Whatever Happened To ... Silver Stadium?

Democrat and Chronicle by Alan Morrell April 3, 2015

Silver Stadium was, of course, the highly regarded and well-loved former home of the Rochester Red Wings.

But the Norton Street ballpark was much more than that. It hosted rock concerts and football games, professional boxing and Olympians, and visits by an evangelist and a daredevil legend. It was a community gathering spot, and more than one wedding was held at home plate.

The ballpark opened in 1929 as Red Wing Stadium and was hailed as the "Taj Mahal" of minor league ballparks for its grandeur. The name was changed in 1968 to honor Morrie Silver, who led a 1950s stock drive that kept the team in Rochester.

The Red Wings won nine of their 10 Governor's Cups during their years at Silver. Before the Governor's Cup was awarded, the Wings captured three straight International League championships from 1929-31, winning more than 100 games each year. Countless numbers of kids got their first look at professional ballplayers at the ballpark, many as Knot Hole Club members sitting in the bleachers.

While ultra-modern when it opened, Silver Stadium in later years became a throwback to a bygone era. Wedged into a city neighborhood where residents rented out their lawns for parking, Silver had the feel of a place like the iconic Wrigley Field, albeit in miniature.

Like many of those old ballparks, Silver had support beams that blocked views and a cramped press box (originally accessible only by a spiral staircase). Fly balls that cleared the left-field wall occasionally cracked windshields of vehicles parked in the gravel lot beside the ballpark.

Those issues notwithstanding, Silver Stadium was beloved for its cozy, intimate feel and the memories created there.

Future Hall of Famers like Cal Ripken Jr., Stan Musial, Bob Gibson and Eddie Murray played for the Wings at the Norton Street ballpark, as did beloved stars like Luke Easter, Specs Toporcer, Bobby Grich and Don Baylor. All-time greats like Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle and sprinter Jesse Owens visited for exhibitions.

Naomi Silver, the Red Wings' president and CEO (and Morrie's daughter) said her most vivid memories were of the exhibition games between the Wings and their longtime big-league affiliate, the Baltimore Orioles.

"The stars that came in were among the best in baseball, and (longtime Orioles manager) Earl Weaver and others enjoyed coming," she said. "The team would either spend the night or take their charter flight to the next day's opposing city, but not before grabbing post-game dinner with me and my mom. Earl was always gracious that way."

In the 1930s, Red Wing Stadium was home to two short-lived professional football teams, the Rochester Braves and the Rochester Tigers. In the 1940s, Aquinas Institute's powerhouse high-school football teams regularly played there. Former boxing champion Carmen Basilio, who lived for years in Irondequoit, fought at Red Wing Stadium in 1949.

Baseball historian Priscilla Astifan of Webster said she "fell in love with baseball during a knot hole game" at the ballpark when she was 15. One of her favorite memories of the ballpark was an encounter with another future Hall of Famer.

"Getting the autograph of Tom Lasorda, who was then a pitcher and first base coach for the Montreal Royals on my knot hole card," she wrote in an email. Lasorda was with the Royals in two stints from 1950 to 1960.

Red Wings chairman Gary Larder remembered the 1956 "Little World Series" between the Red Wings and the Indianapolis Indians.

"As a young Cleveland Indians fan, I couldn't wait to see some of the young Indians prospects about whom I had read," Larder wrote in an email. They included future Red Wings manager Joe Altobelli and Roger Maris, who broke Babe Ruth's single-season home run record five years later.

One of the most spectacular events at Silver occurred in 1976, when tightrope walker Karl Wallenda, at age 71, traversed the ballpark from the center-field fence to the grandstand roof, 60 feet above ground.

The following year, Fred Costello began as Red Wings stadium organist, a position he still holds. Costello reminisced about watching his sons advance from batboys to clubhouse managers at Silver, and playing the organ for Red Wing Tim Derryberry's home-plate wedding in 1982.

By the mid-1980s, Silver began hosting major concerts. Van Halen played there in September 1986, followed by the Grateful Dead in July 1987, and U2 three months later.

The old ballpark had begun showing its age, though. A $4.5 million renovation before the start of the 1987 season was widely hailed, but within a few years, discussion of a new ballpark surfaced. Major League Baseball had set new standards for its minor league affiliates, and Silver Stadium was no longer up to snuff.

After years of political wrangling, an agreement was reached for a new stadium. Silver hosted its last regular-season Red Wings game in August 1996.

It was a glorious affair, with the sold-out ballpark hosting a variety of special guests and a splendid, emotion-filled farewell. Red Wings General Manager Dan Mason, who started with the team in 1990, said that night was his favorite Silver memory.

"Emotions were all over the place," Mason wrote in an email. "People were crying. Hugging. Laughing, Dancing. The game itself became secondary to people waxing poetic On this night, nobody wanted to leave. Fans just hung around. Crying and hugging some more. Taking photos of what they knew was a historic night."

That's the impact a ballpark can have on a community. The next year, the Red Wings began playing at their new home, Frontier Field.