Wichita plays ball!
The 1907 Wichita Jobbers had the third best record of any 20th century minor league team.
The history of Wichita is inextricably intertwined with that of baseball, that most American of sporting pastimes. When Wichita was incorporated as a city in 1870, scarcely a year had passed since the formation of the first professional baseball club (the Cincinatti Red Stockings), and baseball fever was spreading across American settlements from coast to coast. Over 140 years later, Wichita still has a soft spot for the sport.
The earliest mention of baseball in the local press was perhaps this note in the April 9, 1874 edition of the Wichita Eagle: "The colored boys of Wichita have organized a baseball club. Their grounds are just north of town, and they practice Saturday afternoons."
A group of volunteer baseball players calling themselves the Wichita Red Stockings appears to have played with regularity in and around 1879 against other regional teams, such as the Topeka Shawnees and the Hutchinson Coyotes.
By the mid-1880s, as sanctioned leagues were organized regionally and nationally, Wichita boasted its first semi-professional team, the Clippers. The Aug. 22, 1886 Eagle reported: "The baseball Clippers have secured the fair grounds in west Wichita and have cleared a diamond convenient to the amphitheater." This appears to be the earliest attempt at establishing a more or less official ball park in the city, though the first proper purpose-built field came a year later.
The May 6, 1887 Eagle announced: "Work has begun on the baseball grounds and the grand stand will be commenced tomorrow. Nearly a mile of the street car extension and the park at the corner of Waco and Clark is now laid." Only a couple weeks later, on May 24, the paper followed up with: "The Wichita baseball team will open at its new baseball grounds today against the Emporia team. The grounds are in excellent condition with seats sufficient for 1,000 persons, although the grandstand, which will seat nearly 2,500 will not be up for a week owing to scarcity of material. Admission is 25 cents."
In an early instance of "if you build it, they will come," Wichita's erection of a professional baseball facility appears to have drawn the attention of early organizers of the sport. On July 26, only two months after the park opened, the Eagle reported that the Wichita baseball team had joined the respected Western League. The Clippers made their league debut that very afternoon against the team from Lincoln, Nebraska. (A record of the score of that game could not be found before press time.)
Bear in mind that baseball was not ingrained as part of our national DNA in those days, and few were certain the game had a future. The Eagle reported on May 16, 1894: "The Wichita baseball team is now a permanent organization," before going on to mention that the new ball park would be at the fairgrounds, to take advantage of the existing grandstand there, considered "one of the finest in the state."
In 1898, yet another newer, bigger baseball park was in the works, and the team's name was changed to the Wichita Eagles, no doubt a burr under the saddle of the Wichita Beacon. The first game of the season took place in the new park on April 8, 1898, pitting the Eagles against the Kansas City Blues; the Blues slaughtered the Eagles 12-2 in front of 1,000 fans, almost all locals.
The inaugural game loss made for an inauspicious start to a season that would end with the team evicted from its home. The Eagle reported on Sept. 8, 1898: "Baseball in Wichita is over for the season and workmen yesterday started tearing down the fence and grandstand at Athletic Park. When it was built a note was given B. F. McLean for $225, the balance due on the lumber. A few days ago O.E. Keach purchased the fence and the stand in order to get rid of the park, as he resides just across the street and was opposed to Sunday games."
Shortly after the turn of the century, Wichita's pro team left the Western League for the Southwestern League, considered a downgrade in prestige by many. Fan support for the city's flagship ball club waned, but fortunately for lovers of the game, there was a lot more baseball going on in Wichita at the time.
Many all-volunteer teams existed, playing other locals as well as amateur squads from other regional cities. Exhibition games between white and "colored" teams were popular; the Beacon noted in 1891: "The Wichita Browns and Wichita Clippers play baseball this afternoon at Riverside Park." This practice continued more or less until the integration of professional baseball. In 1925, the Wichita Monrovians, an all-black team, would even play a game against the Ku Klux Klan — and win 10-8.
A major win for Wichita baseball came in 1905, when a group of 15 local businessmen purchased the Pittsburg, Kansas Western Association ball club and moved it to the Air Capital. Their master stroke was handing over control of the team to Chicago White Sox second baseman Frank Isbell, a World Series champ and stolen-base record holder. But the perceived transition from local control into the hands of an outsider ruffled feathers; deposed baseball honcho W.J. Kimmel went so far as to erect a barbed wire fence inside the ball park, cutting off a 61-foot strip of the outfield that sat upon property he owned.
The new Wichita baseball team, the Jobbers, was bought outright by Isbell in 1907 and immediately made history. Minor League Baseball today ranks the 1907 Wichita Jobbers #41 on its list of Top 100 teams of all time, stating: "Led by the speedy Clyde Milan, the Wichita Jobbers won the pennant with one of the best records in minor league history. Not only did the team finish with the second best record in Western Association history, it also boasted the third best record of any 20th century minor league team."
Isbell owned the Wichita baseball franchise until 1925, and he continued managing it even after he sold it. By that time, the team, then known as the Izzies, had re-entered the Western League and was playing home games at the park on Ackerman Island. The March 29, 1927 Eagle announced a "contest being held for a nickname for Wichita's new Western League baseball team. It used to be 'Jobbers' in old Western Association days. When the Western League was installed here the name 'Wolves' was adopted for a time. Later it was known as the 'Witches,' but that name was never used here much. The 'Izzies,' from owner Frank Isbell, has been used for the past several seasons, but Isbell is gone, so a new name is needed."
Isbell's contributions to Wichita baseball culture continued into the Great Depression. From the April 16, 1932 Eagle: "The first night baseball game ever played in Wichita by a Western League club will be tonight under the new lights at Island Park, installed by Frank Isbell at cost of several thousand dollars. The Wichita Western League team will play the Paul Buser Lumbermen, a local semipro team." Isbell would later serve as Sedgwick County Commisioner; he died in 1941.
In 1933, the ball park at Ackerman Island was razed as part of the project to consolidate the island with the west bank of the river. Its replacement, still standing today, came to be thanks in large part to local sporting goods merchant Ray "Hap" Dumont, father of the National Baseball Congress World Series.
Dumont had first organized a semi-pro playoff series in 1931, earning a small profit. With the impending demolition of Island Park's baseball field, he decided to go big with his vision. He made a pitch to the city: Build me a proper ball park and I will bring teams from all over the country to play here. The city took the gamble, and so was born Lawrence Stadium, named in honor of Delano pioneer Robert Lawrence.
With a brand-new facility built with tax dollars thrust into his hands, Dumont knew his tournament had to make the biggest possible splash. In a stroke of genius, he contracted the legendary Satchel Paige and his traveling team, the Bismarck (North Dakota) Churchills, to open the event's 1935 debut. To make sure it was an offer he couldn't refuse, Dumont offered Paige one thousand dollars — a princely sum at the time — to participate. Little did anyone know that Dumont didn't have that kind of loose change; he was secretly betting on making it in ticket sales. Fortunately for all involved, the tourney was an immediate hit, receiving glowing attention from the national sporting press.
Baseball in Wichita was safe for future generations. Dumont died in 1971, and the stadium was officially rechristened Lawrence-Dumont in 1978. Over the years, Wichita's minor league teams have gone by many names (Larks, Aviators, Indians, Braves, Aeros, Pilots, Wranglers, Wingnuts) and have been affiliated with several leagues (Western, Texas, American Association), but all have made their home at the stadium Hap built.