Missouri's first statewide semi-pro baseball tournament was held in Jefferson City in 1936. The National Semi-Pro Baseball Congress, based in Wichita, Kansas, had held national tournaments for a few years and was looking for participation from Missouri.
Only eight teams, from the anticipated 20-plus invitations, had signed up by the July 8 deadline. So Columbia, the original host site, cancelled for "lack of interest." The congress office sent its public relations man, Harry "HAP" Peebles, to the Capital City to see the event through.
Peebles set up his temporary office at the sports desk of the Jefferson City News Tribune's 4-year-old building downtown. He sent out 100 invitations to semi-pro ball clubs statewide, yielding 10 more teams.
The 11-day ballfest was set at Whiteway Park, later the local drive-in and now an open field in the 700 block of Heisinger Road.
"Not in the last 15 years has the city been so enthused over baseball prospects as at the present time," the Jefferson City Post Tribune reported. "Central Missouri baseball fans will be treated to the flashiest brand of baseball ever played on the Capital City diamond. The popular American sport was regaining interest in Jefferson City."
The double-elimination tournament decided which team would represent the state at the National Semi-Pro Baseball Congress in Wichita. Over 11 days, 29 games were played by teams from Bonnots Mill, Chamois, Hermann, Iberia, Jefferson City, Kansas City, Mokane, Poplar Bluff, Salem, Sedalia, Springfield, Tipton and Windsor.
Former Brooklyn Dodger Zach Wheat, who was living in Polo, Missouri, at the time, opened the tournament, tossing the ball to Mayor Means Ray. Wheat played with the Dodgers for 17 years with a batting average of .324 then later was a manager.
Youngsters under the age of 15 were admitted with a membership card for the "Knothole gang" and given their own seating section. Beer was not sold at the park, but some brought along their own bucket.
The first game was played by the Capital City Utilities versus the Poplar Bluff All-Stars. Other local teams included the Jefferson City Tweedie Shoemen and the Jefferson City Bulldogs. The tournament was integrated, including the Tipton Tigers and the ultimate winners, the Kansas City Blackhawks.
Cardinals scout Gordon "Mae" Maguire was at the tournament for several days, telling the local newspaper he may have found some likely young prospects for the majors.
Ending Aug. 11, 1936, the tournament was not a financial success, despite reports of up to 1,000 spectators on some nights. Nevertheless, the statewide tournament reappeared in Jefferson City for a second year.
Two teams from the 1936 Missouri tournament advanced to the national tournament — the first-place team, the Kansas City Blackhawks, and the local team, which beat the Blackhawks in the second round 14-2, the Jefferson City Utilities, which took second in the tournament. Then the Blackhawks won the championship game, 17-0, over the Salem Red Sox, who had beaten the Utilities in the third round 10-9.
The Utilities won their opening game 6-5 over the Poplar Bluff Stars, but fell to fellow hometown team, the Tweedie Shoemen, 9-8 in the fourth round. An encore match between the Utilities and the Mokane Athletics followed the championship game and earned the local team the national invitation.
Every man in the Utilities lineup, except for first baseman Adolph Adrian and shortstop Philbert Newton, had hits in their final game, which they won 10-2. Newton walked twice, and Adrian made the base on an error. Robert "Nooky" Lee, Edgar Ray Maxey and Oscar "Lefty" Ross each had a pair of hits. And pitcher Ross struck out 15 batters.
In the national tournament, the Utilities' traveling roster included pitchers Nick Duncan and Ross; catchers Roy Lee and Ed Holtzhauser; infielders Adrian, Fenton Slaughter, Newton and Francis Stokes; outfielders Maxey, Herb Lee, Cave Barrow and Eddie Mueller; and utility man Norb Schulte. They beat the team from Howard, South Dakota, in the first round of the national tournament, which began Aug. 15 in Wichita and featured teams from 27 state tournaments.
In the win over Poplar Bluff, Carl Miles threw a wild, left-side curveball, second baseman Payne Muir provided superior defensive play; centerfielder Lee performed some spectacular catching, and first baseman Cave Barrow was the "club's leading stickman."
In the Mokane encore, Frank Triplett "was curving around the bases on his homer inside the park; he was picking them up and laying them down so fast that one of his shoes came off as he came around third base," the Post Tribune reported.
Even manager LaVerne Thompson made an impression. "It was swell to see Utility Leader Thompson hunt up Salem boss Claude Smith to congratulate him on the Sox victory," the newspaper said. "A good handshake and a pat on the back will go a long way."
Michelle Brooks is a former reporter for the Jefferson City News Tribune. Harry Peebles is her grandfather.