Jackson's newest place to ... Play ball!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Whitey Herzog Stadium in Jackson has received more than $400,000 in donations and been under construction for three years. (Fred Lynch)

Jack Litzelfelner Sr. looked around at the baseball facilities in Jackson and saw today's Jackson High School baseball teams playing on the same nondescript field where he played American Legion baseball in 1944.

"The time was long overdue for someone to do something and think about building another field," Litzelfelner said.

Ron Clark took his 12-year-old all-star team to compete in the Cal Ripken World Series in Aberdeen, Md., in 2005 and returned to Southeast Missouri with the inspiration of what a true monument to youth baseball can be.

"My parents were out there and I was out there and it was such an inspiration to us, seeing what the Ripken family was doing for all the kids that when we got back we wanted to do the same thing in our area for the kids and promote baseball and help the kids and keep them out of trouble and give them something to do," Clark said.

Wanting something better for their community, the two men fused their dreams. Litzelfelner enrolled the aid of his longtime friend and former St. Louis Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog and his son Jack Litzelfelner Jr., and a plan was put in motion.

Whitey Herzog Stadium in Jackson will have 60 stadium seats that came from the old Busch Stadium in St. Louis. (Fred Lynch)

Approximately three years after the first soil was turned on that dream, Whitey Herzog Stadium will be christened in the coming days as Jackson High School will host its first game at the 5 1/2-acre facility.

Weather permitting, the Indians will host Central at 4 p.m. Friday.

"It's been a long, hard process between raising funds and getting it built and working through the city of Jackson and the obstacles they've kind of thrown at us," Litzelfelner Jr. said. "But where we're at right now, we're just so excited. And when you see some of the kids that come up to this ballpark and say, 'Wow, we're going to be playing on this field soon,' it's really satisfying for all of us."

A major project

The ballpark off Hwy. 61 on the north end of Jackson is the culmination of the work of many members of the community. It has drawn nearly $300,000 in donated funds and another $100,000 in donated material and labor.

The home team dugout at Whitey Herzog Stadium in Jackson has a sloped floor for water drainage.

"One thing led to another and it just got bigger and better," said Litzelfelner Sr., a former minor league catcher who roomed with Herzog while both played for a team in Quincy, Ill. "And a lot of people did a lot of work, including Ron. He did most of it. And we contracted out some and had a lot of volunteers."

The facility still is a work in progress, with restrooms, concession stand, press box, scoreboard and lights among the items to be completed. But the basic structure and playing field is in place and ready for an umpire's call of "Play ball!"

"It's been a project," Clark said with a laugh.

The field itself, built to major league dimensions -- 330 feet down the lines and 400 to center -- will be called Clark Field.

Ron Clark's family donated the land for the ballpark, and Clark and his company, Clark and Sons Excavation, have performed the construction labor. The Clarks also donated 11 acres of adjacent land for the construction of a community center, which soon will break ground.

Ron Clark, back left, and his crew pour concrete in the visitors dugout Tuesday at the new Whitey Herzog Stadium in Jackson.

Unique features to the ballpark are 60 seats behind home plate that are from old Busch Stadium, a brick wall that trims the playing area 60 feet behind home plate and runs dugout to dugout, spacious concrete dugouts -- 50 feet long and 12 feet wide -- that are 4 1/2 feet below the playing surface and an electronic scoreboard that is 36 feet long and 16 feet high.

A grass infield has its basepaths top dressed with Turface All-Sport, a soil that drains exceptionally well, and a warning track lines the perimeter of the playing field along with a 10-foot fence. One-hundred and forty Eastern Scotch Pines and Thuja Green Giant Hybrids have been landscaped on the premises, including a row just beyond the outfield fence.

"It's exceeded our expectations," said Litzelfelner Jr., who is president of the Jackson Area Baseball Association, the nonprofit organization that oversaw the construction and will operate the field. "When Whitey first got involved in the project, we kind of made the commitment to him that whatever we would do, we would do first class. And we haven't cut any corners anywhere financially. It's probably cost us more money than we thought, but at the end of the day, when we look at what we accomplished, the money that we raised and the amount of donations we got on this project, it far exceeded anything we really envisioned when we first started this thing."

The facility has a concrete walkway with handrails that leads to the stadium seats and bleacher area and is handicap accessible.

It's a far cry from Legion Field at Jackson City Park.

The Indians have called that home since 1946, and Litzelfelner should know. He was the catcher on the first team fielded by Jackson High School.

"To end up with a complex like this in Jackson I think is a big asset to the community, not only to Jackson, but the surrounding area," Litzelfelner Sr. said. "We're going to have a place where surrounding towns can play, but primarily it's Jackson R-II that will get the first shot at the games."

An inspiring group

Clark's son, Bobby, will be among the group of Indians to play the first game at Whitey Herzog Stadium. Bobby Clark will be among six Indians who played for Ron Clark's 12-year-olds team that earned its way to the Cal Ripken World Series. The team won its district, Missouri state championship and Midwest Regional and was one of eight U.S. teams that competed in the World Series, which also included eight international teams.

The group of boys -- which also includes current Indians Ben Stearns, Mason Sanders, Logan Bartles, Zach McDowell and Clayton Baker -- was part of the overall inspiration for Ron Clark.

"I love to see all the kids out there, just not my kid," Clark said. "All the kids. All the kids that worked hard to get this off the ground to inspire me to do something like this. That'd be great. That would be the best thing in my life to see them out there because they worked hard for this. They devoted 75 to 80 games a year to us when we played those three, four years."

Ron Clark said his team started as 9-year-olds and "got their tails whipped," at the start, but their work ethic paid off through 75 to 80 games a season.

Ron Clark said the trip to Aberdeen was unforgettable and inspiring. Ripken's youth ballpark was located next to the ballpark that housed Ripken's Class A minor league team.

"He had like a 100-acre complex for kids," Clark said. "And on this complex he had a minor league division that he has with the Baltimore Orioles, and beside that he started a 12-year-old and under, and it's a beautiful stadium he built out there for those kids, him and his dad and his family, and it was great inspiration for me and my family when we went out there and got to play in the World Series."

Clark's passion first was visible when he began building a subdivision on the adjacent land that overlooks the ballpark. The Nine Oaks subdivision has such streets as Ripken Way and Aberdeen Circle.

To commemorate the inspiration, Clark plans for a display case with some of the trophies won by that team at the new ballpark's concession stand. The display will include a picture of Ripken with the Jackson players.

"I'm going to invite Cal Ripken here later on because he was instrumental to us," Clark said. "I know he was for the kids. They loved it up there."

Herzog is one that will make a visit to the ballpark. He originally toured Jackson with Litzelfelner to look at the need for fields in Jackson and has donated $85,000 to the project.

"He's been a big contributor. Big, big," Litzelfelner Sr. said.

Organized ball

Litzelfelner Jr. was involved in the building of the new 14-field Jackson Soccer Park, and he transferred his experience in that project to the building of Whitey Herzog Stadium.

"A lot of the same things we had to do with the soccer park are the same things we had to do with the Herzog Stadium," Litzelfelner Jr. said. "But it seems like it never prepares you fully. The biggest issue is working through funding efforts, generating funds to build it. That's the No. 1 issue always. And No. 2 is just the design and vision of getting all the parts together to build, fund and get it to completion."

Litzelfelner Jr. said one of the things he's most proud of is the community support during the recession.

"Seven years ago it would have been a whole lot easier when the economy was strong and all the businesses were making money," Litzelfelner Jr. said.

Clark said the concession stand, restrooms and lights will be installed this summer. The parking lot still needs to be paved and an indoor facility with batting cages will be added.

"I'd say by next year [the ballpark will be complete], if everything keeps going good with it," Clark said.

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