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There used to be a ballpark

“There used to be a ballpark where the field was warm and green

And the people played their crazy game with a joy I’d never seen.”

Frank Sinatra recorded those lyrics in the summer of 1973. Written by Joe Raposo, famous for giving the Muppets happy songs to sing, this plaintive tune seems to mourn the passing of a baseball park; yet, Sinatra’s style somehow gives the song a wistful sense of a love affair gone astray.

Baseball fans in our valley once had their own love affair with a now-vanished ballpark. The 2004 leveling of Miles Field in south Medford to make way for a new Walmart saddened local baseball fans. Lifetimes had smelled its grass and tasted hotdogs in the stands, but few remembered the beginning.

Claude Miles was born in 1887 and spent most of his life in Medford. There he found his passion for sports, especially baseball, a game played in the valley since at least the 1860s. Most of the serious games were played on a dusty diamond in Fordyce Grove, not far from today’s Central Medford High School.

In the spring of 1904, wealthy investors set up the Rogue River Baseball League with teams in Medford, Ashland, Gold Hill and Jacksonville. They signed quality out-of-town players, but also signed local talent. Claude Miles, youngest player in the league, got a contract to play second base with the Medford Grays.

They built a new ballpark north of town and built a covered grandstand and laid out a field surrounded by a wooden fence.

Because he was the shortest player on the town’s baseball team, Claude Miles earned his lifelong nickname, Shorty. He pitched a few games, but usually he played infield.

When the old ballpark was sold and the field covered over by today’s McLoughlin Middle School, Medford’s ballclub needed a place to play.

In March 1926, what would become Miles Field opened at the new county fairgrounds just south of town. Home plate sat 45 feet from the grandstands in the middle of a half-mile auto racetrack.

Local schools didn’t play baseball there; so various semi-pro leagues came and went as Medford struggled to keep a team on the field. When the Depression hit, the ballpark began to fall apart and soon the city’s only baseball field was called “the worst in Southern Oregon.”

Hope returned after WWII when the field was modernized. Baseball fans discovered a refreshment stand, modern restrooms, repainted fences and an electric scoreboard.

Medford’s joy lasted until the summer of 1951 when a midnight fire of suspicious origin leaped through the wooden grandstands. Flames, fed by team uniforms and equipment, ate through the clubhouse and ignited the fence. The scoreboard, the hotdog stands — everything vanished in a soggy pile of charcoal.

Claude Miles believed that baseball kept young boys out of trouble. “Youth baseball needs a decent place to play,” he said. He badgered everyone for donations, including himself, and a new and better ballpark rose on the same site.

When he died, Oct. 22, 1968, Claude “Shorty” Miles was Medford’s “Mr. Baseball.” A year later, it just made sense to call “his” ballpark Miles Field.

The new Walmart opened in 2012. A memorial plaque out front of the store is dedicated to Shorty and his ballpark.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.