal.
I remember when the Mid-South Coliseum opened and Memphis had a
minor league hockey team. OK, that really did not interest me, but being able to
enjoy ice skating in the coliseum periodically was cool. The coliseum hosted the
greatest moments of Tiger basketball, some minor league basketball teams (Pros,
Sounds, TAMS, Rockers, etc.) and indoor soccer (Americans). The Liberty Bowl
even used to host a track meet in the coliseum. When I was special events
supervisor for the Memphis Recreation Department, I promoted a kids' Big Wheels
event known as "Mini-Indy." We used the existing bicycle motocross dirt track in
the Arena Building for preschoolers riding Big Wheels in all sorts of skills
events. I also was allowed by Bevo Covington in the 1980s to be the ring
announcer for the annual Golden Gloves boxing competition in the Merchants
Building, a building that we had played church league basketball in during the
The high school football stadium was on the south side of the
fairgrounds until the Mid-South Coliseum was built. The stadium was moved to the
north side of the fairgrounds near Central Avenue, and later I was the public
address announcer for high school football games on a weekly basis.
From the 1960s-on in the Liberty Bowl, I remember attending University of
Memphis football games, along with professional football (Showboats, Mad Dogs,
Maniacs) and soccer (Rogues). The USFL Showboats used the converted armory
buildings for offices and locker rooms in the 1980s. I was working in the press
box at Paul "Bear" Bryant's last football game in the 1982 Liberty Bowl.
The fairgrounds of the past is long gone. Gone are the flea
markets, the rentals and dances in the multipurpose buildings, Libertyland,
Mid-South Fair and the Zippin Pippin. The Mid-South Coliseum is closed and not
needed. The Liberty Bowl is a nice stadium for eight games annually and is
receiving long-overdue maintenance attention and upgrades. Tiger Lane hosts
other events besides tailgating, such as the upcoming Wifflestock (wiffleball)
tournament. The 100,000-square-foot Kroc Center featuring arts, education and
recreation opportunities will soon be open. That leaves many acres to be
developed and incorporated into a scheme to benefit all. Let's dream ...
I once heard a definition of the word "progress" as "making
things as good as they once used to be." Hopefully, the fairgrounds of the 21st
century can match the variety of excitement, activities, opportunity and
memories of the old fairgrounds of the middle 20th century for many more
youngsters, like myself.