The annual National Baseball Congress World Series tournament has come a long way since the days when night games were occasionally played with fluorescent-orange balls and cars lining the stadium provided illumination for the field.
The two-week tournament, which is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, starts Friday. While organizers are focusing on the tournament at hand, this year’s event will keep an eye on the past, tournament director Kevin Jenks said.
“We’re learning about an era,” Jenks said. “It’s basically a walk down memory lane.”
Throughout the tournament, tidbits of history will be presented – like when founder Hap Dumont wheeled in a 500-pound cake to the 1939 tournament to celebrate baseball’s centennial, or when portions of the tournament were filmed by Universal, Warner Bros., Fox Movietone and Paramount in 1949. NBC historian Andy Wright said he has not found what the footage was ever used for.
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An alumni night and tribute, along with a fireworks display, is planned for Saturday night. Former Wichita State University baseball coach Gene Stephenson, who also managed teams in the NBC World Series, will be honored.
The focus on history will serve as a backdrop to a tournament that has seen its share of challenges in recent years. Gone are the days when former major leaguers like Mickey Mantle and Stan Musial would make appearances at the tournament.
But organizers say they hope to change that.
“We’re always striving to bring in the best baseball we can,” Jenks said. “Are the 30 teams that play in our World Series the best 30 teams in the country? No, they’re not.
“However, there is not an event or a tournament in summer collegiate baseball that matches or even touches what we put on. We’ve been doing it better than anyone else for 80 years.”
Jenks said he thinks last year’s format shift was beneficial for the tournament and the participating teams. Last summer, the tournament implemented a new system requiring 16 teams to compete in the first week for two spots in the 16-team championship week bracket, which is held during the tournament’s second week. Thirty teams play in the tournament.
The new format helps reduce travel costs for teams coming to Wichita to participate. Summer baseball can be a costly endeavor, said Bob Hanson, president and CEO of the Greater Wichita Area Sports Commission.
“One of the things that people fail to see is the cost of travel, the cost of lodging and food,” Hanson said. “Everything has gone up quite a bit when they compare it to the old days.”
The Plaza Tire Capahas, from Cape Girardeau, Mo., are regulars at the NBC tournament. Founded in 1894, the team has participated in every NBC tournament since 1980.
Pam Martin, general manager of Wichita Suites, has hosted the Capahas at her hotel, 5211 E. Kellogg, for the past eight years. Though she said she does not follow the tournament, she recognizes the names of her guests when they make the news.
“It’s a wonderful experience to see these kids come in and play,” Martin said. “I know their budget is usually tight when they get here. We know they’re spending a lot to get here, so there’s a special rate we honor for them.”
This tournament is the last to be managed and operated by the Wichita Wingnuts minor league baseball team. Next year, the tournament – which is owned by the city of Wichita – will be run by the newly founded nonprofit NBC Baseball Foundation.
Members of the foundation will observe this year’s tournament and get feedback from fans and players, Jenks said.
“It’s critical to them moving forward and establishing this foundation,” Jenks said. “They’re going to be the ones responsible for the future success of the World Series. We’re trying to help them as much as we can.”