By Josh Letner
NEOSHO, Mo. —
Baseball in Morse Park has been a staple of life in Neosho for generations. Now the city and a group of parents and volunteers are working feverishly to prepare the park for another summer of baseball.
Neosho Mayor Richard Davidson is one of many Neosho residents who has fond memories of summer nights in Morse Park.
“I started playing ball down there in 1975,” he said. “That was what you did when you lived in Neosho. At the age of 5 or 6, you signed up and started playing. I remember watching some of the older kids play and thinking ‘that’s going to be me in a few years.’”
Despite its long tradition, the park has fallen into disrepair in recent years. Davidson points to the city’s past financial problems and a lack of dedication to park maintenance as contributing factors to the park’s decline.
“What you see down there is mostly a lack of maintenance,” he said. “The fence needs repaired. The scoreboards are not functioning. The lights are of an older design. The city hasn’t pumped very much money into the parks in the past, and it’s going to take some money to bring them back to where they should be and where they would have been had the city properly maintained them over the past 10 or 15 years.”
Despite years of neglect, Steve McLaughlin, president of the recently resurrected Neosho Little League, said the park will be ready for another summer of baseball. He said the Little League put on a work day last weekend in which about 80 volunteers worked to get the ball field ready for opening day.
McLaughlin said that while the park needs some work, it is still adequate for the Little League program. He said about 660 kids have signed up for baseball, softball and T-ball programs. He said community support has been strong, and all teams have corporate sponsors.
“I think it’s a great improvement for Neosho, and as you can see by the numbers, it was needed,” he said. “I think some people are watching to see how it goes, but I think our numbers will be up by as many as 300 next year.”
Davidson said it is nice to see the excitement of Little League returning to Neosho.
“As not only a former player, but as a current coach of my daughter’s softball team, you can tell there’s a renewed energy and excitement about ball programs in Neosho and the future they’re going to have,” he said.
City Manager Troy Royer said parents and volunteers have agreed to cooperate with the city parks department to maintain the field, concession area and restrooms, the latter of which the city is taking steps to improve.
Royer said the city has requested permission from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to run a sewer line across Hickory Creek that will hook the restrooms into the city sewer system. However, Royer said the city is reluctant to make major improvements to the facility because it sits in a flood plain, making it difficult to insure. He said high water from Hickory Creek often washes gravel from the parking lot and damages the field, leaving the city to cover the cost of repairs.
“Right now, we don’t have the means to move the field to a new location, so we’re just hoping for the best,” he said.
Davidson said relocating the baseball field to a new location makes sense in the long-term, but for now, the city is not in a position to build a new sports complex.
“As needs grow, the ability to expand down there is limited, and there are concerns with the flood plain,” he said. “There are a variety of reasons that the city would look to move ball programs out of Morse park to a new location as part of a long-term plan.”
Davidson said, even if it no longer hosts baseball, Morse Park will remain a part of the city park system.
“We want to keep that area in public use,” he said. “It’s a great area with the creek running through it. The question is, could it be better utilized for camping and outdoor recreation?”
According to the Newton County Historical Society, Delbert Morse bought the 94-acre property near the turn of the 20th century and built a baseball field on a portion of it. During the 1920s, the park was home to the Neosho Athletics baseball team. In the 1930s, it was home to the Ozark Rockies, a black semi-pro team. Morse sold the land to Mike Evans in 1942. The city of Neosho purchased the property from Evans in 1967.