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Rains may come

From ‘Black Sunday’ to Greenwood, the Tulsa Drillers have a storied past (and present)

Tulsa County Stadium

On Sunday, April 3, 1977, the rains fell steadily all morning in Tulsa, just before the much-anticipated major league exhibition game featuring the Texas Rangers against the Houston Astros. By midday, the showers ceased and a standing-room-only crowd of some 5,000 people crammed into old Driller Park (formerly known as Oiler Park, at East 15th Street and South Sandusky Avenue) to watch major-league action in their minor-league town. Overcast skies threatened the game. The smell of rain-soaked asphalt, concrete, and wood permeated the air.

By the second inning, a thunderstorm swept back into town. Rain and hail pelted the exposed seats closest to the field. Many spectators, who wanted to wait out the weather, sought shelter at the highest point in the grandstands. Several fans clustered together on the rightfield side of the upper walkway.

The sudden gathering of people in one condensed area proved too much for the 43-year-old wooden edifice. With a crack and a loud pop, a Cadillac-sized section of the rightfield walkway collapsed.

Tulsa baseball historian Wayne McCombs was at the game working the new electronic scoreboard. As he kept counts of innings, balls, and strikes, he heard what he “thought was a heavy thunderclap. [But] what had happened, part of the stands had given way.”

Men, women, and children plummeted 20 feet to the ground. Others were caught somewhere in between the top of the walkway and the gravel underneath, gripping and clawing, as they scampered to save themselves or their loved ones from falling. Some lost their grip and fell on top of the debris and people below.

It was not the first time something like that had occurred in Tulsa’s sporting past. The damaged stadium echoed a previous event that had happened 64 years prior when the South Main ballpark (near present day Veterans Park at West 21st Street and South Boulder Avenue) buckled during another exhibition game that killed one man in 1913.     

But in the ’77 collapse, no one died. From jammed fingers and broken arms to injured necks and fractured vertebrae, some 17 or 18 spectators ranging from young children to the elderly were listed as those who needed medical attention. It was an ominous day in Tulsa baseball history. The Tulsa World and Tulsa Tribune reported several witnesses and victims comparing the carnage to popular 1970s disaster movies.  But there was one other kind of casualty resulting from the event. Wayne McCombs once lamented in his book “Let’s Goooooooooo Tulsa!” that “this was the day the stadium died.” Tulsa World sportswriter Barry Lewis later coined the traumatic event “Black Sunday.”

News of the stadium collapse spread across the country, threatening the newly-formed Tulsa Drillers. Ownership found themselves in a precarious situation. Not four months after purchasing a minor league baseball club down in Louisiana and transplanting them to Tulsa, owners Bill Rollings and “Hee Haw” host Roy Clark found themselves at a crossroads. Just days before the season opener, the section of bleachers resembled a pile of pick-up sticks. The former Oilers baseball cathedral had sang its last hymn. Years of exposure and neglect had rotted the ballpark to its core.

“The only thing holding that ballpark together was the paint,” Clark said. “This was my introduction to professional baseball!”

Amidst the fallout of injured folks proclaiming never to return to Driller Park, compounded by Tulsa County inspectors declaring the stands not fit for use, the County razed the park. After four decades of play, all that was left was a field and box seats.

The negative press could have ruined the nascent ballclub, but Rollings sought to make baseball in Tulsa successful. Temporary bleachers were erected behind the box and reserve seat sections and the Drillers were ready for play by Opening Day.

Rollings said in an interview several years later about the ordeal, “I think I told everybody at that time that I wasn’t in it for the money, that Roy and I were in it to try to satisfy the city of Tulsa. We wanted to have [a place] where a family of four could come out to the ballpark, have a hot dog, have a Coke, and get in for twenty dollars. We were able to do that.”

After the collapse, Driller Park had an expiration date. The stands that seated an excess of 5,000 spectators were sacrificed to the gods of baseball past, and the makeshift accommodations dwindled seating down to 3,500. The “temporary” solution lasted well beyond the expected timeline. It took four years for a new stadium to materialize.

Moving home plate

The ballfield that came to be known by several names over its 29 year existence (Sutton, Tulsa County, and Drillers Stadium) began when oilman Robert Sutton donated the initial funds to build the aluminum ballpark at the corner of East 15th Street and South Yale Avenue, adjacent to the old field. Built in three sections (home plate, rightfield, and leftfield), Sutton Stadium opened for play in 1981, and the Drillers began gaining momentum, developing their fanbase, and building their brand.

After moving into the new facility, Rollings and Clark sold their club to the Texas Rangers. Then, the ballclub began to turn around, transitioning from dwindling attendance to a more consistent turnout. When New Hampshire business executive Went Hubbard’s son Jeff played in the Rangers farm system, he looked for business opportunities in minor league baseball. According to Drillers General Manager Mike Melega, after doing his homework on minor league teams and their cities, Went Hubbard fell in love with Tulsa. He purchased the team in late 1986 and brought with him a vision for expansion, professionalism, and fun.

Not long after acquiring the Drillers, Hubbard doled out the money to connect the three stands, completing the stadium. The park eventually expanded seating to 11,999, which made for a jam-packed house at the height of baseball in the late 1980s. Back then, Oklahoma State University and University of Oklahoma battled it out in Tulsa for bragging rights at bedlam baseball games.

“[Hubbard] put sound business principle into play, put money into the club, [and] added staff,” Melega said. “We went from probably drawing 70,000–80,000 a year to drawing over 300,000 [annually] for a decade. Baseball was [Hubbard’s] passion, so he brought that passion to Tulsa  … and really made the Drillers organization great starting in the mid-1980s.”

For nearly 30 years, the aluminum ballpark at 15th and Yale provided an ambiance that cannot be replicated. Nowhere but at Drillers Stadium could fans bring the thunder with their concussive stomp-stomp-CLAP! footwork to the tune of Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” If the scoreboard read “Get LOUD!,” the stadium would erupt in a rumble that made conversation impossible.

The old playground earned its keep and is remembered for the games, the championships, Hank Blalock hitting for the cycle twice within three days, the promotions, the concerts, and for all of its quirks and idiosyncrasies. Drillers Stadium was where the now long-tenured front office “grew up.” Many of key Drillers personnel have been with the club predating the mid-1990s—a rarity in minor league sports administration.

Staffers like Mike Melega and Jason George purposefully transplanted to Tulsa from New York and Texas for its opportunity, but they stayed because they fell in love with city, the Drillers, and the Hubbard way of thinking. When Hubbard sold his majority share to Chuck Lamson (a former Drillers pitcher who worked his way up the executive ladder) in 2006, the New Jersey southpaw maintained that business-minded approach to baseball while looking for additional ways to enhance the Drillers brand. Within a few years of taking ownership, Lamson entered into talks with developers to build a new stadium. By the end of the decade, Tulsa baseball would once more silhouette against the downtown skyline.

Former Tulsa Mayor Kathy Taylor and Lamson spearheaded the vision to bring baseball back to downtown, which had been absent since the completion of the 1929 baseball season. What could have ended up in Jenks on the river, downtown developers brokered a deal that eventually landed the ballpark in the Greenwood District.

The architects and planners cut the seating capacity in half, which contributes to the intimacy of the park. A walk around the premises reveals a great vantage point from the cheap seats on the berm to the suites above the concourse. Many third-base-side fans say the skyline is the best backdrop in all of minor league baseball.

The stadium is not without its critics, though. Many advocates and residents near Greenwood did not support the move to that location, which is right smack-dab in the middle of where the Tulsa Race Massacre took place in 1921. For many, that place is sacred ground where people suffered and died. In fact, exactly one mile south is where hundreds of black Tulsans were imprisoned at McNulty Baseball Park. The event may be nearly a century old, but wounds and scars remain. Additionally, gentrification called “development” has steadily increased in the area for years, which many believe was accelerated by the presence of the new stadium.

The Drillers acknowledge that there are those who staunchly oppose their presence, but they consciously strive to include all walks of life in the baseball environment. What is encouraging to see is the diversity at “The ‘OKE’” that has not been witnessed at this level heretofore. Strolling around the concourse on a summer night reveals faces of every background. Baseball allows that. If ever a remedy existed to help get our country back into civil discourse, baseball could be that catalyst.

Rains come, stadiums move and collapse and are rebuilt—but Tulsa baseball remains a part of our town’s identity.

The baseball family

I spent many summer nights at the ballpark with Sylvester Nichols, the original second baseman for the Oklahoma Negro League T-Town Clowns. At the time, I was a heavily tattooed, 30-something white man and he was a 91-year-old African-American World War II veteran who lived through the hardships of segregation and the Great Depression. But we were united through Tulsa baseball. We ate together. We drove around Tulsa just hanging out. We were family. And after his death, the Nichols family brought me into their fold. This all happened because of baseball, the Tulsa Drillers, ONEOK Field, and the Drillers commitment to honor those ballplayers that were once stigmatized and disregarded for too long.

For nine years now, around every Juneteenth, the Drillers honor the Tulsa Negro Leagues and other African Americans who played at the professional level. During that time, the Drillers invite players, their families, and community members to ONEOK Field to pay homage to those teams and players that had previously been ignored. In 2011, the Drillers donned throwback T-Town Clowns jerseys and they now offer t-shirts with the old Clowns logo in the Black Gold Outfitters souvenir shop. Though most of the aggregate Tulsa T-Town Clown players have died, the Drillers continue to work with Mary Williams and the Color Me True workshops to bring players’ families on the field to introduce and honor them.

Tulsa Drillers baseball has had an indelible impact on the men who played the game at the various ballparks here, too. Former Drillers second baseman (1977) and major leaguer Billy Sample recalled how difficult on-field communication could be during the early Drillers days because of the car races at the fairgrounds—next door to Driller Park.

Sample remembered, “On Saturday nights, the racetrack behind the stadium would be full roar.” If a player yelled, “I got it, I got it,” a roaring VROOOOOMMMMM! would drown out their calling of the ball. Because of that, Sample said it was not uncommon to hear, “Sorry, man, I didn’t hear you call me off!”

Infielder Christian Colonel (2006-2007) spent his Drillers days playing at the 15th and Yale stadium.

“Tulsa was one of my favorite times!” Colonel said. “My favorite part of playing there was because of the fans. The fans’ support and interaction was unbelievable.”

Former Drillers pitcher Keith Weiser (2008-2011) played in two different Driller ballparks and considers that era to be the best time of his career.

“I loved being a part of the transition from the old stadium to the new one downtown,” he said. “I feel like I got to see the city transform into something different. And now that I’m an entrepreneur, I appreciate what a modern baseball stadium can do for a city.”

After the 2014 season, the Los Angeles Dodgers became the Drillers parent club, which put Tulsa’s exposure on par with the Yankees’, Red Sox’s, Cubs’, and Cardinals’ minor league systems—Trenton Thunder, Portland Sea Dogs, Tennessee Smokies, and Springfield Cardinals, respectively. This provides both diehard and fair-weather fans the chance to see future stars of an internationally-recognized brand. After former Drillers pitcher Caleb Ferguson earned his first big-league “W” for L.A. this year, his family joined him afterward to celebrate, one of them sporting a Tulsa Drillers shirt.

The owners, the front office, the players, the announcers, the reporters, the fans, the clubhouse attendants, the interns, the vendors, the floor sweepers, the maintenance engineers, the grounds crew, the sponsors—everyone contributes to the aura of the game. It transcends generations, gender, race and ethnicities, sexual orientation, disabilities, and everything in between. Rains come, stadiums move and collapse and are rebuilt—but Tulsa baseball remains a part of our town’s identity.

I spoke to many people for this story—too many to name. The general consensus was that baseball is more than a sport of statistics or wins and losses; it’s bigger than boxscores, who makes it to the bigs, or who brings home a championship.

Tulsa baseball continues tradition, embraces the present, and looks to the future. It’s superfans like “The Admiral” who attends most home games (the guy belts out a mean rendition of the national anthem). It’s Wayne McCombs, who painstakingly documented the history of professional baseball here, which preceded oil discovery and statehood. The game’s pacing allows for settling in to long conversations, but leaves room for kids and adults alike to snag a foul ball, get an autograph, or sometimes score a game-used broken bat. Tulsa baseball is having a beer and a dog with a loved one, enjoying each other’s company in comfortable silence among stadium sounds. Longtime baseball fan Andi Cox remembered the special summer nights that she spent with her grandfather at the ballpark: “I won’t ever forget being small and my papa ordering me the ice cream helmet and buying me the tiny bat. Every game.”

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