“Grassroots Baseball: Route 66”
The photographer: Jean Fruth
The preface: Jeff Idelson. The forward: Mike Veeck. The introduction: Johnny Bench. The afterward: Jim Thome. The essays: Thome, Bench, Adam LaRoche, Paul Matney, Billy Hatcher, Ryan Howard, Alex Bregman, George Brett
The publishing info: Sports Publishing LLC/Skyhorse, 256 pages, $70, to be released May 24, 2022
The links: The publishers website, the organization’s website, the photographer’s website, at Bookshop.org, at Indiebound.org, at Powells.com, at Vromans.com, at TheLastBookStoreLA.com, at PagesABookstore.com, at Amazon.com, at BarnesAndNoble.com
The review in 90 feet or less
In August of 2017, my good pal Chuck and I prayed to our Heavenly Mother and hit the Mother Road. Potholes be damned.
He shipped his convertible to a cousin’s house in a Chicago suburb and we flew in shortly thereafter. We could have floated the next 2,000-plus miles back home. Instead, we found the most beat-up versions of Route 66 to retrace. Much of it is replaced by superhighways now. The original heart and soul started in the 1930s is buried in asphalt and gravel somewhere in there.
We had a rough idea how it could be tamed, but the key was flexibility, creativity, patience, an ability to live off gas-station food, no advanced hotel planning, a AAA map, a phone app, sun screen, and an appetite for adventure.
We know in general if Route 66 could be framed as a baseball road trip, it begins at Wrigley Field, ends at Dodger Stadium, blows past Busch Stadium, can happen upon minor league teams in Oklahoma City, Albuquerque, San Bernadino … Y’know, Phoenix isn’t that far south from Flagstaff if you want to catch a Dodgers-Dbacks game during a pennant race …
The drive, as well as the game, is meant to breathe as a living organism, more calming and cathartic as a car ride as long as you’re not speeding toward an end point.
If you stay alert, there can be magic moments. Like winding out of Missouri, chipping off that corner of Kansas, and pointing toward Oklahoma. The mileage marker mentions an approach into a place called Commerce.
Ah, so this is where “The Commerce Comet” came from?
Short detour time.
Mickey Mantle’s birthplace in the Cherokee Nation-adjacent Spavinaw, Olka., and his home in Commerce aren’t usually a point of reference in Route 66 guidebooks. Just just gotta sorta know and show up with appropriate attire.
The Will Rogers Turnpike (Route 44) that overlays much of the original 66 requires finding E. 50 Road merging into 560 Road South, past the L&M Convenience Store, and the statue of Mantle outside Commerce High School. Finding his simple white childhood home is a side trip up some narrow roads to 319 South Quincy Street. A recent New York Times story about the city explains that while the town has pride in the Mantle name, even painting the base of the water tower with Yankee pinstripes and a No. 7, there is a depressed area that needs some attention and economic support.
Ironic, sure, for a town still called Commerce.
We became very in tune with the baseball part of this trip very quickly, and the hundreds of photographs with our iPhone had a good percentage related to things about the game.
It started with attending a Cubs-Nationals contest on a Friday chilly afternoon, planted in the center-field bleachers under the scoreboard at Wrigley Field (Washington wins 4-2 behind two homers from Daniel Murphy).
There was a must-stop at the original Ted Drewes Frozen Custard in St. Louis — our “Terramizzou” came in a red Cardinals’ helmet, which helped as it quickly melted upon an attempt to eat it in the hot sun — and a trip over to see the newest Busch Stadium.
In between, the Dodgers’ Triple A affiliate in Oklahoma City comfortably rests at Chicksaw Bricktown Park, where there is a statue of local hero Johnny Bench, born in OKC but prepped in a tiny offshoot 60 miles west called Binger, Okla. Conveniently, the Dodgers’ Double-A team in Tulsa, Okla., known as the Drillers and playing in the art deco designed park known as Oneok Field, are just 100 miles East of OKC, also on the route.
So, too, the Albuquerque Isotopes, part of the Colorado Rockies’ family now after it was a former Dodgers’ breeding ground (note the Joc Pederson reference in this pix). It’s a must-visit for fans of “The Simpsons,” right next to the University of New Mexico sports facilities even on a non-game day.
Eventually, you land at the feet of the Inland Empire 66ers’ home diamond near the Wigwam Motel in San Berdo.
They’re called the 66ers for a reason, right? Not far from the original McDonald’s site, the stadium entrance has an arched sign featuring a character of car mechanic swinging a giant wrench like a baseball bat. The team logo is like a Route 66 highway sign. They’ve only been the 66ers since 2003, a team previously known as the Stampede and Spirit until the current ownership team decided to pay homage to the famous strip that often isn’t even marked on road maps any longer.
There are many sports-related sites to acknowledge on the 66 trip, from Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., to Santa Anita Race Track in Arcadia. But pump the breaks.
But there is also something called “The Field of Dreams” baseball park, near a tiny three-square mile town called Baxter Springs, Kansas, which locals insist is the “First Cow Town in Kansas” (there’s a specific Cow Town Mural on the corner of 11th and Military Ave., to mark the proper ID). It does sit in the middle of a cornfield, but on the Kansas state tourism board website, there is a simple post about it: “This baseball/softball complex on ‘Old Route 66’ was the dream of a local high school teacher and coach. Community support allowed the dream to become reality.”
Now picture this: Boys and girls playing the game in cities and places these days that almost look forgotten in Rand McNally’s atlas. On fields full of weeds, near junk yards and abandoned gas stations. Places where those who once traveled Route 66 as a major highway really were needed, but now can be forgotten.
Photographer Jean Fruth, former Baseball Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson and a host of others attached to the 501c3 known as Grassroots Baseball won’t let the game, or this path, be lost to history.
Extending on a project that first came to light in 2019 with “Grassroots Baseball: Where Legends Begin” — where San Francisco bay-area based Fruth published more than 250 photographs of her journey from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Cuba, Japan and several U.S. events (and we gave a shout-out in the L.A. Times at the time) – the focus this time is on the left side of America, the Mother Road that built in the 1920s allowed easier, measured and accommodating migrating travel from Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas out to New Mexico, Arizona and California.
Back in ’19, the Grassroots Baseball pilled in an RV, loaded up with baseballs, gloves and Big League Chew, and made stop after stop, putting on clinics in under-served areas, sometimes bringing the game to kids for the first time.
It’s called mothering in some cultures. Nurturing in others.
The cover sets the scene: A 1968 Chevy pickup in El Reno, Okla., with three players from the Binger High Bobcats riding in the back.
Remember, Johnny Bench … Binger, Okla., headquarters of Caddo Nation with has a population of 672 by the last census, down from its peak of 849 in 1930. There is a Route 66 Diner on the main street.
Opposite the title page, there’s four kids playing a pickup game amidst rusted farm equipment in Claude, Tex., just east of Amarillo (population: 1,196).
The photos of baseball interchange with whatever Fruth finds of historical context on Route 66 – Wigwam Hotels, statues on the corner of Winslow, Ariz., and wild burros in Oatman, Ariz., are as prevalent in the narrative as an AIA state playoff game in Flagstaff, Ariz., or U-16 game in River Valley High.
By the time we make it to California, places such as Edward Vincent Junior Park in Inglewood, Los Amigos Park in Santa Monica and Santa Monica beach at dusk just north of the pier are featured landmarks where kids are doing their bat and ball stuff.
Former SI writer Steve Wulf helps shape the MLB-related essays delivered on a state-by-state basis, starting with Jim Thome in Illinois, through George Brett in California, and including Bench in Oklahoma.
Brett’s essay on page 223 includes the line: “Just like Hollywood actors, baseball players get discovered. My showscase game was the 1971 state high school championship game at the Big A in Anaheim – our El Segundo Eagles beat the Lompoc Braves and their ace, Roy Thomas, 5-2. Thomas was taken in the first round of the draft by the Phillies, and I was taken in the second round by the Royals. Two years later, I was in the majors and three years after that I made my first of 13-straight All-Star teams.”
Thomas? Here is a great fork in the road.
He went 20-13, 3.82 ERA, 419 IP and 289 Ks. That’s over an eight-year career, not one season. Once untouchable in the Phillies’ farm system, he was traded to the Chicago White Sox (in a deal that included Jim Kaat coming to Philadelphia), taken by the Mariners in the 1976 expansion draft, traded to Houston, converted to a reliever, taken off waivers by the Cardinals (a Route 66 team), went back to a starting role, hit Ellis Valentine in the face with a pitch to shatter his cheekbone, was picked by the A’s in a Rule 5 draft, traded back to the Mariners, had a sore elbow and was released, came back as a non-roster invitee, had a run of seven straight wins for the ’85 M’s, hit with more tendinitis, down to the minors, one more trip to the bigs with the M’s in ’87 and won one more game, then pitched for the St. Lucie Legends and Sun City Rays of the Senior Professional Baseball Association from ’89-’90 until the league folded. He went on to be a middle-school math teacher in the state of Washington, the moved to Las Vegas.
Some players end up on the well-paved road to Cooperstown. Others get stuck in the muck of the Cadillac Ranch, take the road more traveled, and hopefully enjoy the scenery. From Lake Michigan to the Santa Monica pier, you can do it, too. Bring a bat and ball. The sand is nice.
How it goes in the scorebook
Get your kicks with this picture-perfect portfolio that captures more than the essence of the game and its long and winding journey. Bring your best baseball friend. And don’t forget Winona.
Reflecting back on our recent review of “Remarkable Ballparks,” this is an example of a photo spread that executes and excites, having a narrative fleshed out by the photographer who experiences the trip and conveys it with visual artistry. It makes it personal, professional and prolific.
You can look it up: More to ponder
== A beauty of a Q&A with Fruth for BrianSmith.com, photography blogger includes:
Q: Most readers are probably jealous of your access to major league baseball – yet any of them could easily cover a little league game in their hometown, do grassroots games give you allow you to shoot from vantage points you could never get access to at a major league game?
A: I am spending more time teaching sports photography these days and I can’t stress enough that it’s the “what” not the “who” that makes great pictures. When you let go of “the who” and just focus on your angles, light and creativity, you can make something great. In professional sports, so much of the time we are making the same picture. I prepare just as much for a little league game as I do for a professional game. I shoot my subjects as if they are professional players, but with so much more ability to be creative.
== If you’re so moved, click the donate button and make a tax-deductible donation to support the mission to promote and celebrate the amateur game around the globe. A $100 donation gets you this book, signed, and the extra $30 goes toward the cause.
== Thanks to Baseball-Reference.com, there is an incredible data-sifting interactive map of Route 66 that allows users to pinpoint any of the 1,065 players it has determined were born within 50 miles of this stretch of road and whose last year was 1926 — the year Route 66 was commissioned and then fully paved by the late 1930s. The list is lead (by those with a career WAR of 100 or better) by Barry Bonds (Riverside), Rickey Henderson (Chicago) and Mickey Mantle (Spavinaw, Okla.)
The pull-down menu of cities are an easier way to make connections. Take, for example, Fullerton. The 10 names that show up (in order of career WAR) are led by Jim Edmonds, Phil Nevin, C.J. Cron and Austin Barns. So, what about Walter “Big Train” Johnson?
The Fullerton High graduate who pitched 21 seasons for the Washington Senators starting in 1907 as a 19 year old (417-279, 2.17 ERA, 110 shutouts) was actually born in Humbolt, Kansas in 1887. From our mapping, that’s about 93 miles from the closets point on Route 66 in that area – Galena, Kansas, which is about the only major outpost in the state that Route 66 cuts through between Missouri and Oklahoma. Johnson’s family moved from Kansas to Orange County when he was 14 in 1902. He was discovered by the Senators while living and pitching in the Idaho State League.
The same confusion might come from tracking George Brett. The only player on the Baseball-Reference menu pull down from El Segundo, Calif., is Lars Nootbaar, the current outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals. Brett was born in far-off Glen Dale, West Virginia, and his family moved to El Segundo when he was starting elementary school, graduating from El Segundo High in ’71 behind his three older brothers (who were born in Brooklyn). Robin Yount, who played at Taft High in Woodland Hills, was another who was born elsewhere – Danville, Ill., about 130 miles south of Chicago – before moving in the Route 66 “50 mile radius” when he was infant.
From Los Angeles, there are 150 position players and 75 pitchers listed, including Hall of Famers Tony Gwynn, Eddie Murray, Duke Snider, Joe Gordon and Bobby Doerr, plus Darryl Strawberry, Bob Watson, Brett Butler, Eric Davis, Ken Landreau, Hubie Brooks, Bob Ojeda, Bill Singer and Dock Ellis.
== The booktour and signings by Fruth and others started May 14 in her hometown of Healdsburg, Cal, and will reach L.A. at Dodger Stadium on June 4 (with Alan Trammell, the Detroit Tigers’ Hall of Fame shortstop born in Garden Grove). Other stops include Cooperstown, N.Y. on Hall of Fame induction weekend (July 22), Williamsport, Pa., in time for the Little League World Series (Aug. 20) and a gallery exhibit in Chicago from Sept. 8-30.
Fruth’s pinned tweet on Twitter: