On October 2, 1948, some 20, 000 Mobilians jammed into the new Ladd Stadium for a football game. The Alabama Crimson Tide played the second game of their season, which ended in a 14-14 tie with Vanderbilt. And, for the next 14 years, the two teams would play a game annually at that stadium.
Although named to honor the late Ernest F. Ladd Sr., longtime president of Mobile’s Merchant’s National Bank, his family was not behind its construction nor did they arrange its financing. The stadium was built thanks to the untiring efforts of another banker, Finley McRae, who, like Ladd, started out an illustrious career as a runner.
McRae never stopped crediting Ernest Ladd for his success and for the “privilege to have worked at Mr. Ladd’s elbow.” In the summer of 1941, while enjoying his home overlooking Mobile Bay, Ladd complained of feeling ill and died of a heart attack before a doctor could arrive.
A Well-deserved Memorial
The Mobile Register eulogized the late banker for his part in the creation of the Alabama State Docks and having “quietly raised large sums of money to secure new industries for Mobile and influencing strong men to take necessary action.” McRae spent the next seven years raising the money to honor Ladd and provide the city with what he termed “a badly needed community facility.”
A bronze plaque with an image of Mr. Ladd was unveiled before that football game in 1948. Its creator was the Hungarian born sculptor Jeno Juszko, who had also created the likenesses of General John Pershing, Theodore Roosevelt and five busts of Union generals for the interior of Grant’s Tomb in New York.
The stadium cost a total of $919, 000 (the equivalent of roughly $9 million today). The vast majority of money came from private donors with the city donating 43 acres of land and road improvements. A nonprofit corporation oversaw the facility with three trustees named by city commissioners, three from the Mobile Chamber of Commerce and the seventh being the current president of Merchant’s National Bank.
Home of the Senior Bowl
It was in 1951 that a year-old college football game made its home at Ladd Stadium. The Senior Bowl got its start in Jacksonville to showcase the best NFL prospects among college players. The teams were divided geographically with teams for the North and the South. The South won the first game in Mobile, 19-18, and the game has been played here ever since.
From Elvis to Bear Bryant
By 1955, it was estimated that more than 2 million people had attended some sort of event at Ladd Stadium. And on May 4 of that year, Elvis Presley appeared there as a headliner for the Hank Snow All-Star Jamboree as part of a multi-state tour.
Just three years later, coach Bear Bryant debuted at Ladd Stadium as the newest coach for the Crimson Tide. But it was not an illustrious start. During the first quarter, some 70 fans were injured when a set of wooden bleachers “collapsed like an accordion.” Adding insult to injury, the Tide lost to LSU, 13-3.
The stadium was taken over by the City of Mobile in 1984. By that time, there was no longer a Merchant’s National Bank, and its successor had little interest in the stadium or the Senior Bowl.
A Facelift and a New Name
In the 1990s, the stadium had seen better days. The design was hopelessly out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the whole complex was in need of serious upgrades. A $7.2 million renovation was begun in 1996 to provide enlarged concourses, new locker rooms and public restrooms, as well as concession stands. By 1998, the final costs for the stadium, along with improvements to the parking lot, topped $8 million.
After the project was completed, Charles Waller, a member of the Mobile City Council, proceeded to have the complex renamed Ladd-Peebles Stadium. E. B. Peebles Jr., the longtime CEO of the Senior Bowl, was thus honored for his tireless efforts to keep the program in Mobile. Mr. Peebles responded: “This is the biggest shock of my life.”
In 2001, Ladd-Peebles Stadium received further overhauls with more work done to the flood-prone parking lot. Seven years later, the stadium became host to home games for the South Alabama Jaguars.
While the stadium was officially opened in 1948 with Mayor Ernest Megginson declaring that the facility was designed for “civic, religious and cultural, as well as athletic events, ” most Mobilians will always associate it with football and, specifically, Mobile’s beloved Senior Bowl.
Text by Tom McGehee