Some people remember when the Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos played an exhibition game at North Platte’s Bauer Field on Aug. 27, 1967, three years before both entered the National Football League.
That was North Platte’s second and last taste of major professional sports.
Its first came on Oct. 7, 1943, when two barnstorming teams of Major League Baseball players tangled at long-gone Jeffers Park.
World War II had begun its fifth year. The North Platte Canteen, already known from the Pacific to Europe, was nearly two years old.
The game’s greatest players weren’t here that October day. But some of the ones who came had had, or would have, moments of glory in “The Show.”
That afternoon, they gave nearly 3,000 baseball fans all they could ask for.
Right down to a game-winning home run.
Diamonds in war
Thanks to encouragement from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, big-league baseball kept playing through the war. But some 340 players — including Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Bob Feller — would serve in the armed forces.
The talent drain was becoming evident even on the familiar teams — the New York Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals — that would open the 1943 World Series Oct. 5, two days after the 154-game regular season.
Most players on the other 14 teams would go home, if they weren’t already ticketed for the military.
But a handful had more games to play.
Traveling “barnstorming” teams had long been part of baseball’s fabric. Even major leaguers — whose 1943 average salary was just $6,423 — often hit the road for exhibitions and extra cash between seasons.
Top MLB officials wanted to send top-level players to the Pacific theater to play before U.S. troops in late October. That was scrubbed when military leaders said war-zone conditions were too dangerous.
By then, a different all-star tour was under way — with plans to pass through Nebraska.
‘Couldn’t pass up’
North Platte first heard about it Sept. 23 in Telegraph sports editor Jim Kirkman’s “Dots and Dashes” column:
“A promoter of two major league all-star baseball teams, anxious to break a long (travel) hop, will be in North Platte this afternoon to line up a show for this city, if possible.”
If the promoter could find a sponsor, “it might be a good bet for the Canteen or some civic club” to raise money, wrote Kirkman, later Telegraph publisher and North Platte mayor.
The promoter, Ray L. Doan of Muscatine, Iowa, put on gimmicks like “donkey baseball” — with players riding donkeys in the field and around the bases — but also had run an Arkansas baseball school with legitimate major league stars as coaches.
He offered Omaha a game “but was told weather is too ‘brr’ to gamble on expenses,” the World-Herald reported Sept. 19. But David City, west of Omaha, signed up for an Oct. 6 game.
On Sept. 24, the deal was done: Doan’s big-league all-stars would play Oct. 7 at Jeffers Park.
“It can hardly prove a money-making venture for the club,” said Joe Good, president of the sponsoring North Platte Lions Club, “but we just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to bring such fine baseball talent to North Platte.”
He urged area residents to “pack Jeffers Park ... to prove that they appreciate receiving big-time entertainment.”
No traces remain of the ballpark or the adjoining Jeffers Pavilion, which both stood off the northwest side of the Jeffers viaduct now occupied by Martin Marietta’s North Platte Sales Yard.
The “North Platte Shop Employees Athletic Field” was dedicated at North Locust and Seventh streets on July 18, 1927, two years before the pavilion was completed. Both were named — as Locust Street would be in 1928 — for hometown U.P. success story William M. Jeffers, then the line’s general manager and later its president.
The grain bins closest to the tracks stand where the grandstand once did. A steel building at the corner of Seventh and Jeffers marks the pavilion’s approximate site.
Until the war, Jeffers Park regularly hosted amateur and U.P. teams and the minor league North Platte Buffaloes, the city’s 1928-32 entry in the Nebraska State League.
No one had played there in 1943. The idled ballpark had to be readied, and fast.
Lions members set out to ready the public-address system and needed supplies. “The city grader is to be used to shave the weeds off of the unused playing field in the park,” The Telegraph said Sept. 29.
Tickets cost $1.65 for a reserved seat, $1.10 for general admission and 25 cents for children 14 and younger in the “Knot Hole Club.”
The goal, Kirkman wrote, was to charge “no more than would be paid for the same attraction at any normal major league baseball game.”
As October began, Jeffers Park was nearing a sellout. Lions member Hayden Noe warned North Platte residents “to buy early if they want not a good seat but any seat at all,” The Telegraph wrote.
NP’s ‘Show’ bill
But would the visiting big-leaguers be stars, scrubs or wartime subs?
No Yankees, Cardinals, New York Giants or Cincinnati Reds were on the teams traveling through North Platte.
But Ray Doan recruited pretty well.
His American League team included two starters from the 1943 All-Star Game in Philadelphia: first baseman Dick Siebert of the Philadelphia Athletics and shortstop Vern “Junior” Stephens of the St. Louis Browns (the future Baltimore Orioles). Left fielder Jeff Heath of the Cleveland Indians was an AL All-Star reserve in 1943.
Siebert hit just .251 that year but had 72 runs batted in. Stephens hit .289, belted 22 homers and had 91 RBIs in his second full season. The players in North Platte also included three starters from the 1944 All-Star Game in Pittsburgh: Stephens and Chicago White Sox center fielder Thurman Tucker for the AL and Chicago Cubs first baseman Phil Cavarretta for the NL.
Tucker batted only .235 in 1943, his first full season, but would bat .287 in 1944. Cavarretta, a regular on the Cubs’ 1935 and 1938 NL pennant winners, had batted .291 in 1943 with eight home runs and 73 RBIs.
The NL squad also boasted sophomore Boston Braves outfielder Tommy Holmes, who batted .270 with 41 RBIs. He would put together an NL-record 37-game hitting streak in 1945, a mark that stood until Pete Rose hit in 44 straight in 1978.
Doan’s announced AL roster also included Detroit Tigers pitcher Dizzy Trout, who was 20-12 with a 2.48 earned-run average in 1943 and went 27-14 with a 2.12 ERA in 1944.
But Trout, who also was named to the AL’s would-be Pacific theater team, would pitch for neither. He was seen working out with the NFL’s Detroit Lions after the regular season ended and the war-front tour was scrubbed.
On their way west
Doan’s all-stars opened their tour Oct. 4 in Erie, Pennsylvania, with the NL winning, 6-4. The AL evened the score Oct. 5 with a 4-2 win in Davenport, Iowa, on Doan’s home turf.
In David City on Oct. 6, the NL posted another 6-4 win on a three-run walkoff homer by Brooklyn Dodger third baseman Stanley “Frenchy” Bordagaray. (He had batted .302 in 1943 without hitting a single home run.)
“The crowd, cut by gas rationing, was just fair,” the World-Herald wrote. “But the visiting major league players had high praise for the David City baseball park, which they called ‘one of the best they had played on.’”
North Platte was ready to top that.
Jeffers Park was fixed up. Mayor Sidney McFarland had proclaimed Oct. 7 “Baseball Day.” Lions President Good said: “We expect to mark up an all-time attendance record in paid admissions for Jeffers Park.”
Concessions would be run by the North Platte Canteen, offering it another fundraiser to keep up its 51-month streak of serving military members at the nearby Union Pacific Depot.
The Daily Bulletin, which would merge with The Telegraph in 1946, supplied free tickets to any Lincoln County service members home on furlough and the 80 U.S. naval aviation cadets being trained at Lee Bird Field.
“In normal times the affair would not even come to this city,” Kirkman wrote. “It is a real opportunity to see the ‘big timers’ in action.”
Ideal 76-degree weather greeted locals and Doan’s all-stars as nearly 3,000 fans poured into Jeffers Park for the 4 p.m. contest.
The original Jeffers viaduct “looked like a traffic jam at a college football game on homecoming day,” the Bulletin reported.
North Platte’s naval air cadets marched into the grandstand to applause from the crowd. Pregame festivities featured Gene Slattery, then just 10 years old, selling “the shirt off his back” in his signature fundraising effort for the Canteen.
Ross “Ole” Herstedt — founder of nearby Paxton’s Ole’s Big Game Lounge — paid off his winning $15 bid, “immediately placed it up for sale again” and raised $10 more, the Bulletin wrote.
The National Anthem played. A Boy Scout raised a U.S. flag on the right-field line. Siebert, doubling as AL manager, ran out with his team as his NL counterpart, Cavarretta, sent Bordagaray to the plate.
No fooling around
Bordagaray poked Browns pitcher George Caster’s first pitch into left field for a double. Holmes flied to right, but Browns right fielder Joe Schultz misjudged the ball. Bordagaray raced home for a 1-0 NL lead.
Caster, a 10-year veteran with a 6-8 record and 2.12 ERA in 1943, then shut down NL bats until the ninth.
With pitchers on both sides few, Caster would pitch a complete game. So would NL starter Newt Kimball, who had gone 2-7 with a 3.84 ERA for the Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies in what proved his last big-league season.
Kimball gave up second-inning singles to Vern Stephens and Siebert. Schultz redeemed his first-inning error by singling Stephens home, tying the game.
Kimball fell behind 2-1 in the third when Chicago White Sox center fielder Thurman Tucker singled up the middle, advanced on an error and scored on Stephens’ sacrifice fly.
In the fifth, Caster reached first when Phillies shortstop Ray Hamrick’s throw pulled Cavarretta off the bag. He moved to second when A’s left fielder Jo Jo White walked, then scored for a 3-1 lead as Tucker made it to first on another error.
That ended the scoring until the ninth in a game that featured both four double plays and four fielding errors.
“These major league players are used to performing on sod fields with scarcely a pebble to divert the path of a baseball,” Kirkman wrote the next day.
“The right fielders yesterday looked directly into the late afternoon fall sun. But the fans were convinced the ball players knew their stuff and that the game wasn’t horseplay.”
In the dugouts, some players were following World Series reports from Yankee Stadium. Having split the first two contests, the Cardinals would lose Game 3, 6-2, and lose the series in five games.
Cavarretta’s Cubs teammate, left fielder Lou “The Mad Russian” Novikoff, had hit .300 in 1942 and .279 in 1943. He and Braves right fielder Butch Nieman both singled off Caster to open the ninth.
Cavarretta proved his big-time credentials with a clutch double. So did second baseman Clyde McCullough, still another Cub.
Three runs had scored with none out. The NL led, 4-3. But then Caster closed the door.
Kimball walked Schultz to lead off the AL ninth. Detroit Tigers catcher Al Unser (no relation to the auto-racing family) flied out to left.
That brought up Caster, a bad hitter — like most pitchers — who had batted just .136 during the season. He hadn’t gotten a hit all day or a homer all year.
Caster launched a Kimball pitch over the right-field fence onto Seventh Street. Schultz scored ahead of him.
The AL had won, 5-4.
With his two-run walkoff blast, Caster had “pulled a Frank Merriwell,” wrote Bulletin Sports Editor Larry Hayes. He referred to a fictional high school hero of a well-known series of comics, novels and short stories.
It was an ideal finish to a unique day.
“It was definite proof that people of this community will support ventures that promise to be worthwhile,” Kirkman wrote.
“And the exhibition WAS good, too. We didn’t hear a spectator complain after the game was finished.”
Where they went
Doan’s all-stars were just halfway through their barnstorming tour.
On Oct. 9 in Ogden, Utah, Vern Stephens hit for the “cycle” — a single, double, triple and homer — but the NL prevailed, 12-10.
In Salt Lake City Oct. 11, Stephens hit a walkoff double in the 10th for a 6-5 AL win. The AL won a 13-1 laugher the next day in Pocatello, Idaho, then clinched the series Oct. 13 in Payette, Idaho, with a 15-13 victory that featured a combined 11 homers.
It all ended Oct. 14 in Pendleton, Oregon, where Cavarretta hit a two-run homer for a 3-2 NL win to narrow the AL’s final edge to 5-4.
He would bat .321 in 1944 and win the NL’s 1945 Most Valuable Player award with a .355 average. Cavarretta played in the 1945 World Series — the Cubs’ last until 2016 — and managed the club from 1951 to 1953.
Vern Stephens and North Platte hero George Caster would win an AL pennant in 1944 with the Browns, who lost to the Cardinals in an all-St. Louis World Series.
Traded to Detroit in 1945, Caster — now on the same staff as 1943 all-star scratch Dizzy Trout — would briefly face the Cubs in the World Series, won by the Tigers.
Stephens would barely miss AL pennants in 1948 and 1949 with the Boston Red Sox, who lost a one-game 1948 playoff to a Cleveland team including Thurman Tucker.
The Indians went on to win the World Series — their last to date — against a Boston Braves team featuring three players who played in North Platte: Holmes, Heath and catcher Phil Masi.
Jeffers Park remained a busy ballpark until a fire on Aug. 17, 1955, leveled the grandstand, bleachers and ticket office in minutes. Jeffers Pavilion likewise burned down on June 29, 1956. Both fires were deemed arson.
Just two days later, North Platte opened Bill Wood Field and 20-year-old Jim Perry struck out 16 McCook batters for the North Platte Indians (a Cleveland minor-league affiliate) in a new Nebraska State League.
Perry would pitch in the big leagues for 17 years. Eight years after Perry’s 1976 retirement, homegrown hurler Zane Smith reached “The Show” and stayed until 1996.
One can only imagine them pulling a “Field of Dreams” and facing the players who gave North Platte its biggest baseball day in 1943.