Of 200 U.S. towns on Phil Dixon’s speaking-tour about the Kansas City Monarchs, Hays holds a special connection to the historic all-black baseball team, says Hays’ resident baseball expert, Mark E. Eberle.
“We have a stronger connection to the Monarchs than a lot of places do because we got their light fixtures,” said Eberle, who wrote the book “Kansas Baseball 1858-1941.”
Not only are the Monarchs famous for being the longest-running franchise team in the Negro National League, but also for introducing night baseball games to the sport in the 1930s with their one-of-a-kind portable lighting system. The system consisted of two big trucks, a generator and floodlights.
Those light fixtures wound up in Hays at the baseball stadium that is now Larks Park. Installed in 1940, they were the field’s first permanent lights, said Eberle, who is also a program specialist in the Department of Biological Sciences at Fort Hays State University.
Eberle has made plans to meet with Dixon, who is giving a free talk to the public on Sunday at Hays Public Library, about the Hays connection to the Monarchs.
“I’m going to take him to Larks Park,” said Eberle, noting that since the Larks’ season has just ended the stadium will be locked up so they’ll find a different vantage point. “We’ll be out on the dike because you can see the whole field from there.”
The Monarchs were in Hays, and many other towns around the country, because they traveled from town to town playing local teams, said Dixon, who took a break Wednesday during his speaking tour to talk on the phone about his Hays talk.
Barnstorming, he explained, gave players the chance to earn money every night from gate receipts as towns people turned out to watch the games.
The Monarchs played in Hays numerous times, Dixon said.
“A lot of the communities they went to were not African American communities,” he said, noting a game in Hays in September 1929. Although it’s listed on a Monarch schedule, Dixon hasn’t been able to find detailed accounts.
“I’m hoping someone who comes to my talk will have information on that game,” he said.
As a matter of fact, Eberle said he’s seen references to that 1929 game doing research for his own book.
“I found that one in the Hays’ papers,” he said. The team was not an organized team, but rather a “pick” team, with the pitcher and catcher from Hays. The other players were the best players from other teams in towns around Hays. That game was likely played at the county fairgrounds, Eberle said, since the native stone grandstand at Larks Park wasn’t completed until 1941, even though the first game there was played in 1940. The old fairground is now the site of Lewis Field Stadium at Fort Hays State University, a project the Works Progress Administration completed in 1939.
“They could have played there.” Eberle said.
As for Larks Park, it’s now on its third set of lights, with the original Monarchs’ lights long gone. Eberle has never found a picture of any night games played under the Monarchs lights, which were replaced sometime in the 1960s, he said.
One of the most famous players for Major League Baseball and Negro leagues baseball was Satchel Paige, an African American player who played off and on for the Monarchs. Paige played in Hays in the 1940s, after the war, Eberle said. And he also came in the early 1960s, said Dixon, but as a pitcher for the Harlem Stars. Both times he would have played at the present day Larks Park. But that may not have been his only connection here. At one time, Paige and his wife said they got married in Hays.
“That’s been a story that’s been out there floating around,” Eberle said. “But it’s hard to nail it down.”
Dixon, co-founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, will talk at 1:30 p.m. in the Schmidt Gallery in the library. The author of nine books about baseball, he’s interviewed more than 500 former Negro League players and family members. Dixon’s talk, “The Kansas City Monarchs in Your Hometown,” is part of Humanities Kansas's Movement of Ideas Speakers Bureau.
“In 2013 I felt race relations in the country were not in a good place and I thought about what could I do,” Dixon said. “I wanted to see if I could make a difference.”
Dixon, meanwhile, is looking forward to seeing Larks Park, saying he always learns more to add to his talk about African American baseball from the people and towns that he visits.
“I’m sure I’ll be taking a picture of that park,” he said.