By Aaron Schnautz
HICKORY – Joe Jackson has been one of more than 800 players to don a Crawdads jersey during the past quarter-century. But his tie to L.P. Frans Stadium runs deeper than most players.
When the Hickory Baseball Stadium Committee modified a line from the 1989 movie “Field of Dreams” as its slogan – “If we build it… they will come” – they likely had no idea the great-great-grandnephew of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson would suit up for Hickory some 20 years later.
The committee formed in July 1991 with four ambitious goals: raise enough money to build a multipurpose stadium, attract a professional baseball team to Hickory, have local ownership of the team and have it affiliate with a Major League Baseball club. It took less than two years to cut the ribbons on L.P. Frans Stadium and welcome the White Sox-affiliated Crawdads to town.
The stadium earned its name from Lee P. Frans, who founded the Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company of Hickory in 1936. Having brought so much business to the city over the years, the Frans family decided to give back. Lee Teeter, Frans’ grandson and president of the company, announced the founding donation at an August 1991 press conference. It was that donation that got the Hickory Baseball ’93 project fully underway.
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“Our family has been in the Pepsi-Cola business since the 1930s,” Teeter said at the press conference. “People in the area have supported us. We think it’s time for us to give back to the community.”
But the donation wouldn’t have been possible without Elmer Winkler, who grew up in a log cabin across the street from what would become the stadium. In 1989, he donated 37 acres of his land to the city, which in turn named Winkler Park in his honor.
None of this would have happened, however, without George Murphy. When he was elected city mayor in 1978, one of his goals was to bring a professional baseball team to Hickory. He wasn’t able to accomplish it during his time in office, but everyone involved in the stadium project credited him with maintaining the city’s desire for a team until the timing was right.
Unlike most modern stadiums today, L.P. Frans was built with little cost to the taxpayers. More than $2.3 million was raised through private donations, while a $1.3-million loan from the city didn’t take long for the team to pay back. In total, just $200,000 of the $3.8 million to build the stadium came from the city.
Just as the movie and the committee predicted, the fans came when the stadium was built. The Crawdads drew 283,727 fans in its first season, leading the South Atlantic League in attendance. In fact, each of the first three seasons drew more fans than any other team in the history of the league.
There is a timeless feeling to the stadium that keeps bringing the fans back for more. Maybe it’s the red-brick façade, which looks like it hasn’t faded a day since 1993. Or possibly it’s the playground area, which was included in the original design.
Though Crawdads general manager Mark Seaman has a “Christmas wish list” of renovations he would like to see – a new scoreboard and concession stands, stadium Wi-Fi and improved sightlines among them – L.P. Frans Stadium continues to offer a warm welcome to anyone who passes through its gates.