OTTUMWA — Not many young people today may recognize the name Dewey Baker, but in his time the gruff talking, baseball-loving coach did his part to keep the young people of his day from falling prey to the evil chronic idleness that can unleash by ensuring they had plenty of baseball games to play.
Back when Walter O'Lear of Ottumwa and John Peters of Arizona were young, there was only one thing — aside from getting into some mischief — for a boy to do in Ottumwa.
"Back then all there was to do is play baseball," O'Lear said.
And, Baker ensured Ottumwa's youth could regularly engage in America's pastime.
"I was the wild one, no doubt about it," Peters said. "[The] guy [Baker] kept me busy, probably kept me from a lot of trouble."
Baker, a self-employed man who made a living hauling coal, utilized his coal truck to take his team to games. At first, Baker's players had to sit down in the bed of the truck, but the skipper eventually got around to putting seats in for his boys. Baker, however, wasn't a typical coach — he walked bent over with a crutch after being crippled in a coal mining accident. But his handicap couldn't keep him from the game he was so fond of.
"He was a gruff old guy, but he loved ball," O'Lear said.
When Baker's team got started in 1948 they were known as Baker's Jr. baseball club. The coach bought cheap uniforms and balls and bats for the team. At the youthful age of 16 and 17, his team played nothing but men's and American Legion teams. Some of the fields they played on were more than a little unconventional.
"Some of the fields we played on were pastures with backstops. ... No fences, no nothing," O'Lear said. "Once the ball got past the outfielder, you figured it was going to be a home run."
"We had to dodge a few cow chips," Peters added.
Yet, Baker always did what he could to make the fields as nice as possible for his players.
"This guy did everything he could to make it smooth as possible," Peters said.
Bakers' team also played at another unusual location: The prison in Fort Madison.
"Imagine a bunch of kids going in there," O'Lear said.
Back then, he said, every town had a baseball team and Ottumwa's team traveled to play most of them. One field the Ottumwa team regularly haunted was the field at the old Naval Aviation Base where the Ottumwa Regional Airport is today. In 1949, the Baker's Jr. club became the Baker's Jr. Eagles after the Fraternal order of Eagles Association became their sponsor. With the new sponsor came an upgrade in equipment and uniforms.
"The Eagles had us all go out and pick out a bat, which was cool," O'Lear said.
Despite having to play against a lot a lot older teams, the youthful Ottumwa squad finished 35-14 in 1949. Meanwhile Dewey became a well-known figure in baseball. After the successful season Dewey was presented with a set of bats autographed by the National League champs Boston Braves and the World Series winner Cleveland Indians. In addition, he got a letter from Hall of Fame coach Connie Mack, who holds the record for wins as a skipper (3,776).
"He was a god in baseball," O'Lear said about Mack.
Peters still appreciates how his old coach impacted his life so many years ago.
"He's a great man," he said. "I didn't get around to telling him. He wouldn't care. All he wanted you to do to was play ball and play hard. He just did a lot for the young guys, I just couldn't say enough."
To follow Andy Heintz's Twitter feed, go to @heintz23