SI Vault
Nicholas Dawidoff
July 31, 1989
Travel with us to beautiful Kokernot Field, a gem of a place where time has stopped and small-town baseball has been elevated into a work of fine art
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July 31, 1989

The Best Little Ballpark In Texas [or Anywhere Else]

Travel with us to beautiful Kokernot Field, a gem of a place where time has stopped and small-town baseball has been elevated into a work of fine art

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It hadn't been difficult for Mr. Herbert to convince himself that he should take charge of the team. Since his days with the Alpine Independents, when he had been a smooth-throwing infielder and a .300 hitter, the game had always meant a great deal to him. "He wasn't one of those big, cigar-smoking Texas millionaires," says Byron Brooks, 37, psychology professor and baseball coach at Sul Ross. "Just a little, quiet, unassuming man who didn't feel comfortable in public if he didn't have a necktie on and who loved watching baseball." Mr. Herbert liked it well enough that he bought the Cats to keep baseball in Alpine. The ballpark wasn't much of a structure—crude wooden planks, corrugated tin roof and chicken wire—but he was so pleased to own it that he painted the red and white O6 brand on the fences.

That day in '46 was special because his father, Herbert Sr., was making his annual summer visit to Alpine. Herbert Sr. had founded the O6 in 1912 and had made it one of the most respected cattle operations in Texas. Herbert Jr. was shy by nature, and he was slightly in awe of his dad. He was a little worried about what Herbert Sr. would think of the ballpark.

Herbert Jr. met Herbert Sr.'s train at the depot, drove the old man through town, past the ballpark and out to the ranch. If Herbert Sr. had any thoughts regarding his son's purchase, he kept them to himself. Finally, two weeks later, just as Herbert Sr. was about to board a train home, he looked his boy in the eye and said, "Son, if you're going to put the O6 brand on something, do that thing right." Then he climbed on the train and was gone.

It was as though Herbert Jr. had been waiting for those words. He decided Alpine needed a new ballpark, and he chose a tract of O6 land just west of the Sul Ross campus to put it on. He filled his architect's ear with intricate instructions and set him loose. On a visit to Georgia, Mr. Herbert had admired the state's rich, red clay, and so he ordered enough for an infield and had it shipped to Alpine by boxcar. At one point during the four months of construction, a street lamp was in the way of some part of the project. Rather than fuss with the politics of petitioning the town to move the pole, Mr. Herbert bought the whole street and summarily ordered the lamp removed.

Meanwhile, explosives experts blasted red stone out of a makeshift quarry at the O6 ranch, and trucks lugged the stuff to the ballpark. Workmen combed creek beds all over the region, looking for the thickest grass to use as outfield turf. Metalworkers in San Antonio turned out decorative iron baseballs; stitches were painted on them in red. The balls were hung in clusters of three over the swinging red entrance gates to the ballpark. Gardeners planted flowers and ivy outside the stadium, and painters covered the outfield wall with a bright blue.

The chief builder was a local man named Junior Gray, who knelt on the Georgia clay and flattened it by hand to make the infield as smooth and seamless as a ballroom floor. One day, a visitor watched Gray laboring on his knees like a scullery maid, and mocked him. Junior looked up calmly and said, "Mr. Herbert told me to do it this way, and if that man told me to make him an infield with an ice cream scoop, I would."

Mr. Herbert stopped by often to see how things were progressing. One day he drove up clutching an envelope. "Twenty thousand dollars from my daddy," he told the workmen. "Guess he thought I was going broke on the ballpark." By the time the last red and white O6 was embedded in the concrete walls of Kokernot Field, the place had cost $1.25 million, a cool million more than had been spent to build Wrigley Field 33 years earlier.

The ballpark was ready in May 1947. Attached to the handsome brick facade at the front entrance to the stadium was a small bronze plaque that read: KOKERNOT FIELD. DEDICATED TO THE PROMOTION OF A CLEAN AND WHOLESOME SPORT, OUR NATIONAL GAME, BASEBALL. On Opening Day, most of Alpine lined up in front of the pretty little ticket booths that stood beside the first and third base stands. The town's wealthier citizens drove their Cadillacs and Lincolns through the automobile entrance in rightfield and parked in a special area along the foul line. There they could watch the game through the windshields and feel secure in the knowledge that if they opened their flasks for a gargle of whiskey, they wouldn't offend any neighbors.

Meanwhile, in the spacious home clubhouse, a group of strapping Texans slipped into crisp red and white uniforms with the team's new name, COWBOYS, sewn across the chest. In previous seasons Alpine players wore the gray and blue uniforms of the Cats, and the team consisted mostly of local ranch hands. But Mr. Herbert, determined to supply Alpine with ballplayers who measured up to his new stadium, had regularly left town in '47 to go talent hunting. He did well, turning up a galaxy of semipro stars such as flashy shortstop Matt Lamarque from Mexia in East Texas and fleet-footed right-fielder Billy Ward, who was discovered playing softball up in Corsicana. On Opening Day, the Cowboys defeated the Carlsbad (N. Mex.) Miners. The handwriting was on the wall. Soon the Fabulous Alpine Cowboys, as they came to be known, stood among semipro baseball's elite.

In its very first year the team became the dominant semipro club in the Southwest, winning the two-state regional championship in El Paso and earning a trip to the national tournament. The Cowboys won two and lost two that first time at the nationals, but the fact that such a successful team had emerged from such a small town earned Mr. Herbert the trophy as America's No. 1 sponsor of semipro baseball.

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