LITTLE ROCK — Tracking the origin of a reunion of former Arkansas Travelers, start with John Young and connect the dots to Sparky Anderson, Detroit, Jim Riggleman and Lakeland, Fla.
Young, who played for the Travelers in 1975-77, founded the RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program and Hall of Fame manager Anderson was a staunch supporter. In June 2011, the Detroit Tigers and more than 41,000 celebrated Anderson’s legacy and retired his No. 11.
Before traveling to the shindig, Young contacted some former teammates in the Detroit area and organized a breakfast. More than 20 RSVP’d, but word spread and more than 50 showed up. They laughed, lied, shared tales and decided to do it again in March 2013 in Lakeland, winter home of the Tigers.
Attendance totaled 150.
Riggleman, teammates with Young in Little Rock, urged his long-time friend to organize a reunion for former Travelers. “To a man, everyone shared the same positive experience of having Little Rock serve as a home-away-from home to many of us being away from home for the first time,” Young said.
More than 60 are expected in North Little Rock this weekend for a 20th Century Travelers Family Reunion, Young’s catch-all covering the mid-60s to the end of the century. Almost three dozen played in the majors, including Hall of Fame pitcher Fergie Jenkins, former National League MVP Terry Pendleton, and former NL All-Stars Leon Durham, Terry Kennedy, Jerry Mumphrey, Tom Pagnozzi, Kenny Reitz, and Garry Templeton. Trav managers Riggleman, Nick Leyva and Frank Luchessi managed in the majors.
Young’s affinity for Little Rock — a 180-degree reversal from his perception of the city formed as a “colored” child passing through the state in the 1950s — must be lived to be understood. Every other year, his dad did the cross-country driving along two-lane Route 66, stopping at roadside motels at sundown.
“However, once we reached Fort Smith we stayed at black-owned boarding houses until reaching our Spartanburg, S.C., destination,” he said. “For years, the photo of the Caucasian woman shouting at the black Central High School student was how I saw Arkansas.”
Playing for Montgomery of the Dixie Association in 1971, Young hit a couple of home runs in Little Rock, a couple more in Memphis, and was called up to Detroit. When his 16-day stint with the Tigers ended, he started looking for a small college where he could play basketball. In those days, analysis of a player evolved every three years from prospect, to suspect, to reject, he said.
In 1975, club president Max Moses and general manager Bill Valentine sold Young on being a stabilizing presence with the youthful Travelers.
“I can honestly say, my time in Little Rock was my best baseball and life experience,” he said. “I find it hard to believe that any city ever treated a player better than the Traveler fans … responded to John Young.”
His image of the angry woman was replaced by the appreciation expressed during a five-minute standing ovation after his final at-bat.
The media also responded to Young.
Jim Bailey, who covered the Travelers for years for The Arkansas Gazette, will be recognized during the reunion. Before there was Dickey-Stephens Park, there was Ray Winder Field and the pressboxes at both were named the “Jim Box” for Bailey and long-time Travelers broadcaster Jim Elder.
It was Elder who put together 10 trivia questions to stump the Travelers at a team picnic. The level of difficulty escalated after the first five, but the team successfully collaborated and Elder was sweating the friendly wager when he got to No. 10:
Johnny Vander Meer pitched consecutive no hitters in 1938, who got the first hit off him in the next game?
After huddling, Young told Elder the players were stumped. On cue, Victor Cruz, who spoke maybe three words of English, blurted out “Deb Garms.”
Beaten and bewildered, Elder wandered off, done in by wife Betty sharing the questions with Young and Manny Castillo spending two days drilling Cruz on the answer.
Former pitcher Al Hrabosky will be master of ceremonies at the dinner on Saturday night and tickets are available to the public.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.