Arkansas Historic Preservation Program
Lamar Porter Athletic Field
Lamar Porter Athletic Field

LAMAR PORTER ATHLETIC FIELD, LITTLE ROCK, PULASKI COUNTY

SUMMARY

The Lamar Porter Athletic Field is a regulation baseball field featuring a steel-beam supported, poured concrete grandstand that survives in its original location as the earliest site associated with the Boys' Club in Little Rock.

ELABORATION

The Boys' Club movement started in 1860 with the founding of the Dashaway Boys' Club, which provided supervised after-school activities and leadership training for disadvantaged boys in Hartford, Conn.  That club, and all those that followed, were “dedicated to helping boys become productive, responsible citizens” by teaching good citizenship, participating in community and youth betterment campaigns, and through activities stressing physical fitness and mental and manual skills.  The clubs, which remain nonsectarian in control, leadership and membership, are typically located in or near densely populated areas.  Membership fees are kept low so no boy will be turned away from lack of money.

In 1906, 53 separate clubs across the U.S. joined together as the Boys Club Federation of America.  The name of the group was changed to the Boys' Club of America in 1931, and that organization was formally chartered by Congress in 1956.  While they share a national identity, each individual Boys Club is guided by its own board of directors.  The national headquarters is in New York City; there are eight regional offices that guide and assist local operations.

Little Rock's Boys' Club has its roots in a “Newsboys' Club” founded around 1912 when a group of young men led by T.J. Craighead borrowed local YMCA facilities on Wednesday nights to help local “heroes of the streets” seek better lives.  Up to 150 “urchins” showed up to use the Y facilities most Wednesdays.  (Craighead, the first executive director of the Little Rock Boys' Club, remained active in the organization throughout his life, finally retiring as a regional director in 1959.)

The “Newsboys' Club” then became the “Citizenship Club,” a group dedicated to “bettering street boys of the city,” and from this organization the Little Rock Boys’ Club was born.

The Little Rock Boys' Club officially began July 14, 1914, when an organizational meeting was held.  That meeting was supervised by John Melpolder, who had managed the Indianapolis Boys' Club for seven years.

There was a tree need for a Boys' Club in Little Rock which faced a growing juvenile delinquency problem in the absence of mandatory schooling and adequate recreational facilities.  (It was not until 1917 that the State of Arkansas passed a mandatory school law.  That law required parents or guardians of children aged 7 to 15 to send their children to a public, private or parochial school for at least 3/4 of the length of the common school term in the district in which they resided or face a $10 fine for each violation.  “Weak-minded” children and those whose labor was necessary for the support of a widowed mother were exempt from the provisions of the law.)  Local youths “had formed gangs and were committing depredations here and there,” including gambling, drinking and petty thievery.

After the club was organized, volunteer workers sought to befriend the gangs of rambunctious youths.  The youngsters were initially suspicious, but gradually came to accept membership in the club and to invite their friends to take part in activities.

After getting the young gang members to come to the club, the volunteer workers would break the youths up into teams, which would then elect captains and engage in “games of strength and skill with other groups.”

“In other words, they utilized the very gangs into which the boys had formed themselves and through the use of the leader properly directed the activities of the gang members, thus welding with force the same weapon which the boys had used to harass society,” an Arkansas Democrat article explained.

The club was an immediate success, from society's point of view.  The local probation officer reported a 50 percent drop in juvenile delinquency after the first month the program was in operation.

The Boys' Club had a financially shaky first year, but the local Elks Lodge stepped in the second and proposed to finance the club for a year.  After that, it apparently was self-sustaining through dues, fund-raisers, and donations.

By 1916, the Boys’ Club offered an employment bureau that helped members find jobs and printing equipment that enabled the youths to issue publications.

The Little Rock Boys’ Club grew rapidly.  It left its original home at the old Presbyterian Church at Fifth and Scott in 1916 and moved to the Fulk Building at 317 West Markham, where there would be more space for its 150 members.  By 1921, it was hoping to acquire even larger quarters that would allow lodging of some boys.  The club had grown “from a small organization with no equipment and a few boys to an organization with equipment for carpentry and, printing classes, a splendid library, well-equipped meeting and game rooms and a complete gymnasium.”  It had 650 members.

In 1924, the Boys’ Club acquired the Concordia Club at 8th and Scott, buying the 30,000-square-foot structure for $42,500 in donated funds.  Boys' Club officials, who had turned some potential members away for lack of space at the previous facilities, predicted the new site would allow membership of up to 1,500 children.

The Concordia Club building was razed by fire in 1929, but undaunted Club leaders vowed to build a new one on the same site.  The structure was finished by 1931, using $150,000 in funds donated in what Executive Director J.W. “Billy” Mitchell described as “one of the first, black Depression years.”  The original Little Rock Boys' Club, later renamed in Mitchell's honor, remained in that building until moving to facilities adjacent to the Lamar Porter Athletic Field in 1978.  (The building was designed in a Colonial Revival style by the Thompson, Sanders and Ginocchio partnership in 1930.  It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places 12/22/82 as part of the Charles Thompson thematic listing.)

While the Little Rock Boys' Club was the first in Pulaski County, others followed.  A North Little Rock Boys' Club was affiliated in 1923; nine years later it had acquired spacious accommodations at 419 1/2 Main Street and boasted 700 members.  By 1967, there were three clubs in Little Rock:  the original, at 801 Scott; the South End Boys' Club at 721 W. 33rd; and the Dunbar Boys’ Club at 1624 Ringo.  There were two clubs in North Little Rock:  The North Little Rock Boys’ Club at 13th and Main and the East End Boys' Club at 5th and Palm.

By 1979, the three Little Rock Boys' Clubs had moved to their present locations:  Billy Mitchell Boys' Club, built in 1978 at 3107 W. Capitol; James H Penick Boys' Club, also built in 1978, at 1201 Leisure Lane, just west of University Avenue on 12th Street; and William E. Thrasher Boys' Club, which opened in 1972, at 3301 S. State.  The Mitchell Club had 280 members, Penick had 1,084 and Thrasher had about l,000 members.  “The moves reflect the clubs' decisions to follow growth patterns and move in residential areas where the boys are,” a 1979 newspaper article explained.

One of the bellwether events of the early years of the Little Rock Boys' Club was construction of the Lamar Porter Athletic Field.

Lamar Porter was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Q.L. Porter of Little Rock, born Aug. 17, 1913.  He was educated in Little Rock's public schools, attended Little Rock High School, and graduated from Sewanee Military Academy in Tennessee in 1932.  Porter was a junior at Washington and Lee University in Virginia when he was killed May 12, 1934, in an automobile accident between Lexington and Staunton, Va.

The land for the ball field, which is located in what was then western Little Rock, was donated to the Little Rock Boys Club on the first anniversary of his death, which coincidentally fell on Mother’s Day.  The donors were Porter's mother, his aunt, Mrs. J.D. Jordan, and his brother, Jim S. Porter.

The 10-acre plot is by Capital Ave. on the north, Brown Street on the west, Johnson Street on the east and Seventh Street to the south.  It is located in an area that was targeted for park purposes in a 1930 planning survey by John Nolen, a nationally renowned city planner and landscape architect who was dismayed by the lack of recreational facilities in Little Rock.  It lies about one mile from the 1936 population center, which Nolen said was located at Twelfth and Battery Streets.  When the donation was made, the Little Rock Boys' Club served 2,554 boys and 739 girls, who were to be granted use of the facilities at certain times.

Construction on the field by the federal Works Progress Administration began in Fall 1934, and it took 18 months for the complex to reach completion.  It took 400 workmen “several weeks” to clear trees, stump and underbrush from the wooded site; a permanent crew of 100 workmen labored on the project the remainder of the time.  The project was deemed finished April 22, 1937, though work still remained on leveling tennis courts and cleaning the grounds.

The total cost of the project was; $122,244.53.  The federal government provided $108,710.82 for the project.

When the complex was complete, it held a lighted softball diamond with underground wiring, four lighted tennis courts, a regulation baseball diamond, a 1,500-seat grandstand complete with club rooms, shower and locker rooms, rest rooms and a concession stand.  It was first used by Boys’ Club teams in the summer of 1936; by 1937, it was also being used by City Leagues and American Legion teams.

The property also held an apparatus area with swings, slides and jungle gyms; a small children's play area that included hammocks, small slides and kindergarten tables; a play area for older children with facilities for handcrafts and quiet games; and other areas with courts for shuffleboard, marbles, horse shoes, handball, volleyball, and table tennis, as well as picnic areas and a “stage for dramatics.”

The field was lighted for softball, but the first night baseball was held at Lamar Porter Field in August 1941.  (Young's Tire of North Little Rock beat Craig’s of Little Rock, 3-2.)  This game was considered an experiment since the field was lighted for softball only.  In 1949, the field was lighted for baseball.  The World Series of Softball was held there that year.

Throughout its history, the Little Rock Boys' Club produced some outstanding ballplayers, including New York Yankees catcher and manager Bill Dickey and Pat Seerey, an outfielder with the Chicago White Sox.  Only one, however, played at Lamar Porter Athletic Field - the outstanding Baltimore Orioles third baseman and Hall of Fame member Brooks Robinson.

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Boys Clubs of America, an Arkansas Democrat editorialist mused:  “Nobody knows how many youngsters these clubs have saved from misspent, unhappy lives.  The number must be very great.”  The Little Rock Boys' Club, which took juvenile delinquents from the street and instilled in them the virtues of hard work, fair play and good citizenship, did its share in proving that statement.

The Lamar Porter Athletic Field, as the only site remaining from the early days of the Little Rock Boys’ Club, is most closely associated with the roots and history of that group.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Herndon, Dr. Dallas T., Annals of Arkansas 1947.  The Historical Record Association, Hopkinsville, KY, Little Rock, AR.  P. 406.

Encyclopedia Americana.  Vol. 4.  1986.  Grolier, Inc., Danbury, CT.

Who Was Who in America, Vol. 1, 1897-1942.  The A. N. Marquis Co., 1942, Chicago.

Little Rock Associated Amateurs, Baseball Encyclopedia of the Little Rock City League 1928-1957, pamphlet by Roderick N. Dew.

“Will Organize Boys' Club Tonight.” July 14, 1914, Arkansas Democrat.

“Boys Club Issues New Publication.” Aug. 13, 1916, Arkansas Gazette.

“Little Rock Boys' Club One of the Most Progressive in South, to Have New Home.”  Nov. 6, 1921, Arkansas Democrat.

“New Local Boys' Club.”  July 27, 1924, Arkansas Democrat.

“North Side Boys' Club Boon to Parents as Well as Youngsters.”  Aug. 21, 1932, Arkansas Gazette.

“Lamar Porter Athletic Field, Gift to Club in Tribute to His Memory.”  May 12, 1935, Arkansas Gazette.

“Big Playground for Boys' Club as Memorial to Local Youth.”  May 12, 1935, Arkansas Democrat.

“Lamar Porter Field Completed.”  April 23, 1937, Arkansas Gazette.

“Memorial Athletic Field of Little Rock Boys' Club is Now Ready for Use.”  May 15, 1937, Boys Club Bulletin.

“Greater Little Rock Boys' Clubs Exemplify American Idea of Molding Nation's Youth.”  March 27, 1949, Arkansas Gazette.

“Arkansas Boys' Clubs Celebrate 50th Year.”  Jan. 25, 1956, Arkansas Democrat.

“50th Year of Boys' Club.”  Jan. 30, 1956, Arkansas Democrat.

“Five Pulaski Boys' Clubs Provide Plan Designed for Juvenile Decency.”  April 9, 1967, Arkansas Democrat.

“One of Founders of LR Boys’ Club, Its 1st Director, Drops By for Visit.”  September 19, 1967, Arkansas Gazette.

"Boys' Clubs at LR More Than Just Recreation.”  Jan. 14, 1979, Arkansas Gazette.