Who was Chester Willis — the man for whom newly-renovated stadium is named? Here is his story.

Published 1:59 pm Friday, March 1, 2024

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Reprinted from the May/June 2021 issue of Natchez the Magazine 

Chester Willis Field at Liberty Park has been the baseball hub of Natchez since the 1940s where it was home to semi-pro teams, a SWAC conference tournament and local high schools.

It was not known as Chester Willis Field until 1986. After Chester Willis died in 1985, A group from his graduating class at Natchez High School got together to name the field at Liberty Park after him.

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Chester Willis was one of the better, quicker players to play softball at Liberty Park. He coached Dixie Youth baseball for seven, eight and nine year olds before he helped Former Dixie Youth Director Clarence Bowlin with managing the league.

“He was such an active person with all people. In all sports,” the late Bowlin said in 2021. “He was always willing to help the youth. He did a great job. (The Willis family) are good people, and he was a great man.”

He would help umpire games or do anything the youth leagues needed, Chester’s son Newt said. His father was a deacon and a clothes salesman for Benoist Brothers and worked there for 44 years.

He was a little man, but people loved him, Newt said. Chester was five foot six inches, he said. His father would claim he was five foot seven and a half inches tall. Ladies in Natchez loved Chester because he could always help them find clothes for their husbands, Newt said.

“He did not forget anybody’s sizes,” Newt said. “If he sold to you he remembered what you wore. He gave you the service of that. It is why people cared about him. Daddy had one of the biggest funerals I have ever seen in my life.”

The Willis family is a baseball family, he said. His dad loved to play baseball and softball. He said to have the field at Liberty Park named Chester Willis was really special.

Newt can remember watching his dad play softball at Liberty Park when he was five years old. At the time, the park had lights, but there was no outfield fence, so if a ball went past the fence line, the players would hold their hands up for a ground-rule double, he said.

“This man hit a ball up over the lights,” Newt said. “Dad went out into the darkness and caught the ball. He came back holding it up, and not one man questioned if he caught that ball or not. That is the kind of person he was.”

After Chester’s death, the field became home to high school and college baseball games. The Southwestern Athletic Conference played their baseball tournament at Chester Willis Field from 1988 to 1995.

Trinity Episcopal Day School played on the field until the school closed in 2018. Cathedral and Natchez High School call Chester Willis field home today. The deep foul territory, and outfield is similar in appearance to the ballpark the semi-proteam Natchez Indians played in , Bowlin said.

He remembered watching Natchez Indian games while he was in high school. He would sit along the fence and chase down foul balls as they rolled into the soybean field.

“It was a strange park. I can remember centerfield being very deep,” Bowlin said. “Behind it used to be a farm, and we would hide foul balls in the field by stomping them into the dirt and covering them up. We would mark their location and the next day go back and dig them up. That is what we would play with as kids.”

He said once, a Natchez Indian player they called “Hong Kong Slayton” went to catch a ball at the fence and crashed through it. Slayton’s head was on one side of the fence, and his feet were on the other, Bowlin said.

Semi-pro team Natchez Pilgrims first played at Liberty Park in 1940 and then the semi-pro team Natchez Giants played there in 1942 as members of the Evangeline League. Play resumed in 1946 after World War II and the Giants became the Indians in 1948 according to baseball-reference.com. The Indians would play until 1953.

Former Natchez Mayor Tony Byrne said he remembered watching the Indians play with his daddy. He was sure the Natchez Indian players would go on to star in the big leagues as a kid. Natchez was a Class C team, which meant players had to be called up to Class B, Class A, AA, and AAA before making a major league roster.

Some players stayed in Natchez working for Armstrong Tire and International Paper, Byrne said. Country star Jim Reeves played on the 1946 Natchez Giants before he moved to the Alexandria Aces. Reeves won five games in his time with the Natchez Giants according to his biography “Jim Reeves: His Untold Story” by Larry Jordan.

Byrne turned 85 in May, but he can remember the names of players Jim Logan, Ray Mink and Anthony “Tony” DiBartolo. Their names are fresh on his mind, and so are the delicious hotdogs served at Liberty Park, he said. Hot Dogs only cost a nickel or a dime in the early 1950s.

Visiting teams would stay at the Natchez Hotel across the street from the Eola Hotel on Pearl Street. He said he and a friend would convince the team to let them be the batboys, and they would ride to Liberty Park on a bus.

“Our pay was if they broke a bat we got to keep the bat,” Byrne said. “We could tape up (the broken bats) to play with. If the balls got too dirty, they would give us a baseball. That is what we played with as kids growing up.”