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Douglas Park: Football’s Field of Dreams?

Douglas Park: Football’s Field of Dreams?

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Douglas Park: Football’s Field of Dreams?

This Rock Island County Historical Society photo shows Douglas Park in Rock Island as it looked in 1920 when it was home to both professional baseball and the Rock Island Independents of the National Football League.

Almost all Quad-Citians know of Douglas Park in Rock Island. What most don't know is how much sports history the park has.

Many remember the World Series for Fast Pitch Softball was held there in the 1950s and 1960s, and some know it was a horse track in the 1850s.

Professional football may be one of its best kept secrets. Could Douglas Park be football’s version of the Field of Dreams?

Take a look at Douglas Park's history.

It was opened to the public in 1905 and a contest was held to select its original name — Island City Park. The park was owned by a committee of citizens and was home to the Island City Stars of the Three-Eye Baseball League.

In 1913 the city of Rock Island paid $20,000 for the land where the park stands between 9th and 10th streets and 15th and 18th avenues.

Island City Park was renamed Douglas Park in 1917 after U.S. Sen. Stephen Douglas who was famous for opposing Abraham Lincoln in the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates.

The park was not just used for baseball. Some early uses included the circus, boxing matches and Rock Island youth field days. In the winter of 1920, the park was flooded and made into an ice skating rink.

It also was used for football, and in 1907, the Rock Island Independents football team played its first game there. By 1912, it was the team's home. As the Independents rose from a small neighborhood team in Rock Island to one of the most famous teams in the Midwest, they faced some of the top teams in the country.

By 1920, the team was so well known that it was invited to join 11 others in a national football association which would become the National Football League. 

In 1920, everything was in place for the team and city to attract the top professional football teams in the nation, and the team had the backing of the top businesses in the city.

The Rock Island Argus ran a Rock Island Independents Booster Special in which 105 companies paid to advertise. This gave the team enough funds to get going for the season while they waited for the first game and the gate receipts it would bring.

The team also made Douglas Park beautiful with its grandstand and a potential seating capacity of more than 8,000. In 1919, with strong local fan support, the team averaged over 4,000 attendees per game which was uncommon in other Midwestern cities at that time.

It was up to the host team to lease the park, sell the tickets, provide security and coordinate the event. The Independents had an experienced owner in Walter Flannigan who had been taking care of these tasks since joining the team in 1913.

It also was an easy destination to get to, with a quick ride over the Rock Island Line railroad. All these factors contributed to why other teams preferred traveling to Rock Island over the hassle of hosting their own games.

After just two seasons in the league, Douglas Park had hosted several famous teams including the Decatur Staleys, (who would become the Chicago Bears), the Green Bay Packers, the Chicago Cardinals, the Pine Village Eleven, the Minneapolis Marines, the Columbus Panhandles and the Dayton Triangles.

By 1925, 11 players, including Jim Thorpe, Curly Lambeau, George Halas, Ed Healey, Jimmy Conzleman, Joe Guyon, George Trafton and Paddy Driscoll had played some of the first games of their Hall of Fame careers at Douglas Park. The list would be even a longer if you counted all the college football All Americans who played there. 

At Douglas Park, like the Field of Dreams, people can gather friends and play a game on the field those greats once played on. Other than the absence of the old wooden grandstand and the outfield fence, the view would be nearly the same as it was back then.

The quiet neighborhood and houses surrounding the park are the same ones that watched over George Halas and the others in 1920. 

Walking in their footsteps is exactly what two teams organized by Chris Zimmerman, Chris Caspers and I are going to do. The intent is not only to celebrate Douglas Park, but to celebrate it through a football game involving teams from Rock Island and Moline that represent actual teams from 1920.

At 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 23, the public is invited to fill Douglas Park to watch the Rock Island Independents take on the Moline Universal Tractors in a game that is as close to the 1920s game as you can get (minus the tackling).

The game will use the rules and strategy from that era and a melon football, replica jerseys and the style of play. The event is free so bring a blanket and chair and enjoy some 1920s football.

The desire is to build some pride in this historic piece of property and support the endeavors of those who have worked together to bring to light its history, allowing everyone to see it as a local treasure.

Simon Herrera is a historian who specializes in the Rock Island Independents football team.


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