By Caleb Talley
Famed columnist George Will probably said it best when he said: “Baseball is a habit. The slowly rising crescendo of each game, the rhythm of the long season – these are the essentials, and they are remarkably unchanged over nearly a century and a half. Of how many American institutions can that be said?”
This month, millions of Americans will fill the seats of their nearest ballpark and cheer on teams that play a sport that doesn’t just serve as a component of Americana; it’s helped define it. And for nearly 125 years, Arkansans have enjoyed their own slice of Americana by way of the Travelers.
Arkansas’ team got its start way back in 1895. The Little Rock-based squad stumbled into that long legacy with a shortened season played against teams in the Southern League – made up of teams out of Atlanta, Chattanooga, Memphis, Nashville, Evansville, Ind., Montgomery, Ala., and New Orleans.
After playing just 72 games of a 137-game season, their season was over. And it had been a forgettable one, having gone 25-47 with little fan support. A five-year absence followed, thanks to the folding of the Southern League. But come 1901, the team would reemerge, officially chartered as the Little Rock Travelers and would find themselves a part of the newly minted Southern Association.
With a new league came success. The Travs finished second in both 1901 and 1902 on their home field of West End Park. Team president, the acclaimed former editor of the Arkansas Democrat and Pulaski County Judge William M. Kavanaugh, was named president of the entire league in 1902.
Baseball legend Tris Speaker made his mark on the squad in 1908, joining the Travelers after being cut by the Boston Red Sox. The Major League Baseball Hall of Famer played 127 games with the team, leading the entire league in hitting while batting .350. Speaker played his way back to Boston the following season, while the Travelers saw attendance take a nosedive.
Poor attendance coupled with financial difficulties forced the team out of the Southern Association ahead of the 1910 season. For the second time since 1895, professional baseball was absent from Little Rock. Kavanaugh, who remained league president, worked hard to get his hometown club back in the league.
And he succeeded. On Feb. 20, 1915, Kavanaugh announced the team would return that summer. The very next day, Kavanaugh died of what was described as acute indigestion. West End Park was renamed Kavanaugh Field in his honor.
The third installment of Little Rock baseball quickly surpassed the first two adaptations in terms of on-field success. The Travs climbed from the cellar in 1915 to second in the league in both 1918 and 1919. In 1920, the Little Rock squad hoisted their first trophy, taking home league championship thanks in part to a 14-game winning streak.
The 1920 team finished 88-59, an incredible season made possible by stellar performances by the likes of Harry Harper, who led the league hitting .346; Bing Miller, who led the league in homers with 19; and pitcher Rube Robinson, who tied for the league lead with 26 wins.
As the team’s success continued, ownership sought help from the city of Little Rock in finding a new home. The city awarded the club land near the state hospital, and thus, Travelers Field was born. In its final season in 1931, Kavanaugh Field saw more than 113,700 fans, the second highest total since the team’s championship season.
As the Travelers made the move to their new ballpark, they did so with a new business manager by the name of Ray Winder. Winder worked for the club as a ticket taker back in 1915, before embarking on a career in minor league management that took him across the south. He was quick to move up the ranks, and in 1944, Winder became part-owner of the team. Two years later, he increased his stakes, making him the second-largest shareholder, as well as the club’s general manager.
The Travelers saw even more success during Winder’s tenure. The club won pennants in 1937, 1942 and 1951. During that time, the team fielded many would-be Major League Baseball stars, including National BaseballHall of Fame pitchers Jim Bunning and Ferguson Jenkins, as well as a soon-to-be National League Rookie of the Year and American League MVP Dick Allen.
But it wasn’t all roses for Winder and the Travelers. Following the 1958 season, the team was moved to Louisiana after attracting fewer than 68,000 fans. Winder fought to bring back baseball to Little Rock, and in doing so, formed the Arkansas Travelers Baseball Club, Inc. in 1960.
Winder led a public stock drive to raise the necessary funds to buy back his club, which had become the New Orleans Pelicans. Each share of stock was worth $5.
His plan worked. And later that same year, he purchased the New Orleans Pelicans and brought the team back to Little Rock, where public ownership would ensure the Travelers were home for good. Winder also used his relationship with major league clubs to sign enough players in order for the Travelers to field a team. And the field they played on would soon bear Winder’s name.
“Mr. Ray Winder was a visionary, and establishing the stock drive to bring the Travelers back to Little Rock was a big deal,” says current Travelers General Manager Paul Allen, Jr. “Along with other community leaders, they were able to convince people to give up their hard-earned money with the premise that they would not see any dividends in return, just to simply bring the organization back to life.”
In 1963, the club looked to have hit another snag, as the Southern Association in which they played for years had dried up. They were to begin play that season in the American Association, but it, too, folded just as the season approached. Instead, the Travelers joined forces with the International League, and they went on to win their division.
Two years later, they were in the Pacific Coast League as an affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies, making long trips to Salt Lake City, Portland and even Hawaii to compete.
In 1966, the Travelers finally found stability and hit their stride as a member of the Texas League. It was that year they also became an affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals, a relationship that would prove incredibly fruitful. With a pipeline of talent much closer to home, the Travs finished first in 1966 and 1969 and won the Dixie Association title in 1971. The next few years would see them raise a few more trophies, solidifying their place in the ranks of minor league baseball.
And it was during the 1970s that former American League umpire and Arkansas native Bill Valentine, after being fired for trying to form an umpires’ union, took over as general manager of the Travelers. Considered by some to be the P.T. Barnum of baseball, Valentine coined the phrase, “Greatest Show on Dirt.” Under his tenure, a night at the ballpark became much more than just a game. It was a show, an entertainment experience for the whole family. By the end of the decade, the Travelers were drawing roughly 200,000 fans a season, up from 67,000 in 1975.
Valentine was named Texas League Executive of the Year in each of his first three seasons, and he would receive the award a total of five times before being inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.
In 1989, the club saw one of its best seasons, as a talent-loaded team won the league title and drew nearly 300,000 fans to the ballpark. It would be the last time the team saw a title until the turn of the century.
In 2000, Valentine and the Travelers were under pressure by the Cardinals to build a new ballpark. Rather than to oblige, Valentine ended the club’s longstanding relationship with St. Louis and signed an agreement with the Anaheim Angels, now the Los Angeles Angels.
While his decision was considered controversial, the move opened up a new stream of talent to Little Rock. The Travelers won the league championship by default in 2001, after holding a 2-0 lead over Round Rock the morning of September 11. The terror attacks of that day resulted in a shutdown of baseball at every level, and the Travelers were awarded the Texas League trophy.
The 2001 team was led by a cadre of future major leaguers, including John Lackey, Chone Figgins, Robb Quinlan and Brendan Donnelly. The same season, all 140 games were broadcast on the radio, a first for the club. The following year, the Anaheim Angels were the 2002 World Series Champions thanks to the contributions of several former Travelers.
After years of having argued that Ray Winder Field be renovated rather than replaced, Valentine finally joined the chorus of those calling for a new ballpark. North Little Rock voters approved a two-year sales tax to build the park on land donated by Warren Stephens, CEO of Stephens, Inc. The park would be named after two of Little Rock’s foremost citizens, Warren’s father and uncle, Jack and Witt, and their baseball-playing friends Bill and Skeeter Dickey, both of whom worked for Stephens after their days with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.
“My father and uncle loved the game of baseball and cherished their relationship with the Dickey family,” said Warren at the 2005 groundbreaking ceremony. “There are four good men smiling about this project and being able to keep baseball alive and well in central Arkansas.”
On April 7, 2007, the Travelers opened their season in the brand-new Dickey-Stephens Park. By the end of the season, the park was named by BaseballParks.com as Ballpark of the Year. Joe Mock of BaseballParks.com wrote that 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.”
In 2016, the Travelers and Angels parted ways, as the club signed a new agreement with the Seattle Mariners. Former Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto had been named GM of the Mariners just one year prior.
This month, we welcome back America’s greatest pastime with Arkansas’ “greatest show on dirt.” In a single weekend, more than two million people will make their way into a baseball stadium somewhere across the country, chow down on a hot dog and join in a rousing rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Count Arkansas baseball fans among them, as they cheer on one of the greatest teams in the history of minor league baseball.
“Sports are a great way to bridge one generation to the next,” says Allen. “The Travs have been a part of central Arkansas for so long, it is wonderful to hear stories from our fans. To see a family with young children share stories of games at Ray Winder Field while attending with their grandparents is amazing. Travs games allow families to come together and build life long memories.”
Boston Red Sox great and Hall of Famer Tris Speaker played for the Little Rock Travelers in 1908. He’s considered by baseball historians to be one of the best ever to play the game. Hall of Famers Bill Dickey, Jim Bunning, Travis Jackson, Fergie Jenkins, Dick Allen and Dallas Green also played for the Travelers.
Notable Travs alumni from the early days include Babe Herman, Bobo Newson and Bo Belinsky. Cal Ripken, Sr., father of baseball legend Cal Ripken Jr., played for the Travelers in 1961.
The club churned out many memorable major leaguers during their tenure with the St. Louis Cardinals, including brothers Jose, Hector and Tommy Cruz. Al Hrabosky, aka the Mad Hungarian, carved up hitters in Little Rock. Tom Pagnozzi, Terry Pendleton, Andy Van Slyke, Ray Lankford, Bernard Gilkey and Todd Zeile also wore “Arkansas” across their chest.
What’s in a name?
The name “Travelers” is one of the oldest in professional sports. The Travelers have never taken a different nickname in the team’s long history, making it the second-longest running continuous nickname in Minor League Baseball, trailing only the Buffalo Bisons.
The team was initially known as the Little Rock Travelers and was renamed for the entire state in 1957, becoming the first professional sports franchise named after a state.
The name “Arkansas Travelers” is derived from the famous 19th Century tune known by the same name that depicts an Arkansas traveler who roamed the Ozark Mountains selling his wares and singing songs.
“It was probably a little strange, at the time, to name the team the Travelers. It would be like naming a team after a song that’s popular right now,” says Travelers Marketing Director Lance Restum. “But it was brilliant at the same time. It was a popular tune, something recognized all over the world. People got behind it. It’s a great name, and that’s evident by the fact that it’s remained unchanged for over a century.”
The term Travelers has been associated with Arkansas in many ways aside from baseball, including a certificate given to significant visitors from outside the state to the group of campaigners that traveled the country during President Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 and 1996 campaigns.