Archdeacon: The old neighborhood gathers at the Field of Dreams

Mark Dempsey was sharing some of his fondest baseball memories.

Not from his days as a Hall of Fame player at Fairview High School or as an Ohio State star.

And not from when he pitched for the San Francisco Giants.

He was going back to the times when he reached his greatest heights.

“The wall of the lumber company was our backstop and sometimes we hit balls on the roof,” Dempsey said. “They wouldn’t let a bunch of kids go up there to get them, so we waited until the weekend. We had a ladder and we’d climb to the lower section of roof over the office and then we’d pull the ladder up, go to the next level, jump up and get the balls.”

Kevin Daniel – now retired after working 30 years with the Montgomery County Board of Developmental Disabilities, but back then quite a ballplayer himself – remembered some of those balls: “If you had a good ball, you wanted to keep it. Sometimes we had to use half of a rubber ball that somebody’s dog ate.”

Dempsey and Daniel were talking about those pre-teen days in the late 1960s when kids in their close-knit, Lower Dayton View neighborhood fashioned a ball field from an empty lot behind what they called The Warehouse at the dead end of Tennyson and Lexington avenues.

It had railroad tracks running along the left field line.

Cliff Pierce – another of the neighborhood boys who’s now a local historian and the pit master of “Take a Bite Out of Fine” Bulldog Bar-B Que – called it: “Our Field of Dreams.”

Dempsey said the infield was “all fine gravel, no grass” and sometimes games were brought to a halt when the lumber company stored overflow bunks of wood on the field.

The kids drew a square on the backstop wall to designate the strike zone, put bases down, mowed the outfield and enforced a special rule.

“If you hit it over the tracks in left, it was an automatic out,” recalled Rev. Dr. Winston Lindsey, who grew up on Athens Ave. and now is a minister in New Jersey.

Not only was there the danger of a train coming though, but Dempsey said a business across the tracks didn’t want them scaling its fence to get a ball: “So when you played out there you learned to hit up the middle or to right field.”

But at least one blast to left produced a whopper of a tale that Ondray Coble likes to tell.

“Let me tell you about a catch I made,” said Coble, who grew up on Bridge Street, worked several years in law enforcement and has built an impressive baseball museum in his Cincinnati home. “It was about 1965. I was 14 and the only other kid there was Billy Glass.

“He hit a ball that backed me up to the tracks. A train was coming through and I could feel the air rushing by from the boxcars, but I still caught it.”

Dempsey shared a story more of the ballplayers recall: “Kevin lived about two blocks away, on Canfield, and I can remember every day before lunch and every day before dinner, his mom would come around the corner and start yellin’ for him. We’d be mad when he had to leave.”

Pierce said that field was about more than just baseball:

“It’s where it all came together. It kept all the kids in close proximity of good neighbors and stable families. To me, the neighborhood was The Village.

“It was a safe place. A place where it didn’t matter if you were black or white; what your parents did; what your religion was; how old you were or how rich you were; we grew up together and looked out for each other and became friends.

“And from that small section of town, we all went out – a bunch of different personalities with different dreams – and discovered the world. And the best thing is, we never forgot each other.”

Vicki (McCain) Moore, who grew up on Lexington Ave. across from Cliff and his brother Alfred, agreed: “We were a community of people who all loved one another and now, here we are – 30, 40, 50 years later – and we’re still friends.”

That was evident a few Saturdays ago when folks from the old neighborhood – in a day organized by Pierce after a suggestion by Lindsey – came in from around the country to rekindle old friendships and share new adventures.

Several people first came to the old field and posed for a group photo. Then a larger group – which included Fairview grads from other neighborhoods – had a social gathering at Jimmie’s Ladder on Brown Street.

Some who returned to the field had made a mark in sports.

Dempsey – who everyone called Spud when he was growing up on Oxford Avenue – was one of the “greatest” baseball players ever to come out of the Miami Valley, Pierce said:

“He was The Fonz of our neighborhood. He was the best athlete. He told the best jokes. Threw the best snowballs. Had the best bike. He was just ‘that guy.’ He had a little more talent, a little more pizazz, a little more cool. He set the standard for the neighborhood.”

And plenty of people lived up to it:

Among the athletes who returned was Daniel, who led Meadowdale to two city baseball championships and then played college baseball in Michigan and at Sinclair.

A two-time, all-city basketball player at Fairview, Andy Davenport played college basketball at Central State, McMurray University in Texas and Rio Grande.

After starring in track alongside Edwin Moses at Fairview, Lindsey went to Cal State Long Beach and Los Angeles City College on track scholarships.

Royal Starks, a city mailman for decades who’s now 90, still lives on Oxford Avenue. He and his late wife, Janie, a longtime Dayton school teacher, sent three kids to college.

Their son Kenley – named after the Kenley Players – was a standout quarterback at Fairview before going to Morehouse College. Younger son Darryl ran track at Fort Valley State. Daughter Cyslynn, an Army vet of the Persian Gulf War with a pharmacy degree, died of cancer at 43.

Cliff Pierce was the captain of the Fairview basketball team and Alfred played four years for the Bulldogs.

Beyond the athletic arena, The Village really showed its stuff:

Howard Jordan was a longtime Dayton policeman. Martha Hardcastle became a journalist. David Chadwell made his name in heavy construction and Moore was a special assistant to Atlanta mayors, Andrew Young and Maynard Jackson.

Starks, the oldest person to show up, attributed his longevity to three things: “I don’t smoke, drink …or cuss.”

When he arrived at the old field, everyone was thrilled.

“Considering everything, it was the perfect day,” Pierce said.

Lindsey felt the same: “When you have a heart connection, you open that door. I mean this is coming from 50 years ago and it’s still strong.

“All I can tell you is that when they say ‘The good old days,’ in this case, that’s absolutely true.”

“A community of love’

Terri Ogletree, who’s now 87, remembered back when she and her husband, Donald – they’d met at Talladega College in Alabama – moved to Dayton in 1964. He’d finished his medical residency in Syracuse and was preparing to set up a family practice on Riverview Avenue:

“We closed on a home on Oxford Avenue in April and by the time we finally moved here in June, our neighbors on one side already had moved out. Within three weeks, the neighbors on the other side moved out, too.”

The Ogletrees were black. The neighbors who moved were white. That was part of white flight in Dayton – and elsewhere – as neighborhoods integrated in the 1960s.

But the white families who stayed often got to appreciate a new, vibrant tapestry that many of them still treasure today.

“I always say those neighbors who moved so quickly had no idea what wonderful neighbors they would have had,” Ogletree said.

“We had a beautiful, diverse neighborhood. It became a community of love.”

Her husband practiced medicine for 40 years.

Their children all went to college:

Carol, who got a master degree at the University of Georgia, is trained in psychology and lives in Iowa. Son Carl is a urologist in Texas. Daughter Sharon is a travelling nurse living in Cincinnati and youngest daughter Camille – the last senior class president at Fairview before the school closed in 1982 – is an Indianapolis attorney.

“Black and white wasn’t much of an issue with us,” said Dempsey, who has dealt with some serious health issues in recent years, but has a guardian angel in Chadwell, who now lives in Brookville and has been his friend since grade school.

Chadwell once drove Dempsey’s car out to him in Arizona during spring training. Now he takes him to doctor’s appointments and made sure he was at the neighborhood gathering.

And that especially pleased Vicki Moore:

“Spud used to live behind us and for years I wondered what ever happened to him. All I wanted that day was to see him and when we hugged, it was like we’d never missed a beat.”

Alfred Pierce said Dempsey was his best friend growing up and Hardcastle has one vivid memory of him:

“I lived on Tennyson and I can remember Mark dribbling his basketball from his house up to our school (Cornell Heights) which was at Cornell and Tennyson. You could hear that basketball echoing three blocks away. He was like Pete Maravich.”

Everybody seems to have a Dempsey memory and once again Coble – who was a few years older than the other kids at the ballpark and was kind of the mentor Cliff Pierce said – had a fanciful tale:

“When he was young, I taught him how to throw a curve, how to snap that wrist. He learned quickly and said, ‘Ondrey, now I’m gonna strike you out with it!’

“But I said, ‘Spuddie, how can you do that when I’m the one who just taught you?’

“And when he threw it, I put it up in the top of the trees.

“If you go over there now with a ladder, you still might find it.”

‘People ... worked together and nurtured one another’

Lindsey, who started in the ministry with the late televangelist Frederick K.C. Price in Los Angeles, now runs Friends Fellowship Ministries in Vineland, N.J., with his wife, Dr. Drucilla Lindsey.

His 90-year-old mother still lives on Athens Avenue and he was planning a trip home for her birthday when he contacted Pierce – whom he calls “the great connector” – about getting some of the old neighborhood kids back together.

Pierce – who arranged three Hall of Fame gatherings for Fairview High over the years – has a special affinity for the Dayton Public Schools. Over the years, he’s collected all sorts of memorabilia and the name and logo for Bulldog Bar-B-Que goes back to his Fairview Bulldog days.

“Some of the greatest people in the world went through DPS,” he once told me. “I want my collection to tell generations to come how, during some of the toughest of times – the 1913 Flood, the Great Depression, World Wars, the civil unrest of the 1960s – people here still worked together and nurtured one another and we persevered as a community.”

He believes those are lessons we should take to heart now in these highly-polarized times.

When he started contacting people for the reunion, he learned how their lives had changed.

After his sports career, Davenport worked several years for General Motors, spent 13 years in New York City as a fireman and with EMS and just retired after 12 ½ years as an RTA bus driver here in Dayton.

After Jordan retired following 30 years of police work, he began building a college resume and recently got his PhD from Walden University. He now assists the police chief at Sinclair.

“After getting my associates degree, I just couldn’t stop,” he said with a laugh. “It was almost a Forest Gump type thing. Like when he just kept running and running.”

While the attendees had new interests, they most cherished the old memories:

Kevin Daniel: “If we weren’t playing ball, we were fishing in Wolf Creek or hunting in the woods on Wesleyan before it became a MetroPark.”

These days, at Christmas, he and his sister drive their 94-year-old mother through the old neighborhood.

Denise Jones, who grew up on Shakespeare: “It was a real family atmosphere. We had block parties every year. Our disc jockey was Long John Silver from WDAO. He lived on our street.”

Carol Ogletree: “We all pretty much had standing orders: ‘Come in when the street lights come on.’ There wasn’t much playing indoors, except Saturday nights when we played board games as a family, watched Jackie Gleason and had apple turnovers.”

Jordan said when he saw his childhood friends again, he immediately “envisioned when we were all young kids playing with some kind of ball. Now we’re all gray-haired or have no hair, but in my mind I went right back to the ‘60s and ‘70s. I can still see Mark Dempsey, his tall, lanky self, out there pitching.”

Daniel had a memory of Dempsey, as well:

“The first night that he opened up in the Major Leagues – I believe it was against St. Louis in 1982 – I’d sent him a telegram early that day.

“It just said, ‘Boy, you’ve come a long way from the old Warehouse to pitch at Candlestick Park in front of thousands of people!’

“And I heard that night he pitched, he put that note in his back pocket.”

A few Saturdays ago, Dempsey was back at The Warehouse.

And his fondest baseball memories were front and center.

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