After an absence of at least 20 years, organized league play returned to a historic ballpark in Stockton. The town of Stockton celebrated the reopening of the Alex Baker Memorial Ballpark on Saturday with a four-game series.
It was a glorious and sunny morning. At 9:30 a.m., Stockton Mayor Thomas Karjola stepped onto the pitcher’s mound to welcome the teams.
He officially proclaimed the field to be open.
“The baseball roots run very deep here,” he said. “We have ties running back to the 1880s.”
In those days, baseball was a typical pastime for Utah mining towns like Stockton. Games were often played on Sundays. People traveled from community to community to participate in the games and in the close, small-town association that they provided, Karjola said.
Saturday’s reopening was reminiscent of those times. Parents sat on the bleachers outside the fence, sharing sunscreen and chatting about the drive to Stockton.
Before the opening pitch, teams of uniformed boys tossed and caught balls and chatted with their coaches along the fence line.
Tooele City Mayor Debbie Winn sang the national anthem.
The Stansbury Dusters from Stansbury Park was one of the first teams to play on the newly-revamped field. The other teams traveled from the Wasatch Front.
“The last few decades the field has been in disrepair,” Karjola told the crowd. “What you see here is a work in progress.”
For Karjola — and for Stockton area baseball fans who came before him — this particular work in progress has always been a labor of love. In both cases, building the field required days of sweat, volunteer time and a solid vision for what it could become.
The reopening of the field was a chance to acknowledge the Stockton citizens who worked together to build the first baseball field.
One of those citizens honored was the field’s namesake, the late Alex Baker, who played and coached baseball in Stockton for years. He also was instrumental in building the first ballfield in Stockton.
“They needed a field to play on for us kids,” said Kent Baker, Alex Baker’s son, while remembering his father’s efforts to build a baseball field. “We were playing in pastures before.”
The first baseball games in Stockton were held below the train tracks or where The Church of Jesus of Latter-day Saints meetinghouse now stands.
In 1961, Alex Baker gathered volunteers and began building a baseball field on Roger Street. It was on a hill on the east side of town that overlooks the valley.
Local fundraisers helped pay for some of the equipment. Creativity and resourcefulness provided the rest.
Crushed ammo cans were used for part of the walls, and the fencing was built from old steam pipe. The soil was so rocky that post holes were often three or four times wider than normal so volunteers could get rocks out of the way.
Among the volunteers were Alex Baker’s children.
“It was all sagebrush,” Kent Baker said. “This is where I learned to drive, pulling a mower with a ‘37 Chevy Pickup.”
“We were up here every week pulling weeds and stones to make it level,” said his sister, Sharon Dunyan.
“Yes,” Baker said. “We knew to not plan anything for the weekends because we’d be helping up at the park.”
Dunyan said many of the people who worked on the field are now gone. When work on the field first started, the local Stockton team was sponsored by the Odd Fellows.
“I played for about five years with Odd Fellows, from about age eight to 12,” Baker said.
He threw the first pitch on the new field on Saturday morning.
The teams playing on the new field now are associated with the Rocky Mountain School of Baseball. They travel around the Oquirrh Mountains to get to Stockton, but the experience is worth it.
One of the players from a team in Riverton said that the field in Stockton was so nice, he felt like he was playing in a major-league game.
Karjola said Bobby Pagnani, who coaches the Stansbury Dusters, started bringing his team to practice earlier this spring.
“He said when they get out here to practice, they’re a different team,” Karjola said. “The nice field boosts their morale and makes them play better.”
Stockton rents the field out in two-hour blocks for teams that want to practice or hold a game there. It costs $25 for a practice session and $40 for a game.
When the field is rented out, the city sets it up for the players. This includes setting up the bases and the pitcher’s mound. For games, it also includes painting the lines and making sure the grass in the outfield is the proper length.
Karjola said the fees are set at the upper end of the average fees charged by other fields. The fees will have to be reassessed over time as the city gets a feel for how much it actually costs to maintain the field, he said.
“Everything is a work in progress,” Karjola said. “A heck of a lot of progress has already been made, but as long as people are using it, we can keep making it better.”
People who live in town can come up to play at the ballpark anytime that it isn’t reserved. There is also a nearby skate park, some playgrounds, picnic tables and a memorial park with plaques near trees to help local folks remember Stockton citizens, according to Karjola.
Alex Baker’s tree is just past the restrooms.
It’s a nice area, but Karjola said he has plans to make it even better. He wants to build shade over the dugout areas next, and he hopes to get the scoreboard fixed or replaced.
“I’m really proud of the park,” Karjola said. “I had a good foundation to start with.”
Karjola said the city of Stockton applied and received a grant from the Tooele County Recreation Special Service District to redo the field.
The grant totaled $11,000 and paid for the new pavilion, the moveable fence, moveable pitcher’s mound and bases, and the base for the infield.
There was a shortage of around $2,500 that Karjola said will be made up through other grants and private donations rather than taxes.
“When the grant got approved, I called the Salt Lake Bees and asked if I could speak to the head groundskeeper,” Karjola said.
He made arrangements to work for a day with the groundskeepers. A few hours in, his hands were blistered and his muscles were sore.
“I saw just how much work a baseball field takes,” he said.
The hard work didn’t daunt Karjola. He called Cameron Toone, with DuraEdge in Ogden, who builds a lot of the ballparks in Utah.
Toone came out, assessed the needs for the field, and got to work building the best infield base for the local climate. It included a mix of dirt, sand and clay.
First, the soil was graded, and then it was laser-graded to get a one percent slope. It’s not noticeable from the sidelines, but it’s enough to keep water from pooling on the field. The base was added, then the top mixture, and then the infield was graded and laser-graded one more time.
The total cost of the upgraded ball park was around $14,000. It could have cost more.
Like the ballpark built in 1961, the restored field relied heavily on community volunteer work, according to Karjola.
“Bill and Greg Thomas did the grading work in exchange for a pile of dirt,” Karjola said.
Karjola put in many of the volunteer hours himself. On Saturday morning, he was up at the field at 6:30 a.m. to paint the lines and finish preparing for the first game.
“This is the first time I’ve been up here that he hasn’t asked me to do something,” said Judi Bori, a member of the Stockton Town Council who attended Saturday’s ceremony. “He is as proud as a peacock, and he should be.”
Like Alex Baker, Karjola believes the ballpark is all for the community.
Karjola said his hope is that hosting games will help bring customers to local businesses, and it will provide a new focal point for community events.
The citizens who remember the first baseball field that Alex Baker built have also been on Karjola’s mind.
“They all have fond memories of playing on that field together when they were younger,” he said. “I don’t know when the last organized league game was played here, but it’s been at least 20 years. There’s been a lot of long days up there, but I love it.”