Centennial Field was built in 1906, taking its name from the 100th anniversary of the University of Vermont’s first graduating class — a celebration of which coincided with the field’s dedication on July 6, that year. The grandstand as we know it today, which seats 4415, was built in 1922. By that standard, it is the oldest minor-league ballpark in use in the United States. Owned by UVM, the field has seen action by college players, occasional special touring teams, and a succession of minor-league clubs in the summer — since 1994, the Expos/Lake Monsters. The team is part of the New York-Penn League. Technically speaking, Centennial Field refers to the entire athletic grounds, including the baseball field and the adjacent (former) football and soccer fields. Lacrosse, field hockey and ice hockey have also called Centennial home over the decades. Here are some events along the way.
• 1904-06: The UVM Engineering Department cleared and graded the field on the former 12-acre Ainsworth property, laid out a 220-yard straightaway track, a 440-yard oval, and a combination baseball and football field situated within the oval. A single wooden grandstand was provided for spectators.
• In its first game on Centennial Field, on April 17, 1906, UVM defeated the University of Maine, 10-4.
• Centennial Field’s wooden grandstand was destroyed by fire on March 12, 1912. UVM built a small temporary grandstand, and set a goal of building a modern concrete replacement.
• The new grandstand was finally completed in 1922, with all funds privately raised. The new Centennial Field complex was formally dedicated on October 7, that year, with a home football game against Springfield College.
• The first baseball game on the field was played on April 25, 1923; once again, UVM bested U. Maine, 6-0.
• Also in 1923, the new Green Mountain League was Vermont’s first attempt at a professional circuit. It was not very successful, either on the field or at the gate; it would be 12 years before pro baseball returned.
•The Northern League, populated primarily by summering college students, made its way to Centennial Field on June 23, 1936. Some 1300 spectators came to watch the Burlington Cardinals defeat the Saranac Lake Red Sox.
• Between 1938 and 1942, the colorful and combative manager Vin Clancy led the Cardinals to three consecutive Northern League pennants.
• In early 1942, Northern League directors voted to suspend operations for the duration of World War II. Play resumed in 1946, but the Cardinals never duplicated their pre-war success.
• In 1948, the East Coast Athletic Conference voted to bar students from participating in the summer pro leagues, and the Northern League began to decline. It folded in 1950, ending a glorious chapter in Centennial Field history.
• In 1953, coach Ralph Lapointe steered UVM’s Catamounts to their first state championship since WWII. It was the first of 11 consecutive wins.
• Lapointe played with the brand-new pro team in Burlington, the Athletics, or the A’s, whose parent team was the Kansas City Athletics. The team joined Québec’s Class C Provincial League in 1955. The A’s came close to winning the championship that year, but in April 1956, the Provincial League disbanded. Kansas City transferred its farm club to Idaho, and Burlington was again without a minor-league team.
• The years after Coach Lapointe’s death (from cancer, in 1967) were lean ones at Centennial Field. In 1971, UVM discontinued its varsity baseball program, ending an 84-year association with the sport and leaving the then 66-year-old ballpark without a home team.
• By the time the sport was reinstated at UVM in 1978, Centennial Field had fallen into disrepair. A group of Burlington baseball loyalists donated time and money to upgrade the field and grandstand. A former Cardinal pitcher, Dick Smullen, organized a new Northern League, which allowed college players in Vermont to play a 50- to 60-game schedule each summer. Burlington was represented by two teams in the circuit: the A’s and the Expos.
• Meanwhile, the UVM program had a rebirth as well. In 1981, the ballclub enjoyed one of the most successful seasons in school history and broke a 90-year record for wins in a season. UVM finished second, behind the Maine Black Bears, at the ECAC New England playoffs.
• A rejuvenated Centennial Field saw the return of minor-league baseball when the Class AA affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds debuted in Burlington — thanks in part to the efforts of then-Mayor Bernie Sanders. The Vermont Reds went on to win the Eastern League championship in 1984, ’85 and ’86. Twenty-nine Vermont Reds eventually went on to Major League Baseball.
• In 1988, the Cincinnati Reds shifted their Double A affiliation to Chattanooga; Burlington got a contract with Seattle and the club was renamed the Vermont Mariners. The franchise reached the Eastern League finals, which it lost to Albany, but the highlight of the season was the electrifying performance of future Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr.
• The team’s owner, Mike Agannis, decided to relocate the Mariners to Ohio, stunning Vermont fans. Complaints about the inadequacies of Centennial Field and its facilities for players and fans alike were implicated.
• Burlington businessman Ray Pecor, a former Burlington High School second baseman, stepped in to secure a Double A team. He was awarded a New York-Penn League franchise, formerly based in Jamestown, N.Y., for the 1994 season — a Montréal affiliate renamed the Vermont Expos. But the Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) had established new requirements for the minor league; Pecor’s purchase came with the stipulation that the ballpark must comply with PBA standards by the following year. The state provided an $800,000 capital appropriation. UVM charged the Expos rent to cover it, and assigned architects to design the renovations. The old ballpark was brought up to the PBA standards of the time.
• When the Vermont Expos debuted on June 16, 1994, more than 5000 fans attended the game.
• In 1996, the Vermont Expos won the New York-Penn League championship. Over the next 12 years, however, the franchise enjoyed only two winning seasons — 2000 and 2007.
• On September 29, 2004, the Montréal Expos announced they were moving to Washington, D.C., and becoming the Washington Nationals. Though affiliated minor-league clubs had to change their names and logos, Vermont’s Expos couldn’t manage an identity change quickly enough and retained their nickname one more season. The team’s last game as the Expos was on September 8, 2005.
• During the 2005 season, the club announced plans to change its name and solicited suggestions from fans — and received some 30,000. The two leading contenders were Green Mountain Boys and Lake Monsters. The latter name won, and the team revealed its new colors — navy blue, Columbia blue and green — and uniforms on November 15, 2005. The name, of course, derived from the legendary monster in Lake Champlain —“Champ” — which conveniently had been the team’s mascot since 1994.
• On February 20, 2009, the University announced it would eliminate the varsity baseball program, as a cost-cutting measure, following the 2009 season. The UVM team played its last game on May 12 at Centennial Field, against Bryant College.
• In June 2009, media reports appeared about MLB’s longstanding concerns about Centennial Field — cramped dugout and clubhouse, inadequate lighting, uneven outfield, etc. — and its demand for upgrades to comply with current PBA standards. If the owners and community could not come up with the funding to make the improvements, the Commissioner’s Office said, the team would likely have to move. Owner Ray Pecor said there were serious concerns whether the majors would continue to grant exemptions.
• As of this writing: UVM President Dan Fogel insists the school is “keeping the door open” on Centennial Field, and assures the Lake Monsters a lease for at least the next few years; Preservation Trust of Vermont has offered to help the community save the ballpark, citing a minimum of $5-7 million for the costs of the proposed renovations; Sen. Patrick Leahy has expressed interest in preserving the park but has not offered any specifics; Pecor, who has one year left on his contract with the Washington Nationals, says the MLB may direct him to build a new field or sell the franchise.
Sources include: A Centennial Field Scrapbook: Memories of the Minor League’s Oldest Ballpark, by Dominick Denaro, then of South Burlington, 1995; the University of Vermont Centennial History; the Burlington Free Press; the New York Times; Wikipedia; and Ray Pecor.
The grass is greener at Centennial Field — really. And as the sun sets on the oldest U.S. ballpark, it bathes Burlington’s urban playground in a golden glow. That moment — between day and night — is magical when you’re at a Vermont Lake Monsters game on a warm, dry summer night. The home team, in white, glows in the dusky light. The bats crack louder. And the smells that waft up through the stands — of sausages, poppers and fries — only get more enticing as darkness descends.
The crowd is a slice of Vermont life: infants, toddlers, grandparents, old-timers, flatlanders, hipsters, rednecks. At $7 per adult, no one is excluded from the game that plays out, sans remote control, in however many innings it takes. A collective cheer erupts when one of our boys hits a bomb, or finesses a double play. The shared experience is a throwback — a slow, sweet “time out” in the digital age.
Still, baseball in Vermont appears to be endangered, because Major League Baseball is demanding upgrades to Centennial Field that would bring it into compliance with current standards. And as beloved as the old ballpark is, many fans wouldn’t mind a shiny new stadium in Burlington, one with all the amenities. That just might include franchise owner Ray Pecor. “It’s a wonderful ballpark, but it’s a 1920s park,” he says. “We’re in a different century now.”
Pecor has been in discussions — for years, actually — with community members, legislators, UVM officials and the city about just what to do with Centennial Field. He says he’s surprised at the recent spate of media attention on the subject — even in the New York Times. “It’s interesting that there’s a great deal of publicity right now and there wasn’t seven years ago,” says Pecor. “But it’s pretty sad — the government doesn’t have any money, the state doesn’t have any money, and we don’t know what the community will want.”
And then there’s the fact that, no matter what Pecor or others might do to improve Centennial Field, it will still belong to UVM. Does the university’s recent discontinuation of its own varsity baseball program suggest a disinterest in the field? UVM President Dan Fogel has gone on record saying the university has no plans to raze, develop or sell the property … anytime soon.
Meanwhile, Preservation Trust of Vermont has offered to help the community raise an estimated $7 million to “rescue” Centennial. Next? We’ll see who steps up to the plate.
— Paula Routly & Pamela Polston
This is just one story from our 2009 Baseball Issue. For more sports stories, click here.