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  • Writer's pictureDennis McCaslin

Our Arklahoma Heritage: When "town ball" was all the rage across Arkansas

In the early 1920's all over Arkansas, "town baseball" was a big deal.

In fact, it is rumored that in the middle of the decade of the 1920's, none other than Jerome "Dizzy" Dean and Paul "Daffy" Dean plied their skills on a number of diamonds as teenagers for various teams around the state.

One account claims that the brothers, who were born in Lucas in Scott County, may have played a few games for a team based in Mansfield when they were 14 and 16 years of age respectively.

While baseball teams and rivalries existed in western Arkansas, the concept of "town teams" as a source of community pride was probably stronger in southern and eastern Arkansas, with teams in towns like Newport, Lake Village. Arkansas City, McGehee, Pine Bluff, Texarkana, Blytheville, Wynne and Osceola being sponsored by various businesses and treated like economic enterprises.

It's said that games between rivalry towns would often be held in conjunction with springs and summer holidays and festivals, drawing huge crowds from the surrounding area and resulting in enough paying customers to help fund the teams. Players were even paid by some teams and wagering was healthy on the big games.

Paying players extended beyond just the local community as well. Towns that were serious about their baseball would import players from other teams, bring in ringers from neighboring states and, in one example, Shoeless Joe Jackson and Eddie Cicotte led Arkansas City to a victory over a Louisiana team in 1920.

Jackson and Cicotte, members of the infamous 1919 Chicago "Black Sox" team barnstormed all over the midwest and south after their ban from Major League Baseball following the scandalous 1919 Word Series. Arkansas City was taking on a team of locals from the combined communities of Boyle and Merigold just across the Arkansas/ Louisiana border.

The Arkansas City boys routed the Louisiana crew in a heavily wagered-upon contest and it's said that Jackson "drove a ball outside the park so far that it landed on the roof of a nearby schoolhouse for a grand slam homerun".

Town baseball also thrived in western Arkansas, although the squads were more than likely made up of actual local residents and the games were more recreational in nature.

At one point, small communities like Branch, Ursula, Huntington, Bloomer, Subiaco, and Hartford had squads and games were usually played on Saturday. Farmers, coal miners, professional men and teenagers would all come together to play hastily scheduled games and an occasional tournament for nothing more than community bragging rights.

In once instance, an area lawman participated for a local team...and it cost him his life.

On August 22, 1922, Jess Allen "J.A" Maness was playing first base for a team from Branch in a game against Ursala on the home diamond. During his first at bat, an errant pitch struck the Branch town marshal in the left temple.

Maness shook off the effects of the blow and stayed in the game, actually getting a double in his next at bat. As he was running from second to third on a subsequent base hit, he fell unconscious in the base path.

Maness, 27, died eight hours later leaving his wife Ollie as his sole survivor. Tragically, the couple had lost their daughter to an unknown illness just sixteen days before the fateful baseball game.

Maness was buried in the Morgan Hill Cemetery in Ozark as fiends and family members gathered in the graveyard for the second time in just over two weeks.

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