Not far apart on either side of Magnolia Avenue lie two demolition/renovation sites in downtown Knoxville. Our city’s minor league baseball past and its future.
Knoxville’s minor league baseball present is, of course, not in Knoxville at all. It’s out off I-40 in Sevier County.
But it’s coming back home when a $74.5 million multipurpose stadium gets built near the Old City. Word is that “Play Ball!” will be heard downtown in 2025.
In the meantime, the Tennessee Smokies, the Class AA affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, will continue to call Exit 407 home.
Today I’m thinking of the place they used to call home, Bill Meyer Stadium.
I enjoyed baseball at Bill Meyer. Seating 6,400, it opened in the 1950s. But by the 1980s when I moved to town it looked even older. To me, that was part of the charm.
After the 1999 season, the team moved to a spiffy new park in Sevier County. The wrecking ball leveled Bill Meyer in 2003. There’s still a baseball diamond (Ridley-Helton Field) on the site with bleachers for a small crowd.
Adding to the aura of decayed nostalgia, the abandoned Standard Knitting Mill beyond the left-field fence stands in ruins after a massive fire last January.
The old ballpark, though, had its day. A parade of eventual greats passed through on their way to the big leagues.
The original tenants, the Knoxville Smokies, played in the South Atlantic League, which was succeeded by the Southern League in 1964. Knoxville’s team served, variously, as a farm club for the Orioles, Tigers, Reds, White Sox and Blue Jays before leaving downtown. There was a gap from 1968-71 with no team.
The Bill Meyer Era Smokies’ first manager, in 1956, was player-coach Earl Weaver, on his way to a Hall of Fame managerial career in Baltimore.
Another Hall of Fame career got launched at Bill Meyer. Tony LaRussa managed the White Sox affiliate — The Knox Sox — to the 1978 Southern League pennant.
Future Hall of Famer Harold Baines was a slugging star for the Knox Sox. When Toronto took over in 1980, future American League home-run kings Jesse Barfield, Fred McGriff and Cecil Fielder launched balls into the Knoxville night.
On the mound, Denny McClain made a brief stop in 1963, working on the stuff that would make him a 30-game winner for Detroit in 1968. Later, LaMarr Hoyt and Pat Hentgen prepped in Bill Meyer for careers that would see each win a Cy Young Award.
The visiting dugout provided Knoxvillians a glimpse of Reggie Jackson, Pete Rose, Cal Ripken, Harmon Killebrew, Mark McGuire, Jose Canseco, Randy Johnson and Eddie Murray, to name a few. If you were diligent enough to score an autograph back before they were famous, well done.
My favorite memories of Bill Meyer didn’t involve any of those guys.
The biggest deal I remember seeing was a Birmingham Barons outfielder who hit .202 in 1994. His name was Michael Jordan.
I had a brush with greatness in 1978. Not on the field but at the concession stand. There alone one night stood a rumpled, balding character with a wooden leg, slathering mustard on his hot dog.
He looked like the bus driver. But I recognized Bill Veeck, the iconoclastic owner of the parent club Chicago White Sox. Look him up.
I look forward to baseball returning to downtown in a few years. No doubt, it’ll be a fine venue with all the bells and whistles.
I wonder if any ghosts from Knoxville’s baseball past will stroll over from the old Bill Meyer grounds to catch a few innings.
Mike Strange is a former writer for the News Sentinel. He currently writes a weekly sports column for Shopper News.
This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Famous baseball players who appeared at Knoxville's Bill Meyer Stadium