A field of history

A field of history


The ball diamond near 13th and Vine streets in west Davenport is hardly distinguishable from those at any other city park, but it is a field of history.

Here is where Diamond Ball, a form of softball that was popular in Davenport during the Depression-ridden 1930s, was born. Some say Diamond Ball is the granddaddy of modern softball.

Any vestiges of the park's claim to baseball history are lost. Although the site was officially dedicated as "The Davenport Diamond Ball Park" in 1978 during the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Diamond Ball League, it is still generally known as Jefferson Park.

A historical marker commemorating the league's founders and their slogan — "Religion, Respect and Sportsmanship — apparently was removed during subsequent renovations.

With major league baseball getting under way this week and area softball players limbering up for their season, let's play a little Diamond Ball history.

The first ball was tossed out in 1928 by Hugo "Hooks" Kohn, who later would earn the nickname "Mr. Baseball" for his efforts to promote the game in the Quad-Cities.

At a time when baseball was played with a small hardball pitched overhand, Kohn and five other baseball enthusiasts came up with new way of playing the game.

They used a 12-inch ball that was pitched underhand.

Their playing style did not go over well with baseball purists, who referred to the new game as "kitten ball."

In a Quad-City Times story published May 21, 1978, Kuhn told reporter Jim Arpy that he and his fledgling players wanted to avoid calling their new game "softball."

"Softball sounded too kittenish. We thought a lot about a name and came up with ‘diamond ball,' " he said.

Because baseball traditionalists often chased them away from city parks, Kohn and his teammates played their early games on Brown Street until police told them to leave. They moved to Second Pasture, also known as Mitchell's Bluff, a grassy expanse that became the city park at 13th and Vine Streets.

There, they laid out a playing field with 65-foot baselines and a 40-foot distance between the batter's box and the pitcher's mound.

The game caught on. Soon the Italians and Irish from the Cork Hill neighborhood surrounding Sacred Heart Cathedral were forming teams. The Diamond Ball League was born.

Diamond Ball provided free entertainment for Davenporters struggling to make ends meet during the Great Depression. The teams found sponsors in such businesses as Standard Oil Co., Superior Dairy and Riverside Power and Manufacturing. Eight to 10 teams typically played during a season.

The league's power house was sponsored by Powers Ice and Coal Co., recalls long-time parks commissioner Leone Bredbeck. She watched the games as a child.

The games offered clean family fun.

"Whole families would come to our games, dads and moms, kids, grandmothers and grandfathers. There was always a wholesome atmosphere — no profanity, no fighting or bad sportsmanship," Kohn told Arpy.

As Diamond Ball gained acceptance, the teams played at the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds and at Fejervary, Lindsay, Van Buren and Lafayette parks. The games attracted crowds of up to 5,000, and police officers directed traffic.

The Diamond League lasted until 1940 when it was taken over by the Davenport Park Board.

On July 10, 1978, surviving founders of the league gathered at their old stomping grounds at 13th and Vine to celebrate the league's 50th anniversary. Mayor Charles Wright, Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa, and other dignitaries were on hand to watch the oldtimers, some in their 70s, play an exhibition game.

They also dedicated a sign commemorating the park's history. The sign listed league founders Kohn, Leo F. Faranelli, Manley C. Hult, John Block, Jan Huntoon and Edward Murphy.

The birthplace of Diamond Ball is tucked away in the southeast section of the park. A new backstop and other improvements came with the construction of nearby Friendly House, 1221 Myrtle St., which opened in 1993.

The historical marker dedicated in 1978 has disappeared. A similar sign at the softball field in Lindsay Park also is gone.

Dorothy Wulf, of Davenport, Hugo Kohn's niece and an enthusiast of local baseball history, explains why Diamond Ball's legacy has faded into oblivion.

"Most of the people who played Diamond Ball are gone."

Questions, comments or ideas for this weekly local history/nostalgia column? Contact John Willard, Quad-City Times, 500 E. 3rd St., Davenport, Iowa 52801;e-mail jwillard@qctimes.com; phone (319) 383-2314


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