John Hall: A historian of bush league baseball

Former ball boy John Hall keeps the memory of the region’s KOM teams alive.

05/18/2012 10:39 AM

05/16/2014 6:31 PM

On the first night of July 1951, the Carthage Cubs shuffled onto rickety buses that would take them from Jaycee Park to the YMCA in Pittsburg, Kan. Their manager barked at them for losing both games of a doubleheader to the Pittsburg Browns.

No one noticed that their 11-year-old bat boy wasn’t with them. The bus pulled out. He was still at the park collecting the team’s bats into two big duffel bags. They left him there in the middle of the night, 30 miles from his home back in Carthage, Mo.

More than 60 years later, John Hall chuckles about being left behind.

“Everyone knows that story,” he says.

“Everyone” means every ballplayer who played for the Carthage Cubs that summer and most anyone else who was ever affiliated with the Kansas-Oklahoma-Missouri League, known informally as the KOM.

The KOM League, created in 1946, was one of the many regional baseball operations that sprang up around the country after young men came home from World War II.

It was a bush league — a ragtag collection of returning veterans too old to be scouted by the majors and recent high school grads eager for their chance to make it big. The league lasted until 1952, fizzling out with the rise of television and the death of the golden age of minor league baseball.

Centered in southeastern Kansas, northeastern Oklahoma and southwestern Missouri, it was as low as you could get on the baseball totem pole of the mid-20th century — a Class D minor league.

There were five more classes to climb before you made it to the majors. So going from playing for the KOM League to making it to the big leagues was like going from cooking the French fries to owning the franchise.

Of the 1,588 guys who played for teams like the Carthage Cardinals (who became the Carthage Cubs in 1949), Ponca City, Okla., Dodgers, Iola, Kan., Indians and Pittsburg Browns, 31 made it to the majors.

And even though the guys who played for the Cubs forgot John Hall on that night in 1951, all of them would remember him today. Those men, and most of the others who took the fields for the KOM in its six years of existence, have heard his name and know his mission: to make sure that they and their times aren’t forgotten.

Hall is 72 now. He sits in the den of his Rainwood Court home in Columbia. The walls around him are lined with shelves and shelves of books: scrapbooks, sporting guides, memoirs, biographies. A few of them bear his name.

The computer screen in front of him shows a spreadsheet with 1,588 names. Hall closes his eyes and asks you to select a name.

Heavner.

Hall doesn’t hesitate: Jimmy Heavner was from Sayre, Pa., and played for the Ponca City Dodgers. He played maybe a game or so.

But that wasn’t really fair. He saw where you were pointing. Try again.

Hendricks.

Dale Hendricks is from Bermerton, Wash. He played for Ponca City for a year, left, and came back again. He raised as close to full-blooded wolves as you can get.

One more. Scroll down this time.

Mullenaux.

William Wesley Mullenaux played for Pittsburg in 1947. He was born in 1927 in Carroll County, Md., and died in Sykesville, Md.

If you had to keep going, Hall could keep up. Of the 1,588 names on the screen, Hall has contacted 1,400 of the players themselves, or friends and family if they are deceased.

***

Carthage lost its spot in the KOM after that summer of 1951, and the Cubs’ bat boy was out of a job. As the KOM League began to fade away, so did Hall’s attachment to it.

He wasn’t finished with baseball though. How could he be? He’d been obsessed with it since the summer of 1948, when his cousin’s husband asked John to tell him the scores of the St. Louis Cardinals games that legendary announcer Harry Caray, then with the Cardinals, announced on the radio.

Before the days of Little League, he played pickup games in the street, hit rocks and walnuts with his bat and threw his tennis ball against the wall of his house.

In 1957, the summer after he graduated from high school, Hall enrolled in a trade school in Kansas City on Troost Avenue and Brush Creek Boulevard to learn how to build radios and televisions. He remembers walking to Municipal Stadium on 22nd Street and Brooklyn Avenue to watch the Kansas City Athletics. One night he saw a familiar face from the KOM League. It was Mickey Mantle.

That’s right. The Mick played for the KOM in 1949 for the Yankees out of Independence, Kan. He was almost unrecognizable by 1957, having tacked on muscle mass since his days in the lowly bush leagues. Hall remembers the sounds of shattering glass crunching metal as Mantle, batting right-handed for the Yankees, cracked one ball after another into the cars in the parking lot.

The next summer, 1958, Hall put his own baseball skills to the test playing for the Joplin Civic League. While there, Ferrell Anderson, former catcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers, asked him if he really wanted to play ball. Hall knew he meant the minor leagues.

He declined. Hall knew he wasn’t big enough or fast enough. College was a safer bet.

As he ticks off his college education, he chuckles at a bit of related irony: He started at Joplin Junior College, which is now Missouri Southern University. He got his bachelor’s degree in theology and philosophy from Bethany Nazarene College, which is now Southern Nazarene University. He earned a master’s degree in guidance counseling from Kansas State Teacher’s College, which is now Pittsburg State University.

And before all that, he was a bat boy for the KOM League, which was kaput a year after he left it.

“Thus, everything I’ve ever been affiliated with no longer exists,” Hall says.

His theology degree led Hall to a job as a Nazarene pastor in a small town in the Missouri Ozarks called Noel, then to another one in Aurora. Along the way, he married a woman named Noel. Fifty-two years later, they are still together, though her name has become something of a running joke.

“My first pastorate was Noel, and my first wife was Noel, and I didn’t think there was any woman on earth named Aurora, so I stuck with the first one,” Hall says with a laugh.

After Hall went back to school and earned his master’s degree, he began his long career processing Medicaid claims and automating eligibility systems for the state of Kansas and, beginning in 1979, running Missouri’s Medicaid system.

He even had a brief side business as a Christmas tree farmer. By 1994, he was working as a Medicaid consultant for private corporations. In between projects, Hall was looking for something to do.

Over the years, he had written a few freelance articles for church publications and expressed his characteristic tongue-in-cheek sense of humor in some of his official state writings. Now, restless and with time on his hands, Noel suggested he write again, and “write about something you know.”

“The only thing I know anything about is the old KOM League,” he said.

“Write an article or two,” she urged.

So he did. He rounded up some names of old ballplayers, did a bit of research and started writing about the whereabouts and goings on of some old teammates.

“From there, it’s become almost an 18-year ordeal,” Hall says.

***

“Ordeal” implies that this project is something Hall has had to endure, which isn’t exactly right. But it has been a lot of work. He wrote The KOM League Remembered, a monthly newsletter for old KOM leaguers and their families, from 1994 until 2010.

Then he condensed those newsletters into a book of the same title and wrote two more books about baseball: “Majoring in the Minors” and “Mickey Mantle: Before the Glory.” It was a lot of work organizing KOM reunions until 2008.

And it’s a lot of work writing the KOM League Flash Report, a digital version of his old print newsletter, which he emails to his readers roughly every week.

Some might want to peg Hall as a star-struck former bat boy eagerly scrounging for news about his heroes the same way he scrounged for their bats on that baseball diamond in Pittsburg.

But he’s not trying to live out his golden years in the past, nor is he trying to chronicle the league for the glory of baseball itself. In fact, he doesn’t keep up with the pros anymore. The player strikes, drugs and salary disputes are too much for him.

“I wouldn’t spend the money that it takes to go to the games anymore,” he says.

Hall does what he does for the people who were there — for the players and their families. Maybe it’s the minister in him.

“I’ve always tried to do what people want,” he says. “If I can I try to make someone’s life better once in a while.”

Consider this: About two years ago, Hall got a letter from a woman whose father played for Ponca City in 1947. He had died when she was very young, and she knew almost nothing about him. Hall sent her some pictures and info. The woman was ecstatic.

Since Hall launched his project, he has gotten calls from all over the country from people looking to reconnect with old friends, sometimes with old lovers.

Hall tells this story in the October 2004 issue of his newsletter: A woman called a man she thought was a former player and old flame. She was cussed out for her effort. The woman called Hall to make sure she had the right name and number.

“I told her it was either that same fellow or someone answering his phone who didn’t want to be bothered by anyone — or at least a lady he hadn’t seen or heard of in 51 years,” he writes.

So he couldn’t always deliver good news, but that’s what the reunions were for — when the guys met face-to-face for the first time in decades and reconnected in a way they couldn’t by phone or post.

They got the chance to see old buddies again, introduce wives, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. Hall recalls 80-year-old women squealing like teenagers at the old men they knew as young men in the ballparks.

It wasn’t all handshakes and small talk. These guys got to play.

They filed into ball fields in Pittsburg, Iola, Chanute, Kan., and Bartlesville, Okla. — the same ball fields they played in more than half a century ago. Hall named them off, one by one, from memory.

He smiles now as he remembers how competitive the old-timers would get, and he sees in his head the panoramic view of the diamond from the announcer’s box, with the national anthem playing and the flag waving and the faces of the old players who got a second chance to be young.

Dick Getter (Iola Indians, 1949) says there were about 400 people at the first reunion in 1994. There were guys he knew from the old days, and guys he met for the first time. When they weren’t playing, they sat around reminiscing and “talked about what a lousy shortstop Mantle was.”

Most of the old leagues faded away without note, Getter says. Thanks to Hall, the KOM League is an exception.

“If it wasn’t for him, there’d never have been a reunion,” he says. “I don’t think I ever heard of anybody doing what he did to get this group of guys together.”

Getter isn’t the only one who appreciates Hall’s commitment to the past. Hall receives phone calls at all hours of the night from other former players and baseball historians looking to talk shop. His books have earned him prestige as an amateur expert on a bygone era of minor league ball. He used to be a regular guest on Don Fortune’s sports talk show on KMBZ.

Fortune would introduce him as “The Great John Hall” and ask Hall how he was.

“I’d tell him ‘I feel great!’ ” Hall says.

***

Archiving the KOM League isn’t Hall’s only hobby. On most mornings, he attaches a big lens to his Nikon D300 and climbs behind the wheel of his pickup truck. Usually his three English cocker spaniels, Banshee, Thor and Skye, are with him in the cab.

“It gets me out and it gets the dogs out,” he says, starting the engine.

Ever since 2001, when his wife bought him a Canon point-and-shoot, a tiny thing that he wore out almost immediately, Hall has developed a talent for amateur photography.

He has filled a two-terabyte external hard drive with his pictures and has made significant progress filling a second. He supplements his KOM Flash Reports with emails to his readers of his favorite photos from his drives.

He drives around the country roads near his house, seldom venturing more than an hour away from home. He winds down Coats Lane and Nebo Cemetery Road, through McBain toward Route K. He stops the truck and rolls down the driver’s side window, raises the camera and click, click, click.

He has a lot of lenses. The longest one is 24 inches, so distance is rarely a problem.

“One person sent me a 2012 calendar of my pictures,” he says as he snaps another picture out the window. Others have asked permission to use his shots for oil paintings. He’s a frequent contributor to the “From Readers” section of the University of Missouri’s student newspaper, the Missourian.

With the same respect he shows the all-but-forgotten KOM, Hall takes pictures of things most people never notice. On this day, he stops to photograph an old Maytag washing machine rusting in a yard.

“I can’t see a Maytag washer without thinking of the day Franklin Roosevelt died,” he says. His grandmother was washing clothes in one when the paperboy told them the news.

Another stop to shoot an ancient-looking barn perched on a hill about a hundred yards away. It’s a tobacco barn, Hall explains — see the rafters? They’re specifically designed for air-curing tobacco leaves.

Then a few snaps of a reliable model — a brown horse grazing behind a fence. As soon as Hall raises the camera, the horse is ready. It plods toward him, ready for its close-up.

“This guy’s used to me,” he says as the shutter clicks. Before he drives away, he asks the horse how he’s doing today and if he has had enough to eat.

Eventually Hall ends up at Mount Nebo Cemetery, an out-of-the-way collection of graves surrounded by trees and a rusty iron fence, located in the Katy Township of Boone County.

He likes to photograph graveyards and read the names on the tombstones. Sometimes when he’s curious, he’ll take a picture of the stone, go home and research the name to find out who’s buried there. Sometimes he’ll write a quick article about the person for the “From Readers” section, just to pass the time.

He’s wearing his red KOM League hat in the cemetery today. This is where he starts to talk about why he ended the reunions and why he discontinued the print newsletter.

“Guys are just dying,” he says.

Almost any man who played in the KOM League would have to be in his 80s by now. Twenty years ago, when Hall started the project, there were plenty of die-hard subscribers. But as the years passed, his readership declined, and so did the number of faces at the reunions.

Getter echoes Hall’s reality. “It was pretty scary at times,” he says. “You didn’t know who was going to show up at the next one.”

Almost every back issue of The KOM League Remembered has an obituary for a former player who passed — guys like Earl Hayes (’49 Miami, Okla., Owls), Dean Walstron (’49 Carthage Cardinals) and Chuck Sauvain (’50 Bartlesville Pirates).

Hall is well aware that he’s fighting a losing battle against time and that eventually the KOM League will fall further into obscurity, left in the dust of more famous chapters in athletic history.

But then you think of those 1,400 old players that Hall has reached out to. And you think of all the families and friends who got to see them as they were in their prime — smiling with old buddies, holding bats instead of canes.

And you realize that John Hall has given those people a priceless gift.

And one way or another, the KOM League’s legacy will live on.


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