For the first time in three years, people are visiting Rosenblatt again.
The stadium will never hold another College World Series (CWS) game and she’ll never host the Triple-A Omaha Royals again like she did for so many decades, but the newly opened Johnny Rosenblatt’s Infield at the Zoo (hereafter referred to as “Little Rosenblatt” for the sake of brevity) is drawing people back to its hallowed grounds and their presence is breathing life back into her.
Home plate is in the same spot it was in the day the grand old stadium closed in 2010. The infield has been re-sized to that of a Little League field. The original foul poles are still in place, giving vistors an idea about the size of the original stadium. Informational plaques hang behind home plate, down the left field line and in various other places reminding us and future generations about the stadium’s glorious past. And fans can actually sit in those familiar red, yellow and blue seats again.
The memorial contains enough of the original to make you smile.
According to the Omaha World Herald, the cost of the project was about $600,000, raised entirely through donations.
When I visited on Thursday afternoon, waves of 30-50 people visited to pay their respects. Many spoke in hushed, reverential tones. Most told stories. And nearly everybody snapped photos.
The Norman Rockwell moment came when one boy took the mound and another stepped into the batter’s box. The boy on the mound hurled a make believe pitch toward home and the boy in the batter’s box swung and connected.
Nobody makes an out in Little Rosenblatt. Everybody hits the game-winning home run. And everybody, young and old, respects the place.
The memorial brings out the little boy or little girl in everyone who attends. Several adults got down on their bellies and extended their arms toward home plate as if they were sliding into home with the game-winning run. For the record, all of them were safe too.
Greg Marschand, the baseball coach at Lewis Cass High School in Walton, Ind., visited Little Rosenblatt with his players. They were in town trying to qualify for a tournament and to watch the CWS. They weren’t successful in qualifying, but they have taken in a few CWS games and a couple of team practices. Marschand pulled his guys aside at the memorial and gave them an inspirational speech about doing little things well and learning from wins and losses. And he told them about Rosenblatt’s history.
“It’s pretty neat to explain to them that this is where home plate was and that Rosenblatt sign was out on the scoreboard, the foul poles were right where you see them – this is where history was made,” Marschand said.
He says his team was enthusiastic about visiting the memorial and ultimately the CWS because a lot of them have aspirations of playing college baseball.
“This is the pinnacle of college baseball,” Marschand said. “This is where the national championship takes place. It’s neat for them to see the guys and how much work is put in and the work ethic it takes to get here.”
After I visited Little Rosenblatt, I called Steve Rosenblatt – the son of Johnny Rosenblatt, the stadium’s namesake. The Omaha Zoo Foundation bought the property where Little Rosenblatt now sits and Steve worked with the zoo to come up with a memorable tribute to the stadium.
“The final product goes far beyond the early expectations we had,” Rosenblatt said. “From the start to the finish, I was very pleased with the way things went.”
His reasons for wanting to preserve Rosenblatt Stadium run deep.
“The three or four or five professional baseball games that Johnny Rosenblatt played in his life were played six blocks from Rosenblatt in League Park [some Omahans might know it as Rourke Park] on 15th and Vinton Street,” Rosenblatt said. “And there’s no recollection of that park ever existing unless you’ve got some of the old photographs."
The old stadium burned down in 1936.
“I just wanted to make sure for Johnny, and just as importantly, for all the people who were fans of professional baseball and the College World Series, that if Rosenblatt Stadium was going to be gone, then we wanted to do the best we could to allow people to come back and have a place to stand and share their memories.”
I told Rosenblatt about the boys I saw playing on the infield and he put the story into perspective.
“If you think back to the professional players who played there during the earliest days, starting in 1949, and to the college players who started playing there the following year, those players today probably have grandchildren, if not great grandchildren, who might come back some day and have the chance to go on the same field where there was so much history.”
Then Rosenblatt shared a story of his own – one from the day he visited the memorial.
“One of the coolest things I’ve seen, and it brought tears to my eyes, was one man pushing another around the bases in a wheelchair,” Rosenblatt said.
As he spoke about the place, he reminisced about his playing days as a pitcher in Junior American Legion ball. He took the mound in 1953 at Omaha Municipal Stadium (before it was renamed Rosenblatt) and picked up his last win there. Now, 60 years later, he wants to return to that mound to throw one more pitch. Unfortunately he has a bad shoulder and had surgery on his wrist recently, so his doctor won’t allow it.
“I have to get back out there, but I don’t think I’ll try my curve ball,” Rosenblatt joked. “My wrist might fall off.”
In the past, Steve told me his father would have been thrilled to know that the stadium that took on his surname lasted as long as it did. So I asked Steve what his dad might think about the memorial.
“I think he would say he was privileged to have the ballpark named in his honor,” Rosenblatt said. “From a business perspective, he probably would understand why the new ballpark exists. And I think he would be re-honored by what has been left as a memorial to him and to the people of the city of Omaha.”
Johnny Rosenblatt's Infield at the Zoo is open to the public. No admission is charged. You can see more photos of the Rosenblatt memorial on Facebook.