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Visiting the Baseball Museum in Near Here, Kansas

Baseball and glove (Photo by J. Schafer)
Baseball and glove (Photo by J. Schafer)

Which sport truly ranks as "America's Pastime?" That debate is part of the long and rich history of sports arguments in this country. The term "national pastime" was first given to baseball in the mid-1800s. But these days, Major League Baseball ranks behind pro football in TV ratings. While the game of baseball has changed dramatically since its earliest days, Commentator William Jennings Bryan Oleander says the sport still resonates deeply for those who love it.

Commentator Williams Jennings Bryan Oleander is also known as Tom Averill, professor emeritus at Washburn University and the author of 10 books. He lives in Topeka. 


Oleander on Baseball

Folks, Iola Humboldt and I are baseball fans, hooked four years ago when the Kansas City Royals won the World Series. This year, that team is tough to watch, but we do. Recently I took Iola over to the Near Here, Kansas, Base Ball Museum. There, behind dusty glass, we looked at the splayed mitts, the hit-chewed bats, the yellowing balls, the score cards with pencil marks fading like an infield fly at dusk. We checked out the home plate of burlap, the pitcher’s rubber cut from the side of a tractor tire, the photograph albums, pennants, and banners, the caps, the wool uniforms, the cleated, clotted shoes.

Baseball, these days, seems more seen than watched, more flat-screen than 3-D. To watch baseball, Iola and I would have to drive to Wichita for the Wing Nuts, Denver for the Rockies, Omaha for the Storm Chasers, or Kansas City for the Royals. Gone are the days of pick-up games, the old town rivalries, the bush league brawls when barn-storming teams traveled through the countryside. Those memories are fading, losing their color like the canning jars in the cellar.

But at the Base Ball Museum, I can still remember the sound of a funky ball hit by a splintering bat, the thunking catch of a line drive, the tobacco spitting, the blind umpire, the “Hey batta, batta, hey batta, batta, hey batta, batta, swing!”

Even before then, as my father told it, baseball was primitive. Those pioneers gathered not with bats, but striker’s sticks, fashioned from wagon wheel spokes or ax handles, shaved slender and round for best ball contact. Only one of them had a ball, made with a fish-eye core, his mother’s yarn, his father’s leather shoe tongue sewn tight with precious twine.

Any field was their field, easily paced, bases marked by hat, shingle, or crate bottom, each as temporary as play for all of them caught stealing time between milkings, feedings, mendings and tendings. They had so few precious hours between dawn and dusk.

They pitched underhanded, with no catcher to give signs—no curve balls, spit balls, knuckle balls, sinkers, sliders, or change ups. The pitcher’s job was to encourage a striker to move the ball toward play, toward base path commotion, toward put outs or the reaching of home plate. They played bare-handed, just as they did everything bare-handed, their hands work-calloused, the stinging ball a pleasure. They played until dusk rendered the ball invisible. They noted runs, but the score never mattered. Everyone was a winner.

Nowadays, folks, we have huge stadiums for seeing baseball. Back then, the land was changed, but only for moments. When those pioneers left, grass went back to being grass. Base lines settled into the baselines of water table, rock, soil, seed, cloud, wind and sky. Home was no longer one place but was everywhere and anywhere again. Baseball may still be the national pastime, but the ball my father loved, and the ball I remember, is way past its time.