Baseball season is still months away. But two recent books and a local documentary have Commentator Rex Buchanan dreaming of spring training and the summer sport known as America's pastime.
Commentator Rex Buchanan is director emeritus of the Kansas Geological Survey at the University of Kansas. He lives in Lawrence.
Just above the desk in my office is a framed baseball uniform. It belonged to my grandfather, who died before I was born. He wore it in the 1920s when he played baseball for the little town of Saxman, out in central Kansas. The uniform is faded red, torn and stained in a place or two. Saxman itself doesn’t really exist any more.
But the uniform is a reminder of the importance of baseball in small Kansas towns, and to the people who lived there. A couple of recent books and a documentary back that up. One is called Home, Home Plate on the Range, by Tony Hall, the former sports editor for the Emporia Gazette. The other is Kansas Baseball, 1858-1941, by Ft. Hays State University professor Mark Eberle. The documentary, by Mark Honer from Kansas City, is called “Town Teams: Bigger Than Baseball.”
Both give a sense of baseball’s role throughout the state, not just in the small towns. Town-team baseball was huge in the early 1900s. These were teams made up of locals, like my grandfather, with the occasional ringer thrown in. They played for fun and small town pride. For my grandfather, who was a farmer, a town team game on a summer Sunday afternoon was probably the highlight of the week.
But there was more than amateur baseball. In 1910, 24 minor league teams called Kansas home. And while no major league teams were headquartered here, they regularly showed up, barnstorming their way through the state. A 1913 exhibition game between the Chicago White Sox and the New York Giants in tiny Blue Rapids, in northeastern Kansas, drew 2,500 fans. The ballpark where they played still sits on the edge of the town today.
An incredible diversity of teams and players performed here. African-American teams, most notably the Kansas City Monarchs, toured repeatedly. There were teams of women, Mexican-Americans, Native Americans.
The list of big time names who played here is just as incredible. Satchel Paige, of course, pitched for the Monarchs, and I still run into people who remember, or say they remember, seeing him play. Jim Thorpe played exhibition games. Mickey Mantle played his rookie season in minor league baseball for Independence, in southeastern Kansas.
And baseball isn’t just about people, it’s about places. You can see some of the ballparks, like the one in Blue Rapids, where these games were played. Not long ago I stopped by Moffett Stadium in Larned, built into the side of a hill by the WPA in 1936. They still play high school ball there. Wichita’s Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, built in 1934, is home to an independent league team and each summer hosts the National Baseball Congress tournament. I myself even played softball in Hobbs Park on the east side of Lawrence, built for baseball in 1946.
This is about the time of year when you hear the words, “Pitchers and catchers report to spring training.” There are few sweeter words in the English language. When I hear them, I think about spring. And hope. And about the grandfather I never met, and all the people who played and watched baseball all across Kansas for so long. And still do today.