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Texarkana without baseball? No, thank you!

The Texarkana area is well known throughout Texas and Arkansas as a community that loves baseball.


As the Spring baseball season has been all but lost to the pandemic, columnist Caven Carpenter looks back on his early years playing baseball in Texarkana while idolizing some of the area's most beloved players:


As a kid here in Texarkana, my fondest childhood memories all involve baseball. Like most of you reading this, I'm sure baseball included the whole family. 

 

It has been well over 100 years since Texarkana has had Spring begin without baseball games in the Twin Cities.  It's also been almost 200 years since America has been without its favorite "national pastime."


I will always remember early baseball games when Dad was the coach. Mom and my brothers were in the stands rooting me on. Of course, my buddies were with me on the field, playing the game we had already learned to love.

In fact, everything related to baseball in my life was done as a family. It started with my early days as a player on the Credit Union Cougars and the Sure-Pack Cowboys. Later, it was the American Legion Indians and the Pleasant Grove Hawks.

What is it about this game that brings men and women, young and old together each spring? It even lasts until the crispness of Autumn for some. And why are we missing it so much in Spring, 2020?

The early years

In 1909, Charles Hercules Ebbets began buying land in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn, New York.

The area was actually a garbage dump the locals had named Pig Town.

Ebbets had a deep longing to construct a new stadium for the team he once played for. It was a team he now owned, which was called the Trolley Dodgers.

In 1912 construction began on the stadium. When it opened, Ebbets Field became home to the Brooklyn Dodgers. It would remain the Dodgers' home until 1957 when the team moved to Los Angeles, California.

I’m quite sure that Mr. Ebbets had no idea that in April 1947, in his cozy little field in Flatbush, that an African American man named Jack Roosevelt Robinson would play Major League Baseball for the Dodgers.

Because of greats like Jackie Robinson, baseball and the country would begin to change and heal past racial divides. From this day forward, nothing could kill baseball. OR COULD IT?

I miss baseball in Texarkana

Spring just feels empty without baseball.

For all of us, this is the first time we have been without our great game.

The pandemic has stolen may things from our society, but it can't steal our memories.

Nevertheless, we are being kept from making new baseball memories, and that's a problem.

I want to share my memories of baseball in Texarkana. BUT FIRST…

 Baseball from the beginning

"BASE BALL" No, that's not a typo. There used to be a space between "base" and "ball." And that’s how it was spelled for about the first 100 years of the game.

The city where baseball was born is up for debate, but there's one thing that is not: ABNER DOUBLEDAY DID NOT INVENT BASEBALL!

After being a slight hero at the battle of Gettysburg following the Civil War, a journalist proclaimed Abner Doubleday as the inventor of Baseball in Cooperstown, NY.

But it's not true. In fact, some historians make the remarkable claim that Doubleday had never seen a baseball game... or even a baseball.

Baseball comes naturally

Probably since the beginning of time, children naturally discovered that a stick could be paired with a ball, rock, pinecone, or anything that could be struck to create any number of fun games.

Baseball began to be played in the US Colonies before the Revolutionary War. But the game caught fire just after America's independence from Great Britain.

And that is why baseball is somewhat patterned after the uniquely British game of cricket. However, it's probably more in the line of the English game called Rounders.

But in the beginning, Americans had several names for what is now known as baseball. Some called it "Rounders" or "Base." But the most popular name was "Townball."

Between 1780 and 1840, "Townball" started being played everywhere.  But what were the rules? Well, the rules were loose. In fact, they were often different from town to town.

At the time, the pitcher (more commonly known then as the "feeder") was the least important player on the team.

It was the job of the "feeder" to lob the ball to the striker (or batter).

It must also be mentioned that the infield was square — not the classic diamond we know today.

"Townball" had anywhere between 8 to 50 players on defense.  The striker (or runner) could be called out if the ball was caught on the fly or if the runner was “soaked” (hit) with the ball.

This leads us to the reveal of the true father of organized baseball: New Yorker Alexander Cartwright.

His team was the New York Knickerbockers, and Cartwright put forth new rules for what was then called "Base Ball" in the 1840s.

These rules included such things as the diamond-shaped field and 9-inning games, runners. Batters had to be tagged or thrown out —  not soaked, Another change for batters: They were only allowed three swings, and then they were out. But the most significant update to the game was that team was only allowed to have nine players.

Following these substantive changes, large numbers of teams began to form across the country.  On any day, you might find a local team of bankers taking on a group of lawyers — or a team of firemen playing against an assortment of railroad workers. BASEBALL EXPLODED!

In 1869, Harry Wright formed the first professional baseball team: the Cincinnati Red Stockings.

His players' average pay was $1,400 a season — which was 7 times the salary of an ordinary American at the time.  And fans of early baseball will also remember that Wright made his players wear knickers because it helped their speed.

It was ten that professional baseball was born — knickers and all.

Food for thought

What if Cartwright made the distance between bases 88 or 92 feet instead of 90 feet?

What if the distance from the mound to home plate was 58 or 62 feet instead of 60 feet, 6 inches?

Baseball as we know it would be drastically different!

Places, players and the ghost of the past

It would take many months to explain the nuances and intricacies of baseball.

At its core, however, baseball is the only game in which the defense has the ball.

It is a game that requires speed, agility, extreme hand-eye coordination, and, surprisingly, even failure.

The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, is filled with players who failed 7 out of 10 times at-bat. But many of them are still considered some of the greatest of all time.

Baseball has been played in legendary and almost holy places, such as the previously mentioned Ebbets Field, The Polo Grounds, Crosley Field, Sportsman’s Park, Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, and Yankee Stadium.

5 almost mythical baseball legends

Baseball has been played by men that baseball purists (like myself) know only by the following monikers: "The Georgia Peach," "The Say Hey Kid," "Cool Papa," "The Hammer," "The Splendid Splinter," "Shoeless," "The Duke," "Pee Wee," "Whitey," "Stan The Man," "Charlie Hustle," "Mr. October," "The Wizard," "The Express," "The Rocket," "The Unit," "The Kid," and "The Great Bambino."

Yes, these famous nicknames are memorable, but they are not nearly as interesting as the stories behind the names, including the five, almost mythical baseball icons I have listed below.

⦿ Baseball has been played by a man from the unassuming town of Commerce, Oklahoma, would go on to be the greatest switch hitter of all time. If not for countless injuries and off the field partying, Mickey Mantle would hold nearly every offensive record.

⦿ The game has been played by a Narrows, Georgia native who has the highest lifetime batting average of all-time: .367.  Ty Cobb may have been the greatest hitter of all time, but some consider him the worst person the game ever saw. He allegedly once beat a black groundskeeper for merely saying "hello."

⦿ Baseball has been played by a mill worker's son who could not read or write. As a young player, he sometimes played barefoot. If temptation hadn’t gotten to “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, he would have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer!

⦿ It was played by a man from Mobile, Alabama (age unknown because he claimed even he didn’t know when he was born), who many consider the greatest pitcher of all time.  If not for racial segregation, Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige would have as many wins as Cy Young and Nolan Ryan.

⦿ The game has also been played by a Baltimore saloon keeper’s son who began smoking and drinking at the age of 5. Apparently, George Herman “Babe” Ruth was such a "bad" kid that his parents literally gave him up to a "boys home." But it was at this orphanage that Babe Ruth learned to play baseball. Besides being arguably the greatest baseball player of all time, his parents would have never believed that they gave birth to the most famous athlete in history. Yes, bigger than Michael Jordan...

Texarkana's baseball heroes

Take a moment to think back to your favorite baseball memories in Texarkana.

My earliest recollections of baseball took place on the Richmond Road Fields. They were located on the land where Gusano’s Pizza and Fuji Kim’s now stand.

When I went to Richmond Road Fields, I was always with my Dad.  He was a former high school baseball coach, so it was just natural for him to begin coaching my friends and me as we learned the game.

One of my clearest memories of the past involves me from ages 9 to 10 in Texarkana. I looked up — maybe even idolized — older, local players like Jimmy Phillips and Mike Cobb.

It’s an indisputable fact: Jimmy Phillips was the greatest Little Leaguer to ever play in Texarkana.

When he came to bat, young kids would run past the right-field fence to catch a sure homerun. I think I may have nabbed a couple of them, too.

Jimmy would go on to be one of Texarkana’s best baseball players ever. Later, he played at the University of Arkansas, and he also played pro baseball for several years.

Mike Cobb was also a significant figure in my Texarkana baseball memories.

I think it's because he reminded me of my baseball hero, George Brett.

You see, as a kid, I wanted to hit like Cobb and Brett. But who doesn't?

Almost every young man has older guys like Mike, who they dream of becoming when they get a few years older.

Of course, some memories may be false. For instance, if everyone who claimed to be at the 1982 Regional Championship (Texas High Texarkana vs. Dallas Thomas Jefferson) at Tiger Field was actually there, the crowd would number 50,000.

Mike Cobb and the Tigers beat the Dallas team and the best high school pitcher in America at that time Jimmy Jones by one run in extra innings.

Texas High went on to State that year but lost to the second-best pitcher in America, Greg Swindell. But the Texas High Tigers, with maybe the best high school baseball team I have ever seen, would win the State Championship in 2009.

Mike Cobb later played at Seminole, The University of Arkansas, and Sam Houston. He had one of the best left-handed swings our town has seen.

His son, Jackson Cobb of Pleasant Grove's Class of 2020, has that same swing his dad Mike had in the 1980s. I can’t wait to watch the younger Cobb play for the Razorbacks in the next few years.

High school memories

Baseball also played a major role in my life as I got older.

As a high schooler, my fondest memories involve my senior year at Pleasant Grove.

A significant figure in the life of my friends and I was Coach Mike Burks. He had the unenviable task of wrangling some big egos and personalities.

But he successfully did it, and it led to PG's first-ever district championship.

That team may have been the best "overall" group of players in PG history without a state title.

Almost the entire lineup went on to play college and pro baseball. Even I had a small cup of coffee in college baseball.

What's best about the 1986 team? The success that year laid the groundwork for the for a bright future, which led to two state championships for the Pleasant Grove Hawks.

1-6-3 double play

My all-time favorite game as a fan was the 2010 State Championship game. It’s not even close!

It was the PG Hawks' first state championship.

Here's what happened: The game hinged on the best, the gutsiest play I have ever seen: With the winning run on third in the bottom of the 7th inning, 1 out.

The Giddings batter hits the ball back to Hawk pitcher John Phillips, who calmly wheels and throws a strike to shortstop Michael Gilley, who throws a strike to first baseman Michael Ward for the inning-ending double play!

The rest is history, the Hawks score in the top of the 8th and win the game.

Of course, a family baseball memory trumps everything else. One of my favorites involves my son, Zach Carpenter.

From T-Ball to high school, from backyard catch and batting practice, from long weekend tournaments with family and friends, from late-night trips to watch the Rangers, from his first home run, the baseball memories will last a lifetime.

I would bet most of you are just like me: You would not take a billion dollars for those special times spent with family and friends while experiencing the great game of baseball - our national pastime.

In his superb television documentary series, "Baseball," Ken Burns offered a thoughtful reflection:

“It is played everywhere: parks, playgrounds, prison yards, in back alleys, and in farmers' fields, by small children and old men, raw armatures, and millionaire professionals. It is a leisurely game that demands blinding speed — the only game in which the defense has the ball.  It follows the seasons, beginning each year with the expectancy of springtime, and ending with the hard facts of Autumn. It is a haunted game, in which every player is measured against the ghost of all who have gone before them. Most of all, it is about time and timelessness, speed and grace, failure and loss, imperishable hope, AND COMING HOME.”  

Some cool baseball facts

➡ Before 1918, only one ball would be used for an entire game.  At the end of the game, the ball would be black. After a player was killed by a pitched ball that was hard to see, new balls would be put into play when the previous one got too dirty.
Candy Cummings is credited with throwing the first curveball in 1867. It was illegal, but pitchers threw it anyway.
➡ Lewis and Clark played a game of "Townball" with the Nez Perce Indians before crossing the Bitter Root Mountains.
➡ The National League started in 1876.
➡ On an Indian Reservation, Geronimo’s Apaches beat a team from the US Army.
➡ The game was often played between the Union and Confederate on battle lines.  Once, the whole Union outfield was hit by Confederate artillery.
Satchel Paige (in game 2 of the Negro League World Series with the winning run on third,) INTENTIONALLY WALKED THE BASES LOADED just to pitch to the league's greatest hitter Josh Gibson. And he struck him out with 3 pitches!  Cy Young has the most pitching wins of all time 511. Satchel Paige claims to have over 2,000. He pitched in the major leagues for the first time with the Cleveland Indians at the age of 54. However, he could have been 50 or even 58, as no one knew his true age.
➡ Who were the fastest players of all time?  The two fastest times ever recorded from home plate to first base were Mickey Mantle and Deion Sanders at 3.1 seconds each. Yep, believe it!

NOTE TO BASEBALL: PLEASE COME BACK!


Acknowledgment: While I have a deep knowledge of baseball, I have to give credit to the timeless, 1994 documentary titled "Baseball" by American filmmaker Ken Burns for helping inspire me to write about the sport.

About the author: Caven Carpenter is an avid fan of all things Pleasant Grove and is a former PGISD coach. He was a member of Pleasant Grove's very first graduating class and a player on its first varsity football team. Besides being a self-proclaimed expert on sports, history, music, and movie, Caven is also a proud family man. 

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