The Russwood Park Fire

Ask Vance



Dear Vance: I’ve always heard that the Russwood Park fire of 1960 was one of our city’s largest blazes, but I can’t tell where the old baseball field was located. Can you help? And what could burn in a stadium anyway — the grass? — t.r., memphis.

Dear T.R.:

This magazine has already published two very fine articles about the Russwood Park fire — “Sports: Russwood Park 1921-1960,” by my pal David Tankersley (April 1980), and “The Night Russwood Park Burned,” by my other pal Debbie Gilbert (January 1992). So I’m going to ease back in my La-Z-Boy with a cool bottle of Kentucky Nip and a box of Thin Mints, while you root through your back issues of Memphis and find those stories. My job here, I believe, is done.

What? Oh, okay. But just this one time.

It seems the gentleman who signs my checks — yes, hard to believe, but I am paid to write this column — seems to think that a few of you may not have kept magazines from the 1980s or even 1990s, and I should at least give you some information here.

I’ll pull together the basic facts from Tankersley’s and Gilbert’s articles, and add something they never had: color photographs of the tremendous fire damage, as you see here. Last year, I obtained several boxes of old Kodachrome slides at an estate sale. Taken by an unknown amateur photographer, most of them depicted family events, vacation outings, and views of their home over the years, but one box held pictures taken of Russwood Park the day after the blaze. Apparently the fellow just wandered down the street snapping pictures, and nobody stopped him.

Basic history: The baseball field on Madison was originally called Red Elm Bottoms (I have no idea why), and it only became Russwood Park when a local businessman named Russell Gardner purchased the property. It was originally home to a team called the Memphis Turtles — yes, the club named their team after a creature not exactly known for its speed or agility — but in more recent years it was home to the Memphis Chicks.

Tiny when it was first constructed, Russwood expanded over the years, with the wooden stands (did you catch that, T.R.? — wooden!) eventually holding more than 10,000 fans. Over the years, the old field was hemmed in by buildings from the medical center, chiefly John Gaston Hospital on the west, a new wing of Baptist Memorial Hospital across Madison to the south, and the sprawling Memphis Steam Laundry, with its soaring smokestack, to the north.

Over the years, as Tankersley relates in his story — haven’t you finished reading that by now? — Russwood attracted some of the great names in baseball, including Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, and others. And on the Easter afternoon of April 17, 1960, more than 7,000 people came to the park to watch an exhibition game between the Chicago White Sox and the Cleveland Indians.
Later that evening, sometime around 7:30, a few patients at Baptist Hospital noticed smoke billowing from the empty stadium. Firemen from a firehouse on Jefferson rushed to the scene, thinking they were going to quench yet another trash fire that tended to spring up from the paper and clutter beneath the rickety old stands. “I thought we’d have it out right away,” one fire captain told reporters, “but when we got inside, it was a different story.”

Daylight revealed the full extent of the fire that consumed Russwood Park: steel beams twisted by the intense heat, scorched cars, and burned-out buildings along Madison.

The captain of a ladder truck said, “We located the fire in the bleachers and started pouring water on it, but it just kept growing, and we had to drop the hose and run for our lives. That was the first time we had a fire I felt we couldn’t handle.”

As Gilbert puts it in her story, “It soon became obvious that attempting to save the stadium was useless. In the intense heat — temperatures at the heart of the fire reached 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit — water just turned to steam. Russwood was given up for dead. Firemen concentrated on containing the flames, which were now spreading toward the maternity ward of John Gaston Hospital to the west, and Baptist Hospital to the south.”

A news photographer on the scene that evening captured a tsunami of flame cascading over 12-story Baptist Hospital, which was filled with nervous patients. Windows cracked, and window frames in John Gaston actually caught fire. “In the space of a few minutes,” wrote Gilbert, “Russwood became one of the few signal-five, or five-alarm, fires in our city’s history.”

A full-scale evacuation took place inside the smoke-filled hallways of both hospitals, an event made even more perilous considering that most of the patients at John Gaston were newborns. Despite the intensity and extent of the blaze, not a single patient, firefighter, or bystander suffered a serious injury that night. “If I didn’t already have religion, I would have gotten it that night,” hospital president Frank Groner said afterwards. People referred to it as “the Easter Miracle.”

These photos show the scene the next morning. Memphians jammed Madison to view the steel beams of the stadium twisted into fantastic shapes from the heat, scorched and burned cars that had been parked along the street, and the blackened exteriors of the hospitals. The stadium was a complete loss, as were the Russwood Park retail shops that lined the street. In an ironic twist, T.R., the only area of the park that escaped damage was the grass infield that you had mentioned.

Owners never rebuilt the park, and without a decent home stadium, the Chicks disbanded. A team called the Memphis Blues played a few seasons at the new Tim McCarver Stadium at the fairgrounds, and of course today the newly organized Redbirds play in a considerably better — and more fire-resistant — home known as AutoZone Park. Medical buildings and a parking garage occupy the site of Russwood Park today. 

 

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