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Bryan County History: Early baseball games marked by controversy, brawls, injuries

the Bryan County Genealogy Library and Archives
Special to Texoma Marketing and Media Group
A 1905 newspaper advertisement for a special train that transported fans of baseball pitcher Joe "Iron Man" McGinnity to a game in which he played in South McAlester.

Baseball, popular during the Civil War because of the portability of its simple equipment, became widespread as soldiers returned to their homes. It isn’t difficult to image the lads at Ft. Washita enjoying a game, and we know from the newspapers of that era that many of Blue (Bryan) County’s small communities organized baseball teams as soon as they located a flat parcel of ground for a game.

Although popular, baseball was never without controversy. Games were played on Sunday afternoons when the largest crowds were available. As early as the 1850s, local churches condemned “sinful pleasures” and required members to confess to attending “ball plays” on Sunday.

Baseball was also dangerous. Playing fields were makeshift. Balls were caught without the benefit of gloves. Players were often injured and sometimes killed by flying balls or bats. Games erupted in violent arguments between players or umpires or both.

By the 1880s, the coal miners of Krebs were playing to large, rowdy crowds who often gambled on the outcome of the game. Soon Joe "Iron Man" McGinnity arrived to work in the coal mines and became one of the leading promoters and players of the game.

When he pitched for South McAlester in 1905, a special train carried fans from the Durant area to the game. In 1906, he played for the New York Giants and the newspaper reported that he earned a whopping $11,000 to do so. During the off season, he managed his manufacturing plant in South McAlester.

By the 1890s, there were “town ball” teams in Hartshorne, Alderson, Tahlequah, Checotah, Eufaula, Muskogee, Vinita, Wagoner, Lehigh, Coalgate, and Wilburton. More were added every spring. In 1895, the Caddo newspaper announced a game between the Caddo and Durant teams at the “baseball grounds located in Mr. Semple’s pasture”.

In 1899, Caddo had three ball teams. Ira Smith often served as umpire. Photographer W. W. Clinkscales took team pictures.

In the years leading to statehood, baseball became even more vital to local entertainment. Teams traveled as far north as Shawnee and as far south as Denison to find worthy opponents. They sometimes played as many as three games in a day.

And fans had no trouble finding an exciting game to watch. During one week in 1902, Caddo lost a 10-inning game to the Elm Peelers, Durant played Cale until a fight broke out, Caddo started a game with Caney that was stopped due to “difficulties,” and the “Overalls” and the “Mother Hubbards” provided a little amusing distraction.

The Durant Turks were organized by W. A. Hoffman in 1906 and consisted of: Peck Hardy, Will Sparger, W. W. Washington, Sam Fuller, and players by the last names of Paxton and Flinchum. The “baseball grounds” were located on First Street. Other local teams were eager to test their skills against them.

Oklahoma’s love of the sport continues to this day and many great players have called our state home. Kreb’s “Iron Man” was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1946. Our ancestors must have delighted in exchanging memories of those first games they witnessed.

Bryan County History is a weekly feature contributed by members of the Bryan County Genealogy Library and Archives in Calera. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group. Is there a historic event or topic you want to read about? Contact the library at P.O. Box 153, Calera, OK 74730.