My road trip through baseball’s heartland
“We should go on a road trip.”
I think every journey I’ve taken through life has had meaning. Sometimes the meaning is part of a simpler understanding of self. Other times those journeys result in a larger understanding of the world around me and how I’m connected to it. It’s difficult to understand which journey leads to which understanding when you’re in the middle of it. For me, reflection and introspection after the fact greatly helps me understand and identify what path of understanding I’m on. A lot of the time, I have no idea what I’m looking for on these journeys until I’ve found it.
When my friend Jared suggested we take a road trip to find baseball, I approached the planning of which cities to visit from a pure logistical perspective. We settled on road tripping through Kansas City, St. Louis and Cincinnati. Other cities were considered, but ultimately they were cut due to distance and/or their respective home teams’ schedules not lining up with other stops on the trip. I like to think that I completely lucked into what I found as we traversed three cities with rich and colorful baseball histories.
Kansas City was an important Negro League city and the gateway west for the eventual Oakland Athletics. The Cardinals are the National League version of the Yankees, and have given us true giants of baseball. Cincinnati is where pro baseball began as nine men in 1869 organized and became the first salaried team in history.
There’s also a part of me that wonders if subliminally I was drawn to this journey because of the history involved with each stop. Perhaps I was drawn to this specific weekend because I wanted to find something in the cradle of America’s baseball heartland. Whatever the reason for the trip’s itinerary, I did find something in each baseball city. Beyond the parks and the games themselves, two of the three were very good games, each stop left a deep impression on my baseball soul.
I would like to thank Jared and Elizabeth, who made the trip possible and extraordinarily fun. Thank you for coming with me as I searched for my baseball soul.
Kansas City is a sprawling town whose city limits are difficult to discern from an outsider’s perspective. It’s entirely possible to be in Kansas City without knowing you are in Kansas City for miles. We entered the city from the north, finally past the rural back roads, big sky country and tractor highways that dominate the central Illinois-Missouri landscape, and found some of the more familiar urban life.
Baseball in Kansas City dates back to the Union Association days of the late 19th century. The Kansas City Cowboys played one season in 1884 before dissolving in 1885 and reappearing in the National League in 1886. They survived just a year, and baseball in KC went on hiatus until the Federal League popped up in 1914 and the Covington Packers moved in from Kentucky to become the Kansas City Packers. They only played two seasons, 1914-1915, as the Federal League failed to compete with the National and American Leagues and folded up shop.
By this time, the early seeds for what would eventually become the Negro Leagues were organizing themselves. On February 14, 1920, Rube Foster and other all-black team owners met in Kansas City to form the Negro National League and its governing body, the National Association of Colored Professional Base Ball Clubs.
The league rolled out with eight official teams: Chicago American Giants, Chicago Giants, Cuban Stars, Dayton Marcos, Detroit Stars, Indianapolis ABC’s, St. Louis Giants and the Kansas City Monarchs, who would become the longest continuous franchise in Negro League history.
Major League Baseball eventually came back to Kansas City after integration and the eventual dissolution of the Negro Leagues. The Philadelphia Athletics moved west to Kansas City for 13 (mostly bad) seasons. They moved west again to their latest resting spot in Oakland, but, in their wake, they left behind the Kansas City Royals.
Kauffman Stadium is a gorgeous stadium in the middle of nowhere. Our seats were behind home plate in the 400 section which gave us a tremendous view of the park, the highway and that Denny’s off in the distance.
KC hosted the All-Star Game in 2012, which led to an expanded concourse topped with extra amenities. They have a Royals Hall of Fame behind left field that I fully recommend to people who want to better understand baseball history.
Jared noted that Kauffman is like the scrappy player that does well because he tries really, really hard but ultimately falls short of being an All-Star. I think that description is apt. Kauffman does a lot of things well; their video screen provides good information, even if it is a bit much overall. There isn’t an awful seat in the house, but there isn’t anything decidedly Kansas City about the backdrop.
It could be anywhere else in the nation and people wouldn’t know the difference.
We build lots of statues as a society. It’s human nature to want to be remembered by history so that our legacy never truly dies. P.K. Wrigley lives on through Wrigley Field, which is not a statue but the principle remains the same.
For those of us who aren’t gum barons or legendary ballplayers, we create avatars for ourselves. Harold Baines is more than a White Sox player, he stood for a fandom. George Brett is as much an avatar for Kansas City as the BBQ (which was excellent; Arthur Bryant does it right). Brett and Frank White have statues out in right field, which stand not just for their careers, but for Kansas City as a city. People identify with those players. The main concourses themselves are fun as hell. The game, which the Royals came back to win thanks to a 6 run inning, helped the atmosphere.
The game, the stadium and the historical context of Kansas City baseball left me with a simple understanding of a concept that is interwoven into the game of baseball itself. Roots.
St. Louis is a quaint city with enough of a skyline to augment the small town feel I gleaned. The Arch overlooks the Mississippi river, creating the type of picturesque scene the city planners were likely going for. It’s highly effective.
St. Louis is more compact than KC, which made the walk through the downtown district much more enjoyable. It also helps that the stadium was downtown and not out in the middle of nowhere on some highway overlooking a Denny’s.
The Cardinals are the charter franchise of the National League. They’ve been around since 1882 when they began play in the American Association as the St. Louis Brown Stockings (stockings was a theme for early baseball teams: Red Stockings, White Stockings etc.).
The Brown Stockings chopped the sock connection and eventually became just the Browns and jumped to the National League in 1892. They were briefly the Perfectos (1899) before finally settling on the Cardinals in 1900. The Cardinals wouldn’t rise to true power until 1926 when they finally broke through and won the first of their 11 World Series titles behind Rogers Hornsby as they beat the New York Yankees.
For the next 20 years, the Cardinals would win five more World Series titles in the first Golden Age of St. Louis baseball. St. Louis would fade in the 1950s, experience a resurgence in the late 1960s, fade out again through the 1970s, reignite behind the Whitey Herzog-led speed bunch in the ’80s, fade once again in the ’90s before once again rising to power in the aughts.
The periods where the Cardinals haven’t been competitive are much shorter than the periods in which they’ve been a National League powerhouse. For about 40 percent of my life, the Cardinals have been in the playoffs.
When you talk about St. Louis baseball players, you are talking about the giants of the game. Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Ozzie Smith, Dizzy Dean, Rogers Hornsby and the list goes on and on. If recent history is any indication, the list will keep going as well as Yadier Molina, Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and a host of young talent on the farm add their names to the list “Cardinals Legends.”
There’s an expansive kids section out there, and once again, there isn’t a bad seat in the house that I saw. I unimpressively hit 67 on the speed pitch in the outfield concourse. We ended up talking to a friendly couple throughout the sixth and seventh innings who took interest in our journey through the Midwest.
They told us Busch III was built in the shadow of Busch II. The new stadium’s left field is where the old one’s façade began. Construction on the new Busch worked around the old stadium and was left unfinished until the final out of the 2005 season. Directly after the Cardinals season ended, the teardown of the old began, allowing the final construction on the new stadium to be completed.
The Cardinals’ park is the best stadium I’ve been to. For a backdrop, Busch incorporates the quaint St. Louis skyline and the arch. The stadium itself creates the perception that you are close to the action even in the upper decks. They have a statue garden outside of center field that pays homage to the many great players who have passed through St. Louis.
We woke up in St. Louis at five in the morning to make the long drive to Cincinnati. We would be losing an hour thanks to a time zone change, so waking up early was the only way to go. Cincy is an interesting city, I think it splits the difference between Saint Louis and Kansas City.
The downtown district is easy to navigate, and there’s a lot there, but there’s a slight sprawled feeling to the city. I thought it was an okay city but not a great one, which is perhaps colored by how uncomfortable the heat was there and my general disdain for Ohio (long story that has more to do with Chief Wahoo than anything).
The Cincinnati Red Stockings were the first professional, salaried baseball franchise. They formed in 1867 as an amateur squad of barnstormers. The National Association of American Ball Players allowed for the use of professionals two years later. Harry Wright, the team’s center fielder, manager, general manager and owner, organized the “Cincinnati 9” in 1869 and pro baseball was born.
The Red Stockings folded in 1871 as the expenses became too much to bear. Eventually, Harry Wright reorganized the team in New England, fusing with the Boston Red Stockings in the first pro baseball league (the Red Stockings would eventually become the Red Sox). This left Cincy without a pro baseball team until 1882 when the American Association recreated the Cincinnati Red Stockings.
Cincinnati had a brief flirtation with the National League in 1876, but they were kicked out when they sold beer at their home games and played Sunday baseball. Cincy joined the National League in 1890 for good and became simply the Reds. Early Reds history is fairly forgettable as they managed only one World Series victory through 1940.
The Reds would win another in 1940 and were the runners up in 1961 to the M&M Boys, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. The Reds rose to prominence in the ’70s during the Big Red Machine era. Pete Rose, Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan were the main driving force behind those teams. The Reds won back-to-back World Series championships in 1975 and 1976 (many regard the ’76 WS between the Reds and Red Sox as the best ever). The Reds would go through a drought before winning again in 1990 under Lou Piniella. The Reds have not won a pennant since then.
Great American Ballpark is a wide open stadium that overlooks the Ohio River. There is a distinct homage to riverboat culture out in center; their patio deck is called “The Riverboat Deck.” The overall ambience was perhaps a bit subdued thanks to the oppressive midday sun. The main issue I had with the stadium was how hot and humid it got. Overall the stadium had a nice feel to it but my energy was drained at this point thanks to the accumulated driving hours and how incredibly baked the entire stadium was.
There’s a statue park at the entrance with Ernie Lombardi and a few other Reds legends out there, but we did not enter the Hall of Fame here due to general exhaustion. I would give GABP another chance to impress me because there’s a lot of promise there, but I wouldn’t go there for a day game. If Kauffman was the scrappy player that tries hard, GABP was the player with obvious talent and obvious deficiencies that keep it from being a true Hall of Famer.
Odds and ends
If you ever have the chance to go to the Negro League Museum, go. I love Negro League baseball history so I’m very biased here. There’s a ton of baseball history here that ties into American history and where we were as a nation during segregation. Arthur Bryant’s is just down the street, as well, and that’s probably the best barbecue I’ve had in my life.
St. Louis looks like a tremendously fun city to explore for a bit, and I wish we had more time to enjoy the city itself. I get the point of Skyline chili, I get the draw. I just don’t like it. Still, it’s one of those things you have to do when you’re there.
I think it hit me somewhere in between the Negro League Museum and Busch Stadium.
I’ve enjoyed this game for most of my life on an extremely personal level. It’s a familial game for me — my uncles love it, my father loves it and my grandfather loved it when he was alive. It’s a game that was passed onto me, and I carry the baseball torch with much pride and joy in my heart.
This game has given a lot to me in terms of simple entertainment and real, tangible bonding moments with my entire family. I still remember calling my uncles in 2005 when the White Sox had finally won and hearing the disbelief and jubilation in their voices as we both stumbled over congratulatory words born from pure happiness. For a moment we all remembered the White Sox stories my grandfather told and wondered what he would do if he were here.
That’s baseball to me. The outcomes are important, but to me, the emotional footprints left on my soul from ballplayers both great and not so great mean to me than just the game. Hearing the echoes of my grandfather’s Moose Skowron story, listening to my father talk about Fernando Valenzuela and remembering what my uncles said about Jose Cruz, Jr., that’s what’s important to me.
I walked through rooms dedicated to the men and women responsible for bringing the game to me. I felt my connection to a larger community in St. Louis as I heard a kid behind me exclaim to his mom “that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen!”
I didn’t know what I set out for when the journey began; generally, with me, the paths reveal the destinations. I do know what I found, however.
I found baseball.
(All photos courtesy of Mauricio Rubio)