Kiwanis has a long history with baseball. From early sandlot teams to little league sponsorships, Kiwanians love America’s favorite pastime.
Story by Curtis Billue
It’s the seventh-inning stretch, and the fans with their hot dogs, beer and popcorn rise to sing, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Grown men and women, acting like excited little kids, sway to the organ music and sing together — a little off-key — baseball’s hallowed song.
Such are the simple pleasures of life. A day spent with friends, family and strangers who love the game and the team. Everyone hoping to escape worry and responsibility, even if only for a few hours.
It’s summer, the season of baseball and statistical dramas. Fans watch their newest sports heroes as their journeys unfold, while at the same time hearkening back to legends of the past.
But often lost within great baseball stories are many forgotten threads, including one where Kiwanis is almost as famous as Babe Ruth. Almost.
Kiwanis intersects with countless historical baseball characters and moments, including The Babe. Some of your favorite players likely have come up through the leagues and been touched by Kiwanis in one way or another. We’ve chosen just a few to share with you.
So let’s grab some Cracker Jack and weave our way back, way back to the “old ball game.”
Early Kiwanis teams
Kiwanis in the early years shared the same roots as baseball did in the mid 1800s. Both were “clubs,” fraternal organizations of middle class and wealthy business owners who paid membership dues, voted on rules and bylaws and came together over lavish celebrations.
And both played ball.
While professional baseball games in the early 20th century were rough and tumble games of sharpened shoe spikes, foul language and fighting fans, Kiwanis ball clubs of the 1920s hark back to the origins: a gentlemen’s game. Kiwanians who formed their own teams often played other service organizations such as Rotary, Elks and Optimist. After a friendly game, the host club would serve dinner for all members to socialize, give speeches and present each other awards.
In the 1931 magazine article “Kiwanis vs. Rotary in Blood Battle,” the description resembled a Buster Keaton film.
“Kiwanis took the first bat. The swelling volume of tumultuous thousands, the cataclysm of volcanic upheavals greeted Major McEvans as he stepped from the ‘Kiwanis dog-house’ with four bats swinging over his shoulder. … With such fervor did the Major swing – and miss – that the breeze engendered therefrom blew the straw hats from the heads of the rooters in the grandstand.”
Later a Kiwanian “drove the pill up in the air,” and it rose perpendicular, “cutting a hole in the air.” After the player fell running to first, another player finished the run, knocking into a Rotarian fielder, who “flew up like an aeroplane and landed into the James River.”
Before the ball fell, the substitute runner ran so fast he left a “foot deep path around the diamond.”
“Reynolds was called to fill the ditch with stone and gravel,” says the reporter, “and the game was postponed for twenty minutes to give the ladies a chance to use their powder puffs and the men to get a drink and a smoke.”
It must’ve been a great game.
While not all clubs boasted caricatured games, many would host professional teams that came to town; exhibition games with locals were often a big draw among members.
And there was no bigger draw than the Sultan of Swat himself: George Herman “Babe” Ruth Jr.
The “dead-ball era” was ending, where hit-and-runs and stolen bases, as well as using dirty, worn and oft-altered balls led way to a new kind of baseball strategy: power hitting. And the star that burned the brightest was Babe Ruth.
Although Ruth was a celebrity due to his home-run-hitting prowess, he never forgot his roots of growing up poor and, at age 7, being sent to a reformatory and orphanage.
Babe Ruth, being a big kid at heart, identified with impoverished kids, orphans and the sick or disabled. Kiwanis and Ruth crossed paths many times to help disadvantaged children. He fed them, lifted their spirits and raised money for their projects.
Ford Frick, sportswriter and eventual National League Baseball president and commissioner of baseball, wrote about “Babe” at a Kiwanis club luncheon:
“The room was packed with school kids of all ages. No more could get in. Babe, looking about him, happened to glance out at the window. There outside, perched on a barrel, was a dirty-faced urchin who waved and grinned delightfully as he caught sight of the Babe, waving a crutch in greeting. Without a word Ruth arose from the table, pushed his way through the crowd and disappeared out the door.”
“A few minutes later he returned, and on his shoulder was perched the little cripple who had waved a few minutes before from outside the window. Babe carried the lad tenderly and easily to the speakers’ table, drew up a chair alongside his own and put the youngster down.”
Frick described the boy as the happiest lad in all Birmingham, how he “had sat next to Babe Ruth, had talked to him and had carried away a baseball signed by the Babe himself.”
Knothole gangs and sandlot leagues
In the early years, ballpark owners built wooden fences around the field so fans would have to pay to watch a game. What’s a broke kid to do if he wanted to catch a glimpse of the action? Knock out the knotholes from the planks, of course.
Branch Rickey, executive and manager of the 1919 St. Louis Cardinals, developed the “knothole gang” system, where a boy could watch a game for free in a reserved section of the stands, as long as the child upheld a code of conduct: no skipping school; clean speech, sports, habits, language; and no cigarettes.
For Kiwanis, the earliest record of a sponsored knothole gang was in Iola, Kansas, in 1923 and Houston in 1924 with 2,000 kids. The Houston program grew to 16,000 kids in 1930, culminating in a cooked meal and a visit from Babe Ruth.
Another way Kiwanis supported baseball among kids was by sponsoring sandlot and junior leagues as early as 1923 in East Chicago, Indiana, and in the boroughs of New York City.
The early Kiwanis sandlot leagues thrived and served as precursors to Little League and Babe Ruth League baseball that would eventually replace them.
At one point in 1947, the Kiwanis Boys Baseball Federation of the New York District spread across 147 different cities and towns within the state and had more than 25,000 boys, boasting one of the largest sandlot leagues in the country. The federation claimed “juvenile delinquency dropping to near zero” because of Kiwanis’ baseball programs.
Arguably one of the most successful known Kiwanis Boys League players to make it into the big leagues was Ed “Whitey” Ford. In a 1953 Kiwanis magazine article, the image of a young Ford loomed above the ballpark, promoting “Kiwanis Nite” for convention attendees.
Kiwanis fans could reserve seats in Yankee Stadium to see him pitch at a cost of US$1.75 for grandstands or $2.50 for box seats. Lucky Kiwanians saw future Hall of Famer Ford play with teammates Yogi Berra, Billy Martin, Phil Rizzuto and Mickey Mantle. That year, Ford went 18-6 with 110 strikeouts, and helped win the Yankees their fifth-straight World Series title.
“Red” Samuel Solomon was another prospect coming out of a Kiwanis sandlot league. The promising third baseman played on the 1928 Bronx Kiwanis club team, before he signed to play for the Chicago Cubs. He was 13.
Being the youngest to ever sign a major league contract, Red received hitting tips from teammate and future Hall of Fame member Rogers Hornsby and rooted for his team as they won the 1929 National League pennant. Always the optimist, he was hopeful of the Cubs’ chances for a World Series win against Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics. It wasn’t meant to be. The Cubs lost the series 4-1. Red went home dejected, never to play in the major leagues, primarily used as a publicity stunt for the team.
Edison lights up a Cobb lob
Before the Philadelphia A’s dominance in the late 1920s and early 1930s, they were a struggling team with 10-straight losing seasons. The team needed a change to turn their fortunes.
Enter R.Q. Richards, president of the Kiwanis Club of Fort Myers, Florida, and chairman of the Fort Myers Kiwanis baseball committee. He was seeking a professional baseball team to train in town.
Richards promised Connie Mack, manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, that sun and warm weather would do his players good. Mack agreed and held spring training in Fort Myers in 1925.
The partnership agreed with both the town and the ball club. The town grew to more than 9,000 people, nearly triple the number from 1920. The club went from last place in the American League at the start of the decade to fifth place in 1924, to winning the 1929 pennant over the Yankees and its famous hard-hitting “Murderers’ Row.” The A’s collected three consecutive American League pennants (1929, 1930 and 1931) and won two consecutive World Series (1929 and 1930).
Fort Myers resident and inventor Thomas Edison was a big fan of baseball. He owned ball teams during the 1920s and would gather at events with Mack, the A’s and Kiwanians.
During one spring training session, Edison was asked to take a swing. At age 79, Edison hit a single off Kid Gleason with Connie Mack catching. The following year, he hit a lob pitch from Ty Cobb, knocking him to the dirt.
“Thomas Edison Knocks Cobb to Earth in Tilt” was the Associated Press headline.
“In his first time at bat, Edison, a local boy, who has won some fame in the invention league, yesterday whaled the ball back at the pitcher at such vigor as to knock $75,000 worth of baseball talent flatter than the joke about youth being served.”
According to the reporter, fans yelled lustily, “Sign him up! … If Mr. Edison had gone in for baseball instead of electric lights, phonographs, rubber and such folderols, he would have been a great free hitter.”
A photo sparks a marriage
Many baseball players appeared in Kiwanis benefit games during the 1940s, including none other than “the Yankee Clipper” Joe DiMaggio. In 1943, he played at Gilmore Field in Hollywood, California, at the “Kiwanis Crippled Children’s baseball game” benefit.
However, the most interesting intersection of Kiwanis and “Joltin’ Joe” may have been eight years later at a publicity shoot with actress Marilyn Monroe.
In March of 1951, a few days before Kiwanis’ 12th Annual Benefit for Crippled Children, Monroe’s publicist, David March, arranged a photo shoot at the Chicago White Sox training camp in Pasadena, California.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Monroe was the “mascot” (in those days mascot meant good luck charm and representative of the team) for the Major League All-Stars, featuring professional players like Gus Zernial and Yogi Berra, versus the Hollywood Stars, the minor league team of Los Angeles.
To promote the game, Monroe was photographed walking arm-in-arm with Zernial, Hank Majeski and Joe Dobson around Brookside Park.
However, it’s another photo from the same shoot that caught the attention of DiMaggio. In this one, Monroe is seen batting with Zernial and Dobson. DiMaggio saw the photo and asked Zernial how he could be so lucky to meet Monroe. He contacted her publicist to arrange a dinner.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Integration of baseball
Many Americans know April 15 as the day to file income taxes. But baseball fans know it as Jackie Robinson Day. Robinson broke the color barrier and became the first African American to play professional baseball when he joined the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers.
“The idea of bringing integration to society was just too big, but you can get your hands around baseball. We can integrate baseball,” says Chris Lamb, professor of journalism at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. “Baseball was so important to the American psyche, and Jackie Robinson was the most important black figure in America before the Civil Rights movement had a name.”
In the world of youth baseball, communities were torn apart by the racial unease and segregation of society.
When the all-black Cannon Street YMCA All-Stars team showed up to play in Little League tournaments, white teams withdrew. So the Cannon Street YMCA All-Stars won by forfeit, advancing to the state tournament.
Rather than play against black athletes, teams from southern states left Little League and started the Dixie Youth League, which prohibited black players.
Kiwanis clubs, having been a longtime sponsor of boys’ baseball programs, had come to a crossroads due to segregation.
In 1953, Kentucky Kiwanians Roscoe J. Lankford and Harry Hoe helped form the Little League in Middlesboro, one of the first integrated teams in the U.S. South.
“They made sure to interpret the Little League manual of ‘all boys’ meant boys of any nationality or race,” says Ron Schmidt, producer for “This Field Looks Green to Me,” a film being developed based on the Middlesboro league.
Hoe said he just wanted kids to play ball.
“You know what I see when I look over there? Kids who want to play baseball,” he said. “Not black kids. Not white kids. Just kids.”
And in Florida in 1955, the first integrated Little League game in the South occurred between a Kiwanis Orlando team and a Jaycees Pensacola team.
“The parents, players and coaches, everybody took a risk in this,” says Ted Haddock, producer of the film “Long Time Coming,” which chronicles this journey.
“The Pensacola players had to drive 12 hours from Pensacola to Orlando, before interstate highways were built,” he says. “And Florida had one of the highest rates of lynchings up to the 1950s; so, there’s real danger for these kids and families driving through all these little towns and back roads.”
For the Orlando families, there was a fear of getting fired, losing business and friends, and violence, if they allowed their kids to play.
“For both teams, it showed a lot of courage from the coaches, the players and the parents,” says Haddock. “That’s the kind of inspiration we need today.”
Where we are today
Kiwanis clubs continue to support baseball projects, such as Miracle League and BASE Play RBI. Many sponsor youth leagues as well. Kiwanis Park in Moncton, New Brunswick, which is touted as Canada’s largest baseball field east of Quebec City, has hosted the 1997 World Junior Baseball Championship and the 2004 Baseball Canada Senior Championship. Every year since 1950, the Kiwanis Club of Omaha, Nebraska, serves as a team sponsor for the NCAA Division 1 World Series. The Kiwanis Club of Paducah, Kentucky, annually invites Terrific Kids and Boys & Girls Club children to a Paducah Chiefs game. Kiwanians still volunteer countless hours a year as coaches and support staff for various baseball programs for young and old.
And of course, many Kiwanis members still enjoy hitting a ball or two, playing catch or attending a game at their favorite ballpark.
Kiwanis’ past has had great moments of baseball stardom and virtue. But changing the lives of kids through baseball, in big and small ways, is one of its greatest untold achievements.
This story originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Kiwanis magazine.