The texts should only be known from a certain age.
“It meanders from Chicago to LA
“More than two thousand miles all the way.
“Get a kick out of Route 66…”
But the message of this song took photographer Jean Furth and former Baseball Hall of Fame executive Jeff Idelson along this 2,448-mile route, along interstates and back roads, stopping wherever baseball was played, be it college , high school, little league, just about anything bat and ball.
Their travels were captured between the covers of Grassroots Baseball: Route 66 (Sports Publishing, 2022), which was released last week and is an ode to the game and its appeal to the heart of America, as well as a tribute to these sons of Route 66 who made it to the major leagues. For example, Johnny Bench, the pride of Binger, Oklahoma, wrote the introduction, fellow Hall of Famer Jim Thome wrote the afterword, and among those who contributed is George Brett of El Segundo.
“If you look at his essay, the very first line says if America was a baseball game, Route 66 would be its walk-off home run,” Idelson said.
But the photos are the heart of the book. Fruth, who lives in the Bay Area and regularly photographs the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A games and also does projects for the Hall of Fame, has compiled 250 photos from a three-year project that has been extended by the Covid19 pandemic. It was a follow-up to an earlier coffee table book, Grassroots Baseball: Where Legends Begin, which documented all levels of the game domestically and around the world, with profiles of great players discussing their early baseball memories.
Her tour to promote this album begins Sunday in Oklahoma City, where Bench attends a book signing at the home of the Dodgers’ Triple-A daughter. It will reach Chavez Ravine a week from Sunday, with Alan Trammell joining Fruth and Idelson for a book signing at the Dodgers-Mets game.
Why Grassroots Baseball? And why Route 66?
“When I was out shooting the major league game — which I still do — I always made time to shoot the amateur game,” Fruth said in a Zoom interview this week. “This is where I started shooting sports, with the amateur sport, and this is where my passion really lies, the stuff you don’t write about. It’s not about money and contracts or lockouts. It’s just pure love of the game and I’ve always been drawn to that part of baseball.”
Those books — the next one will be about women in baseball, Fruth said — are part of a nonprofit endeavor called “Grassroots Baseball,” which aims to celebrate and give back to the amateur sport through clinics starring Hall from famers and retired players and equipment gifts.
“We started the nonprofit program along Route 66,” she said. “And it was just like that, wouldn’t that be a good start? Real Americana, Baseball Americana… this cultural journey begins in Chicago and ends in Santa Monica.”
For the record, they were driving down the Mother Road in an RV, and Fruth pointed out that Idelson did all the driving.
“We all know our strengths,” he said dryly.
Fruth spoke of how even though it’s the same game, it looks different in different places along Route 66, “geography, topography, culture,” she said. “We tell these stories and show what it looks like all along the route.”
The most surprising takeaway? Baseball can be as unifying in these small, remote towns as the Friday night lights in the fall.
“What will I find in Baxter Springs, Kansas?” she recalled wondering. “And you find this really strong baseball community where the stands are packed to capacity on Little League opening day. I haven’t seen this before, certainly not in big cities, but to see how important local community sport is in smaller towns, how strong the community and volunteering is, was surprising. It didn’t blow my mind, but it was definitely nice to see. The barber who cuts everyone’s hair has been mowing the grass in the local field for 50 years and keeps everything spotless.”
There is also the impact of visiting these small towns where the legends began. Fruth recalled her visit to Commerce, Oklahoma, hometown of the late Mickey Mantle.
“It just gives you chills when you’re there,” she said. ‘Commercial High School and Mickey Mantle’s house, which is still intact, and the barn where he learned to play switches. … You can read about it, but when you’re there, you see it right in front of you and you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s Mickey Mantle’s house, and the water tower is pinstriped and number 7 in this tiny town.’ It’s just cool to see.”
Want proof of Route 66’s impact on the game? The Baseball Reference website has a page listing the 2,016 players born within 50 miles of the street who retired after 1926 when US 66 was formed.
For the record, 45 of the top 100 positional players and 58 of the top 100 pitchers, ranked by career WAR, were born in Southern California. That doesn’t even include West Virginia-born Brett or others who immigrated here, but it does include 10 native Hall of Famers: Don Drysdale (Van Nuys), Bob Lemon (San Bernardino), Trevor Hoffman (Bellflower), Trammell ( Garden Grove), Gary Carter (Culver City) and Tony Gwynn, Eddie Murray, Duke Snider, Joe Gordon and Bobby Doerr (all LA born)
And yes, Fruth and Idelson stopped in San Bernardino towards the end of last season to visit the team named after the street.
“I was really excited,” Fruth said. “I checked online and okay, great, their shirts say ‘Sixty Sixers’, that’s great.”
So of course their game uniforms were alternating that night. “They had these hearts and there wasn’t 66, and I was like, ‘What happened?'” she said.
That’s the risk you take in a minor league game. But the next night she got the shot she wanted and it’s in the book.
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