Clarence Ruonavaara played baseball with the Healdsburg Odd Fellows in front of fans at the field in Recreation Park from 1937-1952. Clarence is park of a group raising money to refurbish the grandstands built in 1923.

'Sweetest little ballpark' in Northern California

At the age of 90, Clarence Ruonavaara still has sharp memories of his glory days as a semi-pro baseball player at Healdsburg's Recreation Park.

He stood in the grandstands Wednesday remembering how he pitched in a batting exhibition with Bay Area Hall of Fame players Lefty O'Doul and Dolph Camilli.

The former pitcher, who went on to become a coach, teacher, and principal, is one of many Healdsburg residents who have special fondness for the park, which opened in 1923 and was home to the Healdsburg Prune Packers.

Ruonavaara is part of a group with plans to raise $400,000 for rehabilitation of the aged redwood grandstands at what they've dubbed "the sweetest little ballpark in Northern California."

This week, their fledgling campaign was boosted by a $50,000 pledge from the Healdsburg Little League, which uses the park for interleague games with visiting teams from Petaluma to Cloverdale.

The grandstand also serves as an auction site for the annual Future Farmers Fair and storage for Bull Dogs football teams that use an adjacent field.

But before it was a home for Little League and high school games, the vaunted Prune Packers played at "Rec Park," beginning in the Roaring Twenties and off and on until 1959.

One of their big claims to fame was beating the San Francisco Seals 4-3, in the early 1950s when the professional team came up for an exhibition game.

Camilli, a retired Major League player, was managing the Prune Packers at the time. Before the game, he put on a hitting display.

"He told me to throw fast balls, about knee high. He just golfed them right out of there," Ruonavaara said.

Camilli's four blasts sailed over the 340-foot sign in the outfield.

"It was the first time I ever had four home runs hit off of me in any one game," said Ruonavaara. "It was something to see a man just pound that ball out of the ballpark."

Recreation Park is a throwback to a time when communities thrived on semi-pro baseball, and teams like the Santa Rosa Rosebuds, the Petaluma Leghorns and Fort Bragg Loggers came to play.

And it was the era when prunes were Sonoma County's big agricultural commodity, with orchards that stretched from Santa Rosa to Cloverdale. Hence the name Prune Packers, since Healdsburg also was known as "The Buckle of the Prune Belt."

In a sense, the park dates back even further than 1923, because the redwood that makes up the covered grandstand came from the old Cotati speedway.

Those organizing the new grandstand renovation are some of the same people involved in other recent community improvement projects, including building a new gazebo in Healdsburg Plaza and construction of a youth skateboard park off Grove Street.

They include Jerry Eddinger, a former Healdsburg mayor and Prune Packer, who works as a general contractor and has donated time and materials to various community projects.

By 1959 the Prune Packers folded. The citizens' committee that had raised the money a decade earlier to install ballpark lighting would run the park until 1976 when it was turned back over to the city.

But the city has had trouble coming up with money - estimated at $1.4 million without the donated materials and labor - to upgrade the grandstand, despite fears that it was becoming a fire hazard and was not seismically safe.

Healdsburg has a long tradition of community giving, said Ray Holley, a freelance writer and local newspaper columnist who is spearheading the grandstand renovation.

"Every time there is an effort to build or fix something up, Healdsburg steps up," he said of the expectation organizers will meet their goal to raise $400,000 and complete the retrofit by August, 2011.

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