Now it’s a parking lot, guaranteed to take patrons to the Argosy Casino — or wherever they want to go in downtown Alton.
But years ago — and prior to Gordon F. Moore Park — it was a place to play slow-pitch softball and baseball in Alton. The Henry Street diamonds, nestled near the junction of Henry and Front streets and below the old Clark Bridge, featured four fields and fostered plenty of magic moments.
“For this area, the Henry Street diamonds were the softball mecca,” said Ed Hightower, a former pitcher and recent retiree as the Edwardsville superintendent of schools.
From the early 1950s through 1980, it was home for many ballplayers. It became their comfort zone, a familiar playpen and revered playground.
“If there was a slow-pitch game in Alton at that time, it was played at Henry Street,” said ex-pitcher Mike Drake, who later served as the Alton Recreation Department director. “Henry Street was where it was at back then.”
Madison County Auditor Rick Faccin, like Drake, pitched dozens of games on those four fields. He wouldn’t trade those good times for anything.
“It was a great experience and a special place,” Faccin said. “It brings back a lot of memories because that’s when (slow-pitch) softball flourished in the area. Playing at Henry Street is what we did.”
So did the little leaguers. They called the ball fields, not too far from the Mississippi River, their home. They figured it was the Taj Mahal, Drake said.
“The concession stands probably had the worst food in the world, but when you were a young kid, you thought that the hot dogs tasted like steaks,” he said. “For us, it was like playing at Busch Stadium.”
St. Louis Cardinals’ Hall of Famer Stan Musial once came to Henry Street to sign autographs and throw out the ceremonial first pitch for the start of a little league season.
“The fields opened in the 1950s, but before that, it was a landfill,” Joe Puent said. He served as an umpire and worked for the rec department for more than 25 years.
Puent added, “The picket fences were dangerous and the lights from the fields tended to blind drivers coming across the bridge.
“I remember pitching in one game and one of our outfielders was hanging upside down on the fence after he caught a fly ball against it.”
The old Clark Bridge was challenging enough to navigate, but drivers crossing it might see the flight of a softball coming at them from Henry Street Diamond No. 4.
“I remember Bob Bushnell hitting one that hit a car on the bridge,” player Henry Grabbe recalled.
Drake noted, “It was always an adventure at Henry Street, especially if somebody hit one off a car, the bridge or a train. If you hit one on the deck of the road on the Clark Bridge, you were something.”
The fields were linked together, so players and fans could find out what was going on during play on all four fields.
“It was an adventure down there,” said Bill Diddlebock of the Alton Recreation Department. “When we played there in the middle and late 1950s, it was nice.”
Nevertheless, the players had to deal with rough infields, spotty lighting and picket snow fences that circled the outfield.
“You also had some mosquitoes there,” Diddlebock quipped.
Drake said the players deftly dealt with the inconveniences because all they wanted to do was to play ball. They played five nights a week and sometimes on the weekends.
“The lights were terrible and you had glass and rocks on the fields,” Drake said. “Not too many people wanted to slide on the bases.
“But we hated to see the demise of it because there were so many memories there,” he joked. “At one time, I thought I wanted to be buried there.
“It was what we had until Moore Park came along.”
Hightower quipped, “They were the Diamonds of Mystique because they could be quite quirky. But there was big-time softball on those diamonds and I have fond memories of playing there. I think I started when I was 16 years old.”
Tom Weathers, the Alton rec director from 1974 to 2000, said the Henry Street fields also hold a special place in his heart. Weathers took pride in seeing players compete from all around Alton.
“We had a lot of ball games at those fields and it was different down there,” he said. “All of the diamonds met and we were always picking up glass and other things on the diamonds.”
Gordon F. Moore Park, which opened in 1981, emerged as the place to play for softball and baseball. There are ample fields at the 700-plus acre park and for many, it’s the place to play in Alton. Others have heard of the Henry Street diamonds, but never got an opportunity to play there.
It seems so long ago.
“Time moves on,” Faccin said.
No doubt, though, the fields always will have a special spot in Alton summer sports lore. They are gone, but not forgotten.
“The four diamonds were different at Henry Street,” Grabbe remembered. “We mostly played on No. 1 and No. 3. There weren’t any lights on No. 2 and you could hit some cheap home runs on No. 4.”
Drake pointed out, “There was never a dull moment on No. 4. Cars would go by on the bridge and sometimes people would throw things or yell at you.”
Grabbe said, “The lighting wasn’t great, but it was good enough. It was where it was at and what we had.”
Drake put it this way: “The end of the Henry Street diamonds was the end of an era. There are millions of memories for people who played there.”
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