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Before Detroit, there was Newport

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The beginning of competition between Little Rock and Springdale will be a historic event of sorts, but it won’t be the first time that Arkansas cities have opposed each other in professional baseball. Intrastate rivalries were once common.

George Kell began his professional baseball career at Newport in 1941, playing in a Class D league that consisted of five Arkansas towns and one that was just across the state line in Missouri. Sixty-six years later, Kell’s memory has lost a little clarity, but just a little. He can’t remember whether the team traveled by bus or private car, but he does know they drove home after every road game — no paying for overnight lodging — except for the Missouri trip.

He can’t remember the name of the Missouri team, either, but it must have been Caruthersville or West Plains. They’re the only Missouri members listed in records of the Northeast Arkansas League. The Arkansas teams that were members of the league at one time or another were Batesville, Blytheville, Helena, Jonesboro, Marianna, Newport, Osceola and Paragould. Attendance at Northeast Arkansas games “seemed like a lot of people to me but it couldn’t have been more than a few hundred, ” Kell said. He doesn’t recall exactly how much he was paid at Newport, but it was less than $100 a month.

Evidently, Kell’s first season was the Northeast Arkansas League’s last. Records show the league shutting down after the 1941 season — probably suffering a player shortage because of World War II — and never starting up again.

Kell’s road to the Baseball Hall of Fame began in Swifton, a tiny farming community outside Newport where he was born and has lived all his life, less the requisite travel for playing and broadcasting big-league baseball. Arkansas high schools didn’t field baseball teams in those days, but Kell played sandlot ball, and American Legion ball in Newport. He attended Arkansas State College in Jonesboro for a year, then signed a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers to play for the Newport team, with whom the Dodgers had a working arrangement. Because Newport already had a shortstop, Kell’s normal position, he was moved to third base. Before his playing career ended 16 years later, he had become the foremost American League third baseman of his time.

Something else that happened by the end of his playing career was the decline of professional baseball. From the late 19th century until the early 1950s, baseball was America’s game. The biggest stars of major-league baseball were near-gods. Hundreds of minor league teams were in existence from Class D (the lowest) through AAA, only a step away from the majors. Every little town that didn’t have a professional team had a semi-pro team.

But baseball’s popularity plummeted in the ’50s. The coming of television and air conditioning, and a growing public taste for faster-paced and more violent games, adversely affected even major league baseball, and just about put the minors out of business. All over America, leagues like the Class C Cotton States League expired virtually unnoticed. (The Cotton States League had included El Dorado, Helena, Hot Springs, Pine Bluff and Texarkana at one time or another, along with a bunch of Mississippi and Louisiana towns.) The class AA Arkansas Travelers, always Arkansas’s highest-ranked baseball team, became the only team, and even the Travs slipped away a couple of times, but always made their way back to Little Rock.

Minor-league baseball has rebounded somewhat, but it’s still only a shadow of what it once was. Though major league baseball survived the changes in American life, and draws bigger crowds than ever, professional football is the acknowledged king now. Everybody watches the Super Bowl; viewers complain if the World Series pre-empts a popular sitcom for one night.

Kell’s stats for the 1941 season aren’t available, but evidently they didn’t impress the Dodgers, who released him outright. Fortunately for Kell, the Philadelphia Athletics were looking for players. They signed him and sent him to a Lancaster, Pa., Class B team with whom the A’s had a working agreement. He played in Lancaster in 1942 and ’43, for $300 a month. “I was 19 and single. It seemed like a lot of money to me.” In ’43, he had what today would be called a break-out season. He hit .396, the highest batting average in all of organized baseball. For that, the Hillerich and Bradsby bat company gave him a silver bat. (In 1949, he’d get another silver bat, this one for winning the American League batting championship, just edging Ted Williams.)

The Athletics brought him up to the majors in late ’43, and he played his first full season in 1944. He was paid $3,000 a year.

The rest of the story is well known in baseball circles. He was traded to Detroit, and had his best years there. He played in 10 All-Star games, led the league in base hits twice, compiled a .306 lifetime batting average, and was voted into the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y. After he quit playing, the Tigers hired him as a radio and television broadcaster. He did that for 37 years, commuting from Swifton most of the time, and gave it up in 1996. He also sold the car dealership at Newport that he’d owned for 30 years.

He doesn’t watch a lot of live baseball these days — although he attended the first game at the Travelers’ new ballpark in April and was impressed — but he has one of those TV hookups that allows you to watch any major league game you want. He’s a faithful follower of the Tigers, of course, and he also keeps up with his first love, the St. Louis Cardinals. “I was born and raised a Cardinal fan. Anybody from Arkansas, especially Northeast Arkansas, is. I thought I’d play for the Cardinals someday. I thought if you wanted to, you could. But it didn’t work out.”

At 84, he still travels a bit, mostly to baseball memorabilia signings, “a big thing today.” His autograph is still valued, which surprises a reporter who remembers how long ago it was that George Kell was a star. It surprises Kell too. “I was in New York and New Jersey last weekend. I walked into the auditorium and people applauded. They’re all ages, but most of them weren’t born when I played, and they’re hollering ‘Hey, George.’ You’d think they’d have forgotten by now, but I guess they haven’t.’ ”

Speaking of things that are forgotten or not, a reporter doing a modest amount of research on minor league baseball rediscovered the name of Joe Bauman. That name was once familiar to hard-core hardball fans, because in 1954, while playing in the Class C Longhorn League, Bauman hit 72 homeruns. That was the homerun record for any league until Barry Bonds hit 73 in 2001.What struck the reporter most forcefully about this bit of baseball trivia was a listing of the teams Joe Bauman played for in his career, including “Newport, Ark., 1941.”

Kell remembers Bauman as “a big, strong guy” who later in his career hit a bunch of homeruns. Did Bauman clear the fences at Newport? “Not like that,” Kell said. “I think he hit a lot of ’em at El Paso or someplace.” “Someplace” means someplace with the thin desert air that is said to carry baseballs a great distance. Bauman played for Roswell, N.M., in 1954, and surely it’s been suggested that the stories about Roswell and spaceships began with a Joe Bauman homerun.

Bauman died in 2005. For all his minor league power, he never played a game in the major leagues. In the minor leagues, then and now, there are always more Joe Baumans than George Kells.

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