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."

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Columbia, MO Tribune article regarding KOM League Reunion

TRIBUNE COLUMN
Minor league provided lifetime of major league dreams, friends

The evening was bittersweet, the end of three days and nights of stories told by friendly rivals and forgotten teammates from a time 60 years past.

It was a time to celebrate the victories, the base hits, the diving catches, the calls to a higher league - some even to the Big Leagues. Forget the errors, the missed opportunities, the mediocre batting averages, the high earned run averages and the releases for far too many after a week or even a single game. These kids were bent on living the American Dream, a vision replaced by a long, lonely bus ride home to think about what might have been.

The evening was the last supper in what had been billed as the final reunion, "The Last Hurrah," of the old Class D KOM - Kansas-Oklahoma-Missouri - League, which operated from 1946 through 1952 in southwest Missouri, southeast Kansas and northeast Oklahoma.

The catalyst for the weekend was Columbia’s John Hall; the site was Carthage, the only Missouri city in the KOM and John’s hometown.

John was the visiting team batboy there in 1950 and the home team batboy in 1951. The weekend was to be the final baseball homecoming for the batboy turned historian, determined researcher and baseball fan extraordinaire. For some, it was also a reason to live.

John, in the early 1990s, often wondered what had happened to the Carthage players of 1950-51 and, little by little, located a few, then many. Before long, he was deeply involved in trying to find all 1,588 players who had signed contracts in the league. He has located almost 1,200 of them. Half are no longer living.

League reunions began in 1994, when John put all his research into a monumental 440-page history of the league called "Majoring in the Minors."

Each reunion since, the number of attendees has decreased as illness and death cut into the old lineups, and John thought it was time to make the 60th anniversary of the birth of the league the "Last Hurrah."

More than 60 ex-KOM Leaguers were on hand, most with spouses who had endured young husbands who no doubt had placed baseball first in those early years. There were wives and families of deceased players who came to join in the celebration.

Eight of the 33 ex-KOM Leaguers who played or umpired in the major leagues were there. Walt Babcock brought along three players with whom he played in 1953 from Fort Leonard Wood: Whitey Herzog, Jerry Lumpe and Ed Staab.

Nick Najjar, at 88 the oldest living KOM Leaguer, was there with his family from Boston. He played for Carthage in 1946 and umpired in the league in 1950. Jim Woods was there. He signed a contract in 1950 with Iola, caught two days in the bullpen, was released and his contract destroyed. His eligibility to play football at Wichita State was quietly restored. He went on to become a Hall of Fame weightlifter and coach of three sports for 40 years at Chanute High School.

Joe Gilbert was there. He played one game more than Woods at Iola in 1950, was sent packing and began a coaching career in 1954 at Barnsdall, Okla., High School that continues today. After 52 years of coaching softball, baseball, football and basketball at the same school, he might be the winningest coach in U.S. high school history.

Woods and Gilbert spent more time at this reunion than they did combined in the KOM League. So did many others. Time of service made no difference in 2006. All players were equal. They have supported each other with e-mails, phone calls, cards and letters in times of illness and when death took wives or kids. Talk about family!

They even accepted a former umpire and sportswriter who was cut from a three-day tryout at Carthage in 1948 after the first day. He is noted in the directory as the KOM League Reject - 1948. That’s still family, folks.

It was fun to visit with Bill Virdon, who came out of West Plains to play in the KOM League and become the National League Rookie of the Year in 1955, then managed the Pirates, Yankees and Astros. It was fun to visit with Jerry Lumpe, who played American Legion ball at Warsaw when Ol’ Clark played at Clinton. It was fun to visit with Whitey Herzog, who was involved in a play in the 1954 state semi-pro tournament that almost got Ol’ Clark lynched.

The league’s most famous graduate, Mickey Mantle, played at Independence Kan., in 1949. The Mick died in 1995, but his memory lived on. John Hall’s book, "Before the Glory," tells the tale of Mantle’s childhood, his family history, his career as a high school star and minor leaguer before embarking on his Hall of Fame career as a New York Yankee. It is a truly great read. To get your copy, call John at (573) 445-8125.

Many of the KOM Leaguers have become leaders in business, movie actors, bankers, doctors, priests, detectives, lawyers, educators, politicians or research scientists. On this week weekend, they were just KOM Leaguers and proud of it.

When the last award had been given, the last story told, the last supper devoured, another of those Iola players, Howie Hunt, rose to tell the gathering what the group meant to him. He had battled cancer for many months and was told he could not make the trip to Carthage. He and his wife not only drove from Connecticut, but Howie, a great standup comedian, delivered a 30-minute barrage of one-liners that gave no hint of his health problems. He thanked his peers for the chance to be there and promised to do an encore next year.

It was a performance for the ages. It brought the first of two standing ovations. John Hall received the next one for what he has done to revive the lives of so many. Unlike Howie, John had trouble with his emotions. Finally, he said: "A dozen years ago, I was looking for a hero - and I found you guys."

Bittersweet, this "Last Hurrah," but not for long.

The old KOM Leaguers met in a hasty session, didn’t allow John to speak, then announced that the next "Last Hurrah" would be in 2008 in Columbia. John would reign as KOM League "commissioner" without having to travel.

Then someone asked "What about Howie Hunt’s encore in a year?" And the discussion turned to 2007.

Who says baseball no longer has a heart?


Bill Clark’s columns appear Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Reach him at 474-4510.

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