Arkansas has been home to quite a few all-world caliber baseball players who swoop into the state for a year or two before jumping off to far bigger stages – and achievements – in the major leagues.
Without a doubt, Mike Trout is the poster boy for this kind of star in the 21st century. Big boy starred with the Arkansas Travelers in 2011 before breaking out as an All-Star rookie outfielder with the Los Angeles Angels last season.
A hundred years before Trout, the 5’7″, 150-pound pitcher Dickey Kerr was tearing it up in Paragould in the ol’ Northeast Arkansas League. His ascent into major league stardom wasn’t as fast as Trout’s, but at one point in the 1919 World Series Kerr was the most celebrated athlete in the United States. His unstained hands during the biggest scandal in baseball history would make him an even more revered figure.
Who, though, were the best non-Arkies* to play with an Arkansas team besides Kerr and Trout?
After conferring with sportswriters Jim Harris and Jeff Reed, as well as the Arkansas Baseball Encyclopedia‘s Caleb Hardwick, here are some top candidates, in no particular order:
*Although Bill Dickey was born in Louisiana, I consider him an Arkie.
1. Ferguson Jenkins – pitcher
Played in Arkansas 1963, 64, 65 before heading to Philadelphia, Chicago, Texas and Boston. A three-time All-Star and the 1971 Cy Young Award winner. In 1991, Jenkins became the first Canadian to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
2. Ray Lankford – centerfielder
Played in Arkansas in 1989 before heading to St. Louis for a 14-year career with the Cardinals. A one-time All-Star, Lankford posted five seasons of 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases with the Cardinals (1992, 1995-1998) - the only player in franchise history to accomplish the feat more than once, according to Wikipedia.
3. Richie Allen – third baseman
Played in Arkansas in 1963 before absolutely blowing the ceiling off what rookies were thought to be able to accomplish in Philadelphia. Led the league in runs (125), triples (13), extra base hits (80) and total bases (352); he finished in the top five in batting average (.318), slugging average (.557), hits (201), and doubles (38), says Wikipedia. A seven-time All-Star, winner of the 1972 AL MVP.
4. Tris Speaker
Played in Arkansas in 1908 a year after making his major league debut for the Red Sox.
“Compiled a career batting average of .345 (sixth all-time), and still holds the record of 792 career doubles. Defensively, his career records for assists, double plays, and unassisted double plays by an outfielder still stand,” says Wikipedia. Was a three-time World Series champion with Boston (as a player) and Cleveland (as a manager).
Ten years ago, on May 1st, President George W. Bush stood on board of the USS Abraham Lincoln 30 miles off the coast of San Diego and declared “major combat operations in Iraq have ended” and that “in the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.” It was a bold, impressive claim, given the war had officially begun only 43 days before. But, at the time, G.W. seemed like a pretty impressive man. Before the speech, he’d reportedly become the first sitting president to make an arrested landing on an aircraft carrier.
Bush’s Top Gun moment turned out to be astoundingly premature, of course. U.S. combat involvement in Iraq went on, and on; thousands more Americans died there. The speech, meanwhile, quickly became a cornerstone moment of the Bush era. Images from its broadcast – the nearby “Mission Accomplished” sign, Bush’s olive flight jacket and the ejection harness between his legs – in time accrued a farcical touch and made Bush’s words seem boastful.
For sure, we’ve seen some pretty outlandish claims and bad and/or off-base boasts made by influential sports figures.
Mostly, they’re predictions gone awry. And, mostly, they’re pretty laughable in hindsight. Which is the great thing separating sports and entertainment from more serious aspects of society.
Here are some of the worst sports boasts of all time:
It swept nation in 1981 but took a decade to hit Arkansas with the force of a screwball-throwing tsunami. In June 1991, Cy Young winner Fernando Valenzuela played at Ray Winder Field in Little Rock. Thanks to a preposterous overflow crowd, the game has likely secured a spot as the most phenomenal sporting event in Arkansas history in terms of sheer attendance.
Ray Winder Field, used as the home as the Arkansas Travelers from 1932 to 2007, sat 6,622 in 1991 but more than 12,000 watched Valenzuela pitch. To deal with the overflow, former Travelers GM Bill Valentine had fans stand in the right and left-field bullpens and the warning track in the right and left field.
Almost everybody was there to see Valenzuela, the Mexican pitcher who’d starred for most of the previous decade for the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers had released him in March, 1991, and the Angels signed him that May. They sent him to their minor league affiliates in Palm Springs and Midland (in the Travelers’ Texas League) to rehab.
Valenzuela played three games in the minors that summer, the last and best being in Arkansas. He allowed two hits, but struck out five and led Midland to a 4-0 win.
Were you there?
If so, I’d love to hear your memories of the game and Fernandomania. I’m writing a feature on the game for “Baseball on Broadway,” the Travelers’ annual magazine. Leave a comment that you wouldn’t mind seeing in print, or reach me at 501 588 1396 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Without exception, there are and always will be exceptions.
We all (hopefully) learn this at some time or another, and my most recent lesson came via the expansive readership of the New York Times.
I wrote a piece for the paper’s college sports blog about how college football is the only major American team sport in which there hasn’t been a freshman/rookie to win that sport’s most prestigious individual award. In college football’s case, it’s the Heisman.
In pro sports, there has been a lot more opportunities for first-year player to win such honors because rookies have played on the same teams as veterans since the major leagues’ inceptions. In the college ranks, I knew freshmen played on their own teams, apart from upperclassmen, until 1972. I assumed that was the year the NCAA first allowed freshmen to play with upperclassman, and so naturally I assumed there could not have been a freshmen Heisman finalist before that year.
I was wrong, as ”Todd D” from Tampa Bay, Florida pointed out in my blog post’s comments.
Turns out that during World War II, Georgia Tech freshmen played because there was the shortage of able-bodied men who’d left to fight overseas. And in 1942, a scatback named Clint Castleberry injected life into a Yellow Jackets program which had had only two winning seasons since 1930:
Standing only five-foot-nine, a hundred and fifty-five pounds, Castleberry did not allow his diminutive stature to overshadow his talent and immense heart. Upon entering Tech, he had never played in a game in which his team had lost—and the string continued in the fall of 1942. In essence, Castleberry became Seabiscuit in football pads, revitalizing Tech with incredible touchdown runs—that inspired at least one sportswriter to marvel that he “ran like a crazed jackrabbit,” defensive gems, and a Chip Hilton too-good-to-be-true personality.
Before a late-season knee injury, Castleberry led Georgia Tech to a 9-0 record and into the national Top 5. He played only that one season before heading off to war himself, but impressed everyone and finished third in the Heisman voting. There wouldn’t be another freshman Heisman finalist until another Georgian – Herschel Walker – finished third in 1980. According to football historian Bill Chastain, Castleberry is the only Georgia Tech player with his number retired.
If the program decided to enshrine two jerseys, who would be a top candidate? How about a 19-year-old from Decatur who arrived on campus the next season and developed into a two-time All-SEC QB, as well as a star in baseball and football?
Frank Broyles wouldn’t be a bad choice at all.
“I’ve seen baseball change—I hate to say it like this—to a middle-class white-man’s sport over the years that I don’t think is fair across the board.” – Norm DeBriyn
Arkansas eked out a 5-4 win against Baylor on Sunday to set up a decisive Game 3 on Monday at 6:05 PM on ESPNU (or ESPN2, depending on the cable gods’ whims). If Arkansas wins, it heads out to Omaha for its second College World Series in four years. Despite a recent stretch of weak hitting, despite UA’s horrendous showing at the SEC Tournament and in Game 1 vs. Baylor, the Razorbacks’ season would gain instant salvation. With the increased media attention paid to Arkansas since its last CWS appearance (2009), it would be safe to say “Arkansas baseball has never been hotter than it is right now.”
Lost in the glare, though, would be some startling statistics: Five African-Americans started on the Hogs’ 1985 CWS team, but the numbers have dropped precipitously since then. In the last 14 years, there have been at most four black Hog baseball players. Moreover, in the SEC West in 2010, 2.3% of baseball players were black; that number was 72% in football, 80% in baseball.
Why has African-American participation in baseball nosedived in recent decades? I spent a few months exploring this question by talking with the likes of long-time UA baseball coach Norm DeBriyn, pitcher D.J. Baxendale, Democrat-Gazette writer Rick Fires, former Razorback Arvis Harper and Fitz Hill, a former UA football coach, and D’Vone McClure, one the first African-American Hog baseball signees in years.
My result is an article, which can be accessed in three ways:
1) Grab a Sunday copy of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (June 10th) and flip to the Perspective section (Section H)
2) The original version published in Arkansas Life magazine a few weeks ago. In the lower left corner, click on “Vanishing Point: The [changing] face of baseball in our urban centers and colleges.”
3) For those with Democrat-Gazette subscriptions, here’s an updated version.
Plenty will be discussed this week at the Southeastern Conference’s spring meetings in Destin, Florida.
Thousands of articles, newscasts, radio interviews and blog posts will flow from the conference’s well-tanned powers-that-be, covering hot topics such as the SEC’s own distribution channel, its role in a proposed national football tourney and – gasp! – the possibility the Razorbacks will soon sport black uniforms on the gridiron.
One thing that won’t be discussed, however, is color beneath the uniforms.
Today’s African-Americans are playing less baseball than previous generations, and this is most visible through the increasing scarcity of blacks in Major League Baseball and power conferences like the SEC. Much has already been made about the MLB stats: In 1975, African-Americans comprised 27% of Major League Baseball rosters. That’s dropped to eight percent.
Less attention, however, has been paid to SEC baseball. The conference wasn’t thoroughly integrated until the 1970s, and black participation was never as prevalent on its baseball teams as in the pros. Still, African-Americans’ contributions were significant (Arkansas, for instance, had five black starters on its 1985 World Series team).
In the last 25 years, though, more and more blacks have chosen full football and basketball scholarships rather than accept the partial scholarships NCAA baseball programs must disperse. This is one reason for a widening disparity in participation among races in the major sports.
Naturally, I’m most interested in Arkansas, so I looked at its division – the SEC West. In 2010, the SEC West had 186 student-athletes in baseball. Six (3.2%) were black, according to the NCAA. Meanwhile, in this division blacks made up 72% of the football rosters and 80% of the basketball rosters.
Some people may ask: “Why does this matter? Why stir the pot by bringing up race?”
I would answer these numbers are important because if baseball is supposed to represent most Americans and our culture, then it should not be a sport leaving out entire demographics. “If baseball is going to be seen as the national pastime, you would hope it would reflect the diversity of the country,” Richard Lapchik, director of Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, told the Associated Press in 2005.
It wasn’t always this way. I explore the many reasons for the decline of the black baseball player in the SEC, with a focus on Arkansas, in this Sunday’s Perspective section [update: June 10] of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
The central Little Rock community plays a large role in maintaining in Arkansas’ oldest operating ballpark Lamar Porter Field, which annually costs between $15,000 and $18,000. Boys and Girls Club employees meet many of the day-in, day-out needs. Little Rock Catholic High and Episcopal Collegiate School each pay $2,500 a spring to the use the field for high school baseball season. Friends of Lamar Porter Field, an organization formed by people who grew up playing on the field, or had parents who did, donates about $5,000 a year, says Jay Rogers, one of the field’s trustees.
There have been recent improvements to Lamar Porter – an electronic scoreboard, a leveled field and a new outfield fence – but a thorough renovation of its structure awaits. The trustees have hired an architectural firm to study ways to improve the the National Registry of Historic Places site, especially improving drainage and renovating the 75-year-old dugouts. After that study, a fundraising campaign will start. The goal is about $150,000.
Despite baseball’s waning popularity, Rogers believes there are still plenty neighborhood kids who want to play it. “What you have to have is a nice facility to attract them.”
Originally published as a sidebar to this Sync magazine article
For the most part, the bustle is gone.
It’s gone, with Winkler’s Drive-In, the carhops, jukeboxes and the pinball machines, too.
If it’s bustle you want, just walk a block south to Interstate 630. Thousands of cars, streaming west to a hundred separate communities. Sixty years ago, nobody was in that much of a hurry. The place to be was right here.
On the corner of Little Rock’s Seventh and Johnson streets is a 75-year-old ballpark, a monument to a golden past and cradle for a tenuous future.
Whole summers unspooled for the children and teens playing baseball in the confines of Lamar Porter Field. Their friends, neighbors and families filled its grandstands and played on the concrete ping-pong tables and in horseshoe pits of a nearby playground. Interest in youth league baseball was so high that even players as young as eight years old had their exploits covered in a daily newspaper, which ran scores and highlights of each Little League game.
This was the age of Little League coach Benny Craig, the part-time Arkansas Travelers sportscaster who played an ongoing prank on his listeners. Craig concocted commentary on Travelers’ away games by mixing bare-bones information received from teletypes with his own imagination to fill in the rest. His commentary lagged about two innings behind the teletypes, and he used that lag time to plug his broadcast sponsor Colonial Bread, recalled Norris Guinn and Willis Callaway in “Lamar Porter Field and Memories of Sports in Little Rock During the 1950’s.” Most listeners didn’t know Craig could look ahead to see when the Travelers would score, so when he told them to put a loaf of Colonial Bread on their radio to help the Travelers score – making the bread seem like a good luck charm – the company’s bottom line was helped.
Whether for radio or TV, Craig always ended his broadcasts the same way: “Remember, it never takes an extra cent to be a good sport.” He would then wink and say “Good night.”