Wayne County attempts to preserve the legacy of Shane Hill baseball

Before there was the Field of Dreams, Iowa produced the greatest barnstorming team ever

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The Shane Hill ballfield’s stone bases, now gathered around a dead elm. / Photo by Jason W. Selby

One-hundred years ago, a baseball team of former farm boys came out of retirement for one last game.

It was 1918, and the United States had just entered the Great War. Benefits from the exhibition would go toward the Red Cross, which soon faced an opponent worse than the Kaiser or mustard gas, the Great Influenza. It was the deadliest pandemic in human history. It most likely spread throughout that crowd.

The following autumn, the Chicago White Sox would allegedly throw the World Series, and Shoeless Joe Jackson was banned from baseball.

For nearly 30 years, thousands of visitors have flocked to a farmhouse near Dyersville, Iowa, searching to relive their youth through the fictional Field of Dreams, which imagined the ghosts of those White Sox walking out of a cornfield.

In contrast, the number of spectators who travel to see the original stone bases of the Shane Hill team is miniscule. This would have seemed strange in 1918, when The Des Moines Register covered the Shane Hill veterans’ return to action with the same aplomb later given Iowan Bob Feller’s election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

It became an improbable underdog story for a team whose home field barely had room for a crowd, over 100 miles from the closest large city.

This other site in Iowa, Shane Hill, is still overgrown with knotted oaks older than any man, loose-leaf hickory and walnut trees wrapped in Virginia creepers. Yet this timber near a branch of Medicine Creek was the real-life field of dreams, complete with a player who, like Moonlight Graham, got to briefly touch the magic of a Major League Baseball stadium.

It is a story of first-generation farmers who played for the love of the game. They became perhaps the greatest barnstorming team in the 19th century. In over 20 years, they never lost a single home game. They won over 85 percent of the contests they played, often with the odds stacked against them, when opponents brought in professionals to face these hayseeds who worked as hard perfecting the game of baseball as growing corn.

They were only farmers. Yet one of them went on to become a New York Giant.

The question is, why do people not come to the real-life field of dreams? Why is there no fanfare? There is as much magic to this tale as the more famous book and movie set in Iowa. Shane Hill was a true farm team before that term became popular.

Shane Hill

The story begins with a one-room schoolhouse made of pine lumber rather than logs. It was constructed at the end of the American Civil War, in 1865, on the Kellogg farm west of the small railroad town of Sewal. On this same land, in 1846, the Mormons left ruts a man could stand in and sink completely below the horizon. The trail is still visible over 170 years later.

Alvaro V. Kellogg traveled from Illinois that year, bringing his family and property by covered wagon. His grandson, Edward P. Churchill, was raised on this farm, and would go on to become professor of zoology at the University of South Dakota, where a science building, the Churchill-Haines Laboratories, is named in his honor.

Churchill, who attended the Shane Hill schoolhouse, would become one of the first storytellers, dictating a kind of local mythology that captured the imagination—in the end, every man just wants to have another catch with his dad.

First known as the Pine School because of its unique construction, the building was moved south around 1880 to Shane Hill. After the Sewal Consolidated School absorbed the district, the old building became former player Walter Maytum’s corn crib.

The Maytum, Whiteley and Shane families, after living in close proximity in England, immigrated to the United States, where they again lived near each other, this time on the American frontier. James E. Whiteley had shipped his family over first in the spring of 1856. The abolition of slavery was still nearly a decade away.

With eight Whiteley boys and five Maytums, just those two families could have filled out a single baseball team, and many of them would in fact grow into the lineup.

Churchill described the hill and schoolhouse using the poet Whittier’s words, as a “ragged beggar sunning,” where sumacs grow, and blackberry vines are running. In the winter, the boys were discouraged from sledding too much, because doing so wore away traction from horse-drawn school buses.

“With the snow packed hard and slick, the heavy sled-load would go down the hill like the wind,” wrote Churchill.

In a world where man had not yet reached the North Pole, it was adventure enough for schoolchildren.

Professor Howell

One day, in the late 1870s, a brass bell called the boys inside, and Professor Howell introduced a baseball to the schoolhouse, allowing the boys to test its hide and heft, and finger the stiches that kept its skin sewn together.

The children had played baseball before that, with leather stuffed with sawdust, but never with one bought from a store. It was a luxury.

The boys could not practice in the schoolyard or in the timber. But in a flat, open area of prairie, a few rocks happened to form the shape of a diamond, sunning in Whittier’s “School Days.” The field stretched south at the pinnacle of the hill.

The first catcher’s mitt was a horse harness sewn to a work glove, the catcher’s mask made from a metal calf-weaner. The catcher’s name was Bert Shane. The starting pitcher was Burl Maytum. Burl became a legend. He perfected a curveball, to compliment his strong arm and fastball, by practicing with two trees. The goal was to miss the oak closest to him and hit the second tree dead center. It became an unhittable pitch.

And though there was not yet cross-training, nor strength coaches, the boys were in better shape than the average man—they helped their families survive the pioneer days with strenuous labor that tested their stamina. What did not kill them only made them stronger.

Howell taught them well. In their first exhibition games, they were unbeatable. Scores were so lopsided they often did not last all nine innings; there were no lighted fields or night games. In their first 10 years, Shane Hill lost only three contests.

The Shane Hill team’s fame grew. In the 1870s and 1880s, they traveled by wagons, stock cars and the roofs of freight trains to play across Iowa, Missouri and Kansas. The goal for teams from Keokuk to Brownsville, Kan., became to beat Shane Hill. This farm team from a few immigrant families easily handled stacked lineups from relative metropolises such as Ottumwa. They could steal a base better than any Major League team.

The famed Shane Hill baseball team, which hailed from the southcentral part of Wayne County, full of farm boys that went to a one-room schoolhouse in thick timber. Above, front row left to right, manager Henry Whiteley, Bud Maytum, Bert Shane, Ralph Whiteley and Welley Maytum. Back row, left to right, Wallace Whiteley, Walt Maytum, Alf Maytum, Floyd Whiteley, and Carl Whiteley.

Trenton

Wayne County historian W.H. Burton had the privilege of watching them play. He described a game in Trenton, Mo., in June of 1891, when locals met Shane Hill with derision, a hayrack and pitchforks. The purse was 40 dollars.

“They had arranged for a two-day series of games, and all over town were displayed pumpkins and corn and other products of the farm for these hayseeds,” wrote Burton. “They wondered if this team of farm boys could interest their local team. But when, in the first game, the visitors gave them a sound beating, they wired to Kansas City for some professional players. But the next day the Shane Hill boys also took care of them nicely….

“I used to watch and admire Carl Whiteley when they were taking the field and he would be taking his position on first base, he would roll out cart wheel fashion, hands over heels all the way to first.”

Carl Whiteley remembered that game with Trenton fondly. The lineup consisted of all Whiteleys and Maytums, except for Tom Stults.

“We rode on top of the caboose nearly all the way, at least I and Alf Maytum did,” Carl wrote. “As we came from our dressing room people looked at us as though they never saw a farmer in uniform.

“As we took our places in the field to get a ‘warming up,’ as we call it, a young lady close to first base remarked, ‘Oh, them farmers can’t play ball a little bit,’ but she changed her mind about two hours later.”

The next day, according to Carl Whiteley, “Before we left the hotel we received a telegram from Bert Shane, telling us Trenton had been telegraphing for players all night. Sure enough, when we got to the ground they had several professionals.”

After an even worse thrashing of Trenton, 13-2, the Wayne County team took a train back to Iowa.

“As we pulled away from the depot the crowd set up a yell as though someone was dying, and I guess it was because Shane Hill was on their road homeward.”

Carl Whiteley was never sure whether it was a groan of relief, or of muted praise.

Like the White Sox of 1919, throwing games was offered to the players of Shane Hill. Their record would seem to indicate this never happened.

According to J.C. Harvey in a 1931 Seymour Herald article, “Gamblers followed them wherever they went. They were tempted with bribes but no man can ever say that a single Shane Hiller ever laid down or threw a game—a wonderful record, and today every one of them are honorable and respected citizens wherever they reside.”

Giants

Near the end of Shane Hill’s run, it produced its most famous player. Hollie Souder, who hailed from the nearby small town of Clio, drew a recruiter from the New York Giants to watch him pitch in the southern Iowa timber, where Burl Maytum once perfected his curveball.

“The man landed in Clio on a midnight train in January,” Burton wrote. “The next morning he was driven out to the Souder farm in a bobsled, where Hollie was given a five-year contract.”

It was the culmination of Professor Howell buying a baseball decades before and dropping it in a student’s hand, but it also signaled the end of an era. The players were either getting too old or too good.

Though only seeing a Major League field during exhibitions, Souder played 17 years of professional baseball.

The final 1918 game was played on Labor Day, Sept. 2, in Allerton, the beginning of the worst phase of the Great Influenza as a backdrop.

The Centerville Daily Iowegian of Aug. 1 wrote, “The old Shane Hill ball players, pitted against the world, or that part of it comprised in the hundreds of ball players against whom they played in their glory, are getting a lot of attention. The old team will soon be in training to get back to its former invincible self…. Shane Hill in its day was the best baseball club in the country.”

Stamps versus Maytum

World War II veteran Maurice Stamps, the 102-year-old former principal of Seymour Community High School, was born in 1915. In 2018, he recalls talk leading up to that Labor Day. He was at the reunion game in 1918, but does not remember much.

“I would’ve been sitting in the old Ford with my mother,” Maurice said.

Maurice remembers more vividly the shadow that loomed just beyond that final game, the Great Influenza. It was among the crowd that watched. That plague within the span of two years led to the deaths of 100 million people.

“During the Great Flu pandemic, my Uncle Jack’s wife—my aunt, their son Donald, and our grandmother, all three died of the flu,” Maurice said. “Donald was in the Army, and he died at Jefferson Barracks down by St. Louis.

“It was terrible. I was born in ’15, and I can just barely remember being in bed, and everyone talking about the flu.”

But as they say, both life and the game went on. Maurice’s father, John Sherman Stamps, born in 1867, played for the opposing Seymour team.

“My dad, when he was young and going to college, he would pitch,” Stamps said. “Back then, almost every town had a baseball team, and my dad was quite a pitcher. He pitched for the Seymour team and other teams, and he’d get 15 to 20 dollars a game. That was a week’s pay in those days. That’s the way he made money in the summer.

“He was going to the University of Chicago, and he was offered a chance to try out with the old Chicago White Sox. It would have been in the late 1880s and early 1890s. He was evidently quite an athlete.

“But he said, in those days, baseball players were kind of looked down upon, and he was both teaching school and going to school.

“He and Burl Maytum faced each other so many times they got to be good friends. They had some low-scoring games. Maytum had quite a curveball, and Dad was a big, strong man, and he had a hard fastball.”

On the flyer for the 1918 game, the main attraction was Burl Maytum versus John Stamps, one last time.

As usual, Shane Hill got the best of the opposition.

Afterward, the Daily Iowegian wrote, “The famous Shane Hill baseball team—an organization famous through the middle west twenty-five years ago—again proved its ability to beat all comers in a Red Cross benefit game…. Souder was in great form and showed his old time pitching brilliancy by shutting the Old Timers out with ease.”

It was just like 1897 again. That was the only year Souder pitched for the New York Giants, winning a few exhibition games, before playing in the minor leagues as far away as Montreal.

Field of Dreams

Shane Hill’s ghosts still linger in Wayne County. Nancy Coates of Corydon’s grandfather was Henry Whiteley, the team’s manager. He is buried in the Corydon Cemetery. Two of her great uncles played for Shane Hill.

Nancy’s son Tom Coates was an excellent athlete, as well, before gaining televised fame in Iowa as the owner of Consumer Credit of Des Moines. Almost every Iowan knows Tom’s face. As a descendent of the Shane Hill ballplayers, Coates’ fame in local commercials is another twist of magic realism to this story, more surreal than W.P. Kinsella’s Field of Dreams.

“He came home for supper,” Nancy said of her son as a high school track star for the Wayne Falcons. “I showed him the paper from Des Moines, that John Kurtz of Pleasant Hill had never been beaten. Tom said, ‘He won’t be undefeated after tonight.’”

Channeling the Whiteley spirit, Tom won that 100-yard dash.

“John went on to win State at Drake,” Tom said. “He wasn’t beaten again.”

If the Whiteleys before Tom Coates were that fast, perhaps it explains Shane Hill’s knack for stealing bases.

A few years ago, during an observance honoring her grandfather’s team, Nancy found the old Shane Hill baseball diamond with the help of a local farmer.

“I was pleased we were asked to go,” Nancy said. It was an ad hoc ceremony attended by around 30 people. They opened a bottle of wine. The stones that were once bases are still there, piled against a dead elm. They were plowed up by a farmer.

Jim Dickerson now owns the land. Maurice Stamps was also present with Nancy Whiteley Coates at Shane Hill for the reunion. Centerville historian and former English teacher Enfys McMurry, an immigrant of Wales who survived the Blitz of London during World War II, attended as well.

Though, by her own admission, ignorant to the fine details of the game of baseball, Enfys cannot understand the State of Iowa’s reluctance to formerly honor the history of Shane Hill. It is a field of dreams being largely ignored. Corydon holds Jesse James Day every year, reenacting the time the Gang robbed the bank in town. Yet Shane Hill remains a silent monument marked only by stone bases, a timeless underdog story neglected and overgrown with sumac.