Take Me Out West to the Ball Game
Editor’s note: An earlier version of “Take Me Out West” appeared in the New York Daily News, in response to a proposal by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner to build the Yankees a minor league park in Staten Island – at a cost of $71 million to New York City taxpayers.
Dear Rudy and George,
Hold up a sec on ordering those Staten Island Yanks caps. If New Yorkers are squawking about digging $71 million out of their wallets for a new stadium, consider this an engraved invitation: down here in far West Texas, where the sun shines, the cacti bloom, and the ball carries in the rarified high-desert air, not only do we fans crave organized ball, we’ve got a spectacularly beautiful ballpark in move-in condition.
It’s called Kokernot Field, and it’s been here since 1947, when one of the Big Bend country’s most prominent ranchers, Herbert L. Kokernot, Jr., built it for his beloved semipro team, the Alpine Cowboys. Kokernot’s Cowboys – the jersey featured the rancher’s “O6” brand on a shoulder patch – were the Yankees of small-town baseball. Season after season through the mid-fifties, the Cowboys dominated the Texas-New Mexico semipro circuit, taking on all comers, from Mexican border teams to the Carlsbad Miners. Kokernot Field also played host to the barnstorming House of David and major league exhibitions. In 1951, more than 6,000 fans packed the grandstand and the portable bleachers to witness Satchel Paige’s St. Louis Browns take on the Chicago White Sox.
Alpine hasn’t grown much since those days. There are less than 6,000 of us, only 8,000 souls in the whole of Brewster County, the biggest county in Texas, an area as big as Connecticut and Rhode Island, but with no tolls, stop lights, or pointyheaded economists.
You’re busy men, so let’s cut to the real estate. No less an authority than Sports Illustrated called Kokernot Field “quite possibly the world’s most beautiful ballpark.” I myself would drop the tepid modifiers; there’s no “quite possibly” about it.
Herbert Kokernot, Jr. was a daddy’s boy, and when he told his daddy he wanted to build a ballpark, Senior told him: “If you put the Kokernot name on the field, make it the finest.”
Herbert Jr. spared no expense. He shipped in, by boxcar from Georgia, the infield’s red clay, and he hired metalworkers from the Army base to adorn the wrought iron around the entrance with inlaid clusters of baseballs, painted white with red seams. The concessions stands are roofed with red Spanish tile and framed by pewter bats. Ranch hands combed the O6’s creek beds for the lush infield and outfield grass, and built the big-league dimensioned outfield wall – it’s 430 to dead center – out of native stone quarried on the ranch.
By the late Fifties, semipro ball was dying out in America, and Herbert Kokernot agreed, reluctantly, to convert his club to a Red Sox Class D minor league affiliate. But the glue never took. For one thing, Kokernot was a purist, and he forbade the league to sell advertising on his pristine outfield wall. The fans, too, never seemed to embrace the minor leaguers the way they did their own hometown players. That was then. Now the ballpark is used only sparingly, by the Alpine High Fightin’ Bucks and the Sul Ross State University Lobos. The university, itself steeped in baseball tradition (it won the N.A.I.A. championship in 1957), lovingly maintains the park, and fans continue to flock to the college team’s games.
Even if it was the hated Red Sox who farmed here forty years ago, I’m willing to bet the ranch that the curse of the Bambino doesn’t cross time zones – and that today’s fans would embrace the Big Bend Bombers. Think of it. No angry taxpayers and plenty of free parking. Come on down for a look-see. I’ll be glad to show you around.
Bill Adler, the Observer‘s Big Bend bureau chief, is at work on a novel about minor league baseball. He is the author of Mollie’s Job: A Story of Life and Work on the Global Assembly Line, to be published in May by Scribner. For more information on the Yankees, see www.nytimes.com/library/sports/baseball/020900bbm-stadium.html.