Kitty League 101

 

This article was originally published in the June-July 2005 issue of The Bull Pen Kitty League Newsletter.

 

by Kevin McCann

 

It’s been almost ten years since curiosity got the better of me and I began this journey of knowledge into the history of the Kitty League. I’ve been fortunate to have met or spoken with players from different eras that kindly shared their experiences of playing in the league.

Sometimes I forget that other people — maybe even the players themselves — don’t know the whole story about the Kitty League. Hopefully this article will be enlighten them as to what makes the Kitty League so interesting and colorful.  

What was the Kitty League?

The Kitty League was the nickname given to the K-I-T League, which was short for the Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee League. (Sometimes the “I” stood for Indiana when Vincennes fielded a team in the early 1900’s.)

Throughout its thirty-year history, the Kitty League played at the Class D level of professional baseball. The population of its member cities or towns determined a league’s place on the baseball ladder. There were attempts during its early years to elevate the Kitty to Class C by including larger cities such as Evansville, Indiana and East St. Louis, Illinois, but none succeeded.

The fans of Class D leagues had to bring large doses of patience and understanding with them to the ballpark. Pitchers tended to be wild as they struggled to gain command of their pitches, resulting in lots of walks, hit batsmen, and wild pitches. Fielders make extraordinary plays one moment, then threw the ball all over the place the next. Most were young players just out of high school who were learning to play the game on a professional level and making all the adjustments that came with it, like leaving the comforts of home and playing practically every day from early May to early September.

The Kitty League became synonymous with minor league baseball. As early as 1928, New York Times sportswriter James R. Harrison compared the Murder’s Row Yankees after a game against the Chicago White Sox to “a weak-hitting Kitty League team in a bad slump.”

Years after its demise, the Kitty League was still part of baseball jargon. Comparing players of the ‘50’s to those of the ‘80’s, columnist Furman Bisher of The Sporting News wrote: “There were some power hitters among them and the pitching wasn’t Kitty League.” Former Union City Greyhound an St. Louis Cardinals manager “Red” Schoendienst, describing one umpire’s interpretation of the strike zone, remarked, “Now that’s not a strike in any league, not even the Kitty League.”

A Little Background

Like the feline it was named after, the Kitty League had many lives between its beginning in 1903 and its end in 1955.

It began in 1903 when Frank H. Bassett envisioned a professional baseball league in western Kentucky. He canvassed the region and enlisted eight teams in Paducah, Hopkinsville, Henderson, and Owensboro, Kentucky; Cairo, Illinois; and Clarksville and Jackson, Tennessee. (Madisonville was an original member, but a threatened coal miners’ strike led officials there to withdraw and Vincennes, Indiana took its place.)

The league continued for two more seasons until a yellow fever epidemic shortened its 1905 campaign, then it returned the following season. After a four-year hiatus, it was brought back in 1910 but disbanded in mid-season four years later. The league was dormant for one year and returned in 1916, then disbanded once again in early August.

It was six more years before the Kitty sprang forth with its fourth life in 1922, but a disputed second-half championship and hard feelings among the clubs ended it just two years later.

The Kitty League enjoyed an eight-year span in its fifth life from 1935 until wartime travel restrictions and low finances ended it in 1942. Disputed championships, teams violating the league rule limiting the number of veteran players on a club's roster, and no post-season playoffs marked its first two seasons.

Longtime president Dr. Frank H. Bassett of Hopkinsville was ousted during a league meeting in the winter of 1937 and replaced by J. Ed Hannephin of Fulton, Kentucky. After one season, Ben F. Howard of Union City, Tennessee replaced him, serving during the 1939 and 1940 seasons. Vice-President Shelby Peace of Hopkinsville took the league helm in 1941 and continued until its last season in 1955.

The circuit had its longest and most successful run of ten years between 1946 and 1955. The game enjoyed renewed popularity both in the major leagues and in the minors after World War II and the Kitty League benefited from the interest. It boasted total attendance figures of 350,000 or more in two consecutive seasons (1947-48). The Owensboro Oilers, pennant winners three times during the period, consistently led the league in attendance at their showcase ballpark, Miller Field, which Joe DiMaggio once described as "the best minor league ballpark in the United States."

But a combination of air-conditioned homes, drive-in theatres, television, and radio broadcasts of major league games drew fewer and fewer fans to the Kitty ballparks. Attendance was cut in half during its final season, falling from 241,266 in 1954 to 120,187 a year later, a far cry from the 361,085 figure eight years earlier.

Team Nicknames

One interesting aspect of the Kitty League was team nicknames. They often identified local or regional characteristics, prosperous local industries, or relationships with a parent major league club or a higher level minor league team.

During the early 1900’s, it was common practice for the local sportswriter to create a moniker for his hometown team. It often changed as the season progressed to suit his taste. Visiting clubs were sometimes given unflattering nicknames. The river port city of Cairo, Illinois found its team being called such names as the Mud Wallopers and the Swamp Angels. Because Hopkinsville was home to a mental health institution, its team was often called the Lunatics!

By the time the Kitty League returned in 1935, teams came up with their own names or solicited them from their fans. There were many unique and colorful ones such as the Clothiers, Egyptians, Hoppers, Miners, and Oilers.

Every Tale Needs Characters

No story would be complete without colorful and memorable characters and the story of the Kitty League is no exception.

Art “Whitey” Grangard was an outfielder with the Hopkinsville Hoppers in 1937. One day he and some teammates decided to replicate a feat achieved by former 1903 Hoppers catcher “Gabby” Street, who caught a ball dropped from the top of the Washington Monument.

Grangard decided to do the next best thing: catch a ball dropped from the top of the Jefferson Davis Monument located outside Hopkinsville (which resembled the one in Washington). After seven failed attempts, he finally caught the eighth and ninth balls dropped.

The Fulton Tigers had a young outfielder named Kenny Ball join the team in June 1942. He contributed immediately, hitting a single in his first at-bat. He asked for time from the umpire, pulled a large black comb from his hip pocket, and asked first base coach Tommy Thomasson to hold it until the inning was over. “I’m afraid I’ll slide into second and hurt myself,” he explained.

His teammates claimed Ball would sneak into the clubhouse between innings to comb his hair. His eccentric behavior earned him an obvious nickname: “Screw” Ball!

A more mean-spirited character was first baseman William “Buster” Brown, who played for the Hopkinsville Hoppers in 1922 and the Milan-Trenton (Tenn.) Twins the following season.

During a game at Paris, Tennessee in 1922, Buster belted what looked to be a home run, but the umpire ruled it a foul ball. When the game was over, Brown walked past the arbiter, spit his tobacco chaw into his hand, and rubbed it into the umpire’s face!

The umpire, blinded by the disgusting mass of moist tobacco, cried out for water. “Give me water!” Buster obliged by dumping a water bucket over his head!

The episode resulted in Buster’s arrest the next day on the charge of disturbing the peace. He was sent to the Paris city police court where he was fined $20. He had no money, so Hoppers manager Art Wilson was forced to pay the fine.

No sooner had it been paid, however, than he was served with a second warrant. “Half of that ballpark is out in the county,” the officer told him. “We are going upstairs to county court.”

So Buster went up to the second floor and received another $20 fine. Once again, his manager was forced to take care of it.

While Art Wilson probably failed to see the humor of the situation, his player remarked: “Fined on the first floor, fined on the second floor. Boss, ain’t your glad this building don’t have 20 stories?”

Hometown Support

Today’s baseball fan generally supports his or her local team by attending their games and buying their concessions and merchandise. Supporting a team in the Kitty League and other low minor leagues, however, was a much more personal experience.

Rarely were Kitty League teams ever owned by a single person. Most were owned and operated by groups of local merchants, businessmen, and everyday fans or civic organizations such as the Jaycees. None were paid for the time and effort they put into it; they did so because they loved the game and believed having a team bettered their communities.

The local club operated on a shoestring budget. A financial windfall was never realistic; clubs simply wanted enough money to finish the season in the black and have enough left over to play again next year.

Fans supported their hometown team in different ways. They purchased stock in the baseball corporation for as little as $10 a share. They solicited contributions from local businesses to help finance its operation. They opened their homes and hearts to groups of players, who paid for room and board but became more like extended members of their families. For many, baseball became part of their lives.

A perfect example of how a community rallied around its team was Fulton, Kentucky. It was the smallest town in the Kitty League with a population of little more than 3,000 people. But they loved the game and they loved their Railroaders (and Lookouts as they were later known).

Fans watched their beloved ballplayers from the rickety wooden grandstand and bleachers at Fairfield Park. So too did the engineers from their trains on the Illinois Central Railroad tracks that lay in a culvert behind the grandstand. The smoke from their engines would cloud the field in a blanket of fog and soot.

Like worshippers who routinely sit in the same pews at church, Fulton fans had seats where they instinctively sat for every home game. “It is an odd thing that none of us in this section know the seat numbers we are supposed to occupy,” wrote one fan. “I’ll take that back. There is one man and he always arrives early and takes his place, and from his position the rest of us figure where we should be.”

If that particular fan was ever late to the game or absent, confusion prevailed in the grandstand. “I never saw such a traffic jam,” the anonymous fan recalled. “I was one seat wrong  and realized it as soon as the umpire called the first strike. Vester Freeman was two seats away, and even Ward McClellan missed his seat by one. That night the umpire had a bad night until we finally figured out where we should be and started in to help the boy out.”

More often than not, the Fulton fans supported second division clubs in the pre and postwar Kitty. But a second-place finish by Ivan Kuester’s Railroaders in 1950 sparked hope for an even better showing the following season.

The 1951 Railroaders exceeded expectations and with a dramatic finish brought Fulton the first of three consecutive Kitty League pennants. “This one is worth all the others we didn’t win,” remarked local grocer and longtime Baseball Association business manager Hillard H. Bugg. “I personally have waited fifteen years for this glorious moment. I can’t realize that it finally has come true.”

Their manager was Sam Lamitina, a fiery field general known for his hustling style and argumentative way with umpires. While they and fans of the other teams detested him, the Fulton fans embraced him and he brought them winning baseball for three seasons (1951-53).

Anything Can Happen

Harry Bolser, sportswriter for the Louisville Courier-Journal, described the Kitty League as “the screwiest league in organized baseball.” It seemed like there was a freak play or never-before-seen incident occurred in almost every game.

A player’s arm was wedged between the wooden planks of the outfield fence in pursuit of a fly ball. A ball was lost in the outfield because the grass was too high. An infield fly ball disappeared in the darkness and a dead owl dropped to the ground instead. This was baseball, Kitty League style!

Ever heard of a team bringing their opponent’s best player to the game with them? That’s exactly what happened to the Hopkinsville Hoppers as they traveled to Cairo, Illinois for a doubleheader on August 8, 1946.

Hopkinsville outfielder Bob Currier rode the bus with his teammates to Cairo, where thirty minutes before the opening pitch, he was told he had been traded to the Egyptians for pitcher Bob Greko.

Currier changed uniforms and likely had the best two games of his career. In the eighth inning of the first game, he threw out the winning run at home plate with a bullet from right center field. Then he came to bat and belted a game-winning, two-run home run to give his new team the victory. He hit two more circuit clouts in the second game for a sweep of the doubleheader. Ironically, Cairo acquired him for his defense rather than his bat.

During a game between the Bowling Green Barons and the Fulton Tigers in 1942, a very rare feat occurred. With the bases loaded, two outs, and the Barons leading by a run, Bowling Green catcher Ward Green hit a ground ball toward third base. Fulton third baseman John Pavoris hurriedly bent down to field the ball and his cap flew off as he raised his head. He fired the ball toward first base, but the ball and cap met in mid-air and both flew over the pitcher’s head and landed between the mound and its intended target. A run scored during the confusion of finding the ball and the helpless third baseman was charged with an error.

One of the most famous incidents to take place on a Kitty League field was Victor “Deacon” Delmore, a right-handed pitcher for the Hopkinsville Hoppers, throwing a ball at a rabbit in the middle of an at-bat. This story was a favorite of Joe Dorris, longtime sports editor of the Kentucky New Era.

It reportedly took place at Mercer Park in August 1937 as the Hoppers hosted the Union City Greyhounds. Delmore, pitching for Hopkinsville, spotted a rabbit scampering from right field behind third base. He suddenly fired the ball at it, missing by a considerable distance.

There are two different versions of what happened next. One claimed that George Valine, the runner on second base for Union City, refused to run home on the throw. Another version claimed he did indeed attempt to score, but the umpire sent him back to second. (The author is still searching for a box score from this game. Hopefully it will verify the story.)

Whether it’s true, slightly exaggerated, or completely wrong, stories like Deacon Delmore and the rabbit add color to the story of the Kitty League and to the sport of baseball.

 

(c) 2006 Kevin D. McCann. All rights reserved.