This small Nebraska town hosted Negro League clubs and possibly an official Major League Baseball game

Baseball Photo 3 -- 1948 Kansas City Monarchs.jpg
Posted at 4:11 PM, Apr 01, 2023

The Kansas City Royals’ 7-3 victory over Detroit in June 2019 before a sellout crowd of 25,454 at Omaha’s TD Ameritrade Park carried a level of distinction: It was the first Major League Baseball game played in Nebraska. Major League Baseball said so, as did national and local media outlets.

And it was. Until it wasn’t.

Some 71 years earlier, excited fans similarly packed the rodeo grounds in Oxford, Nebraska, to watch a Negro League game pitting the Kansas City Monarchs against the Memphis Red Sox.

“The grandstands were full,” recalled Tony Thulin, who attended the game that day and has lived nearly his entire 93 years in the south-central Nebraska community. “Everyone from Oxford was there and so were folks from nearby towns.”

The game Thulin and a full house of spectators witnessed in 1948, a 20-5 Monarchs’ victory, was far from an aberration in small-town Oxford. For more than a decade the community relished its status as a destination for barnstorming baseball teams, including Negro League clubs.

But, decades later, the game became something more, something extraordinary. It became one of the first major league baseball games played in Nebraska.

Thanks to a 2020 decision by Major League Baseball to correct “a longtime oversight” and elevate the Negro Leagues to “Major League” status, one of those games more than 70 years ago promises to hold the distinction of being the first major league game played in Nebraska.

The announcement, which came 18 months after the Kansas City-Detroit game that kicked off the 2019 College World Series in Omaha, meant that teams in seven distinct Negro Leagues from 1920 to 1948, involving about 3,400 players, were recognized as major league teams. Their regular season games – whether they were played at their home stadiums or at sites throughout the country – would be recognized as official MLB games.

“I’ve always recognized Negro League players as major league quality. I didn’t need an official governing body to tell me that,” said Larry Lester, a co-founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. “I’m happy they did. They finally recognized that Black men played the game also.”

Negro League teams were no strangers to Nebraska and nearby states. They would leave their home communities to play wherever they could make money, said Dave Ogden, a retired University of Nebraska at Omaha communications professor whose research specialty is African Americans in baseball. Negro League teams would play each other at neutral sites during the season (typically counting as official games) or after (counting as exhibitions) and split the gate with the host community. During the week, they also would play novelty teams or local teams, Ogden said.

“They would draw a crowd no matter whom they played or where,” he said. “Nebraska communities welcomed these barnstorming teams because their quality of play was major-league caliber. People liked watching good baseball.”

Lincoln was a popular destination for Negro League barnstorming games. Legendary pitcher Satchel Paige played at Landis Field three times during the 1930s. Omaha could have been another – but when Western League Park burned down in 1936, the Douglas County community went nearly 15 years without a suitable field to host such contests. Council Bluffs, just across the Missouri River from Omaha, had a proper field and hosted six official Negro League games in the late 1940s.

So, what made Oxford – a community that had a population of 1,141 in 1940 – attractive to barnstorming teams of that era? Gary Schroeder, a lifelong resident and a retired railroader, has an answer: J.P. Wilkinson – a man who could promote almost anything.

“He was always well-dressed,” Schroeder said, “and always drove a new Cadillac.”

Wilkinson ran a furniture and appliance store, owned rental property, provided loans to Oxford residents, and managed the town baseball team – which was not like other town teams. Oxford paid its players and attracted the best talent, even some with major league pedigrees.

The Oxford Standard, in its Aug. 24, 1933, edition, boasted why Oxford outdrew Lincoln during recent barnstorming tours that year: “Aside from the salary paid the players and costs for equipment the Oxford ball club spends every cent of it’s (sic) earnings on it’s (sic) park.” And further, the newspaper article predicted, “Oxford will have, without a doubt, the finest ball park in the state west of Omaha.”

Oxford’s rodeo grounds, at different times, was a racetrack, a baseball field, a football field and, to go with its name, a rodeo arena. Long gone, it’s now part hay meadow and residential.

Lester said the Kansas City Monarchs and other Negro League teams traveled to wherever a game – with a gate to be shared – could be found. During their travels, he said, they faced little discrimination because they knew where they were welcome and where they weren’t. “I don’t think they had any problems traveling from small town to small town. Growing up, we knew where we could stay and not stay.”

Prejudiced players often simply refused to take the field against Negro League teams, wrote Janet Bruce in “The Kansas City Monarchs: Champions of Black Baseball.”

The Monarchs were frequent visitors to Oxford. In 1933, they played a four-game series against the Oxford town team, with two games played in the nearby communities of Lexington and Holdrege to maximize their gates. The Monarchs won all four games.

But the highlight that year came on Oct. 4 when the Monarchs played a Dizzy Dean-led barnstorming team in Oxford. The Monarchs’ owner wanted to improve competition for his team, which he figured would boost attendance. Dean had just won 20 games in his second full season with the St. Louis Cardinals and was fast becoming a national fan favorite. A crowd estimated at 6,800 saw Dean’s squad defeat the Monarchs 5-4.

Baseball Photo 2 -- Satchel Paige.jpg
Few players in the Negro Leagues commanded the spotlight more than Satchel Paige, who played for the Kansas City Monarchs from 1941 to 1947. The Hall of Fame pitcher threw three shutout innings in a 7-4 win against the Cincinnati Crescents in a game played in Oxford, Nebraska, in 1946. Photo courtesy of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

For over two decades the biggest attraction for Negro League games was pitcher Satchel Paige. Promoters of the Dizzy Dean game in 1933 tried but failed to match him against Paige. Thirteen years later, in 1946, Oxford baseball fans finally witnessed Paige in action.

The Monarchs were on a four-game tour in three states against the Cincinnati Crescents, an all-star Negro League team owned by Harlem Globetrotter owner Abe Saperstein. By the 1940s, Paige had his own plane for travel to games throughout the country. He was scheduled to fly to Oxford for an Aug. 14 game, but he came by car when bad weather grounded his plane. Paige threw three shutout innings in the Monarchs’ 7-4 win.

The following year, the Monarchs (absent Paige) teamed with the Indianapolis Clowns on a four-day barnstorming tour in Nebraska, with a side trip to Iowa. The Clowns brought an additional aspect to barnstorming games beyond their competitiveness: Their antics entertained fans before games and between innings.

After multiple stops, the two teams traveled west to Oxford. The grandstand at the rodeo grounds was filled to overflowing, according to the Oxford Standard. “J.P. Wilkinson, who handled the local arrangements for the Chamber of Commerce, says that over 2,000 people witnessed the game. Cars were noted from many towns a hundred or more miles away.” The Monarchs won 7-3.

Lincoln hosted the final leg of the Nebraska tour on Sept. 24. The Ulysses Dispatch, in promoting the game, mentioned that the Monarchs were the defending Negro Leagues champions and two of their players, Hank Thompson and Willard Brown, had spent time earlier that season with the major league St. Louis Browns. “Over 1,800 shivering fans … filled the Sherman Field stands,” the Lincoln Journal Star reported, “to watch the Indianapolis Clowns go down to an 8-5 defeat at the hands of the hard-hitting Kansas City Monarchs.”

As for whether any of those games carry the distinction of being Nebraska’s first, it’s not as clear a call as one might think. Documenting what counts and what doesn’t count as an official Negro League (and, now, potentially an official MLB) game is a challenging and ongoing process, said Tom Thress, president of Retrosheet, one of several organizations documenting Negro League games. The criteria, he said, includes whether games played – either in home stadiums or elsewhere – were during the regular season and if they counted in the standings. A box score of the game helps.

No box score for the 1948 game in Oxford – the one attended by Tony Thulin – has been found. Still, Thress and Lester said they consider it an official game, which means it should carry MLB status. However, they also believe a contest played in Lincoln a decade earlier will achieve the same status (a box score exists for that one).

That game featured the Monarchs against the Chicago American Giants at Landis Field on July 27, 1939. According to the Lincoln Star, nearly 1,000 fans saw the Monarchs win 3-2 by scoring two runs on a bad-hop, bases-loaded single in the bottom of the ninth.

Thulin said he was unaware of the potential importance of the game in Oxford he attended in 1948 as a recent high school graduate.

“But I guess I wouldn’t know the game turned out to be important,” he said. “I’m glad I was a part of it.”

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