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ST. LOUIS • Lou Brock smacked a Phil Niekro knuckleball up the middle in the 12th inning to score Curt Flood and beat the Atlanta Braves 4-3. It was a good way to inaugurate the new Busch Memorial Stadium downtown.

More than 46,000 Cardinals fans attended that first game in the $24 million stadium on May 12, 1966. It was round in shape to accommodate baseball and football, and its partial roof complimented the new Gateway Arch three blocks away. Fans appreciated its spaciousness and unobstructed view of the field.

In the bigger view, the stadium was the marquee attraction for a major rebuilding of the sagging south half of downtown. The project area covered 31 blocks and was financed almost entirely with private money, much of it raised in a tub-thumping, civic campaign.

Back then, the Cardinals played at old Sportsman’s Park, renamed Busch Stadium in 1953. It was on North Grand Boulevard at Dodier Street, where there never was enough parking.

In 1958, city development chief Charles Farris suggested building a new stadium downtown to revive the business district. The Chamber of Commerce jumped on the idea, and the Civic Center Redevelopment Corp. was created in September 1959. Its first president was James Hickok, head of First National Bank.

Civic Center’s plan included a 50,000-seat stadium, parking garages, a hotel and office buildings. The group quickly obtained investments from major local businesses, including $5 million from Anheuser-Busch, which owned the Cardinals and the north side ballpark. Equitable Insurance of New York agreed to loan $31 million.

In the way of progress was a hodgepodge of parking lots and old buildings, including the city’s small Chinatown, warehouses, flophouses and the Grand Theater strip club. Some affected businessmen protested as the Board of Aldermen gave Civic Center powers of condemnation and tax abatement.

“They’ve got everybody worried to death,” said Dana Brown, coffee grinder, safari hunter and opposition leader. Hickok called demolition “the penalty we must pay for permitting blight and decay to set in.”

The aldermen approved. City voters adopted a $6 million bond issue in March 1962 for streets and lighting. A final campaign pushed local investment to $20 million, including $1,000 from Theodora DeGerinis of 6226A Clayton Avenue. Demolition began that November. Civic Center hired Millstone and Fruin-Colnon construction companies to build the stadium. Groundbreaking was May 25, 1964.

A steel strike delayed work, as did a major fire that destroyed warehouses just south of the stadium in August 1965. But the builders missed the original deadline by only five days.

St. Louis celebrated with a parade. A helicopter flew the home plate from old Busch to new Busch.

In the ensuing years, the Stouffer’s hotel, Spanish Pavilion and new office buildings also rose from Civic Center land. Anheuser-Busch bought the stadium and garages for $53 million in 1981. The stadium came down to make room for a third Busch Stadium, which opened in 2006.

Read more stories from Tim O'Neil's Look Back series.