In Scott County, it’s common knowledge the gym Austin High School uses near the elementary school is named after the late Harold Rigel, a real icon in the small community.
The gym was named in his honor in the early 2000s.
But in the 1960s, there was another place just as sacred to the neighborhood kids in the area of Broadway and Church streets — Rigel Field.
Unofficially named Rigel Field by a bunch of kids and named after … well, you guessed it, the same Harold Rigel because he and his wife, Esther, owned the field.
The idea for this story came up from a conversation last fall when Dan Pate, Kenny Hollan and myself went to visit Rob Robison, who was fighting lung cancer at the time. We started talking about playing baseball in that field when Rob suggested I write a story about it. That conversation led to some great stories of many childhood friends from the neighborhood.
The field was on the south side of the Rigels’ backyard, and we played baseball, wiffle ball, football and basketball there. But it’s the baseball games I remember most, often played with a hardball.
The field seemed so big — as big as Yankee Stadium. But in reality, it wasn’t even a field. It was just a good-sized lot.
Every now and then, Rigel’s son showed up to play. He was several years older than us, and when we were in elementary he was a big high school sports star. To us, Rick Rigel was Sandy Koufax.
I’m not going to mention the names of everyone that played there. For sure, I’d miss several. But it sure was a great way to spend hot summer afternoons playing baseball. Cold drinks were always available. Normally, we lined up and drank out of the same water hose one by one. I can still taste that rubber.
There was one major rule at Rigel Field. Don’t ever hit a foul ball into Rigel’s garden — ever.
One time, Rigel put some hedges up near the road. We thought our playing days were over. But word spread quickly, and the hedges were just a home-run fence, according to one of the neighborhood kids. I’m not sure that’s what Mr. Rigel had in mind when he planted them.
Then there was the time when an older kid named Eddie Hollan, a nonregular, stopped by and played. That day, he hit a ball so far it went soaring over Rice Street, over the Blankenship house and into the Johnsons’ backyard. None of us knew what to do. We had never seen anything like it.
When is the last time you saw a group of kids playing baseball on a side lot day after day? You could drive around every day and look for a game of baseball on a side lot in any town you choose, and you won’t find one.
I miss Rigel Field. Where did time go? That was in the 1960s before life had beaten any of us down.
I wish one more time I could stand at home plate on that lot facing Rice Street, acting like I was Mickey Mantle, looking out at Sandy Koufax on the mound.
So earlier this summer, I stopped and took a picture of the old field. It didn’t look like it did back then, but it sure felt good to be there.
Long before there was Rigel Gym, there was Rigel Field.
P.S. If you have ever seen the movie “The Sandlot,” I’m certain it brought back a lot of special memories for anyone from that era who grew up playing baseball on a side lot.
P.P.S. Rob Robison passed away with lung cancer in December 2015. Our visit that day remains something very special to all of us.