Baum-Walker turns 25: Ballpark leveled playing ground for Razorbacks

By: Matt Jones Matt Jones's Twitter account
Published: Wednesday, March 31, 2021
Fans sit in the stands during the first game played at Baum Stadium on Saturday, April 13, 1996, in Fayetteville. Heavy rains fell the day before, forcing the opening game of the stadium to be played as part of a doubleheader with Auburn. (Andy Shupe/Northwest Arkansas Times, courtesy Shiloh Museum of Ozark History)
Fans sit in the stands during the first game played at Baum Stadium on Saturday, April 13, 1996, in Fayetteville. Heavy rains fell the day before, forcing the opening game of the stadium to be played as part of a doubleheader with Auburn. (Andy Shupe/Northwest Arkansas Times, courtesy Shiloh Museum of Ozark History)

FAYETTEVILLE — When Arkansas played its first game at what is now Baum-Walker Stadium in April 1996, work wasn’t finished on the newest ballpark in college baseball.

Luxury seats, landscaping and some exterior brick work remained for crews to finish following the opening weekend against Auburn. The Razorbacks swept a doubleheader against the Tigers on the stadium’s opening day.

“In a league of great ballparks, this one jumps to the top of the list,” Auburn coach Hal Baird said afterward.

Twenty-five years since it was opened, it seems the work still isn't complete. A series of renovations inside the stadium and additions adjacent to it have transformed Arkansas’ baseball home into an envy of college coaches nationwide.

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25 memorable moments at Baum-Walker

The park itself can hold more than 12,000 spectators on game days. There are around 7,000 chair-back seats that encircle the stadium from foul pole to foul pole; a grass berm in left field that on game day can be packed by thousands with lawn chairs, grills, flags and coolers; and a second deck that includes the toughest ticket in town — 34 private suites that have rarely had any transfer in ownership.

But what sets Arkansas apart is on the stadium’s periphery — a 52,000-square-foot indoor practice field that cost nearly $10 million when it was finished in 2014, and a soon-to-be completed 52,000-square-foot, $27 million operations center that will be full of state-of-the-art baseball tools when it opens this summer.

When TCU came to Fayetteville for an NCAA regional in 2019, Horned Frogs coach Jim Schlossnagle began taking photos and videos with his phone and sent images of the Razorbacks’ facilities to his bosses. Schlossnagle told them Arkansas had what was needed by TCU to compete with the best. TCU’s leaders were given a tour of the park that weekend, just as leaders of other programs had before and have had since.

In 1994, it was Arkansas’ leadership doing the touring of other stadiums. Athletics director Frank Broyles and baseball coach Norm DeBriyn flew to Arizona to look at pro facilities one day after securing a $1 million donation from the family of philanthropist Willard Walker.

Walker’s donation — coupled with a series of donations totaling $1 million from Charlie Baum two years earlier — gave the Razorbacks the money they needed to start work on the long-awaited ballpark.

Baum and Walker were early managers in Sam Walton’s 5 & 10 store that became Walmart. When Walton opened a Fayetteville location in 1952, he hired Walker to manage it. Baum replaced Walker as the Fayetteville store’s manager in 1955. Both men became major stockholders in the company.

DeBriyn first approached university leadership about renovating George Cole Field following a 1989 trip to the College World Series. Padding around the asphalt base beneath the turf had disintegrated, and oil was bubbling above the surface in the outfield.

“It got so bad that you were just playing on asphalt, really,” DeBriyn said. “I wanted to get some upgrades. We had nothing. We didn’t have a bathroom there — we were taking a leak in a Texas cup.

“I wanted a dressing room. We would meet in the dugout and the kids were coming from all over, parking their cars or walking from their dorms.”

DeBriyn made some public comments that drew the ire of Broyles and led to an argument between the men that made DeBriyn fear for his job security — seemingly outrageous for a coach who had been to four College World Series in 10 years.

“We were lucky enough to win a conference championship, so I told the media, ‘We’re trying to win on a national level and if we don’t get an upgrade in this facility, we can’t play here,’” DeBriyn said. “Because of the success, I thought I was OK.

“Frank comes in, closes the door and says, ‘So you’re going public with your problems, huh?’ I just told him, ‘You don’t care about baseball,’ and I told him just exactly how I felt….I thought I was done. I really did.”

Broyles never brought up the confrontation when the men spoke the next time. He spent the summer negotiating a move that took the Razorbacks from the Southwest Conference to the Southeastern Conference.

It would be six more years before DeBriyn would get his upgrades, and in a way he could never have imagined.

While the SWC had one of college baseball’s best programs in the Texas Longhorns, it lacked the depth of the SEC, which in the 1990s had seven programs combine for 20 College World Series appearances. Georgia won the national championship in 1990 and LSU won it the next year, beginning a stretch of five championships in 10 seasons for the Tigers.

Not only were the SEC programs elite, but so were their ballparks. Longtime Arkansas baseball play-by-play announcer Chuck Barrett once recalled a 1992 trip to Georgia’s newly renovated Foley Field that sat around 2,700.

“I remember walking into their park thinking if we could have something half as nice as this, baseball might really take off at Arkansas,” Barrett said in 2012.

The Razorbacks struggled in their early years in the conference and were often out of class against the SEC’s best teams. LSU, for instance, outscored Arkansas 38-11 over four games in the first year they played. The Tigers won 10 straight SEC games over the Razorbacks, and 15 of the first 16.

Little did DeBriyn know his program’s fortunes were soon going to change when in early 1992 an American Legion commander asked him for help to fund $10,000 worth of lights at a local field. The commander said he understood DeBriyn and Baum attended the same church and wanted to know if DeBriyn could put in a good word.

“I just called (Baum) and he hardly said a word to me,” DeBriyn said. “When I hung up, I thought I should have made it a personal appointment.”

About two weeks later, the American Legion commander called to thank DeBriyn. Baum had just written a check for $10,000.

That prompted DeBriyn to call Baum to say thank you. The coach asked if Baum drank coffee and they soon met at a local shop.

“He said, ‘Now that you’re in the SEC, what are you going to do about that field?’” DeBriyn said. “That was kind of an opening and … that’s when he gave me $250,000.”

The men got to know each other better in the ensuing weeks. Soon, Baum wrote an additional $250,000 check to bring his total donation to $500,000.

At the same time, Arkansas was raising money to pay for a new basketball arena. Bud Walton gave $15 million for the arena that bears his name, but the Razorbacks had to raise more toward the cost of the $32 million arena.

DeBriyn said once Broyles and basketball coach Nolan Richardson got wind of Baum’s donation for baseball, they took him to lunch.

“I know what you guys want — you want some money for basketball,” Baum told them, according to DeBriyn’s account. “I don’t have any money for basketball, but I’ve got another half-million for baseball.”

Arkansas looked into investing Baum’s donation into overhauling George Cole Field, but nearby roads and buildings made expanding the park difficult. The decision was made to use Baum’s money as a seed for a new stadium to be built sometime in the future.

During a 1994 Swatter’s Club meeting in Fayetteville, a sports reporter asked Broyles what it would take for construction to begin on a new baseball stadium. “We need another $1 million,” Broyles replied.

Willard and Johnny Mike Walker were among those in attendance. That afternoon Johnny Mike — a former player for DeBriyn — stopped by practice and asked if he and his father could meet with Broyles and DeBriyn the next day.

“Willard told Frank, ‘I’ll give that $1 million, but I want the last dollar to be for the last brick in that stadium. I want to get that going,’” DeBriyn recalled.

“When Willard and Johnny Mike left, a little later that day Frank called me and said, ‘Let’s go look at some facilities.’ We left the next day for Arizona.”

Arkansas ambitiously hoped to open the stadium in time for the 1995 season, then when that wasn’t a reality, in time for the 1996 opener.

Meanwhile, the Razorbacks played their “last game” at the old George Cole Field three times, including the 1995 home finale when Arkansas defeated Northwestern State, coached by Dave Van Horn, a former DeBriyn player and assistant coach.

Cold weather delayed construction. When it was decided in January 1996 the Razorbacks wouldn’t be able to open the season at the new stadium, a target opening was set for a March 8-10 series against Tennessee. When that didn’t materialize, a March 29-31 series against South Carolina was targeted.

Even the actual opener for the Auburn series in mid-April was delayed a day because of a rainout the night before. The first game at Baum Stadium was April 13, 1996 — a 9-2 Arkansas victory. The Razorbacks won 9-6 in the second game of a doubleheader later that day.

Once the stadium opened, the Razorbacks got good in a hurry. Their first full season in the stadium in 1997 was their first season with a winning SEC record. By 1999 Arkansas was the league champion and hosted an NCAA regional for the first time.

“It’s like night and day,” DeBriyn said. “We went from a field to a stadium, and that stadium within a year Baseball America had it ranked No. 1 in college baseball. That helped so much in recruiting and exposure.”

It also set the stage for Van Horn’s successful tenure that began after DeBriyn retired in 2002. Two days after his Nebraska team was eliminated at the College World Series, Van Horn traveled to Fayetteville to meet with Broyles and tour the stadium.

Van Horn told Broyles he wanted three modifications in order to accept the job.

First, he wanted the batting and pitching cages — which at that time were outdoors — to be enclosed so players weren’t battling the elements while they practiced. He also wanted the coaches’ offices moved to the baseball stadium from the Broyles Center about 1.5 miles away.

Finally, he told Broyles he wanted to add seats to the stadium that was built six years earlier.

“He kind of looked at me funny,” Van Horn said. “He said, ‘We’ve got 3,300 seats and we’re only averaging 1,800 a game. Why do we need more?’ I just said, ‘We’re going to need them.’”

Broyles agreed to the requests and Van Horn’s prediction came true. By his second year, the Razorbacks were SEC champions, hosted an NCAA regional and a super regional for the first time. More than 9,000 people were in attendance for both super regional games against Florida State and Arkansas swept the series.

The ticket demand for the super regional stemmed from the excitement of a week earlier when the Razorbacks — down to their final out of the season — rallied to beat Wichita State twice in the same day. Brady Toops’ grand slam in the ninth inning gave Arkansas an 11-9 victory in the first game and unearthed a passionate fan base.

“With that home run and winning that game, that just catapulted the whole program to heights that continued to grow,” DeBriyn said.

The stadium has grown and improved along with the program. A 2007 renovation was the stadium’s most expansive, adding seat-back chairs and suites down both foul lines, and giving the park the look of a Triple-A minor league stadium.

The Walkers gave $1 million to help with the 2007 overhaul and also contributed to a 2004 renovation.

After the Walker family pledged $5 million toward the construction of the baseball operations building in late 2018, the name of the ballpark was changed to reflect the Baum and Walker families, who through cash and stock donations ultimately gave about half of the initial $8.5 million to build the stadium.

The Walker Foundation pledged up to $1 million more this week toward the new baseball center.

“If it wasn’t for Johnny Mike Walker, we wouldn’t have Baum Stadium,” DeBriyn said in 2019.

The Razorbacks have been hard to beat at home, and even more so in recent years. Arkansas’ all-time record at Baum-Walker Stadium is 584-218, and since 2017 the Razorbacks are 120-23 there.

In 2018, Arkansas went 34-4 at home, setting single-season records for home wins and home winning percentage. The success of that season drove ticket demand to levels not seen before, with more than 6,710 season tickets sold last season.

“It’s unbelievable, the demand for tickets and what baseball is bringing to the table and what kind of program they’ve got,” DeBriyn said. “Baum-Walker has made that possible.”

Years after DeBriyn retired, he asked Broyles why he didn’t just agree to a simple renovation of George Cole Field. Broyles told him he never had a good feeling about a renovation.

“What happened was the best thing that could possibly have happened,” DeBriyn said.

A version of this story first appeared in Hawgs Illustrated


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