It was a running joke all throughout my time at IU from 1991 to 1995 and beyond. I’ll never forget the first time I laid eyes on the Hoosiers’ former home ballpark — Sembower Field. As a freshman living at the Paul V. McNutt Quad (himself a former IU baseball player prior to becoming the Indiana governor), I went months without realizing that IU’s baseball stadium was literally across the street. I had to walk by it every day to head towards campus and yet I never noticed it. The hilltop location was apparently just enough to obscure it from my daily peripheral view.
One day while visiting friends at the Foster Quad a group of us happened upon the former home of the Hoosiers baseball program. “What the hell is Sembower Field” someone asked. Someone else chimed in that it was the home field for IU’s baseball team. Skeptical laughter ensued. Wait, what? I believe my comment at the time was that it reminded me of a field at Southport Little League, which was within walking distance to the house I grew up in.
Perhaps it was my warped sense of reality growing up in basketball crazed Indiana. Here, a facility of this stature might make a good middle school basketball gym. Because of that, Sembower Field certainly didn’t seem worthy of a Division 1 Big Ten baseball program, even if they were a middling program with no real tradition to speak of.
But it wasn’t just a group of uninformed college kids that sensed something wasn’t right with Indiana’s baseball facilities. When an image of Sembower Field was shown on ESPNU during IU’s 2013 game against Florida State to illustrate the progress of the program, the announcers laughed out loud live on the air.
REMEMBERING SEMBOWER FIELD AND ITS PREDECESSOR
Sembower Field was located on North Fee Lane, neatly tucked in just to north of Foster. It was constructed in 1951 and was named after the late Charles J. Sembower, who was an IU English professor and former IU shortstop. It was the first of several moves of various IU athletic facilities from the central part of campus to the north end.
If you ask those in the know, they will tell you that Sembower Field was a typical Division 1 ballpark for a northern school during most of its existence. Sure, it paled in comparison to the facilities of the major southern programs, but Indiana wasn’t a major program and it wasn’t looking to expend the funds to create the image of one.
Sembower Field was a major upgrade for the baseball program at the time it was built, which for the more than 50 years prior played its home games at Jordan Field. Ostensibly, Jordan Field was just that — a field. Located at what is now the gated parking lot for the Indiana Memorial Union off 7th Street, the former Hoosier ballpark was no frills to say the least.
As you can see in the photos below, at least in the late 1940’s there was no outfield fence to speak of. There were no dugouts either, as the players sat on a bench just a few feet in front of the fans and the minimal Jordan Field stands. Beyond those seats, fans attending the games would sit on the top of a bowl-shaped hill that surrounded the field of play. You can also see that in the first photo as well, and if you look closely today, you can still see the bowl around the IMU parking lot.
Sembower Field would be the home field for the IU baseball team for 62 years, and for the most part it served its purpose. It wasn’t a baseball shrine by any means — but neither were the Hoosiers. To be sure, IU had some nice seasons, like the 1985 Bob Morgan led club that won 57 games and the 1996 team that made it to the NCAA Regionals. And IU produced some MLB talent, such as Mickey Morandini and John Wehner, who each played 11 years in the big leagues.
But for most of the time that Indiana called Sembower Field home, it was not considered anywhere near elite, and the program largely sat in the shadows of the IU men’s basketball, soccer and swimming teams.
That started to change when Indiana hired Tracy Smith to run the program in 2005. Building on the respectable foundation that Morgan and others had laid, Smith took the program to the next level. By 2009 the Hoosiers were back in the NCAA Regionals, and by 2011 they had completed their 4th consecutive winning season under Smith. Indiana had also become a regular in the six team Big Ten tournament after routinely missing the event prior to his arrival.
With a winning culture beginning to emerge and a wealth of young talent from Smith’s success on the recruiting trail, it was becoming clear that the time was right to replace the outdated relic that was Sembower Field. In 2011, the IU Board of Trustees approved the construction of a new baseball complex just north of the Mellencamp Pavilion.
IS THIS HEAVEN? NO, IT’S INDIANA
In the “Field of Dreams”, Ray Kinsella had to build the baseball field in order to bring back the baseball greats. At IU they did it the right way — they built the program first and then erected a ballpark that was truly worthy of one of the Big Ten’s premier teams.
What they couldn’t know, for sure anyway, was that when they built it, a level of success never seen before in the program’s history would come. Immediately. Bart Kaufman Field opened in 2013. If you have even a passing familiarity with IU baseball then you know about that 2013 season. The Hoosiers advanced to the College World Series in Omaha for the first time in the program’s history. It was a season truly worthy of the beautiful new northern baseball mecca that the Hoosiers now called home.
IU’s baseball facility was named after Bart Kaufman in honor of a major gift to IU Athletics by the former IU baseball student-athlete and chairman and CEO of Kaufman Financial. The facility represented a major upgrade from Sembower Field, including a clubhouse featuring players locker rooms, coaches locker room, training area and team room, indoor and outdoor hitting cages, and a new scoreboard (that will be enhanced with a new video board this year), and much more.
It is hard to believe at this point, but IU had its 6th opening day at the Bart today. Unfortunately the Hoosiers lost to Cincinnati in the 2018 opener, but since the opening of the Bart in 2013, the ascension of the program under Smith and current head coach Chris Lemonis has only accelerated.
With its facilities now serving as a recruiting tool rather than a hindrance, the program has evolved into one of the Big Ten’s best. In the first five seasons since its 2013 opening, the Hoosiers have compiled a 192-101-2 (.665) record and have reached at least the NCAA regional in 4 out of those 5 seasons.
Bart Kaufman Field and the IU baseball program have been the perfect marriage, joining forces at the right time and making each other better. Sembower Field served its purpose for more than half a century. Now Indiana has moved on to an elite baseball facility — and it has an elite team to go with it.
SEMBOWER FIELD TODAY
For those feeling nostalgic for their cozy old neighborhood ballpark, the good news is that Sembower Field wasn’t paved into parking lot oblivion like its predecessor, although it should be noted that Jordan Field had a brief life as an intramural field before meeting its asphalt fate. That is exactly what the former Sembower Field is now — the Sembower Recreational Sports Complex, serving as a location primarily for intramural sports. For now anyway.
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