Eight decades of use had left the oldest active ballpark in Sebastian County looking bedraggled. Charm is nice; so is history.
After 73 of play, R.T. Hunt Memorial Park was falling short of what other cities have – a compatible, multi-functioning athletic facility.
“That week it rained a lot and the field was in poor shape already,” Sicard said. “Everything needed some attention, including the bathrooms.”
Back in 1945, land for the park was purchased from the Kelley Realty Company for $4,000. Later that year, Leland Hunt donated $10,000 in memory of his father R.T. Hunt Sr., founder of Hunt’s Department Store. That money today is roughly the equivalent in purchasing power to about $150,000.
In the spring of 1946, as the park began to take shape, the Fort Smith Boys Club held a public subscription campaign to raise funds needed to fence the park and build bleachers and a dressing room, complete with showers.
The campaign, which was conducted by the Fort Smith Kiwanis Club, was a success. Two years later, Hunt’s Park officially opened on the evening of June 6, 1947.
Three generations later, with a push from mother nature, Sicard approached Fort Smith Boys & Girls Club executive director Jerry Glidewell with a proposal.
“He had talked to me about the condition of the field and what I felt about renovating the facility,” Glidewell said. “That’s when we started talking about the renovation.”
“The challenge of this, quite frankly, was how to raise the capital,” Sicard said. “A lot of the city's funding comes from taxpayers; we didn’t have that. We had to raise $2.5 million to make this happen.”
Sicard knew where to go.
A fifth generation banker, Sam sought the help of the board of First National Bank. His dad, the late Samuel M. Sicard, was president and CEO from 1977-2011.
“We had to have a major league gift, and if that didn’t happen, it wasn’t going to happen,” Sicard said. “First National Bank gave a generous gift of $1 million ... that’s 40 percent of what you need right there.
“Also, psychologically, that helps. People see there’s already a million dollars on the table,” Sicard said. “I wouldn’t have had the success I had without the success of the Fort Smith Boys & Girls Club."
The $2.5 million upgrade came exclusively through private donors. Hunt’s Park towers in the lives of many men who played ball and those who sat in the bleachers watching their children and friends compete.
Many highly competitive, local American Legion teams wore the uniforms of Kerwin’s Sportsmen, managed by Lawrence “Squeaky” Smith for team owner Jerry Kerwin. Many other great coaches, different teams and outstanding players followed. Thousands of locals have a Hunt’s Park era that is special to their own memories and experiences.
“My dad played here; I played here, and my son (Layton) is playing here,” Sicard said. “It’s right in the center of our community; it’s very visible. Vibrant cities and how they take care of their community tells a lot about their city.”
The uniqueness of the park, which faces slightly southeast, is the high-arching hills overlooking the field. Generations of families have climbed the cement steps to the top of the hillside, where it levels out, where they sat in lawn chairs watching baseball, football and other activities.
“My own parents sat up there,” Sicard said.
Construction, performed by Beshears Construction services and architectural designs, began in July 2019 and wrapped up in March.
The park will benefit a number of organizations, Glidewell said, including FSBGC football, as well as cheer, soccer and baseball. American Legion, Babe Ruth baseball, Northside High School baseball, travel baseball tournaments plus community soccer and the aforementioned flag football will have a home at Hunt’s Park.
“There’s so much history,” Glidewell said. “There’s been so many people involved either watching or playing. Sitting on the hill, it has this aura about it.”
On a warm Friday in early May, Sam and Layton strode toward the pitcher’s mound with a bucket of balls and their mitts. The sun is streaming through the bleachers behind home plate. It’s 78 degrees and there is no wind. Then there’s the view beyond center field. Spectacular.
“Times change, and if you don’t change you die,” Sicard said of the field’s renovation. “To be honest, very few things you take on come out better than you envision it.”
– Kevin Taylor is a veteran sportswriter with 35 years of experience in finding the story behind the game.
Within hours after Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced that baseball activities could return following an eight-week silence per COVID-19 restrictions, youth players began filling up the fields adjacent to Evans Boys & Girls Club.
Across the way, high school players from various high schools within the 40-mile radius of Fort Smith were fine-tuning their American Legion skills.
FSBGC executive director Jerry Glidewell said the popular club will play a short season. Signups began last week.
“Our general plan has been, if the governor opened it up, to have baseball this summer at the clubs,” he said. “It may be a shorter season, but we’ll have baseball.”
Normally, leagues would be nearing the end of their two-month cycle. But because the coronavirus locked everything down, it became a wait-and-see situation for all of America. Little by little, states began to open up last month.
“Normal sign ups are in March to April,” Glidewell said. “This year everything was shut down on March 16.”
The return of baseball means Hunt’s Park can celebrate its June birthday with America’s pastime.
“Emotionally, it’s a big boost,” Glidewell said. “But physical fitness is important, too. It forces them to run. We’ll be very mindful as far as social distancing. But we’re excited, we’re moving in a positive direction.”
Longtime legion coach Shea Hamilton was among those at Evans last month.
“The biggest thing for the high school (players) is getting an opportunity this summer because they were cut short in the spring season,” he said. “I don’t know if there’s anybody that got to play five or six ballgames. Just the opportunity to get back out here that most of them had been practicing all fall and all winter for is a good thing for them.”