The Lexington Legends announced they will join the Atlantic League for the 2021 season. The Legends had been members of the South Atlantic League since its inception in 2001 but will now become an independent team in the new loop.
The majority of its clubs are located on the east coast from Long Island to Gastonia, North Carolina. Whitaker Bank Ballpark will be the most western ballpark, located 379 miles from its closest rival; however, this isn’t the first time baseball in Lexington was situated furthest away from its nearest competitor.
In 1954 the Lexington Colts played barely a half a season in the Mountain States League before suspending operations on July 6. The hastily put-together ball club was the city’s first in 31 years, and it would be over 50 years before another minor league team would call Kentucky city home.
Things looked fine when the ball club hosted its first game on April 24 against Kingsport. The ceremonial crowd brought out former Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler and the Colts pounded out a 14-2 victory in front of 1,200 fans at League Park. The victory was welcoming since the team had only four days to practice and get to know each other for manager Zeke Bonura.
The league only awarded Lexington a club on April 7, just 17 days before their home opener, to replace the Hazard Bombers, who were unable to field a club for the season. MSL league president Virgil Q. Wacks was enthusiastic about placing a team in the Bluegrass Capital.
Wacks even came to town in hopes of meeting with anyone who would operate a franchise in the then-8-team league. Things moved swiftly with negotiations on who would operate the club, and improvements were made to the Blue Grass Athletic Park home of the Lexington Hustlers, a Negro League baseball of the past nine seasons.
The Lexington Ball Club received assistance with finding players and a manager, selling tickets, and daily operations from the league and Chandler. Fans were encouraged to name the team, with the winner receiving two season tickets and ten wrestling tickets at what was now called League Park. The runner-up would win a book of 25 tickets.
The club’s GM, Michael Tice opened up downtown offices in the Northern Bank building. The Lexington Herald sports editor, Ed Ashford, would be the team president, and former Chicago White Sox player Zeke Bonura was picked as the manager of the unnamed ball club. Ashford announced that there would be a limited number of shares of common stock offered to the public at $25 a share.
A Lexington Colts Stockholder, File Photo, Lexington Herald.
“The more small stockholders we have, the more fans will have. The more fans we have, the better team will have, because we’ll have more money to spend in acquiring good players in improving the ballpark,” stated Ashford in the Lexington Herald in the April 17, 1954 edition.
Tickets would go on sale a week before the first game at various locations in the city and surrounding towns. Fans wishing to purchase a book of 25 tickets, would only need to shell out $20. The price would fetch $1 for adults and 50 cents for children at the gate.
The team opened the season at Kingsport and did not officially have a name, the local paper joked that it should be called the “Fleas” because of the early requirements of their schedule and its hastily thrown-together squad. The ball club would make the 500 miles round trip from Lexington only to be rained-out; they would have to turn around and open the season at home the next day at 3 pm.
The team would be christened the Colts during its home opener. The name was favored by 24 people who remembered the previous professional club of the same name in the Blue Grass League from 1923. The only other moniker that received as many votes was Throurobreads or Thorobreds. The other choices had racehorse themes and included the Yearlings, Racers, Ponies, Whirlaways, Fillies, Stake Horses, Turfs, Stallions, Pacers, Trotters, Man o’ War, Jockeys, and Thoroughbred Flyers.
“It has a tradition of many years, as the last professional team, a successful aggregation in the Old Blue Grass League,” said Len Tracey, who was one of the citizens who picked the name. “Its five letters are admirably adapted to newspaper headlines. There are few if any other teams in the nation that beer the same nickname.”
Lexington was the most northern club and 131 miles from its closest rival in Middlesboro. It was further away from Newport (218 miles) and Kingsport (250 miles) one way. One could only imagine the bus rides on pre-interstate roads.
Lexington Home Opener Newspaper Ad, File Photo, Lexington Herald.
If Lexington’s distance from the rest of the league members wasn’t enough of an inconvenience, the schedule was quickly thrown into chaos when the Newport Canners dropped before the season when directors failed to raise enough money to begin operations. The league went ahead with a 7-team schedule playing day-to-day, rarely knowing more than a day or two in advance where they were playing next.
League president Wacks would then spend the next week looking for an eighth club to even out the MSL. The Hazard Development Association drew up a plan to enter the league. La Follette was also considered an option to fill the spot and offered two local ballparks until a proper facility would be available. Finally, the city of Lynch, Kentucky, was hoping to operate its new $30 million stadium that needed a little more seating.
However, Hazard returned on April 29 but quickly dropped out 6-days later without playing a game. Just like with Newport, it was due to the financial difficulties of putting a team together in such a short time. The league was down to 7-teams once again, and the Morristown Red Sox would be the next organization to dissolve. The Sox management was unhappy with having to sit idle for as many four days because of the uneven schedule on May 17. A week later the league finally released an updated season schedule for the remaining teams.
Back in Lexington, unpleasant weather canceled games or left fans bundled up at League Park watching the Colts start with an 8-11 record. The postponement was a large financial loss for the club which had to cover all operating costs. The team moved on, having specialty nights like Little League, Gift Night Ladies Night. The rainouts did allow for Satchel Paige to make an appearance with the Globetrotters baseball team playing the House of David as part of a doubleheader.
Colts manager Bonura knew things would be hard and liked Lexington as a baseball town. However, little things did surprise him during his time in town. He told of a story of one of his players hailing a cab to the ballpark. The cabbie said, “there ain’t no ballpark in this town.” They then drove to the nearest gas station and were unaware of the ballpark.
However, there was a time when the club failed to report to an away game in Kingsport for financial reasons on the charter bus. The Kingsport fans, aware of the situation, passed the hat around at the ballpark to net an impressive $118 that supplied the team with two meals while in town. The gesture was taken very kindly by management in Lexington, who was unaware of the act of kindness.
Things were going pretty smoothly, despite the financial difficulties with many of its members. The Colts were playing .500 ball and made a move for first place in the league. The Maryville-Alcoa Red Sox announced that they would not continue unless $8,000 was raised to pay off debt.
Attendance improved slightly at the ballpark, but the club switched to Morristown. It returned the next day after securing the $8,000 objective. However, they moved once again to Morristown six days later, this time for good, and renamed the Reds.
Sam Bray, president of the Kingsport Cherokees, jokingly offered his team bus, all of its equipment, the franchise, plus an additional $3,000 for any responsible person who would agree to continue its operations throughout the season. Thinking that no sound person would take him off on his offer, the stunt resulted in positive PR throughout multiple media outlets and increased attendance figures at his ballpark.
Lexington player getting the field ready before the game, File Photo, Lexington Herald.
Back in Lexington, management decided not to enforce blackouts of Cincinnati Redlegs games on home television sets. A total of 35-40 Reds games conflicted with Colts games and organized baseball agreements allowed the Lexington club to block any, if all games. The Colts opted not to interfere with the broadcasts in order not to give ill will to its fan base. Scores and updates were provided to fans at the ballpark during games.
The Morristown saga concluded on July 1 when it withdrew from the league without notice, not for financial reasons, but because the owner “didn’t have time to give to it. This left the MSL with an uneven five clubs. The writing was on the wall, and the rest of the loop’s members did not hide the fact who they wanted out of the league.
It was at this time that presidents of the other teams met in Middlesboro and said, “We’re sorry, but Lexington has to go.” The Colts were teetering on the brink of elimination due to poor attendance and burning through its operating budget. Wacks had indicated that $6,000 would get a team through the year before the start of the campaign. The Colts were a long bus ride from the other Tennessee and southern Kentucky teams; it only made sense to continue the season without them.
However, other clubs were facing financial difficulties including the Oak Ridge Pioneers whose owner Ross Charles stated that $10,000 was needed by July 4 to continue operations, and the Harlan Smokies who almost exited the loop before additional support was provided to continue operations.
Colts president Ashford indicated that when Morristown folded his club would more than likely leave the league and operate by other means than to continue once again in an odd-numbered league.
“Even in this event, however, the Colts will not be disbanded. We will continue to play exhibition games with Semi-Pro teams in the area, both at home and on the road, for the next two months, retaining only those Players whose contracts are owned by us. The players who are with us an option will be returned to the teams that hold their contracts.”
The Colts’ last few days in minor league baseball were during the July 4th weekend that did not have them scheduled against any league opponent. Instead, they played a two-game series against the always-game Hustlers, dropping the first game 7-0 before winning the final 6-5.
On July 6, a nicely written telegram stated that they were no longer in the league. It was the custom at the time to let the last team in the league fold first. The Colts would dissolve at midnight but honored their commitment to play in Kingsport–a 4-hour drive by car on current interstate roads. However, just like the team’s first game, it was rained out. The team finished with a 34-37 record.
The league would limp for another two weeks, with Wacks looking for a sixth club to replace Lexington. However, on July 20, Harlan became the fifth team to cease operations that season, and the Mountain States League gave up the ghost the next day. It had hoped to reform for the 1955 season, but it would never operate again as a professional league.
The Colts would not continue as an independent ball club, although there appeared to be plenty of opportunities to do that, but enough money had been lost on the season and a few remained in town to continue the year playing semi-pro baseball for other clubs. A total of 43 men suited up for the Colts and only six of them remained on the team from April 25 to July 6.
Bonura spoke at a Rotary Club meeting and believed Lexington to be a great town but would be better placed with closer rivals instead of clubs down in Tennessee to keep travel expenses down.
“The club wouldn’t have made any money. You can’t enter the thing with the idea that you have a big money maker. It takes some civic-minded people who want Lexington to have baseball to back the team with the idea that over two or three years, they aren’t going to lose any money, but then they aren’t going to make any either.”
Lexington would not host another professional baseball team until 2001, 47 years later. Unlike the 31-year gap between the two versions of the Colts club, many fans barely remembered the Mountain States League version that came in and went from town quicker than a thoroughbred at nearby Keeneland.
It was not too uncommon for other members of the loop who were more than likely losing money and on shaky grounds themselves. Kingsport would join the Appalachian League the following year and after a one-year-hiatus, remain in the league to this day. However, except Lexington, none of the cities represented in the league still operate in a professional or summer-collegiate league at this time.
The Legends would play 20 seasons before Major League Baseball announced this past December that it would be part of its revamped minor-league affiliation this season. At this time, the organization is making plans to return this season either in a summer collegiate league or in the independent Frontier League, depending on who you talk with. It is safe to say that baseball will continue in some form in the Blue Grass Capital.
As questionable as baseball might appear at this time, it will be nowhere near the entropy that existed for the 90 days in 1954 when Lexington had a minor league baseball team. The quickly assembled franchise suffered from small attendance figures, a loss of money, long traveling days, and playing in a league that was losing clubs left and right.
The Colts were a footnote in history. The Legends have been mainstays. Professional baseball was lost for almost 50 years, that won’t be the case with the current announcement.