Lawrence Dumont Stadium in Wichita was in dire need of repairs and the Wichita Wranglers were struggling with low attendance. Bob Rich Jr., who had owned the team for 18 years, knew he had to make a change.

Rich, majority owner of a large food processing company in Buffalo, NY, had long been involved in the sport. In 1969, he was an investor in the Buffalo Sabers of the National Hockey League and later became the team’s vice-president. In 1983 his company purchased a minor league basketball team, the Buffalo Bisons.

As the Wichita franchise slowly sank, Rich looked to booming northwest Arkansas and decided the area could support a professional team. In 2006, he approached Arkansas business and civic leaders and said he would move the team to Springdale if voters approved a sales tax to raise $50 million for a stadium.

Although the region is booming, the vote was not a slam dunk. Powerful church leaders opposed the tax because alcohol would be served at the stadium. The July 2006 initiative narrowly passed.

The Naturals name came naturally to the club since Arkansas introduced itself as the Natural State and since the movie “The Natural” played a part in Rich’s success with the Bisons. The Buffalo team suffered from low attendance for years and Rich was able to recoup it for $100,000.

Hollywood producers approached Rich to film scenes for “The Natural” at Buffalo Stadium. The success of Robert Redford’s film sparked interest in the team, and attendance tripled.

In an online fan poll in Arkansas, 33% preferred using the Naturals name. The name Thunder Chickens finished second with 25%. Rich made sure the team used the Thunder Chicken moniker at least once a year to salute the Arkansas poultry industry.

The tax-funded construction of Arvest Ballpark, which is visible from what is now Interstate 49. Approximately $33 million was invested in the stadium while the remaining $17 million was used for roads and improving infrastructure in former pastures that are filled these days with medical facilities.

I walk past Springdale Stadium on a rainy May day and think how lucky Arkansas was that its two professional baseball teams survived a Major League Baseball purge that eliminated 42 franchises. The state is blessed with two great stadiums – Arvest and Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock, home of Arkansas Travelers – as Arkansans’ thoughts turn to baseball on those warm late nights. of spring.

The Naturals, who began play in 2008, are the defending champions of what is again known as the Texas League after a year as Double-A Central. The franchise that is now the Naturals began as the Amarillo Gold Sox in 1976 and became the Beaumont Golden Gators in 1983. This was followed by the Wichita Pilots in 1987 and the Wichita Wranglers in 1989. The franchise was a affiliate of the Padres from 1976 to 1994 and has since been affiliated with the Kansas City Royals.

Back in central Arkansas, the Travelers boast one of the longest histories in professional sports. The team first played in the Southern League in 1895. Other league members were Atlanta, Chattanooga, Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans, Evansville, and Montgomery. The Travelers posted a 25-47 record this inaugural season.

After the Southern League closed, professional baseball was absent from Little Rock for five years. The Travelers returned in 1901 with the formation of the Southern Association and finished second, one game behind Nashville. They were second again in 1902.

Enter William Marmaduke Kavanaugh, an Alabama native and son of a minister. Kavanaugh moved to Clarksville after graduating in 1885 from the Kentucky Military Institute. There he worked for a bank and a merchant before moving to Little Rock in 1886 to work for the Arkansas Gazette. Kavanaugh was the editor of the Gazette from 1890 to 1896. After leaving the newspaper business, he served as Pulaski County Sheriff for four years and Pulaski County Judge for another four years.

In 1913, the Arkansas legislature chose Kavanaugh to complete the term of deceased U.S. Senator Jeff Davis. Kavanaugh was even a member of the Little Rock School Board for a dozen years. He had been asked to become president of the Southern Association in 1902. Other board members of the National Association of Baseball Clubs called him “the squarest man in baseball.”

Low attendance and financial difficulties caused the Travelers to drop out of the Southern Association as the 1910 season approached, but Kavanaugh continued to serve as league president. He never gave up hope that professional baseball would return to Arkansas’ capital.

Kavanaugh announced the Travelers’ return on February 20, 1915. He died the following day at the age of 48, following what was described as an hour-long bout of acute indigestion.

West End Park, home of the Travelers, was renamed Kavanaugh Field. When the stadium closed in 1931, the property was sold to Little Rock High School (now Little Rock Central). Quigley-Cox Stadium now stands at this location. In 1936, Kavanaugh Boulevard was named after a man some considered Arkansas’ greatest citizen.

Kavanaugh did not live to see the first Voyageurs Championship, which was held in 1920. The team finished the season with an 88-59 record. In their final season at Kavanaugh Field in 1931, the Travelers drew 113,758 fans, the second-highest attendance since that 1920 title. Land near the Arkansas State Hospital was donated by the city in 1932 and Travelers Field became the team’s second home.

The stadium was renamed for longtime general manager Ray Winder in 1966. Winder had started as a ticket taker in 1915 and worked his way up. During his more than five decades with the team, Winder used extreme tactics from time to time to keep baseball professional in Arkansas.

After drawing fewer than 68,000 fans during a 77-game home schedule in 1958, the Travelers moved to Shreveport for the 1959 season. Just as had been the case with Kavanaugh decades earlier, Winder didn’t never lost faith that professional baseball would return. The Little Rock team was back in the Southern Association in 1960 after purchasing the New Orleans Pelicans.

To buy the Pelicans, Winder formed the Arkansas Travelers Baseball Club Inc. in 1960 and led a public fundraiser. Each share was worth $5. All dividends are returned to the club.

Little Rock native Bill Valentine, who had worked as an American League umpire from 1963 to 1968, became the Travelers general manager in 1976. He grew up within walking distance of Travelers Field, where he sorted drink bottles fizzy before games. balls during games and recover seat cushions after games.

In September 1968, Valentine was informed by American League president Joe Cronin that he had been fired along with umpire Al Salerno. Valentine and Salerno had attempted to form a union of American League umpires. Valentine returned to Little Rock, where he worked for the Arkansas Republican Party, did radio and television sports broadcasts, and refereed college basketball games.

In Valentine’s first year as CEO, attendance at Traveler Games increased by 34%. Valentine gave away thousands of tickets to children and organized events such as dwarf wrestling to attract fans. He served as the team’s general manager until 2007 and remained executive vice-president for two more seasons before retiring in March 2009. Valentine died in April 2015 aged 82.

The Travelers held their first game at Dickey-Stephens Park on April 12, 2007. Warren Stephens, the youngest son of late financier Jack Stephens, donated land along the Arkansas River for the stadium. North Little Rock voters then approved a temporary sales tax to fund the facility.

Now, Arkansas pro baseball fans have two stadiums to choose from to watch pro baseball. Pioneers like Kavanaugh and Winder would be amazed at how far the state has come.

Rex Nelson is editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.