The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Sports

August 31, 2013

From Miners to majors

Former Miners remember playing days in Joplin as Joe Becker Stadium reaches 100 years old

If this stadium could only talk.

With all of the major league talent that has stepped on to the baseball field at Joe Becker Stadium over the years, one can only imagine the stories it would tell.

The Joplin stadium, which celebrated its 100th anniversary this summer, has witnessed mammoth home runs by Mickey Mantle, the smooth swing of Stan Musial and knee-buckling breaking balls from Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw.

Over the years, Joe Becker Stadium has been the home to minor league baseball, college and high school games, USA Baseball and countless tournaments. Visiting minor league teams brought the likes of Musial and Joe Garagiola. Exhibition games included such stars as Ken Boyer. The Tournament of Stars, which hosted many of the nation’s best high school players, placed Kershaw, Joe Mauer, Andrew McCutchen and many more of today’s major league leaders on the field in Joplin.

Dozens of players who competed for a Joplin minor league baseball team from 1914-1954 eventually put on a major league uniform. That list of Joplin minor leaguers includes Hall of Famer player Mantle, Hall of Fame manager Whitey Herzog, two members of the famed 1927 New York Yankees in Pat Collins and Benny Bengough, World Series manager Gabby Street and such all-stars as Cy Blanton, Johnny Lindell, Norm Siebern and Jim Coates.

While the stadium itself is unable to talk, a few of the living Joplin minor league players recently took the time to share their stories of playing in the century-old Joe Becker Stadium.

The 81-year-old Herzog, who played eight seasons (1956-63) in the majors before directing the St. Louis Cardinals to three World Series appearances and a championship ring in 1982, spoke fondly of his 1951 minor league season with the Joplin Miners.

It was a simple life surrounded by dreams of one day making it to the big leagues.

“I remember every afternoon we’d stop by a barbecue place there in Joplin,” Herzog said. “We didn’t have much money, but we ate there pretty much every day. We were pretty poor, but we had a good time playing and didn’t worry too much about money. We just played baseball and hoped that one day things would turn out.”

The 1951 Miners, who finished half a game back of the Topeka Owls in the Western Association standings with a 77-48 record, boasted five future major leaguers in Herzog, John Gabler, Lloyd Merritt, Dick Tettelbach and Mel Wright.

A 19-year-old Herzog hit .285 with seven homers that season.

An outfielder, Herzog was quite familiar with Joe Becker Stadium’s right field hill.

“The big thing I remember about Joe Becker Stadium is that right field was up a hill, and it was a hell of a poke to hit a home run over that right field wall,” he said.

While the hill was an obstacle for a hitter, Herzog viewed it as a plus when he was playing right field.

“I played out there, and it was a great place to throw from,” Herzog said. “Boy, you’d charge a ball and you were above the infield. You could really cut down a lot of runners at home and third base. It was a fun ballpark.”

Herzog said the minor league facilties of the era weren’t as nice as today, but they had great character.

“When you played in the minor leagues and even the big league ballparks when I first got called up, they all had a sharp wall or something that was a little quaint,” he said. “You know, when you played in the Western Association, the Sooner State League or Illinois-Indiana League, a lot of the ballparks were like that.”

A year before Herzog stepped into the batter box at Joe Becker, the legendary Mantle was blasting home runs and playing shortstop in Joplin.

Mantle eventually evolved into a major league outfielder who won three MVPs and seven World Series with the Yankees.

In 1950, Mantle was an 18-year-old budding star for the Miners. He hit .383 with 30 doubles, 12 triples and 26 home runs. Mantle’s performance helped the Miners to a 90-46 record, which was 13.5 games ahead of the second-place Hutchinson Elks in the Western Association standings. Mantle, Bob Wiesler, Steve Kraly, Cal Neeman and Lou Skizas all made it to the majors of that 1950 squad.

Wiesler, who was a left-handed pitcher for the Miners, reminisced about Mantle’s talent.

“Mantle was unbelievable,” said Wiesler, who is now 83 years old and lives in Florissant, Mo. “It was amazing how strong he was and how fast he could run. He was a hell of a ballplayer.

“When I was in the majors, I saw him nearly hit one out of the stadium. It went to the upper stands in right field. I couldn’t believe how high it went. It was unbelievable.”

Wiesler was 15-7 with a league-leading 2.35 ERA and 277 strikeouts in 1950. Along with Mantle and fellow lefty Frank Simanovsky, Wiesler was named a Western Association All-Star.

“I got hit in the jaw with a bat, and that put me out of commission for three weeks,” Wiesler said. “I could have broke the league record for strikeouts that year.”

Wiesler went on to pitch six seasons in the majors for the Yankees and the Washington Senators.

Jim Coates’ 1953 Miners squad wasn’t nearly as successful as the 1950 club. Still, the Miners posted a winning record in 1953 and eventually sent four players — Coates, Fritz Brickell, Jack McMahan and Moe Thacker — to the majors. Coates, a righty, was 12-13 with a 3.39 ERA that season.

“I was young,” said Coates, who was 20 at the time. “We were a halfway decent ballclub for Class C. It was a decent ballpark.”

Coates, now 81 and living in Virginia, pitched nine seasons in the majors, compiling a 43-22 record. He made the All-Star team in 1960 when he was 13-3 for the Yankees. He was also with the Yankees for the historic 1961 season when Mantle and Roger Maris attempted to surpass Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record. Many fans were rooting for Mantle, but Maris was the one who eclipsed Ruth’s mark.

“Mickey was a true Yankee,” Coates said. “Roger was what we called a come-here. We wanted to see them both do well, but we wanted Mickey to get the record.

“I named my last son Mickey Charles. That’s what I thought of Mickey. He was a great teammate and a great ballplayer.”

After 100 years, Joe Becker Stadium has witnessed great baseball, terrible baseball and everything in between.

But for former players like Herzog, Wiesler and Coates, it was all about the great times they had playing the game they loved.

“We had some good players,” Wiesler said. “We had a lot of fun. We all ran around together and did things. It brings back a lot of good memories.”

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