Almost hallowed ground at Fairfax Field
Convertible automobiles and fancy flivvers with running boards once competed with the dandelions on old Fairfax Field at Shepherd.
Thin, iron goal posts stood sentry on the 95-yard football field just below the back porch of President W.H.S. White’s home there on the west campus grounds.
Ranging in the limestone outcroppings and unkempt grass just beyond the right field fence were Hereford beef cattle. If alert, those cattle could see the rambling, multistory brick house that would later become the home of Shepherd’s president on one side and the Rams’ baseball team facing the Sharpsburg Athletic Club on the other side.
Now days, stately Fairfax Field has an electronic scoreboard in center field; there is a set of permanent metal bleachers for the people watching the Rams play their baseball; and there are dugouts instead of plank boards that the teams sat on in the long distant past.
It wasn’t always that way at Fairfax Field . . . not when George Hott was playing first base and helping Coach Don Fuoss and the Rams achieve an unbeaten football season in 1955 . . . not when catcher Doug Higgins hit four home runs and drove in 13 runs one afternoon against Glenville . . . not when running back Hunter Maddex was running free against the Fairmont defense in 1932 and was within yards of giving the Rams a win over the invading Falcons, but then was forced out of bounds by an automobile that was leaving the game a little early.
Maddex was driven out of bounds by the impudent car at the Fairmont seven as the game neared its end. When the Rams couldn’t score, Fairmont had a 19-18 win in the most unlikely fashion.
President White served his long tenure at Shepherd from 1920 through 1947 and he was instrumental in the college opening Fairfax Field in 1923. Football and baseball were the two sports the college hosted on the gnarly expanse that was a place in between a cemetery on its west and Miller Hall and White’s house on its east.
An area of undergrowth, exposed roots and small osage orange trees buffeted the graveyard and one end zone. A stone wall at the other end protected the unpaved driveway that led from West High Street to President White’s wooden, one-car garage.
The playing surface at Fairfax Field was not protected by artificial turf or an agronomist interested in maintaining a pristine patch of playing field. It was rough. It was full of little yellow flowers and wild onions in the spring and crab grass and mud in early November.
No grandstand adorned the place before one was added along the sideline hugging High Street in 1928. The cost for the seven rows of covered area built to protect the genteel and roughneck alike was $2,945.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s the field was used for spring football practice.
Through the years and fast-retreating seasons, the Rams played Glenville, Martinsburg Hose Company #5, Potomac State, Shenandoah, Alderson-Broaddus, Blue Ridge and Bridgewater in 1927 and following the years without a team during World War II there was a schedule in 1949 that included West Virginia Tech, Potomac State, Bridgewater, Salem, Glenville, Morris Harvey, Fairmont and Gallaudet.
It was only in 1957 that the West Virginia State Board of Education approved $30,000 for a new field and stadium across the highway that led to the Potomac River and Maryland. Finally, in 1959 the new facility was completed that had seating on one side and a short, sharp hill on the other.
Fairfax Field had already seen coed archery classes in 1949. And now the place was going to be the home of the Shepherd baseball team . . . and no more runaway Stutz Bearcats roaming near the sidelines where Hunter Maddex was trying to beat Fairmont.
Shepherd had bought the property where the polled Herefords had grazed. The President’s house was moved to the new property and eventually White’s long-used residence was razed and his once-flowered grounds used to hold a concession stand for Shepherd baseball games.
Shepherd baseball improved immensely. Conference championships came along when Dean Pease and Wayne Riser guided the Ram fortunes. Matt McCarty has brought additional laurels in his short stand in the Ram dugout.
Dormitories were added beyond the outfield fence. Riser manicured the grounds and added yearly touches to the old place.
In 2009, Riser curried enough favor with two donors to get quality, permanent seating and enough chairback pews to make people semi-comfortable on the 40-degree afternoons where the wind in the faces of the seated populace blows at brisk paces. There was a comfortable press box installed and a public address system to help identify the WVIAC and current Mountain East Conference happenings.
The chicken wire and metal roof of the old grandstand put in place in 1928 were long gone. The years when both teams lounged on those wooden planks were no more. Shepherd took its baseball seriously. The nine-game schedules once played by Coach Cletus Lowe were a long-faded memory. In the place of the games of yesteryear were 48-game schedules and doubleheaders one right after the other.
Fairfax Field held Shepherd athletic fortunes for many, many years and saw football Homecomings and baseball played just after President Bill Clinton landed a helicopter in shallow right field in 2000.
Fairfax Field has its closely-kept memories.
And those memories include polled Herefords, runaway automobiles, slugging performances by baseball’s Nathan Minnich, an unbeaten football team and foul balls bouncing off the back porch windows on President White’s house.