By John Skipper
The sounds of summer are familiar ones in Clay County — the music coming from the fairgrounds, the farm machinery in the fields, the chatter in the coffee shops, and the crack of the bat on ballfields and playgrounds throughout the area as the young and the young at heart partake in the national pastime.
Baseball has a rich history in Clay County, dating back more than a century. Through the years, men like John Hart, a Spencer car dealer and a pretty good ballplayer in his day, donated thousands of dollars to youth baseball programs in the 1940s and ‘50s. Each summer, high school, American Legion and semi-pro teams allowed young players to develop their skills and provide affordable entertainment for family, friends and fans who came out to see them play.
The folks in Clay County consider Jim Fanning as one of their own, even though he grew up 13 miles down the road from Spencer in Moneta, in O’Brien County. Fanning played high school ball in Moneta, college ball at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake and played three partial seasons for the Chicago Cubs in 1955-1957.
When his playing career was over, Fanning managed the Montreal Expos and has the distinction of being the skipper in the only year the Expos made it into the playoffs, 1981. He later served as the team’s general manager.
But Fanning never forgot his Iowa roots and the weekends he spent playing baseball in Clay County and the surrounding area. Moneta, where he played high school ball, had a population of less than 100 people. He played American Legion ball in nearby Hartley.
“One year, we had 11 boys on the high school baseball team and we finished second in the state,” he said in an interview for the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).
American Legion ball was popular with the fans.
“We drew big crowds every Sunday, maybe 200 or 300 people,” said Fanning. “If you wanted to rob a bank, Sunday was the time. Everyone was at the ballpark.”
Legion baseball played a part in what is perhaps the most memorable day in Clay County baseball history — the day the great New York Yankee slugger George Herman “Babe” Ruth came to town in 1948.
The Ford Motor Company and American Legion Junior Baseball sent Ruth, who had been retired for 13 years, around America to encourage youth interest in baseball. Clay County had a connection with Ruth in two ways. Hart, the car dealer, was involved with the Ford Motor Company and, two decades earlier as an amateur ballplayer, had played with Ruth in exhibition games.
Hart was able to help organize Babe Ruth Day in Spencer on June 22, 1948, one of the stops in the Ford Motor Company promotion. A double header was arranged for the Spencer Cardinals semi-pro team which Hart had started up several years earlier and a Junior Legion tournament was also planned.
“The one thing that meant the most to me was when I played with his club in 1927,” Hart said in an interview with the Spencer Reporter. “It was an exhibition game against Des Moines. I played first and he pitched three innings. Babe hit three home runs and every time, I was on base. The thing I remember most is that he was just like a big kid.”