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Anne Arundel preserves a diamond in the rough

Galesville field, home of Hot Sox, hosted Negro League stars

By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

7:03 PM EDT, May 19, 2013

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The cinder block dugouts are decrepit and the backstop is ragged at the old baseball diamond in Galesville, but giants once ran the bases in this southern Anne Arundel County town.

Not just giants but Elite Giants, as in the old Negro Leagues team of the 1930s and 1940s.

They and other legendary clubs from era of segregated baseball — such as the Homestead Grays and Newark Eagles — were annual visitors to play exhibitions at the home of the Galesville Hot Sox.

Scores of local residents turned out Sunday to remember those days and celebrate the preservation of a vibrant part of Anne Arundel's African-American history at a first-pitch ceremony marking the county's acquisition of the Hot Sox Field at Wilson Park.

Among them were some members of the old Hot Sox — a sandlot club that played in Galesville from as far back as the 1920s until the 1990s — at first an all-black team but later an integrated club. Except for some lost years during World War II, Wilson Park — set on property owned by former slave Henry Wilson — was the Hot Sox home from 1929 until the team folded in 1997.

John Makell, 80, said he was gratified to see the county finally acquire the field where he played for more than 40 years, The acquisition was a three-year effort that involved tracking down more than 100 potential heirs to the Wilson property.

"It's a good deal all the way around; conserving open space for the county, allowing baseball to continue to be played," Makell said.

Rick Anthony, Anne Arundel's director of recreation and parks, said Wilson Park was more than just a ball field. He said it was a place where hundreds of people came together to watch ball games, socialize and enjoy home cooking.

"It was a place where fried fish meets girl, girl meets boy and many African-American families began," he said.

Even if some of the facilities are showing their age, the field itself is still a fine place to play baseball — with a well-kept infield and well-trimmed outfield. The dimensions are smaller than a major league park, but still challenging for hitters. A home run means a search for the ball in dense woods.

Galesville residents, Anne Arundel parks officials, baseball players and others gathered to welcome the old ball yard into the county's park system with a game between the Owings Eagles — a Calvert County team that uses the Galesville diamond as its home field — and the D.C. A's.

On hand to throw out the first pitch was House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat who represented Galesville before the most recent redistricting.

"There were kids that played on this field who went on to play professional baseball," Busch told the crowd. "Galesville is a community that has prided itself in remembering the past."

Among the future major league players Makell recalled having played at Wilson Park were Brooklyn and later Los Angeles Dodgers star Jim "Junior" Gilliam and Joe Black, the first African-American pitcher to win a World Series game.

Makell, who served as Anne Arundel's parks and recreation director from 1968 to 1975, said he began playing for the Hot Sox adult team in 1946, even though he was just 13.

"They let me play when it got lopsided," he said. An infielder, he didn't hang up his glove until 1994, playing for the Hot Sox the entire time except for a three-year hitch in the military during the Korean War.

The celebration Sunday was an opportunity for old Hot Sox to exchange war stories. Tommy Sesker, 84, was still relishing the memory of a game in Warsaw, Va., where a local hurler walked Makell to get to him. Sesker, known better for his pitching skills than his hitting, clobbered a home run.

Mark Garrity, country parks administrator, said the county closed the deal on the purchase a few weeks ago. He said the county plans to do some restoration of the facilities but to keep the design compatible with the Negro League era of the 1920s to 1950. He said the county hopes to get more use out of the park by opening it to local youth leagues as well as adult baseball.

The first-pitch ceremony was the second parks-related event of the day in Galesville, an historic watermen's village and Quaker settlement on the West River.

Earlier on Sunday, the parks department dedicated the town park just east of the baseball field as Francis Ray Moreland Field at Galesville Park. The ceremony honored Francis Ray Moreland, a Galesville community activist and former south county Man of the Year, who died in 2011 at age 79.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com