Oxford Playground: St. Paul’s field of dreams

SOECharlesHallmansquareThe corner of Lexington and Marshall in St. Paul, once a ragged patch of land and post-WWII housing huts, later became Oxford Playground, a real-life baseball field of dreams. Two future hall-of-famers, among others, played there, another “forgotten story” Frank White wants told.

 

Frank White
Frank White

White, longtime youth baseball coach Billy Peterson, and two former Oxford players — Debbie Montgomery and Steve Winfield — recently shared their recollections about the center, which was built in the late 1950s. They spoke June 4 at the Landmark Center in downtown St. Paul, where White’s “They Played for the Love of the Game” exhibit is now showing.

John Cotton, Ernie Johnson, John Pettiford, “Billie” Carter and Eloise Adams were among those who pushed hard and successfully got a place for the neighborhood kids to play, explained White. The center and its adjacent field, which at first lacked the amenities of other St. Paul rec centers: “Our field was so bad that [all] our games were away,” recalled Montgomery.

Peterson concurred: “The field was terrible… [It] was a rock pile. We had to rake all the rocks out of there.”

Nonetheless, Oxford soon became the foundational playing place for Winfield and his younger brother David and other youngsters of both genders. “Oxford was the main place to go,” added Winfield.

“We did a lot of things at Oxford, and not just sports,” said Peterson. “…I went to Oxford…not as a baseball coach but as a hockey coach. We had all Black kids playing hockey. We were the champions of our league.”

He told the small audience that his father helped him get a job with the city’s parks and recreation after he left college, and he was offered the Oxford job “because [they] couldn’t find anyone [else] to go there,” said Peterson, who also helped arrange non-sports field trips. Montgomery remembered the trip she and others took to the University of Minnesota, where they met the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“They let us in the back room with him, and we got to talk [with Dr. King],” said Peterson.

“Bill kept us busy, and [he] had a big impact on my life. He was a great role model for us,” said Montgomery.

But Peterson is more renowned for his teaching baseball: “Bill had a tremendous impact on baseball in St. Paul and in Minnesota,” stated White on Peterson, who coached future Baseball Hall of Famers David Winfield and Paul Monitor, Jack Morris, Joe Mauer, Steve Winfield, Montgomery, and too many others to accurately count.

“I don’t take much credit for that,” said Peterson humbly. He told the MSR afterwards, “You always like to think you are a piece of something, but you’re just a little piece. Mollie [Paul Molitor, now the Twins manager] was such a great [player] — the things I taught him he would have done anyway. I had no comprehension how good [David Winfield] was.

“A guy like Molitor and Winfield, you just stay out of their way,” stated Peterson.

White is currently working on a book on Black baseball in Minnesota, which he hopes will be ready for publication next spring. He reiterated that Oxford’s historical place in Minnesota baseball history “is another piece of the story” not often talked about, but he will do so in his book.

“There have been so many great baseball players who played at Oxford,” concluded White.

 

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.