“I fell in love with baseball when I set foot in that ballpark,” says Abel Sanchez. “It was magical. I could hear the cleats cracking as players came out of the tunnel. I could hear the ball going off the wood bat. There was nothing like being in the stadium with those guys.”
Plenty of Miamians share Sanchez's nostalgia for Miami Stadium. But after the City of Miami demolished the venue in 2001, not a trace of it was left. Sanchez wants to change that. He's on a mission to raise funds — a humble $2,500, with $1,280 raised to date — to erect a historical marker on the site of the former Miami Stadium.
Built in 1949, the venue boasted a then-unique cantilevered roof. Later named Bobby Maduro Stadium in honor of the famed Cuban baseball entrepreneur, the ballpark hosted spring training for the Baltimore Orioles and Brooklyn Dodgers. The Marlins got their start there as a Minor League Baseball club.
Then the stadium began losing tenants, and the building became blighted. The City of Miami razed it in 2001 to make way for Miami Stadium Apartments, the only evidence of the landmark that brought baseball legends such as Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and other greats to play ball in the Magic City.
“It’s not the same Miami anymore,” Sanchez says. “Our history is just vanishing, everything from the Orange Bowl to Jimbo’s. It’s such a shame they let it rot. It’s been 16 years, and there’s nothing. So you can’t bring it back and life goes on, but Jackie Robinson played there. He broke the color barrier in baseball history, and that alone is a big deal. The Marlins were born there too.”
Sanchez recalls sneaking into the stadium to be close to the Orioles, who had just won the World Series in 1983. The starstruck kid became a batboy after Fred Tyler, the equipment manager, admonished him with a most welcome talking-to: “If you’re going to be here this early, we’ll put you to work.”
“It was pure,” Sanchez says. “Spring training was your clean slate. Nobody had won or lost yet. It was intimate, straight up the hood in Allapattah. Today if you climbed up on a dugout, you’d probably get tasered.”
Miami historian Paul George, who also shares memories of the stadium from earlier decades, agrees. As a kid, he admired the athleticism of Willie Mays and even had a photo taken with Mickey Mantle. “It was pure,” he says, echoing Sanchez' sentiment. “There were none of the antics in today’s games. It was truly a national pastime. You didn’t need all these bells and whistles. It was a different world.”
Nicaraguan-born living legend Dennis Martinez, AKA El Presidente, is the winningest Latin American pitcher in Major League history. He got his career start at the Miami Stadium when the Orioles drafted him in 1974. “One of the highlights of my career was to play in that stadium, one of the most beautiful ones I ever played,” he recalls. “So many great players went through there. It made me feel grateful.”
One of his fondest memories includes banter with Lenny Harris, who was just a kid when he’d hang around the dugout. “‘One day I’m going to face you,’ that’s what he told me,” Martinez recalls. “He came through. Later on, after he broke into the big league with the Cincinnati Reds, I stepped off the mound and asked, ‘Is that you?’ He kept his word.”
There was also more to the stadium than the game, which was what prompted Miami architect Rolando Llanes in 1992 to research its unique design, a query that would eventually lead him to self-publish a book and executive-produce the full-length 2007 documentary White Elephant. Llanes also attended many games at the stadium with his dad and uncle.
“The signature cantilevered roof was a structurally significant achievement,” he says. “It had no columns obstructing the view from the grandstand. The intent was to create as big of an overhead as possible with a series of trusses. It was ingeniously done and pretty ahead of its time.”
The roof also made for some good times. “It was quirky,” he says. “Foul balls would hit the roof, roll back, and people would run around to catch them.”
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Llanes says the stadium's designer, the Tennessee architecture firm Marr & Holman, came from a tradition of building theaters in the South. The venue's signature marquis façade and foul poles lit up along with an electronic scoreboard. "They married the concept of theater architecture with a ballpark, and you got this once-in-a-lifetime building," he explains. "When people saw it open in 1949, they couldn’t believe it. The place was really off the charts.”
When the Miami Herald published a story about Llanes’ research in 1996 during Miami’s centennial, his phone was flooded with calls from old-timers who had stories about the stadium.
“I could never have anticipated how much it meant to so many people,” he recalls. “It played a significant role in Miami’s history for over 40 years. What Abel [Sanchez] is trying to accomplish is so simple and modest. Other great ballparks that have been torn down have markers. Maybe someone who stumbles upon a Miami Stadium marker will be inspired to look up the story.”
Visit GoFundMe to contribute to the Historic Marker Miami Stadium fundraiser.