So far, there are no reports of the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson or other bygone baseball players showing up at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church ballpark. But what has happened in the past month slightly alters a theme from the movie “Field of Dreams.”
If you rebuild it, they will come.
On April 8, Sacred Heart held a blessing for the newly renovated field, which is actually older than the church but had fallen dormant in recent years. Since then, it has become a beehive of activity, with games for both children and adults. That surprised Deacon David Dawson, who headed the renovation.
“I didn’t think it was going to be used a lot until the next season came up," Dawson said, "and that’s not what’s happening.”
Located across 22nd Street from Magnolia Cemetery, the ballpark shows up in 1916 Sanborn insurance maps, seven years before Sacred Heart began as a mission church at the northeast corner of 22nd Street (then Duggan Lane) and Main Street, said Mary Lee Eggart, a longtime member and the church’s archivist. Standard Oil (now ExxonMobil) used the field for its refinery team in the 1920s.
The church didn’t buy the property on the south side of Main, where the current sanctuary and ballfield are, until 1937. Sacred Heart kept the ballfield for its school and, ultimately, for the Catholic Youth Organization.
In that capacity, it served generations of youngsters. Some, like David Delucci and Robert Ellis, went on to Major League Baseball careers. U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, a Nebraska Republican who was born in Baton Rouge, also played there, Dawson said, as did countless other children.
In recent years, however, the field fell into disuse, Dawson said, as fewer schools fielded baseball teams and youth leagues gravitated to multi-field complexes.
“The field was in horrendous condition — anthills, weeds everywhere,” Dawson said.
But two Sacred Heart coaches, Rob Jones and Mark Chenevert, brought baseball back to the field four years ago, and parents began asking that the field be renovated. When the church decided the field deserved better than a patchwork job, Dawson volunteered to head the project.
The renovation demolished everything but the concession stand, which was gutted, rewired and redesigned. New lights and light poles were installed, along with a 65-foot fence to keep wayward balls away from cars on 22nd Street. The field was leveled and re-sodded, and new irrigation and drainage were installed. One benefactor, John Miremont, contributed a large portion of the $120,000 fundraising goal, Dawson said.
“After Mass, while we were doing the renovation, 80-year-old men would come up to me and say, ‘I remember when I played baseball there as a kid,’” Dawson said. “Everyone was so excited about the field getting this new breath of fresh air.”
The new field is designed for use not only for baseball and softball, but for the Girls on the Run running group and children’s soccer. With most of the congregation and school population no longer living close to the church, the newly renovated field brings people back to the church property at times it would normally be idle.
Jeff Boudreaux, whose grandfather played at the field in an altar boy tournament decades ago, now watches his children play there.
“The purpose of the field is similar but different than what it was when it was a small, Italian-Sicilian community and everybody lived around here and probably walked over to throw the ball,” Boudreaux said. “Fast forward to 2018. Our school has a lot of students that don’t live right around here, as does our parish. What the baseball field has brought back is a time for me to get to know some of the other parents.
“In 1920, I’d have been their next-door neighbor, and now our kids are going to go to school and will be with each other for 12 years or longer. It’s a nice venue with the familiar confines of the baseball park, and you just kind of sit out there and get to know the parents and the rest of the community. That’s a neat thing.”