It was just a quick look of recognition and a low-key greeting, but to Garland Crowder, it meant everything. It meant he belonged.
It was 1963 and Garland, who was 17 years old, was in the visitors locker room at the old Kansas City Municipal Stadium. The New York Yankees were in town to play the Kansas City Athletics.
Garland grew up on a farm near Neosho and, until that trip, had never been out of Newton County. He had been summoned to Kansas City by the legendary Yankees scout best known for signing Mickey Mantle. The Yankees had agreed to give the young pitcher a tryout before the game.
Years earlier, that scout had signed Garland’s older brother, Joe. Mickey and Joe played on the same Joplin Miners team and had been good friends. Good enough that Garland remembers a young Mickey hanging out on the Crowder farm.
The scout took Garland to the Yankee locker room so he could put on a uniform for the tryout. After Garland was dressed, the scout took him through the clubhouse and into the training room. In the training room, Garland saw a familiar figure lying face down on a table getting worked on by a trainer.
“Mick, I’ve got someone I want you to meet,” the scout said.
The man on the table turned his head so he could see Garland.
“How’s it going, Crowder?” Mickey Mantle said with a smile and then turned his head back the other way.
That was it. No surprised look. Just a simple greeting from one ballplayer to another.
“It made me feel like I belonged there,” Garland said.
Before Garland told me that great story (and many others) about his minor league career, he wanted me to understand one thing: He in no way thinks he was anything special.
“None of us were anything,” Garland said. “We would have paid then to play baseball if we had any money, which we didn’t. We played for the love of the game.”
Garland’s daughter, Debbie Cutbirth, told me about her father and got him to talk to me. Garland, she said, doesn’t talk much about his baseball career.
Garland was so quiet about his career, in fact, that it wasn’t until the past few years that Debbie truly learned about his past. The more she learned, the more intrigued she became.
In the family home she found many of her dad’s old uniforms, several of Joe’s, and her father’s original professional contract. One of Joe’s minor league contracts, signed in 1948, states that he was to be paid $140 a month.
Debbie also reached out to other former minor league players in the area who played with her father, guys like Gary Crawford, Johnny Hanes and former major league pitcher and coach Cloyd Boyer, the eldest of the legendary Boyer baseball family.
The Boyer brothers — Cloyd, Clete and Kenny — and a number of Garland’s other baseball friends used to drop by the house to go hunting.
“At the time, I didn’t know who they were,” Debbie said. “They were just guys who went hunting with my dad.”
Of course, that’s the point. In their minds, Debbie said, those baseball players were just guys going hunting with a pal. They were guys who grew up with each other and spent their time playing a game they loved. None of them, Debbie said, thought they were anything special.
I don’t have the time or the space to tell you all the stories Debbie and Garland told me, but hopefully someday those and other great stories about Joplin’s baseball history will be told.
In the next few months, Debbie, who owns Wise Solutions at 832 S. Main St. in Joplin, hopes to put a number of Garland’s and Joe’s baseball artifacts on display. The goal, she said, is to someday find a place where the area’s baseball history can be displayed.
Because, contrary to what those long-ago boys of summer will tell you, they are special.
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