As presented in the first article of this series, a fire destroyed the original Edmonds Field at the southeast corner of Riverside Boulevard and Broadway during the summer of 1948. And 65 years later, people are still talking about the tragedy.
During interviews conducted for this article, six people shared their memories regarding the fire, and in some cases spoke about the ruins it left behind and the mystery regarding its origin.
Excerpts from these interviews are presented, as follows:
“We were getting cinders clear over there [at his house at 2770 19th St., near Markham Way] from the ballpark fire,” said 94-year-old Sacramento native Morrison Bruner. “What a glare in the sky. It was late at night.
“It has been said that [the fire] started from a cigarette butt landing on wood below the stands, which I doubt very much. There were spaces in the floor boards and under the seats where anything could be dropped, especially Coke bottles. After the game, some of us would go under the stands and find the bottles to take to the store for [a] refund of a few pennies. The structure was built in such a way that horizontal wood was very scarce. Most of it was angles. There was a dirt floor and it was not compacted and the dust was about six inches deep. There was also lots of dust on the cross members of the framing.”
“We were at a bar at 18th (Street) and Broadway (on the night of the fire),” recalled 90-year-old Sacramento area native Billy Rico, whose own successful baseball career included playing for the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. “I was with a guy who was a great (PCL) ball player by the name of Frankie Hawkins. A fire broke out and everybody went out in the street, because it was the ballpark (that was on fire just a few blocks away). It was about time for it to catch fire anyway. It was old wood. Everybody was running like crazy up and down the street. I didn’t go down by the fire. You couldn’t, because it was so damn hot. I also went out there the next day (to the ballpark remains) and looked around. I hated to see the (destruction), because I saw a lot of great ball games out there. The greatest left-hander I ever saw pitched there. That was (the Solons’) Tony Freitas.”
“What I know about (the fire) is a man named Joe Valine, who was a salesman for the International (tractor) dealer, Sacramento Valley Tractor Co. (at 1901 Broadway), used to talk about it,” said 82-year-old Walnut Grove native Dennis Leary. “He thought the whole neighborhood was going to burn before it was over. The flames were probably 200 feet (tall) and spewing sparks all over the neighborhood. I had gone to quite a few baseball games at that old, wooden stadium. All of the early stadiums were like that. That’s the way they were built. It was all out of wood. It wasn’t out of concrete and cinderblocks or whatever they use today, and every once in a while one burned.”
“I actually heard about the fire while I was in Guam,” said Dick Ryder, a June 1947 C.K. McClatchy High School graduate, who grew up a short distance from the ballpark at 2800 Regina Way. “I was working for the Navy under the naval civil service when I was 18 and that (fire) happened during that summer that I was still there under my contract. He came over, incidentally driving a brand new Ford Sportsman woody, and was telling me all about the big fire that he had seen before he left Sacramento. Since I was so far away when I heard (the news), it kind of shows you what an international place Sacramento is!
“About seven years earlier, when (former St. Louis Cardinals star) Pepper Martin was the (Solons’) manager, I attended every home game that year. (The original Edmonds Field) was a big wooden ballpark, and my recollection is you sat on wooden seats and there was a space under the seats that went down to the ground underneath the (stands). There was that empty void down there, and when (former Sacramento Bee columnist) Stan Gilliam used to (talk about) the fact that his smoking started the fire, I can believe that.”
“At (the time of the fire), we were living at [2550 Freeport Blvd.] and we heard all of the commotion and the (sirens of) fire engines go by, so we went on down to the end of the street to Broadway,” said Sacramento native Dolores Greenslate, a June 1942 graduate of McClatchy High. “We saw all the lights and the flames of the fire and the smoke and everything, and everybody was running in that direction, so we ran down in that direction, too. We were just about where Tower Records (was later established at 16th Street and Broadway) and we stopped there, because they didn’t want anybody to go any further. It would have been interfering with people who were fighting the fire. There was debris and it was flying. It was an old rickety ballpark and naturally when it was burning cinder hot, there’s going to be sparks all over the place. It was a spectacular fire, because ambers and flames were reaching high into the sky. What was especially notable was the fire was burning the telephone poles on the north side of Broadway. With the sparks spitting out everywhere, it kind of reminded you of the 4th of July. Those poles were in front of the (Shell Oil Co.) gas station (at the northeast corner of Riverside Boulevard and Broadway) and were burning brightly and viciously, and nobody wanted to go by there, because they thought the gas station was going to explode. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, if the fire got down to that gasoline and it exploded, what a catastrophe that would be.’ There were a lot of houses on Yale Street and other streets over there that had residential stuff and they would all go up in smoke. If the electric lines were on fire, they would go right to the houses, too.
“(Stan Gilliam) was always (talking) about how he thought he burned down the ballpark, and I think he did, because, in those stands, stuff would fall down (to the ground). If you were eating some popcorn and you dropped some, it would just fall all the way down there (to the ground). There were wrappers down there and everything else. And (Gilliam) said he really did lose his cigarette. I asked him about it one time and he said, ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if I did start it, because I was there that night.’”
“I recall the fire in the particular area in which I lived in East Sacramento (at 1215 44th St.),” said Toby Johnson, the 96-year-old, former longtime educator and county supervisor. “There were flames in the sky and the general reaction was a mass turnout of people (at the site or) trying to view it from some vantage point, like the Capitol grounds and so forth.
“The following day, a couple of my friends, Mike McPartland and Jack Harrison, and I went over there and looked at (the ruins). Mike had a car, so we went over in that. They wouldn’t permit you to go in where the fire had been its greatest. The devastation was pretty darn rampant. (That) day, everybody in Sacramento had to see the outcome of the burning of (the ballpark).”