GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — From 1937 when it opened, to the early 1990s when the Grand Rapids Sullivans played their final game, Sullivan (formerly Valley) Field was the site where some of baseball's biggest names launched their careers.
While those players eventually moved on to make history in the Major Leagues, another type of history was discovered at the ballpark recently, and it's not the kind made between the white chalk lines.
Nestled in a neighborhood on Grand Rapids' west side sits West Michigan's very own version of Wrigley Field. Where else can one travel down residential side streets then suddenly have to come to a complete stop because a massive baseball stadium popped up out of nowhere?
"It's got quite a bit of history," said Paul Soltysiak, who is the vice president of the group Fans of Valley Field, which galvanized in 2019 hoping to renovate Sullivan Field. "This place is still structurally sound and can be saved with a new roof and some serious makeup."
Age and years of neglect have certainly taken their toll on the ballpark, but Soltysiak, along with his partner Andy DeVries, are on a personal crusade to breathe life back into the old ball yard.
"Famous players like Al Kaline, Mickey Stanley, Kirk Gibson and Dave Rozema started their careers playing here," said Soltysiak. "In fact, there were over 70 Major League players that came up through [Valley] Field, four of which eventually became big league managers."
But this story really isn't about what happened on the field all those years ago. It's not about how the Grand Rapids Sullivans won four national championships.
It's more about what many of those players left behind, and how the baseball relics are being discovered in the stadium's underbelly decades later.
The City of Grand Rapids is funding a large portion of the Sullivan Field renovation project, which is set to gain full momentum sometime in 2022, thanks to a millage that was passed late last year. The remainder of the renovation costs must be generated by the Fans of Valley Field group through donations.
In the meantime, the city is allowing group members to unlock many grandstand doors that literally haven't been opened in decades (some for a half century) to see what may be inside, and dispose of the contents, if warranted.
"A couple of the doors were bolted shut," said Soltysiak. "Many of the rooms looked like they'd been untouched for a very long time."
With flashlights and the ability to duck, avoiding impalement from the stalactites dangling from the ceiling, they entered old bathrooms, umpires changing rooms, player clubhouses and shower stalls, concession areas and general storage rooms.
"We had no idea this place was baseball's buried treasure," said Stoltysiak. "It was like exploring a time capsule."
Out from the bowels of this legendary stadium came everything imaginable - an old-fashioned chalk-line maker, several old coats covered in dust and hard as a rock, two used bats, signs, a beat-up baseball and two old bases, one of which had been hidden beneath for nearly 70 years because it was still stuffed with original straw.
"It's exciting and very cool to see this stuff," said Soltysiak. "I can see us keeping all the things we find and making a museum for people to check out when they visit."
Once Sullivan Field is completely renovated, the ultimate plan is to turn it into more than just a baseball venue. Soltysiak says he wants the facility to eventually be rented for events such as weddings and concerts.
"Maybe we can bring in some travel teams to play here," said Soltysiak. "Once it becomes financially self-sustaining, we believe the sky is the limit."
The first significant event in decades at Sullivan Field will happen Wednesday, June 30. That's when a special re-dedication ceremony will unfold.
"As we were working at the ballpark, we saw what appeared to be an old flagpole," Soltysiak said. "We got permission from the city to clear some of the trees so the flag pole is once again visible."
The flagpole and plaque at its base were installed in 1945 following World War II and was overgrown with trees and vegetation and had not been in use for many years. The non-profit organization Fans of Valley Field, along with donations by Pioneer Construction and American Legion 5th District of Michigan, worked to restore the historic landmark.
The re-dedication flag-raising ceremony will happen at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, then will be followed by a baseball game.
The event is free to the public.
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