Josh Shaffer

Shaffer: Devereaux Meadow was Raleigh’s gritty baseball shrine

With its cramped, rickety bleachers, the old Devereux Meadows baseball park was demolished in 1979 to make way for the city's sanitation fleet.
With its cramped, rickety bleachers, the old Devereux Meadows baseball park was demolished in 1979 to make way for the city's sanitation fleet. 1976 News & Observer file photo

With its rickety wooden bleachers, its patchy infield grass and its chain-link fence for an outfield wall, Devereaux Meadow never won praise for its scenery or plushness. The best ticket a fan could buy consisted of a folding chair behind home plate, which included a spectacular view of the Jesse Jones Sausage billboard.

But the old ballpark shines eternally for those lucky enough to have watched a game there, listening to foul balls bounce off its tin roof, watching a teenage Carl Yastrzemski knock home runs that landed on Downtown Boulevard.

I’ve been a baseball fan all my life, but World Series time always feels hollow to me in Raleigh – a city so far from the action, chronically without a dog in the fight, where baseball plays fourth fiddle to college sports and hockey.

I like to imagine the city in 1947, when a double-header at Devereaux Meadow drew 7,000 people – a seventh of Raleigh’s population. I picture the men in stingy brim fedoras, the boys with slingshots in their back pockets, the stands littered with squashed popcorn kernels and cigarette butts. Harry Sullivan hit .391 for the Raleigh Capitals that year. Dave Baxter hit 20 home runs.

So I’ll offer this nod to Raleigh’s gritty stadium, long-since demolished, and enjoy this season’s fading pastime via the city’s recollections.

“It was the place where a working man took his wife and children to see the grand old game before the purchase of a hot dog took the better part of a dollar,” wrote the AP’s Dick Brinster in 1979, “and before advertisements on outfield walls were considered ugly.”

Devereaux Meadow stood on Peace Street across and down from Finch’s Restaurant, alongside what is now Capital Boulevard. Opened in 1938, it occupied the place where 19th century hardware magnate Thomas Briggs reputedly hid his gold from Gen. William T. Sherman’s advancing troops. At one point in its run, the Devereaux nine shared space with Broughton High School’s football team.

“Shamrock Dick Mason recalls what it was like during those days,” recalled ex-Mayor Smedes York in his memoir “Growing Up With Raleigh.” “Devereaux Meadow was, according to Dick, ‘a pretty crummy ball park.’ In particular he remembers that the left field fence was fairly short.”

Anyone alive at the time recalls the summer of 1959, when a 19-year-old New Yorker with a vowel-challenged name played second base and shortstop for the Capitals, a brief stopover on his way to Fenway Park. The feet that once tore up the infield at Devereaux Meadow would one day play opposite Pete Rose in the World Series, would witness Carlton Fisk bounce a fly ball off Fenway’s left-field foul pole, frantically waving it fair – perhaps baseball’s finest October moment.

(Historical footnote: Not only did Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski play in Raleigh, but so did “Rawly” Eastwick, who pitched for the Reds in that seminal 1975 World Series game. I wonder if Yaz and Rawly ever reminisced about eggs and bacon at Finch’s ...)

At any rate, fans adored the teenage Yaz in his Capitals uniform, so young that he still played in the infield.

“It didn't take a connoisseur of baseball to know he was great,” said Raleigh attorney Robert McMillan, now 92. “I saw him play one time on second base. He turned a double play I've never seen equaled. It was a hot line drive off of second base, and he back-handed that ball while he was still in the air. A feat of athleticism the equivalent of David Thompson.”

That level of fandom soon faded.

By the late ‘60s, Devereaux Meadow had seen the Mets, the Pirates and finally the lowly Triangles take the field, the last of which teams split its time between Raleigh and Durham. Two sections of the outfield fence had blown down. Weeds grew tall in the outfield. The Triangles’ General Manager Walter Brock called Devereaux “unplayable” in 1970, its second-last active season.

“After its closing,” Brinster wrote in his 1979 eulogy, “the park became a hangout for the indigent. They drank from bag-covered bottles in the deserted press box. And like the ballpark itself, one of them fell down last winter and never got up.”

So the city tore down Yaz’ training stadium and parked its garbage trucks on the ruins. But now Raleigh is talking about a park on the old site, not a baseball stadium but at least a grassy patch, ensuring that baseball of the Wiffle Bat variety will be played there again. October has passed, and a long winter looms. Still, we can remember and dream.