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Little-known Indiana baseball trivia

Posted on Mar 27 2019 in General

Hoosiers on first?
Fort Wayne hosted first professional league game

While Cincinnati is celebrated for its 1869 Red Stockings, the first professional baseball team, the first professional “major league” game ever played actually took place in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

In March of 1871, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was formed. The “Kekionga Base Ball Club of Fort Wayne” joined the Boston Red Stockings, the Chicago White Stockings, Philadelphia Athletics, New York Mutuals, Washington Olympics, Troy Haymakers, Cleveland Forest Citys, and the Rockford Forest Citys as charter members of the first professional league. Fort Wayne’s moniker, pronounced KEY-key-awn-guh, was the name of a Miami Indian settlement that previously existed at Fort Wayne.

A coin toss decided who’d play the league’s first game. And, on May 4, 1871, the Fort Wayne Kekiongas hosted the Cleveland Forest Citys in what’s considered the first professional baseball game ever played. The Kekiongas won 2-0. Attendance was 200. That was the Kekiongas’ high-water mark. By late August, before that first season was even complete, the team folded with a 7-12 record and finished in seventh place. When the league itself dissolved after the 1875 season, it was replaced by another which eventually became today’s National League.

Hoosier co-wrote baseball’s anthem

In the middle of every seventh inning across all of professional baseball, fans stand and sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

The 1908 song comes from a Tin Pan Alley duo. The lyrics, of which only the refrain is mostly sung and even known, were penned by Jack Norworth. Setting the “root, root, root” to music was native Hoosier Albert Von Tilzer.

Von Tilzer was born in Indianapolis in 1878. He wrote numerous popular music compositions from 1900 until he died in 1956, but none as well known as the ode to baseball which is listed as Number 8 on the Songs of the Century.

Hank Aaron started hammering away in Indianapolis

Photo courtesy of Getty Images/Kirkikis

In 1952, an 18-year-old ballplayer with not even two bucks in his pocket left his home in Mobile, Alabama, and arrived in Indianapolis to play his first professional baseball with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues. His talent was so evident, he was in Indy only three months before both the New York Giants and the Boston Braves offered him contracts. Henry Aaron was his name.

Aaron signed with the Braves, which had moved to Milwaukee by the time he began his major league career in 1954. Aaron followed the team to Atlanta in the 1960s, where, in April of 1974, he broke one of the most revered records in baseball and became the new homerun king.

Aaron played his last two seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers. When he retired after 1976, those three months with the Indy Clowns made him the last remaining player from the Negro Leagues to be on a major league roster.

Hoosiers contribution to baseball preserved at Indiana Baseball Hall of Fame

To learn more about what Indiana has contributed to baseball, visit the Indiana Baseball Hall of Fame in Jasper.

There are names and uniforms from players like Don Mattingly, the proficient hitter from Evansville who became a star with the Yankees and now manages the Miami Marlins; Chuck Harmon of Washington, who was the first African-American player for the Cincinnati Reds; Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who grew up in Logansport and was the first Commissioner of Major League Baseball; and, Ford Frick of Wawaka who was the third Commissioner of MLB and helped oversee the creation of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, of which he and Landis are also members. 

The Indiana hall of fame had its first inductions in July of 1979. With the January 2019 inductions, there are 194 members. The Hall of Fame is located in the Ruxer Student Center, on the campus of Vincennes University-Jasper. Call for hours and admission fees. 812-482-2262; IndBaseballHallofFame.org.

No hits, no runs, no Arrows:
Indianapolis swung on and missed landing a Major League team in the 1980s

In the heady days of its downtown resurgence in the mid-1980s, just after luring the NFL Colts from Baltimore, Indianapolis swung again for the fence. It went after Major League Baseball, too.

A group of investors was assembled to land either an expansion team or lure an existing team to Indiana. Some 12,000 people deposited $50 each to become a season ticket holder. A team name, the Indianapolis Arrows, was selected. A logo and even uniforms of blue and red were mocked up.

The Pittsburgh Pirates, a team up for sale at the time, and a few other struggling franchises, were named as potential targets for the Arrows.

Sadly for Indy Major League fans, the city had three strikes against it before even settling in at the plate:

• There was no stadium; the Hoosier Dome was perfect for relocating the Colts but couldn’t be reconfigured economically to accommodate baseball.

• Existing teams in the neighborhood likely would not have approved. Cincinnati is only 110 miles from Indianapolis. St. Louis, Chicago and Detroit also draw their fan bases from Indiana.

• Many doubted Indianapolis, already with NFL and NBA franchises, and its smaller TV market could support a Major League team as well.

As the reality of these points set in, the dreams passed. Deposits were returned. The investor group dissolved.

In the following years, a new beautiful ballpark for the beloved Triple-A Indianapolis Indians opened in downtown to rave reviews as part of the downtown revival. Even after almost 25 years, Victory Field remains one of the top minor league facilities in the nation. The team and the ballpark consistently draw record numbers of fans each year. Coincidentally, the Indians now are the affiliate to the Pirates — the team Indy once eyed for plunder.