“It’s a generous, splendid deed. The city’s children are its real worth. They are our future — our everything.”
— Anonymous local businessman on the opening of Lamar Porter Field in 1937.

On a given night at Lamar Porter Field, Bob Adkins could look out from his position at first base, peer through the sweat running into his eyes and take in what looked like a family reunion.

There was his oldest brother Grady Jr. anchoring second, his future brother-in-law Ken Jones plucking them out of the dirt at shortstop and, at third, his older brother Charles, whose throws to first were so hard the pitcher would belly flop to the mound in self-defense.

It was the 1940s, baseball was the unquestioned national pastime and Lamar Porter Field and its west Little Rock surroundings were the Center of the Universe for the city’s youth.

“Really, it was a hub of activities there,” said Adkins, 86, owner and founder of American Abstract in Little Rock.

Opened in 1937, Lamar Porter Field and its adjoining lands once comprised the go-to destination for kids and families, offering sports ranging from baseball to football to shuffleboard to tennis, with playgrounds and band concerts to boot. A field in name, Lamar Porter has also been a park, a memorial, a touchstone with the past and an investment in the future.

That may be a big burden for a little ballpark, but the historic facility at Seventh and Johnson has managed so far. Now, if a group of dedicated supporters has its way, Lamar Porter Field will play an even greater role in the development of Little Rock and the growth of the city’s children.

The Lamar Porter Complex Revitalization Committee launched a capital improvement campaign in mid-June with the goal of $4.5 million for renovations to the ballpark and surrounding areas.

Enlisting some high-profile help in the form of baseball hall of famer Brooks Robinson, the honorary chair who practically lived at Lamar Porter as a youngster, the committee wants to create a recreational anchor to the Midtown neighborhood, provide a permanent home for youth athletics and preserve an important piece of Little Rock history.

“It’s all about neighborhood pride,” says Ray Imbro, a transplanted New Yorker who is among many helping to organize the renovation effort, 18 months in the planning stages.

Imbro spent 25 years working in the financial services industry, retired in Little Rock and purchased Party Time Rentals. A committed baseball fan who says he grew up in old Yankee Stadium, Imbro has a passion for Lamar Porter and old ballparks that comes naturally, even if he wasn’t born in the Natural State.

“I’m a convert,” Imbro, 54, says with a smile. “And there’s nothing worse than a convert.”

Imbro, fellow revitalization sub-committee member Holt McConnell and committee chair Jay Rogers are among those devoting their time and energy to the Lamar Porter project. Each man has a connection, emotionally, physically or historically, with the ballpark and they share the dream of restoring it as a structurally sound, eye-pleasing and versatile facility.

“It’s a neighborhood re-gentrification project which will impact the city at many levels,” Imbro says.

Money has already been coming in, but the revitalization effort got a public kickoff with a mid-June fundraiser at the ballpark, with Robinson as the guest of honor.

“There’s not too many places like that, believe me,” Robinson says. “I don’t know of any place around the state of Arkansas that will be like this particular field.”

Diamond in the Rough

On a quiet spring morning, Imbro and McConnell, COO of Fried Green Media and a league commissioner with Junior Deputy Baseball, stopped by Lamar Porter Field to conduct a mini-tour.

On a stroll through the ballpark, the two discussed Lamar Porter’s past and laid out the revitalization plans.

The ballpark, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, shows its charm in its whitewashed, 1930s-vintage façade, latticed light standards and green-painted upright seats. Its pre-WWII vintage looks even attracted Hollywood; scenes for the 1984 film “A Soldier’s Story” were filmed at Lamar Porter.

The ballpark’s drawbacks can be seen in the standing water that had found its way in through holes in the roof, the substandard light fixtures and wiring, the cramped dugouts and, less visible, the ancient plumbing snaking through the grandstand’s depths.

Sometimes lights go out during games, Rogers says, and the field drains so poorly it needs at least a day to dry out.

“The main thing is to try to have Lamar Porter sustain itself,” Rogers, 68, says.

The renovation will preserve the ballpark’s outward appearance while making infrastructure improvements to the grandstand, fixing up the field and moving the fences back to a more competitive distance. Adjoining fields will be improved, with one converted to multi-use for softball, while expanded dugouts, additional covered seating, more lighting, locker rooms, batting cages and parking are all in the plans.

Money raised will also go toward expanding and repairing play areas and the Woodruff Community Garden behind the left-field fence and making improvements to Billy Mitchell Boys and Girls Club of Central Arkansas, which owns the ballpark.

If all goes as planned, Lamar Porter will emerge as a complex capable of hosting tournaments and, it is hoped, attracting established programs like American Legion and Junior Deputy on a regular basis.

“Just think how many people are going to benefit from this project,” Robinson says. “They always say your hometown is not where you are from but who you are. I had everything I ever wanted in that particular area and I feel very lucky having grown up there.”

Currently, Lamar Porter Field is home to the Little Rock Catholic and Episcopal Collegiate high school baseball teams and the Little Rock branch of Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI). While it is hoped the improvements draw more baseball programs, the revitalization is being pitched as something for everyone.

“It is a baseball field but it is a baseball field that is bringing a lot with it as far as the neighborhood,” McConnell, 52, says.

Imbro noted the number of younger professionals, many working or attending school at nearby UAMS, and said a refurbished Lamar Porter complex — with the surrounding playgrounds and garden areas — would be a plus for the young couples with children.

A nostalgia-themed video produced by McConnell’s company ends with the narratory saying, “Lamar Porter Field has been there for us for more than 75 years. It’s time for us to be there for Lamar Porter Field.”

Local Treasure

Lamar Porter Field is the oldest ballpark still in use in the state and is named for Lamar Porter Jr., the Little Rock native and college student who was killed in an auto accident May 12, 1934.

McConnell still becomes emotional retelling the story of Porter’s mother being called out of a movie theater to learn the tragic news, on Mother’s Day, then arriving home to find her son’s Mother’s Day telegram awaiting her.

“It’s an emotional impetus, there’s no question,” McConnell says of the renovation drive.

Porter’s family donated the 10 acres and money, and the ballpark was built as a Work Progress Administration project between 1934-37 at what was then the western reach of the city.

Plaques at the entrance and in the ballpark foyer commemorate its WPA construction, and a long-ago donation for improvements by former NBA star Scottie Pippen’s youth foundation. To the right of the main entrance is a plaque declaring Lamar Porter’s place on the National Registry of Historic Places, a status granted in 1990.

“When these kids take the field I don’t think they realize the ghosts of this field,” Imbro says.

American Legion was the predominant youth league in the days before high school baseball took hold in Arkansas, and one of the top squads was the Little Rock Doughboys. The team played from 1929-1953 and was sponsored by the M.M. Eberts American Legion Post No. 1 in Little Rock.

The Doughboys won six regional championships and played for one national title, turning out a number of pro baseball players, and even a few pro football players. The most famous alumnus is Robinson, the Baltimore Orioles legend who played for the Doughboys from 1952-53.

Robinson was dubbed “The Human Vacuum Cleaner” for his slick fielding that won him 16 consecutive Gold Gloves with the Orioles.

“I can’t remember what happened yesterday lots of times,” says Robinson, 79, who played pro ball from 1955-1977. “But I have a vivid memory of growing up at Lamar Porter Field. That was just like my second home. I swear I was over there most of my younger years.”

When he wasn’t playing ball, Robinson was helping to operate the scoreboard, sell concessions or keep score. He recalls watching Catholic school league football and adult men’s softball or playing basketball and watching boxing and the Saturday talent shows at the Boys Club.

Robinson even won a bubblegum blowing contest, taking home a new bike as the prize and fulfilling a boast he’d made to his mother.

Like most kids in the area, Robinson attended Woodruff Junior High and Little Rock Central, formerly known as Little Rock High. He said he might not have become the ballplayer he was without the competitive spirit that infused Lamar Porter.

“Most of the kids who went to Woodruff lived around that area and we were just a little bit better in softball and football and it all came down to the kids,” Robinson says. “They had a little more instinct. They could catch the ball. It was unbelievable. I felt it was all because we were at Lamar Porter Field the whole time while we were young.”

“We just played ball real hard,” Adkins says. “But we played to win. We always did.”

A Major Deal

Rogers, owner of Sportstop and a Boys Club board member for 30 years, agreed to become chairman of the Lamar Porter Field Revitalization Project in honor of his father, Lee.

A former Arkansas Travelers pitcher who spent a year with the Boston Red Sox, Lee Rogers, who died in 1995, took over operation of Lamar Porter Field in 1982 and brought back baseball after it had stood vacant several years.

Jay Rogers says money has trickled in, with former players donating $100 here and there. A grant from Major League Baseball, partner to the RBI program, helped level the field and pay for a new outfield fence.

“We really need a major deal,” Rogers says. “We’ve been band-aiding it and so forth.”

The Lamar Porter Complex Revitalization Committee formed in 2011 at the urging of baseball mom Laura Winning, whose son played for Episcopal. Before taking a low profile to focus on her family, Winning and her husband paid for architectural firm Witsell Evans Rasco to draw up plans, and the committee has also enlisted landscape artist Martin Smith and Ecological Design Group for the project.

“This should be the crown jewel,” Imbro says.

Rogers says the objective is to obtain grants and matching funds and estimated $300,000 or so would go a long way toward improving the ballpark itself, while the target goal of $4.5 million would take care of all planned enhancements, including repairs to the community garden used by approximately 30 families.

“When they built it, it was in western Little Rock,” Rogers says. “But we feel like it’s a good location, halfway between UAMS and the State Capitol grounds.”

In a lull between baseball camps, after a rainy night that left puddles on the infield as well as under the grandstand, Lamar Porter looked every inch like what it was: a serviceable ballpark with plenty still to offer.

Faded graffiti on the grandstand’s mesh fence read, “You can’t get rid of me.” It may have been the work of a stubborn vandal, but it could be a motto for the ballpark itself.

After close to 80 years of turning out big leaguers and hall of famers, as well as everyday citizens with plenty of fond memories, Lamar Porter is still open, still standing by to serve the city’s next generations.

It just needs a little help.

“Just to come to Lamar Porter Field, there is no place like it in the state,” Robinson says.