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Historical Sluka Field to be renovated in August

Josh VanDyke • Jul 16, 2016 at 12:30 AM

Much like Wrigley or Lambeau, Sluka Field will be getting its own facelift this August. The historical Grand Haven ballpark has stood since 1961 and is named after the late Steve Sluka II, who spearheaded the initial fundraising to create the field.

Sluka and several others proposed to the Grand Haven City Council in 1949 that the city buy old farm land off Beechtree Street and Waverly Avenue, and turn it into a baseball field.

“As a child, I remember the city owned that plot of land,” said Steve’s son, John Sluka. “The only (baseball) field in town at that time was at Ferry school, and it wasn’t very great. My dad and other people volunteered to do all the labor involved in setting up the field if the city allowed them to have it.

“To this day, I can still see farm tractors plowing through the site, as we tried to make that area workable. There were blackberry bushes everywhere. I must have been 6 or 7 years old at the time, but my dad allowed me to help with some of the small stuff.

The field meant a lot to the whole Sluka family, and John’s father made sure it was maintained to the highest standard.

“It was pretty much the family backyard at first,” Sluka added. “My father maintained it by himself, initially. He made sure the field was always in impeccable shape, because he loved baseball, and anything done with baseball had to done right.

“When I was in high school, it was my job was to take care of the field in the summer time. I spent a lot of time preparing it for ball games. Sometimes, I would use my father’s 1931 Model A with the tools and drag the field with the Model A. I wasn’t 16 years old at the time, so some of the local police officers told my dad that I couldn’t do that anymore.

“That field holds a lot of fond memories to myself and my entire family. It was the best ball field in West Michigan at the time. Everyone loved to come there and play.”

Grand Haven High School played its home baseball games at Sluka Field for 36 years, until the new high school was opened in 1997.

A 1993 Muskegon Area Sports Hall of Fame inductee, Steve Sluka helped the Buccaneer baseball program to a then-state record 56-game winning streak from 1960-62. Led by key players like first baseman Larry Kieft, shortstop John Sluka, catcher Bob Kent, and pitchers Doug VanderWall and Roger Wheeler, the Buccaneers pieced together a perfect 31-0 campaign in 1961, before losing its fifth game of the season in 1962.

That record stood for 43 years before the Homer baseball program broke the record in 2004-2005.

“I’m very proud of that,” said Doug VanderWall. “My class won 52 of the 56 games during that streak, so it’s a point of pride to me. I think it shouldn’t go unnoticed that the team after us (in 1962) won the first four games of that following season to clinch the record. There was a lot of pressure on them at that time.”

VanderWall views Sluka Field as a mecca of baseball fields.

“The goal of anyone who played baseball in this area at that time was to play at Sluka,” he said. “ Muskegon had Marsh Field, and we had Sluka Field. It was nice to play on a good diamond, and it was always well maintained.”

As a coach, Sluka held his players to the same standard he maintained the baseball field.

“He was the kind of guy that really enjoyed coaching baseball,” VanderWall added. “He expected a lot and was very demanding. He didn’t hesitate to tell you that you did something wrong, and wasn’t a big fan of excuses. He was a great baseball coach, though.”

Renovation Process

Starting Aug. 1, the process of removing the infield from Sluka Field will begin. Project manager Ken Baumgarner hopes the work will be completed in short order.

“Ideally, we’d like to complete the project within a month, but I would say 4 to 6 weeks would be the most realistic timetable,” he said. “They will start midway into the outfield and work their way in, taking out all the dirt and grass and replacing it with a whole new infield.

“The soccer fields will stay there and the surrounding areas will not be affected by the renovation. The only major changes will be made to the infield of the baseball diamond.”

Safety concerns were the primary cause of the renovations, as erosion over time had made simply rounding the bases a hazard at times.

“We were having some safety issues over the years,” Baumgarner added. “Where the grass meets the dirt there was a lip around third base. As time went on, there was came to be a 12-to 14-inch drop-off in that area, and we were just concerned about the kids’ safety when they were running around out there during summer league play.”

As the primary field manager for the Tri-Cities Kids’ League, Baumgarner hopes a few more additions can be made to the area as well.

“We are going to a city parks and rec meeting soon to discuss other additions,” he added. “We are hoping to get a new fence installed. There used to be an outfield fence behind the baseball field, but they removed it seven or eight years ago.”

Even if it is not the primary field of the high school baseball squad, Baumgarner hopes the historical significance of the venue is not lost over time.

“Growing up, that was the place to play baseball,” he said. “It was every kid’s dream to play on that field. I played high school baseball there. Just the history of the field itself is pretty special. It’s one of the oldest baseball fields in the state of Michigan.

The project, which will cost approximately $30,000 to $35,000, was put in motion years ago, but will finally come to fruition due to several donating parties.

“I’ve been working on this for about four years, and we finally got a grant from the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation to make it happen,” Baumgarner said. “Thanks to the contributing parties involved like the Tri Cities Kids’ League, Northwest Ottawa Recreation Authority and the city of Grand Haven, as well as the help of City Manager Pat McGinnis, we’re hoping to keep the park around for another 50 years.”

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