When the Duluth Cardinals entered the Northern League in 1903, they needed a place to play. So that April contractors hastily built a wooden ballpark with seating for 3,000 in the shadows of the DM&I ore docks. It was a very simple affair: the seats were boards that didn’t even have cushions until 1909, and then only 500 seats were covered. The next year the team became the Duluth White Sox, winning pennants in 1904 and 1905 with teams led by manager Darby O’Brien. Later White Sox teams included Russ Method and Dewey Scanlon, standout players for the NFL’s Duluth Eskimos.
The 1907 baseball season at Athletic Park opened with grand ceremony. A parade of dignitaries, including Mayor Marcus B. Cullum and every Mason in the city who had reached the Scottish Rite’s 32nd degree, proceeded from city hall at Second Avenue East and Superior Street all the way to Athletic Park in both automobiles and “tally-hos,” a popular term at the time for open-carriage horse-and-wagon vehicles.
That same year a portion of Athletic Park was converted to a hockey rink as a home to the Northern Hockey Club, but it was late December before the weather turned cold enough for outdoor ice. The day after Christmas, the Northerns defeated Duluth’s “College Men”
When not in use by the White Sox, Athletic Park was used for both baseball and football matches played by local elementary and high school teams, and these matches were often reported on in the local press.
A much larger press following was enjoyed by teams made up of employees from various Duluth businesses, with Clyde Iron Works fielding a particularly strong baseball squad. Stories of such events were sometimes played for humor in the News-Tribune. One, about a match between teams sponsored by the Lyceum and Bijou Theaters, sported a headline declaring “Actors will battle at Athletic Park” and mentioned later that “each crew will be accompanied to the Park by a mixed band of rooters and the yelling will be something fierce.”
It wasn’t all baseball and football at Athletic Park. Wrestling matches were held there, and in 1909 two teams, representing local Ojibwe and Dakota, squared off in a lacrosse match. The teams of Carlisle and Odanah took the field, but the reporter failed to mention which nation each team represented. He also had little knowledge of the game and no respect for the heritage of the players—describing them in myriad ways today’s readers would find offensive—calling one player a “cigar sign” and describing the game as an “imitation massacre.” Odanah won, 3–1, but according to the reporter, well before the game ended most spectators had left Athletic Park to watch a sandlot baseball game adjacent to the field.
During World War I shipbuilding firms and other outfits producing materials for the war effort formed a football league which played at the park. That league was where Harry Grant, father of NFL legend Harry “Bud” Grant, learned to play the game he taught to his son.
Athletic Park later became the home field of the National Football League’s Duluth Kelleys, who entered the league in 1923. Sportswriter and broadcasting legend Halsey Hall, who would become famous as the radio voice of the Minnesota Twins, reported that Athletic Park had no locker rooms and that the playing field was an “uneven, coal-dust surface.” It was actually iron ore dust.
The Kelleys faced Curly Lambeau and his Green Bay Packers in 1924, long thought to be the only time the Pack ever played in Duluth. Hall performed the referee duties, flagging Duluth’s Bill Stein fifty-yards for “slugging,” which helped a last-minute rally by the Packers. Despite the call, and a five-yard penalty for “stalling,” Duluth hung on to win, 6–3.
Recent research has turned up a report of another visit by Green Bay to the Zenith City. In 1922, the year before the Kelleys entered the NFL, the Pack came to play on September 24 in what the Duluth News Tribune called the “Greatest Game Ever Played at Athletic Park.” The Pack’s squad of primarily former college players was heavily favored to win, but Duluth had a college boy of their own, former All-American Notre Dame half back Danny Coughlin, who played both offense and defense for the Kelleys.
Duluth held the Packers tight, allowing Green Bay only one first down. But it was also tough for the home team’s offense to score. In fact, neither offense scored. Coughlin intercepted a Green Bay pass and ran it back fifty-five yards for a touchdown. The point-after attempt failed, and as they would a year later, Duluth went on to win, this time 6–2. Late in the third quarter Coughlin, realizing he could not get a punt off from his one-yard line, allowed himself to be driven through the end zone for a safety rather than give up the ball at the goal line to set up what would have been a certain game-tying touchdown for the visitors.
The Kelleys lsyer became the Duluth Eskimos, a team which included Hall of Famers Ernie Nevers, Johnny “Blood” McNally, and Walt Kiesling as well as hometown hero Wally Gilbert and players primarily from Duluth, the Iron Range, Two Harbors, and Superior. They only played one game at Athletic Park: because of Nevers’ star power, the NFL made the Eskimos play every game except their first on the road in order to sell more tickets.
In 1935 the Duluth White Sox were sold to Kansas City, who changed the team’s name to the Duluth Dukes. In 1941 Athletic Park was destroyed and Wade Municipal Stadium became the home of the Dukes. The team changed names several more times until folding in 1970. (The 1993–2002 Duluth Dukes had no connection to the original franchise.)