Hallowed ground

DAWSON SPRINGS — Just beyond a grove of trees on a track of land carved out by the Tradewater River, there is a baseball diamond.

It is a ball field — much like the town of Dawson Springs itself — that straddles two different eras.

With its wood and mesh fences and rustic grandstands elevated to keep the seats out of floodwaters, Riverside Park harks back to a time when Saturday afternoons lasted forever and young men played the game just because they enjoyed it.

It recalls a golden age for Dawson Springs when industry boomed and flowing mineral springs attracted tourists by the train load, including the Pittsburgh Pirates for four straight springs in the early 20th century.

But perhaps more important to the Western Kentucky city's current residents, the baseball field represents something new and a bit adventurous: their future.

And the ballpark has helped the city cultivate an amateur summer league team that has given college players with big-league dreams a place to play and get noticed.

The story of Riverside Park is a real-life tale of “if you build it, they will come” that started with a father's whispered wish half a century ago.

On a summer day in the early 1960s, Eddie Beshear — a funeral home owner and uncle of Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear — strolled along the Tradewater River's bank near the old mill dam with his daughter, Jenny.

Beshear was scouting the route for a new sewer line for an industrial park, which at that time was Dawson Springs' best hope to clot the city's second major hemorrhaging of jobs. First, the mineral-rich springs had all but dried up by the 1930s, erasing much of the tourism industry. Mining, which replaced it, began to wane in the 1950s.

During their walk, Jenny and her father climbed onto a flat rock near the old mill's dam. That was where the elder Beshear pointed to a corn field on the other side of the river.

“He said, ‘You're not going believe this, but the Pittsburgh Pirates used to play there,' ” Jenny Beshear Sewell recalled. “We walked into the field and he told me the story of the Pirates coming here to spring training. And I was just awestruck.

“Then my dad made the statement to me: ‘Oh, what I would give to see the day when they played here again,'” Sewell said, her voice cracking. “It always brings tears to my eyes.”

‘Real live' major-leaguers

On March 7, 1914, a train left Pittsburgh's Union Station with Pirates manager Fred Clarke, a team executive, two trainers, several fans and 10 of its best-known players, including eventual Hall of Fame shortstop Honus Wagner. Their destination: Dawson Springs.

The city had been a spa resort town for 30 years, after W.I. Handy discovered mineral-rich water in his back yard while digging a well.

The Pirates, like railroad workers and health-conscious tourists before them, sought the revitalizing properties of the springs. Its calcium and magnesium treated their muscles. And lithium dulled their aches and pain like Advil.

“The water there suited Manager Clarke's purposes to a nicety, and he was kept busy telling native Kentuckians how much he thought of their home town,” wrote Ralph S. Davis in the March 19, 1914, edition of the Sporting News. “The athletes were considerable of a novelty to the Dawsonians, who had never before had the honor of entertaining a team of real live, honest-to-goodness major leaguers.”

The scheduled weeklong trip in 1914, however, lasted just three days as the “fickle weather” — some things don't change — turned bitter cold, forcing the Pirates “to vamoose and seek a warmer clime” in Hot Springs, Ark., Davis wrote.

For the next three years, Clarke and Wagner's Pirates would start their spring training on the banks of the Tradewater, loosening their arms, testing their bats, and sometimes coaxing other teams to stop by and scrimmage.

But after a snowy and bitter cold 1917 that forced the Pirates to train indoors, the club left Kentucky for good.

Coal miners continued to use the ballpark, but by the 1940s, it was just another overgrown field.

‘The dumbest thing'

During the 1990s, Sewell thought about what her father told her every time she'd go jogging by that field.

“Every day that just kind of was embedded in my mind. I began to talk about it,” she said. “A lady that owned that property always said she'd love to see that happen again.”

After talking to Sewell, the woman agreed to donate the land toward Sewell's goal of building a ball field or museum. But Sewell needed help.

So, during an hour and 45-minute presentation, she recounted the saga of the Pirates to Dwight Seymore, a local insurance agent and baseball fan. Then she asked what he thought of her idea.

“Jenny, what I think is that's the dumbest thing I've heard in my life,” Seymore recalled. “And then she said, ‘Well, let me know when you've got the plans.'

“She didn't give me the opportunity to say, ‘heck, no,'” Seymore said, chuckling. “In retrospect, I find it hilarious.”

Sewell, Seymore and former Dawson Springs Mayor Stacia Peyton, who took a Beshear administration post this spring, led the effort to secure $500,000 in state grants and private donations.

By the summer of 1999, they assembled a semi-pro team — a mix of students and older players — and held the Tradewater Pirates' first game in the new Riverside Park that July 4.

Among those in the stands was Eddie Beshear.

Sewell said Beshear came to as many games as he could until his death in October 2003.

“He thought it was fantastic,” she said. “He thought it was the greatest thing that could be.”

But it proved to be just a foundation.

Going ‘old school'

In 2004 — after five consecutive winning seasons — the Tradewater Pirates switched from semi-pro status to be a “summer collegiate” team in an amateur wood bat league that includes teams from Owensboro, Union City, Tenn., and Sikeston, Mo.

Joining that league allowed Tradewater to recruit college players who want to hone their skills, some in preparation for pro baseball careers.

For instance, last weekend the Baltimore Orioles made an offer to sign Pirates right-handed pitcher Don Pugliese, Seymore said. And last month the New York Yankees drafted shortstop Brandon Braboy, who anchored Tradewater's infield in 2005 and is a native of Kevil in Ballard County.

The Pirates, meanwhile, are trying to remain in first place in the historic Kentucky-Indiana-Tennessee League, known as the Kitty League.

Average attendance is up slightly, Seymore said, with about 30 to 35 more people at each game.

But a more significant sign of the community embracing its baseball legacy this year is the willingness of more families to host the collegiate players. The team has not only gelled on the field but has made Dawson Springs excited about the team, Seymore said.

“This group of players – in 10 seasons that we've been here – is probably the best group we've had in terms of character and drive,” he said. “That attitude is just contagious.

“Practically every kid I've got,” he added, “is old school.”