Back in the 1940s, when almost all of us were young, or not even imagined by our parents, though God probably had us in mind, a man named Bob Cobb and some friends built a ballpark in Billings, Montana. This guy was not related to the famous Ty Cobb, though he did invent a marvelous salad. Yes, that is true, leading to the now well known Cobb salad. A manly salad if there ever was one. This recent picture of Cobb Field shows the shadows, especially this past summer, getting longer.
I hope that one of these days someone will go through the back issues of the Billings Gazette in order to write a proper history of the ballpark. The little I know I gathered in dribs and drabs from folks who had been around the park since the beginning, guys like Ed Popp, who used to farm not too far away from the ballpark, and was a well-established long-time regular in the first row just outside the Mustang’s dugout back in 1980 when I first started coming to games here. I saw some of those old guys at the last ballgame, shaking their head and fighting off a tear. Ed and I patrolled that first row of boxseats fairly regularly in the 80s and 90s, sometimes allowing a real fan to join us, as long as they would buy the beer. The picture to the right would have been taken from that seat right next to the dugout that Ed finally gave up.
The bond issue went through on the second try in the spring of ’07 as all the fans realized they better get out and vote because otherwise their Mustangs were likely to pick up their spikes and head on down the road. Ironically, the first try at voting in a new park was a failure even though it had the slickest campaign I’ve ever seen here in Billings. The problem was it was so good it alerted every nay-sayer in town to show up at the polling place. Much better for the outcome was the low key, person to person campaign on the second go-around. The park aged fairly well, looking good even in the winter time. I used to love to sit in the bleachers about 9pm or so on a balmy summer evening, as almost all were at least in my memory, and watch an old DC3 still in service for what I don’t know, rising gracefully from Logan airport atop the Rimrocks, so full of time that if you used your imagination you could easily transport yourself back 50s years to when the plane was new. That was how I saw it anyway.
This old park has seen a lot of baseball in the 60 or so years it has been in existence. Legion teams and the Mustangs, rookie league advanced for the Cincinnati Reds, and now lately, the revived baseball program at Montana State University Billings, has usually meant at least on average a game every day from April through Labor Day. Dave McNally was a big name for the Legion team back in the late 50s, going to the final game of the Legion World Series in New Orleans in 1960 I think. And of course, he did have more than a few pretty good years with the Baltimore Orioles from 1962 into the 70s. He and Curt Flood and Andy Messersmith were instrumental in getting the old “reserve clause,” an almost medieval relic of a baseball rule overturned, and led to the modern day free agency.
Dave and Jeanne used to live a couple houses down from us on Ramada Drive here in Billings until he died from a lung cancer a couple of years ago.
There were others who played professional baseball from Billings. The one I remember the best was Jeff Ballard, who pitched and played 1st base for the Scarlets in the late 70s and early 80s. He went on to do well for Stanford and the Baltimore Orioles until he was hurt in an auto accident.
Some years ago I saw a guy start warming up in the park where the Mariners used to play; he still had his jacket on but his motion was so distinctive I knew it was Jeff from the stands in deep right field where I was looking around. I guess ways of walking and pitching and maybe thinking stick with us perhaps all of our lives.
The swimming pool was taken out even before the season was over. And lots of things were not repaired or replaced properly because we were soon going to have a new ball park, though in the end it was a remarkably close referendum. The old park, mostly wood, was knocked down fairly quickly and easily, and the early stages of the new park can be seen if you look closely. See above and below. The old outfield is still there with a few of the larger advertising signs still present as well as the old scoreboard. Maybe we will get an electronic one with all the bulbs working for the first time since I’ve been coming to the park.
Below is an artist’s and maybe an architect’s idea of what the new park will look like come July 2008. I found this in a Wendy’s Restaurant on Grand Ave. Let us hope it is playable before that time as the college and Legion teams start fairly early in the spring. Even as the old falls down the new starts popping up as you can see above right.
[ Added later, 31 October 2007: I just discovered that the City of Billings has a webpage with a series of pictures from the destruction of Cobb Field to the building of the New Field, whatever it will be called, and not only are the pictures good but they also have helpful and sometimes funny comments attached to them. Good going, Billings Parks & Recreation Dept! Check it out by clicking on the page New Field.]