A real baseball heart
By BRANDON HURLEY
**** Editor’s note: The history of Rippey baseball is told with help from Mary Weaver, the Iowa High School Athletic Association and many previously conducted interviews with former players and coaches. ***
The rustic Walt Anderson Field at Martin Memorial Park on the western edge Rippey drips with baseball history. Though its seldom used but for a few junior high games each summer, the memories it created years ago will last forever.
An old, green wooden grandstand sits behind home plate and the scoreboard – built in 1959 – still works to this day. The history bleeds through the park – the original green storage shed sits outside the third base fence while the scorekeeper’s box can hardly fit three people in all of its wooden glory, and that’s being generous.
It was one of the first fields in the state to erect working lights, christening the wave of night games.
Semi-pro ball filled the attention span of many residents throughout the summer, and high school tournaments were mainstays.
Though the fields are used primarily at the middle school level today, the small town of Rippey (population 200) boasts a proud baseball history.
The enthusiasm for the country’s oldest sport and the pristine lights drove the high school athletic association to host four state championship games in Rippey, right in the heart of Greene County. Remarkably, the town was only home to 400 residents at the time yet the athletic association felt the support was strong enough to host the biggest games of the year. Imagine the state championship hosted by Rippey today – it wouldn’t even be pitched as an idea.
Town historian and Friends of Rippey president Mary Weaver hopes to reinvigorate the baseball population with an all-class East Greene and Rippey High alumni game July 15 at the historic park.
Her ultimate dream is to someday establish a semi-pro team in the town of 200. It’s a long shot at the moment, but a goal that could ignite the passion for the summer past time once again.
“Rippey has a real baseball heart,” Weaver said. “We think it’s a beautiful park.”
Rippey baseball stretches all the way back 140 years – retreating to its simplest form. The town’s first players in 1880 (the 19th century, if you can believe that) used willow tree branches for bats and the fielders didn’t even use gloves, though some wise players would later wear work gloves and rags used for extra padding.
Imagine trying to catch a ball with your bare hands off the bat of a willow branch – bruises and broken bones I’m sure were plenty. These pioneers called themselves the Hard Scrabble and played mostly pick up games. Attendance was free and spectators arrived on foot or by horse and buggy. The initial field was located at First Street and Hatton, across the street from where the field stands now.
The first official team was established by First National Bank president, Bill Davis. The bank provided bats, balls and gloves.
The field jumped around for awhile until it found its eventual home. The baseball diamond sat where the Rippey school is and then for 20 years it was a mile north of town and even once was situated at Spring Lake. Work on Martin Memorial Park began in 1938.
The inaugural game was held June 23, 1940 with its unique grandstand and a manual scoreboard unveiled to the public. A doubleheader ensued that Saturday afternoon as the Rippey Junior Legion team took on Coon Rapids while the Rippey Independents battled Bagley.
Martin Memorial Park was named for “Grandpa” George Martin, the last remaining Civil War veteran in the county and his daughter-in-law, Mabyl.
Harold McCain coached and promoted baseball in the town for 50 years, helping design and build Martin Memorial Park with Artage Zanotti. McCain was old school as they came, dumping dirt onto the infield with a house-drawn buggy and mowed the outfield grass with a horse-drawn sickle.
“There’s a lot of baseball history in the town of Rippey,” Weaver said. “Back then, it was historically bigger than it is now.”
Jake Peters, a big supporter of local baseball, helped generate funds for the field lights, which cost $5,000. The first night game was held May 23, 1949. A state championship game was held in 1953 between Council Bluffs Thomas Jefferson and Dysart. Council Bluffs won two titles in Rippey, in 1953 and 1960 while South Hamilton won the 1962 fall championship against Waukee.
The digital scoreboard – which now sits just beyond the left field fence, was built in 1959, along with the wooden press box. The scoreboard was quite the advancement – the old manual system only showed the score and outs.
Weaver remembers it being quite the hit.
“The big thing was who got to change the numbers that night,” she said.
The Rippey Demons, once known as the Merchants, played throughout the summer nights for well over 50 years. The Rippey High School called the ballpark home until 1962 before the town consolidated into East Greene. The Hawks then played on the historic diamond for nearly 50 years before they joined Greene County. The Rippey semi-pro team purchased the uniforms from the Des Moines squad, buying 25 white jerseys for one to three dollars each.
The Demons reached the semi-pro state championship game in Des Moines in 1963, but fell short to Slater to finish runner-up.
Walt Anderson, whom the field was named after in 2003, was the long-time scorekeeper for the Rippey Demons, playing many seasons for the Demons while Bill Fouch was the frequent announcer. J.J. Peters was one of the presidents of the ball club. Rippey played teams from all over, including Perry, Boone, Sac City, Bagley, Slater and Ames.
Crowds would often balloon past the century mark, filling the bleachers to capacity which would lead to cars lining the outfield fence.
“It was a farming community but they were competitive,” Weaver said.
Weaver grew up east of Rippey and remembers using the lights off in the distance as a barometer of whether or not they would attend a game that night.
“I’m proud of the park,” Weaver said. “It’s the camaraderie of the sport. I enjoy being outside inn the summer with friends. The social aspect of the game. The fact that you don’t have to be focused every second, unlike football or basketball.”
Jim Greene at one point was the Central Iowa League Commissioner and the Demon manager. Paul Lindgren was a player manager back in 1963 for the Rippey Merchants, striking out 17 batters in a 4-2 win over Madrid.
“My love of history and my strong roots in the community,” Weaver said as to why she chose to stir up Rippey’s past. “I’m a third generation resident.”
Weaver hosted a History of Baseball program last fall and mediated the likes of several former players and coaches.
“We had a fantastic reception,” she said. “When you like history, it’s not hard. We always try to identify something special in the community.
The Rippey teams ceased in the 1970s and the only action remained in the high school and middle school ranks. The Greene County middle school is now the only team still getting regular use out of the long-standing field after East Greene joined Jefferson-Scranton in 2012.
“The population started to diminish and the town lost the spark for the sport,” Weaver said. “Being that it is a farming town, they got busy.”
The tin roof covering the grandstand has shielded the structure from weather erosion. A brave local contractor, John McConnell, tested the structure of the grandstand by, what else, giving the roof a good jolt by bouncing on it a few times. To his, and Weaver’s relief, the structure barely moved. Despite that, Weaver knows some improvements need to be made to keep the park alive and well.
Renovations are in the works – Weaver would like to see the grandstand painted along with some minor upgrades. The entire estimate for the project is set at $3,000. A fundraiser was held Saturday, June 24 to generate funds for the renovation of the Rippey Baseball Park grandstand. The plumbing in the Rippey Ballpark restrooms dates back to 1959. Funds have been granted to replace the sinks and toilets.
Lester Zanotti, a former Rippey High School Bulldog who later went on to play for the University of Iowa, donated $1,000 to the cause.
The all-class alumni game open to any East Greene or Rippey graduate is set for 7 p.m. July 15. Ron Ridnour, East Greene class of 1963, will coach the Odd Balls (the odd year graduates) while David Hick will coach the Even Hands (even year graduates).
“We want to re-energize the baseball crowd in Rippey,” Weaver said.
Further donations for renovations of Martin Memorial Park can be sent to:
The Friends of Rippey
P.O. Box 52
Rippey, Iowa 50235