Prune Packers baseball and Rec Park squeeze fun, good baseball and old friends into the storied stands
Two minutes before 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Joe Gellura grabbed the microphone and belted out a traditional rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the crowd at Rec Park stood, hats and hands over hearts.
Two hours later, there was Gellura, 82, out of his seat, arms raised, singing along to The Village People’s “YMCA” playing over the stadium loudspeakers.
Such is the mix of tradition and youthful exuberance that swirls around Healdsburg’s vaunted Rec Park on Prune Packer baseball game days. Rec Park is the stadium where the wood beneath your bum is more than 100 years old, where foul balls threaten to dent any car parked on Piper Street and top-level college players off for the summer swing wooden, not aluminum, bats.
Rec Park is also where they no longer sell water in one-use bottles (you can get a stainless steel bottle for $6), where the public address system plays Jay-Z’s “Public Service Announcement” between innings, and where those with more “life experience” watch the game eagle-eyed with score books on their laps while kids run pell-mell around the park trying to scoop up foul balls or get an autograph from a player making a break for the loo.
It’s been dubbed, in these pages and by those who ought to know, as “the sweetest little ballpark in Northern California.”
100 years, off and on
Opening day June 8 marked 100 years, off and on, of Prune Packer baseball in the park on the corner of Piper and University streets. And it also marked the first time since 2019 that a Prune Packer game was staged there. Amid increasing pandemic health and safety restrictions, every game on the very abbreviated 2020 schedule was on the road last season.
So, Tuesday was a homecoming of sorts.
You had Dick Bugarske on the public address system, calling the game but also tossing in bits of both Prune Packer history and baseball gems from yesteryear. Did you know that it was June 8, 1961, that Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron, Joe Adcock and Frank Thomas hit consecutive homers for the Milwaukee Braves, the first team to pull that feat?
Bugarske did, and now so did everyone in the stands.
Bugarske, who also announces for all manner of Healdsburg High athletic teams, is a Prune Packer historian of sorts.
It’s he who tells me that the land on the corner of Piper and University used to be an old quarry that had to be leveled and seeded to make way for the ballpark. And he tells me that the Prune Packers came to be as the brain child of the local chamber of commerce, whose members were hellbent on bringing folks back into town after the flu pandemic of 1918 had done such damage to the local economy and psyche.
“Primarily, it was business,” Bugarske said of the launch of the team in 1921. “They wanted to let people know that Healdsburg had not disappeared during those years and wanted to get people back into town.”
When the Prune Packers formed in 1921, they quickly became one of the best semi-pro teams in the state, according to an article in the Healdsburg Museum and Historical Society’s publication Russian River Recorder, penned by Holly Hoods and Marie Djordjevich. Games, played mostly on Sundays in those days, were said to draw up to 800 people.
The team played here in stops and starts over the years. It has not been a century of continuous baseball, but it has been that long for steady use of this beloved park and stadium.
“People loved baseball and the Pacific Coast League was small,” Bugarske said. “I think there was pride. Local communities took real pride in having a good baseball team, so the chamber of commerce understood that and they tapped into bringing that into the community.”
Fast forward 100 years.
That same feeling of a community coming together, emerging from a mysterious pandemic that sowed fear and kept people from gathering, was on hand last week. Baseball, or more specifically, the Prune Packers, brought folks together then and it brings folks together today.
“It was just a great feeling, a sense of relief. Part of this is that it’s another sign that we are going back to normal,” Gellura said.
Back in those old green bleachers
The sense of gratitude to be back in those old green bleachers was strong Tuesday.
“It was overwhelming among we regulars,” Gellura said. “I sit in a part of the stands with people who are there every game. I have kiddingly said to (Prune Packer board secretary Laurie North) we should get our names on the seats, that’s where we sit. That group of people, we are baseball friends, I haven’t seen them in two years, since the last baseball game.”