Long-ago memories of a landmark ballpark

Bob Lutz
Bob Lutz on KSN

Throughout the summer, I’m occasionally going to write about Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.

That’s because I think the stadium is on the verge of being torn down after the 2018 Wichita Wingnuts season – sometime in September – to make way for a new stadium. And that stadium will eventually, I believe, be the home of a new affiliated minor-league baseball team.

That’s my belief. And my hope. But none of it is official yet because so far only the Wingnuts, an independent league team that has nicely filled the L-D space since 2008, have announced this is the final season for L-D. And while I want to trust the Wingnuts, my duty as a journalist commands me to wait for something more official from someone more official.

Until then . . . memories.

I started attending the ballpark when it was just Lawrence Stadium, in the early-1960s. I went with my dad. I spent a lot of time with my dad at sporting events and that explains, I believe, why I revered him and why I fell in love with sports.

It’s his fault.

Baseball has always been my favorite and much of that goes back to those early days spent at Lawrence Stadium for the National Baseball Congress state and national tournaments.

Of course, I played baseball from an early age and could never really get enough. On summer mornings, the first thing I did was check box scores in the newspaper, maybe as I was gobbling a quick breakfast. Then it was outdoors to play catch and figure out some kind of baseball game to play with my friends.

At noon or thereabouts, we gathered at the school playground and turned it into a makeshift baseball field. There were always 20-25 kids who showed up and we played for a couple of hours, or until we ran out of pitchers.

And in July and August, the NBC beckoned. In those days, there was a huge state tournament before the NBC World Series was played in August. It seemed like every town in Kansas had a team and my dad and I were there almost every night.

We sat in the bleachers above the first-base dugout, near the railing on the east edge of the stands. We sat there every night with a familiar crowd of people who were also regulars.

My dad, Ray, got home from work around 5 in those days – he later worked a lot of second shift – and it seems like we left for Lawrence Stadium shortly thereafter. We made the 25-minute of so drive from Derby again and again, so often that I distinctly remember the polar opposite smells provided by the Wichita sewer plant and the Wonder Bread plant on K-15, near Pawnee.

I wasn’t one of those kids my dad had to worry about. I never complained, never asked to go home, never ran around untethered. Even at a young age, my eyes were glued to the field. And to the players who mesmerized me.

I remember the bus for the Kansas State Penitentiary team pulling through the gates and into the area just off the playing surface. As those players left the bus, they had their handcuffs and chains removed and there were always armed guards near their dugout.

But that team, known as the Red Sox, had one of the most legendary figures in the history of the NBC, Isaiah “Fireball” Jackson. The legend, I’m sure, far exceeds the reality, but it seemed like Jackson threw 150 mph and struck out every batter he faced.

He was just one of the many players who captivated my mind. Of course, I was in the early stages of my St. Louis Cardinals ecstasy, so I was covered at the big-league level.

But watching players up close in the NBC had a special impact on my baseball-loving spirit.

I don’t remember a cloud ever at Lawrence Stadium. The temperature, my memory insists, stayed at a pleasant 78 degrees. When I think back to the youth I spent at that ballpark, there are no bad memories. It’s all good, all happy, all content.

I’m sure I had my first Sno Cone at Lawrence Stadium. Probably my first cotton candy, too. And there’s no question I had never been privileged to a bag of peanuts before getting up the courage to ask my dad for one at that ballpark.

I fell in love with players from the Rapid Transit Dreamliners and Service Auto Glass, Wichita NBC powerhouse teams from the day. My favorite players were guys like Dick Sanders, Leonard Kelly and Artie Dillon, whom I would come to know and call friends later in life.

Lawrence-Dumont Stadium has special meaning to me. And to so many others. I literally grew up at that ballpark. I wish I had a computer chip in my brain (not really, that’s creepy) that could tell me how many nights I spent there, how many games I watched.

Instead, I’m left with the sketchy memories from decades gone by. That’s OK, because they come with no imperfections. I remember those days exactly the way they should be remembered.

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