Cow Pasture Baseball

Cow Pasture Baseball
The game that brought communities together
By Larry Burge
Those who can remember the decade the Saint Louis Cardinals and Brooklyn Dodgers monopolized baseball by winning seven pennants in the 1940’s, might also look back on the two decades that followed as a “golden era” when times seemed almost ideal. It was a time in Northwest Arkansas when gas cost less than 20 cents a gallon, moms religiously attended church, teen girls wore poodle skirts and bobby socks, and men and boys played cow-pasture baseball on Sunday afternoons.
Those decades’ greatest technology advancement was the television, which in the 1950’s greatly increased major league baseball’s exposure, as for the first time folks could watch a game while an announcer commented on such players as Mickey Mantle, Jackie Robinson and Ted Williams.
Also during those years, rural Northwest Arkansas town baseball teams were the focus of a community’s pride, even when there may have been barely enough players to take the field, which had become a tradition since the turn of the 20th Century.
“I remember in the 1920’s when this man would come out from Gravette to sell peanuts at the Maysville ballpark every Sunday,” said Villie Wilber, 82, of Maysville. “When he drove by our place with that peanut truck, we’d say, ‘It’s time to go to the ballgame.’ My dad was such a ball fan that on Sundays my grandmother, who never missed a service when the church doors opened, got upset when we went to a game.’”
Martin Wilber, 82, Villie’s husband, said he remembered once going to Sulphur Springs to watch a game. “I started playing in what we called town ball in 1939 or 1940,” Martin said. “You had to watch yourself going to those games, because if you got there too early, you might have to play.”
On most every summer Sunday afternoon within a 60-mile drive from where the Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma borders meet, players and fans gathered at a park or more often in some rancher’s pasture with a backstop framed from post saplings and covered with chicken wire. Ball fields were either grass covered or scraped clean with a blade on the backside of a tractor, which exposed the dirt and something else, pebbles. This type of baseball was what Bob Kelley, a Gravette native who played ball there in the 1950’s, heard his father refer to as cow-pasture baseball.
The name cow-pasture might imply an archaic form of the game, which was far from the case. The players and the fans took those Sunday afternoon games as serious as if they were watching or playing in the deciding game of the World Series with the score tied, bases loaded, two outs and a full count on the home team’s best hitter at the plate. Those playing were not professionals, but sometimes players from baseball’s professional ranks played on those teams.
A number of local men who played on these cow-pasture town teams between the 1930’s and 1960’s recently came together in Gravette. They remembered a number of major league ball players who played town-team ball in Benton and Washington Counties. These included major leaguers such as Pea Ridge Day from Pea Ridge, Lefty York from West Fork and Gene Stephens from Gravette. And major leaguers from Oklahoma included Lindy McDaniel from Hollis, Don Kaiser from Byng and Mickey Mantle from Spavinaw.
There were also some very good players offered or at least considered good enough to play in the minor league, and some who played but didn’t make it to the majors in that era. A complete list was not located, but local baseball players from that period remembered a few. These included such names as Shorty Allen, Bud Buchannan, Arlie Burge, J.R. Duncan, Gene Hickman, Kim Hendren, Ralph Horton, Red Singleton and residing U.S. District Judge Jimm L. Hendren then of Gravette.
“Several ballplayers came out of Fort Smith. Ralph Fletcher was one,” said Mitchell Wilber, 55, Gravette’s current junior high principal.
“Sulphur would pay him $50 a game, you know,” said Johnny Horton, 75, a lifelong Gravette resident and ex-ballplayer.
“He’d get $25 a game at Maysville,” said Larry Wilmoth, 69, of Gravette.
“Frank [Siezmore from Sulphur Springs] would do almost anything to win a ballgame,” Horton said.
“That old boy who had pitched for the New York Giants, I can’t recall his name,” Marvin Wilber said. “He’d come up to play for Sulphur’s team and Frank might have paid him a $100.”
One man who grew up and played Sunday ball at Sulphur Springs was the now retired Berryville coach Joe Mills.
“When I was a boy in the ‘40s, I remember when Mickey Mantle played for the Baxter Spring Whiz Kids and came down to play a game in the park at Sulphur Springs,” Mills said. “Sometimes there would be as many as 500 to 600 people show up at the Sulphur ballpark to watch a game.”
The town-team’s players could range in age from as young as 14 to as old a man who could catch and throw a ball, or stand at home plate and swing a bat. That’s because a team had to forfeit the game if they could not field nine players.
“I remember at Hiwassee,” Horton said, “On Sunday my mother would throw a fit because we would all go to the ballgame. Dad would go with us. On three sides of the Hiwassee school, there were steps leading up to the schoolhouse doors. I remember they’d sell soda pop at one of them and watermelon in another. Seemed like back then a lot of people would show up. It was a social event, you know.”
“There was nothing but baseball,” said James Woods, 76, a long time Benton County resident who played his hometown baseball at Centerton, Bentonville and occasionally with Hiwassee.
“We started when we were in grade school. There was no football or basketball in school, or televisions back then either,” Horton said.
However, it wasn’t only the Benton and Washington County teams that played Sunday baseball, for almost every small town in Northeast Oklahoma and Southwest Missouri, and some towns with only a frontier name such as Beaty, Ark., or Pack, Mo., or Kenwood, Okla., could drum up a team on short notice.
However, the play was more than a game — it was a township social gathering, an event that was looked forward to by most everyone. One of a few major social assemblies outside church and school that contributed greatly to the healing of a broken nation after the loss of so many sons and daughters, brothers and sisters and beloved friends between 1939 and 1945, when U.S. war casualties reached more than 400,000 with 672,000 more military personnel who came home maimed or wounded. The town-team players would meet up early Sunday morning and for an away game traveled up to 60 miles to play an afternoon game.
“I don’t remember the team we were playing, but we went over to play at Lake Eucha, [Okla.]” Horton said. “The players on the other team were all Indians [Native Americans.] They talked among themselves the whole game, and we couldn’t understand a word of what they said.”
“We used to play ball in Kenwood, [Okla.]” Mitchell Wilber said. “When I was 14, I’d go to the games. When they didn’t have enough players, I’d get to play. They had one of those W.W. Keeler parks. He was an Indian chief who built a lot of those ballparks on the other side of Lake Eucha.”
Appointed principal chief of the Cherokee nation in 1949 by President Truman, William Wayne “Bill” Keeler (1908-1987) remained the nation’s chief until 1975. He was CEO of Phillips Petroleum in his native Bartlesville, Okla.
Kenwood is in Delaware County, Okla., and a 43 miles drive from Gravette through Jay, Okla., and then about 20 miles to its southwest. To reach Kenwood in the 1950’s the Northwest Arkansas teams had to drive almost 15 miles down a dirt road due west off U.S. 59 into the Indian Territory on the reservation. However, the one-store community of Kenwood had a ballpark that rivaled the University of Arkansas’s park at the time. It had modern lights, was enclosed by a fence, had comfortable dugouts and bleachers and a field groomed like a major league park. Native American spectators filled the bleachers.
“My dad [Bob Kelly, Sr.] before WWII had a brother that had bought the Beaty Country Store,” Kelly said. “He worked at the store as a clerk. They played a lot of cow-pasture baseball, which later we called town-team ball. When he came home from the war, he helped to build a building for the Gravette Shelling Company.
“He carried a newspaper clipping in his billfold that recounted the time some of the employees of the shelling company took off work to go to Pack, Mo., to play a game. [Pack is a spot five miles north of Beaty] That was a ball field that everyone knew the name of, but there never was an incorporated town. The clipping described the game where my dad was the catcher and Lloyd Harris, one of the men who started the shelling plant, was the pitcher.”
“I remember in 1942, I got up a team and went over to Hiwassee to play,” Marvin Wilber said. “One of our players drove to Jay, Okla., and picked up Jack Bucket, an Indian man who played with us. Jack’s boy was supposed to be a good pitcher and came back with them. He couldn’t pitch at all.
“We started the game and this soldier boy came along and after a while he asked me, ‘You need a pitcher, don’t you?’ I told him, ‘Yah, we do.’ ‘I can pitch,’ he said. I asked the soldier his name. He told me, ‘Just write down Red.’
“He just fired that ball. I’m telling you, he could pitch,” Wilber said. “Doc Long was our catcher. By the end of the game, his hand was hurting. When the game was over, the soldier boy came by and said, ‘Thank you boys,’ and went on his way.”
“One year in the early ‘50s, I was playing at Gentry and we went to Bentonville to play,” Wilber said. “I stopped on the way to get some hamburgers at the Dairy Barn and there was a big kid standing out there with a ball suit on. He said his name was Lindy McDaniel. I asked him if he wanted a ride to the ballpark. He said he’d just got in that day and was going to work on the street department.”
“That’s what they always said,” Horton said. “They hired those boys to work on the street department if they’d play ball for them.”
“Lindy [McDaniel] didn’t know a soul, you know. He went in to pitch and struck out Bill and Salter right straight. Then he went over and warmed up on the sideline,” Wilber said. “The next year he got $60,000 for joining the [Saint Louis] Cardinals.”
“My brother Ralph [Horton] was a good player,” Johnny Horton said. “He played in the minor leagues. One time Hiwassee was playing Gravette, and I was a pitching and Ralph was catching. Gravette had a man on third, the winning run. I pitched the ball, Ralph caught it and threw it toward third. And, he threw that ball 20 foot over the third basemen’s head. The left fielder ran over and picked it up, but instead of throwing it back in, he stood there and looked at it. We were all hollering, ‘Throw the ball! Throw the ball!’ The runner ran in from third and Ralph stepped out from behind the plate and tagged him out. He had a white Irish potato in his pocket, and had taken it out and threw it in the field. I’ll never forget it. Jack Russell was the umpire and at first didn’t know what to do, call him safe or call him out.”
“My uncle, Clarence Mitchell from Sulphur Springs, told me a story about the time he and my dad walked from Gravette, across Spavinaw Creek to a cow-pasture ball field north and west of Decatur,” said Bob Kelly, a Gravette native whose baseball hero is still the former Red Sox outfielder Gene Stephens, a Gravette native. “The Decatur team was playing a semi-pro team out of Siloam Springs. One of the players on the Decatur team was Lloyd Peterson.”
“I remember when Lloyd Peterson started a team in Decatur,” Horton said. “I went down to play for him back in the ‘50s. I really needed a job. He drove me around town. I’ll never forget that. He said here is where I’m going to build my bank. Here’s my chicken plant, over there will be my gas company, and by gosh he did what he said. I hauled sacks of feed for him every day for $45 a week, but I had to promise to play ball for him two nights a week and on Sunday. When I took the job, he didn’t say anything about hauling feed. It was prestige back then, you know. You could say then that you were hired to play ball. A lot of us weren’t such good ball players, but we sure had some fun.”
Times have changed in Northwest Arkansas and maybe for the better. But those many decades spent playing Sunday baseball, without the competition of 100 TV channels, gaming stations and a hurry-to-get-it-done society, were very special to those interviewed for this story. They all knew that Sunday afternoon cow-pasture baseball would be part of their past, and could only be talked about now with good friends and family over hotdogs and chips. They also knew that it will never experienced again, by anyone.

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