Twenty-six-year-old Rich Donnelly was ready to give up on baseball when he learned he was destined for a third season as catcher at Class AAA Denver in 1972.
“I was upset I wasn’t going to be the first-string catcher, so I actually walked back from the spring training complex to the hotel in Plant City. I was going to quit.”
If he had, he would have missed out on one of the most bizarre, yet memorable, seasons in baseball history. And who knows if his career would have taken him to what became a 38-year career as professsional baseball coach, including a stint in 2011 with the Brooklyn Cyclones.
Ted Williams, the Hall of Fame Boston Red Sox slugger and then-manager of the first-year Texas Rangers, suggested Donnelly manage the Class-A team in Greenville in the six-team Western Carolinas League.
“I thought about it, talked it over with my family and took the job,” Donnelly said. “Then they told me ‘Oh, by the way, in Greenville, the ballpark burned down.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ They said ‘Well, there’s nothing left there but a wall, but we’ll get by.’ ”
Meadowbrook Park, built in 1938, suffered a devastating fire on Valentine’s Day, 1972 – exactly 40 years ago today. What was left was far from the lavish surrounding that Donnelly has grown accustomed to later on in his career.
“The bleachers were actually folding chairs. The back stop was a couple of telephone poles with chick wire,” Donnelly said, “there’s not a minor league team that’s played in worse conditions than that – ever!”
Donnelly said he and pitching coach Ed Nottle drove over to Ross Tire and Battery – when they arrived in Greenville to the meet Verner Ross, the owner of the team.
“He said, ‘Boy, I don’t why you took this job.’ He took me down there to the ballpark and I said, ‘Holy smoke!’” Donnelly recalled. “There was nothing there. There was no clubhouse, no nothing -- just a wall and the field. During the season some fans would put up ladders against the wall and peek in. That’s why I called it The Alamo. Because it looked like they were scaling the wall at The Alamo and coming over.”
The nickname stuck. Someone even printed bumper stickers reading “Meet me at the Alamo.”
“I’ve been in the game for 44 years as player, coach or manager,” said Donnelly, “There’s not one game I don’t think of The Alamo during the day of that game, being appreciative of where I got to. It’s pretty hard to explain to somebody who hasn’t seen it. In the beginning, we had to have the players dress at their houses like an American Legion team because we didn’t have a clubhouse. I wanted the players to dress at the ballpark like a real team. Some of these guys had come from real good programs around the country, then they walk in and see this place.”
Donnelly said a member of the team, catcher Rich Revta, built a makeshift clubhouse out of plywood.
“We had one shower, and it flooded,” Donnelly said. “So when you took a shower you were up to your knees in water.”
“The pitching coach and I were the groundskeepers,” Donnelly said. “I took care of the clubhouse. I cleaned the toilets in the clubhouse.
Granted, the facilities didn’t make coming to the ballpark fun some days. Donnelly admits he even made up opportunities to not play, especially on Monday nights.
“At Memorial Auditorium in Greenville, they used to have pro wrestling,” Donnelly said. “They used to have my favorites – Ric Flair, Abe Jacobs, Wahoo McDaniel. Some of the guys loved wrestling. So, if it even came close to raining on any Monday night, I’d call the GM and say the field was horrible and we couldn’t play. Then a bunch of us would head over and watch wrestling. We had no tarp, so if it rained a drop we called the game off; not because we didn’t want to play or the field was bad; we wanted to go to wrestling. We probably went to wrestling four nights. If our farm director had ever found out he’d have fired us.”
Just when you though things couldn’t get any worse, the outfield wall collapsed during a storm. In its place, a rope was strung across in left-center field. Anything hit over the rope was a home run; anything under was a ground-rule double.
“We had the guy from the minor leagues come to test the lights,” Donnelly said. “He went out to test the lights with the light meter and needed a flashlight to read the light meter because it was too dark.”
That season, the Greenville Rangers drew 11,481 fans. Not per game, but for the entire season
“I remember that the official scorer would actually be able to count how many people were at the games from the press box. I think a couple of games, we announced a crowd of seven.”
At the end of the season, the Rangers caught fire – no pun intended – and won the second-half title with a 43-23 record, earning a championship series berth against first-half champion Spartanburg.
“I think if you ask any player who was on that team, it was just a wonderful time,” Donnelly said. “I was named manager of the year. I think they felt sorry for me just because of having to play in that park. I bet you if you ask all the players that played on that team … I guarantee you, when things get tough they think back to that. Somehow we got through it and it made us all better.”
***Parts of this story originally appeared in a story written by Rudy Jones for the Greenville News***