I live in a town of 2,200 people on the easternmost point of land in Iowa, the part where it pushes as hard as it can against the Mississippi River to be even closer to the rising sun. There’s not much besides distance keeping me from seeing straight into Chicago’s Wrigley Field, 170 miles from my front door.
There are some Chicago White Sox fans here in Bellevue, Iowa, but most appear to prefer the Cubs. I found that out when I moved here eight years ago. License plate frames, flags in windows, hats and T-shirts are subtle declarations of allegiance that go back generations. They reminded me that living in the Midwest again after many years away in the West, what I needed was a pro baseball team.
I already was genetically committed to an American League team, so I picked the nearest team in the National League. That was the Cubs. Now I watch as friends and neighbors load up in buses for bank-sponsored trips to Wrigley, or others quietly trade community responsibilities for opening day action. I never knew that a baseball team could levy the degree of gravitational force on people like me, so far away. Perhaps out here in a small rural town, any diversion is welcome. Or perhaps it’s something more.
I grew up in Kansas, in the suburbs of Kansas City a few blocks from the Missouri state line. My parents had grown up in St. Louis as Cardinals baseball fans. In order to teach us the love of their pastime and to enjoy cheap family fun, they frequently took us kids to see Kansas City Athletics baseball.
The A’s played in Municipal Stadium a stone’s throw from the present-day location of the Negro Baseball League Hall of Fame. The A’s owner was notorious baseball showman Charlie Finley. More fun for us than watching stars like Rick Monday and Campy Campaneris was watching goofy gimmicks, such as the sheep who grazed in the grass beyond the outfield and a mechanical rabbit that between innings rose from a trap behind home plate to disgorge baseballs. My older brother, Doug, got his first job at the stadium, working in the sweltering heat of the score board booth, manually arranging numbers each time the score changed. He loved it.
In 1967 the A’s left for Oakland, but two years later the Kansas City Royals were born, and played in a new stadium on the far edge of the city. Our family went to a few games but mostly we listened on the radio. Many evenings my mother and I would listen at the kitchen table, while playing solitaire. Saturday afternoons I’d hang around with my dad in the garage, where the game was background to our straightening and sweeping.
“There’s something beautiful about warm sun, cold beer, hot dogs, organ music, little kids eager to glove balls in the bleachers, and adults who have the grace to let them do it.”
A few decades later I left for college and then moved to Laramie, Wyoming. I arrived in town just in time for the final season of University of Wyoming college baseball. The university gave up on playing a springtime sport at 7,200 feet of elevation and trying to get teams from places like San Diego State to get excited about it. The Colorado Rockies MLB team was just getting started and could have been diverting but I found something better: hometown semi-professional baseball.
Laramie fielded a semi-pro team called the Colts. It consisted mostly of college baseball players from around the region who wanted to improve their skills with a little summertime ball. These players were billed as “All-Stars” and they were pretty good. They played in the UW baseball stadium – if they didn’t, nobody else was going to.
There were just a handful of other teams in the league, all based over the southern border in Colorado. Sitting as it does on Wyoming’s vast eastern plains, it is fair to say there was a lot of a travel for teams playing games in Laramie. This is partly what led to the league’s demise a few years later. But I did my supportive part, paying the $5 admission price, buying the souvenir T-shirts, the hot dogs, beer and necessary beer koozies, and one of those small cowbells which we in the stands clanged loudly whenever we felt the urge.
I dug that cowbell out of an unpacked box a few years ago, when I discovered Bellevue also had a semi-pro baseball team. They certainly kept it a secret. Coverage of its games were mostly invisible in our weekly newspaper’s sports pages, focused as it is mostly on kid’s sports. As an outsider in a town this size, if you don’t know about it, you don’t know about it.
Here’s what I’ve managed to find out. The Bellevue Braves are one of a dozen teams in the Prairie League. There are scores of leagues like this across Iowa. Some players are in college and return home in summers, playing league baseball for fun. Some are former high school baseball players who have gone on to work jobs, while still living in the towns where they grew up. Some of these players are not kids. Some are in their 30s and beyond. Trust me, they can still smoke a pitch.
Each team plays a series of home and away games, and built into the schedule is a sequence of town tournaments. All the league teams come to one town for a three-day tournament during the course of the summer. Winning tournaments goes a long way toward winning the conference championship. The season ends in early August, so everyone can get back to school.
Travel to away games doesn’t mean a grueling road trip. It means driving 20 miles to the next farm town, or the farm town beyond that. That’s one beauty of farm country. Towns were sited to be convenient for farmers who lacked pavement and automobiles. A wagon trip-distance to town back then makes for great rivalries today.
Being new to the joys of semi-pro baseball in Iowa, I went to my first Bellevue game in full fan-nerd gear. I knew the Braves didn’t have any T-shirt or other swag for sale, so I wore my Colts T-shirt instead, hoping to plant the seed of marketing into someone’s head.
The few dozen fans scattered across the metal bleachers were not prepared for the clanging of the Laramie Colts cowbell when that first Braves batter sent a ball rattling against the outfield fence. Hopping to my feet, rattling the cowbell, woohooing…. apparently, these behaviors are not done in my little corner of small-town Iowa. At least that’s what I gathered from the furtive stares and head-tilted whispering. I’ve since learned to comment sotto voce when a batter hustles to first base ahead of a throw, or when the defense executes a hair-splitting double play. Did you see that play? Not too bad.
In spite of cultural disparities between my city upbringing and the circumspect norms of my small town, I still love baseball. There’s something to treasure about a ritual pastime that dates to the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes. And as a collective experience, there’s something beautiful about warm sun, cold beer, hot dogs, organ music, little kids eager to glove balls in the bleachers, and adults who have the grace to let them do it, that has become an important part of life for millions, all across the country. That includes me.
In 2015 I camped in front of the TV set and watched my Kansas City Royals win their first World Series in 30 years. Only a few weeks prior, pancreatic cancer took my brother’s life. A baseball fan to the end, I believe Doug knew it would be the Royals’ year. I also believe the term “inevitable” meant something different to him, by then.
The following year, my Cubs came back from a ninth inning tie to win an extra-inning Game 7 and their first World Series in 108 years. This year they weren’t so fortunate, losing a wildcard game to the Colorado Rockies. But at least they played the game at home in Wrigley Field. I’m sure there were quite a few small-town folks at that game. It is fair to say that in the anonymity of close to 40,000 people, those fans went wild.
Julianne Couch is the author of The Small Town Midwest: Resilience and Hope in the Twenty-first Century, and the new novel, Along the Sylvan Trail.