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Wirthwein chronicles century of ‘Baseball in Evansville’ in new book

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Kevin Wirthwein fondly remembers when professional baseball came back to his hometown.

It was 1966 and his grandfather, attorney Wilbur Dassel, bought season tickets for the Evansville White Sox at Bosse Field

That meant that 12-year-old Kevin got to be a regular at games of the Double-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. 

Evansville had not been a pro outpost since the Evansville Braves played their last Class B Three-I (Illinois-Iowa-Indiana) League season in 1957.

“I had been watching baseball on TV and now I was able to see a real ball game,” says Wirthwein. “I started loving baseball.”

Another way his grandfather fueled that love was by sharing The Sporting News with Kevin. After reading it cover to cover he turned it over to his grandson so he could do the same.

Two of the biggest names on the E-Sox in those years were Bill Melton and Ed Herrmann.

Melton was 21 when the corner infielder and outfielder came to Evansville in 1967 and hit nine home runs and drove in 72 runs. He made his Major League Baseball debut with Chicago in 1968 and led the American League in home runs in 1971 with 33.

Herrmann was a 19-year-old catcher in 1966 and was with Chicago briefly in 1967 before coming back to Evansville in 1967 and 1968. He stuck with the parent White Sox in 1969.

Cotton Nash, who had been a basketball All-American at the University of Kentucky and played in the NBA with the Los Angeles Lakers and San Francisco Warrior and ABA with the Kentucky Colonels, was played with Evansville in 1967, 1968 and 1970, belting 33 homers in the first season of the Triplets. 

As a defensive replacement for the Chicago White Sox, Nash caught the last out of Joe Horlen’s no-hitter on Sept. 10, 1967.

On Picture Day at Bosse Field, Wirthwein got to go in the field and snap shots of his diamond heroes with his little Brownie camera.

A few of those color images appear on the cover of Wirthwein’s book, “Baseball in Evansville: Booms, Busts and One Global Disaster” (The History Press/Arcadia Publishing).

In a group shot, left-handed pitcher Lester Clinkscales is in the middle of the frame. His son, Sherard Clinkscales, was a standout at Purdue who was selected in the first round of the 1992 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Kansas City Royals and is now athletic director at Indiana State University.

Wirthwein captures roughly the first century of Evansville baseball in a book published March 2, 2020. 

Through library files, digitized publications and the resources of the Society for American Baseball Research, he uncovered details about teams and characters going back to the Civil War, which ended in 1865.

Bosse Field, which is now the third-oldest professional baseball park in use (behind Boston’s Fenway Park and Chicago’s Wrigley Field) came on the scene in 1915.

Wirthwein’s book goes through the Evansville White Sox era and highlights how Triple-A baseball came to town with the Triplets in 1970. The independent Evansville Otters have inhabited Bosse Field since 1995.

Growing up, Wirthwein played youth baseball and then plenty of slow pitch softball.

He graduated from Harrison High School in 1972. He earned a journalism degree at Butler University in Indianapolis in 1976 and took job at The Brownsburg (Ind.) Guide, where he covered everything from sports to the city council and was also a photographer.

After that, he covered trap shooting for Trap & Field Magazine and had a short stint as editor at the Zionsville (Ind.) Times.

Desiring more in his paycheck, Wirthwein went back to Butler and began preparing for his next chapter. He worked toward a Masters of Business Administration (which was completed in 1991) and worked a decade at AT&T and then more than 20 years managing several departments at CNO Financial Group (formerly Conseco) before retiring in June 2019.

“I got lost for 30-plus years,” says Wirthwein, who has returned to his writing roots.

About three years before his last day at CNO he began researching his Evansville baseball book.

“I slowly assembled and had a manuscript shortly before retirement,” says Wirthwein, who is married with four daughters and resides in Fishers, Ind. 

When it came time to find someone to produce the book, he found The History Press, a division of Arcadia Publishing that specializes in regional history.

Wirthwein says Willard Library in Evansville was very helpful in the process, scanning images that wound up in the book.

It took a bit of digging to unearth the treasures from the early years. He was amazed that little had been written about the pre-Bosse Field era.

He did find details on teams like Resolutes, Blues, Brewers, Hoosiers and Blackbirds — all of which seemed to have monetary difficulties and scandals swirling around them.

“The whole 1800’s was just a mess,” says Wirthwein. “Teams were coming and going. Financial failures were everywhere.”

Jumping contracts was very commonplace in 19th century baseball. They were often not worth the paper they were written on since a player could get an offer for more money and be on the next train to that city.

To try to combat this, Evansville joined the League Alliance in 1877. It was a group of major and minor league teams assembled to protect player contracts.

It always seemed to be about money.

The 1895 Evansville Blackbirds led the Class B Southern League for much of the season. But, being nearly destitute, the club began throwing games for a sum that Wirthwein discovered to be about $1,500.

The Atlanta Crackers were supposed to be the beneficiary of the blown ballgames, but it was the Nashville Seraphs who won the pennant. Evansville finished in third — 4 1/2 games back.

Blackbirds right fielder Hercules Burnett socked four home runs in a 25-10 win against the Memphis Giants at Louisiana Street Ball Park May 28, 1895. 

In 1901, catcher Frank Roth hit 36 home runs for the Evansville River Rats of the Three-I League. 

“The Evansville paper thought that to be a world record,” says Wirthwein.

The wooden park on Louisiana, which was built in 1889 near the Evansville stockyards, was in disrepair by 1914 when it collapsed and injured 42 spectators.

Seeing an opportunity, Evansville mayor Benjamin Bosse sprang into action.

“The city had bought this big plot of land,” says Wirthwein. “(Bosse Field) was built in a matter of months. 

“He was ready.”

Unusual for its time, Bosse Field was meant to be a multi-purpose facility from the beginning and became home not only to baseball, but football games, wrestling matches and more.

Wirthstein’s book tells the story of Evansville native Sylvester Simon, who played for the St. Louis Browns in 1923 and 1924.

In the fall of 1926, he lost three fingers on his left hand and part of his palm while working in a furniture factory.

He came back to baseball using a customized grip on his bat and with a glove that was repaired using a football protector and played for the Evansville Hubs in 1927 and had pro stops with the Central League’s Fort Wayne (Ind.) Chiefs in 1928 and 1930 and played his last season with the Three-I League’s Quincy (Ill.) Indians in 1932. His bat and glove are at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Hall of Famers Edd Roush (1912-13 Yankees/River Rats), Chuck Klein (1927 Hubs), Hank Greenberg (1931 Hubs) and Warren Spahn (1941 Bees) also spent time in Evansville. Roush is from Oakland City, Ind. Klein hails from Indianapolis.

Huntingburg native Bob Coleman played three seasons in the majors and managed 35 years in the minors, including stints in Evansville.

The Limestone League came to town thanks to travel restrictions during World War II. The Detroit Tigers conducted spring training in Evansville. Indiana also hosted teams in Bloomington (Cincinnati Reds), French Lick (Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox), Lafayette (Cleveland Indians), Muncie (Pittsburgh Pirates) and Terre Haute (White Sox in 1945).

Wirthwein’s research found plenty about barnstorming black baseball teams in the early 1900’s.

In the 1920’s, the Reichert Giants represented Evansville in the Negro Southern League. The Reichert family was fanatic about baseball. Manson Reichert went on to be mayor (1943-48).

“(The Reichert Giants) played semipros when not playing league games,” says Wirthwein. “They lobbied hard to play at Bosse Field when the Class B (Hubs) were out of town, but they kept going turned down.

Games were played at the Louisiana Street park, Eagles Park or at Evansville’s all-black high school, Lincoln.

“They started playing games opposite the Hubs and outdrew them every single time. The Bosse Field people finally acquiesced.”

In the 1950’s, the Evansville Colored Braves were in the Negro Southern League and were rivals of an independent black team, the Evansville Dodgers. Games were played at Bosse Field and Lincoln High.

What about the “Global” disaster?

Evansville-based real estate tycoon Walter Dilbeck Jr. conceived of the Global Baseball League in 1966. It was to be a third major circuit to compete with the American League and National League. There would be teams all over globe, including the Tokyo Dragons from Japan, and the GBL was headquartered in Evansviile.

“It’s a pretty remarkable story,” says Wirthwein. “The guy just wouldn’t give up.”

Happy Chandler, commissioner of baseball in 1947 when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers, was brought in as GBL commissioner. 

Hall of Famers Johnny Mize and Enos Slaughter as well as Chico Carrasquel were brought in as managers.

Dilbeck did get the league up and running with six teams and games in Latin America in 1969. Spring training was held in Daytona Beach, Fla.

“It ended up in financial debacle,” says Wirthwein. “(Dilbeck) was banking on getting a television contract. When he couldn’t get that, there was no money.

“The league crashed and burned.”

While he can’t say more now, Wirthwein’s next writing project centers on basketball.

Wirthwein has accepted invitations to talk about his baseball book on Two Main Street on WNIN and Eyewitness News in Evansville and on the Grueling Truth podcast (12:00-39:00).

A baseball advertisement from 1877 that appears in Kevin Wirthwein’s book, “Baseball in Evansville: Booms, Busts and One Global Disaster” (The History Press/Arcadia Publishing).
Kevin Wirthwein’s book, “Baseball in Evansville: Booms, Busts and One Global Disaster” (The History Press/Arcadia Publishing) tells about River Rats slugger Frank Roth.
Evansville native Sylvester Simon played in the majors with the St. Louis Browns in 1923-24. An industrial accident in the fall of 1926 took three fingers of his left hand and part of the his palm. His pro career continued until 1932. His story is in Kevin Wirthwein’s book, “Baseball in Evansville: Booms, Busts and One Global Disaster” (The History Press/Arcadia Publishing).
The Global Baseball League was an idea hatched in 1966 by Evansville real estate tycoon Walter Dilbeck Jr. It was to be a third major league and rival the American League and National League. The GBL played a few games in 1969 then collapsed. The story is in Kevin Wirthwein’s book, “Baseball in Evansville: Booms, Busts and One Global Disaster” (The History Press/Arcadia Publishing).
“Baseball in Evansville: Booms, Busts and One Global Disaster” (The History Press/Arcadia Publishing)” was published March 2, 2002 by Evansville native Kevin Wirthwein. The two color photos on the cover were taken by Wirthwein as a boy at Photo Day at Bosse Field.
Kevin Wirthwein is the author of the book, “Baseball in Evansville: Booms, Busts and One Global Disaster” (The History Press/Arcadia Publishing). He is a graduate of Harrison High School in Evansville and earned journalism and MBA degrees from Butler University in Indianapolis. Retired from business in 2019, the Fishers, Ind., resident has returned to his writing roots.