By Jim Moyes
A couple of years ago this “snowbird,” who followed his family to the Sunshine State in 2010, received a call from Dale Swanson, a lifelong friend and former teammate from the good ole days in North Muskegon. Dale informed me if I had heard of the plan to tear up the baseball field so they could build a soccer complex on what is currently the James B. Johnson baseball field? My initial response was: “You can’t possibly be serious.”
First – a little history lesson on the NM baseball field. This field was built as a baseball field, and a baseball field only back in 1920 per a story written at the time by The Muskegon Chronicle. It wasn’t built as an all-purpose field, just a baseball field. This field has served our community with the great game of baseball for more than 100 years, and since 1935, has been the home for North Muskegon High School baseball.
Over the years, due mainly to limited property space in North Muskegon, it had been used during the fall as the practice field for NM football teams. The constant usage from fall football raised havoc with the outfield, but somehow, we managed to live through it over the years. When Walt Gawkowski took over the head coaching duties at NMHS in the late 1980s, he was determined to not only improve our baseball program, but also the field. He accomplished both!
Walt was tireless in improving the field, and improve it he did! At the turn of the 21st Century, a number of former teammates from our NM town team in the early 1960s, raised more than $20,000 and completely renovated the infield. My wife, Mary, contributed thousands of dollars to have a digital scoreboard installed. Bobby Walters, an outstanding baseball player at NM in the middle 1960s, built what is now a beautiful two-story press box. Dave Bliss, a slick-fielding first baseman for the Norse in the 1950s, and a 3-star athlete, donated money for the foul poles that are currently in use.
But still, what could we do to improve the outfield? Rick Schanhals, a former Norseman from the early 1960s, Marv Wegner, NM police chief at the time, and this old-timer, took it upon ourselves to come up with a solution. We came up with the idea to purchase a number of trees, and then sell monuments for people to purchase a tree in remembrance of a loved one. Thanks to the generosity of the great people in NM, we sold those monuments like hotcakes. With those funds we then installed, complete with underground irrigation, the current practice football field. We also built a practice soccer field adjacent to the softball diamond so both the football teams and the soccer teams would have a place to practice.Those trees have grown and have enhanced the beauty of this historic area.
The current James B. Johnson Baseball Field is one of the best high school baseball facilities in West Michigan. During the last few summers, the field has been rented out to travel ball teams throughout the state of Michigan and beyond. The teams, as well as the number of fans who accompanied their teams, all raved about the facility. As recent as 2021, James B. Johnson Field was used to host both the district and regional baseball tournament. Only outstanding facilities are granted this privilege by the MHSAA.
The baseball people, and even this old timer, feel they were blind-sided with the current project of tearing down the baseball field and installing a soccer field with new all surface turf. With a grant given to North Muskegon, they also have planned to build a complex on the extreme eastern boundaries of NM that would include a baseball field and who knows what else. They are planning on building the proposed soccer complex on the site of the current baseball field before building the complex near Russell Road — leaving our outstanding baseball team homeless!
As one who has passionately followed NM sports since the 1940s, as well as a co-founder of the North Muskegon Booster Club back in 1976, I find this a terrible decision and a complete waste of money. I can’t believe any concerned parent is going to want their son or daughter under the age of 16 to walk or ride a bike across a busy Whitehall Road, and then traverse down an equally busy Holton Road to play or practice any sport at this proposed complex. It is dangerous to even think this would work.
In a talk with a member of the original committee, he informed me that the original proposal has changed drastically from what was first announced to the citizens of North Muskegon. The baseball program is the one who will take the direct hit.
What really concerns me is that two members of the NM City Council that are pushing this issue are current coaches of the North Muskegon High School soccer teams – a direct conflict of interest as it is the soccer program which will benefit the most, at the expense of the baseball program.
One would be led to believe that Jeff Cooke, our athletic director, who has been the heart and soul of North Muskegon athletics for more than 40 years, would be the first person one would consult on a project that would have an enormous impact on Norse athletics. But after the original plans were changed, Cooke was never asked for his input. There was not even a cursory call to members of the Johnson family advising them of this project.
A question was raised to me recently by a local sportswriter: “if they (the committee) want to turf the baseball field to be used by the soccer teams, then why not turf the football field to double as a football and soccer field? That is mind blowing to me.” I totally agree. He made perfect sense. An all-turf football field will (or should) make everybody happy. However, from reports I received from my sources back in NM, this has been met with deaf ears.
Our baseball team has had incredible success in the past 3 years, highlighted by winning the Greater Muskegon Athletic Association championship this season against much bigger schools in the area. They have won nearly 90 games for the last three seasons, an incredible accomplishment! The NM youth baseball program has developed some very good players that ensures NM baseball will be successful for years to come. That will surely go by the wayside if they are left without a field to call their own.
The baseball field has seen so many great players give the Norse faithful many thrills over the years: from Francis ‘Rube’ Marquard in the 30’s, Marshall Strayer in the 40’s, Bill Duplissis in the 50’s and up to the day’s current Norsemen, who just may have the best team in nearly 90 years of NM baseball.
I have been informed that at the next North Muskegon City Council meeting on June 19, a number of Norse backers of athletics are going to voice their reasons for objection to this project. Let’s hope the council will listen to common sense and make the right move to drop this project and use the funds to turf the football field.
Jim Moyes, thank you for bringing this to light. As you stated, it seems like a very common sense approach to have the football field be updated with new turf, allowing both football and soccer programs to compete there. To send the baseball program packing is ludicrous. The pride in that field and program is rich and deep. I am a ‘75 NM graduate who carries that pride.
Jim mentioned the efforts of many in NM who have invested their money and hard work to make it what it is. During his tenure, Coach Walt Gawkowski was instrumental in leading the baseball program and improving the field conditions.
Clearly, the soccer program is well represented in NM City Council. Nonetheless, it would be a travesty to boot the NM baseball program from their home of the last 100 years or so.
Wow, two city council members are NM soccer coaches? Nothing unethical with that, unless this fact IS NOT MADE PUBLIC by these individuals or COUNCIL PRESIDENT.
The North Muskegon baseball program has been an important part of NMHS history. The idea of removing the field from its 100 year location is heartbreaking. The Duplissis family is very disappointed in this proposal.
There are other land areas that could be utilized for a Soccer complex. NM should keep the Baseball Facility. It’s about respect for those who built it and NM Baseball history.
As a batboy for my brother Kurt’s team in the late 60’s and later for 3 years as a varsity team player (sometimes!), I spent a lot of time on that field….albeit mostly in the dugouts. I will actually do my best to try and show up (from Chicago) at the next NM June 19th City Council meeting to voice my support for the proposed turfed soccer field at the football stadium vs the JB Johnson baseball field location. And Jimmy Moyes….what a great composition you’ve written here….nice work!
PS-I lived across the hall from Walt (‘Voj’) Gawkowski in Thorpe Hall when we were both at CMU in the mid-1970’s….what a great guy, and also excellent varsity ballplayer for the Chips!!