Sixty years ago, the City of St. Paul spent $2 million to build a ballpark on north Snelling Avenue in hopes of attracting a major league baseball team.
Walter O’Malley praised the city’s progressiveness and his sentiments have a familiar ring today.
“The value of sports,” declared the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, “is increasing daily and the cities that let opportunities slip by are the cities that someday will fade just like a rose in winter.”
O’Malley made the remark while attending the April 1956 groundbreaking for Midway Stadium, soon to be the new home of the St. Paul Saints, the top Dodger farm club. (This was the first Midway Stadium, located on the east side of Snelling. The Mike Veeck-era facility on the west side came later.)
The Saints were moving from Lexington Park at Lexington and University avenues, where they had played for 50 years, to the site of a former gravel pit just north of Hamline University and southeast of the Minnesota State Fairgrounds.
But minor league baseball was not what civic leaders had in mind, and Midway was St. Paul’s answer to Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, home to the Minneapolis Millers, the New York Giants farm club.
At the groundbreaking, O’Malley said the chance that any of the New York teams (Dodgers, Giants, Yankees) would move was “remote.” The following year, both the Dodgers and the Giants announced they were relocating to California.
Wedged between two railroad tracks, 10,000-seat Midway Stadium was a modest affair indeed. The ballpark had a single deck and the stands extended only slightly beyond first and third base. But it was easily “expandable” to 30,000 or 40,000 seats, news stories emphasized, to meet the needs of a major league tenant.
The Saints home opener on April 25, 1957, was disappointing from a baseball perspective as the team lost a double-header to the Wichita Braves. Still, the fans seemed happy with the sparkling new facility.
In listing its many up-to-date features, Saints President Mel Jones said it was “a structure well worth talking about.
“Even a trip through the public restrooms proves inviting,” boasted Jones. “Completely tiled with face brick tiling from top to bottom, they offer the finest in comfort and sanitation.”
During the team’s four years at Midway, the Saints played slightly better than .500 baseball and gave fans a look at future major leaguers such as Stan Williams, Ron Perranoski, Norm Larker, Don Demeter, Jim Gentile and Johnny Goryl.
However, there’s no indication that Midway Stadium, or St. Paul, was ever given serious consideration as a home for major league baseball. Any remaining illusions died when Calvin Griffith announced that he would move the Washington Senators to Minnesota and Metropolitan Stadium for the 1961 season.
The Saints departed to become the Omaha Dodgers, the Millers were transformed into the Seattle Rainiers.
Without a full-time tenant, Midway Stadium began to lose money and the term “white elephant” started appearing in print. All kinds of ideas were floated for the ballpark, including the addition of a Buckminster Fuller dome.
By the mid-1960s, the talk took on an air of desperation with the proposal to spend $22 million to convert Midway into a giant sports center to host the 1972 Summer Olympics.
In the meantime, the stadium hosted high school football and baseball, served as the home field for Bethel College football and was used by the Minnesota Vikings as a practice facility. There also was professional wrestling, boxing, rock concerts and softball whiz Eddie Feigner. St. Paul Civil Defense rented office space and Christmas trees were sold in the concourses.
Eventually, the city decided enough was enough, and in 1981 the first Midway Stadium was demolished as part of the Energy Park development.
Twelve years later, a new ballpark, even more spartan than the first, opened on the west side of Snelling as home to a new version of the St. Paul Saints. But that’s another story entirely. . . .
For more, see Stew Thornley’s excellent book, The St. Paul Saints: Baseball in the Capital City, Minnesota Historical Society, 2015.