Monster From The Sky: Field of Dreams helped city survive tragic tornado

Destruction of Katy Park in 1953
Destruction of Katy Park in 1953(Texas Collections)
Published: May. 9, 2023 at 5:33 PM CDT|Updated: May. 9, 2023 at 5:40 PM CDT
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WACO, Texas (KWTX) - The devastation and death left in the wake of the tornado that stuck Waco on May 11, 1953 is what ended up in the history books and for good reason.

The city was demolished, and the lives of 114 people ended tragically.

But some of the stories lost in the rubble are those of people rebuilding lives and storied structures rising from the ashes.

One of those was a stadium that featured a star-studded roster of athletes, performers and politicians; Katy Park.

“In 1904 they start building it and 1905 it’s completed, just in time for Teddy Roosevelt to come through on the train,” explains Stephen Sloan, a Baylor History Professor and the host of the ‘Waco History Podcast’.

Sloan detailed how Katy Park was named for its close proximity to Katy railroad, which came through just next to venue.

He also noted some of the history that stopped along the railroad, to make monumental moments at the ballpark.

“A number of notable people came through and spent time at the park,” Sloan said.

“Jesse Owens ran a clinic here (Katy Park), Joe Louis had an exhibition fight here and a big announcement about his career and of course Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and the 1929 Yankees came and played against the then Waco Cubs.”

Ruth and Gehrig are immortalized at the ballpark, once demolished by that tornado in 1953, by bronze statues.

The bronze beauties are thanks to the folks at Magnolia, who reopened the field as a wiffleball park in the fall of 2020.,

It’s located exactly where it was before; 701 Webster Avenue.

“Homeplate is where Homeplate has always been,” reveals Sloan, standing just about five feet away from third base on the refurbished field, now part of the Magnolia Market at the Silos.

But what about that day in 1953, when the tornado ripped through Waco taking 114 lives?

“There were no deaths at Katy Park that day, we had deaths in other areas of the city but there weren’t any deaths here but of course that park was lost,” said Sloan.

There was irony in some of that survival, after park owner A.H. Kirksey and Waco Pirates manager Buster Chatam sought shelter as disaster struck.

“Even though the stadium was completely wiped away by the tornado, they ran, and they got under one of the cars on the rails of this adjoining rail line and they survived it,” notes Sloan.

“He (Kirksey) had hated that train; can you imagine trying to run amusements with that train right next door to your stadium so the train was a problem if you were trying to develop this as a place of entertainment? But it ended up saving his life.”

Records indicate with the city in shambles, Kirksey remained committed to rebuilding Katy Park, pouring more than $400,000 into making a more modern stadium.

The following season cast a magic spell on a city in need of a miracle.

Sloan explains the almost cosmic series of events.

“They rebuild a modern and much improved facility and really an amazing season happens in 1954.”

“So a great tragedy in 1953 and then in 1954 the team goes 105-42 and I mean they have an incredibly successful season, which is really the height of baseball in Waco.”

Sloan details how the ballpark and baseball became a rallying point for a struggling city.

“You can only imagine as downtown is still in shambles in 1954, all the structures that were destroyed, all the lives that were lost in 1953 in the tornado, how important this place becomes for the community to rally around the success of that team .

“So the victory in 1954 was tremendously satisfying for the city.”

The sport of baseball took a tumble in Waco in the years after the resurrection of the park.

In 1957 attendance declined and the park fell into to disrepair after baseball left the city.

But today, this field of dreams stands strong and the legacy of legends like Ruth and Gehrig live on, just like the spirit of a city that used baseball to cope with tragedy in 1954.