November 14, 2019
The ghosts of Bobby Maduro Miami Stadium live on
 
 

For thousands of kids who grew up in Miami, going to the old Miami Stadium in the Allapattah neighborhood was a part of coming of age.

Opened on Aug. 31, 1949, with a game between the Miami Sun Sox and Havana Cubans, two Class B Florida International League teams, Miami Stadium was an initial rarity thanks to its high-arch cantilevered roof over the grandstand.

The ballpark, like the also-demolished Orange Bowl in Little Havana, which was home for the Miami Dolphins and the University of Miami Hurricanes football teams, was a symbol of sports in South Florida.

For decades, the venue hosted spring training for the Baltimore Orioles and Brooklyn Dodgers. A team called the Miami Marlins played there as a Minor League Baseball club in the 1950s. Baseball legends including Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Sandy Koufax and Joe DiMaggio ran its bases. In the 1970s, major rock groups like the Eagles, Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac played concerts on its field.

In 1987, the 9,000-seat ballpark was renamed Bobby Maduro Stadium in honor of the late Cuban baseball entrepreneur who owned the Havana Sugar Kings.

But a few years later, after big league teams left, the stadium began falling into disrepair. Miami tore it down in 2001 to make way for the Miami Stadium Apartments, a 336-unit affordable-housing project.

Built by former Cuban Minister of Education José Aleman, with money funneled from the Cuban Treasury, the stadium was a half-million-dollar monument to Miami’s big-league dreams, the Miami Herald reported in 2003, two years after the ballpark was demolished.

The stadium may have had a premature end, but it was still around much longer than Miami Arena in Overtown. The original home of the Miami Heat made it to 20 years when it was demolished in 2008 in favor of AmericanAirlines Arena, just a couple of miles to the east on Biscayne Bay.

Miami Stadium was home to minor league teams the Miami Sun Sox (1949-1954), the old Miami Marlins (off and on from 1956 to 1988), the Miami Orioles (1971-1981), the Miami Amigos (1979) and the Gold Coast Suns (1989-1990).

Fans’ greatest memories, however, revolved around the stadium as host for two Major League Baseball teams for spring training - the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers from 1950 to 1958, and the Baltimore Orioles from 1959 to 1990.

(Remembrance by Howard Cohen, originally published in 2017)

Here is a look at the stadium through the archives of the Miami Herald:

COMING DOWN

Published May 24, 2001

Spray paint covers the once-beautiful face of Bobby Maduro Stadium. Its 52-year-old body is similarly ravaged by time and neglect, filled with broken seats, unruly brush, empty bottles and cans, stray people and dogs. 

Jose Santiago, 59, has watched this happen to the place Duke Snider, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Jim Palmer, Cal Ripken Jr., Ted Williams and Satchel Paige once played. Santiago, who grew up there as a batboy, clubhouse manager and trainer, has long wished “someone would clean it up, do something with it,” until and after the city sold the property in 1998. 

Now something is being done: The demolition process started Monday, as the St. Martin Affordable Housing company began making room for its new planned rental project on the 12.6-acre site.

Demolition - which should take 60 days, according to project supervisor Phil Bloomfield of U.S. Wrecking Service - began with asbestos abatement, and will continue in earnest this afternoon when heavy machinery arrives. The field will be cleaned, trash and foliage removed, steel and plastic recycled. Finally, the wrecking ball will come.

“I hate to see the place go, but I was by there the other day, and it’s heartbreaking,” Santiago said. “If it is going to stay that way, it’s like somebody dying of cancer, they might as well go ahead and get rid of it.”

While the construction of stadiums is often cited by proponents as a catalyst for economic development - as is the case in the Florida Marlins’ pursuit of a new place to play - some in Allapattah see the demolition of Bobby Maduro Stadium as such a catalyst.

“Our goal is to clean it up, revitalize the area, increase the tax base,” said Eddie Borges, administrator of the Allapattah Neighborhood Enhancement Team.

For years, the stadium meant something different. It was home to Miami Dolphins practices, black college football games, refugees, boxing, Ice Capades.

But primarily, baseball.

Miami Stadium, as it was known until its 1987 renovation, was the most significant baseball-only stadium built since Yankee Stadium in 1923, and when it opened on Aug. 31, 1949, on the old circus grounds, it was deemed an architectural and technological marvel. Few had seen anything like its unique cantilevered trusses, curved horseshoe grandstand, electric scoreboard, roomy clubhouses, press box elevator, stadium club and neon lights.

Major League Baseball commissioner Happy Chandler, watching the hometown Sun Sox of the Florida International League beat the Havana Cubans on opening night, declared Miami Stadium the most beautiful park he had ever seen. There were plans for expansion, with the hope that someday a major league team would play there longer than just the spring.

None did. But the stadium had enough moments - athletic and political - that in the middle of last decade, some took an interest in restoration. Rolando Llanes, who works with the architectural and engineering firm Corradino Group, began studying the stadium in 1994, and believed it “could become a positive civic building, which would house public facilities.” He envisioned a small field, a park, and high-density housing where the parking lots are.

No longer seeing the point or possibility of the actual preservation of a building Llanes calls “one of the great ruins of our time,” the former University of Miami professor has turned to “virtual preservation” so the building survives in a sense. Llanes, fellow former UM professor William Brown Jr., and filmmaker John Graham have collected footage, clips and interviews for a book and documentary, chronicling the athletic and political history of the stadium. They are hoping for support to finish the project.

“This is the literary and cinematographical equivalent of tying yourself to the building as the bulldozers tear it down,” Llanes said. “The lesson has been unearthing a little of who we are.”

And where Miami has been. His manuscript (Under the Cantilever: Baseball, Guns and Revolution; The Rise and Fall of Miami Baseball Stadium) details the political machinations that led to the stadium’s construction and eventual demise.

Even on opening night, which Llanes calls “the stadium’s heyday,” there was a surprise: the owner of the Sun Sox team and the stadium was 17-year-old Jose B. Aleman, son of Jose Manuel Aleman, the ailing Cuban Minister of Education who owned several properties in Miami.

The younger Aleman - who ended his life with a murder-suicide in 1983 - was more interested in Cuban politics, and quickly tired of the stadium, selling it to the city in 1958. Until he did, according to Llanes’ manuscript, Aleman established a training center for Cuban rebels and used the space under the grandstands “as a storehouse for weapons and ammunition headed for Fidel Castro.” Aleman was later involved in the anti-Castro movement.

Llanes believes the history of Bobby Maduro Stadium is instructive in the current conversation about the city’s role in the survival of the major-league Marlins. For most of its history, the stadium on Northwest 10th Avenue and 23rd Street only drew well for the Orioles and Dodgers stars of spring training, with several minor league teams who served as tenants seeing their attendance decrease each year.

This led to the continuing debate, about whether apathetic South Florida was a “baseball town.” In 1955, just six years after the stadium’s grand opening, a Herald headline read “Stadium Had Its Day.” Suggestions abounded as to what to do with the “White Elephant”: expand it to accommodate a major-league team; build a train station in its place; or as Mayor Robert King High proposed in 1965, replace it with low-income housing.

Now, 36 years later, resolution is at hand. To see similar architecture, you will need to go to Santo Domingo, where another cantilevered stadium thrives.

The one in Miami hardly thrived in the 1980s, but it was in the 1990s - after the Baltimore Orioles stopped using the stadium as a spring training site in 1990 and six years later Miami-Dade Community College’s team quit playing there - that the looters and “artists” took over. All tunnels were closed off with bricks three years ago, to keep unwanted occupants out of the breezeways once bustling with concessionaires. But even the demolition team couldn’t be sure Monday what was under all that brush.

“It’s amazing how the plants grew here,” Borges said. “Third base was there, if you can find it.”

Ruby Swezy, president of St. Martin and owner of Swezy Realty, wants people to find housing in that very spot, though she is still seeking the necessary financing. Swezy went to the city’s Code Enforcement Board in January for an extension in cleaning the site.

In April, she was asked to tear the stadium down, and she secured a permit.

“We had to clear it off, whether we build anything, or don’t build anything,” Swezy said.

But if she does build, as she expects, “I think it will revitalize the neighborhood.”

Swezy said representatives of the major-league Marlins contacted her two years ago to buy the stadium and restore it as a training field. “If they would have restored it, I would have sold it to them,” she said. But Swezy said the Marlins’ offer, on Aug. 31, 1999, was $1.25 million. She paid $2.1 million.

“I was there the day it opened,” Swezy said of the stadium. “When those lights go down, I feel like putting a banner up: goodbye.”

Santiago plans to say goodbye personally, probably on Memorial Day.

“I am upset about the stadium,” he said. “I blame the politicians. When the Orioles moved out, they just let it go, even when the college was there. I am going to go back over there. I will watch them tear it up.”

 

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