|Oklahoma's Premier Summer Baseball Program||Wednesday, June 19, 2013|
The history of the Travelers:
From Woodward in 1964 to Elk City in 2008
Oklahoma Travelers | August 7, 2008
In 1964, a 27-year old Bob Ward took over a dysfunctional American Legion Baseball Program and with the help of great players, parents and volunteers from the rural area of northwest Oklahoma, he brought it to the forefront of summer baseball programs in the United States.
The Woodward Travelers became a name recognized in the sport of baseball from Danville, California to Coral Springs, Florida to New London, Connecticut, as Ward would never be satisfied with having a second rate program. His vision was to have a nationally recognized program that would travel anywhere -- and play anyone -- to make a name for itself.
Bob knew it would take a great deal of financial support to play at the highest level, and to get that support his team would have to win. When Bob met with the Woodward American Legion before the beginning of the 1964 season he shocked them by telling them it would take $5,000 to operate the program. They asked how he expected to get such resources. His answer…"It's simple, put a winner on the field".
With the help of many, the Travelers began to flourish into a household name throughout the region. In 43 summers (through the 2006 season), the program's win-loss record stands at a whopping 2,303-880. That's a winning percentage of .724.
Bob didn't put a winner on the field his first season of 1964. The club finished 20-27, but there hasn't been a losing season since.
Building an empire
As the wins piled up and the prestige of the program grew through the years, so to did the support from the surrounding area. Local businesses, fans and Traveler alumni turned out at the games in large numbers and gave generous financial support to make the Travelers a staple of northwest Oklahoma.
The majority of the support is displayed each year in the Traveler game program. The book contains player profiles, team history, lists of Traveler alumni that went on to play college and pro ball, etc. The businesses and supporters that help make the summer season's possible are featured in the program.
Along with financial support from local folks, the Travelers have always been blessed with people who donate their time and sweat to the cause. There's far too many to list here, but some of the key members that helped Bob Ward get the program off the ground were Lowell Grice, George Hildinger and Wilber Long.
In 1991, Ward took over the financial workings as well as every other aspect of the program. An organization of longtime supporters began to come together to help Bob take the Traveler program to even a higher level. They did this due to the importance of the program to players in the Tri-State area.
Bob's ability to raise money from advertisement sales was nothing short of phenomenal. He was able to bring in an average of $12,000 to the Traveler program for more than 15 consecutive years. Along with money he himself donated to the program, Ward was able to put together ambitious schedules filled with top-flight competition from across the country and elevate the program's status into a nationally recognized baseball team.
Sandy Lehr (Woodward) began to be a very important man in the fundraising department. Sandy was able to bring in more than $6,000 a year from the local oilfield companies which have been very important to the growth of the Travelers. Without the generosity of those in the local oil industry (many of which played for the team over the years), the team wouldn't be where it is today.
Bill Gensler, Frank Johnson, Jamie Shirkey, and John Crotts (all of Woodward) became very instrumental in the fundraising activities as well as the everyday chores to help keep the summers running smoothly. We thank them for all they did for many years.
The Travelers have maintained an annual budget between $30,000 and $50,000 ever since the early 1990s. This type of operation allowed Ward and his Travelers to expose the athletes in western Oklahoma to the better part of the United States. Over time the team traveled from coast to coast playing tournaments in New York, Boston, Carson City, Houston, Dallas, New Orleans as well as trips to Colorado, Indiana, South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Kentucky, Tennessee and South Florida. The Travelers played in Arlington Stadium for several years and they performed at the Houston Astrodome (winning by the way).
Everywhere the team went, Bob's players represented their community and state with class and proved to the country that kids from little dots on the map of northwest Oklahoma could compete against anyone in the country.
The Traveler legacy
One significant number deserves special mention: one million. As in the estimated worth of college scholarships received by his players. In his 37 years as head coach (thru 2000), more than 200 of Bob's players earned scholarships with an estimated total of $1 million. That is perhaps the most important legacy of Bob Ward's tenure as coach of the program.
To this day, Bob is most proud of the opportunity the ballclub was able to give the kids of rural Oklahoma. It gave them a chance to learn about baseball and work on their skills, but also resulted in scholarships which helped young men continue their education. Former Travelers have went on to become the best in numerous fields, including: law, medicine, teaching, coaching, aviation and many others.
Traveler alumni have also played at the highest level of college and professional baseball as well.
The last National Championship team at the University of Oklahoma (1994) included three Traveler players - Ryan Minor, Damon Minor and Dusty Hansen. Traveler alums have played at OSU, Kansas, Texas Tech and other Big 12 schools. They've played at Wichita State, Arkansas and Missouri. They've played at as many junior colleges as you can name. They've dotted rosters at NCAA Division II schools, NAIA schools and any other league you can think of.
Including the Major Leagues.
Four Traveler players have made it to "The Show." Don Carman had a 10-year career with the Philadelphia Phillies, Cincinnati Reds and Texas Rangers. Monty Fariss was a first round draft pick and made it to the majors with both the Texas Rangers and Florida Marlins. Ryan Minor's name is in the baseball Hall of Fame for what he did while with the Orioles. He was the player to take the spot of Cal Ripken Jr. the night his "Iron Man" streak ended at 2,632 games in September of 1998. Ryan's brother Damon Minor made his big league debut with the San Francisco Giants in 2001. Dozens of other Traveler players spent time in professional baseball over the years as well.
Woodward Legion Post 19 crumbles under new management
In 1988, after several years of playing for his father and graduating from the program, Mark Ward began to help his father as a coach. The two shared the same passion for the program and have never known a summer vacation other than being at the ballyard.
In the latter years of the 1990s, the American Legion Post 19 in Woodward underwent changes. Men who had no ties to the Traveler program moved to the forefront of the legion post. These men, primarily new post director Alan Case, had no knowledge of the team, its history or how much of an asset it was to northwestern Oklahoma. Despite their lack of experience with the program and legion baseball in general, the men wanted to change the environment of Traveler baseball. Shortening the schedule, controlling the roster, demanding control of other operations were ideas that just would not be permitted by Bob Ward. What resulted was a power struggle between the two sides.
To calm things down between the two sides, Bob retired and passed the head coaching duties on to his son Mark in hopes that the marriage between the Travelers and the town of Woodward could survive.
It did, but not for long.
Mark took over as coach for the 2001 season, and despite allowing the American Legion Post 19 more control than it had ever had, Post director Alan Case was the ultimate destructive force that eventually led to the Travelers leaving Woodward for Elk City. Case was an antagonistic character towards Bob in 2000 and it got even worse for Mark during the 2001 season. Case's unwarranted and volatile actions and comments completely eroded the once great relationship between the American Legion post and the Traveler organization.
On top of all that, Case had no experience with running a summer baseball program and his vision for the program was doomed for failure.
Rather than riding it out and watching the program get undercut by a few unsavory characters that had no intention of keeping the Traveler program at an elite level, Mark, along with assistant coach Heath Ritchie and several of the programs most long-term supporters drafted a proposal for the city of Woodward and presented it to the city council in the fall of 2001. The proposal was aimed at securing the lease of Fuller Park-Bob Ward Field in Woodward. The American Legion also petitioned the city council for the lease, resulting in a head-to-head battle before a town meeting.
To make a long story short, the council was locked in a 2-2 vote when city mayor John Hawkins (with his head hung low) cast the deciding vote for the legion. The 3-2 vote in favor of the legion meant Post 19 would have the lease to the field for the next three years. The decision ultimately ushered the Travelers out of Woodward despite a loud outcry from local businesses and citizens that depended on the summer revenue the city obtained by having one of the nation's finest tournaments (a huge 14-team tournament of teams across the country) as well as up to 40 home games each summer.
Even though assistant coach Heath Ritchie laid out the financial hit the city would take were the Travelers to leave town, the city mayor still cast his deciding vote against the team and for the legion. It would come back to haunt the city council less than a year later.
The destined-for-failure Post 19 tried to field a team, but all of the players followed Mark and Heath to Elk City. With no experience and no organizational skills, Post 19's baseball aspirations crumbled before they even got started. The post hired an incompetent coach, had the audacity to use the copyright trademark logo of the Travelers and shamelessly tried to pass the team off as a continuation of the previous Traveler teams. In the end, the post couldn't even fill out a complete roster in the summer of 2002 and only played a handful of games. Their attempt at hosting a tournament was a complete disaster. And by the summer of 2003, legion baseball was dead for Post 19. They had no team to put on the field the city leased to them. The city council had failed Woodward as the city lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue generated by the Traveler schedule (exactly what the council was warned about, but ignored at the lease meeting).
There is another legion team at Fuller Park-Bob Ward Field these days, but the team is coached by ex-Travelers and has nothing to do with Post 19, instead using the Legion Post from Arnett as its sponsor.
It was a tragic end to 'original' Traveler baseball in Woodward, but opened the door to a new era 75 miles to the south.
The move to Elk City
Meanwhile the Travelers found a gorgeous new home in Elk City. With it's newly renovated (and beautiful) Ackley Park in downtown, the Travelers hit the ground running in the summer of 2002. The squad finished 62-15 while competing in the NABF (North American Baseball Federation) - one of the country's oldest and most prestigious summer leagues.
The first year in Elk City also produced one of the program's most memorable moments. The team won five games in two days to come-from-behind and win its NABF regional tournament in Joplin, MO. The regional title advanced the Travelers to the league's World Series in Ontario, Canada.
A season that started with much uncertainty, ended with a fourth place finish in the World Series while being housed in a luxurious hotel overlooking Niagra Falls.
It was a magical start to the Elk City era of Traveler baseball.
The tradition continues into the golden era
The Traveler program has never been as successful as it has been in the seven years at Elk City. This truly is the 'golden era' of Traveler baseball. Some of the best players in the 45-year history have come in the last six years, along with 439 wins against just 88 losses (2002-08) for a winning percentage of .833.
The kids that come to play at Elk City each year are constantly told about the long history of the team, along with stories of the people who helped build it and the players that have come before them. By the time they graduate from the program, players realize how special of an opportunity it was to wear the Traveler uniform. And just like the coaches and hundreds of alumni, each season's players are grateful for the opportunity and the local support.
With 45 years of history and tradition, there are few programs in the country that can rival the excellence of the Traveler program. No matter where you live in Oklahoma, chances are you know an ex-Traveler.
And we plan on being around another 45 years.
Stay tuned. We'll let you know how it plays out…
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