By Fred Awbrey
Special to The Sun
Fleming Field, the University of Florida’s first on-campus athletic complex, had a very humble beginning. When UF opened in September of 1906, the future Fleming Field was nothing but an open field located on the edge of campus, just west of Thomas Hall. In the early years (1906-1910), this site was used for varsity sports practice, track and field and student field days.
All official home football and baseball games were played at the downtown ballpark, located in the Porters community. This changed in January 1911, when the University Athletic Association purchased the downtown ballpark’s wooden fence and grandstand and moved them to Fleming Field. Carpenters and student volunteers worked for weeks to prepare the field for the baseball team’s first game, scheduled for Feb. 17 against the Jacksonville Olympics. Although the UF team lost the game 12-4, it marked the beginning of the school’s 38-year use of the field for at least one major sport.
Up until 1915, Fleming Field was known as the “University Athletic Grounds” or the “University Athletic Field.” In October 1915, the field was named in honor of Francis Philip Fleming, Florida’s 15th governor (1889–1893). From east to west, Fleming Field stretched from Thomas Hall to Gale Lemerand Drive. From north to south, it stretched from West University Avenue to within 150 feet of the current Florida Field north end zone.
From 1911 to 1930, Fleming Field was the home of Gator football. The Gators compiled a home record of 49-7-1 and had seven different head coaches during this time period. The most notable team of this era was Coach Charlie Bachman’s 1928 squad, which compiled an 8-1 record. Two outstanding players from that team were Clyde Crabtree and Dale Van Sickel. Van Sickel was named UF’s first All-American for his efforts. Other notable football players of the era were Earle “Dummy” Taylor and Carl “Tootie” Perry.
Gainesville High School and Lincoln High School also played home games at Fleming Field. In 1922, GHS won its first state football championship by defeating Miami Senior High School 58-0 at Fleming Field. When work was completed on Florida Field in November of 1930, Gator football left Fleming Field.
Track and field also left Fleming Field for a site known as Graham Field, located just south of Florida Field’s south end zone. Graham Field was covered up by the current south end zone seating area in 1982.
Baseball was the one sport that remained for the entire tenure of Fleming Field’s varsity sports career. From 1911 to 1948, Fleming Field served as UF’s baseball home field. During those years, the Gators fielded 35 teams led by 16 different head coaches. The Gators did not field teams during the war years of 1918, 1943 or 1944.
Dave Fuller, one of UF’s best known baseball coaches, started his career at Fleming Field in 1948. In 1949, Gator baseball moved to Perry Field. Between 1919 and 1929, five different Major League Baseball teams played exhibition games at Fleming Field. Players such as Babe Ruth, Mel Ott, Walter Johnson and Rogers Hornsby all played on the Fleming Field diamond. Twenty other MLB Hall of Famers may have played on the field. Before switching to NFL, Jim Thorpe came to town with the New York Giants in 1919. Lance Richbourg was UF’s most successful baseball player of the Fleming Field era. Richbourg had an 8-year MLB career with five different clubs.
After baseball left Fleming Field, the field was used for intramurals, tennis, racquetball and handball. Club soccer and the Gator Marching Band also used the field. The end came for Fleming Field in 1991, when Florida Field’s north end zone seating was expanded.
Today, what’s left of Fleming Field serves as a parking lot for home games. As Gator fans approach the north end zone gates to enter this year’s games, few will realize they are walking on historic Fleming Field. The teams, the young men who played there and their accomplishments are long forgotten. Hopefully, one day UF will honor these athletes of the past with an appropriate plaque.
Fred Awbrey is a Gainesville native and a retired teacher who is a volunteer at the Matheson History Museum.