A few years back, when every shoe company save for Red Wing and Birkenstock was putting on national AAU basketball tournaments in Las Vegas, I wrote about a team from Wahoo, Neb. — which just so happened was one of the “home offices” of the nightly Top 10 list on “Late Show with David Letterman.”
After that column came out, I heard from a lot of friendly people in Wahoo (pop. 4,508), and from some in Crete (pop. 6,028), Ainsworth (pop. 1,712) and Humphrey (pop. 768). I did not hear from Letterman’s people.
One of the friendly huskers sent me a Wahoo T-shirt. Size XL. Gray, with royal blue letters trimmed in yellow.
Every two or three years my wife insists I throw out my old T-shirts that get these little holes in them. I still have my Wahoo shirt, however; like the people who live there, it comes from heavy-duty stock. It is without little holes. Often I wear it to mow the lawn.
So every two weeks during summer (or sooner should it rain), I am reminded of Wahoo and its friendly people.
I was on the treadmill at the gym Sunday when I was reminded of Wahoo again.
I am (finally) reading “The Glory of Their Times: The Story of the Early Days of Baseball Told by the Men Who Played It” by Lawrence Ritter. I am reading it on Kindle, because my wife says if I bring another book into the house — and don’t throw out my T-shirts with the little holes — she’s not going to be pleased, and she will make me watch Dr. Phil instead of that show where the guy from Las Vegas makes over bars.
Ritter spent many of the pre-Internet years hunting down ballplayers from the deadball era and getting their remembrances on tape, and then transcribing those tapes into a book, which, unlike the old ballplayers, still is around.
The tapes are in the Baseball Hall of Fame. If I ever get to Cooperstown — the real one, not Alice Cooper’s sports bar next to the ballpark in Phoenix — I’m gonna get there early and take some really big headphones, like the ones they use to land jumbo jets out at McCarran.
The fourth chapter in the book is about a Hall of Famer named Sam Crawford. This is how it begins: “Samuel Earl Crawford, who prefers to be called Wahoo Sam, played major league baseball for 19 years, from 1899 through 1917 ...”
After a protracted drive and futile days spent knocking on doors, Lawrence S. Ritter of New York, N.Y., at last tracked down Samuel Earl Crawford of Wahoo, Neb., in another small town called Baywood Park, Calif.
It was a needle-in-the-haystack thing. But then if you were to actually find a needle in a haystack, one supposes there might be some connection to Wahoo, Neb.
“On the morning of the fifth day,” Ritter writes, “I took some wash to the local laundromat and disgustedly sat watching the clothes spin. Seated next to me was a tall, elderly gentleman reading a frayed paperback.”
Ritter idly asked if the old man had ever heard of Sam Crawford the ballplayer.
“Well, I should certainly hope so,” the old man said, “bein’ as I’m him.”
I imagined the two of them sitting down, maybe on a screened-in porch, sipping on tall glasses of lemonade. They would be wearing straw hats.
The first thing Sam Crawford told Lawrence Ritter was that he didn’t have a lot of time, but I think that was just an old man being cranky.
Wahoo Sam said he didn’t have a telephone; the only time he turned on TV was to watch the World Series because he’d rather read a book; Honus Wagner was the best ballplayer he’d ever seen, even better than his teammate Ty Cobb; Walter Johnson was practically unhittable. But if you loaned him a bat, and the Senators were comfortably ahead, he’d serve you a batting-practice fastball. Because unlike the Georgia Peach, the Big Train was a gentleman.
Wahoo Sam told New York Larry that his favorite writer was the French playwright Balzac, that the Tigers had a trainer who would rub you down with petroleum jelly and hot sauce, that he had a teammate in Cincinnati named Dummy Hoy, who was a deaf mute, and had married a deaf mute, and instead of a doorbell they had a little knob, and when you pulled the little knob it released a lead ball that rolled down a wooden chute and fell onto the floor with a thud. Like in that old Mouse Trap game. When the Hoys felt the vibration, they knew they had visitors.
Sam Crawford said that baseball was a big deal in Wahoo and in all those little dusty towns back in Nebraska. He said the farm boys from Wahoo would travel to games in wagons drawn by horses, and that one of his teammates played a cornet. And when they rolled into town, into Fremont and Dodge and West Point, he’d sound off on that cornet and announce the Wahoo team had arrived, and they were ready for a ballgame ...”
I was just getting to the part about Noodles Hahn and the 1899 Redlegs when the treadmill shut off. I had gotten so wrapped up in the glory of Wahoo Sam Crawford’s time that I had blown right through the cool-down cycle without even noticing.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at email@example.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski