Talking the Talk: Figures of (Sports) Speech

This year, KHC features weekly posts related to the Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition Hometown Teams, currently touring Kansas.

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The United States bears a deserved reputation as a sports-obsessed nation. We love our sports so much that when we can’t play the actual games, we even play board games and fantasy games designed to mimic them.

It’s worth remembering, though, that not everyone considers themselves sports fans, even in a state with a sports history as rich as that of Kansas. For every die-hard Jayhawk or Wildcat, every person who lives and breathes the Hornets or Shockers, there’s someone else who has to Google each of the universities’ mascots every fall just to keep them straight.

But even if you don’t own a favorite athlete’s jersey or spend your evenings watching ESPN, sports still have a way of infiltrating all aspects of life in the U.S. Sports are some of the most popular topics for books, movies and T.V. shows, and many colleges and universities now offer courses in sports statistics.

Sports have even managed to insert themselves into the way we talk. In fact, so many common figures of speech originated in sports that we hardly notice them anymore.

Some are pretty obvious, once they’ve been pointed out. Make sure you “cover all the bases” so that you don’t “strike out” on that proposal at work (baseball). And if your co-worker “drops the ball” (baseball), it’s probably polite not to be a “Monday-morning quarterback” (football, obviously) and point out all the things you would have done differently.

Others are a little more obscure. If “the ball is in your court,” you’re referring to the game of tennis. Ever been “saved by the bell”? You weren’t referring to the famous T.V. show from the early 1990s; you were making a boxing reference. And if you’re exhausted and ready to “throw in the towel,” that’s boxing, too.

In other words, whether you’re a sports fan or not, sports are a common feature of everyday life in Kansas.

You might say they’re just par for the course.

“The Class of the State”: Haskell’s Gridiron History

This year, KHC features weekly posts related to the Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition Hometown Teams, currently touring Kansas.

Haskell's celebrated football team practiced and played at this stadium, built entirely through private donations from Native peoples.  Image courtesy of KansasMemory, Kansas Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

Haskell’s celebrated football team practiced and played at this stadium, built entirely through private donations from Native peoples. Image courtesy of KansasMemory, Kansas Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

Alabama. Florida State. Stanford. Haskell?

Today, the biggest names in college football are schools with enrollment in the tens of thousands from conference powerhouses. But in the early decades of the twentieth century, when the sport was still growing in popularity, small, Lawrence-based Haskell—then as now a school for Native Americans—fielded a team recognized nationally as one of the best around.

Between 1900 and 1930, the Haskell Institute (now Haskell Indian Nations University) football team traveled the country, putting up points and tallying wins everywhere from Boston, Massachusetts, to Spokane, Washington—even playing a game in Yankee Stadium. The 1926 season was particularly legendary; according to Kansas Sampler, the team went 12-0-1 that year, scoring 558 points while allowing only 63.

Haskell played closer to home, as well, regularly challenging (and often defeating) other Kansas-based and area teams. Haskell’s rivalry with the University of Kansas burned so hot, in fact, that the teams were not allowed to play one another between 1905 and 1930—not because of concerns about the relative skill levels of the teams, but because rival students and fans had taken to fighting each other in the streets.

The team was so renowned that, despite not playing under official college eligibility rules and therefore being disqualified to challenge as championship contenders, they “were easily the class of the state,” Harold C. Evans wrote in a 1940 article about the history of college football in Kansas.

Haskell’s famed skill on the gridiron earned them so many fans that they were able to build a 10,000-seat home stadium entirely through donations from former students and other Native peoples across the country. That stadium had been home to a number of teams through the years; aside from Haskell’s own team, Lawrence High played there from 1930-2008 and Free State from 1997-2008. Today, Haskell Memorial Football Stadium is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Haskell’s football tradition continued well into the twenty-first century; the football team played in the independent National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). In May 2015, however, Haskell announced the suspension of its football program, at least for the 2015 season, citing lack of funding as the primary reason. Still, Haskell’s executive assistant to the president, Stephen Prue, told the Lawrence Journal-World he hoped the school can “make a positive out of this. It’s a pretty tall hill we’ll have to climb, but native people are resilient and always have been in the past.”

Tinker, Player, Hero, Legend

This year, KHC features weekly posts related to the Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition Hometown Teams, currently touring Kansas.

This 1911 Joe Tinker baseball card was printed just a few seasons after Tinker helped the Chicago Cubs win back-to-back World Series.  Image Courtesy Benjamin K. Edwards Collection, via Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

This 1911 Joe Tinker baseball card was printed just a few seasons after Tinker helped the Chicago Cubs win back-to-back World Series. Image Courtesy Benjamin K. Edwards Collection, via Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

No one still living in the small town of Muscotah, Kansas, ever saw Joe Tinker play baseball. They certainly weren’t around for either of the World Series the shortstop won with the Chicago Cubs in 1907 and 1908.

Despite that, Tinker’s memory is alive and well in his hometown of Muscotah, located in northeast Kansas, where the Kansas House of Representatives declared July 27—the anniversary of his birth in 1880 and his death in 1948—Joe Tinker Day.

The small community (population 176 as of 2010) embraces its heritage as the home of the Cubs legend, who formed one-third of the “Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance” infield combination immortalized in newspaper columnist Franklin P. Adams’s famous 1910 poem “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon.” Muscotah citizens are building a Tinker museum inside “The World’s Largest Baseball,” a water tower painted like a baseball. The hometown hero is the subject of a local mural, too, painted by artists from Lucas, Kansas, and finished in 2013.

The same year, Muscotah commemorated Joe Tinker Day with a vintage baseball game attended by several hundred spectators. The town also brought Tinker’s grandsons and great-grandsons, some of whom had never met one another, to Muscotah as part of the celebrations.

It’s a prime example of how sports can help hold communities together, even long after the fact, writes Bob Lutz:

“We’ve got people here [in Muscotah] now who are doing great,” said Tom Wilson, who has lived in Muscotah for all of his nearly 73 years. “The whole Joe Tinker thing kind of came to light about 15 or 20 years ago and ever since then it’s just grown. I think we had our first Tinker celebration back in 2002. Yeah, he’s helping us keep the town alive. At least his spirit is.”

Now Tinker just needs to help the Cubs end their drought. 100-plus years and counting…

A League of Our Own in Chase County

This year, KHC features weekly posts related to the Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition Hometown Teams, currently touring Kansas.

The Chase County Lady Bulldogs. Photo courtesy of Chase County Historical Society.

The Chase County Lady Bulldogs. Photo courtesy of Chase County Historical Museum.

Chase County, Kansas, home to a population of just under 3000 people, isn’t a big place.

But as any Kansan knows, small doesn’t mean lacking in stories—and particularly when it comes to sports, Chase County is brimming with them.

There’s the story of Ryan Kohlmeier, a local boy who played baseball in the area before going on to pitch for the Baltimore Orioles—and then settling down in nearby Emporia, where he owns a dental practice.

There’s the story of Rich Potter, a longtime local coach of Little League baseball and softball so beloved by his community that they honored his 47 years of coaching by naming a field after him in a ceremony attended by hundreds.

There’s even the story of Knute Rockne, the famous Notre Dame football coach, and his 1931 death in a plane crash in the county—an event still commemorated by a memorial marker and an exhibit in the Chase County Historical Museum.

But the biggest story of the last few years is Chase County Junior/Senior High School’s softball team, the Lady Bulldogs.

In a community justifiably proud of its sports heritage, the Lady Bulldogs have written themselves into the history books, winning three Kansas State 2-1A softball championships in a row.

Along the way, they tied the state record of 72 consecutive wins—an accomplishment that helped earn them the title of 2014 Small School Softball Team of the Year from MaxPreps, a national high school sports website. Head Coach Brian Potter took Small School Coach of the Year honors, and catcher Cassidy Kelsheimer was named to the site’s Small School All-American Second Team.

The team even had a day named after them. The mayor and city council of Cottonwood Falls, where CCHS is located, proclaimed May 20, 2014 to be Chase County Junior/Senior High School Softball Day in recognition of the Lady Bulldog’s athletic achievements.

“Chase County: A League of Our Own” will be on display at the Chase County Historical Museum through November 14, 2015. For more information, contact cscohist(at)sbcglobal.net or (620) 273-8500.

Community and Coincidence: Researching Sports History in Linn County

This year, KHC features weekly posts related to the Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition Hometown Teams, currently touring Kansas.

Linn County got its first football team 100 years ago, in 1915.  Image Courtesy La Cygne Historical Society.

Linn County got its first football team 100 years ago, in 1915. Image Courtesy La Cygne Historical Society.

When Linn County Partner Site Project Director Janet Reynolds, primary researcher Ruth Reynolds and other members of the community were considering what topics to feature in their local Hometown Teams partner exhibit, they kept finding that conversations about one topic inevitably led to another.

For example, they knew that they wanted to display a baseball uniform, glove and ball used by Hank Helm, a pitcher who played for La Cygne’s semi-professional baseball team in the 1920s. La Cygne’s team regularly faced off against ball clubs from nearby towns like New Lancaster—even, occasionally, against professional teams, who they would play in exhibition games.

Helm had a particularly interesting story, they learned. He’d been good enough to play for the Kansas City Blues, a minor league team. But talent couldn’t compensate for homesickness, and Helm returned to La Cygne to be with his new baby girl.

Helm’s story led the Reynolds sisters to another: a local woman who found a jersey from La Cygne’s long-ago semi-pro team in a thrift store in Missouri.

“A lot of it’s been coincidence,” Janet said.

Also coincidence: that the exhibit takes place on football’s centennial in La Cygne, providing a perfect opportunity to celebrate that sport’s history in the area.

Football came to town in 1915 through “Doc” Morrison, the local doctor, who also served as scorekeeper for a number of teams and coach of the first football team.

But what started out as just “a kernel of an idea” to celebrate the town’s football history expanded through discussions with the community, Ruth Reynolds said.

That’s when people in the area brought up the 1970 state champion football team from local Prairie View High School, who went undefeated in pursuit of the Buffaloes’ only state championship to date. That team celebrates its 45th anniversary this year, and people were already looking to commemorate it—another coincidence.

“It all kind of winds and ties together,” Janet added.

The exhibit celebrating Linn County’s local sports history will be on display at the La Cygne Library between August and October, with various exhibitions also on display in the La Cygne Historical Museum between Memorial Day and the Christmas Homes Tour. For more information, visit www.lacygnelibrary.org or https://sites.google.com/site/lacygnehs.

Let There Be Light

This year, KHC features weekly posts related to the Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition Hometown Teams, currently touring Kansas.

The 1949 Independence Yankees (including star player Mickey Mantle, bottom right) played at Shulthis Stadium, home to the first night game in organized baseball. Image Courtesy Independence Historical Museum & Art Center.

The 1949 Independence Yankees (including star player Mickey Mantle, bottom right) played at Shulthis Stadium, home to the first night game in organized baseball. Image Courtesy Independence Historical Museum & Art Center.

Night games are so common in today’s sports that it’s hard to believe that, not even 100 years ago, the idea of watching sports at night was laughable.

Independence, Kansas, helped change that on April 28, 1930, when it hosted the first night game in the history of Organized Baseball.

It was sort of the first, anyway. Baseball had been played under lights as far back as 1880, but according to Larry G. Bowman, those games were few and far between, intended only as one-off exhibition matches “to demonstrate the uses of artificial lighting [rather] than to promote night baseball.”

Baseball traditionalists resisted the innovation, but it helped revitalize flagging leagues. By the late 1920s, attendance was down for minor league baseball teams. It didn’t help that daytime games conflicted with work hours, or that playing in the summer sun meant that temperatures were uncomfortable for players and fans alike. Night baseball, its supporters believed, would solve both of these problems.

After an exhibition game on April 17, the Independence Producers played the first-ever regular season professional night baseball game. The atmosphere was a success, with 1500 spectators turning out to watch the game under the lights. The game itself was less so, as the Producers lost 13-3 to their rivals, the Muskogee Indians.

Regardless of the outcome, the Producers staked a claim to a piece of baseball history that night. But Independence doesn’t always get the credit it deserves.

Des Moines, Iowa, was constructing its own set of lights at the same time and played its first night game just four days after the Producers. The owner of the Des Moines Demons publicized the game so well that even today, Des Moines is sometimes erroneously credited as the home of the first professional night game.

But Kansans know that, whenever the lights go on over a night game, it’s Independence they have to thank for showing the way.

The exhibition will be on display at the Independence Historical Museum & Art Center from October 6 to November 21. For more information, visit www.independencehistoricalmuseum.org.

A Tale of Two Players: Baseball Legends in Humboldt

This year, KHC features weekly posts related to the Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition Hometown Teams, currently touring Kansas.

George Sweatt won 3 Negro Leagues World Series Championships.  Image Courtesy Humboldt Historic Preservation Alliance.

George Sweatt won 3 Negro Leagues World Series Championships during his baseball career. Image Courtesy Humboldt Historic Preservation Alliance.

Most small towns will never produce even one famous athlete.

Humboldt, Kansas, can claim two.

The southeast Kansas community of about 2000 people is the hometown of two famous baseball players: Walter “Big Train” Johnson, one of the most revered pitchers of all time, and George “Sharkey” Sweatt, a combination infielder and outfielder known for his wicked hitting who played for the renowned Kansas City Monarchs of the National Negro League.

Humboldt is a town that loves its sports, and the community “is pleased as punch” to share the two men’s stories with a wider audience, said Humboldt Historic Preservation Alliance mentor Eileen Robertson.

Sweatt and Johnson share an incredible achievement. Each man won the World Series with his ball club. Sweatt and the Monarchs took the first-ever Negro League World Series, while Johnson’s Washington Senators won in his eighteenth year with team.

Even more incredibly, they won their respective World Series in the same year—1924.

But for Sweatt and Johnson, winning wasn’t everything. More than great ballplayers, both were well-known league gentlemen who took sportsmanship seriously, nurturing deep roots in their Kansas communities.

Sweatt was a devoted schoolteacher in Coffeyville, Kansas, south of Humboldt. If the baseball season overlapped with his teaching duties, there was no question which he would pick, according to this article by Mark Schremmer:

“Sweatt was kind of an academic and a ballplayer,” Negro League baseball historian and author Phil Dixon said. “He….would leave the team early enough so he could go teach. He was a tremendous individual.”

Johnson is also remembered for the polite disposition that accompanied the terrifying power of his arm. Sometimes he would even throw easier pitches to opposing players with low batting averages.

Walter Johnson was known for having one of the most fearsome pitches in baseball.  Image Courtesy National Photo Company Collection, via Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Walter Johnson was known for having one of the most fearsome pitches in baseball. Image Courtesy National Photo Company Collection, via Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Although the two men never played ball together, their shared origins in Humboldt link them together in baseball history. And the town thinks it’s important that their hometown heroes’ stories stick around.

“[The] HHPA knows that all history not promoted and preserved is lost,” Robertson said.

To keep that from happening, Humboldt set up a local baseball Hall of Fame with a display featuring photos, articles and memorabilia associated with the two men. Town teams play at both Walter Johnson Field (baseball and football) and at Sweatt Field (baseball), and monuments to both men stand at various locations throughout town.

While Johnson is better known, Sweatt has garnered renewed attention in recent years. Humboldt’s residents realize how easy it would be for him to remain in Johnson’s shadow, so the town is taking steps to publicize Sweatt’s rich history in the area.

He was the first African American letterman at what is now Pittsburg State University, where he was a talented track and field star, and a plaque marking the place of his birth is planned—fitting recognition for the man whose autobiography includes a dedication to “the older citizens of Humboldt, Kansas for accepting me for what I was and have become.”

Robertson said the HHPA hopes the exhibit will help viewers better see the connections between sports and the American spirit. It will be on display October 3 through November 15 alongside the Hometown Teams traveling Smithsonian exhibition at Humboldt City Hall. For more information, visit www.humboldtkansas.org.

The Sweet Sounds of Success: Sports and Music

This year, KHC features weekly posts related to the Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition Hometown Teams, currently touring Kansas.

"Take Me Out to the Ball-Game" is one of the most instantly recognizable sports songs.  Image courtesy of KansasMemory, Kansas Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

“Take Me Out to the Ball-Game” is one of the most instantly recognizable sports songs. Image courtesy of KansasMemory, Kansas Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

From the marching band that takes the field at half time to the songs fans sing in the stands, music has been a key part of the sports experience in Kansas for a long time.

So when singer-songwriter Lorde revealed that she titled her smash hit “Royals” after a photo she’d seen of Kansas City Royals baseball player George Brett, it was just one more example of how music and sports often come together in surprising ways.

It makes sense: like sports, music taps into something deeply emotional in us. The joy of victory, the agony of defeat—both can be amplified by the right soundtrack.

Sports music tends to fall into two categories: songs that are about sports and songs that become associated with sports.

The first group features classics like “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” but it also features songs like Kenny Rogers’s “The Greatest” (baseball), Hank Williams, Jr.’s “Are You Ready for Some Football” (football, obviously), and Warren Zevon’s “Hit Somebody!” (hockey).

More common are the songs that, for whatever reason, we come to associate with sports. These are the songs that can be heard at games across Kansas, no matter what team you root for.

When the home team is down and all hope looks lost, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” can keep the crowd going, even though its lyrics don’t have anything to do with sports. And defeating a rival feels even sweeter when the opponents leave the court to the sound of Steam’s “Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye),” even though song is about leaving a lover, not athletic glory.

New songs are added to this list all the time. Sporting KC supporters regularly belt out the chorus to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes’ “Home,” another song that seems to have nothing do with sports.

Nothing, that is, until it’s being sung in unison by thousands of fans as a sign of support for the team they love.

Then the connection—and the melody—sound pretty clear.

Values and Victories in Smith Center

This year, KHC features weekly posts related to the Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition Hometown Teams, currently touring Kansas.

Joe Drape's Our Boys told the story of Smith Center's winning football team and became a national bestseller.  Image Courtesy Meredith Wiggins.

Joe Drape’s Our Boys told the story of Smith Center’s winning football team and became a national bestseller. Image Courtesy Meredith Wiggins.

Most small-town athletes are big fish in a small pond. Their triumphs and failures may be common knowledge, but usually only within a certain geographic area.

But a few years ago, the high school football team in Smith Center, Kansas, got a taste of what it’s like to have a much bigger audience when journalist Joe Drape profiled the team for the New York Times.

When the story ran in November 2007, the team was riding a 51-game winning streak in pursuit of their fourth consecutive state championship. They would achieve that and more, winning a fifth state championship and coming heartbreakingly close to a sixth as they compiled a streak of 79 consecutive victories.

Drape’s story about the astonishingly successful team from north-central Kansas resonated with NYT readers. He followed up with a best-selling 2009 book, Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains with the Smith Center Redmen.

But as much as readers thrilled to every Smith Center victory, it was the lessons about determination, drive and accountability that really struck a chord with Drape’s wider audience.

The driving force behind those lessons was Smith Center football coach Roger Barta, who tallied more than 300 wins over a 34-year career. For Barta, though, the wins came second to the message—something he made clear in Drape’s original article:

“None of this is really about football,” [Barta] added. “We’re going to get scored on eventually, and lose a game, and that doesn’t mean anything. What I hope we’re doing is sending kids into life who know that every day means something.”

It’s a testament to the strength of that message that when Smith Center finally lost a game—the state championship, in overtime—the team was able to walk away with their heads held high.

Like so many other great sports stories, Our Boys was never just a story about a good football team. It was a reminder about what sports, at their best, can be: an opportunity to instill the kinds of values that define the promise of America.

Casting a Spell Over Sports Fans

This year, KHC features weekly posts related to the Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition Hometown Teams, currently touring Kansas.

The University of Kansas is home to a nationally competitive Quidditch team.  Image Courtesy Jane Wallerstedt.

The University of Kansas is home to a nationally competitive Quidditch team. Image Courtesy Jane Wallerstedt.

In Kansas, the “Big 3” sports still reign supreme. But what if your taste in sports runs a little more…magical?

If you live in Lawrence, you’re in luck. The college town, which revels in its outside-the-box reputation, is home to Kansas Quidditch, a nationally competitive team organized through KU.

The sport of choice in the wizarding world created by Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling, Quidditch is just one of the unconventional sports making a name for itself in Lawrence.

“The fact that weird or unusual sports thrive in Lawrence is just another example of how locals are open to introducing a little bit of the unknown into their lives,” said Abby Magariel, Watkins Museum of History’s Hometown Teams Partner Site Project Director.

2014-2015 Kansas Quidditch captain Max Wallerstedt agrees the unconventional aspect is a draw.

“It’s an extracurricular activity that isn’t taken too seriously, by some, where everyone who wants to experience can come and not feel pressured like they might be by more traditional sports,” Wallerstedt said.

In Rowling’s series, Quidditch is played in flight, with players zipping through the air on broomsticks.

Here in the Muggle (non-magical) world, players can’t fly. But all seven players do have to keep a broomstick between their legs at all times, adding a degree of difficulty to the game.

Chasers attempt to score goals on the opposing team’s goaltender, or Keeper, while avoiding the Bludgers (dodgeballs) thrown at them by Beaters. And the Seeker—only one per team—tries to capture the Golden Snitch. In the books, the Snitch is a small, winged ball worth 300 points to the team that captures it; in real life, it’s a sock with a tennis ball inside it that hangs from a runner’s waistband. Capturing the Snitch ends the game and usually means victory.

Nearly a decade after the last Harry Potter novel was published, real-life Quidditch continues to gain in popularity across the world. So whether you’re a Potterhead dreaming of the day an owl drops off your Hogwarts acceptance letter or just looking for a different way to explore your athletic side, Lawrence has you covered.

For more information on the Watkins Museum’s planned activities, visit watkinsmuseum.org.