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.
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
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
after its demise, the Kitty League was still part of baseball
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.”
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
It began in 1903 when Frank H. Bassett
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
“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.
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
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
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”
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.
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
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!
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.
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
Buster went up to the second floor and received another $20
fine. Once again, his manager was forced to take care of it.
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?”
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
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.
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
play again next year.
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.
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).
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
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.”
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
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.”
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.
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.”
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
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
in almost every
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.