Who is the best baseball player ever to come from Kansas? Most experts readily agree that would be Walter Johnson, the early 20th Century pitcher from Humboldt who won 414 games, more than anybody except Cy Young.
But who was the best shortstop? The best catcher? The best outfielder? What’s the most significant baseball-related museum or monument in the state? Which Kansas native hit the most home runs?
Answering questions of that sort, repeated for each of the 50 states, is the province of Baseball State By State by Chris Jensen.
This is no lightweight book. It runs more than 330 pages and is the first $50-plus paperback I’ve ever held. Then again, the publisher shows the book as being sold out, on back-order, and awaiting a second publication run, so somebody wasn’t put off by the cost.
Baseball State By State is designed to appeal to fans, whether long-time or casual, who have a simultaneous interest in their old stomping grounds.
It is a Kansas book. It is also a Maryland book, a South Dakota book, a New Mexico book, etc.
So the trap here is that once you’ve finished the five and one-half pages devoted to Kansans, you must be prepared to address the emotional question, “Is that all there is?”
Of course if you are interested in the best player ever produced by Vermont (Carlton Fisk) or Oregon (Dale Murphy), then you have a broader list of options to turn to next.
By comparison with its fellow states, Kansas turns out to be lower middle-class as a producer of baseball talent. Other than Johnson, the only all-timers casual fans are likely to have heard of are Johnny Damon (born at Fort Riley) and Bob Horner (Junction City).
The state has produced just two Hall of Famers, Johnson and shortstop Joe Tinker (Muscotah).
Jensen’s research implicitly identifies the Fort Riley region as something of a baseball breeding ground. In addition to Damon and Horner, Negro Leagues first base star George Giles was born in Junction City, and Enos Cabell came from Fort Riley. Then there was Slow Joe Doyle, an early 20th Century pitcher listed as having come from Clay Center because that’s where the birth certificate was registered, but who was actually born in the family home just outside Leonardville. Doyle’s otherwise undistinguished career is notable because he was the first pitcher in the 20th Century to throw shutouts in each of his first two starts, doing so in 1906.
Jensen’s writing is well-known to those who haunt baseball commentary sites such as Seamheads. It is heavily footnoted, although most of the research appears to have been drawn from secondary sources that are readily available on the web. That means the hard-core historian-fan probably won’t learn much he or she doesn’t already know. For casual fans, however, the book might raise all sorts of interesting debates. For example, the book identifies the best player ever produced by the state of Alabama as Willie Mays (Westfield). That may be so, although backers of Hank Aaron, Ozzie Smith or Satchel Paige (all from Mobile) may want to take up the argument. One question Jensen kicks around: Per capita, is Mobile actually the baseball capital of the nation?
Bill Felber is executive editor of The Mercury and is the author of four books on baseball.