The Rich History Of The Arkansas Travelers

by Rex Nelson ([email protected]) 2,977 views 

The tradition of professional baseball in Central Arkansas dates back 120 years. But few of the fans who show up at Dickey-Stephens Park along the riverfront in North Little Rock this spring and summer will know that the Arkansas Travelers have played on only three fields in those 120 years and are one of the few teams in professional sports in which fans were able to buy ownership shares.

The Travelers were also the first professional team to be named after an entire state. That occurred in 1957 when the team’s name was changed from the Little Rock Travelers to the Arkansas Travelers.

And the Travelers also are among only a handful of minor league baseball teams to have a museum. Of course, few minor league teams have the rich tradition of the Travelers.

It’s a franchise that’s unique in the annals of professional sports.

The Dickey-Stephens museum contains artifacts ranging from the team’s 1901 charter into the Southern Association to all team photos from its years as an affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals (1966-2000) and the Los Angeles Angels (2001-present). Visitors to the museum can learn about team officials, players and fans – Ray Winder, Judge William Kavanaugh, Jim Elder, Ferguson Jenkins, Jim Bunning, Travis Jackson, O.C. Otey and even superfan Walter “Hookslide” Bradshaw.

There are baseballs, game equipment, uniforms and photos of Kavanaugh Field and Ray Winder Field. There are team photos from 1901, 1903, 1904 and 1905. Through the years, people have donated items ranging from Western Union telegrams to player contracts, baseball cards and game tickets. Considering the instability that infects so many other professional sports teams, it’s amazing that for parts of three centuries this team has had just the one nickname and played on just three fields.

The Travelers first played in the Southern League in 1895. Other league members were Atlanta, Chattanooga, Memphis, Nashville, Evansville, Montgomery and New Orleans. The Travs posted a 25-47 record in their inaugural season. After the Southern League folded, professional baseball was absent in Little Rock for five years. The Travelers returned in 1901 with the formation of the Southern Association and finished second, just one game behind Nashville. They were second again in 1902.

Enter William Marmaduke Kavanaugh, an Alabama native and the son of a minister. Kavanaugh moved to Clarksville in Johnson County following his graduation in 1885 from the Kentucky Military Institute. He worked for a banker and merchant there before moving to Little Rock in 1886 to work for the Arkansas Gazette. He was the Gazette managing editor from 1890-96. After leaving the newspaper business, he was the Pulaski County sheriff for four years and the Pulaski County judge for another four years. In 1913, the Arkansas Legislature selected Kavanaugh to finish out the term of deceased U.S. Sen. Jeff Davis. He was even a member of the Little Rock School Board for a dozen years.

In 1902, Kavanaugh was asked to become the Southern Association president. Fellow board members of the National Association of Baseball Clubs often would refer to him as “the squarest man in baseball.” Poor attendance and financial difficulties caused the Travelers to drop out of the Southern Association as the 1910 season approached, but Kavanaugh continued to work as league president. He never gave up hope that professional baseball would return to Arkansas’ capital city.

Kavanaugh announced the return of the Travelers on Feb. 20, 1915. He died the next day following what was described as an hour-long attack of acute indigestion. He was just 48. West End Park, the Travelers’ home, was renamed Kavanaugh Field. When the ballpark closed in 1931, the property was sold to Little Rock High School (now Little Rock Central). Quigley-Cox Stadium is now at that location. In 1936, Kavanaugh Boulevard in Little Rock was named in honor of the man some had called “Arkansas’ foremost citizen.”

Kavanaugh didn’t live to see the Travelers’ first championship, which came in 1920. The team finished the season with an 88-59 record. In their final season at Kavanaugh Field in 1931, the Travelers attracted 113,758 fans, the second-highest attendance since that 1920 title. Land near the Arkansas State Hospital was given to the Travelers by the city in 1932, and Travelers Field became the team’s second home.

The stadium was renamed for Winder in 1966. Winder had worked as a ticket taker for the Travelers in 1915, eventually rising to the rank of general manager. During his more than five decades with the team, Winder had to use extreme tactics from time to time to keep professional baseball in Arkansas.

After attracting fewer than 68,000 fans during a 77-game home schedule in 1958, the Travelers moved to Shreveport for the 1959 season. Just as had been the case with Kavanaugh decades earlier, Winder never lost faith that baseball would return. The Little Rock team returned to the Southern Association in 1960 following the purchase of the New Orleans Pelicans.

Minor league baseball teams have become a hot commodity in recent years. It’s not the big leagues, but it is big business with teams regularly being sold for millions of dollars and often moving to other cities. Thanks to a decision Winder made 55 years ago, fans of the Travelers don’t have to worry about their club being sold and moved outside of Arkansas.

Winder formed the Arkansas Travelers Baseball Club, Inc., in 1960 and led a public stock drive to buy the New Orleans franchise. Each share of stock in the Travelers was worth $5. The price of that stock has never changed, and all dividends go back to the club. There are more than 2,000 stockholders, and the Travelers don’t accept public requests for stock ownership. In other words, it would be almost impossible for an outside entity to buy the team. In that sense, Winder knew exactly what he was doing.

The Southern Association was on its last legs, and Winder again had to scramble. The Travs were scheduled to play in the Class AAA American Association in 1963, but that league folded prior to the beginning of the season. The Travelers played instead in the Class AAA International League in 1963. In 1964-65, Arkansas was in the Class AAA Pacific Coast League as a Philadelphia Phillies affiliate, making trips to places such as Salt Lake City and Portland. The move to the Texas League in 1966 brought stability.

Little Rock native Bill Valentine, who had worked as an American League umpire from 1963-68, became the Travelers’ general manager in 1976. Valentine had grown up within walking distance of Travelers Field, where he would sort soft drink bottles before games, shag foul balls during games and retrieve seat cushions after games. In September 1968, Valentine was informed by Joe Cronin, the American League president, that he had been fired along with umpire Al Salerno. Valentine and Salerno had been trying to form a union of American League umpires.

Valentine returned to Little Rock, where he worked for the Arkansas Republican Party, did radio and television sportscasts and refereed college basketball games. In Valentine’s first year as general manager, attendance at Traveler games increased 34%. Valentine gave away thousands of tickets to kids and held events such as midget wrestling to attract fans. He served as the team’s general manager until 2007 and remained as the club’s executive vice president for two more seasons before retiring in March 2009. Valentine died on April 26 at the age of 82.

The Travelers hosted their first game at Dickey-Stephens Park on April 12, 2007. Warren Stephens, the youngest son of the late financier Jack Stephens, donated the land along the Arkansas River for the stadium. North Little Rock voters then approved a temporary sales tax to fund the facility. During a groundbreaking ceremony in late 2005, Warren Stephens announced the park’s name.

“My father and uncle loved the game of baseball and cherished their relationship with the Dickey family,” he said that day. “There are four good men smiling about this project and being able to keep baseball alive and well in Central Arkansas. There was something pure about their love of the game and the relationship they shared. I knew what we wanted to call this park before there was any certainty we would be able to get it done.”

The Dickey brothers had worked for Witt and Jack Stephens at Stephens, Inc., after their baseball careers ended. Jack Stephens had far more sports involvement through the years than his older brother. Witt preferred talking politics. He also loved spending weekends on his family farm at Prattsville in Grant County. Jack, meanwhile, was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2000. He became only the fourth chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club at Augusta, Ga., in 1991 and served in that role until 1998.

Jack Stephens had become a member at Augusta in 1962 and joined the executive committee in 1975. In November 1999, he made a $5 million gift to the First Tee, a national youth golf organization. He also gave $20.4 million to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to build the Stephens Arena, the university’s on-campus basketball facility that is among the finest arenas of its size in the country.

The Stephens brothers enjoyed the company of the Dickey brothers. With all due respect to former Baltimore Orioles’ great Brooks Robinson, Bill Dickey just might be the best baseball player to have come from Arkansas. He was a member of the inaugural class of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1959.

The other members of that first class were Lonoke native and famed New York Giants football player and coach Jim Lee Howell, Hendrix College coaching legend Ivan Grove, women’s basketball star Hazel Walker and University of Arkansas football All-American Wear Schoonover. Some baseball historians consider Bill Dickey the best catcher in the game’s history. Sportswriter Dan Daniel once said, “Bill Dickey isn’t just a catcher. He’s a ballclub.”

Dickey wasn’t born in Arkansas, but he always considered himself an Arkansan. He was born near the Arkansas line in northern Louisiana at Bastrop. When he was 3 years old, his family moved to Kensett in White County, the community that produced another nationally famous Arkansan, Congressman Wilbur Mills, the longtime chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. The Dickey family moved to Little Rock when Bill was 15. He played for Little Rock College, a Catholic school, in 1915 and also played for a semipro team at Hot Springs. A scout for the St. Louis Cardinals was sent to Hot Springs to sign Dickey.

“The scout’s car had a flat tire,” Bob Razer writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The delay allowed Lena Blackburne, manager of the Little Rock Travelers, to sign Dickey before the scout arrived. This was an era when any team – not just major league teams – could sign players to contracts. Dickey split the 1926 season between the Class C Muskogee Athletics in the Western Association and the Class A Southern Association’s Little Rock Travelers. In 1927, the Travelers lent the catcher to the Jackson Senators, a Mississippi team in the Class D Cotton States League.

“Because the Little Rock club had a working agreement with the White Sox, most major league teams assumed Dickey had signed a contract that gave the White Sox the option of buying it. Such an arrangement was common during much of baseball’s history. But Dickey had not signed such a deal, and Chicago failed to press any advantage it might have had with the Travelers. A New York Yankees scout was not so hesitant. After watching Dickey play, the scout urged his bosses to buy Dickey’s contract, saying, ‘I will quit scouting if this boy does not make good.’’’

The scout needn’t have worried. Dickey was assigned by the Yankees to the Travelers for the 1928 season, but he was moved to New York later in the season. He became the Yankees’ regular catcher in 1929 and batted .324. His longevity from that point forward was amazing. Dickey played for the Yankees until 1946. He was an All-Star selection in 1933, ’34, ’36, ’37, ’38, ’40, ’41, ’42, ’43 and ’46.

Dickey hit more than 20 home runs with more than 100 RBI in four consecutive seasons from 1936-39. His 1936 batting average of .362 was the highest single-season average ever recorded by a catcher until Mike Piazza of the Los Angeles Dodgers tied the record in 1997 and Joe Mauer of the Minnesota Twins broke it in 2009 by hitting .365. Dickey’s lifetime batting average was .313. He struck out just 16 times in 1936.

“While Dickey excelled at two of the skills desired in a catcher – durability and hitting – he was equally known for his defense, throwing arm and the art of knowing how to pitch batters to get them out,” Razer writes. “In 1931, he became the first catcher in history to go an entire season with no passed balls. He was also one of the first catchers to adopt a one-handed catching technique, a technique more difficult in Dickey’s day due to the small, less flexible catcher’s mitts in use then.”

Dickey’s best friend on the Yankees was Lou Gehrig. Dickey was the only Yankee teammate to be invited to Gehrig’s wedding and the first teammate Gehrig told of the disease that would end his life. Dickey played himself in the movie about Gehrig, “Pride of the Yankees,” which starred Gary Cooper.

Dickey served in the Navy during World War II, missing the 1944-45 seasons. In 1946, he was named the Yankee manager after Joe McCarthy was fired. In 1947, Dickey came home to Little Rock to manage the Travelers. He returned to the Yankees in 1949 as a coach under Casey Stengel and stayed with Stengel through the 1957 season. Bill Dickey was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1954.

His brother, “Skeeter” Dickey, played for the Boston Red Sox in 1935-36 as a backup catcher. He also was a backup catcher for the Chicago White Sox in 1941-42 and 1946-47. His best season was 1947, when he appeared in 83 games while hitting .223 with one home run, six doubles and 27 RBI. He had a career average of .206 in six major league seasons.

Despite the promise of a new park for the Travelers named after the Dickey brothers and the Stephens brothers, there were tears in a lot of eyes on Sunday afternoon, Sept. 3, 2006. More than 8,000 people turned out that day to say farewell to the place the team had called home since 1932.

As one fan later wrote, “I really believe that a ballpark has a unique way of taking us back to the best times of our lives, strengthening the connection between generations. I know that I never go by the site of Ray Winder Field without remembering the wonderful times there as a child with my dad, as well as my wife and children many years later.”

Now, a new generation has the opportunity to make memories on the other side of the Arkansas River in North Little Rock. At the end of the 2007 season, Joe Mock’s named Dickey-Stephens its Ballpark of the Year in an annual ranking of new and remodeled facilities. Previous winners of the award had included PNC Park (home of the Pittsburgh Pirates) in 2001 and Petco Park (home of the San Diego Padres) in 2004.

“When they took the field on April 12, it had been three-quarters of a century since the Arkansas Travelers had been the home team in a brand new stadium,” the website noted. “That evening began a magical season for the Texas League’s Travs as they smashed attendance records and provided their loyal fans with the kinds of comforts and high-tech niceties previously found only in parks in other parts of the country. Indeed, Dickey-Stephens Park was a complete revelation to residents in Central Arkansas. After all, for decades they’d been attending games at an antique of a park called Ray Winder Field. Charming and beloved, yes. Modern and comfortable, not at all.”

Mock explained the selection by saying: “The land in North Little Rock that was donated by Warren Stephens is along the banks of the Arkansas River, making it simply perfect for a ballpark. That’s because spectators can gaze across the river at the beautiful skyline of downtown Little Rock as they munch on their hot dogs and watch the team play. Two of the best parks in the majors are PNC Park in Pittsburgh and the new Busch Stadium in St. Louis. What if you took some of the nicest elements of each of these two parks and incorporated them into a new minor league facility? Then you would have Dickey-Stephens Park.”

Mock said Dickey-Stephens “screams baseball, from its brick exterior to its gorgeous concourses, and from its outfield fences to its bullpens. At the foot of the Broadway Bridge in North Little Rock, you know you’re looking at a baseball park – and a very, very special one at that.”

It’s also a baseball park with a museum, befitting the long history of the Travelers, a franchise that plugs on after decades of ups and downs.