Jerry Burgess well remembers the time when he served as the batboy for the Houston Colt 45s, a new Major League Baseball expansion team that made Apache Junction its spring training home in a modest ballpark facing the Superstition Mountains a half century ago.
But today, the 61-year-old manager for the Loyal Order of Moose Lodge No. 2039 — partly where the team’s clubhouse once stood — believes he may be among only a few who remember Geronimo Park in its heyday.
A community event including a steak dinner and talks by Burgess and local historian Tom Kollenbern is Saturday night in part of the team’s former clubhouse, which now is part of the Loyal Order of Moose Lodge No. 2039, 360 W. 16th Ave.
However, ticket sales for the event have been sparse. But for those who do come, they are encourged to bring any photographs of the players or the park from that time and share their memories.
It was in the spring of 1962 — in the middle of the desert, or considered the middle of nowhere for that matter back then – when players on the Colt 45s (named the Astros in 1965) arrived at Geronimo Park by bus, traveling along dirt and gravel roads to get there. The ballpark’s construction, which included workers battling rattlesnakes, was partly made possible by W.W. Creighton, a developer who led a group of area businessmen in the venture, according to the Apacheland Historical Society. The 12-acre Geronimo Park, nestled on north of the U.S. 60 and west of Idaho Road, only had one training field, which was the main playing field itself, and its press box was atop the concession stand.
“There was nothing out here then,” Burgess said. “It was just desert. At the time, Apache Junction had one grocery store (A.J. Bayless), a couple bars, the Lucky Nugget and the Apache Arrow that later became George’s Steakhouse. The players stayed at the Superstition Inn (later the Superstition Ho). Many of the players who came here didn’t have cars then. I don’t think they were allowed to. They were here for only about five weeks and they were here for a reason.”
For Burgess, becoming the batboy for the Colt 45s during the team’s two-year stint in Arizona (1962 and ’63) at age 11 was merely being in the right place at the right time.
Burgess’ mother, Betty Burgess, owned Betty’s Knit Shop in town, and the wife of Harry Craft, the manager for the Colt 45s, used to shop there with the wives of other coaches.
“Harry said he needed a clubhouse boy, and I was it,” Burgess said. “I was paid only in tips. A lot of the players wanted me to shine their shoes. Some of them paid me $2 — that was a lot of money then.”
“I enjoyed being the batboy,” Burgess added. “After school let out, I went straight to the ballpark. My friends would be in the stands and I would be on the field watching the game.”
The players on the Colt 45s included rookies Rusty Staub, Manny Mota and Jimmy “The Toy Cannon” Wynn and aged veterans near the end of their careers like Norm Larker, Bobby Shantz and Johnny Temple. Just five major league teams called Arizona their spring training home then — the Colt 45s, San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs, Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox. Today half of Major League Baseball’s teams (15) make the Grand Canyon state their spring training home.
Now, only history and a handful of memories of Geronimo Park and its players remain.
Geronimo Park’s infield where Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Ron Santo and Willie McCovey once scooped up ground balls now is a parking lot and the outfield where the likes of Willie Mays and Billy Williams caught fly balls and feared rattlesnakes is covered by homes of the Lantana Villas neighborhood north of Idaho Road.
“It was a big deal when they were here,” Burgess said, “but when they were gone, they were gone.”
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