In the wake of the Great Depression, a short-lived professional baseball league launches in Arkansas
A deeply-rooted part of American culture is a love of team sports. Before basketball, even before football, there was baseball. Sunday meant going to church and then watching local teams vie against each other with small hometown crowds every bit as passionate as the massive ones today. Baseball’s long heritage gave baseball the nickname “King of Sports,” as opposed to thoroughbred racing’s the “Sport of Kings.” However, Fayetteville’s J.P. Hogan, an expert on the history of Arkansas baseball, prefers calling baseball the “National Pastime.”
Further, large events like revolutions and wars cram the pages of history books. While these are indeed important and need to be recognized and understood in hopes of preventing future repetitions, the flavor of the day to day culture is often ignored. The 1930s and the Great Depression affected every family in the United States, and baseball was one of the few things to cheer about.
Unbeknownst to most is the existence of a Depression Era Class D professional baseball league launched in the Arkansas Ozarks 1934, which then spread to include nearby parts of Missouri and finally financially collapsed mid-season 1940.
First called the Arkansas State League, the new league was comprised of four teams: the Fayetteville Educators because of the University of Arkansas being located there; the Bentonville Officeholders, presumably in deference to the town’s political leadership; the Rogers Apple Knockers, playing off a local term for “hicks” which was soon changed to the Rustlers; and the Siloam Springs Buffaloes.
If not for the efforts of J.B. Hogan, this sepia-toned image of history would have drifted into complete obscurity.
A Thump on the head by a ball as a youngster served only to fuel a desire to succeed and began J.B.’s love of baseball and later of sports biographies. His favorite was that of Yankee first baseman Lou Gehrig, who was found to have had every finger in his hand broken during his playing career, was J.B.’s personal symbol of integrity and courage. J.B.’s late brother-in-law and his sister, Kirby and Martha Hogan Estes, saved a local historical summary of the league which melded with J.B.’s lifelong love of baseball and culminated in a 20-year quest to produce a book, Angels in the Ozarks, commemorating that remarkable time in Arkansas/Missouri history.
Branch Rickey, posthumously inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame for off the field contributions to the sport, is credited with creating the minor league farm system still used today. Branch saw the opportunity to develop potential major league players using this while a vice president for the St. Louis Cardinals. At that time, Arkansas was Cardinal territory because the St. Louis team was the professional team furthest west and closest to the local area. The Arkansas State League itself was arguably the smallest minor league that ever existed. By 1936, when teams from Missouri had been added, the name was changed to the Arkansas-Missouri League.
“The distance from a class D team to playing professional ball is huge, but several players emerged from the Arkansas/Missouri league did just that,” J.B. said.
Among them was Rogers’ stand out “Tom” Walker Cooper, who rose to the major leagues where, along with his brother Mort became Cardinals in one of those rare brother pitcher/catcher combos. Fayetteville batboy Sherman Lawler never played on the local team, but became a star catcher with the Chicago White Sox. Another Fayetteville favorite, although he never made it to the majors, was Fred Hawn who became highly successful Cardinal scout for 27 years.
Some stories from the old league are significant. For example, president of the Siloam Springs club, Robert Henry, intervened when a game against the all African-American Muskogee team went late. The then prevalent Sundowner’s Law would have become a serious issue. To prevent any harm, Robert arranged for overnight accommodations for the Muskogee players at the local high school gym.
One of the ways to best understand the innocence and simplicity of the times is to look at the evolution of the name of the Fayetteville Educators. Deciding after the first year that the name didn’t portray the image they wanted, the club held a name contest as they had when the name educators had been chosen in 1934. The winning entry in 1935 was “Bears” submitted by Kenneth Brooks, who won a season pass. The new name stuck for only two years when the financially stressed club purchased two sets of hand-me-down uniforms with “Angels” meticulously sewn to the uniforms. Instead of removing “Angels” patch and substituting “Bears,” the club “grew wings” and changed its name to “Angels” for the remainder of its existence. Also recognizing a public image impression issue, the 1934 Bentonville Officeholders became the Mustangs in 1936, a symbol they felt much more appropriate for the sport and for them.
Another characteristic of the era was sharing gloves. In the 1860s players began experimenting with gloves for protection and resembled those used by brakeman on the railroad. Reputedly, a buckskin mitten used by Cincinnati Red Stocking’s catcher Doug Allison when he injured his hand in 1870 was among the first.
According to baseball historian John Thorn, using a glove was thought to be unmanly since cricket players didn’t use them though common sense won out in the long run. During the 1930s teams often shared gloves and left the gloves on the field for their opposing counterpart.
“My impression from the research is that the league’s ball fields were not well cared for with dirt infields and overgrown outfields,” J.B. said.
Because fencing was not mandatory and homerun territory was erratic, this may have been the Golden Era of the in-the-park homerun because sometimes the ball could not be found in the tall grass.
Reflecting on the historical significance of the short-lived professional minor league,
“The legacy of the league is really nonexistent,” J.B. explained. “At the time, however, local ball helped hold communities together, and the minor league system led to huge improvements in the quality of the players and the game.”