While no ghosts emerge from corn—the Shane Hill field is now cattle pasture—the players’ memories survive

Old timers still hold out hope baseball returns to Shane Hill

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A Shane Hill baseball playbill from the 1800s for a Missouri fair.

Dail Whiteley rests with his daughter Cindy in the sunroom of the Corydon Care Nursing & Rehab Center, across the street from Walden Park. Before them on the table sits a binder full of newspaper articles and sepia tone and black and white photographs from the Pioneer days of Medicine Creek and the Mormon Trail.

I speak loud enough so Dail can hear me, to tell him I am composing the first chapter of a nonfiction book about Shane Hill, one of the most formative and successful teams to grow during the infancy of baseball.

“You’d better hurry up and write it,” said the 97-year-old grandson of a Shane Hill player, “because I might not be around too much longer.”

I attempt to explain how this will be a tale of history, of course, from the age of Little House on the Prairie, but also of how disease pushed emigrants from overcrowded streets in England to the Pioneer Midwest. Baseball began in part due to outbreaks of cholera in Yorkshire.

“And write it in English,” Dail tells me, mixing in his wit, still sharp as a plow’s colter wheel.

Cholera

All people alive today are by definition survivors—of war, famine and disease. The members of this southern Iowa baseball team were no different. Cholera was not the first plague to hit northern England, invaded and colonized through the ages by the Romans, the Vikings and the Danes. The Black Death first reached Yorkshire in 1349 and killed one third of the population.

In the early 19th century, the Maytum, Shane and Whiteley families lived together in Industrial Age Europe. They were neighbors. One patriarch, James E. Whiteley, was born in the winter of 1823 in Leeds, almost eight years exactly to the day when the Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.

James learned the trade of millwork from his father. While industry boomed, living conditions reached a breaking point for laborers. A law passed in England in 1819 made it illegal for children nine years old to 13 years old to work more than 12 hours a day in a cotton mill. This was considered progress for a population that went from 20 percent urban in 1800 to 50 percent city dwellers in 1850.

In Yorkshire, now nine years old, the boy survived as a bout of cholera spread in 1832; the population in Leeds had doubled to nearly 200,000 souls since the turn of the century. It would still be over two decades before physician John Snow discovered the cause of the disease thanks in part to London’s Broad Street water pump.

This squalor would have seemed on odd place to begin the story of America’s pastime, on the east coast of England where Vikings once docked.

Naturals

Odder still was the hill in the United States on the border between free Iowa and slave Missouri, whose slopes barely allowed for a few acres flat enough to build a baseball field.

Near this area, possibly founded by the Mormons who left ruts through the prairie—still visible today—fleeing religious persecution on their way to the promised land of Utah, was the small town of Warsaw. At age 23, James left his father’s business and his homeland just before the next great outbreak of cholera in 1848 for Delaware. He then migrated west by covered wagon, eventually settling in a county in Iowa named after General Mad Anthony Wayne.

On 450 acres, he farmed and raised a family of 10 children—nine boys, enough for a starting lineup of Whiteleys alone—along the Waubonsee Trail where displaced Native Americans still returned to hunt as late as the early 1900s. In Yorkshire, tens of thousands of residents might have been crammed together in a space equivalent to the Whiteley farm.

It is no wonder the Shane and Maytum families followed the Whiteleys to southern Iowa. Life on the prairie was difficult, but at least the water would not kill them if they drank it.

On a slope overlooking Medicine Creek, the Mormon Trail ruts still relatively fresh, these emigrant families built a pine one-room schoolhouse in a timber of shagbark hickory nut trees. In a few years, it moved south to Shane Hill, and the baseball team had its name.

Charles Maytum’s wife gave birth to five sons. Caleb Shane’s son Bert Shane wore a metal calf weaner as a mask and caught Burl Maytum’s curveball.

As J.C. Harvey of The Seymour Herald, who in his youth watched the team play often, wrote in a 1931 article:

“Possibly little these three old pioneers thought at that time, that their boys unborn yet, would some day be the players on the greatest farmer baseball teams the world ever knew, and possibly for all time to come, and if a search was to be made, it’s a question if it could be duplicated, where the brothers of three families, composed of country boys, held such a record for twenty consecutive years…. Their ball diamond was up in old Shane pasture, and this is where they derived the famous name, known from coast to coast, as Shane Hill.”

That would be down the road a ways. First, a new schoolteacher, Professor Howell, would need to move from Pennsylvania and purchase a real baseball from town for his pupils to throw, and teach these first-generation Americans the rules of baseball.

“He was from across the pond,” Dail said of Howell.

Part of it was chance. Many of the descendants of these pioneers went on to become great athletes themselves—they were naturals. The rest was hard work.

The show

Shane Hill played their first game in 1878 as the Warsaw Baseball Club, before their name change. They traveled by horse-drawn wagon and got home in the evenings in time to do their chores. The first decade of play set the tone, as they never lost in their first 10 years. In their entire existence, they were never defeated on their homefield, whose bases were four stones.

To the west, coalmines brought workers from Europe and the South in during a population boom. Towns like Numa, Seymour and Centerville grew around the dangerous, backbreaking shafts drilled into the Mystic coalbed.

The three families that first composed Shane Hill defeated Seymour—a town once home to 3,000—114 to 8. A game versus the larger city of Centerville was never finished because it was too one-sided. Against Centerville, slugger Floyd Whiteley hit a fastball over the outfield fence, across the street and the adjoining lot into the upper story of a Victorian house. The window’s sash was raised.

“Who’s going to pay for this?” the woman of the manor yelled, demanding settlement for two broken panes.

“I will pay for one glass,” Floyd said, seeking middle ground with the housewife. “The windows should not have been raised while a baseball game was being played across the street.”

This only made her angrier. Floyd paid for the damage. In turn, the Centerville housewife got down on her hands and knees in the upstairs room and found the homerun ball under her bed. Floyd presented the money, and she dropped the baseball in Floyd’s hand.

The players could steal a base as well as they could milk a cow and were shut out only twice through the end of their run in the early 1900s. One estimate has them winning nearly 90 percent of all the games they played.

At the time, professional baseball was an oddity, the National League founded a few years earlier in 1876. If you were talented, you could get paid to play, but the reputation of these men in big-city stadiums was akin to that of circus clowns. They wore strange costumes and bore nicknames like the Chicago White Stockings. In addition to its talent, this is in a sense how Shane Hill’s fame grew—as a freak show on display at town celebrations and county fairs. Like skilled jugglers or strong men, both children and adults admired the oddity of these baseball players’ talents. These were not lawyers, bankers or the elite. They were just a bunch of hayseed immigrant children in uniform, performing for the masses.

In fact, Carl Whiteley, handsome as an actor gracing an East Coast Shakespearian stage, exited the dugout for his position at first base by performing cartwheels all the way.

Another local journalist of the era, W.H. Burton, as a boy watched Carl cartwheel. In one of the few “upsets” of Shane Hill, Albia’s Nate Kendall hit a homerun for the win. Burton later wrote a brief history of the team, including this anecdote from the 1920s:

“Nate Kendall was running for Governor of Iowa—he was later elected—and was staying at the [Hotel Rea] in Corydon and meeting people. Someone brought Carl Whiteley around to meet him with the introduction of, ‘Here is one of the old Shane Hill ball players.’ Kendall jumped up and grabbed Carl’s hand and said, ‘Is your name Whiteley or Maytum?’”

Kendall served as Iowa Governor from 1921 to 1925.

Pitcher Burl Maytum was considered the most sensational ballplayer in the Midwest. Everyone knew the legend of how he developed his unhittable curveball, by lining up with two trees, hooking the baseball around the first in order to strike the second. Burl practiced until it was perfect.

In the grandstands, boys and girls in dresses marveled at Maytum’s performance—into the early 1900s, children were not clothed for their gender until they became toddlers. Older boys breeched into skeleton suits. The customs were laxer for country boys. In town, you could determine a toddler’s family’s social status by the fanciness of his or her cotton or silk dress.

Burl went on to become Dr. Maytum, a dentist with a degree from Iowa, where he played for the University team.

Shane Hill made money every fall as they toured Iowa, Missouri and Kansas. They replaced their homemade gear with store-bought equipment and traveled on the top of railcars to distant contests. For baseball teams across the Midwest, the goal was to beat Shane Hill.

Bill Joyce, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams

Gamblers followed the team across the country, offering the players a good payday if they would throw a game. Based on the team’s record, it is safe to say that never happened. Others were offered minor league contracts with Major League teams.

In Garden Grove, a town on the northern route of the Mormon Trail, so named because pilgrims on their way west planted gardens for Mormons who came after, young pitcher Hawley Souders led Shane Hill to a 2-0 win against players from the professional Atchison Browns of Kansas.

Souders was a farm boy from nearby Clio, recruited to play for Shane Hill near the end of the team’s run.

“Afterward Souder[s] was signed by William Joyce, then manager of the New York Giants,” Harvey wrote.

Joyce himself was a Midwest native from St. Louis—he knew there was talent hidden there. He had played nine years of professional baseball, the last few for the Washington Senators and the Giants. The Senators traded him to New York during the 1896 season, when he led the National League in homeruns, finishing second three other years. He still holds the Major League record with four triples in one game.

For 50 years, Joyce kept the all-time record for reaching base in 64 consecutive games. Joe DiMaggio broke that mark in 1941 during his 56-game hitting streak. In 1949, Ted Williams broke DiMaggio’s on-base record and still holds it at 84.

While playing third base for Boston, before there was a World Series, Joyce led his team to the 1891 American Association championship. Therefore, Joyce, the Giants’ player-manager who once hit for the cycle, journeying to Wayne County in the dead of winter in 1897 to scout a Shane Hill farm kid was a big deal.

“It is said that Joyce landed in Clio on a night train in the month of January and the next day was driven out to the Souder home in a bobsled,” Harvey wrote. “He signed up this country boy for a five-year contract.”

Souders played 17 years of professional baseball, but like Moonlight Graham in the movie Field of Dreams, based on W.P. Kinsella’s book Shoeless Joe, his Major League stat line read zero at-bats, zero innings pitched.

Though Field of Dreams was a work of fiction, its character of Archibald Graham was a real person who played a single Major League game for the New York Giants in 1905 but never got past the on-deck circle, and went on to become a medical doctor in Chisholm, Minnesota—Doc Graham, as he was known.

It is unclear whether Souders and Doc Graham, who played from 1902 to 1908, ever crossed paths in the Giants’ minor league organization.

On July 15, 1904, Souders threw a 10-inning no-hitter to help Fargo defeat Grand Forks 1-0.

Build it

Dail Whiteley was player James Whiteley Jr.’s grandson; Dail sits in the care center six miles north of where the Shane Hill crew once suited up. Five years after their swan song in 1918, when they raised money for the Red Cross, the Great Flu spreading through the crowd, Dail was born.

The Russian Flu struck in 1890, but this next strain was something the world had never seen before, even during the Black Death.

Dail’s father was lucky to survive. He was in the Army. By that time, the old schoolhouse was closed and served as a corncrib on one of the Maytum’s family farms, before a tornado destroyed it. James Jr. graduated from nearby Sewal. It was a bustling small town, and while Doc Ingraham—not to be confused with Doc Graham—was fighting on the front line of the Great Flu in 1918 and 1919, he brought Dail into the world five years later, and all five of Dail’s children.

“When World War I was over, they turned him loose,” Dail said of his father. However, the Great Flu was just getting started.

“[Dail’s] dad was offered a position to play professional baseball in the South,” Cindy said. “And they turned it down because they found out his mother was expecting him.”

“He was going to go,” Dail said. “They’d offered him a contract to play third base.”

“It wasn’t the Giants,” Cindy said. She had not even heard the story until a decade ago—a Whiteley potentially playing Major League baseball was a minor detail for an emigrant family accustomed to both country life and greatness.

“I first heard of Shane Hill sitting on the hood of a Model T car,” Dail said. “It’s a wonder they hung together, with how they had to do it—as a team.”

While many of the Shane Hill players moved far from home, Dail remained in Wayne County. After serving in the Navy, he came back to start as pitcher for Corydon the summer after the end of World War II. After training in the Navy for electrical work, he took the initiative to import poles and wire the Corydon field for lighting. They played an old Shane Hill foe that July—the Numa Miners. Corydon won 5-0. Dail threw a no-hitter. As a Whiteley, that is what he grew up expecting to do, and no less.

“I always hoped they would set up a ball club at Shane Hill, so I could’ve played down there,” Dail said. “I wished you’d get your book written—I want to read it. Can you get it done in 30 days?”