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Mudville: October 2, 2022 3:45 pm PDT
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Grassroots Baseball: Route 66

BY KEVIN KERNAN

Photographs and memories touch something special in our hearts.

Grassroots Baseball: Route 66 (Sports Publishing) does just that. What an amazing book that explores baseball along the Mother Road of America, a journey that took three years but really encompasses lifetimes with the game passed from one generation to the next in cities and towns from Illinois to Missouri to Kansas to Oklahoma to Texas to New Mexico to Arizona and finally onto California.

If you need a reminder of what baseball can be at its best and what makes it so special, buy this book because the photographs by Jean Fruth, someone I have known along the Major League Baseball trail for years, are taken with such beauty and artistry.

She shows us baseball and America.

The thoughtfulness of the work shines through on every page and along every one of the 2,448 miles of this historic highway. Baseball remains our thread and to see these photos and read the words of Johnny Bench, George Brett, Alex Bregman, Ryan Howard, Jim Thome, and others, major leaguers who grew up in those Route 66 states, is a gift to the baseball soul. Then there is the forward by Mike Veeck, whose father Bill Veeck came up with the idea of planting ivy at Wrigley Field; and of course there is a picture of the ivy.

As Mike Veeck writes, even if you failed at baseball: “What glorious failures we were! We learned about life.’’

To better understand the work I spoke at length with Jean Fruth and Jeff Idelson, the former President of the National Baseball Hall of Fame Museum. Jeff not only wrote the foreward to the book, he drove the RV, a Coachmen Galleria, every single mile along the route and if something like a ladder was needed to get the shot, like the incredible picture of the Commerce, Oklahoma High School team in Mickey Mantle’s childhood home city, consider the job done

Every picture in this book is authentic. Every picture celebrates baseball.

Here at “The Story” we go behind the scenes. Working closely for decades with photographers at newspapers (and I have been gifted to work with some phenomenal photographers), the why and how of “getting the shot’’ is fascinating.

Let’s start with Mickey.

Growing up a Mickey Mantle fan and writing about his house a few years ago I was drawn to the incredible picture (Pages 104-105) of the four-room Mantle childhood home, at 319 Quincy Street in Commerce, Oklahoma, and the tin barn that Mick used as a backstop where he learned to switch hit. What makes this picture different, and speaks to the genius of Fruth, is that the Commerce High School team is featured, interspersed on the front porch, the yard and along the tin barn.

As the caption says: “The future of baseball meets the past.”

How did all this come about?

“I shot a practice and asked them then if they would be willing to do that and I would come back on a day they didn’t have a game,’’ Fruth told BallNine. “They said yes. The participation we got all the way through, people wanted to help with this project.”

“We are celebrating the amateur game,’’ she said with passion in her voice. “And we are highlighting these small towns, these forgotten towns. Kids are very serious there. They are thinking about what happens after high school and how are they going to get a job. You get stories that they are going to be welders and they are going to be electricians. They got serious life in front of them pretty quickly. The maturity level of those kids was tremendous. They understood, they were polite, they were there a long time. I had different positions I wanted them in and I needed a ladder because I wanted to be up a bit higher. I wanted to show a sense of place, what it looks like where Mickey Mantle’s house is, so I needed to get up on a tall ladder. I needed the barn and the house in the one shot.’’

The ladder was purchased from Home Depot.

“We donated the ladder,’’ Fruth said. “The kids came on their school bus that they travel with to go on their away games and then they took the ladder with them, put it in the school bus and off they went.’’

Photo: Jean Fruth

Two pages later there is a picture of the Commerce water tower. “Home of the Tigers and Route 66” it says on the tower. The lower part of the tower is adorned in pinstripes with the No. 7 in silhouette. The Mick lives on. The picture is taken from an angle where you can see the sign for a local restaurant featuring tacos. It’s all part of the story of Commerce.

“Mantle is so present in that town,’’ Fruth said.

Not only are stories told through pictures, but Grassroots Baseball did other work as well. “We did clinics with kids and met with Hall of Famers all along Route 66, minor league ballparks hosted us and Boys & Girls Clubs participated,’’ Fruth said. Rawlings baseball gloves were given to young players and the game was always center stage.

This book shows us what baseball and America looks like along Route 66, made famous by the Route 66 TV show that ran from 1960-64 that starred Martin Milner and George Maharis and the song “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66.’’

“I only came close to running into a problem once,’’ Idelson said of driving the RV, “and that was picking up Trevor Hoffman in Amarillo. I approached the airport and quickly realized I wasn’t going to fit in the lane under the baggage area and had to back up.’’

This is a master class in the art of photography as well as a look at the beauty of baseball at its roots, from T-ball and Little League, to the local high school and American Legion teams, to minor league baseball and kids just playing baseball in the fields; 250 portraits of the game, a slice of baseball heaven.

Photo: Jean Fruth

There is a wonderful picture in Missouri of Little Leaguers sitting on the railing and eating Ted Drewes Frozen Custard on Route 66 (Page 49). Going to St. Louis Cardinals games through the years, getting a Ted Drewes Frozen Custard is special, and I speak from plenty of experience.

“I was happy to be able to capture that,’’ Fruth explained, noting that she planned, in part, off the essays from the baseball legends. Ryan Howard talked about the joy of going to Ted Drewes after a Little League game. “Little League kids are still going to Ted Drewes all the time. So Ted Drewes along Route 66 is alive and well and definitely a part of youth baseball.’’

And get this, the grandson of the Mad Hungarian, Al Hrabosky, happened to be in the group of Little Leaguers that day.

“One of the kids had Hrabosky on the back,’’ Idelson said.

“Are you related?’’

“I’m his grandson.’’ 

Kids being kids, the grandson never told the grandfather about the picture until the grandfather saw the picture in the book.

There is American Legion baseball as well.

“It’s hard to find now, there’s not a lot of American Legion left,’’ Fruth told me. “I was checking everywhere to see where there is American Legion and there’s just not that much of it, so it was exciting to see that it is still in some places. It’s such great baseball, a high level of play even in these small towns.’’

The use of natural light is prevalent and one of the best is a Joliet Slammers outfielder making a leaping catch with his complete shadow in the background (Page 61).

Photo: Jean Fruth

“The one thing you get when you’re shooting grassroots baseball is you can be picky,’’ Fruth said. “When you’re shooting Major League Baseball at 7:05 there is nothing you can do about it, you have to shoot it; but for grassroots baseball, I was always looking for the pretty light times. The games that started at 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. I would check all the schedules at minor league ballparks to see when there would be a 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. game, so that is when I scheduled my trip. That was very much on purpose. I was looking for those pretty shadows, nothing was an accident, it was making sure the times were right. State championship games might go on for five games but I never shoot the game that is at 12 p.m. I might shoot the early morning game for some pretty light and then I’m waiting for the late afternoon games.’’

And if everything wasn’t just right, “You’re going back again,’’ Fruth said with a laugh. “There were many, many trips.”

One of my favorite pictures (there are so many to choose from) appears on Page 88. As the sun is setting behind a gorgeous little red framed grandstand, a volunteer named Wayne Metcalf is grooming the field, pulling a wide broom – and this isn’t just any field, this is Wayne Metcalf Field. Metcalf, 84, began his involvement with Baxter Springs Little League in Kansas in 1966. He was president for 38 years.

“That was in between games, the Opening Day of Little League in Baxter Springs, Kansas,’’ Fruth said. “That man is so dedicated to Little League. He’s a volunteer. He’s the town barber. It was just lovely seeing him grooming the fields between games.’’

The next page offers a wonderful picture of Baxter Springs Little Leaguer Nolan Commons getting a haircut at Sonny’s Barber Shop, another slice of Americana with baseball team pictures on the wall, a pot of coffee brewing and the TV tuned to Grit, which features westerns; and as the promo says: “Grit: Television with Backbone.”

Little League plays a backbone role in the book.

“They really helped us,’’ Fruth said. “They helped with the first book (Grassroots Baseball: Where Legends Begin, that takes readers around the globe). There is nothing like getting an introduction from Little League International when you show up to places; and they did that all along Route 66, connecting us with the local president of the league or local district administrators so we always had an introduction when we went places.’’

Photo: Jean Fruth

Binger, Oklahoma is where Johnny Bench grew up and on Page 125 three high school players are riding along Route 66 in full uniform in the back of a pickup, but not just any pickup.

The caption reads: “Throwback: Binger Bobcats Tanner Ingraham, Jadyn Wall and Shelby Gregory hitch a ride on a Chevy pickup that dates back to 1968 – the same year that Binger native Johnny Bench was named Rookie of the Year.”

What a picture.

“Oh my God and that old part of Route 66,’’ Fruth said. “And they travel in that pickup truck. It’s such a great story. The mom of one of the seniors said, ‘Oh, my husband has a 1968 Chevrolet pickup truck, would that work?’ ’’

It worked.

The truck is refurbished and will go to the son when he graduates and will be passed on to the daughter when she graduates.

“The dad is driving the truck, they are going to their game, the old part of Route 66, it could not have worked out better,’’ Fruth said. “It makes it so authentic because it is their truck.’’

Every picture in this book is authentic. Every picture celebrates baseball.

Before a Division 4A high school championship game in New Mexico, the Sartans of St. Pius X gather on one knee before playing the Albuquerque Academy Chargers at Santa Ana Star Field (Page 179). The team is named the Sartans as a tribute to Pope Pius X’s given name of Giuseppe Sarto and serves as a reminder to the students to live up to his ideals. There are a series of pictures that tell the dramatic story of the game won by the Chargers on a bases-clearing walk-off double.

“That was a tremendous game, the back and forth of who was going to win that game,’’ Fruth said. “All the emotions, the cheers and tears throughout. The winner, the Chargers, that was Alex Bregman’s high school.’’

Another wonderful shot is of a T-Ball catcher and it’s on Page 219, in Arizona. The caption reads: “Home is where the hug is for this Camo catcher and his Little League coach at Continental Park in Flagstaff.”

Photo: Jean Fruth

“Maybe it’s cliché but it’s certainly connecting generations, that’s what baseball does,’’ Fruth said of the image. “Those memories, kids have with their dads, and that was the dad, so giving his dad a hug like that and just the happiness that the catcher has is wonderful. I was doing that with a long lens so you’re just a fly on the wall documenting it.’’

Near the end of the book there is a picture of Don Newcombe and Sandy Koufax on the field before Game 7 of the World Series at Dodgers Stadium in 2017 (Page 246). In the picture the two men are front and center for first pitch and also on the big screen scoreboard in the background, quite the shot.

“That worked out well,’’ Fruth said of the angle. The picture, she said, also shows where baseball can take you “from grassroots to the World Series or a guy like Johnny Bench, from Binger, Oklahoma all the way to the Hall of Fame.’’

Interspersed are wonderful essays like the one by Jim Thome, who grew up in Peoria, Illinois, in the Illinois section of the book where he explains that in 1993, Charlie Manuel, a real hitting guru, was his manager at Triple-A Charlotte.

“The Natural was on the clubhouse TV,’’ Thome wrote. “Charlie told me to watch Roy Hobbs – Robert Redford – extend his arm and point his bat toward center field. Charlie wanted me to emulate Hobbs to develop a rhythm in the batter’s box. It was the turning point in my career: The idea clicked and I became far more comfortable in the batter’s box.’’

Comfortable – all the way to the Hall of Fame.

“We wanted to find players who grew up within shouting distance of Route 66 in each of the states,’’ Idelson explained. “From there it was about giving these guys free rein to speak about how they felt on what it was like to grow up in that region and what it meant to them and some of the endearing memories that helped them get to where they are today.’’

Johnny Bench wrote two illuminating essays.

“There is no one who has more civic pride, not only in Binger but all over Oklahoma,’’ said Idelson, who has gotten to know Bench so well through the Hall of Fame. “He’s just been a champion of this project and Jean’s first book as well and understanding the importance of connecting community and baseball.

Net proceeds from book sales support the non-profit Grassroots Baseball mission to promote and celebrate the amateur game around the globe, with a focus on growing interest and participation at the youngest levels.

“It really was a journey,’’ Fruth said of the Jean and Jeff Route 66 travels. “The people you meet along the way and the places you would never see otherwise and then the stories. People want to tell you their stories. I never tire of the stories.’’

Every single photo tells a beautiful baseball story.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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