SUMMIT CITY HISTORY NOTES


Baseball in Fort Wayne, from a minipage written for children


By RICHARD BATTIN
Did you know Babe Ruth played baseball in Fort Wayne?

His visit here 65 years ago this month is just part of the city's rich and colorful baseball history.

It was a cloudy day in early May 1927, when Ruth and the rest of the New York Yankees arrived in Fort Wayne by train.

The team was in first place at the time. It had just closed a series with the Washington Senators.

The players were on their way to Chicago and stopped in Fort Wayne to play an exhibition game against a team from Lincoln Life. It was the year Ruth hit 60 home runs.

The game was played at Lincoln Life's own field. Extra bleachers had to be set up to handle the more than 3,000 people who showed up for the game.

Kids clamored around Ruth at the ballpark. It was a Friday, a school day, so either the kids cut class or understanding teachers let them off to see the "Sultan of Swat."

Sportswriters back then loved to give players catchy nicknames such as the "Sultan of Swat."

The newspaper stories that day also called him the "Behemoth of Bam," and the "Mandarin of Maul."

The word "behemoth" means something very big. "Mandarin" is a Chinese imperial official.

The team of amateur baseball players from Lincoln Life did better than most people expected against the powerful Yankee squad.

Lou Gehrig also was on the team.

At the end of nine innings, the game was tied 3 to 3. Ruth had been up to the plate four times. He hit two bounders to the infield, one infield fly and was walked once.

Then, in the tenth inning, it seemed as if he'd had enough. The big man stepped through the gang of kids who surrounded him and walked to the plate.

The first pitch was a called strike. Ruth complained and resumed his stance. He swung wildly at the second pitch and missed. Two strikes.

But the cheering fans heard the solid "crack" of ball against bat as Ruth connected with the third pitch. The ball sailed over the right-field fence.

The Yankees won the game 5 to 3.

There's another story about Babe Ruth playing a game in Fort Wayne that same year and hitting his longest home run ever.

He was here during a barn-storming tour after the 1927 season. His team was playing an exhibition game at the old League Park on North Clinton Street.

Ruth belted a ball over the left-center-field fence. The story says that the baseball landed on a freight train passing through town at the time.

Next year, Fort Wayne is getting its own professional baseball team. The Class A minor-league Kenosha Twins will be moving to the city.

It won't be the first time the city had its own professional baseball team.

In fact, Fort Wayne was one of the first cities in the whole country to have a professional team. That was 121 years ago, in 1871.

The history of baseball in the city goes back even furth er than that, however. It starts in 1862. That is 130 years ago.

Civil War was going on when first club began

In April 1862, several young men gathered in Fort Wayne and formed the Summit City Club to play baseball. The Civil War between the Northern and Southern states had started the year before, in 1861.

A businessman donated some of his land between Calhoun and Clinton streets, south of Lewis Street, for the team to play.

That's the area where the Fort Wayne Community Schools district's administration building is today, the Grile Administration Center.

Soon after starting the club, many of its early members enlisted in the Northern army and some died in the war.

The Summit City Club was reorganized in 1866, after the Civil War. Another team, the Kekiongas, also was formed that year.

Other teams were formed the next year, 1867. They included the Twightwees, the Mechanics, the Socials, the Concordia Empires and the Keystones.

Local games were "vigorously played," writes city historian Michael Hawfield, "occasionally breaking into fistfights."

In 1869 the Kekiongas played the Cincinnati Red Stockings. They later became the Red Sox we know today.

Cincinnati was the first baseball team in the country to have all paid players.

Fort Wayne lost the game 86 to 8. They played them again later that same summer and only lost 41 to 7.

The team got better. In the summer of 1870, the Kekiongas went on tour, winning everywhere they played.

A team from Baltimore had disbanded right in the middle of a tour of the Midwest and many of the best players ended up on the Kekiongas. One of them was the pitcher, Bobby Mathews, who some say invented the curveball.

The Kekiongas played the Chicago White Stockings, later the White Sox, that summer. Chicago lost so badly that the fans threw rocks at the Kekiongas' carriage, injuring many of the players.

Fort Wayne won the state championship that year.

In March 1871, the National Association of Professional Base-Ball Players was started in New York. It later became the National League we know today.

Nine teams started the association and one of them was Fort Wayne. The other cities were Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Washington, D.C., Troy, N.Y., New York City, Cleveland and Rockford, Ill.

Each team was to play the others in a best three-out-of-five series. The team with the best record at end of the season was entitled to fly the championship streamer, or pennant, at its ballpark for a year. The entry fee was $10 a club. The teams tossed coins to see who would play the first game. Fort Wayne and Cleveland won. So, the first major-league baseball game held anywhere in the country was held in Fort Wayne. It happened on May 4, 1871.

The Kekiongas won the game 2 to 0. The game was rained out at the top of the ninth inning.

The luck of the Kekiongas soured after that. The team disbanded in July with a record of seven wins and 21 losses. The Fort Wayne franchise was bought by a team from back east - the Brooklyn Dodgers.

It was the last time Fort Wayne would field a professional, major-league team. But semi-pro baseball flourished in the city through the late 1950s.

In the early 1880s, Fort Wayne joined the Northwestern League, a new amateur association.

In 1890, the group became the American League, the other major-league baseball organization.

So the city had its hand in both major-league groups that exist today.

In June 1883, the Jenney Electric Light Co. decided to try something very different. The company later became General Electric, which is still in town.

It put up 17 huge arc lights around League Park. On June 2, 1883, a night baseball game was held between the Quincys, a professional team from Illinois, and a local team from Methodist College. The college team lost 19 to 11.

It was one of the first night baseball games held anywhere in the country. Some say it was the first night game with a professional team.

An earlier night game was held in September 1880. That game was in Massachusetts, between two amateur teams.

The first league championship to be won by a Fort Wayne team occurred in 1903. Fort Wayne was in the Central League at the time. The team won again in 1904. Then the team dropped out of the league until 1908.

City firms sponsored teams in the early 1900s

There were many amateur and semi-pro teams in Fort Wayne in the early 1900s.

The Billikens were formed in 1908. Nobody seems to know how the team got its name.

The Billikens finished fourth in the Central League in 1908 with 75 wins and 65 losses.

The 1909 team finished in third place behind the hitting of Lester Channel and Curt Elston. Channel was batting .309 and Elston, .305.

Elson later played briefly with the Boston Red Sox and Channel played with the New York Yankees until an untimely injury shortened his career.

In 1910, the team edged up to second place in the Central League.

Other teams of the time had names taken from the area where they played. They were called the Spy Runs, the Wallace Street Stars and the South Waynes.

Later, Fort Wayne companies started fielding teams. Lincoln Life Insurance Co. started its first team in 1919.

International Harvester Co. started a team in 1938. Other companies that had teams included General Electric, North American Van Lines and Allen Dairy.

In 1947, the Voltmen, a team fielded by General Electric, won the city's first national semi-pro baseball title. The championships then were held in Wichita, Kan., every fall.

A huge crowd met the winning team at the train station on Sept. 3, 1947. With a band marching in front of them, the team was driven to the Allen County Courthouse in a firetruck for a special awards ceremony.

The Voltmen won the national title again in 1948 and 1949. That's when General Electric stopped sponsoring the team.

The team was then named the Kekiongas, like the team from 1871. It was sponsored by the Capehart-Farnsworth Co., which made appliances.

In 1950, the team went to Wichita and won its fourth national title in a row. The team went on to Japan and won the world semi-pro baseball championship. It was the first world championship won by a city team.

The same team later was sponsored by the Midwestern United Life Insurance Co. and North American Van Lines.

In 1953, it beat the St. Louis Browns and Chicago White Sox in exhibition games.

In 1955, Allen Dairy took over sponsorship. A year later, in 1956, the team won another world semi-pro championship.

Almost 100 years had passed since a few young men gathered downtown to begin the Summit City Club.

Women's league started because men were at war

Another important piece of Fort Wayne's baseball history is the Daisies.

It was a women's baseball team which played from 1945 to 1954.

The Daisies were part of the All-American Girls Baseball League. It was started in 1942 by Phillip Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs.

Wrigley was concerned that World War II would cut down on the number of men available to play.

A new movie coming out this summer (of 1992), "A League of Their Own," starring Madonna and Geena Davis, is based on the league. Among the famous local players were Dottie Collins, Donna Cook and Dottie Schroeder.

The league disbanded in 1954. The Daisies were expected to win the championship that year, but lost to the Kalamazoo Lassies.

Wizards bring baseball home

After nearly a 45-year absence, baseball returned to the Summit City five years ago in the form of the Fort Wayne Wizards. A new stadium, called Memorial Stadium, was built to accommodate them.

The Wizards play in the Midwest League, a Class A minor league. In their first game, on April 10, 1993, in Waterloo, Iowa, they turned a triple play -- one of baseball's rarest plays.

Jim Dwyer, the team's first manager, guided them to a 68-67 record.

In 1994, the Wizards' second season, they hosted the Minnesota Twins in an exhibition game on May 5. The Twins are the parent club of the Wizards. Players such as Kirby Puckett and Dave Winfield participated.

The Wizards ended their second season with a record of 66-73.

The Wizards made their first playoff appearance in their third season as Dan Rohn took over as the team's manager. They finished that season with a 75-65 record.

In 1996, the Wizards missed earning a playoff spot in the final week of the season and finished with a record of 69-67.

In the 1997 season, under new Manager Mike Boulanger, they became the first Wizards' team to win a playoff series, defeating the West Michigan Whitecaps 2-0 in a best-of-three game series, but were eliminated by Lansing 2-0 in the next round and ended the year with a 70-69 record.

In the 1998 season, the Wizards will be led by Jose Marzan, the team's fourth manager.

On March 13, 1998, the pitchers and catchers will report to the team's spring training home in Fort Myers, Fla. The team will begin spring training games on March 19.

The Wizards will begin their regular season on April 9 at South Bend, and will have their first home game on April 15 against West Michigan.

Rules of the game in the last century

It's interesting to know what rules teams of the 19th century played by:

  • Until 1884, pitchers were only allowed to throw underhand.
  • In 1879, a pitcher had to throw nine balls before the batter was allowed to walk to first base. It was changed to eight in 1880, six in 1884, seven in 1885, five in 1887 and four in 1889.
  • Between 1871 and 1887, a batter was allowed to call for a high- or low-pitched ball.
  • In 1880, a batter was out if he was hit by a batted ball.
  • In 1885, it was OK for one side of the bat to be flat.
  • In 1887, the number of strikes needed to get somebody out was raised to four. It was returned to three the next year.
  • Until 1883, a foul ball caught after a single bounce was called an out.
  • It wasn't until 1920 that spitballs were outlawed.

For additional reading on baseball in Fort Wayne ...

Ankenbruck, John, "Twentieth-Century History of Fort Wayne, Indiana." Fort Wayne, IN: Twentieth Century Historical Fort Wayne Inc., 1976.
Griswold, Bert J., "The Pictorial History of Fort Wayne, Indiana," 2 vols. Chicago: Robert O. Law Co., 1917.
Hawfield, Michael C., "Fort Wayne Cityscapes." Windsor Publications Inc., 1988.
Parker, Robert D., "Batter Up: Fort Wayne's Baseball History." Fort Wayne, Old Fort News, Vol. XXX, No. 3, Summer, 1967.
Schaal, Carol, "Daisies a Hit in City's Memory," Fort Wayne, the Journal-Gazette, June 12, 1980.
Turkin, Hy and Thompson, S.C., "The Official Encyclopedia of Baseball." New York: A.S. Barnes and Company, 1972.
Wachtman, Barbara, "I'll be Comin' Up Daisies Sunday," Fort Wayne, The News-Sentinel, Sept. 26, 1981.

--May 27, 1992

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