July 6, 2012

Small Kansas town has big baseball dreams

If this week’s All-Star FanFest in Kansas City boasts the world’s biggest baseball, that’s news to Jeff Hanson.

If this week’s All-Star FanFest in Kansas City boasts the world’s biggest baseball, that’s news to Jeff Hanson.

He has a dream to revive his small town in Kansas, and it involves a giant baseball of his own — built from the tank of Muscotah’s old water tower and turned into a museum.

Hanson didn’t know about MLB’s12.5-foot baseball and grew thoughtful when it was described to him.

“Well,” he said. “Ours is 20 feet.”

Major League Baseball officials didn’t know about Hanson either, and say they never really considered the idea of someone building a bigger baseball.

But Hanson’s dream is much bigger than eclipsing the FanFest ball.

It’s about building a potential tourist attraction that could help revitalize Muscotah, which has no major employers and a population that has remained under 200 for most of the past two decades. Traveling on U.S. 159 north through Atchison County, you pass through it in a minute or two.

It is Hanson’s idea to turn the enormous metal orb that now sits in his front yard into what might arguably be the world’s biggest baseball and the only museum created in honor of Joe Tinker, a native son of Muscotah and a Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer. The connection to Tinker is one of Muscotah’s very few claims to fame, and Hanson hopes to capitalize on it and bring people and dollars into a town that has seen little of either in recent years.

Hanson, 69, credits inspiration for the idea to the Kansas Sampler Foundation, a nonprofit group that celebrates and tries to preserve rural communities. More than two years ago, the group visited Muscotah, learned of the Tinker connection, and suggested painting the old water tower – which still stood, then – like a baseball.

The idea stuck with Hanson.

When he proposed the idea to the city council last year, one detractor said it wouldn’t be worth the cost or the effort, he recalls. Others liked the idea, but when the town received a grant for a new water tower and Hanson made serious inquiries about taking the old one, he says he didn’t get much encouragement.

“I’ve been given a whole lot of reasons why this couldn’t be done,” Hanson said.

Mayor Roy Tacker said he thinks Hanson is a great guy. His wife, Selma, said she supports Hanson’s project.

But not everyone is as enthusiastic, she acknowledges.

“Half of the people in town think it’s wonderful idea,” Selma Tacker said. “And half think it’s silly.”

Marci Penner of the Kansas Sampler Foundation stands firmly behind the water tank idea — and Hanson.

“I’m sure a lot of citizens think Jeff is off his rocker with this but he has a vision,” Penner said. “By golly, Jeff is going to get this done and we are going to promote it.”

In fact, Hanson did manage to get the water tank pulled down and deposited on his lawn, thanks to the help of a local contractor with a track hoe.

Hanson said he can count on a crew of 10 locals who are helping him renovate the tank, and between $500 from the city council and the money he has raised so far, he has all of the $1,000 he estimates it will cost to complete phase one of the project.

Today, the water tank remains a work in progress, a large metal ball clearly visible from the road. Rebar is being welded onto it to look like stitches. A sign posted next to it reads “The Future Home of the Joe Tinker Baseball Museum.”

The name is not official yet, Hanson said.

Hanson hopes that, if his project gathers enough steam, the Chicago Cubs organization might take an interest in it.

That hasn’t happened so far, but when told of the project Thursday, a Cubs spokesman said the team is happy to have fans across the country who support them in the present and the past.

“There are hundreds of tributes to hometown players and we applaud the efforts of people like Jeff Hanson who work to keep those memories alive,” said Julian Green of the Cubs.

Hanson expects it will take two years to finish the project, and hopes to open the museum to the public in time for Joe Tinker Day 2015.

The first Joe Tinker Day in Muscotah is scheduled for July 22. Hanson is planning a pickup baseball game, a hot dog dinner and an ice cream social for his town, all to follow an induction ceremony for the museum project.

Selma Tacker said she admired Hanson’s care for the town and hard work, crediting him with helping start the town’s annual Rose Festival and other projects to improve the town’s appearance and sense of community.

“He has wonderful ideas,” Tacker said. “He kind of thinks outside the box, but that’s what you have to do if you want dreams to come true.”

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