By Marshall Conner
FredNats Owner Art Silber remembers special relationship with Jackie Robinson, hopes to make baseball equally memorable for kids and families in Fredericksburg
Spring means baseball and there has never been a more exciting time for local fans. The Washington Nationals, buoyed by last year’s World Series Championship, are back on the field and, in Fredericksburg, baseball fans will welcome the Fredericksburg Nationals, a Carolina League (Class A-Advanced affiliate) of the Washington Nationals.
The FredNats will have a brand-new stadium and baseball culture to embrace.
Over a thousand season tickets have been sold, local businesses are investing heavily and fans are elated to have minor league baseball so close they can smell the fresh-cut grass.
One of the most endearing aspects of minor league baseball is its infectious dedication to affordable family fun. The Fredericksburg Nationals will offer that and more. The team has ownership of its stadium, and its owners are dedicated to baseball history, tradition and the magic of big-league dreams.
The dream starts with Art Silber, owner and CEO of the Fredericksburg Nationals. His baseball journey is the embodiment of a childhood dream. A dream forged in his youth, among family and fandom. It is his desire to share with others the same joy he first experienced as a kid growing in Brooklyn, New York.
Silber is approaching his 80th birthday in July, and he wants to blend past, present and future to provide a complete baseball experience for fans.
He wants to give Fredericksburg a gift called hometown baseball.
“What we have attempted to create is a visual cornucopia for everyone to experience our baseball park. The architecture and design will immediately attract with attractive lines, the crossed bats in the entrance, and even its physical address, 42 Jackie Robinson Way,” says Silber proudly. “This was done on purpose to honor my childhood hero Jackie Robinson.”
To understand Silber’s love for baseball one must return to a time in American history when baseball was the most popular sport in the nation—and in the city where he lived. Radios crackled with colorful descriptions of baseball games. Children watched games from behind an outfield fence and played street ball. Neighborhoods had competing baseball teams and children looked up to their baseball heroes.
“In 1947, I was a 7-year-old kid living in Brooklyn—it was also Jackie Robinson’s rookie season with the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was a time before television when baseball on the radio was the most popular way to visualize a game,” recalls Silber. “When I was kid I used to walk alongside Robinson down the street next to Ebbets Field and into the players’ entrance. To me, he looked like a man carved out of granite and he was my immediate hero.”
This pre-game tradition allowed Silber to build a unique and life-changing friendship with his baseball hero. This friendship spanned Robinson’s remarkable rookie season when he broke the segregation barrier in Major League Baseball to the sad departure of the team from Brooklyn. This friendship lasted after Robinson’s retirement from the game.
“I will always remember when he said, ‘Call me Jackie.’ The baseball he signed for me during that time became my first one and the most cherished one in my collection,” says Silber. “I eventually had the entire team on a baseball. In honor of Robinson, I wore his famous number 42 as a high school baseball player and in college.”
He remembers Robinson’s bravery, athleticism and heart.
“I spoke to him years after he retired and I asked him if he remembered me,” remembered Silber. “He looked at me and said he did. He remembered—and that meant the world to me.”
The number 42 was officially retired throughout professional baseball—including the minors in 1997.
“On the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s first game, I was a guest of MLB at Shea Stadium at a game between the Dodgers and Mets,” Silber adds. “It was a big day. President Clinton was there and Jackie’s family was honored.”
Silber shared Robinson’s classic jersey number with Yankee Hall of Fame pitcher Mariano Rivera and later his son. Silber views his history of wearing the number as a vehicle to retell Robinson’s story.
The new stadium will be a fun mix of new and traditional amenities.
“We want fans to have a wow factor. The 28-foot-high crossed bats with the Fredericksburg Nationals logo inside will greet people entering the ballpark. Our lobby will resemble a theater and the ballpark will have a magnificent playing surface that offers top-of-the-line drainage and durability,” says Silber.
There will be a 6-foot high 167-foot long ribbon board in the outfield and 60-foot wide video board for all the video highlights and intros, according to planners.
Other unique features in the ballpark will include a local history wall that includes the origins of baseball ranging from its Native Americans roots to Civil War soldiers playing the first forms of the sport. It also includes the story of the legendary Fredericksburg White Sox.
“The ballpark will also have a wellness and play area sponsored by Mary Washington Healthcare with a toddler play area and a more active and fast-paced area geared towards teens,” says Silber. “We will offer affordable family entertainment in a safe place. We are even doing a national search for a full-size carousel—but I’m not sure that will be ready for opening day.”
At press time the seats were going in and the details are being finalized all under the loving guidance of the Silber family.
“We are unique in that we own all 25 acres of our ballpark. It is owned by me, my daughter and my son—it’s truly a family endeavor,” says Silber. “We’re incredibly close as a family and my three grandchildren. My daughter moved to Fredericksburg when construction started and my teenage grandson attends school in Fredericksburg. My son lives close by as well; everyone is involved. “
In addition to creating a great baseball venue, the area behind Central Park known as Celebrate Virginia will become an entertainment complex.
“I want people to think of the stadium as a second home and more,” Silber adds.
The new stadium will also host concerts and special shows like the fireworks displays that were immensely popular with its Prince William fans before the move south.
The team’s ownership praised the tremendous level of co-operation and support of local government and business and it hopes to incorporate many community and business partnerships.
“We believe we’re going to sell out lots of games,” says Silber. “We are very excited about our new home.”
For pull boxes or extras:
- Opening Day for the inaugural season will be April 23
- The stadium will accommodate a semi-truck pulling a full stage into the park’s interior
- Sound stage, video screen and Bose sound system will make sure there are no dead spots in the stadium
- Upper decks, party decks and club areas will dazzle
- Scoreboard box with manual changes to the scoreboard like Fenway Park
- Silber is an avid baseball collector who owns 900 signed baseballs stretching back to the 1920s
- The stadium will hold special events, concerts, camp days and fireworks
- Special field lighting will allow for color changes for special events
- Fredericksburg Nationals have a local history partnership with Germanna College
- Silber previously owned the Prince William Nationals
Radio: NewsTalk 1230 WFVA to be Official Flagship Station for the Fredericksburg Nationals Inaugural Season