Friday, April 5, 2013

Bobcats featured in Kentucky League of Cities magazine

(The following artice, "Community Rivalries: Take It to the Baseball Park," appeared in the November/December 2012 issue of Kentucky City, a bi-monthly publication of the Kentucky League of Cities. Follow this link to the online layout of the magazine article.)

By Bobbie S. Bryan
KENTUCKY CITY MAGAZINE
For many Kentuckians, summertime and early fall can be summed up with the crack of a baseball bat and the cheering of crowds in the grandstands. It’s about as American as apple pie and homemade ice cream.

In recent years, some Kentucky cities have seen the resurgence of Class D minor league baseball, taking part in the newly formed Ohio Valley League, playing under the NCAA rules.

Amateur players for these summer collegiate games come from all over the United States and are housed in private homes, supported in room and board by local enthusiasts. These wooden-bat teams of the Ohio Valley League are a throwback to the early days of the Kitty League, a nickname for teams playing in Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Tennessee. The league is not a "farm" system and has no affiliation with Major League Baseball.

Cities and their citizens have a long history of supporting community activities, such as playing host to these baseball teams. The generation that enjoyed the Kitty League back in the 1950s is resurrecting its love of the sport, and the competitive spirit between rival communities is alive and well.

In 2010, Ohio Valley Summer Collegiate Baseball attracted four initial teams, all originally part of the KIT League. They are the Marion Bobcats, the Owensboro Oilers, the Fulton Railroaders and the Madisonville Tradewater Pirates (formerly of Dawson Springs). In 2012, Hopkinsville joined the new league as the Hoptown Hoppers, also a former KIT League team.

Marion was the first city to sign on to play back in 2010. A local banker, Gordon Guess, spearheaded the effort to reignite interest in the sport. The City of Marion was instrumental in the Bobcats’ startup, actually buying the franchise, which provided the league with needed capital. In the past season, the city remained supportive as it sponsored a “City Night” at the ballpark.

Marion City Administrator Mark Bryant says, “It’s neat having a baseball team playing competitive ball in a town as small as ours. Our parks are a big part of the entertainment factor here, and it gives Residents something else to do during the summer. They really seem to enjoy it.”

Glenn Abee, City of Hopkinsville, serves as vice president on the board of the Hoptown Hoppers team. He said, “From players’ perspective, they can’t sacrifice their ability to play collegiately by being paid to play, so they pay a fee to the league for the opportunity to play in this developmental league. What the community does in return is provide host-site housing, a few meals [per] day and moral support. In return, the players may take on odd jobs to help host families.”

Enthusiastic fans showed up at most all of the games, with Fulton crowds topping 150 at many games. But, by far, the largest fan base was in Hopkinsville. Abee reported, “The final average attendance at Hopper home games came to more than 300 attendees during the season, and we had our highest crowd number of 650 during the playoffs. The support of our community was really exciting during our first season.”

When asked about why the Hoppers were able to draw such a crowd, Abee gave his opinion.

“It had a lot to do with bringing in the historical perspective. We brought back the original Hoptown Hopper name, a popular team that had not been seen since the early 1950s. We did a lot to make the nostalgic connection, even having similar uniforms. The community was hungry for a familyfriendly community environment, responding to that old adage that there is nothing here to do.”

From the city’s perspective, Abee says, “The city, county and Chamber of Commerce worked collaboratively to get this initiative underway. It tied in to our involvement, support and contributions to the Christian County Cares Vision Plan 2015, as the idea for the Hoppers tied perfectly into the plan’s quality-of-life component.”

The teams made a financial impact as well. Abee said the Hoppers generate about $80,000 a season in cold hard spending (including nearly $40,000 in sales tax), mostly from out-of-towners. When you multiply that by "dollar turnover," he estimates it closer to $500,000 per season.

"We could not have had a better year," Abee continued. "I was stunned to see the players run up into the stands after winning the playoffs and hug our supporters. This community could not have been more open-armed. Now the key is to keep the momentum going into the next season."

In wrapping up the 2012 season, Ohio Valley League President Gordon Guess posted on the League's website, "The new kids on the block, Hoptown and Madisonville, fought each other all season just like their high school rivalry for over 90 years. Finally, Hoptown emerged as the league champs with a strong hitting lineup and good starting pitching that didn't wear out down the stretch. Fulton made the late season very interesting, making a late surge to scare the Hoppers. But, in the end, it was all Hoppers. The Bobcats and Oilers were not able to survive player injuries while the Pirates only faded during the last week of the season."

"The interest created by the two new franchises translated into a significant increase in attendance, estimated to have grown to over 15,000 leaguewide," Guess said. "Fan loyalty increased somewhat as many strangers appeared in the visitors sections over the season."

Guess said, "The 2012 fan interest has apparently been contagious, as several nearby communities have shown interest in seeking to join our league. That is a challenge that is to be worked out in the off-season."

To learn more about the Kitty League, go to www.ohiovalleyleague.net.

A Brief History of Baseball and the Kitty League

Baseball as we know it today originated in America in 1845, a derivative of the British game called “rounders.” The rules were established by a bookseller named Alexander Cartwright, and the first organized game was played in Hoboken, N.J., in 1846.
 
The Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869 were baseball’s first fully professional team, with 10 salaried players. This new form of entertainment gave country and city boys a new avenue for competition. Less than 10 years later, ball teams in Kentucky were forming. These teams would ultimately provide players for the professional teams.

Christian County Historian William T. Turner said, “In the early 20th century, every community wanted their own ball team; locally, we had teams from Hopkinsville, Pembroke, and Cadiz. With the passage of another 20 years, the competition expanded, and teams were crossing county lines, and game results were being posted in local newspapers, fueling the competitive nature of the game.”

Turner continued, “Dr. Frank H. Bassett, a local physician and longtime Hopkinsville resident, was so enamored with the game he set out to establish a league in order to provide a feeder club to the major leagues. In 1903, Dr. Bassett got on the train and traveled all through western Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois, Indiana, Arkansas and Missouri, organizing teams in towns all across the area so they would join the league and play competitive ball. This was the beginning of the KIT League, or Kitty League.

“In those days, baseball was only played during the day as there was no electricity. The games drew people out in droves, providing new social opportunities, with many a courtship beginning at the baseball park,” Turner laughingly shared. games were interrupted over the years in a variety of intervals with the onset of World War I, World War II and the Korean War. During years. Yet, in time, the interests of enthusiasts returned, and the league was resurrected.

Unlike most leagues that were dormant for years in between playing, the KIT League was pretty much the same league from 1903 to 1955. Hopkinsville was represented for 28 of the 31 active seasons, while Paducah made it for 23.

Many young men came through these teams and enjoyed major league careers. The Kitty League also provided war veterans an opportunity to continue to play a sport they loved.

“The onset of air conditioning and television helped to bring the Kitty League to its demise,” Turner said.

"The Kitty's Last Gasp," an article by Larry Edmundson, tells the sad truth about why the sport had so many lives through the years, “Every team in the group experienced financial and support problems on an almost continuous basis. Madisonville was $2,600 in debt and needed an ‘all out city campaign’ to raise the money to begin the season. That the towns could rally behind the clubs, and the way individuals continued to come forward providing leadership says volumes about the cities and citizenry of the time.”