Minor League Ballparks Hit The Big Screen In 2013

It has been a good year for current and former minor league ballparks in the movies, with several playing prominent roles in major theatrical releases.

The Pacific Coast League’s Fresno Grizzlies were a significant plot device in the holiday release “Parental Guidance,” which stars Billy Crystal and Bette Middler as grandparents who have to deal with a culture clash when taking care of their grandchildren.

As part of Crystal’s backstory in the movie, however, he is an aging broadcaster with the Grizzlies who has never been able to get past Triple-A and land a major league job. As he becomes unwilling to adapt to more modern ways, he gets fired from his job with the team.

The production spent a day at Fresno’s Chukchansi Park last August, with a capacity crowd of 12,000-plus coming out to see the sights and sounds of a movie and serving as impromptu extras for what ended up being the film’s opening scene. Crystal threw out the first pitch at the game as well. It was a connection with his production company that brought the movie to Fresno. Samantha Sprecher, the vice president of development for Face Productions Inc., is a Fresno native.

Most of “Parental Guidance” was shot in and around Atlanta, however, as that’s where the grandchildren in the movie live. So the Gwinnett Braves’ (International) Coolray Field also served as a location for some filming, though it was not credited and served as a stand-in for Chukchansi Park.  

No Substitute For Classics

In last summer’s “Trouble With The Curve,” which starred Clint Eastwood as an aging baseball scout and Amy Adams as his daughter, one of the most prominent ballparks featured in the move was Luther Williams Field in Macon, Ga., which is one of the oldest ballparks in the nation.

“Trouble With The Curve” was also largely filmed in Georgia, with the Braves’ Turner Field and Young Harris JC’s ballpark also getting screen time. Luther Williams Field was the longtime home of a South Atlantic League team until the Macon Braves moved to Rome, Ga., after the 2002 season.

Williams Field is also featured in the new release “42,” a movie about Jackie Robinson that’s scheduled to come out in April, starring Chadwick Boseman as Robinson and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey.

That movie proved to be a boon to some of the classic old parks of the South, as Williams Field, Rickwood Field in Birmingham and Engel Stadium in Chattanooga all served as locations. None have full-time minor league tenants any longer, but they all have found a way to live on.

Rickwood Field is the most notable, as people in Birmingham have invested significant effort to preserve it, and the Southern League’s Birmingham Barons still come back to the park once a year to play in the Rickwood Classic. Birmingham has a new downtown stadium that’s scheduled to open for the 2013 season, so I’m sure we’ll be revisiting their ballpark history as part of that.

Folks in Chattanooga hope the “42” filming provides the impetus for similar preservation efforts with Engel Stadium. The ballpark probably plays the most prominent role of the three in the movie, serving as a stand-in for Ebbets Field.

It should be a boon for the Engel Foundation, which was formed in 2009 to save the ballpark. It opened in 1930 and saw legions of stars come through, and most recently served as home of the Southern League’s Chattanooga Lookouts until they moved to AT&T Field in 2000.

The stadium fell into disrepair and was even condemned by the city after storm damage in 2011, but the foundation has been working hard to turn things around, hiring former Lookouts executive Bill Kuehn as general manager of the stadium. Kuehn said the foundation is excited about the stadium’s future.

“They are people who saw this ballpark with incredible history just sitting empty and said we can’t let this happen,” he said. “With the movie, we realized that now is the time.”

The film’s production company, Legendary Pictures, gave the process a jump-start by making renovations so the stadium would look as accurate as possible. Some were temporary, but repairs to our roof, a graded infield and the removal of lead-based paint will be long-term benefits.

Going forward, Kuehn hopes to book youth tournaments, movie nights and concerts as well as other events. “My job is to open the door and turn on the lights as much as possible in 2013,” he said.

Thanks to “42,” that will be easier to do.