Russwood Park - Memphis


1921 Memphis "Chicks"
Photo courtesy of Memphis Redbirds

When the Southern Association began play in 1901, Memphis again entered organized professional baseball with a team known as the Egyptians; in 1907 they became the Turtles. The Egyptians played at Red Elm Park (or Bottoms), a three-thousand-seat facility built in 1896.1  The modern era of Memphis baseball began though in 1914 when local businessman Russell Gardner purchased controlling interest in the club and turned its day-to-day operation over to his son-in-law, Thomas R. Watkins.  Watkins changed the name of the team from Turtles to Chickasaws (the local American-Indian tribe) to honor the amateur team of that name that pioneered baseball in the 19th century but the name was shortened by the fans and the press to “Chicks.”2  In 1915 the park was renamed Russwood and seating was increased to six thousand (later increased to eleven thousand).  The Memphis entry in the Southern Association won pennants in 1903, 1904, 1921, 1924, and 1930.


Russwood Park - Memphis
Photo courtesy of Memphis Redbirds

By the 1950s at least, seating in the park had been increased to 14,000 in the all wooden structure.  The main entrance to the park was located at 914 Madison Avenue directly across the street from Baptist Memorial Hospital (built in 1912).  Since 1936 the Memphis Chicks were affiliated with several major league teams; New York Giants, St. Louis Browns, Chicago White Sox, Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox and ultimately the St. Louis Cardinals.  Harold Goodwin, a sign painter in Memphis, recalls painting an outfield sign in right field at Russwood in 1947 during a pre season exhibition game with the Red Sox when Ted Williams hit a foul ball more than 300 feet into the fence near his head (the right field foul line ran 302 ft. to the fence).  He put down his brush and stopped working after Ted hit the next one a little closer.  The Red Sox won against the Chicks, 4-3.


Arial view of Russwood Park
Photo courtesy Memphis - Elvis Style by Mike Freeman and Cindy Hazen


Overview of Russwood Park
Photo courtesy Chirpchatter added Feb. 22, 2012

On the evening of July 4, 1956, days after Elvis appeared on the Steve Allen show in a tuxedo singing to a dog, Elvis, Scotty, Bill and DJ headlined a benefit concert at Russwood to a reported 14,000 fans, many of which had waited since morning to sit as close as they could.  By 5:00 p.m., a half hour before the gates opened, hundreds were jammed solidly before the turnstiles. The charity event was for the Cynthia Milk Fund of The Memphis Press-Scimitar and the Variety Club's home for Convalescent Children.  It featured over 100 performers backed up by the bands of Aaron Bluestein and Bob Morris that all volunteered their services to perform in the 97 degree heat and lasted more than three hours though the band closed the last half-hour.  The Jordonaires were also flown in and appeared as surprise guests.3


Elvis onstage at Russwood  - July 4, 1956
Photo by Bob Williams © The Commercial Appeal


Elvis and Scotty onstage at Russwood  - July 4, 1956
Photo ©, Alfred Wertheimer. All rights reserved.

Dewey Phillips emceed the show while local police, fireman and Shore Patrol from the Navy worked security.  Elvis was brought to the park in a squad car during the first act of the show but when fans learned of his arrival out front they beseiged the car.  They left and returned just before he went on.  When he finally took the stage wearing all black except for a red tie and red socks, pandemonium broke out as fans broke from their seats and swept to the stage.  He asked them politely to return to their seats since it made it difficult for people in the back to see.  As a door prize he gave away a $600 gold ring he owned with his initials set in 14 diamonds.  At one point he told the crowd "You know those people in New York are not going to change me none. I'm going to show you what the real Elvis is like tonight."  They then performed "Heartbreak Hotel", "I want You, I Need You, I Love You", "Blue Suede Shoes", "Long Tall Sally" and "Hound Dog" amongst others.3


Bill, D.J.Elvis and Scotty onstage at Russwood  - July 4, 1956
Photo ©, Alfred Wertheimer. All rights reserved.


Elvis onstage at Russwood  - July 4, 1956
 
Photo ©, Alfred Wertheimer. All rights reserved.


Wertheimer photo inserted for perspective

At the end of the show Elvis retreated though a phalanx of police and Shore Patrolman to a squad car backed up to the rear of the stage. Fans rolled around the car like a wave and two Shore Patrolmen and a policeman were picked up and carried back like feathers but Elvis grinned as the car pushed through the crowd.  The event had grossed about $13,500 for the charites.3  Their appearance that night in the park came almost two years to the day after they first recorded "That's All Right."


Elvis makes an appearance at Russwood Park - June 28, 1957
added Nov. 6, 2013


Lou Costello, Elvis and Jane Russell, at Russwood Park - June 28, 1957
Photo by Barney Sellers courtesy The Commercial Appeal, added Nov. 6, 2013

The following year, on June 28th, Elvis made an appearance at Russwood Park for a benefit for St. Jude's Hospital.  He didn't perform but others appearing on the program accoding to the Commercial appeal before an estimated crowd of 11,000 were singers Roberta Sherwood, Ferlin Husky and actress Susan Hayward.


Sputnik Monroe, Rocky Marciano and Billy Wicks at Russwood - Aug. 17, 1959
Photo courtesy Carnival Wrestlers Plus

In addition to baseball they also held wrestling matches in the park.  If not the most famous event then surely the most popular was a match held there on August 17, 1959 when they had an all-time attendance record of 20,000 to watch a match between Sputnik Monroe and Billy Wicks.  Wicks defeated Monroe in the last match of a summer long tournament with the prize being a 1959 Cadillac.  Undefeated Heavyweight Champion Boxer Rocky Marciano was paid $5000 to referee the match (Wicks and Monroe made $500).4


Russwood Park ablaze - April 17, 1960
Photo by Robert Williams © The Commercial Appeal


Wreckage from the fire - April 1960
Photo © The Commercial Appeal Files.

On April 17, 1960, Easter Sunday, after a pre season exhibition game between the Chicago White Sox and the Cleveland Indians, Russwood Park caught fire and burned down, the cause of which is unknown to this day.  According to The Commercial Appeal, "the intense heat from the fire shattered windows in Baptist and John Gaston hospitals and forced the evacuation of hundreds of patients. Winds of 15 to 20 mph whipped flames from the burning Park across from Madison Avenue to BMH's Madison East wing. Flames rose as high as the 12th floor, but there were no deaths in the five-alarm blaze. About 250 patients had to be evacuated from Madison East during the fire."  Bill E. Burk, publisher of Elvis World Magazine, recalled it as the most spectacular fire of his memory.  They could actually see the tops of some of the flames from his home nearly 10 miles away near Graceland.


Russwood Park Sports Bar and Grill
Photo courtesy The Holiday Inn Select

After the fire the Memphis Chicks played at Hodges Field and Tobey Field, but both proved unsatisfactory.  Financial losses, the fire, and lack of a home playing field caused the Chicks to withdraw from the Southern Association after the 1960 season.1  In the early 1960’s, Baptist Memorial hospital needing to expand, purchased the land where Russwood Park was located for another medical office tower which remains there today though the original Hospital was torn down in 2005.  In 1968 minor league baseball again returned to Memphis with the Chicks playing American Legion Field at the fairgrounds (later renamed Tim McCarver field).  They were affiliated with the NY Mets and then the Montreal Expos.  In 2000 the construction of the 14,200 seat Autozone Park was completed and is home to the Memphis Redbirds, a AAA team member of the Pacific Coast League affiliated with the St. Louis Cardinals.  It is located downtown on Union Ave just across the street from the Holiday Inn Select where inside you'll find the "Russwood Park Sports Bar and Grill".


The site of Russwood Park at present


The site of Russwood Park at present - Dec. 10, 2011
Photo © James V. Roy


The site of Russwood Park at present - Dec. 10, 2011
Photo © James V. Roy

page added October 14, 2007

1The Tennessee Encylopedia of History and Culture 
2Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Minor League Baseball History
3excepert July 5, 1957 article by Robert Johnson, The Memphis Press-Scimitar courtesy Brian Peterson's The Atomic Powered Singer
4
Wrestling Classics

special thanks to Bill E. Burk for clarifications and corrections to several details regarding Memphis baseball in the 1960s.



These clips were filmed on July 4, 1956 but the audio was added by Keith Flynn just for fun
courtesy Keith Flynn's Elvis Presley Pages
click here if video doesn't play in your browser


Interview with Al Wertheimer


On April 18, 2010 The Commercial Appeal posted an article "Fire destroyed Memphis' Russwood Park 50 years ago, but memories remain"  along with Russwood Park Memories in the Photo galleries.

 

 

All photos on this site (that we didn't borrow) unless otherwise indicated are the property of either Scotty Moore or James V. Roy and unauthorized use or reproduction is prohibited.

 
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