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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Memories of Felling Field

Monday, May 14, 2012

DeGroff's team, possible city champs in the late late 1920s, in front of the old Eastside Grandstand.
For many years, the summer season of Little League baseball began with a parade of mite sized ball players marching from the park on Norris Avenue, east along D street, to Felling Field, at East D and 7th Street. The route passed our home and it was always fun to watch the kids, so proud in their new baseball uniforms marching exuberantly along, ready to do battle in what, I'm sure, became memorable baseball games for those boys.

Baseball at Felling Field is a tradition in McCook. On a summer's night one can take in a baseball game at the diamond, which was originally referred to as East Side Ball Park. It might not be major league-quality baseball, but for the parents, whose favorite players are competing, it couldn't be better. For me, personally, my association with Little League baseball at Felling Field now encompasses a second generation. Our 50 plus year association with Felling Field represents only a fraction of the time that baseball that has been played in the old ball park, dating back to World War I days, and probably even before.

In the early days, McCook, like most of America, was baseball crazy -- this was club baseball, where players competed for the fun of it, and most felt lucky if their expenses were covered. McCook had enough teams that the City Championship was a big deal. The Railroad had several teams, local businesses sponsored teams, churches had teams, and rural communities added teams to a very competitive league. Other area towns were the same way, so there were competitive games, locally, and with nearby locations.

Charlie Campbell, long-time grounds keeper at Felling Field.
Harry Culbertson, a railroader, was an early day baseball enthusiast. In his youth, he had been a first- rate pitcher. Years later he told of a game with the Indianola nine, in Indianola. He and a teammate had to take a hand pumped railcar, used by members of the section crew, to make the 11 mile trip to Indianola. They arrived in time for the game, and Harry pitched (and won) both games of a double header, one of which went into extra innings. He was exhausted and prevailed upon one of the other players to take his place in pumping the section car back to McCook.

In his later years Harry coached one of the railroad teams. In a championship game at old Eastside Park, his team met the team on which the son of Mrs. Dorwart (a leader of McCook Society) was the pitcher of the favored team. Harry's team was victorious and as Harry was leaving the field, Mrs. Dorwart leaned out of the stands and broke her umbrella over Harry's head -- they took their baseball seriously in those days. 40 years later Harry still laughed in recalling the incident, which he said was so out of character for Mrs. Dorwart that he was sure she regretted it to her dying day.

McCook fielded a number of semi-pro baseball teams, which played their games at East-Side Ball Park. In the late 1920s, G.L. Burney organized a team, which competed in the Old Nebraska State League. The McCook Generals, who called East Side Ball Park their home field, competed successfully, even dominating the league in the early years, with Lincoln, York, Grand Island, North Platte, Norton, Kansas, Norfolk and Fairbury.

During World War II, though games continued to be played in the old ball park, it was not kept up well. There was an acute shortage of labor, and taking care of a sports facility carried a low priority for the city employees. The East Side Ball Park was in a state of disrepair. It needed everything. It was at this time that Charlie Campbell retired from the railroad.

Charlie had always liked kids -- liked to see them have fun -- liked them to learn things that would help them in their later life. In retirement, Charlie decided to go to work for the city, to help them restore the ball park, so that the kids would have a place to have fun.

"Skip" Felling was the City Supervisor of the city parks. Charlie and Skip saw eye to eye on the need to repair the ball park. Skip was successful in convincing the city that the ball park was important to the community and needed to be saved.

Eventually, the entire facility was named in his honor, "Felling Field." Charlie was Skip's man on the job who carried out Mr. Felling's plans for the restoration.

Years later, in an interview with the McCook Gazette, Charlie recalled the long hard hours he had put in on the field, "trying to turn a weed patch into a good baseball diamond." He said that sometimes he worked "all day and half of the night too. The weeds were as high as your head, and after a rain the water stood ankle deep on the field.

"They came in with a bull dozer and laid out the new field in 1946. I remember that first game in '47. It was a tournament between Hayes Center and Atwood, Kansas, and three other teams, during the Red Willow County Fair, and they played those games despite the rain and mud"

The McCook Cats, organized in 1940, stopped during World War II, then resumed after the War, competed in the Nebraska Independent League and played at Felling Field until 1949. The last game at Felling Field by adult players occurred in 1949, when the McCook Cats met Holdrege in a playoff game.

Charlie Campbell remembered that game. "McCook was playing Holdrege and 5,000 fans turned out to see the game. They lined both side lines, and stood rows deep behind the outfield fence. I've never seen such a mob of people in my life." The next year, Cat's action shifted to the newer, larger, better-equipped Fair Grounds Field.

Since 1949, Felling Field has been the exclusive domain of youth teams, and has been the spot where some mighty fine Legion, College, even professional players have honed their skills.

Charlie Campbell worked for the city, as head grounds keeper of Felling Field for 17 years (retirement years). In 1962, age 82, using a cane because of a "bum leg" (a cane in one hand, a rake in the other), Charlie Campbell was still on the job when Dick Liess of the Gazette visited him at (where else?) Felling Field. Charlie was in a reflective mood.

"I've always believed that kids can make good if they really want to and have someone pushing them along. I try to make this field right for them so they can have a fair chance to make good ... I get my biggest thrill out of watching the kids play ... I get a kick out of watching the little fellows out there trying as hard as they can ... watching the boys improve and move up is great. Take the boys on the Legion team. Almost every one of them started right here in this park ... I appreciate a good diamond and I try my best to make it right for them. I don't care where you go, you won't find a little league diamond nicer than this one. I'm proud of it and I hope the kids appreciate it too."

When asked if he would be back next year Charlie replied, "Oh golly, I'm 82 years old and I've been at this job for 17 years. I'm about played out. I shouldn't even have been here this year but they wanted me so I said OK."

Then Charlie took a long look around his beautiful, green field and a little sparkle came to his eyes and he said, "This is my home. I can't leave it."

Charlie died later that same year.

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I found this article about Felling field very interesting. My father played for the McCook Generals in 1932 (Bill Heath). I'm passing through McCook this summer and my wife and I plan to stop and see Felling field, which was apparently called Eastside park in 1932. I have an old letter of contract from Bill Wambnesgass (sp) offerring a job, but no transportation money. Dad hopped freights down to McCook played about 25 games and returned to Minneapolis on freights with his pay stuffed in his shoes. Your article made it easier for us to locate the field where he played. Thanks!

-- Posted by MikeLori on Sat, Jul 14, 2012, at 8:29 PM

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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By