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Floods are big part of ballpark's legacy

Floods are big part of ballpark's legacy

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When the city of Davenport built a new ballpark on the edge of the Mississippi River in 1931, it probably knew it was creating one of the most scenic baseball venues in the entire country.

Almost every list of the best, most picturesque minor league ballparks in the country includes the stadium now known as Modern Woodmen Park.

But you kind of wonder if they considered the other thing that the park has become known for: Floods.

You kind of wonder if they realized the place would fill up like a bathtub every couple of years, forcing the home team to seek refuge in temporary quarters.

You kind of wonder if they realized the local team would need to play home games at Browning Field in Moline, Douglas Park in Rock Island, Northwest Park in Davenport, Banks Field in Iowa City, Black Hawk College, Davenport Central High School, North Scott High School and assorted other places in various seasons while waiting for the tub to drain.

That problem was remedied somewhat in recent years. Modern Woodmen Park, originally called Municipal Stadium and for many years known as John O’Donnell Stadium, was reconstructed in 2004 so that it is protected from interior flood damage. Even when the area around the park is under water, as it is right now, the stadium itself remains mostly dry.

The River Bandits were able to play games during subsequent floods with the use of makeshift bridges and walkways to allow spectators to access what occasionally becomes an island in the biggest stream in the country.

But even that solution has been eliminated during the current, record-breaking flood, which has consumed everything within about a two-block radius of the stadium.

Games against the Lansing Lugnuts on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday this week will be played in Iowa City and the schedule beyond that is in question.

It’s just the latest distressing chapter in a nearly century-long legacy of flooding for the iconic ballpark:


Davenport didn’t even have a minor-league team from 1938-45, but floods were still an occasional problem during that stretch.

In late June 1944, floodwaters from the Mississippi surrounded the stadium on a couple of sides and seeped into the park, creating a small lake in the right-field corner.

It didn’t keep the Michigan-based House of David team from playing the Chicago Brown Bombers in an exhibition game there one night. They just played around the lake.


For the first time — but certainly not the last time — the stadium’s minor league tenant had to find another place to play its games.

With river water covering right field and center field, the Davenport Tigers of the Class A Three-I League had to play the first six games of that season at Browning Field. The water finally subsided enough for them to play at Municipal Stadium on May 8.

"The right field may be soggy, but we’re going to play just the same," general manager Perk Purnhage told the Davenport Times.


It was a rerun of the previous year. This time the first three games of the season, against Burlington, were simply canceled because Burlington’s stadium also was in bad shape. The next three games also were supposed to be at home, but the Tigers played Keokuk downriver in the Indians’ home park.


Those early 1950s floods were minor episodes compared to what happened in 1965.

The Mississippi crested at a then-record 22.48 feet in late April, right around the time the Quad-City Angels were slated to open the Midwest League season.

The team began bracing for what was to come two weeks before that. Sandbags were stacked around the infield to protect it from the meandering waters, the electricity was turned off in the stadium and employees relocated to offices at 1431½ Ripley St.

Within a week, the river came pouring in over the 10-foot-high outfield fences and flattened most of them. It filled up the dugouts and lapped up into the grandstand. It was estimated that at its peak there was six feet of water on the infield and four feet in the dugouts and offices.

Davenport Democrat sports editor John O’Donnell described what he saw as he drove over the Centennial Bridge into Illinois one day: "The top of the outfield fence could be seen in some spots. In some places, there was no fence. There was no outfield, and there was no infield. It would have been easy to fish out of the box seats or out of the first few rows in the bleachers."

Because other teams in the league had similar problems, league president Jim Gruenwald proposed that the first six games of the season be moved to the back end of the schedule to give everyone an extra week to get their stadiums ready.

It figured to take much longer than that to get Municipal Stadium in shape, however. Some predicted that it would be July before the Angels played in their home park.

They opened their season May 1 at Douglas Park but only needed to play five games in Rock Island.

The water receded fairly quickly, the stadium was completely flushed out to get rid of silt, the fences were rebuilt and it was ready to go by May 16. General manager Ken Blackman and many others, including manager Harry Dunlop, minor league pitching instructor Tom Morgan and team president Gabby Crow, all provided "muscle power and elbow grease" to get everything done.


This time the Angels made use of lessons they learned in 1965. They dismantled many of the outfield fences and took the doors off the dugouts and just allowed the water to flow in. In '65, they had sandbagged in the dugouts but the doors still got wet and swelled to the point where they could not be opened.

They also had planned to lay new sod on the infield but waited until after the flood had passed.

This time the club relocated its offices to Holy Family School and played its first four home games on the Colt League diamond at Davenport’s Northwest Park before getting back into Municipal Stadium on May 9.

They again were not the only team in the Midwest League to be hard hit by flooding. In both 1965 and 1969, the Clinton Pilots were plagued by flooding and both times ended up playing many of their home games in Lowden, Iowa.


With floodwater covering the outfield, the Angels played their first three scheduled home games in Cedar Rapids and the next three in Burlington.

They eventually were able to play a few games at home with a snow fence erected in right field about 30 feet in front of the wall to cordon off standing water in that area. Balls hit into the fenced-off area were ground-rule doubles.

However, more rain prompted the team to play a few games at Northwest Park. The Angels final returned to John O’Donnell on May 18, but it was a few more weeks before the snow fence was removed.


The Angels again sought refuge at Northwest Park when the river again ventured above 19 feet, although this time they only needed to play three games on the Colt League field before the water receded.


Another major flood hit the area, but it happened earlier in the spring and did not affect the Quad-City Cubs. They were able to open the home season, as scheduled, on April 15.


The river went above 19 feet again, and this time it crept up quickly. The Angels opened the season with an April 11 night game at Burlington and returned home at 1 a.m. to find that water had seeped into the stadium while they were gone.

A walkway made of loading dock skids was quickly constructed to get to the entrance of the stadium, but it was April 24 before the Angels could play a game there and another week after that before they could play a night game. The floodwater had damaged new light towers that were waiting to be installed.

The team ended up canceling seven games because of the flood, and it also had eight rainouts during the season. That resulted in more than $50,000 in lost revenue, putting the Quad-Cities Fans Association, which owned the team, in desperate financial straits.

Shortly after the season ended, the fans association sold the team to Chicagoan Harry Semrow, who sold it about a year later to another Chicago entrepreneur, Richard Holtzman.

The flooding of 1986 didn’t end with the baseball season. A rare fall flood inflicted more damage on the stadium, prompting Assumption High School to relocate some football games that were scheduled to be played there.

Ever since the disastrous flood of 1965, protecting the stadium and the entire Davenport riverfront from flooding had been a major topic of conversation but very little had been done.

During the 1980s, the city spent money on new bleachers, a new roof and new lights, and in 1989, it finally did something to hopefully reduce the threat of flooding. The playing surface was raised four feet.


A double dose of flooding four years later created bigger problems than ever before.

Water began creeping under the fence and into the outfield in late April, prompting the cancellation of two games.

When the flood crept back in late June and crested at a record 22.63 feet on July 9, it pretty much wiped out the rest of the season for the newly renamed Quad-City River Bandits. They played just one game at John O’Donnell Stadium in the second half of the campaign.

The clubhouse and concession stands were under four feet of water. As in, 1965, attempts to save the infield with sandbagging were futile.

The flood attracted national attention, and the image of a water-filled stadium became a frequent sight on national news programs. River Bandits general manager Jim Wehmeier did an interview with CBS news host Harry Smith while sitting in a rowboat.

The Bandits were constantly on the move for the rest of the summer. They played a few games at North Scott High School, which did not have indoor plumbing or concession stands. Some opposing teams refused to play there.

The Bandits ended up playing "home" games at Burlington, Rockford, Clinton, South Bend and Fort Wayne, then played their home games the last three weeks of the season at Davenport Central’s Brady Street Field.


In 1997, an earthen dike had been built to protect the stadium, but sandbags had to be added to reinforce it in 1998 and it was no match for the flood that struck three years after that.

As in 1993, the 2001 flood — which crested at 22.33 feet on April 25 — didn’t just cost the team a few home games.

The Bandits were forced out of the stadium on April 15 and didn’t play another game there until July 2. In the meantime, they played some games at Black Hawk College in Moline while playing other "home" games in places such as Clinton and Dayton.

Even after the water receded, there were more problems. A giant sinkhole filled with water and debris opened in left field.


A $13.8 million renovation transformed John O’Donnell Stadium into almost an entirely new ballpark.

Luxury suites, a team store, new restrooms, new concession stands and greatly enhanced locker rooms were added but, more importantly, several flood prevention features were part of the project. A berm built on a clay base was placed in left field and was connected to an 800-foot removable flood wall consisting of aluminum panels. It has made the interior of the stadium virtually flood-proof.

A June flood crested at 17.5 feet that summer but had little impact on the inside of the stadium. A wall of sandbags was erected two feet high around the stadium for added protection, although it didn’t keep the west parking lot from being almost completely covered by water.


Another flood surrounded the park, but everything stayed dry inside.

A 100-foot bridge was erected to allow fans to get from the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks to the entrance of the stadium. Midwest League officials initially vetoed the idea of using the bridge because of liability issues, forcing the Bandits to play home games in Cedar Rapids, Clinton and Iowa City.

They finally returned to playing home games on May 8.

The temporary bridge has come in handy frequently during moderate flooding in the years since. It was used extensively in 2011 when the river level crested at 20.71 feet on April 22.

During a mid-summer flood in 2014, a crowd of 6,371 used the pedestrian walkway to attend a July 4 game at the stadium.


The River Bandits already have had to play nine games as the home team in opposing ballparks, but it hasn’t necessarily been because of flooding inside the stadium.

The Canadian Pacific unexpectedly raised the railroad tracks that run along the north side of the ballpark to protect against flooding, and the bridge the Bandits used to access the ballpark in the past was rendered useless.

The team finally devised a new asphalt-covered pedestrian walkway to get fans and supplies across the tracks and was able to play three games at Modern Woodmen Park, one on April 26 and a doubleheader on April 28.

Increased flooding, including the breach of a levee at Pershing Street last Tuesday, increased the water levels around the park and made it completely inaccessible for now.


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