My road trip through baseball’s heartland
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“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.
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