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Monday, May 2, 2016

McCook: The land of the free and the home of the Braves

Monday, July 12, 2010

Recently, McCook's Jason Loop had the priviledge of meeting and visiting with Phil Niekro. He was favorably impressed with the Hall of Famer, a master of the knuckleballer for the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves. His experience prompted a look back into the past, the Golden Age of baseball in McCook

In 1957, when we came to McCook, the city was in the midst of a four-year experiment by Major League Baseball, in which the owners of eight major league teams established the Nebraska State League. This was a Class D league, consisting only of rookies -- young men just out of high school or college, but having no previous professional experience in baseball.

The NSL came along at an opportune time for baseball hungry McCook. For many years McCook had been the home for good baseball in the area. In the early days McCook had fielded teams, which competed with area towns in a rather informal league, which changed members from year to year. Harry Culbertson was one of the local promoters of these teams. Even though players were not paid, the talent was quite high, and was distributed equally among the teams, so competition between teams was spirited.

In the late 1920s, G.L. Burney was instrumental in organizing a semi-pro team, known as the McCook Generals. This team competed in the old Nebraska State League, with Lincoln, Grand Island, North Platte, York, Norfolk, Fairbury, and Norton, Kansas. McCook competed well, and dominated the league in the early years of this league. However, as the '30s progressed, all the teams were faced with the economics of the Great Depression. In 1933 McCook pulled out, though the league hung on until 1940.

During the war years McCook was treated to good baseball, courtesy of the Air Base team, consisting of former pro and gifted amateur athletes. McCook businessman, Boz Verraneault was a member of this team -- The 1944 team record was 27-5.

After World War II McCook fielded a popular "Semi-Pro" team, "The McCook Cats," promoted by McCook's "Big Bill" Hanke. This team competed in the Nebraska Independent League during the late '40s and the '50s. Initially the team consisted of McCook and area boys straight out of Legion Ball who played for the love of the game, and were rewarded with $2 or $3 per game spending money, as was the case with the other cities in the league. But as the years went on, more and more league players were imported -- salaries climbed to the point that McCook and the other NIL cities were unable to generate attendance enough to cover costs and the league was forced to fold.

All of these teams played in the Eastside Ball Park, now known as Felling Field.

In 1956, major league baseball owners announced plans to sponsor a new Class D League in Nebraska. Among the McCook Baseball Boosters who met with the major league owners were Harold Larmon, Merv Breland, and Roy Lenwell. Nebraska cities wishing to have one of these farm teams had to agree to a series of requirements -- they must have a lighted ball park, they must sell $5,000 in season tickets, provide another $2,500 for incidental expenses, and provide transportation to away games. Eleven Nebraska cities agreed to these provisions and had their names put into a hat. McCook, representing the Milwaukee Braves, was one of the cities selected for the new league, with Superior, Grand Island, Hastings, Lexington, Holdrege, North Platte and Kearney.

There were doubters of the new league and of the talent that would be playing. At a meeting in McCook, John Mullin, Braves farm club director, bristled when a fan suggested that the league would be "just an oversized Junior Legion team." Said Mullin, "The boys who make up this league are definitely major league prospects, and the majority of them are $4,000 bonus players. (Remember, this was 1956, before players' salaries escalated out of sight.) These boys have been scouted by the majors and scouts have seen big league potential in every one of them, or they would not have been signed."

McCook fans quickly embraced their new team. The Rotarians, Kiwanians, and the Lions led a drive to ready a new ball field at the fairgrounds in time for opening day. Rotarian Roy Lenwell bought 7,000 square feet of sod to lay over the new outfield. Thirty McCookites volunteered to lay the sod. Instead of the required 500 season tickets, at $10 each, McCook sold 700. The team regularly played to crowds of 700, which was 10 percent of McCook's population -- Like playing before a crowd of 700,000 in New York.

(Note: The new ballpark at the Fairgrounds was named "Cibola Ballpark," a name that is still occasionally used for the Jaycee Sports Complex at the Fairgrounds. The very name demonstrates the "over enthusiasm" that McCook showed for their new baseball venture. Cibola refers to the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola. In 1540 Francisco de Coronado set out to conquer the Seven Cibola cities -- Indian villages, which were said to be rich in gold, silver, and precious jewels. Coronado captured six of the cities, the largest near what is now Gallup, New Mexico. After wandering for some time in (what is now) western Oklahoma and Texas, Coronado reportedly discovered Quivira, the City of Gold, the richest of the Cibola cities, in the vicinity of the present Lyons, Kansas. Alas, it too, was just another poor native village, and Coronado returned empty handed to Mexico in 1542, to the wrath of the Spanish government, for spending so much on a worthless expedition.)

However, there was the rumor that the seventh, and richest Cibola city was still to be discovered, and in the years following Coronado's raid, Spanish adventurers continued to probe, seeking the city rich in gold, silver and precious jewels. McCook can be forgiven for seeing itself as the seventh (and richest) Cibola City, but history records no Spanish explorers reaching further north than Mid-Kansas in their quest.)

The major league owners had promised future major leaguers would be playing in the Nebraska State League, and they were correct. Over those four years fans were treated to witness the budding careers of players like Jack Aker, Elrod Henricks, Jim Bouton, Jose Santiago, Al Weis, Jesus Alou, and perhaps most famous of all, Phil Niekro.

Niekro went on to star with the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves for more than 20 years, finishing his 25 year career with the Yankees and Blue Jays. He won 318 games in the majors. He was the oldest pitcher to hurl a complete game (with the Yankees over the Blue Jays in 1985). No other player played as many seasons without a single trip to the World Series.

Niekro had only a moderate fast-ball, and a fair curve-ball, but made his living with his "knuckleball". His knuckleball was something to behold. Instead of spinning across the plate, it arched to a height of 10 to 15 feet, then crossed the plate on a downward path, which made batters (and catchers) wonder where it would come down.

Though Niekro's knuckleball stood him in good stead for a quarter century, it was a pitch he had to learn to control. In his first game in a McCook Braves uniform, in 1959, Niekro was called in to pitch -- to stop an 8-run rally by Holdrege. He promptly walked the first two batters he faced, and was pulled from the game. It is doubtful that anyone who saw young Niekro pitch that night would have bet that he would end up in Cooperstown. But he did. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997.

McCook competed well in the Nebraska State League, winning the League title in 1959. The fans supported the team. McCook' 4-year attendance record was second only to Grand Island. For the most part, the young men who came to play in McCook were well behaved and were accepted favorably by the locals.

The story was the same in the other communities in the league. Yet, after four seasons, the noble experiment of a Nebraska rookie league was over. The major league owners went in another direction and McCook fans were again forced to turn to Legion Ball for their summer baseball fix.

Source: Gazette Centennial; "Ball Four," by Jim Bouton, who played for Kearney; "A False Spring," by Pat Jordan, who played for McCook.

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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By