Today, no one questions the success of a professional-quality stadium in Delaware; but the road to the Stadium's location on South Madison Street in Wilmington was a long one...
A Stadium like the one we have today was always in the dreams of Steve Taylor. Taylor was an outstanding pitcher at Newark High School, West Chester University and the University of Delaware in the 70's. He was a first-round draft pick of the New York Yankees and had a successful minor league career, including a league championship with the Columbus Clippers, before an arm injury ended his professional career.
Taylor returned to Delaware after his playing days and became an executive with an insurance agency. He was elected to the State House of Representatives in 1984 . Baseball, however, was never far from his mind. He had fond memories of the cities in which he had played professionally and wondered why Delaware couldn't have the same kind of stadiums in which he had played.
In the mid-80s, Taylor attempted to team up with the University of Delaware to develop a facility in which a minor league franchise could be located. He also wanted the facility to become a community resource, available to amateur baseball teams at all levels. Unfortunately, no agreement could be reached.
In 1988, Taylor looked elsewhere for a home for his dream stadium. The Del Tech campus in Stanton became his focus. Again, no agreement could be reached. The idea of building a stadium, however, began to pick up some steam. Soon professional baseball began to look at Delaware as a prospective site for a new minor league team.
Taylor's efforts in Delaware were getting noticed. In December, 1990, the Carolina League formally claimed the territory under the terms of minor league baseball.
Not everyone saw the merit of minor league baseball in Delaware. A column in the Wilmington News Journal, by Matt Zabitka, a member of the Delaware Sports Hall of Fame, was entitled "Minor-league ball in Delaware is an idea that won't fly." Zabitka argued that a new stadium would be nice - but a minor league team probably couldn't survive in this market.
Undaunted, Taylor championed the stadium idea in the Delaware legislature. Funds were appropriated to study the feasibility of a new stadium. The study concluded that the stadium could be built and sustained only if a minor league team would commit to play in the stadium. Suddenly, the idea didn't seem so strange.
The years 1990, 1991 and 1992 were a blur for Taylor and the supporters of the stadium. Each year, the legislature appropriated money to the project. Professional baseball indicated its interest. Three different groups vied for the right to develop the stadium and place a minor league team in it.
In June of 1990, the project seemed set to start at the Del Tech Stanton site. The Delaware legislature appropriated additional funding. One of the three groups was selected and negotiations commenced.
Unfortunately, like the University of Delaware several years before, the State and Del Tech could not reach agreement. In early 1991, Del Tech officially withdrew its site from consideration. In stepped the City of Wilmington, led by Mayor Dan Frawley.
A site within the City was identified - the former Dravo shipyard on Wilmington's south side. Adjacent to I-95, the site afforded visibility and accessibility. In an industrial area, though, the site presented many site development challenges. Agreement was close, but more funding would be necessary to construct the stadium on an inner city parcel. A total of $6.1 million dollars of public funds ($3.9 million from the State of Delaware and $2.2 million from the City of Wilmington) were allocated for the acquisition of land the construction of a stadium.
Meanwhile, a potential team was identified - the Peninsula Pilots of the Carolina League. An ownership group was formed, including local contractor Matt Minker as the lead area investor. If additional funding could be found, the project could begin. In June of 1992, the city made the necessary funding commitment. Together with the State funds already committed, land could be bought and a stadium could be built.
The Delaware Stadium Corporation was formed to develop and operate the Stadium. After lengthy negotiations, a lease was signed with a group led by Peter Kirk of Maryland Baseball, the then-owners of the Frederick and Hagerstown, Maryland, minor league affiliates of the Baltimore Orioles. Kirk's group agreed to operate the stadium for multipurpose events and to acquire a minor league team to play in the stadium. The Peninsula franchise of the Carolina League was acquired - the deal was done, professional baseball was coming back to Delaware for the first time since the 1950's.
It was the fall of 1992. The land was acquired. The team was identified. The ownership was in place. All that was needed was...a stadium. Minker Construction was selected to build the stadium and work commenced. A deadline of April 16, 1993 was selected - opening day for the new stadium.
While the contractors worked through the winter, the Delaware Stadium Corporation worked to select a name for the new stadium. Delaware had many residents who had been involved in professional baseball, but only one member (at the time) of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown - Judy Johnson, a star third baseman in the Negro Leagues. In order to honor Johnson, as well as the other prominent Delawareans who excelled in professional baseball, the stadium was named Judy Johnson Field at Legends Stadium. For information on the career of Judy Johnson, click here.
Cajoling and persuading local contractors to save time any way they could, Minker worked diligently to meet the deadline. To see a series of photos taken during the construction process, click here.
Even a late snowstorm the week before the opening of the stadium could not stop the project. Not everything was perfect, but muddy parking lots and a few punch list items were barely noticed by the sellout crowd that appeared on April 16, 1993 for the return of professional baseball to Delaware. Matt Minker loved baseball and his emotional connection practically willed the stadium to completion on time.
The Wilmington Blue Rocks were set to play on Judy Johnson Field at Legends Stadium. The first season was a smashing success, as the Blue Rocks won the Carolina League title, led by future major leaguers Michael Tucker and John Lieber.
Unfortunately, one of the prime movers behind the stadium, Mayor Dan Frawley, died suddenly in February of 1994. The stadium was renamed to honor him - Judy Johnson Field at Daniel S. Frawley Stadium.