By STEVE KRAH
Enriching the community through baseball and telling the stories of underrepresented groups is the aim of bringing Foundry Field to South Bend’s Southeast Neighborhood Park.
A vision meeting attended by 10 people happened in the fall of 2018. The project was launched in 2019.
“We’re passionate about it,” says Matthew Insley, project chairman and Sappy Moffitt Field Foundation president. “We’re all committed to South Bend.
“We were slowed by COVID-19. But that presented an opportunity to dig in with partnerships.”
Community partners include Boys & Girls Club of St. Joseph County, Center for Social Concerns at the University of Notre Dame, Civil Rights Heritage Center at Indiana University South Bend, South Bend Community School Corporation, South Bend Venues, Parks & Arts, Southeast Organized Area Residents (SOAR) and The History Museum.
As part of Phase One, Nov. 5 is the deadline for a crowdfunding campaign, featuring a $50,000 matching grant from the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority’s CreatINg Places program.
Construction is to begin in 2023 with play starting in 2024.
Phase Two includes public and private funding for historical research and public art. Phase Three is centered on community space.
With the help of our donors and collaborators, the Sappy Moffitt Field Foundation has the goal of placing a diamond and showcase public art and historical markers that pay tribute to undervalued legends of the past near downtown. Southeast Neighborhood Park is located at Fellows and Wenger streets.
Among the hidden histories to be highlighted are those of the Foundry Giants (an African-American baseball team that played in South Bend’s Studebaker Industrial League in the 1930’s) and Uncle Bill’s All Colored Girls Softball Team that excelled in the region in the ’30s and ‘40s).
“We want to tell these stories about baseball history,” says Insley. “I’d like to see the game return to the day when it had a lot more diversity. Baseball has become an elite, exclusive game. It was never that.
“Are we going to change the world? No. But we’re going to do our part.”
Insley and Mike Hebbeler (who is program director at the Center for Social Concerns) founded the Sappy Moffitt Baseball League in 2013.
The league — named for former South Bend Green Stockings pitcher Elmer “Sappy” Moffitt, who was born in nearby New Carlisle and is the all-time leader in innings pitched, strikeouts and wins in South Bend professional baseball history — features more than 120 adults playing recreational games on Sunday afternoons at Boland Park.
Team names are a nod to the heritage and places in South Bend. There’s the Du Lac Rockets, Ironhides, Monroe Park Millracers, Oliver Chill, Ottawa Arrowheads, Porters, River Park LongNecks, South Shore Liners and Studebaker Larks.
“We want to play in the urban core,” says Insley, who sees Foundry Field as a place not only for the adult league but for youths in organized or pick-up baseball.
“It’s been near to see guys playing with their kids in (the Sappy Moffitt League). There’s something powerful about kids watching adults play.”
A train wall will double as an outfield barrier and a location for murals and markers.
“It becomes more than a baseball field,” says Insley. “It’s a broadly-utilized space — an impactful space.”
Clinton Carlson, an associate professor for Visual Communication in Notre Dame’s Department of Art, Art History & Design and a Sappy Moffitt League player, has lent his expertise to the group for the past year.
“I’m a designer,” says Carlson. “I use my skills to help share the vision of Foundry Field.
“Let’s get more baseball being played by adults and kids. We want to drive more kids to play. We don’t want to replace rec leagues or Little Leagues that might be struggling.”
Milt Lee, the Director of Community Programs and K-12 Athletics for South Bend Community School Corporation, got to know project originators as a player with the Studebaker Larks.
“I discovered that these are really sincere guys — not just in everyday life but when it came to being responsible community people,” says Lee. “When they brought the idea of creating a field where people can mentor young people, come and play pick-up baseball, learn how to become good teammates and learn life lessons you certainly can’t pass it up. It means everything to South Bend Schools.”
Lee says the aim of the corporation is aligned with the Foundry Field project.
“A major strategic priority of ours is to introduce non-traditional Olympic sports to kids in underserved communities throughout the corporation,” says Lee. “One of those sports happens to be baseball.
“The number of kids in South Bend — particularly black kids — has dramatically decreased since the 1970s.
“We’ve determined to create equitable access to those types of sports in those areas. That’s a major priority of ours. One is the reasons is that the more kids are exposed to games at an early age the more they’ll play multiple sports and play sports for a lifetime so they’ll have better mental and physical health. We’re trying to change health outcomes in underserved communities through recreation and athletics.”
Lee says the area around Southeast Neighborhood Park has a reputation of being a tough place to live.
“I can’t think of a better area and neighborhood to have a beautiful space and place that would make people feel proud and be a place where kids and families could gather to have unbelievable experiences,” says Lee.
South Bend Community Schools — where there is open enrollment and magnet schools — is taking a neighborhood approach with its students. Lee sees programs like those at Foundry Field and nearby facilities like the Boys & Girls Club will get as many as possible to go to Riley High School.
“We want to make sure all the coaches, athletic directors and families
gather as a neighborhood and begin to build relationships that would encourage them to stay together,” says Lee. “If we can keep these kids connected early in their neighborhoods, the better chance we have to keep those kids in our high school system.
“We can stave off some of that migration (to corporations outside South Bend).”
As Lee sees it, high schools ADs — Dawn Huff at Adams, Al Hartman at Clay, Seabe Gavin at Riley and Garland Hudson at Washington among them — should be be seen as the neighborhood CEO for sports and athletics and invite young kids to campus for camps and competitions etc.
Lee says there is some baseball for SBCSC middle schoolers.
“We’ve been losing student-athletes left and right in our middle school program because of the whole travel baseball phenomenon. The more we have kids playing the game at age 5, 6, 7, 8 and working with our Little Leagues, I think we can create some type of base training and feeder program to our high schools.
“The sooner we can get kids playing the game and make they fall in love with it and get them connected to really good coaches, we hope to have them playing the game for a lifetime.”
A diversity of interests and talents are going into the project. Some are focused on the baseball side. Others on fundraising, grant writing, design or historical research.
Greg Bond, Sports Archivist for Hesburgh Libraries and the Curator of the Joyce Sports Research Collection at Notre Dame, is affiliated with the school’s Sport, Media and Culture Minor.
He is helping with research and notes that the stories will be told through a variety of media and does not need to be constrained to a physical location such as the location of Foundry Field.
“It will be accessible to people in other ways to be determined,” says Bond. “We want to make this a sustainable project (for future researchers). One big push is to make it not dependent on people involved right now. That’s very important.
“It’s heartening to see how many people are passionate about this project.”
Katherine Walden, an Assistant Teaching Professor of American Studies at Notre Dame, is also part of the Foundry Field project along with her students.
Among courses regularly taught by Walden is “Baseball and America.”