Thurman Munson Memorial Stadium was going, going, almost gone. Old teammate helped save it

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CANTON – In some minds it is as if the city has stolen home.

On May 7, in celebration of a $5 million makeover, Thurman Munson Memorial Stadium will be rededicated and extolled as a community asset safe for decades to come.

Not so long ago, before the stadium was even 20 years old, Munson Stadium was going, going, almost gone. Joe Sidor and Skip Riser were co-captains of the team that saved the famous captain's ballpark.

Both of them were old baseball players suiting up at twice the age Munson was on that stunning day when his jet crashed near the Akron-Canton airport. They weren't Thurman Munson, but one of them, Riser, had been Munson's Lehman High School teammate. Both applied a lot more than just playing ball to saving Munson Stadium.

The new playing surface, fence and scoreboard are shown at Thurman Munson Memorial Stadium on Saturday, March 26, 2022.
The new playing surface, fence and scoreboard are shown at Thurman Munson Memorial Stadium on Saturday, March 26, 2022.

Double-A affiliate left Canton as World Series years arrived in Cleveland

It was shaky from the start as to how long Canton could keep Cleveland's Class AA farm team after it arrived in 1989. The new Munson Stadium was built for $2.2 million, shortly before ballparks costing more than 10 times that much came into vogue.

Still, the stadium got built, and people came. Game-day atmosphere crackled. It was sickening when the team bolted to Akron in 1997.

The first pitch is thrown in the Canton-Akron home opener at Thurman Munson Memorial Stadium in Canton on Wednesday, April 19, 1989. Deion Sanders, the future Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback, is the first batter for the Albany-Colonie Yankees.
The first pitch is thrown in the Canton-Akron home opener at Thurman Munson Memorial Stadium in Canton on Wednesday, April 19, 1989. Deion Sanders, the future Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback, is the first batter for the Albany-Colonie Yankees.

Subsequently bringing through independent pro team teams was a nice try. The vibe paled in comparison to having a Major League affiliate just when former Canton players were popping up in World Series games for Cleveland.

By the time the stadium was the age of the high school players using it, Canton government people debated whether it was more trouble than it was worth,

The Ohio Men's Senior Baseball League (OMSBL) showed up like a guardian angel. Sidor and Riser, the OMSBL's main men, wanted Munson Stadium as the league base.

The Canton school district and the City of Canton have pledged more than $4 million worth of upgrades to Munson Stadium. The seating areas will all be refurbished at the ball park.
The Canton school district and the City of Canton have pledged more than $4 million worth of upgrades to Munson Stadium. The seating areas will all be refurbished at the ball park.

Munson Stadium's baseball appeal: 'There was nothing like it around'

It wasn't just an available ballfield. It had Major League dimensions. It had lights. Whether the seats got used or not, there were 5,500 of them, once filled with people watching Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez and Bartolo Colon. It was named after a Canton legend.

"There was nothing like it around," Sidor said.

The senior league, with only five teams then, began playing at Munson when it was operated by the city of Canton.

"The city was losing money on the stadium," Sidor said. "It was being used a little, but not really.

"We heard the city was going to sell it or turn it into a hot-rod track or something. There were a bunch of proposals, none involving baseball. We thought that was a horrible idea.

"It needed some repairs and so forth, but you can't build stadiums any more. Where do you find the money?"

A second field, "Hank Miller Field at Thurman Munson Stadium" is also in the works. The  Canton school district and the City of Canton have pledged more than $4 million worth of upgrades to the stadium.
A second field, "Hank Miller Field at Thurman Munson Stadium" is also in the works. The Canton school district and the City of Canton have pledged more than $4 million worth of upgrades to the stadium.

The OMSBL agreed to manage Munson Stadium, as a nonprofit corporation, for the City of Canton. The OMSBL paid rental fees to itself and charged rental to other baseball groups contracting to play there.

The senior league grew to almost 30 teams. Stadium use increased by a bunch. The OMSBL's original five-year management contract was extended to 10 years. Sidor and Riser kept having fun, playing ball, while grinding through the stadium management side.

The varsity letter members of the Lehman 1971 state championship basketball team received.
The varsity letter members of the Lehman 1971 state championship basketball team received.

Thurman Munson joined parade of personalities at Canton Lehman

Thurman Munson the player was part of a fascinating group of Lehman High School baseball people.

His intense baseball coach, Don Eddins, piloted Lehman's basketball team to a state championship in 1971. Teammate Jerome Pruett got drafted straight out of Lehman by the St. Louis Cardinals. Teammate Joe Gilhousen coached GlenOak High School to state championships in 1995 and '96. Teammate Tom Bernabei got elected mayor of Canton in 2016.

Thurman Munson's number hangs on the gate outside the ballpark that bears his name.The  Canton school district and the City of Canton have pledged more than $5 million worth of upgrades to the stadium.
Thurman Munson's number hangs on the gate outside the ballpark that bears his name.The Canton school district and the City of Canton have pledged more than $5 million worth of upgrades to the stadium.
Thurman Munson poses for his Canton Repository All-Stark County football team photo Nov. 11, 1964, when he was a senior at Lehman High School.
Thurman Munson poses for his Canton Repository All-Stark County football team photo Nov. 11, 1964, when he was a senior at Lehman High School.

More on Thurman Munson: The Captain spoke his mind, to 'Sudden Sam' and everyone else. Thurman Munson remembered

John "Spider" Miller speaks during the rededication of Thurman Munson Memorial Stadium in Canton on Saturday. He is the son of the late Hank Miller.
John "Spider" Miller speaks during the rededication of Thurman Munson Memorial Stadium in Canton on Saturday. He is the son of the late Hank Miller.
Mike and Diana Munson, the son and widow of the late Thurman Munson, listen during the rededication of Thurman Munson Memorial Stadium in Canton on Saturday.
Mike and Diana Munson, the son and widow of the late Thurman Munson, listen during the rededication of Thurman Munson Memorial Stadium in Canton on Saturday.

Munson was a middle infielder for most of his Lehman days but dabbled in catching as early as his sophomore year. Skip Riser, a senior, was the first Lehman pitcher to throw to the man who would become a seven-time All-Star catcher with the Yankees.

Thus, there was some poetry when Riser joined Sidor in saving Munson Stadium. Under their management, use of the ballpark grew to upwards of 300 games a year.

"Neither Skip nor I took a salary," Sidor said. "We had seven or eight employees running the field, running concessions. Sometimes players would come down and cut the grass.

"We figured out how many games could be played. We calculated a reasonable rent to pay our management company and cover our costs.

"Our agreement with the city was to share profits, but we knew and they knew there was never going to be such a thing as profits. Everything we made we would dump back in the stadium. That's how we were able to build a second field in 2014."

McKinley hosts Jackson at Thurman Munson Memorial Stadium on Tuesday, April 26, 2022.
McKinley hosts Jackson at Thurman Munson Memorial Stadium on Tuesday, April 26, 2022.

Munson Stadium back on the ropes ... 'It's just going to get abandoned again'

The stadium was back on the ropes in 2019. Both Sidor and Riser wanted out of the stadium management business. Riser was nearing the end of his life, eventually passing on Feb. 28 of this year, at age 77.

"We had been at Munson 10 years," Sidor said. "Restrooms deteriorate. Everything deteriorates. You only have limited money.

"I began to think, 'We're never going to get this done. It's just going to get abandoned again.' Then out of the blue pops up Doug Foltz, saying, 'I think we have an idea to do this.' "

Foltz, director of the Canton Parks and Recreation Department, had been in on talks about the city partnering with Canton City Schools. This led to pooled resources and a $5 million budget for a stadium renovation.

McKinley hosts Jackson at Thurman Munson Memorial Stadium on Tuesday, April 26, 2022.
McKinley hosts Jackson at Thurman Munson Memorial Stadium on Tuesday, April 26, 2022.

"The stadium was great in its heyday," Foltz said. "The city really didn't put money in it for years. Joe Sidor and his people kept it going."

School board president John Rinaldi and Bernabai, the Canton mayor, both had a history with the stadium.

Rinaldi attended minor league games with his friend Don "Boot" Buttrey, who had known Munson and had lots of connections. This led to a job as the team's equipment and clubhouse manager. Later, Rinaldi spent 15 years as director of minor league equipment and facilities for the Milwaukee Brewers.

Rinaldi came home to Canton five years ago, at about the time Don Scott Field, McKinley High School's baseball home, disappeared under football fields installed as part of Johnson Controls Hall of Fame Village.

McKinley hosts Jackson at Thurman Munson Memorial Stadium on Tuesday, April 26, 2022.
McKinley hosts Jackson at Thurman Munson Memorial Stadium on Tuesday, April 26, 2022.

"The goal became to find McKinley a great place to play home games," Rinaldi said. "We began discussions with the J. Babe Stearn Center and the Cal Ripken Foundation and talked about building a field behind Souers School.

"We made some headway, but our legal team opined that a public-private partnership doesn't work very well. We shifted gears. I remember Mayor Bernabei saying, 'What can we do with Munson Stadium?'"

Mayor says, with authority, Thurman Munson was 'the man'

Bernabei had a personal and professional interest.

"I played on the Lehman varsity for three years, and I was awful," Bernabei said. "Thurman was the man at Lehman. He was excellent in baseball, football and basketball."

The former Lehman High School is shown in Canton on Tuesday, March 23, 2021.
The former Lehman High School is shown in Canton on Tuesday, March 23, 2021.

Bernabei was Canton's assistant city law director when Munson Stadium opened in 1989. He was well into his run as mayor 30 years later when the stadium needed a new plan.

"We wound up in great cooperative conversations between the city and the board of education," Bernabei said. "In talking to the school superintendent, Jeff Talbert, he was very enthusiastic about doing something with the city.

"The city agreed to do certain upgrades. The school district agreed to take over operation of the facilities to include leasing, maintenance, utilities and so forth."

On Saturday, when Munson Stadium will be rededicated in Canton, it will be fireworks night in Madison, Alabama, where the Class AA Rocket City Trash Pandas play in one of the country's newer minor league stadiums. It was built for $46 million and opened in 2020.

That's the cost of doing stadium-building business these days. Supervisors of the Munson Stadium renovation see $5 million as enough to make a difference at the former Double-A venue.

The 5,500-seat capacity is far more than is needed for the kinds of baseball that will be played at Munson this year, but the grandstand was already there; keeping it made sense.

"The stadium's bones are good," Foltz said. "The roof had to be replaced. The locker rooms are replaced. The restrooms are new. Showers are new.

"They're taking a concession stand off the west side and are making a third locker room, which would be advantageous for a minor league team or a prospect league or a wood bat league. The goal is to have as many partners as we can at that facility."

The Canton school district and the City of Canton have pledged more than $4 million worth of upgrades to  Munson Stadium.
The Canton school district and the City of Canton have pledged more than $4 million worth of upgrades to Munson Stadium.

With Canton City Schools now playing a lead role in a new partnership, the renovation conspicuously presents the stadium as "home of the McKinley Bulldogs." More painting will be done, but much of the exterior that has been painted already is red and black.

McKinley has played its 2022 schedule on the main field, where new artificial turf was in place by March. Munson's second field was carpeted in the weeks after McKinley's season began. Both fields are ready for a summer schedule. The OMBSL will play a heavy schedule, but is back to paying rent to the city.

A uniform layer of the same material covers both fields. The carpet is colored green on the infields and outfields and brown on the basepaths

Randall Crowe with Vasco Asphalt works on the infield turf installation at Thurman Munson Stadium in Canton. The Canton school district and the City of Canton also have pledged more than $4 million worth of upgrades to the stadium.
Randall Crowe with Vasco Asphalt works on the infield turf installation at Thurman Munson Stadium in Canton. The Canton school district and the City of Canton also have pledged more than $4 million worth of upgrades to the stadium.

Night games on both fields will be played with LED lighting from Musco.

"Anybody that goes down there will see that this is a special place," Bernabei said. "I think we've taken care of and and anticipated the future use, maintenance and occupancy for the next, approximately, 25 years."

"The real win," parks director Foltz said, "is being able to use the facility probably 10 months out of the year now."

Munson's widow, Diana, grew up with Thurman at Lehman when Canton had four high schools. Rivalries came to life on all-city-night basketball games, in which everyone from McKinley knew Lehman's top dog, Munson.

Lehman 1971 championship banner at the Memorial Fieldhouse Jan. 10, 2017. (CantonRep.com / Bob Rossiter)
Lehman 1971 championship banner at the Memorial Fieldhouse Jan. 10, 2017. (CantonRep.com / Bob Rossiter)

"McKinley always found a way to beat us in basketball," she said.

Mrs. Munson thinks Thurman would be amused and accepting of all of the red and black McKinley paint at the baseball stadium, and appreciative of the giant "MUNSON" woven into the carpet behind home plate. Striking reminders of Thurman have been spotted around the complex.

The new playing surface, fence and scoreboard are shown at Thurman Munson Memorial Stadium.
The new playing surface, fence and scoreboard are shown at Thurman Munson Memorial Stadium.

Plans call for a variety of baseball teams to make themselves at home at Munson Stadium.

At the rededication, in some imaginations, a hurler named Skip throws the first pitch to a catcher named Thurman.

Reach Steve at steve.doerschuk@cantonrep.com

On Twitter: @sdoerschukREP

This article originally appeared on The Repository: Renovated Thurman Munson Stadium recalls Yankee catcher, captain