- Associated Press - Saturday, July 25, 2020

RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) - When you look around historic Floyd Fitzgerald Stadium at a Rapid City Post 22 American Legion baseball game, you don’t just see people watching.

You see a community.

Fitzgerald Stadium, first home for the Basin League Rapid City Chiefs from 1957-1973 and a few years later home to the Post 22 Hardhats, will be out with the old and in with the new after the championship game on July 19 of the Veteran’s Classic baseball tournament.

Construction begins July 20 on the $5 million renovation project that is expected to be ready for the 2021 American Legion season.

Built in 1957 to be the new home of the Chiefs, the stadium was first named Sioux Park Stadium and was renamed Floyd Fitzgerald Stadium in the late 1970s for a longtime Rapid City businessman who later helped form Black Hills Sports, Inc. and served as president of the organization for eight years.

Fitzgerald was also instrumental in helping repair the stadium after it was damaged in the 1972 Rapid City flood.

Under the guidance of Hall of Fame coach Dave Ploof, Post 22 and Fitzgerald Stadium became one of the top Legion baseball stadiums in the region, if not the country. The stadium hosted four American Legion World Series tournaments from 1979 to 2005.

The Hardhats have played in eight American Legion World Series, winning the 1993 national title.

To this day, on a good night anywhere from 500 to 2,000 fans scatter around the large stadium to watch the Hardhats. Some of those fans have been coming since the early days of Sioux Park Stadium.

Dick Stone played for Post 22 in 1957-58 as a left fielder. He didn’t play on this field then, but got to practice with some with the Rapid City Chiefs.

“I’ve been watching ever since,” said Stone, who later became president of Black Hills Sports, Inc.

“When we had the World Series here it was different and exciting,” Stone told the Rapid City Journal. “We had people lined up by the streets wanting to get in. It was just a fun experience.”

Stone said that some of his best experiences at Fitzgerald Stadium were just the games Post 22 won and the players he was able to see.

“Baseball is my favorite sport, far and away. Even two years ago (at the Firecracker), I’d come out here at 10 in the morning and stay until 10 at night,” he said. “Now that I’m a little older, I don’t come for quite as long. I just enjoy watching, I enjoy watching the kids. Good plays, bad plays, good pitching, bad pitching. All of it.”

Stone, whose son, Randy Stone, played for the Hardhats for five seasons, said he will miss the old Fitzgerald Stadium.

“I’ve been through a lot here,” he said.

Craig Ericks started coming to Fitzgerald Stadium in 1980 when he moved over to the west side of Rapid City. He could hear the crowds from his house and he could see the lights from his front yard. He and a neighbor would come over for a game or two on a summer evening just to enjoy the baseball atmosphere.

A couple of years later his nephew came to town in the Air Force, whose son played for the Bullets (Post 22 junior varsity team). They came on an regular basis when he was playing and Ericks has been hooked ever since.

“I’ve met a lot of neat people here, including all of these people (in the first-base side green shelter),” he said. “It’s just a good time to talk to other people and watch baseball.”

Ericks calls Fitzgerald Stadium the most nostalgic stadium he has ever been at.

“It is a beautiful setting,” he said. “That background is like nothing anywhere else. There’s a lot of history here. In our travels around the region and the state, in other stadiums, I know what a modern, new stadium looks like. They are beautiful too. There will be times I will be missing this, but I am looking forward to the new stadium.”

Maybe Ericks’ best memory here was the World Series Post 22 hosted after the Hardhats rallied back in Mandan, North Dakota, to qualify to play in it.

“We came back to play in Rapid City, to play in our own World Series that we were hosting,” he said. “I think that has only happened one other time in history, before the World Series became permanent, that the host team played in its own tournament.”

Landis Matson said it feels like forever since he has been coming to Fitzgerald Stadium, which was in 1957 to see the Chiefs “as a pup,” shagging foul balls, like the current group of youngsters do now.

He looks forward to the Firecracker Tournament every year.

“This year, of course, with COVID-19, it wasn’t like it should have been, but I remember the good teams coming in here, like Las Vegas. They appreciated us and we appreciated them for being here,” he said.

When Matson first saw the artist renderings of the new Fitzgerald, he was impressed. He still is, but getting closer to the end of the old stadium, he’s getting a little more nostalgic.

“I’m now thinking that I won’t see this field anymore. I’m thinking, what is going to happen here?” he said. “It’s going to be different, but I’ll get used to that. It will be nice, a top-rated stadium. It will be good.”

Looking around, Matson sees a lot of true baseball fans scattered around the stadium. And they see - or hear him - as well.

“If anybody knows me at the ballpark, they know my relationship with the umpires,” he said with a laugh.

Steve Ringo bought his first Post 22 season pass in 1988 even though he didn’t live here. His wife at the time was from Rapid City and they were here to visit for a couple of weeks when the Firecracker was going on. He has been a season-ticket holder ever since.

“I just fit right in,” he said.

Fitzgerald Stadium is baseball, Ringo adds.

“I grew up in Omaha. When I first came to a game here, and before cell phones, I was on a pay phone telling somebody, ‘I’ve figured out why they are always good.’ I go, ‘You should see this stadium,’’’ he said. “This would be the Rosenblatt Stadium (the former home of the College World Series) for us in Omaha. I look at this field, and I see 800 or 900 people watching a regular ballgame. It’s all baseball.”

Ringo said he was 60-40 on renovating the stadium. The biggest thing he will miss is sitting right where he and his Fitzgerald cronies were Thursday night and most nights – under the green shelter on the first base side.

“This is the most knowledgeable group right here. We talk a lot of crap, but these guys know baseball history like you wouldn’t believe,” he said. “This stadium is like our own little community. You’ll see the same people sitting with each other that I have seen in the last 30, 35 years. And they are sitting in the same seats.”

Richard Hatzenbuhler calls himself a transplant from Mandan. He knew of Post 22 when he lived in Mandan, and he knew the Hardhats were a regional powerhouse, so he couldn’t wait to watch them play when they came up to play.

It was a no-brainer for him to continue to watch them when he moved to Rapid City in 1984, although he said he didn’t realize just how big of a baseball town Rapid City was until then.

“I was really impressed,” Hatzenbuhler said. “I loved looking down on the field watching the games.”

With three children - a boy and two girls - who joined the Harney Little League, he said when he really started following Post 22 when a couple Harney Little Leaguers that he watched moved up to the Hardhats.

“When they were national champions, two of them played at Harney (Brian Ogle and Nate Barnes) the same time my son was playing,” Hatzenbuhler said. “When they came to Post 22, I’ve been here ever since. I hardly ever miss a game.”

Chuck McCain’s first visit to Fitzgerald Stadium was in 1957 watching the Rapid City Chiefs. His biggest memory from that time was, as an 8-year-old, standing next to 6-foot-7 slugger Frank Howard, who went on to have a good career with the Washington Senators and three other teams.

“I was probably three feet high and he looked like one of these light towers,” McCain said. “I grew up about a mile north of here, so my dad brought me down to a lot of Chiefs games.”

As an adult, McCain moved to Helena, Mont., but he followed Post 22 the best that he could. When he returned to Rapid City in 2000, he came back to Fitzgerald and has been a mainstay and season ticket holder since.

McCain said he has been drawn to Fitzgerald Stadium, partly because he grew up close by, and because of the program.

“I have mixed emotions about the renovations that are coming, but I realize they are necessary,” he said. “I guess it is old, kind of like I am. I’ll hate to see it go, but the memories will still be here. Baseball is always good no matter where you are at.”

McCain, who retired eight years ago, used to take time off of work just to spend all day at Fitzgerald Stadium for the Firecracker. He said he recently talked to a mother of one of the Rocky Mountain Lobos (Fort Collins, Colorado) players, who said she was going to have to figure out a reason to come back to Rapid City next summer and see the new stadium, although her sons would be finished with American Legion baseball.

“She said, ‘This is one of our favorite trips, if not the favorite trip that we take,’” McCain said. “I think there is a similar feeling for most of the teams that come here for the Firecracker. You want to come here, and you want to play here.”

John Wheeler is celebrating his 50th year of coming to Fitzgerald Stadium. On a recent Thursday, he was wearing a T-shirt of a group picture of the 1996 Post 22 team that his son, Luke Wheeler, played on.

Wheeler moved here from Sioux Falls, and he said it was well known that Rapid City had the best baseball program back then. He started going to games right away.

“I just loved this stadium,” he said. “I hate to see it torn down, but I guess it served its purpose, and it is time for a new one.”

Because he has been coming to Fitzgerald Stadium for 50 years, Wheeler said it is like a second home.

“There’s a lot of people here that you don’t see anywhere else until baseball season,” he said.

Al Sharp has been a Post 22 fan for about 33 years, and he has been sitting in the same seat in front of the press box for many of those years.

“I’ve sat here for a long time,” Sharp said with a big laugh.

Like most longtime fans, Sharp said he will miss the old stadium, but he understands why there is the need for a new one.

“We have to do things,” he said. “I’m in my early 80s and I would miss it if they ever left. But I know I am coming to where I belong.”

Regardless of who was to play in the championship game that Sunday, Rapid City baseball fans will celebrate with memories of the old Floyd Fitzgerald Stadium and will count the days until the new Fitzgerald Stadium opens in the spring of 2021 to make new memories.

“This is the home field. This is where I like to be,” McCain said.

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