The plot of land upon which Joker Marchant Stadium stands and Tigertown was built had an established history as a training ground before it became a training complex for baseball.
It all started on September 14, 1940, when the Lodwick School of Aeronautics began primary flight instruction by contract with the United States Army Air Corps. The school's proprietor, Harvard educated Albert Lodwick, leased the Lakeland Municipal Airport for his school's mission, which was to provide basic flight training to cadets for service in World War II. Lodwick's school did that for nearly five years and by the time it closed on August 7, 1945, over 6,000 American and 1,200 British pilots had graduated from the Lakeland academy.
Ironically, construction on the airport leased by Lodwick began in 1934, the same year the Tigers first set up camp in Lakeland, and in 1953, five years after the airport was renamed Al Lodwick Field, the land’s primary usage began to switch from aviation to athletics, with Detroit’s minor leaguers moving into the school’s abandoned barracks and setting up their operations at “Tigertown.”
During its inaugural spring training, the Tigertown complex had "four first-class working diamonds, a batting cage with automatic throwing device, and all the facilities needed by the teams in training." So reported the Ottawa Citizen in its April 11, 1953 issue during a story about the city's minor league team, the Ottawa Athletics, who were "housed in barrack blocks" during their five day stay at "the former U.S. Army training base" that would be phased out as Lakeland's main airport over a three-year period. Lodwick Field was closed to air traffic on March 12, 1960.
While construction of Tigertown began in October of 1952, it would be another 155 months before construction would commence on a main stadium for the complex. Construction on that stadium, known as Joker Marchant Stadium from the outset, began in September 1965 and six months later the Tigers’ organization was at last unified within Tigertown, as the major leaguers no longer needed to train at nearby Henley Field, their original and 29-season home in Lakeland.
On March 12, 1966, Joker Marchant Stadium hosted its first game, a 4-2 victory for the Tigers over the Twins that was attended by 4,919 fans and the stadium’s namesake, Marcus Thigpen Marchant, who went by the name “Joker” and often wore a white cowboy hat. That explains why a weathered plaque in the stadium’s concourse that dates to 1966 is etched with a cowboy hat-wearing likeness of the city's longtime parks & rec director, who played a major role at keeping the Tigers in Tigertown while working for the city, which he did until retiring in 1978. Marchant died at his Lakeland home during spring training in 1983.
Joseph Skillman died the year before Joker Marchant did and while Skillman's name is not often associated with the stadium, he is the Lakeland civil engineer who designed it, along with the dormitories at Tigertown that were dedicated in 1971 in honor of John Fetzer, who owned the Tigers then and when Joker Marchant Stadium opened. Skillman did his design work while under the employ of Lakeland Engineering Associates, a firm today known as Chastain-Skillman, Inc.
The year after the Skillman-designed dorms opened, the City of Lakeland installed a $160,000 set of lights that enabled the stadium to host its first night game on March 31, 1972, when the Tigers beat the Red Sox, 6-2.
Shortly after the inaugural night game at Joker Marchant ended the first strike in baseball history began, as players officially walked out at midnight over concerns about their pension plan. The unprecedented action of labor strife dominated the next day’s newspapers, so the 8:00 game attended by 3,552 fans was a footnote, even in the local paper, the Lakeland Ledger, which labeled the proceedings "second-class in the midst of more significant happenings."
As to be expected of any ballpark its age, Joker Marchant Stadium has been renovated and expanded over the years, and to the point it now has space for more than twice as many fans within its confines as it did when it opened as a 4,900-seater.
Two renovations stand out.
In 1988, a whopper of a bleacher section was added down the left field line and the stadium’s first significant addition expanded its seating capacity to 7,027.
Fifteen years later, a stadium version of Extreme Makeover occurred when a modern Joker Marchant Stadium was unveiled following 10 months and $10 million worth of work on it after a nationally renowned architectural firm (HKS) designed and a locally based contractor (Rodda Construction) built what four entities paid for. The State of Florida's $4.5 million grant was the biggest financing chunk, while the Polk County Tourist Development Council chipped in $2 million. The remainder of the renovation’s cost was paid for by the Tigers and the City of Lakeland.
As part of the millions spent, the city owned and operated stadium got an exterior facelift, redone in a Mediterranean-style, but the do-over did remove four pieces of Tigers’ nostalgia from the main façade, where large banners containing artistic renditions of Tiger greats Norm Cash, Al Kaline, Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker had been hung.
Behind the new face of the stadium, just about everything inside was touched up or improved upon, with fans, players and press all benefiting.
For those who pay to watch the game, enough new seating and standing room areas were added that Joker Marchant Stadium crowds can now swell to five figures, a milestone that was reached for the first time on March 27, 2010, when 10,219 paid to watch a Yankees-Tigers game. Such a lofty attendance was made possible by the addition of a berm in left field, hundreds of new box seats behind home plate and along the first base line, and six suites. Also, all seating in the grandstand was replaced, which meant the bright orange box seats below the cross aisle were removed, as were the less appealing aluminum bleachers with blue seat backs above the interior aisle. As a result, since 2003 all of the stadium’s grandstands have been filled with modern molded plastic stadium seats, each one painted dark green.
Much of the new box seating was made possible by the removal of the Tigers’ bullpen from the edge of the first base grandstand to beyond the right-center field wall, where it was added alongside the visitor's pen, which was relocated from its prior placement down the left field line. More importantly to the visiting team, their clubhouse was significantly expanded from its paltry 16” x 32” size. Meanwhile, Tigers’ hitters had more opportunities to prepare for facing opposition pitching thanks to the addition of four indoor batting cages in a building beyond right field.
The first time the Tigers’ faced opposition in their new stadium was on February 26, 2003, when they showed the local kids from Florida Southern College who was boss in a 19-2 Detroit win that 2,255 paid to see. Those that reported the outcome of that game did so from a new press box, and one that was air-conditioned for the first time in stadium history.
The one thing missing from Version 2.0 of Joker Marchant Stadium was a modern scoreboard, but when the basic line score model that dated to the mid-1990s was destroyed by the 100 mph winds of Hurricane Jeanne on September 26, 2004, the city decided on a $300,000 live video capable Daktronics replacement, which they chose to place in the same right-center field spot as the previous scoreboard, which had cost $95,000. Because it had been damaged by a natural disaster, FEMA gave Lakeland $78,000 in financial aid to help pay for the replacement. And because that replacement wasn't scheduled to arrive from South Dakota until about 72 hours before the Tigers' first home Grapefruit League game in 2005, the city opted to place a small auxiliary scoreboard in left-center field just in case there was a delay.
Besides trashing the scoreboard, Hurricane Jeanne also caused about $1 million in damage to Joker Marchant's roof, seats and lights, which were collectively replaced or repaired by the same Lakeland-based construction company that had overseen the $10 million overhaul completed in 2003.
Despite the trend, the combined cost of upgrades and repairs were not offset by the sale of the stadium’s naming rights. Not that the team and city didn’t try, at least in a roundabout way, as in the summer of 2002 they announced that the naming rights to the playing field would be sold to the highest corporate bidder.
While the Tigers and Lakeland agreed on how the rights fee would be split -- 60% to the team and 40% to the city -- neither party was able to reach an agreement with a willing sponsor. So the completely renovated stadium has never been partly rebranded and all these years after it opened Joker Marchant Stadium is the only name by which it has ever been known, just as the Detroit Tigers are the only team to ever call the stadium its winter home.
information provided by www.baseballpilgrimages.com
written by Graham Knight