2022 | Sports

Once an iconic destination for African Americans in Montgomery County, Johnson’s Park will get a facelift

Bethesda Big Train president hopes to hold annual game at park honoring former Negro League player

share this

The baseball field Johnson's Park in Gaithersburg will get new amenities such as a pitcher's mound and an outfield fence, county officials recently announced. The ballpark was once an iconic destination for African Americans in Montgomery County prior to desegregation, where local Black sandlot teams would play Negro League teams.

Photos by Dan Schere

This story was updated at 8:45 a.m. on June 13, 2022, to include a comment from Hans Riemer

About 70 years ago, a baseball game at Johnson’s Park in Gaithersburg was a hot destination for Montgomery County’s African American community. Upwards of 1,000 people would sometimes come to see Negro League teams play Black sandlot teams from around the county, according to historians.

Today the baseball diamond at Johnson’s Park is still there, but there is no mound and no fence around the perimeter. The diamond is used only for softball, but county officials plan to renovate the park over the next couple of years to make it more suitable for baseball.

County Council Member Hans Riemer’s office announced Friday that the county’s parks department has set aside funding to renovate the park as a way of honoring sandlot baseball in Montgomery County. The renovations will include a paved trail with signage telling the history of the park, a new outfield fence and a scoreboard, according to a press release. Other improvements to the park will include new pickleball courts, lighting upgrades and improvements to the picnic shelters and walkways.

County Council Member Hans Riemer requested funding for the renovations at Johnson’s Park this spring and the project was added to the park department’s ballfield initiative fund in the capital budget, which funds the cost of improvements to baseball fields in the county.

Riemer told Bethesda Beat on Sunday that he isn’t sure exactly what the total cost of the Johnson’s Park renovations will be, but it will likely be at least $1 million.

After slavery ended in the latter half of the 19th Century there were more than 30 communities across Montgomery County, and about two-thirds had sandlot baseball teams, according to Bruce Adams, a former County Council member and local baseball historian.

As segregation continued into the first half of the 20th Century, baseball became “the thing that really brought the community together,” Adams told Bethesda Beat on Saturday.

“It was the place to go sadly because there weren’t other opportunities,” he said. “The movie theaters were blocked [to African Americans]. Swimming pools were whites only. So it was a horrible reason that led to the success of the Black sandlots. But it’s just so impressive to make something so positive out of something so horrible.”

A commemorative plaque at Johnson’s Park includes information about the baseball field, as well as the history of the site as a center for religious rituals.

Adams said many of the Black sandlot teams’ baseball fields consisted of “chicken wire backstops with barely a dugout bench,” but there were five that had more amenities. A couple had lights, and one had a dance hall, he said.

Johnson’s Park was built in 1947 by Edward Johnson, a local Black entrepreneur who owned a tavern near the field, Adams said. Negro League teams would play sandlot teams from places such as Sandy Spring and Rockville. Among the notable players who took the field at Johnson’s Park were Willie Mays, Roy Campanella and Satchel Paige, according to a video from the city of Gaithersburg.

Billy Gordon, a local baseball historian who attended games growing up at Johnson’s Park, told Adams in a piece for the May/June issue of Bethesda Magazine that about 1,000 people would come to Johnson Park’s for a doubleheader on Memorial Day.

“The preacher would be at the game, and the bootlegger would be there dispensing beverages,” Gordon told the magazine.

Gordon could not immediately be reached for comment on Saturday.

The facility is currently used for softball, but the county hopes to make it suitable again for baseball.

Black sandlot teams went away as economic opportunities increased for Black residents in Montgomery County in the 1960s and ’70s. In 1974, Johnson’s Park was acquired by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, according to the county.

Adams, the founder and president of the summer collegiate baseball team Bethesda Big Train, plans to hold an annual game at Johnson’s Park, once renovated, called the Clarence ‘Pint’ Isreal Juneteenth Classic. The game is named for Isreal – who played in sandlot and semiprofessional leagues in Rockville during the 1930s, then played in the Negro leagues including for the 1946 Negro League World Series champion Homestead Grays, according to the Montgomery County Sports Hall of Fame. Isreal later served in the Army during World War II, then worked at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda as a lab technician from 1948 to 1973. He also co-founded the Black Angels Boys Club of Rockville and was active in promoting youth baseball in Rockville, according to his biography.

Isreal, who died in 1987, will be posthumously inducted into the county Sports Hall of Fame in December.

The first annual game honoring Isreal was expected to be played Sunday at Shirley Povich Field in Bethesda, weather-permitting. Plans for the renovation of Johnson’s Park will be formally announced in a pregame ceremony.

“My goal was to play the game at Johnson’s Park, because the basic field is still there,” Adams said. “But then when I went out there this winter, I realized it’s a skinned infield, and then I realized there was no mound. And then I realized there were no bullpen mounds.”

Adams said the renovations likely won’t be done in time for the summer 2023 Big Train season, but he hopes  the project will be completed in two or three years. He hopes that when spectators eventually make their way there for games, they are both entertained and educated.

“If you go to see a game, you’ll see the history of the Black sandlots in Montgomery County,” he said.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com