After a 50-year relationship, a decision by the Francis Howell Board of Education eventually will end the school district's use of C&H Ballpark.
The board voted 6-1 Thursday night to spend $2.4 million for a new athletic complex — including two baseball fields, a softball field and a football practice field — on the campus of Francis Howell High School, 7001 Highway 94 South. Construction could begin this summer.
Francis Howell's baseball team has used C&H as its home fields since the early 1960s. The softball team began playing there in the 1970s. Exactly when the school will stop using C&H is not known; all levels — freshman, junior varsity and varsity — of both programs will move to the school's campus once the natural grass fields have grown in.
"We will be moving the whole program to the high school," Francis Howell Superintendent Pam Sloan said after the meeting.
C&H Ballpark, 2900 St. Peters-Howell Road, is owned by a nonprofit organization with 24 members and seven board members. The C&H name originally was short for Cottleville-Harvester Athletic Association. In July 2002, members renamed the facility Clarence Huster Ballpark in honor of the man who founded the C-H baseball team in 1951. Huster died Dec. 31, 1998.
For 26 years, Huster coached and managed the team, which competed in the Eastern Missouri Baseball Association. He spent much of his time at C&H making sure the park's three fields were always ready. Most often, those who counted on his skills to prepare the field even when the weather turned bad were not disappointed.
A July 3, 2002, story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch quoted Tony Perkins as saying, "Clarence Huster was the heart and soul of this ballpark, and this is something we've talked about since he died."
On a cold February night almost 10 years later, Perkins stood inside the ballpark's concession stand a couple hours before the school board decided to move his home field to the Howell campus. He talked about what the park has meant to him, his players and the community.
"It's very hard to come to grips with," said Perkins, who has coached the Francis Howell baseball team since 1994 and was elected to the Missouri High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2002. "All of us members have gone through so much here. We've all put in so much and ask nothing back. The blood, the sweat, the tears, the celebrations when you win, the sad times when you get beat.
"I was hoping I could finish my career at C&H Park," he said. "I'm not going to be coaching until I'm 80. One of these days I'm going to get out. But I've lived out here. I'm here before school in the morning getting the water off of the field. I'm curious about maintenance — who's going to maintain the fields at the school?"
The district pays C&H $5,500 per year for its baseball and softball teams to use the park, which has a main baseball field and two auxiliary fields. Perkins' biggest issue with the move is whether the district's maintenance workers can keep the new field at the school playable when weather conditions turn bad. C&H has been known for its ability to host games when all other fields are unplayable.
For decades, dedicated volunteers and parents, like Gary Peel, have helped make C&H playable. Peel's son Brett graduated from Howell in 2011 and is one of dozens of former Vikings to go on and play college baseball. Peel's wife Angie played softball at C&H for Howell. Her father, Bill Arnold, worked on the C&H fields years ago.
"With the cutbacks at the school and money issues the district has, you've got a facility here that's ready to go," Gary Peel said. "They've cut teachers. I think the money could be better spent than upgrading ball fields."
School board member Mike Hoehn cast the lone vote against approving funds for the new athletic complex. He said C&H is the best baseball field in the St. Louis area, bar none.
Hoehn, Perkins, Peel and C&H treasurer Paul James all said that when Howell leaves C&H for good it will be a bittersweet moment. Hoehn said he spent years at C&H keeping score for Howell's baseball and softball teams.
"It's not just about the baseball team," Hoehn said of the board's decision. "It's about better student attachment, being able to have everybody there, have trainers on campus. It resolves the transportation issues of having students go to and from C&H. It's part of a much bigger plan."
James, who played baseball for the Vikings before graduating in 1982, agreed with Hoehn's assessment that the school district has been getting more than a bargain by paying the association $5,500 per year to use its fields. James said he was happy the school district was giving the association enough time to help fill the March through May slot that Howell's baseball team filled.
Part of the agreement Howell had with C&H was that when the Vikings were scheduled to play, no other activities could be scheduled on the main field in those three months. C&H also will lose the revenues from the concession stand during Vikings games. James said C&H has an operating budget of $100,000 per year.
"During the baseball season it will be very difficult to replace the revenues they bring in," James said. "When they're playing that's all that goes on from March through May. That is a major hit to us during that time frame."
Perkins, who is as superstitious as any baseball coach can be, believes the success his program has enjoyed during the better part of the last 20 years is because of the symbiotic relationship between his team and C&H Ballpark. That success includes Class 4 championships in 2003 and 2011, second-place finishes in 1997 and 2008 and 11 Gateway Athletic Conference championships.
When the Vikings leave, C&H members will have to replace a huge chunk of the outfield wall where hand-painted segments list the names of coaches and players on the Vikings' two state championship squads. The rest of the outfield wall consists of hand-painted ads, some of which have been around for 40 years.
"I've been to seven Final Fours," Perkins said. "A lot of those (playoff) games we played at C&H. If you look at this park, you see signs of Francis Howell history and championships. You see 'Home of the Francis Howell Vikings' on the (center field wall), and it is a home. It's a community-based place. We have members from everywhere that invest so much time."