The place radiates history. Downs Field on East 12th Street was home to Negro league teams such as the Austin Black Senators, Austin Black Pioneers and Austin Greyhounds, among others. Satchel Paige, Willie Wells, Buck O’Neil and other stars were said to have played here.
Several surviving Negro league athletes from San Antonio attended District Days at Historic Downs Field, a community party that preceded a performance of Forklife Danceworks’ "Play Ball." Also present was a surviving daughter of Wells, who was born in South Austin and was dubbed "El Diablo" for his playing intensity. For more on this Baseball Hall of Famer, read Bob Luke’s "Willie Wells: ‘El Diablo’ of the Negro Leagues."
At my table, where variations on baseball fare was passed around with relish, were local lions of history, design and politics, including dancer Deborah Hay, parks historian Kim McKnight, architect Emily Little and newly elected State Rep. Celia Israel. Little serves on the board of Austin’s African American Cultural Heritage District — a mouthful, but a key to preserving the fast-fading fabric of East Austin.
District Days was the group’s first big public event and director Lisa Byrd shared the cultural context of Downs Field, where crowds gathered after church to watch what was once America’s unrivaled pastime. The field was first constructed not far away in 1949, then moved to its present location in 1955. It needs work, which is why Friends of Downs Field, located on a cottonwood-lined meadow above Boggy Creek, was formed.
The grass and other basics are in fine shape, thanks in part to Coach Alvin Moore, who has led the baseball team and other sports activities at Huston Tillotson University. He and his players performed the centerpiece entertainment created by Allison Orr, who has previously worked wonders with sanitation and utility workers. Prolific genius Graham Reynolds provided the ballpark musical score as the players emerged from the dark like so many ghosts from "Field of Dreams."
Sometimes the HT Rams, who play Downs Field regularly, enacted imaginary innings in progress without baseballs, at other times they pitched, caught, hit or otherwise executed novelties with bats, balls and bases. A ridiculously glorious sunset and a cool breeze appeared on order from the baseball gods. I don’t think anyone in the conglomerate crowd will forget this glowing social, historical and artistic experience.