A reader named Ken Charlton wrote me about my recent column asking that the city make Dias Field the kind of park that can be a central gathering place for the neighborhoods around the Mount Pleasant area in Ward 3.
Ken wanted to know how the park, most well-known as the former home of the Greater New Bedford Youth Baseball League, came to be called Dias Field and when it was built.
Like all things New Bedford, there turned out to be more of a story here than I had imagined. And what was most interesting was not how this park came to be named Dias Field. The better story was how for 75 years, one group after another had worked in fits and starts to make this green space — located almost in the very heart of New Bedford — a better recreational facility than it has ever managed to fully become.
There have been new beginnings and abrupt endings when the field, the park, whatever you want to call it, made some progress. At other times, it seems, the city’s grand and ambitious plans have come to naught at Dias Field.
My theory is that the field — set between three public housing developments, but also nearby to some of the city’s most hidden away middle-class neighborhoods — has just been too out of the way to get the attention that other great New Bedford parks have received.
With the demise of the Greater New Bedford Youth Baseball League two years ago, and the effort to make the city’s first regulation-size soccer field the focal point of a rebuilt Dias Field, New Bedford has another opportunity to do right by this forlorn-looking park.
Here’s a little of the story of what’s been going on in this neighborhood just off Hathaway Road since 1954, and just how long this park, originally known as Mt. Pleasant Field, has been struggling for improvement.
There evidently was a city park at the corner of Nauset and Mt. Pleasant streets known as the Mt. Pleasant Field for a long, long time. It was already there in the mid-20th century when in May 1954, they opened a baseball diamond for what was to be known as the Brickenwood Little League.
It’s a fact that the names for the earliest big parks in New Bedford were all named after geographic features — Buttonwood, Hazelwood, Brooklawn, even the later Riverside, so it’s no surprise this one was known as Mt. Pleasant.
Anyway, this part of New Bedford did not have a Little League in 1954, nor an adequate baseball diamond.
So the Park Board granted what was to be called the Brickenwood Little League the use of the diamond on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
It’s not clear from the available old Standard-Times clips what else was going on for youth baseball in New Bedford at the time, including at Mt. Pleasant Field, but there was a Pony League in the city that the new Brickenwood Little League was set to play against. I’m not sure whether Whaling City Youth Baseball at Brooklawn Park and the South End Youth Athletic Association were already off and running then, or if they started later.
Fast forward to May 11, 1957, and it’s the spring baseball league time again.
This year, the city government came up with a plan to lease out the public Mt. Pleasant Field to what by now was being called the Greater New Bedford Little League. Note that it was not yet called the Greater New Bedford Youth Baseball League; that must have come later.
The 1967 story explains the city’s reasoning in leasing out the park to the league, in then New Bedford Mayor Francis Lawler’s mind. “The Mayor said if the property is leased to the Little League, it would spare the city the cost of maintaining it.”
The officers of the league at the time have a familiar ring for New Bedford folks: Earl Demoranville, Robert Porter, Manuel Lima, Emile Camardona, Everett Soule, some well-known civic leaders of the day.
Their plan was to improve the Mt. Pleasant Field baseball diamonds, erect chain-link fences, clean up the grounds, install showers in a league building and fix that building for clubhouse use. They won a five-year lease from the city.
“It’s about time we’ve had this done in New Bedford,” said Lawrence B. Larkin, a league board member. “We’re about the only city around that doesn’t have a decent field for our youngsters.”
Another year went by, and this time in May 1958, the city was set to dedicate “a two-diamond” set up at the park and rename it from Mt. Pleasant Field to Lawler Field after Mayor Lawler’s father, Robert.
I’m not exactly sure why the senior Lawler (not to be confused with Brian Lawler, Francis Lawler’s son, who also eventually became mayor) deserved such an honor. But the first Mayor Lawler had clearly helped the Brickenwood league get going.
The league had a contract to enclose both ball fields with what were called anchor fences, and install cement dugouts, a new flag pole, benches and a scoreboard sponsored by Coca-Cola. They spent more than $4,000 in 1950s dollars, and bleachers and lights were planned for later.
A few years later, folks did indeed begin to talk about bigger plans for the parts of the park not occupied by baseball diamonds.
A May 11, 1960, Standard-Times story describes City Council President William Cormier proposing tennis courts for the park, and a March 25, 1965, story reported that the Recreation Commission had approved a basketball court.
A May 7, 1965, photo features movers and shakers Mark Devitt, Dr. Paul Walsh and Tony Fernandes discussing a drive to pay for the installation of lights for the field.
By July 13, 1967, federal government money had begun to pour into the city with President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Standard-Times stories outlined how three architects had been hired under a federal grant to design a whole host of improvements for Lawler Field and other parks.
Lawler was to be the first in a series of city projects under something called the “environmental spaces” program.
A person named Adalberth Rosaria, the chair of something called the ONBOARD Steering Committee, at the time collected 500 signatures for the still-unbuilt basketball courts. The City Council asked the mayor to allocate $1,500 for the purpose.
But the ONBOARD group later informed the city that it preferred a children’s playground for the open spaces at Lawler Field if there was not enough money to build both the basketball court and the playground
A group named the Mt. Pleasant North End Neighborhood Council had originally been advocating for both the court and the playground.
The architect’s plans for the park at Dias Field, funded by the National Arts Council, were ambitious.
They wanted to fill in a “heavily eroded” area along the park’s border fence.
It’s not exactly clear to me what land they were talking about.
There is now a dilapidated chain link fence that separates a strip of wooded land between the park and an adjacent industrial area to the east on Myrtle Street. I took a walk up by that area recently and besides a series of holes in the fence, you can see a sharp drop-off of the land and parts of it descend steeply into what looks like a man-made wetland.
The whole topography of Dias Field, in fact, looks like a hillside that has been flattened between an upper and lower-level field, complete with swales. Some of the land looks like it needs further contouring to realize its full potential as a park.
The architects’ plans also called for two, side-by-side basketball courts that could be used for dancing or skating, and shuffleboard, horseshoes and sitting areas. Trees would be planted.
The playground would be developed first and the other improvements done later “piecemeal.”
The environmental spaces plan was approved on July 26, 1967.
But there were competing projects for the National Arts Council money at the time, and the Dias upgrade was never completed as it was envisioned.
How much of the improvements were ever constructed is also not clear. Parks director Mary Rapoza says there was a previous playground, and one basketball court was indeed installed at Dias. And it’s still there, though hardly in the same shape as better courts in the city.
City Councilor Richard Bachand in 1967 described some of the Lawler grounds of the day having too much wasted and unused space, and as a “dry, barren, unshaded plot of land.” The council voted to transfer $2,000 from the reserve fund to get the improvements started.
Bachand and others wanted to go “big” for the Mount Pleasant park.
“This is not just a play area that provides swings, slides and other things for children,” he said. “It is also a plan whereby a child’s interactions and overall development would be part of the project.”
So how did Lawler Field become Dias Field?
There must have been someone with political muscle to rename a field named after a still living mayor’s father.
Standard-Times’ sports columnist Buddy Thomas wrote about it all in a 2003 column decrying the penchant in New Bedford for taking parks, buildings and everything else that can be named for one person and renaming it for another person as the years go by and the first person is forgotten in favor of someone with more current political juice.
So 14 years after Mt. Pleasant Field was renamed Lawler Field it was again renamed on May 1, 1972, this time Dias Field, in honor of Joseph Dias Sr., a former Greater New Bedford Youth Baseball League president who had passed away the previous year.
The league also had a habit of naming and renaming the baseball diamonds within Dias Field.
As Buddy wrote, all the people for whom the diamonds and field were first named were deserving of the honor, so why should subsequent generations take that honor away from them? “What’s in a name? How about integrity,” he wrote in his May 8, 2003, column.
After a 2003 flap over taking away the name of the newly rebuilt Normandin Middle School for a more recently deceased School Committee member a generation-or-so-ago, the committee eventually put a stop to easily renaming schools. The current rule, among others, is that “facilities shall not be renamed unless the person, persons or entity after which they are presently named are dishonored.”
Tell that to the family of former high school principal William Sargent, for whom the high school football field was named in 1924 after he had engineered its development a decade-and-a-half earlier. The football stadium was renamed in 1990 for the above-mentioned Dr. Walsh, who had done long service on the School Committee and other aspects of public life in the city.
So that’s the answer to how Dias Field got its name. And rename. And rename.
But as I said, the better story is the one about how generations of people living in this middle section of the city have worked repeatedly to give the Mount Pleasant area a better central park.
It’s a somewhat low-income neighborhood in an out-of-the-way section of the city. It’s always been an uphill battle.
Note from Jack: Thanks to Jay Avila of Spinner Publications for his research of Standard-Times print clips on Mt. Pleasant Field and its successors. Thanks also to the Reference Desk at the New Bedford Free Public Library for locating Buddy Thomas’ 2003 column on the renaming of sports venues in the city, and to Buddy for writing it.
Email Jack Spillane at email@example.com.
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