A Publication of WTVP

If only that outfield wall could talk

by Phil Luciano | Photos by Ron Johnson |

Peoria’s historic Woodruff Field once hosted Maris and Aparicio, as well as the inaugural Peoria Chiefs

How much local history do we obliviously ignore?

Though Peoria loves its sports, countless passersby zip past a landmark of the city’s rich athletics history. Once upon a time, Woodruff Park served as the nexus of Peoria’s summertime sporting and social worlds.

Baseball game at Woodruff Park 
(Photo by Wendy Pastore)
Baseball game at Woodruff Park
(Photo by Wendy Pastore)

But now? The Woodruff wall, the cement survivor of yesteryear’s baseball scene, is known only by the most dedicated aficionados of Peoria history and baseball.

The city’s first pro baseball team, the Peoria Reds of 1878, played at Lake View Park at Adams and Grant streets. Later taking the field there would be the Peoria Distillers, part of the Three-I League.

Meanwhile, though fans kept showing up, time took its toll on the deteriorating Lake View Park. In 1923, on the other side of Grant Street, a new ballfield sprang up. The sharp and tidy Woodruff Field cost $50,000, almost $900,000 in today’s dollars.

A mark of distinction came via a thick, concrete block wall surrounding the outfield. Like a stone barricade protecting a regal estate, it lent an almost august touch to the ballfield. It certainly must have seemed imposing to outfielders, who probably thought twice about crashing into the wall to snag a long fly ball.

The new diamond became home to the familiar Three-I team. However, under the pall of Prohibition, the name Distillers was dumped in favor of Tractors, a nod to an up-and-coming manufacturer in Peoria.

In 1935, the team became affiliated with the Chicago Cubs. But the club finished last and the league lagged at the gate, prompting a year-long hiatus for Three-I. It returned in 1937, with Woodruff Field home to the Peoria Reds, thanks to a new affiliation with the Cincinnati Reds. After just 13,000 fans showed up in that entire Depression-era season, the parent ball club moved the operation to Iowa, leaving Peoria without a minor-league connection.

Woodruff stayed dark until 1953, when the Cleveland Indians brought Three-I ball back to the diamond with the new Peoria Chiefs. Thrilled with a return to pro baseball in Peoria, fans flocked to the stadium. Attendance hit 124,000 for the season, the lone Three-I team to break 100,000 tickets sold.

For the next three years, the Chiefs played under the St. Louis Cardinals umbrella, then in 1957 with the New York Yankees. That ‘50s era brought some future superstars to the field, though usually in the opposing dugout. The biggest talent there belonged to Luis Aparacio, later a Hall of Famer, and Roger Maris, who as a New York Yankee held Major League Baseball’s single-season home run record for decades. Other big leaguers included Johnny Vander Meer, the only pitcher in Major League history to throw back-to-back no-hitters, Earl Battey, Mudcat Grant, Tony Kubek and Bob Uecker.

The city’s first pro baseball team, the Peoria Reds of 1878, played at Lake View Park

However, a slumping gate ended pro ball at Woodruff Field after the 1957 season. Minor-league baseball would not return to Peoria until 1983, with the Peoria Suns at Meinen Field. Nineteen years later, the Peoria Chiefs opened a new Downtown ballpark, now known as Dozer Field.

Today, Woodruff Field still hosts ballgames as part of the Peoria Park District. The old left-field wall remains, not as part of the diamond but as a remnant of Peoria’s sporting past.

Some information for this story came from

Phil Luciano

Phil Luciano

is a senior writer/columnist for Peoria Magazine and content contributor to public television station WTVP. He can be reached at [email protected]