Standing a few yards from first base in an East Austin ballpark, City Council Member Ora Houston recounted her earliest memories of the diamond.
“When I was 4 or 5 years old, I was a junior cheerleader on this park at the baseball games of Sam Huston College,” she said.
Houston joined city officials and community members Saturday to celebrate the completion of the first of several renovations to Downs Mabson Field. In the early 20th century, the field was home to the Austin Black Senators, a Negro League team. It also still serves as home field for Huston-Tillotson University.
In 2005, members of the Rosewood Neighborhood Association contacted Houston about renovating the field. According to Lisa Byrd, the ballpark on 12th Street needed some major updates.
“I would drive down 12th Street and I would say, ‘I wonder what that is. That looks like a prison yard because there was ... fencing with barbed wire,’” said Byrd, who is the former executive director of Six Square, a nonprofit focused on preserving Austin’s black cultural spaces. “Why does a baseball field have barbed wire?”
The city eventually teamed up with several private organizations, including Six Square and the Rosewood Neighborhood Association, to replace the barbed wire with new fencing, commission an artist to create tile murals of famed players and erect a historical marker.
Mayor Steve Adler ticked off some of the players who had visited the field.
“This is more than just a baseball ballpark,” he said. “This is a monument to giants. Downs Field used to be the home of the Austin Black Senators. Those who played here included Satchel Paige, ‘Smokey Joe’ Williams and Willie Mays and Buck O’Neill and Austin’s own Hall of Famer shortstop Willie Wells.”
While Saturday’s unveiling carried a tone of celebration, many in the crowd acknowledged that the fence and the historical marker are just the first of several updates to the ballpark.
“For phase two, it will include much more, including the renovation of the grandstand, a game sign, concession stands, updated restrooms,” said Nefertiti Jackmon, current executive director of Six Square.
The renovations will also include a new set of lights, under which fans can cheer on their teams and heckle visiting players for years to come.