Monday, March 2, 2015

The day Mickey Mantle opened Serauxmen Stadium

The grandstand at
Serauxmen Stadium
Earlier today the Victoria HarbourCats announced that they will be playing an exhibition game at Serauxmen Stadium in Nanaimo on July 19th against current and former members of the Nanaimo Pirates. Last season the ‘Cats played a non-league game up in Duncan, and based on the positive response from that game it is no surprise that they would venture further afield to help grow their fan base throughout southern Vancouver Island.

Although I have lived in Victoria for over 20 years, I have only recently been introduced to the strong baseball culture in Nanaimo. In December of 2012, the HarbourCats signed Connor Russell out of the Vancouver Island Baseball Institute (VIBI), and I ventured up-island in March of 2013 to witness his Opening Day start at Serauxmen Stadium. I must admit that I had fairly modest expectations for the ballpark, but I was definitely impressed with the facility as soon as I walked inside.
The Green Monster

Serauxmen Stadium has an old-time baseball feel to it, thanks to a classic grandstand and green, wooden bleachers that provide plenty of seating. The field was in pretty good shape the day I was there and the dimensions are more than adequate for a college game. A green wooden fence surrounds the outfield, but the highlight of the ballpark -- to me at least -- is the massive Green Monster in right field that appears to be close to 30 feet in height.

It is worth noting that Serauxmen Stadium is not only the home of the VIBI Mariners, but it is also used heavily by the (junior and senior) Nanaimo Pirates and midget teams in the Nanaimo Minor Baseball Association. At one time, Serauxmen Stadium was considered the top amateur baseball field in all of Canada. With a bit of research, I discovered that the ballpark officially opened in 1976, although I would have guessed that it was built in the 1950’s based on its architecture. With a bit more digging, I came across a brief but fascinating account of the history of the ballpark in the Nanaimo News Bulletin:
Serauxmen Stadium history 
Baseball was played in the Harbour City before the 1950s, but in 1956, the Nanaimo Minor Baseball Association came into existence. Back then, it was called the Nanaimo and District Baseball Association. 
In 1972, the association signed an agreement with the school district to build a baseball field on the old mine site behind Nanaimo District Secondary School. The mine, which operated between 1919 and 1930, employed up to almost 300 miners at its peak. 
Bert Lansdell, who held various positions with the association, was instrumental in both the agreement with the school district and fundraising for the ball field.
First the coal slag was removed, then the association graded the site, installed drainage and a sprinkler system, and applied topsoil before the grass was planted.
The Serauxmen Club of Nanaimo came forward as a major fundraiser for the stadium and field.
In 1974, the grass and fencing was finished, then in 1975 the stadium building was built - more than $300,000 worth of concrete was required to pour the stadium.
Serauxmen Stadium officially opened July 31, 1976 in a ceremony that included retired New York Yankees player Mickey Mantle and retired Boston Red Sox player Jim Piersall. Hockey players Johnny Bucyk (Boston Bruins) and Chris Oddleifson (Vancouver Canucks), football player George Reed (Saskatchewan Roughriders) and NHL referee Lloyd Gilmour also attended.
In 1980, the south bleacher addition was built.
The stadium is run on funds raised by Nanaimo Minor Baseball Association.
*Source: Patricia Huggins and Bob Baldwin, with information from the Lansdell family.
Mickey Mantle opens
Serauxmen Stadium in 1976
Yes, you read that correctly. Serauxmen Stadium was opened by one of the greatest players in baseball history, Mickey Mantle, and a host of other sports personalities, including former Boston Red Sox star Jimmy Piersall. Mantle’s story is well known to baseball fans, but I highly recommend Jane Leavy’s unvarnished biography of The Mick (“The Last Boy”) to anyone with more than a passing interest in the game. In spite of being a Hall of Famer, Mantle was also one of the game’s most tragic figures, and I can only imagine what kind of shenanigans Mantle and Piersall got up to in downtown Nanaimo after the ballpark ceremony. The pair were obviously well-acquainted before their visit to the Hub City, since they were American League opponents for almost their entire careers and were teammates on both the 1954 and 1956 AL All-Star teams.

Piersall wasn't exactly your garden-variety major leaguer either. Although he was simply dismissed by many as just a “head case” in the early part of his career, it was later revealed that he battled bipolar disorder and his life story was the subject of the book and movie "Fear Strikes Out".
A beautiful setting for a ballpark
The rest of the sporting dignitaries at the ballpark opening were all extremely well-known figures at the time. Johnny Bucyk was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1981 and George Reed was one of the greatest running backs in CFL history. When they appeared at the Serauxmen Stadium opening, Chris Oddleifson was an emerging Vancouver Canucks star and Lloyd Gilmour had just retired from a 19-year career as an NHL referee. Incidentally, Gilmour officiated the famous January 1976 game between the Soviet Red Army and the Philadelphia Flyers in which the Red Army left the ice in protest after Ed Van Impe wasn't penalized for a body check on Valeri Kharlamov. Gilmour was inducted into the BC Sports Hall of Fame in 2002.

No matter how you slice it, Serauxmen Stadium is steeped in history. I look forward to paying this historic ballpark an overdue visit in July when the HarbourCats take on the Pirates. Regardless of who wins, I'm sure it will be fun to watch the sluggers try to launch baseballs over the Green Monster in right field. The Mick wouldn't want it any other way.

1 comment:

  1. It appears that Mel Bridgman of the Philadelphia Flyers was also involved in the opening of Serauxmen Stadium. I found the following notice in the Wednesday July 28, 1976 edition of the Ladysmith-Chemainus Chronicle:

    "All-stars in Nanaimo

    Baseball's Mickey Mantle and Jimmy Plersall, hockey's Johnny Bucyk and Mel Bridgeman and football's George Reed will all occupy the same head table Friday night at a sportsman's dinner and dance sponsored by the Serauxmen Service Club of Nanaimo. Sportscaster Ken Milton will serve as master of ceremonies during the festivities that will feature the sports stars as guest speakers. Club spokesman Bill English said the event is being held to raise funds to complete the baseball stadium, one of the organization's community projects. The dinner will be held at the new Beban Park auditorium In Nanaimo with cocktails at 6:30 p.m. followed by the dinner and dance. English said tickets are $25 for adults and $15 for children 16 years of age and younger."

    The dinner described above would have taken place the night before the opening of the ballpark.