Baseball and July a Natural Match

Story and images by Roger Moore

A few years from now, residents of Stillwater will be able to attend baseball games at a state-of-the-art baseball stadium. Architectural renderings are floating around for all to see of the facility that Oklahoma State University is building on the corner of McElroy and Washington just across from the Greenwood Tennis Center. With dreams of someday playing in the new digs, boys and girls hit ballfields every July all over town. Isn’t that what July is all about? America’s pastimes – apple pie, Chevrolet, and baseball? Eating a few hotdogs, getting sunburned, and popping some fireworks.

Baseball has been a constant every summer in this country since the 1880s. Around these parts, early settlers likely enjoyed an evening of recreation after a long day’s work. It does not take much to play baseball: an open field, a ball made of just about anything, a stick, and four bases which could come in the form of a prairie dog mound, a shirt . . . anything will do.

Times have certainly changed, but there was a time when summer meant baseball and a few trips to Lake Carl Blackwell. Stillwater’s physical landscape changes almost daily, but some of that hallowed ground where little league baseball was played is visible.

There was a natural progression in the 1970s and early 1980s. Specific age groups played at specific parks. Some of those remain; others do not.

It all started at the corner of 12th and Duck. Imagine the drive-thru at the Stillwater Public Library. That used to be home plate with an old wooden backstop. T-ball games came to life there, two at a time.

Next Strickland Park became home to 10-and-under baseball. Four fields are now in use, but “back in the day” there were two fields and one small concession stand. Teams were aligned and one of this scribe’s first volunteer gigs came in the form of catcher’s gear.

Field 3 at Strickland Park

Head coach and expert-joke-teller Ed Slovak asked the simple question, “Anybody want to play catcher?” I’m not sure what made me raise my hand, but before long I had shin and chest protectors, a mask, and a lot of questions. It’s not hard to figure out that few 10-year-olds had donned the catcher’s gear and knew the progression of signs for curveball, change-up, fastball, or spitball. Any viewing of the original Bad News Bears gives you a general idea of what 10-and-under baseball was like. There were plenty of memorable moments during discussions of protective supporters. As a catcher it was very important, obviously, to wear protection “down there” and a brief tutorial from Granddad at DuPree’s Sports Equipment explained the necessity.

Baseball at Strickland Park lasted only two years for most. The next step was the bigtime: spacious Couch Park. No, not Kevin Fowler and Todd Smalley American Legion Couch Park, but Little Couch Park just to its south. What 12-and-under baseball meant was the arrival of a legend, fire-balling Pat Hope.

Little Couch Park

Will Rogers, Westwood, Highland Park, and Skyline fielded teams and each had its own sponsors. High-level traveling teams made of local all-stars was not yet a reality, so Parks and Recreation summer baseball was it. Rivalries developed, and when Westwood welcomed a big, pre-Bob Stoops visor-wearing pitcher, things quickly changed. There were rumors of a kid who could throw fastballs unseen previously in these parts.

For those who attended baseball games at Little Couch during the “Pat Hope Era” they did not ask the question: “how many did he strike out tonight?” Instead, it was “did anybody get a hit?” Good players had trouble making contact; average players had no chance. Bad players? Just getting to sleep the night before was challenge enough.

There were also a handful of games played on the opposite side of Hamilton Field, at Friendway Park. It did not have the Green Monster like Fenway in Boston. A passing car on 12th may or may not have been hit by a batted ball. Now, Friendway sits empty and Little Couch is home to the Lady Pioneer softball program.

Looking toward Left Field at Friendway Park

The next step was considered bigtime. As youths headed toward Stillwater Middle School there were no more allegiances to old elementary schools. It was time for a draft and 14-and-under.

I was lucky enough to earn a spot on Charlie Denman’s Murphy’s team. I sat the bench, played a little “B League” ball, and came back strong as a 14-year-old the next year.

It cannot be overstated how much technology changed local baseball. Aluminum bats were around, but not “Easton” aluminum bats. Giant barrel, skinny handle … even little skinny kids could grab one and swing like the Great Bambino. It would be very interesting, sort of like a dig for treasure in a sunken ship, for divers to search the area of southeastern Boomer Lake. Just a few yards north from where the walking trail bends and heads west on Lakeview, there were many a baseball hit into that water. With the silver and green Eastons in hand, Derek Gill, Kris Fowler, Earle Shamblin, Chad Johnson, and others started hitting home runs that were non-existent just a few years previous. Pat Hope was still around, but, unluckily, as the first pick of the draft had to lead a team that was not so good. Local attorney Michael Kulling was a teammate of Hope’s. I always wanted to ask him why he used a wood bat and no batting gloves?

Strickland and Couch remain, but Lion’s Park, on the corner of Lakeview and Husband, is long gone. A quick investigation of the area shows evidence of an old pitcher’s mound.

Lion’s Park at Boomer Lake

Lion’s Park, and that time period, also meant the first real “traveling” teams. With the inclusion of Crescent, Perkins, and Guthrie, local baseball began its expansion to what it is today . . . endless games in a few months all over the state and country. There is a tournament every weekend someplace and minivans and SUVs load up the gear – toned down versions of those original rocket-launcher Eastons – and play inning after inning until 14-year-olds require Tommy John surgery.

It can be argued that 14-and-under baseball is where things get serious. Just two years from getting a driver’s license means that instead of fielding grounders, perhaps kids spend more time at the lake or a local swimming pool.

Distractions from baseball come in various packages; the same can be said for all sporting games. Some burn out at 18, others at 16, and still others around 14 or 15. Whatever the reason for “retirement” at 15, those memories of time spent on local diamonds never goes away. Memories of once flying out to “deep left center” off Pat Hope. Of one of Kris Fowler’s mammoth home runs in Guthrie. Of getting beaned by Trent Voyles. Of Smokin’ Joe Hoover. Of Mitchel Pearce. I hope they had as much fun as I did.

It’s baseball. It’s July. What else are you supposed to do as a 12-year-old?