Baseball has long been a central part of Memphis, TN, stretching back to 1877. This connection was epitomized in the late 1990s after the Memphis minor league ballclub left the city for nearby Jackson, TN. The Memphis Redbirds Foundation succeeded in bringing a new team to the town in 1998 and then helped it raise funds to build the $80.5 million AutoZone Park. It was one of the most expensive minor league stadiums when it opened.
The stadium, named “Baseball America’s” Minor League Ballpark of the Year in 2009, has also drawn praise for being “a key component in the revitalization of Downtown Memphis.” The positive impact that AutoZone Park had on the city’s downtown area has been cited as helping to influence the NBA’s Vancouver Grizzlies’ move to Memphis in 2001. A few years later, the Grizzlies built their arena only a half mile from the ballpark.
The Memphis Redbirds Baseball Foundation was not the first nonprofit organization to operate a professional sports franchise. However, it was the first designated a charity by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The Foundation certainly did a lot of good work for Memphis.
Besides running the team and the stadium for around a decade, the nonprofit gave hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to support local youth programs. Programs included Returning Baseball to the Inner-City (RBI) and Sports Teams Returning In The Public Education System (STRIPES) that help youngsters with their athletic skills and personal development. “Our mission is to improve the lives of the children in our community,” stated the Foundation’s Rita Sparks in 2005.
When Major League Baseball looked for a city to host its inaugural Civil Rights Game, Memphis was a perfect choice. Memphis, of course, has a deep history with the Civil Rights Movement, boasting one of Minor League Baseball’s top stadiums that could easily handle a nationally showcased event. On March 31, 2007, AutoZone Park hosted the first-ever Civil Rights Game with Cleveland playing St. Louis, the Redbirds’ parent baseball team, in a preseason exhibition game televised on ESPN. Memphis was home to the first two Civil Rights Games, which also featured the presentation of MLB’s Beacon Awards, which honored pioneers in the Civil Rights Movement.
The Memphis Redbirds’ subsequent owners have maintained the foundation’s focus on supporting local organizations. The Redbirds Community Fund distributes thousands of dollars yearly to youth baseball programs around the Memphis area and other nonprofit projects. During the 2021 season, the Redbirds chose Memphis Little League as the recipient of the money the team earned while participating in a home run hitting-based fundraising initiative by Minor League Baseball. The Redbirds have teamed up with The Hartford Insurance Company during the 2022 season for a Junior Fire Marshal program, where youngsters can have fun while learning about fire safety. At games during July, two children were chosen to participate in a firefighter-themed contest on the baseball diamond.
In 2017, the Redbirds came up with another groundbreaking idea — to create what has been called the first urban rooftop garden in a Minor League Baseball ballpark.
The Miracle-Gro Rooftop Garden, done in partnership with the famous lawn care company, is located on AutoZone Park’s third-floor landing. “We looked at the space, and it is sort of right behind home plate on the southwest side of the stadium — open space, direct sunlight, but no view of the field,” explained Craig Unger, the Redbirds’ president and general manager. “How can we better utilize the space inside of the ballpark? … Why not a garden?”
The raised garden beds are over 1,000 square feet, with each bed containing 80 cubic yards of soil. Broccoli, carrots, lettuce, onions, peppers, and tomatoes are among the vegetables that can be grown in the garden, along with herbs such as basil, cilantro, dill, mint, and oregano. These items can be ingredients in the food sold at the stadium’s concession stands. The park-grown produce reflects the growing prominence in Memphis’ culinary scene to use local, sustainable goods.
The garden also represents an educational opportunity for the ballpark to teach children about healthy nutrition and what they can do with a home garden. Beyond these ecological benefits, AutoZone Park’s rooftop garden is, in Unger’s words, “… fun; it is engaging; and it is just something that is unique.”