29 Aug

From Satchel to Mayweather, Racial Tensions Fuel Sports’ Most Lucrative Events

The rivalry between Satchel Paige and “Dizzy” Dean presaged the big-money boxing bonanza between Mayweather and McGregor

Rocky Marciano and Apollo Creed. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. And now, McGregor and Mayweather. In both fact and fiction, the spectacle of a great white athlete competing against a stellar black athlete often produces box office gold. Last Saturday night’s boxing match between the Irishman Conor McGregor and African-American Floyd Mayweather is only the latest proof. A traditional boxer, Mayweather drew from a sport followed by millions of Hispanic and black fans, while McGregor came from Mixed Martial Arts, a sport with a higher percentage of white fans. Together they made sports history, generating an estimated $700 million.

McGregor and Mayweather only occasionally played up the racial angle of their matchup in the months leading up to the fight. McGregor, at one point, told Mayweather to “dance for me, boy,” and used the term “dancing monkeys” in relation to an all-black gym from a scene in the 1982 movie “Rocky III.” Mayweather, meanwhile, said he was fighting “for all the blacks around the world.”

Despite such comments, McGregor, for his part, downplayed the racial aspect of the fight: “I’m not saying that there are not people on both sides that have this mind-set where it’s black versus white, and this type of thing,” he said. “But it’s certainly something I do not condone. I’m disappointed to hear the way sometimes it’s been portrayed. But I suppose it’s just the nature of the game, with the way things are going on in the world at the moment.”

Beyond the racial difference, what made McGregor-Mayweather especially enticing was the   two men’s common shared ground. Both men have stood at the top of their respective sports, and both flaunt outsized, arrogant personas. “McGregor is in many ways a cheap imitation of Floyd’s ‘Money Mayweather’ persona,” Todd Boyd, a professor who studies race and pop culture at the University of Southern California, told the New York Times‘ John Eligon. “But McGregor is white, he’s younger, and his clowning comes with an Irish accent. All of this seems to have endeared him to some in the media and many fans as well. McGregor is being celebrated for the same things that Floyd has been denigrated for.”

While the phenomenon of McGregor-Mayweather will likely be contained to a single contest, in team sports interracial rivals meet multiple times.  This was certainly the case in the 1930s, when Arkansas native “Dizzy” Dean, a St. Louis Cardinals* superstar pitcher, led all-white barnstorming teams against all-black barnstorming teams headlined by the great Negro Leagues pitcher Satchel Paige. Dean led the Cardinals to the 1934 World Series victory, graced the covers of major newspapers and magazines and was arguably the world’s most famous pitcher. Paige, meanwhile, unleashed legendary speed and won multiple titles in the Negro leagues playing for the likes of the Kansas City Monarchs.

The two men were, in many way, alter egos: “underfed, loose-jointed boys from Dixie whose down-home demeanor belied the sagacity of a Rhodes Scholar and the cunning of a corporate titan,” Larry Tye wrote in Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend. “Each preferred his nickname to his real one, and his own rules to his team’s, league’s or society’s. Neither was the kind of guy to whom one would introduce his sister, although fathers and brothers were aching to meet them. Ol’ Diz pitched six of the Cardinals’ final nine games during the stretch drive in 1934, a work ethic only ‘Ol Satch could match.”

While Dean, son of Dixie he was, had no qualms about using the “N-word,” he also praised Paige’s baseball abilities in a national column he penned. At the height of his fame Dean wrote, for instance, “If Satchel and I played together, we’d clinch the pennant mathematically by the Fourth of July and go fishin’ until the Fourth of July.” This kind of praise, coming from a Southern native, was instrumental in breaking down racial barriers  in the Jim Crow era and laying a foundation for the Civil Rights movement.

To learn more about how this happened, and the bond between Dizzy Dean and Satchel Paige, read my book African-American Athletes in Arkansas.

Black athletes

*Circa 2017, the St. Louis Cardinals aren’t exactly catching the world on fire with a .500 record. Still, they are the fourth-most likely team to win the NL pennant, according to the latest betting on baseball.

01 May

When the all-black Muskogee Hustlers Played in Gentry and Green Forest

In the early 20th century, it appears demand from the all-white communities of Benton and Carroll counties for black baseball was higher than expected. In 1932, for instance, the Muskogee Hustlers, a black team out of Oklahoma, was slated to play a Gentry team made up of local talent.


According to the September 29, 1932 edition Gentry’s Journal-Advance, the local boys included “Clyde Glass and Hawn of the Southern League, Browning and Berry of Des Moines [what the what?!], perhaps Pea Ridge Day, and other players of the Western and other leagues.”

Then, three years later, two black teams were scheduled to play in the Carroll County town of Green Forest. This time it was to be the big-league Kansas City Monarchs, a perennial championship contender in the Negro leagues, versus Muskogee again. Unfortunately, the idea of the Monarchs playing in lil’-ole Green Forest was simply too good to be true, as the below report from the September 10, 1935 Green Forest Tribune shows:

The Green Forest Champs beat the Muskogee Hustlers in a free[wheeling?] affair played on a soft field Monday afternoon. The Hustlers go 12 hits to 11 for the Champs, but the Champs made [theirs] good for 8 runs while the Hustlers counted 7. Coxsey pitched for the locals…except for four unearned runs in the first inning, was [invincible?] until the eighth when a…tally was pushed over. In the ninth the Hustlers added two more. The locals kept pecking at at Ousley and Gains to score persistently, once in the first, twice in the second, once in the third, twice in the fifth and again twice in the ninth, every run being earned.

The locals were playing the scheduled game to have been played between the Hustlers and the Kansas City Monarchs. The team which showed up to play Sunday was shown to be a fake. However, they were allowed to play Sunday to avoid totally disappointing the largest crowd that gathered expectation of seeing the genuine Kansas City Monarchs perform. It may be [said?] in all fairness, that neither the Muskogee manager nor the local manager knew a fake team was to play here until just before the scheduled game Sunday. It seems as the though the manager of the fake Monarchs had misrepresented his team.


Muskogee Hustlers

Green Forest baseball

I don’t know of any first-hand accounts of Muskogee Hustlers playing in these towns, but we do have 2013 testimony from Porter Reed, a former Hustler, that later in the 1930s and 1940s playing in Arkansas was not a pleasant experience.

“I’d go down in Arkansas  and play [location unknown, as the Hustlers also played in bigger towns like Ft. Smith, too] and say ‘My name’s Porter Reed. That’s my name’” Reed said at the 5:05 mark below. “But I wasn’t Porter Reed when I went to Arkansas. I was ‘nigger.’ But didn’t make no difference—I was down there making good money.”

This evokes another testimony from black Oklahoman baseball player Eugene Golden, according to a thesis of Oklahoma baseball historian Jake Cornwell:

“Golden says that during a road trip in 1947 to Rogers and Siloam Springs, a young boy in Rogers, no more than five or six years old, pointed to Clearview old-timer Whitson Weaver who often traveled with the Rockets. The child tugged on his father’s pant leg and motioned toward Weaver exclaiming, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, that is a old nigger there! He’s older than Abraham Lincoln!”


Want to learn more about Arkansas ties to the Muskogee Hustlers should sign up for my upcoming book, African-American Athletes in Arkansas. I delve into story of Louis McGill, a former Hustler and Fort Smith native, and his ball-playing travels into the bootleggin’ hills of Washington County.

Add your email address here to reserve a copy of this nearly 200-page, one-of-a-kind collectible now.


07 Nov

What Was Happening in Arkansas the Last Time Chicago Cubs Won It All?

The last time before  2016 , that is.


Before last week it had been a long time since the erstwhile ne’er-do-well Chicago Cubs won it all.

One hundred and eight years, to be exact. Yes, that really is a long time, as we’ve been repeatedly reminded in numerous articles, blog posts and during the Fox broadcast of Wednesday night’s Game 7 itself.

So long, in fact, that when the Cubs last won the World Series on October 14, 1908, World War I had not yet erupted, a sultan ruled the Ottoman Empire and Russia had an emperor. Babe Ruth was only 13 years old and Henry Ford had just finished his first Model T car.

But what was happening in Arkansas that October day in 1908?

Turns out a lot, actually. Residents in more baseball-crazy parts of the state were following the series’ last game. Thanks to an Arkansas Gazette brief, we know in several different parts of Pine Bluff, for instance, fans eagerly awaited inning-by-inning updates by telegraph.

But the bigger news belonged to the third annual State Fair, then winding down in Hot Springs. There, in the midst of  a reunion of Confederate and Union soldiers America’s first heavyweight champion of gloved boxing gave an impromptu speech to the veterans. The 50-year-old John L. Sullivan “admitted that he was now living in the memories of a past day of fighting,” according to the Gazette.

John L. Sullivan

Ol’ John L. in bare-knuckled    days.

“50 per cent better than that of last year”

The fair included a statewide agricultural exhibit. An Arkansas Democrat writer reported:  “Washington County has a rare exhibit of apples which occupies an imposing amount of space. Elberts peaches from Sevier County delight the eye and the fruit from Baxter makes a fine appearance. The magnitude of the growing rice industry is strikingly shown by exhibits from the heart of the rice growing counties of Arkansas, Prairie and Lonoke.

The horticultural exhibit is estimated by Mr. Manville to be 50 percent better than last year… In the live stock department the improvement over the exhibits of last year is calculated to be at least 20 percent…”

Southern Sympathies

When it came to the Confederate veterans traveling from Hot Springs to Little Rock, the Arkansas Democrat wasn’t shy about laying out its sympathies for Dixie.

“Little Rock today welcomes the veterans who wore the gray in the sanguinary days of the sixties [1860s]. The number is dwindling to a handful, and there is more of silver in locks once raven.

The steps have less of the elasticity that once marked them but their hearts are as warm with the chivalry of the Old South, and best as true to the dictates of loyalty to home and loyalty as ever.

It is a benign mission laid upon the shoulders of the new generation to make the path of the veterans as free from thorns as possible.”

Today, Arkansas is one of a handful of states to celebrate an annual holiday celebrating the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. That day, January 19, falls on the same day as Martin Luther King Day. “Proposals to end the joint holiday failed multiple times before a House committee last year after opponents said the separation would belittle Southern heritage,” according to a 2016 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article.

Democrat-Gazette opinion writers regularly pay tribute to Robert E. Lee around January 19.

Folks were going “autoing”

Decades before the construction of the interstate system and invention of more efficient car engines, driving across the state wasn’t exactly what we moderns would call “snappy.”


Just your normal half-a-day drive from LR to Helena (Arkansas Democrat).

In southwest Arkansas’ Montgomery County, the big news involved a new A.L. Clark Lumber Company sawmill

(Nashville News)

 (Nashville News)

… and word that a $171.50 artesian well would be going up on Nashville’s Main Street

(Nashville News)

(Nashville News)

Last thing: Advertisements circa 1908 could be strange. And a tad misleading, too:


(Arkansas Democrat)

For more Arkansas pro baseball history, read our piece on Dizzy Dean and Satchel Paige.

11 Nov

Arthur Ellis: Pine Bluff Sports Star Tutored Goose Tatum

merrill high school

The following excerpt is from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s “Untold Stories: Black Sports Heroes Before Integration.” Henry Pennymon provided the newspaper with the above photo of Ellis, No. 42.

arkansas integration 


The start of a phone conversation with Pine Bluff sports legend Arthur “Knute” Ellis is predictable.

“Is this Knute Ellis?” the caller asks.

“Yep, what is left of me,” says Ellis, 89, who now makes his home in Chicago.

Ellis was one of the top athletes in Arkansas during his athletic prime in the 1930s and 1940s, playing quarterback on a national champion high school football team and later playing the same position on an undefeated college team.

Ellis also was recruited by several Negro League baseball teams, but chose to further his education. Ellis became one of the first black men to enlist as a sailor in the Navy during World War II.

“He is an extraordinary man,” said Henry Pennymon of Pine Bluff, who grew up watching Ellis at Merrill High School and Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal College.

Second chance

Had it not been for a chance meeting with Merrill football Coach Henry Foster in 1931, Ellis likely would have been another story of what could have been.

Ellis, who was born in Pine Bluff, had dropped out of school after ninth grade and moved with his mother to Chicago to work. But during this particular summer he had returned home.

One day Ellis was practicing his punting — his kicks traveling 60 to 70 yards in the air — when Foster walked by the park in Pine Bluff.

Foster was impressed, and recruited the 19-year-old Ellis to Merrill. Unlike Illinois, where Ellis would have been too old, Arkansas didn’t have any age limitations.

“The only eligibility rule was that you had to be in school and get the grades,” Ellis said.

Ellis had three years of eligibility when he joined the team. The first season the team won one game before going undefeated in state play the next two seasons, winning two black state championships.

Merrill was crowned the mythical national champion of black high school football after defeating Roosevelt High School of Gary, Ind., in 1933.

Golden boy

Ellis was recruited to AM&N by Coach James Hazzard after his success as a “triple threat” quarterback, halfback and kicker.

He played on the 1934 team, which was Hazzard’s last year, but starred as a starting quarterback and halfback for Coach James McCaray in 1935 and 1936 and Coach Bill Taylor in 1937. Those teams compiled a 15-9-4 record.

Ellis said the 1937 season, in which AM&N posted a 6-0-3 record, was bittersweet. He earned All-Southwest Athletic Conference honors, but had he made extra point attempts in 13-13 ties with Southern and Wiley, the Golden Lions would have finished 8-0-1.

Bear battering

The Pittsburgh Courier didn’t hold those misses against Ellis when it came time to choose a team of black all-stars to face the 1938 Chicago Bears in an exhibition game.

Ellis, AM&N teammate Madison “Mack” Robinson and Little Rock native Charles “Bo” Spearman of LeMoyne College were among the players who were trounced 51-0 by the Bears, runners-up to the Washington Redskins in the segregated NFL championship that season.

“The team wasn’t really decided until the last minute, so we really only had a couple of weeks to prepare for a professional team,” said Ellis, who never left the bench. “Most of the players on the team had graduated the previous fall so they weren’t in shape.

“Maybe we would have made a better showing if we had a chance to make a showing. That was the only year we did that. The public wasn’t too enthused.”

Neither was Bears owner George Ha- las, who opted not to play another game against the black players.

Despite not playing in the game, Ellis he said he was able to make some contacts that would help him make the 1939 Chicago Brown Bombers — an all-black minor- league football team that played and practiced in Chicago’s Washington Park.

Ellis said he played halfback in four of the six games that season against teams from around Chicago, and on one occasion the team traveled to Cleveland to play.

The coach, in name only, was Fred “Duke” Slater, who was a star lineman at Iowa from 1919 to 1921, Ellis said.

“Most of the players coached themselves,” Ellis said. “There wasn’t any sponsoring and we usually didn’t get paid. The players basically volunteered.”

Harlem Globetrotters founder Abe Saperstein scheduled a few games for the Brown Bombers in which the team would receive 40 percent of the gate and Saperstein the rest, Ellis said. .

One season would be all Ellis spent with the Brown Bombers.

More choices

Ellis was hired to teach and coach football, basketball and track at Moten High School in Marianna in the fall of 1939. He took as much pride in his teaching as he did coaching.

“The state of Arkansas gave scholarships to outstanding teachers and after the first year I was recommended,” Ellis said. “So I took five hours at Fisk College toward my master’s degree.”

Accepting the scholarship was a difficult choice for the then 27-year-old Ellis, who had also received offers that summer to play professional baseball for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro leagues and Asheville, N.C., of the Piedmont League.

“I wanted to finish up my schooling,” Ellis said.

Unfortunately for Ellis, it would be his last opportunity to play professional baseball. He also never would finish his master’s degree.

Diamond star

Ellis had spent his summers playing on the baseball fields of Pine Bluff, from the time he was young. He joined his first semipro team, the Pine Bluff Boosters, in the summer of 1933. Ellis played games around Arkansas as well as in Shreveport and Monroe, La., and Piney Wood, Miss.

Read More

09 Oct

Smithsonian Sports Exhibit Coming to Blytheville, Wynne, Helena, Arkadelphia & Batesville

Dallas County touts itself as the per-capita home to the most Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame inductees in the state. That’s hard to argue with legends like Larry Lacewell, Houston Nutt, Sr., Kevin Williams, Jimmy Parker and, of course, Paul “Bear” Bryant – whose new Fordyce museum exhibit I discuss at Arkansas Money & Politics  – all hailing from the area.

But other Arkansas towns have impressive sports heritages, too. And in 2017 the Smithsonian Institute will help highlight those histories with the arrival of a traveling exhibit: “Hometown Teams: How Sports Shape America.” The exhibit “will capture the stories that unfold on the neighborhood fields and courts, and the underdog heroics, larger-than-life legends, fierce rivalries and gut-wrenching defeats. For more than 100 years, sports have reflected the trials and triumphs of the American experience and helped shape the national character,” according to this press release.

“This project gives communities an opportunity to share these stories, celebrate local legends and collect memorabilia from the community. With the support and guidance of state humanities councils, these towns will develop complementary exhibits, host humanities programs and facilitate educational initiatives about sports and ideals such as team work, fair play, leadership and respect.”

I’m pleased to report the following communities and dates will highlighted:

Screen Shot 2015-10-09 at 9.03.26 AM


I’m reaching out to folks involved with these organizations to find more details about which Arkansan sports stars, exactly, will be featured. In the meantime, I’d love to get your thoughts on which local legends should be celebrated.

22 Oct

Razorbacks’ Latest Baseball Signees Nationally Ranked No. 2

Little Rock native Blake Wiggins bypassed the MLB for a shot to make history with the Hogs. He's off to a good start.

Little Rock native Blake Wiggins bypassed the MLB for a shot to make history with the Hogs. He’s off to a good start.

Chances are the University of Arkansas baseball team’s most recent recruiting class is better than your most recent recruiting class.

Want proof? The class, which consists of 20 players (14 true freshmen and six junior college transfers) has now been nationally ranked at No. 2 by Perfect Game, No. 4 by Baseball America and No. 16 by Collegiate Baseball.

“We held our class together maybe the best since I’ve been here,” head coach Dave Van Horn told the UA Sports Information department. “We have a lot of talent coming in and plenty of returners who can help them gain some experience and they can push each other a little bit.”

Four players in the class were selected in the 2014 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft and put their pro careers on hold to attend the University of Arkansas and become Razorbacks. Outfielder Luke Bonfield (Skillman, N.J.) was selected in the 21st round by the New York Mets, first baseman and right-handed pitcher Keaton McKinney (Ankeny, Iowa) was taken in the 28th round by the New York Mets, infielder and catcher Blake Wiggins (Little Rock, Ark.) was a 36th round selection by the Philadelphia Phillies and Nathan Rodriguez (Yorda Linda, Calif.) was taken in the 39th round by the Colorado Rockies.

In addition to the drafted newcomers, Arkansas welcomes outfielder Jack Benninghoff (Overland Park, Kan.), infielder Matt Campbell (Chesapeake, Va.), right-handed pitcher Cannon Chadwick (Paris, Texas), left-handed pitcher Ryan Fant (Texarkana, Texas), infielder Cullen Gassaway (Bedford, Texas), infielder Keith Grieshaber (St. Louis, Mo.), right-handed pitcher Mark Hammel (Cypress, Texas), infielder Max Hogan (Belton, Texas), infielder Rick Nomura (Waipahu, Hawaii), left-handed pitcher Kyle Pate (Fayetteville, Ark.), right-handed pitcher Jonah Patten (Indianapolis, Ind.), catcher Tucker Pennell (Georgetown, Texas), left-handed pitcher Sean Reardon (Smithville, Mo.), infielder Kevin Silky (Dublin, Calif.), outfielder Darien Simms (Spring, Texas) and catcher/first baseman Chad Spanberger (Granite City, Ill.).

The Razorbacks are one of just seven teams in the country to advance to each of the last 13 NCAA Tournaments as they look to make it 14 straight during the 2015 season. Arkansas has appeared in seven College World Series, five Super Regionals and 27 NCAA Tournaments in program history.

Arkansas opens the season at home on Feb. 13 against North Dakota, one of 35 games at Baum Stadium during the 2015 season. The Razorbacks will play 22 games against 2014 NCAA Tournament teams, including eight opponents that appeared in NCAA Regional finals in 2014, three that played in NCAA Super Regionals and two that advanced to the College World Series.

The above is a modified press release from the UA.

14 Apr

Arkansan NBA pioneer to be Inducted in Hall of Fame, Featured in Major Motion Film

In 1958, Arkansans Nat Clifton (L) and Goose Tatum teamed up again a decade after starring as Harlem Globetrotters

In 1958, Arkansans Nat Clifton (L) and Goose Tatum teamed up a decade after starring as Harlem Globetrotters

Technically, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton was the second black player to sign with an NBA team. He was also the first black player to play in the NBA Finals, as well as being the oldest player in NBA history to make an All-Star game debut (at age 34).

Technicalities aside, it should be obvious Clifton’s place in sports history is significant. Basketball, after all, is the world’s second most popular sport primarily because of the exploits of African-American players. There is no Julius Erving, Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan without the efforts of Clifton and his contemporaries.

This is why, come August, Clifton will be inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame alongside Nolan Richardson. It will surprise some to learn Clifton was born in central Arkansas in the early 1920s and spent the first six years of his life in England, Ark. He and his family then moved to Chicago’s South Side, where he starred in baseball and basketball for DuSable High School. He landed in New Orleans for college, then served three years in the U.S. Army before bouncing around a few pro leagues. He wasn’t exactly a scrub journeyman, though: In 1948, Clifton signed a $10,000 contract to become the world’s highest paid black pro basketball player with the Harlem Globetrotters (which featured fellow Arkansan Goose Tatum, considered by many the greatest Globetrotter ever).

In 1950, he signed with Knicks, where he became one of the franchise’s most popular players and helped lead New York to three Finals appearances. According to the Chicago Tribune, Clifton was primarily a rebounding forward and center, who at 6-foot-6-inch, 200 pounds averaged 10 points and 9 rebounds a game in eight NBA seasons.

A tenacious defender, Mr. Clifton was called on night after night to guard some of the league`s toughest players, including George Mikan, Dolph Schayes and Ed McCauley.

Following his retirement from professional basketball in 1958-seven years before the league instituted a pension plan-Mr. Clifton played two seasons for Globetrotter spinoffs, the Harlem Magicians and the Harlem Americans. After injuring his knee in 1960 while playing with the Magicians, he began driving a Chicago cab.

`I might not be, but I think I`m the best cab driver out there,“Clifton once said. “The way I look at it, if you`re gonna be something, be good at it.’ ‘

Indeed, at age 63, Clifton died of a heart attack at the wheel of his Chicago taxicab.

The story of Sweetwater’s life appears to be adventuresome, inspiring and possibly sad.  It’s remarkable he lived in a world – the pro basketball circuit of the late 1940s and 1950s – that as far as I know hasn’t yet been portrayed in a major motion film.

Others have noticed this too. That’s why spring 2015 is the scheduled premiere of “Sweetwater,” a biopic featuring stars such as Nathan Lane, James Caan and Brian Dennehy. The film’s currently in pre-production, and appears like it will exercise some creative license to widen its appeal. As an example of how this could happen, look at this character outline (which is six years old and could have changed in the meantime).

In it, we see Sweetwater has the ambition of the becoming the “Jackie Robinson of basketball” and is disappointed when the distinction of being the first black to play in the NBA goes to Earl Lloyd. I haven’t yet researched Clifton’s life in detail, but I would guess this distinction wasn’t so important to Clifton. For starters, the NBA had just started a few years before and was nowhere near as established as Major League Baseball. At that time, there was no guarantee the NBA would even survive and one day become a league as important and influential as it is now. I could be surprised, though. Obviously, Clifton was a competitive man and Jackie Robinson was still on everybody’s mind.

Another likely history twist: Clifton had a blues-singing white woman lover soon after arriving in New York City . I’m 99% sure this didn’t happen, but injecting this affair and blues singing will definitely help at the box office. Romance or not, I’ll be fascinated to see how the movie actually comes together. I certainly salute its producers for seeing it through despite complications over the last six years.

My goal in the coming months is to learn as much about Clifton’s Arkansas years and family as I can. There’s scant info out there now. It’s been said his grandmother apparently used snuff, and young Nat – who loved sweets – put cocoa in his cheeks to emulate her and get a bit of sugar rush. We know he lived with his mother and an aunt in Chicago, and that’s about it.

It’s unclear what year he was born, although the best guess is 1922. It also appears he was born as “Clifton Nathaniel” so now the task is to find any Nathaniels who used to live around England, Ark. (Lonoke County). If you have any tips, please reach out to me.

More than six decades after he became a pioneer, Sweetwater will again make headlines in the coming year. Help me make sure his life’s full story is told.


The above is Part 2 of a series about Chicago and Arkansas sports ties. 


26 Mar

Arkansas Travelers’ “Otey the Swamp Possum” As Gateway Mascot to Toothless Meth Head-ism

There have been quite a few famous faces affiliated with the Arkansas Travelers since the minor league baseball franchise was formed in 1901. Hall of Famers Tris Speaker, Travis Jackson, Bill Dickey, Jim Bunning, Ferguson Jenkins – along with Angels superstar Mike Trout – top the list.

No roster addition, however, has caused as big a stir as the Travelers’ latest – Otey the Swamp Possum. The new mascot, designed by a California-based company and introduced this week, is meant to pay homage to one of the best second basemen in Traveler history* while appealing to children. So far, though, it has primarily sparked a firestorm of criticism.

One fan on social media sarcastically asked why a “toothless meth head” wasn’t used instead, since “were [sic] stereotyping Arkansas.” Others asked if the possum has to look as if it was “straight out of Deliverance” and wondered the possum was used only because “negotiations to get Cooter from the Dukes of Hazzard fell through.”

Other fans are cool with the choice.

Old Otey

Old Otey

[polldaddy poll=7914279]

New Otey

New Otey

There’s more than new mascots and brand new logos to be excited/enraged about heading into the season. Here’s a preview, courtesy of Tiffany White:

In April this year, the Travelers – under an all-new coaching staff – will enter their 14th season as an affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels and 48th in the Texas League. The schedule for the 2014 season includes the Texas League All-Star Game, one of the highlights of the season, to be played at Dickey-Stephens Park on Tuesday, June 24. It is the first time that it is played at the team’s new field – the Dickey-Stephens Field, in North Little Rock – which opened in 2007 replacing the former Ray Winder Field (named after Ray Winder who worked as ticket taker in 1915 before rising to general manager) which had served the Travelers since 1932.

The opening of the new season might be the right opportunity to place your bets on the baseball teams playing in the League. If you need some assistance when shopping for the right place and safest website, you might as well check the Internet for bettingsports.com sportsbook comparison. During this new season, you will have plenty of games to choose from, as the format of the Texas League season remains unchanged with the Travs playing mainly against their North Division opponents.

Their most familiar ones are The Springfield Cardinals and Tulsa Drillers (Colorado Rockies), while there are 28 games scheduled with the in-state Northwest Arkansas Naturals. Moreover, the Travs will play all South Division teams (Midland, defending champion San Antonio, Frisco and Corpus Christi) 12 times each.

They will host their eighth Home Opener at Dickey-Stephens Park on April 10th against the Midland RockHounds (Oakland Athletics). During Memorial Day weekend, the Travs will host San Antonio for a 5:30 pm game that will coincide with the Riverfest Fireworks show afterwards, while on the Fourth of July the team is hosting the Frisco RoughRiders (Texas Rangers) at 5:30 pm with the Independence Day downtown fireworks show after the game.

If you are a Travelers fan, an inveterate swamp possum mascot aficionado, and/or simply want to enjoy a good game, remember that tickets and smart packs for the 2014 season are now on sale.

*  The original Otey was R.C. Otey, who died at age 88 in 2011.  A graduate of North Little Rock High School, Otey broke into pro baseball in 1942 with Amarillo, but was quickly nabbed for military service.  “After three years in the Navy, including eight months on Okinawa, he met and married the love of his life, Ida Maxine Morton, who eventually was the director over the Arkansas State Board of Nursing and Superintendent of Missouri Pacific Hospital,” according to his obituary. “In 1949, the Arkansas Travelers bought Infielder Otey off the Pampa Club of the Class C West Texas-New Mexico League. He was the only player who had been with one Southern club for 10 consecutive seasons. He held many records in his tenure, including the most double plays by a second baseman. In 1958, Otey retired from playing baseball and became the Ray Winder Park Superintendent, a position he held for almost 30 years.” – via arkbaseball.com


The year before Otey retired, the Little Rock Travelers were named after the entire state and became the Arkansas Travelers. Throughout the years, they have been part of eight Major League farm Systems. After going through a dry decade for league titles, when Arkansas never climbed higher than second but still attracted 250,000 fans annually, they started to win again in 2001, when the new millennium and a new Major League affiliation with the Angels brought another Texas League title.


08 Jun

They Called Him “Oil” Because They Couldn’t Say “Earl”: Grant County’s Finest


Saving energy for fightin’.

On June 8, 1963, Sheridan native Earl “Oil” Smith, a three-time World Series champion catcher, died.  Smith played for minor league teams in Waxachachie (Texas), Fort Smith, Tulsa and Rochester (N.Y.) before breaking into the National League with the New York Giants in 1919. In 1921-22, Smith helped the Giants beat the Yankees in consecutive World Series and then headed to Pittsburgh where he help the Pirates win the 1925 World Series and batted a career-high .346 the next year. Four seasons in the majors, he batted over .300.

All the while, Smith developed a reputation as an extremely temperamental player.

“Smith probably was involved in as many fights as any player in the game,” according to a 1963 obituary in the Pine Bluff Commercial.  Unfortunately, no reasons are provided as why, exactly, Msr. Smith was so angry but here’s a guess: He was frustrated as hell. You would be, too, if the people you were around all the time COULDN”T PRONOUNCE YOUR VERY EASY-TO-PRONOUNCE AND NOT-AT-ALL-COMPLICATED NAME.

According to the Commercial, Midwest sports columnist Westbrook Pegler nicknamed Smith Oil “because, Pegler said, easterners had a hard time saying Earl.”

Fortunately for Smith, he returned to friendlier phonetic climes when he went to St. Louis in 1928 and there played in another World Series.

After his playing career ended in 1930, Smith showed Easterners it wasn’t anything personal against them by choosing to start work as a minor league manager in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. He then retired to Hot Springs, Ark. with one brief exception: a one-year turn as coach of the Hot Springs Bathers in the Cotton States League.

Smith, who died at age 66 from a lengthy illness not specified in his obituary, is buried at Little Rock National Cemetery.

30 May

Proposed Hot Springs Sports Complex Vs. Burns Park


Steve Arrison, CEO of Visit Hot Springs, left, Danny Herring, field supervisor for UMETCO, and David Longinotti, Hot Springs Advertising & Promotion Commission chairman, visit with media, at a closed mine to view a proposed sports complex site off of U.S. Highway 270 about a mile east of Hot Springs on March 27, 2013. Courtesy: WEHCO, Inc.

There has been a recent wellspring of news pieces extolling the benefits of a proposed regional sports complex east of Hot Springs.

The basic idea, espoused by the city’s advertising and promotion commission, is to buy at least 175 acres previously owned by a vanadium mining company (UMETCO) and turn the area off U.S. 270 into a gleaming citadel of youth sports.

How gleaming? Talk is it would be one of the finest sports complexes in the South.

Tentative plans, according to Hot Springs Sentinel Record, include “a signature youth baseball field with ‘spectacular views’ at the top of the site; two multipurpose fields that would accommodate four regulation fields; a ‘fourplex’ youth baseball area that would be the central focus of the complex, with four youth baseball fields; a group gathering area next to a heavily wooded area that could contain soft trails and accommodate mountain biking, interpretive stations, wildlife blinds, day camp activities, small pavilions and picnicking; and a high-point lookout.”

I agree: this sounds awesome. And – wait – it gets even more awesome/new fangle-y.

According to THV 11, this complex would include fields for flag football and lacrosse. Lacrosse? That sport which struggles to attract more than 31 Twitter followers in the state’s largest city? Expect any lacrosse fields to be used much more by lacrosse-saavy Tennesseans and Texans than Arkansans.

The complex would cater to visitors from out of state, after all. It would serve a conduit or these potential tourists to be funneled to nearby activities and sites such as the Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail, a collection of historic markers commemorating the city’s early role in spring training for professional baseball.

Let’s assume the Garland County powers that be get what they want and this regional sports mecca gets underway.

A major question looms: what does it portend for North Little Rock’s Burns Park?

The 1,700-acre park  already includes a few sports complexes which host regional events.

Not to mention a 36-hole golf course, 36-hole disc golf course, soccer complex, tennis, trails, seasonal amusement park, archery range and a dog park.

The Burns Park baseball complex, just completed in 2012,  includes nine fields. Its soccer complex includes 17  irrigated fields, 1,500 parking spaces, tournament lighting on one quadrant, pavilions, 135 acres of preserved wetland, a three-mile hike/bike trail and is home to the UALR women’s soccer team.

It has hosted the nation’s biggest events in youth soccer: the 2006 & 2002 US Youth Soccer Southern Regional Championships as well as the 2008  US Youth Soccer National Championships.

And let’s not forget about the softball complex, which throws some serious heat with:

  • 5-fields
  • 20/30 regular play lighting
  • 30/50 tournament play lighting
  • Three window concession stand
  • Five scorekeeper rooms
  • Sports medicine room
  • Over 1,000 lighted parking spaces with concrete walkways.

If the Hot Springs sports complex is built, will that town’s leaders start locking horns with their NLR counterparts in attempts to attract top regional youth sports tournaments?

Consider that  in 2005 alone, more than 182,000 participants and spectators came to the Burns Park soccer complex. That’s a lot of tourist dollars – money that may soon go to Hot Springs instead of Little Rock and North Little Rock.