Long before the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville was built, the heart of professional baseball in the Bold City was located off of Myrtle Avenue in Durkeeville.
James P. Small Park, as it’s been known since its 1980 re-dedication, began its life in the 1910s as a simple community baseball diamond, known alternatively as Barrs Field or the Myrtle Avenue Ball Park. It was home mostly to local rec league teams – one of which featured a young James Weldon Johnson on its roster – but was occasionally utilized for pro teams’ spring training operations and semi-pro games.
But the city soon set its eyes on attracting a professional team, prompting it to purchase the Durkeeville field’s land from the Durkee family in 1932.
A steel-and-brick grandstand was built around the existing diamond – then rebuilt promptly following a mid-‘30s fire. The new stadium was dubbed Durkee Field.
Its bleachers were built specifically to be racially segregated, despite the stadium’s location within the historically black Durkeeville neighborhood.
The city was successful in luring a professional team to the park – specifically, the Jacksonville Tars of the Southeastern League.
A few years later, the Jacksonville Red Caps of the Negro American League began play at the park as well. They lasted just three years before fizzling out as many of its players left to fight in World War II.
In 1953, local businessman Samuel Wolfson purchased the struggling Tars, renaming them the Braves and racially integrating the team – a move that led to the team acquiring elite talent including a young Hank Aaron.
Wolfson also pushed the city to build a new, modernized ballpark in downtown Jax – which it did almost immediately, opening what would become Wolfson Park just two years later in 1955.
By this point, Durkee Field was viewed as outdated and unappealing for professional teams. It was relegated back to community use and gradually entered a state of disrepair as the city ignored it in favor of its new downtown field.
By the late ‘70s, the city was ready to demolish the field. But thanks to a push by neighborhood activists, the city instead opted to repair the aging stadium and add amenities such as lighting, a press box, and a new parking lot.
The field was rededicated in 1980 in honor of James P. Small, who served as Stanton High School’s athletic director and head coach from 1934 to 1967.
In 2013, the park became part of the National Register of Historic Places. Today, the field continues to be utilized by the community, including multiple local school teams. It also features a small museum honoring its history and the history of baseball in Jax.