KOM League Class D Baseball

Current stories about the men who played minor league baseball in the Kansas-Oklahoma-Missouri league from 1946-52. Many went on to very long baseball careers while others were successes in other fields. This blog keeps up with them through what is called "The KOM League Flash Report."

Saturday, September 16, 2006

2006 KOM League Reunion

The 2006 KOM League Reunion: A return to the Golden Age of Baseball
By John G. Hall
Friday September 15, 2006

September 6, 2006 was a day when the pick-up truck was pointed Southwest and the occupants took a 225 mile trip from Columbia to a destination to relive some memories of a part of history that began in 1946.

With the cessation of hostilities of World War II, the minds of Americans again returned to baseball, apple pie and Chevrolets. The years of ration stamps and cities devoid of young males had come to an end. Many of the young men returned to the United States to pursue their aspirations of playing baseball. The places where those dreams could be pursued were in leagues that spanned classifications including: D, C, B, A, AA, AAA and the Majors.

The landscape of minor league baseball stretched from border to border and coast to coast. The "D" leagues were found in towns with populations ranging from 10,000-15,000. One such Class D league sprang in in 1946 and included the towns of Carthage in Missouri; Iola, Chanute, Iola and Pittsburg in Kansas, along with Miami and Bartlesville in the Sooner State. In 1947, the towns of Ponca City, Oklahoma and Independence, Kansas were added to the league and, with the Brooklyn Dodgers sending players to Ponca City and the New York Yankees sending peach-faced boys to Independence, some great baseball players called the Kansas-Oklahoma-Missouri (KOM) league, home for their initial year in the game.

From that humble beginning, 32 young men worked their way to the top of the baseball ladder: the Major League level, which in that era was limited to 400 players. One of those 32 was elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame--Mickey Charles Mantle.

Many of the aspirations of young ballplayers of the 1946-1952 era were interrupted due to another armed conflict and three lost their lives on the battlefield called Korea. Many of the 1588 young men who didn't make it to the Major Leagues played the game for another decade or so and found their way to the higher classifications of baseball.

As with all dreams they come to an end and reality sets in. In a twelve year effort, Yours Truly has attempted to locate the young men who wore the uniform of a KOM League team, even if it was only for one day. At the present time, 1225 of those former players have been contacted or their fate determined.

Learning of the post baseball lives of those formerly young men has precipitated the publishing of three books, a newsletter that has been published for 12 years and a KOM League Internet Flash Report that is published probably far too often for those on the receiving end.

One of the most popular functions of the past dozen years is the gathering of former players, their families, friends and former fans. These functions have been held around the Northeast Oklahoma, Southeast Kansas and Southwest Missouri area where the KOM league teams competed. This past weekend, the beautiful surroundings of Precious Moments in Carthage Missouri were the site billed as the 60th Anniversary celebration of the league. It was also stated that it would be the final event.

For an event that was supposed to start on Thursday, it was my decision, as coordinator of the event, to get there before anyone else and get the "loose ends" handled. Upon my arrival at the Precious Moments headquarters, I was shocked to find 17 people in town one day ahead of any planned events.

Those early arrivals had come from Kansas, Texas, Nebraska, California, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Their first clamor was "Where are we eating?" So, an unscheduled dinner was quickly set up and a weekend of fun began.

This writers affiliation with the KOM league was that of a batboy. Only 10 years of age when I first took on the job of visiting team batboy at Carthage, it was my job to look after the wants and needs of the ballplayers. It was only poetic justice that as I entered the motel in Carthage I found a number of the guys and gals refusing to go to their rooms. A snake had been spotted inching its way along the wall to the rooms in the 100-190 section. With my room assignment of 163, I assumed I would have to do my St. Patrick or Steve Irwin impersonation and rid the motel of at least one snake. Since it was only about a foot long, it was presumed that there were more from where that one emanated.

Throwing caution to the wind the snake was captured, placed in a baseball cap and escorted outside. Upon release, it curled up in a knot and then sprang for freedom as it straightened out its body. Everyone speculated as to what kind of snake it was. Not one person guessed right. It was a Great Plains Rat Snake. Needless to say, no one in rooms 100-190 slept too soundly the first night.

On Thursday the crowd gathered from across the United States and by mid-afternoon over 100 people were registered representing 20 states. The usual cast of characters showed up with a few new faces. One person getting a lot of attention was the last St. Louis Cardinal manager to lead the team to a World Series title -- former manager Whitey Herzog.

Herzog looked much younger than his 75 years on this planet would indicate. He was there with former Kansas City and New York Yankee second baseman, Jerry Lumpe. Lumpe and Herzog had played for the 5th Army team at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri in 1953 and that club eventually went on to win the National Baseball Congress tournament in Wichita, Kansas. Three other former players on that Ft. Leonard Wood team and their wives attended the reunion.

Registered at the reunion were eight men who were former major leaguers. To recite their names to baseball fans of this era would bring blank stares. However, these names: Bill Virdon, Bob Speake, Boyd Bartley, Gale Wade, Cloyd Boyer and Joe Stanka were known to fans of the 1940s, 50s and even into the 1960s.

In the environment of the KOM League reunions, however, the fellows who only played one year and that at the Class D level are held in as high esteem as the guys who "made it all the way."

Walking through the reunion venues a lot can be learned about the success of the baseball players. On their fingers are World Series rings and around the necks of some of the wives hang a World Series ring altered for necklace apparel.

Over the course of the many reunions, one of the impressive things is the number of couples who have been married to the same partner for 50 to 60 years. These are people of great moral character. Over the years a large number of the former players have provided constant care for their disabled spouse. They took their wedding vows seriously and never complained.

In their days in the KOM League many of the players dated the local girls. Each went their separate ways and yet, when the wives of the players pass away or the husbands of the former local girls go to the great beyond, it is not uncommon for Yours Truly to receive a call from each of those groups asking about their former boy and girl friends. Time changes a lot of things, but it doesn't erase memories.

KOM League reunions follow a fairly predictable format. There are initial greetings, a lot of eating, sight seeing, shopping, more eating and finally the final banquet. At the final banquet, it is never known in advance what the entire program will be. As the reunion, organizer great attempts are made to give it some structure but old baseball players can decimate the best laid plans.

On Saturday evening, I arrived at the Precious Moments eating establishment to find a couple of the fellows selling raffle tickets. When I inquired as to what they were doing, I was informed it was none of my business. Later in the evening, the drawing for the prize was made. The winner was Bill Clark of Columbia, Missouri, but I was handed an envelop stuffed full of money instead. From the raffle, the fellows had collected more than $1,000.

To say the least, I was speechless and that is a difficult thing for me to be. What Clark had won through the raffle was a baseball lamp. The lamp's pedestal was constructed of ash, the same lumber used in the manufacture of baseball bats. The pedestal was an exact replica of home plate. The supports for the lamp were three miniature Louisville Slugger bats with a former KOM Leaguers name on each--Mickey Mantle. A set of baseball spikes was placed on the home plate with an official National League baseball signed by three former KOM Leaguers who attended the reunion--Bill Virdon, Gale Wade and Bob Speake.

Speaking of Speake, I couldn't speak at that moment and signaled the Miller Bluegrass band to continue to "pick and grin." In my most valiant effort, I was attempting to delay the inevitable--my final statement. At the close of the musical portion of the reunion, Joe Stanka, former Chicago White Sox hurler and later the first American to star in the Japanese Major Leagues, stepped forward.

In 1951, when I was the Carthage Cubs batboy, Stanka and his manager, George Scherger were two fellows the Carthage fans "loved to hate." Stanka came to the front, turned to the audience and encouraged them to stand and give the old batboy the longest and loudest ovation they had ever given anyone in their lives. That was a nice gesture on his part but way too embarrassing for the recipient of the accolades.

With the applause concluded, it was time to utter the last words of that reunion. After a couple of futile attempts at getting the words out, they finally came. My concluding remark was, "As a young man I went in search of my heroes and I found you."


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