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Howard County History

Baseball in Howard County - As Early As 1890

By Steve Geiselman
from Footprints, May 2016

Baseball in Howard County has a long and storied history, reaching back to Kokomo’s participation in the Indiana State League in 1890 to the construction of a new stadium for a bunch of Jackrabbits. When exactly a group of guys first got together for a game of pitch and catch is probably hard to pin down. One thing is for certain, Howard County and Kokomo’s love for America’s Pastime started strong and never slowed down. 


The first organized teams in Howard County took the field before the turn of the century. In 1890, Kokomo fielded a team in the Indiana State League and six years later the Kokomo Blues were part of the same league. Teams in the Indiana State League included squads from Fort Wayne, Marion/Logansport, Elkhart, Bluffton, Peru, Anderson and Muncie.

Teams came and went, as “organized” was a loose term back in those days.

In 1899, Kokomo was part of two different teams in the Indiana-Illinois League. Kokomo/Matoon and Anderson/Kokomo/Bloomington played in an unknown number of games that season.

The year 1900 saw Kokomo returned to the Indiana State League for one season. Baseball was gone from the city until 1907 when Kokomo fielded a team in the Ohio-Indiana League. Finally in 1909 the Kokomo Wildcats were part of the Northern State of Indiana League.

That would be the end of organized semi-pro baseball Kokomo and Howard County until 1955.

Kokomo Industrial League

In between semi-pro and pro teams, booming Industrial Leagues took off across the state including Howard County. Howard County was a hotbed of diamond action from 1916 to 1921 with the creation of the Kokomo Industrial League. The league consisted of 10 teams, all sponsored and organized by local industries. Teams included Haynes Automobile Company, Pittsburgh Plate Glass, Hoosier Iron Works, Kokomo Electric and Apperson Automobile Company.

On opening days, the teams would parade from downtown to Exposition Park, which is now Foster Park. Crowds for games would reach nearly 3,000 and the league became so popular that talented players who lived within 100 miles of Kokomo would be given a job at a local factory.

According to newspaper account from the time, the league broke up ultimately because of the intense rivalry and bitter feelings that would be generated each season. In 1921, several teams were found to have major league players on the roster.

It was said that the league became “too big for its britches.”

Gus Vandenbosch, who ran the league, told the Kokomo Tribune in 1947, that the league became a financial mess and eventually only four teams could afford to compete at the level necessary to be successful

Dodgers and Giants come to town

Kokomo and Howard County has seen its fair share of organized, pro or semi-pro baseball teams over the years. The first prominent team to bring a presence to Kokomo was the then-New York Giants, who established a team in 1955. The Kokomo Giants would only exist for one year but sported at least one big name player in Orlando Cepeda.

The Giants played just one season in the Mississippi-Ohio Valley League, which featured teams from such places as Lafayette, Ind., Dubuque, Iowa, and Decatur, Ill. Local pitcher George Fort pitched in two games for the Giants, winning one and losing one. He also has one plate appearance but failed to collect a hit.
Once the Giants left town, the void at Highland Park stadium was quickly filled by the Kokomo Dodgers, a Class D baseball team that was an affiliate of the Brooklyn and then Los Angeles Dodgers. The team featured future major leaguer star Tommy Davis and was managed for a while by Pete Reiser, himself a standout at the major league level.

Other major leaguers who played for the Dodgers – but not as successful or well-known as Davis and Reiser – include Rod Miler, Bill Kelso, Clarence Jones, Don Miles, Ed Palmquist, Nate Smith, Mike Brumley, and Tim Harkness.

Another former Kokomo Dodger is Ed Serrano, who never quite made it to the big leagues, who recalled how successful the team was during that time in Kokomo.
“I was a third baseman when I came out of the service," Serrano recalled during a 2005 interview. "Then I hurt my arm, and they moved me to second base."
Before Serrano got to Kokomo, the team had some its best seasons and featured future big name baseball players.

“Pete Reiser managed the club in 1956 and 1957,” he said. “He had Tommy Davis on those teams, and he later led the National League in hitting twice.”

The Dodgers had developed a tradition by the time Serrano got to Kokomo. A seat could be had for a dollar or 25 cents if you were a kid, and the crowds were large.
“One year they gave away a new car on opening night,” Serrano said. “There were about 4,000 people at Highland Park. They had one heck of a crowd. Kokomo always drew well.”

Back then a minor league team basically ran itself, according to Serrano. Help from the parent club was few and far between.

“In those days the major league club didn’t give the affiliate that much money. They allowed them so much money and that was it,” Serrano said. “The people here in Kokomo are the ones that kept baseball here. If it hadn't been for people like Gus Vandenbosch, who had Pittsburgh Plate Glass, and L.O. Williams, baseball would not have lasted. I don't think the Dodgers ever contributed more than $5,000.”

Ultimately it was money that did the Kokomo version of the Dodgers in, though.

“It did get to the point where the money issue was too much,” Serrano said. “The other teams that were in the league continued on for a while. But when I came here in 1958, the Dodgers had over 30 minor league teams. When I ended up my career they had five minor league teams.”

Howard County’s Major Leaguers

Kokomo and Howard County has a fine tradition of sending players to the big leagues. Current players include Joe Thatcher, who has played for the San Diego Padres, Arizona Diamondbacks, Houston Astros and most recently the Cleveland Indians. Brandon Beachy, a Northwestern High School graduate, made the big show with the Atlanta Braves and is currently part of the Dodgers organization.

The area’s biggest contribution to the major leagues came from brothers Tom and Pat Underwood, who were local pitching sensations in the 1970s. Pat had a short career with the Detroit Tigers while Tom suited up for the New York Yankees, St. Louis Cardinals, Toronto Blue Jays, Oakland A’s, Baltimore Orioles and the Philadelphia Phillies.
Unknown to many local baseball fans is the story of Kokomo’s first major league baseball player, who spent five seasons with three of the sport’s most storied franchises. Unlike Kokomo’s modern major league pitchers, Howard “Rowdy” Elliott was a position player (catcher) who first broke into the majors in 1910 with the Boston Doves. The Doves were the 1910 version of what is now the Atlanta Braves. Elliott would go on to play with the Chicago Cubs and the Brooklyn Robins (Dodgers).

Elliott gained the nickname “Rowdy” off the field, rather than on it, according to a newspaper account from the time. His life off the field would prove to be more intriguing than his life on the field. He was born in Kokomo on July 8, 1890, and was a diminutive five foot, nine inches tall. At 160 pounds, he would be small by today’s standards. How long he lived in Kokomo before moving westward remains a mystery.

On Feb. 12, 1934, Elliott fell out of an apartment window into a light well, an unroofed external space provided within the volume of a large building to allow light and air to reach what would otherwise be a dark or unventilated area.

The fall didn’t kill Elliott – at least at first. A newspaper account from the time says that he was taken to the hospital and checked out. He got the all-clear and then was jailed on public drunkenness charges. Later while in jail, Elliott fell violently ill and was rushed to Harbor Hospital, where he died. Rowdy’s lifestyle had gotten the got the better of him.

In the end, Elliott had spent five years in the major leagues over the course of nine years. His final statistics include a .241 batting average, one home run and 44 runs batted in. He played in 157 games total.

Other major league baseball players with a Howard County connection include Don Castle (Texas Rangers, 1973), Anthony Shumaker (Philadelphia Phillies), Dan Dumoulin (Cincinnati Reds), and Fredrick “Fritz” Scheeren (Pittsburgh Pirates).

Fritz Schreen’s story is particularly interesting as most – if not all – local baseball fans would be hard pressed to tell you much about him. That probably don’t even know him and for good reason.

Scheeren was born in Kokomo in 1891, and his family moved away shortly thereafter. The family headed east to Pennsylvania. Scheeren died in 1973, but his nephew, Fred Scheeren, who works for an investment firm in West Virginia, was able to offer some insight to what happened and the reason behind the move.

“My understanding is that the family moved to near the Pittsburgh area in order to open a saloon,” Scheeren said. “It was just outside of the city.” According to Scheeren, Fritz and his brothers would stage bare-knuckle fights in the evenings in order to draw patron to the bar. Eventually Fritz left the fighting behind and made his way to the ball diamond. Little is known about his pre-professional career, according to Scheeren. “Most of what I know about Uncle Fritz is what I have heard from the family,” he said.
Fritz attended and played baseball at Lafayette College in Easton, Penn. After his collegiate experience, he played 11 games in 1914 with the Pittsburgh Pirates – a team that included the great Honus Wagner. In 31 at-bats, Scheeren hit .290 with one home run and two RBIs. That season would prove to be the top of his arc into professional baseball. The next season he appeared in four games with just three at-bats and failed to collect a single hit.

He spent the rest of 1915 with Youngstown of the Central League. In 93 games he hit a paltry .213 with seven home runs. The following season he joined Wheeling, also of the Central League, where he played in 118 games and hit .283. That was his last recorded season in professional baseball.

Fred Scheeren said that the family legend behind Fritz’s departure from baseball mentions something about an illicit relationship with a team owner’s spouse.
“I don’t think that was the case,” Scheeren said. “Given his stats, it was more likely that he wasn’t good enough.”

New Era of baseball

Baseball made a dramatic return to Kokomo in the spring of 2015 with the arrival of the Kokomo Jackrabbits, a Prospect League team. The Jackrabbits are part of the 12-team college summer wooden bat league and play their games at Kokomo Municipal Stadium.

Kokomo Municipal Stadium was built close to downtown Kokomo as an alternative to the aging Highland Park Stadium was built in 1955 when the Giants came to town.
Ballpark Business released its national Top 100 2015 summer collegiate attendance rankings and the Jackrabbits debuted on the list at No. 26 as the top-ranked new team in the country and had the top attendance of any team in Indiana. The Jackrabbits averaged 1,523 fans over 29 dates at Kokomo Municipal Stadium and drew a total of 44,181 fans.

All 12 teams of the Prospect League finished in the Top 100 and only the Chillicothe Paints (1,824) and the Danville Dans (1,795) outdrew the Jackrabbits.
In June of 2015, Kokomo Municipal Stadium was named Best of the Ballparks: best summer collegiate ballpark in a poll conducted by Ballpark Digest.

(Steve Geiselman is a former newspaper sports reporter and presently works as a community planner with the City of Kokomo Development Department)