Mr. Baseball

Mr. Baseball

March begins this week. It was Mike Dugan’s favorite time of the year.

March means baseball spring training, you see. This means that the start of the baseball season is just around the corner. And that means our long cold winter is about to conclude.

Winter was in the beginning when I received a text from one of my closest friends that was like a slap in the face. Mike wrote at 8:32 pm on Monday, December 28: “I’ve been waiting for the right time to send you a text tonight. They found two brain tumors near my trunk this morning. Looks like the bottom of the ninth.”

Mike, of course, wanted to use a baseball analogy. He was Arkansas’ Mr. Baseball. But he was so much more. He was the leading historian at the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference and the Cotton States League of professional baseball, both of whom are gone. Mike refused to let any of these organizations be forgotten.

Despite the heroic efforts of surgeons and other personnel at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, Mike died on the morning of Thursday, February. 4 years old, 66 years old. He was born on 17 July 1954 into a proud Irish family with deep roots in the endlessly fascinating city of Hot Springs. He grew up in a time when Spa City was still among the country’s best tourist attractions.

Mike had dozens of stories about the city and colorful characters who inhabited it when he was a boy. His father managed the city’s airport so that Mike could meet celebrities who flew in to gamble or appear as entertainers at Vapors.

After college, Mike’s love of sports led him to return to Hot Springs to practice tennis at Garland County Community College (now National Park College). In addition to coaching the Lakers, he gave tennis lessons to residents of the area who not only considered him an instructor in the sport, but also in management and life.

Mike later served as director of sports information at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, establishing a reputation as one of the nation’s best SIDs. He made friends easily and soon had relationships with those in his profession from coast to coast.

In addition to his duties as SID, Mike Reddie broadcast football, basketball, and baseball games on the radio, resulting in countless late rides home to Hot Springs from locations across Arkansas and surrounding states. Sometimes he returned to the Henderson campus as the sun rose and went straight to work.

He was a young SID in Henderson, and I was an even younger sports editor of the Arkadida Daily Siftings Herald, focusing on coverage at Henderson, Ouachita Baptist University across the street, and AIC.

Mike and I began dating in the fall of 1980 on a drive to Seguin, Texas. I played-for-games of Arkadelphia High School football games in those days in addition to my duties on paper. I had to go to the newspaper office after our radio program and write a story.

I wanted to cover Henderson’s match the next afternoon against the Texas Lutheran in Seguin, but that meant a drive all night. Mike thank you graciously for picking me up at the New York City newspaper office at 1 a.m. as long as I wanted to stay awake and keep him company.

A tropical storm had blown the glass out of the windows of the press box. We swept away the broken glass that Saturday at Matador Stadium, and I did my best to help Mike keep his radio equipment dry during a competition played in heavy rain.

Our Mexican dinner afterwards at Chapa’s Matador Restaurant never tasted so good. And no bed ever felt as good as the one in the cheap motel where we had reserved a couple of rooms.

On the long drives to Seguin and back we discovered that we had the same interests. During the four decades that followed, Mike became almost like the big brother I lost when I was 4 and my brother was 9.

Like my late brother, Mike was five years older. I can not even begin to count what we attended – college football bowls, PGA Tour events for golf and so much more. Mike was a regular at Arkansas Traveler Games and Oaklawn Park, and I tried to join him as often as possible in these places.

We even shared a love for the masterful on-air work of hockey announcer “Doc” Emrick. Mike had already given a heartfelt endorsement to Emrick’s new book. However, it was the subject of baseball the most animated Mike. When I think of Mike Dugan, I think of the title of a book by baseball author Thomas Boswell that was published in 1984: “Why Time Begins on Opening Day.”

“The audience and the team had finally understood that in games, as in many things, the end, the final score, is only part of what matters,” Boswell wrote. “The process, the joy, the game grain also counts.”

Mike was about the process and the joy that came from studying it. Watching a baseball game with him was a lesson in the history of the sport. Many years ago, Mike devoted himself to making sure that the rich baseball tradition of his beloved hometown became something more people knew about.

Boswell also wrote that baseball is “differentiated by the city and the ballpark where it is played. Does baseball, like a liquid, take the shape of the container?”

After hearing stories from his father about professional baseball players who would come to Hot Springs to train, Mike became convinced that his hometown was the true home of spring training. He enlisted the help of the most knowledgeable baseball historians in the country and of Steve Arrison, the talented head of the Hot Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Arrison, a man I like to refer to as PT Barnum in Arkansas, is always interested in ways to market the spa town. The result was the Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail, a series of markers across the city. These markers now attract visitors from all over the country.

“Hot Springs is known as a health and recreation facility that attracts the rich and famous,” notes the trails website. “It was absolutely true in the late 1800s and well into the 1900s. The city had the finest hotels, lively nightclubs, beautiful mountain scenery and the famous warm, healing waters. In 1887, Cap Anson brought with him Chicago White Stockings (now Cubs) to Hot Springs.

“This busy turn of the century was the perfect place for something no one had ever heard of; annual spring training for professional baseball. Over time, five fields were built. Each spring, as many as 250 players came here to train, including legends of the game.”

Dugan, Arrison and the historians did not stop there. At the end of 2018, a 160-foot mural depicting five baseball legends that helped make Hot Springs the birthplace of spring training was completed downtown. The mural by Texas artists Chris Arnold and Jeff Garrison depicts Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige and Lefty Grove, all of whom had ties to Hot Springs.

The city also started an annual baseball weekend. Outside of the wedding of Mike and Susan Dugan’s daughter Mary Kate, the happiest I’ve ever seen was Mike, in March 2018 when descendants of Babe Ruth came to Hot Springs to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Babes’ 500-meter dash during spring training at Whittington Park.

The weekend also included the inauguration of baseball training markers honoring Arkansas-born catch Bill Dickey and pitcher Lefty Grove. Mike follows these events.

It was March. The weather had warmed up, the baseball season was about to begin, the horses were running at Oaklawn, and large crowds had come down to Hot Springs for the annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration.

Mike’s dream of a revitalized Spa City came true. It’s hard for me to think of a march without him.

Rex Nelson is the senior editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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