Tulsa celebrates a century of baseball
by Will Lingo
A lot of franchises can talk about the baseball heritage in their communities. But how many can trace their history back before their area's statehood?
The Texas League's Tulsa Drillers will do just that in 2005, celebrating the 100th anniversary of baseball in the city with a year's worth of promotions and remembrances. The Tulsa Oilers took the field in the Class C Missouri Valley League in 1905; Oklahoma became a state two years later.
"Baseball history in Tulsa is very rich," said Drillers general manager Chuck Lamson, who first came to the city as a lefthander in 1979 and has been with the club in one job or another just about ever since. "We thought celebrating the 100th anniversary was a great way to honor that heritage."
Baseball in Tulsa has been tied to the oil industry from the beginning, which is appropriate because the city is so intimately tied to oil as well. The city's team has been known as the Oilers and Drillers in all but one of its seasons--1914, when it was called the Producers, still another oil tie.
The team has also been tied to the fortunes of the local economy, with no team taking the field in 1930 and '31 during the Great Depression, for instance. That affected the Drillers to a smaller degree in recent years, with attendance dipping to 273,155 in 2003 after the city lost more than 25,000 jobs in about two years.
"We had the second-highest unemployment rate of any large city in the country except San Jose," Lamson said. "We're just now stabilizing."
Attendance jumped back to 320,733 last season and Lamson has high hopes for 2005. "A lot of credit for the turnaround has to go to the hard work of our staff," he said. "And our offseason sales are going well, so hopefully that bodes well for the entire community."
Plenty To Promote
Promoting baseball's centennial in Tulsa is clearly not just a humanitarian endeavor, of course. It's an effort to continue the momentum the franchise started building last year.
"Our fans are accustomed to seeing something new each year," Lamson said. "We're not trendsetters on the leading edge of every crazy idea, but we're good at being aware of new ideas, doing our homework and applying the ones we think will work to the Tulsa market."
And this idea should clearly work. This isn't some bogus celebration of the 10th season of a logo. Tulsa has a legitimately rich baseball history, so much so that a local baseball historian was able to put together a calendar stuffed with important dates from 100 years of baseball.
The Drillers will also be having five giveaways featuring figurines made by Hartland Collectibles--the hottest thing since the bobblehead. The five people featured represent a pretty good cross-section of baseball history: Warren Spahn, who managed the 1968 Oilers, one of the best teams in minor league baseball history; Roger Maris, who played for the Oilers when they were an Indians affiliate in 1954; Sammy Sosa, who was in Tulsa as a Rangers farmhand in 1989; Ivan Rodriguez, who came through two years later; and Jeff Francis, who became Tulsa's first BA Minor League Player of the Year last season.
The team will also give out replicas of Oiler Park, a classic all-wood park built in the 1930s that served as baseball's home in the city until the 1970s. One of the many interesting stories from Tulsa baseball history involves the demise of Oiler Park: The Astros and Rangers were playing an exhibition in 1977 and part of the stadium collapsed, seriously injuring one fan. The Drillers played in a temporary facility on the same site for three years before Drillers Stadium opened in 1981.
Adding To The History
Lamson has been in Tulsa since the doors to Drillers Stadium opened. He played for Tulsa in 1979, '80 and part of '81 before he was released, and after a couple of brief stints in other cities he came back to town to work in the Drillers' front office.
Lamson's first job with the Drillers paid him $500 a month, plus commission, and he found he was pretty good at sales so he stuck with it. He moved up to groundskeeper--"But we had a turf field, so I was really more of a vacuum cleaner."--and worked his way up the ladder, holding nearly every job in the organization at one time or another. He became GM in 1995.
Lamson grew up in the New Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia, but he says it didn't take him long to fall in love with Tulsa. "The people out here make a huge difference," he said. "They're really friendly, and I like the slower pace here.
"I'm really fortunate. I know a lot of people who had to jump around all over the country to move up in the business. I'm fortunate it all came to me here in Tulsa."
Lamson's long, varied tenure in Tulsa has made him a repository of Tulsa history himself, and he easily calls up stories from the old days. At the same time he celebrates the distant past of Tulsa baseball, though, he's also building the memories for the next generation of local baseball fans.
You can contact Will Lingo by sending e-mail to [email protected].