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Alexander: Getting hip to baseball on Route 66

The lyrics might only be familiar to those of a certain age.

“It winds from Chicago to L.A.

“More than two thousand miles all the way.

“Get your kicks on Route 66 …”

But the message of that song took photographer Jean Furth and former Baseball Hall of Fame executive director Jeff Idelson along that 2,448-mile route, along Interstates and back roads, stopping wherever baseball was being played be it college, high school, Little League, just about anything involving a bat and ball.

Their travels were captured between the covers of “Grassroots Baseball: Route 66,” (Sports Publishing, 2022), released this past week and an ode to the game and its pull on the heart of America, as well as a tribute to those sons of Route 66 who have made it to the major leagues. For example, Johnny Bench, the pride of Binger, Oklahoma, wrote the introduction, fellow Hall of Famer Jim Thome wrote the afterword, and among those who contributed is El Segundo’s own George Brett.

“When you look at his essay, the very first line says if America were a baseball game, then Route 66 would be its walk-off home run,” Idelson said.

But the photos are the heart of the book. Fruth, who is based in the Bay Area and regularly shoots San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s games and also does projects for the Hall of Fame, has assembled 250 photos from what turned out to be a three-year project, which was lengthened by the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a followup to an earlier coffee table book, “Grassroots Baseball: Where Legends Begin,” which documented all levels of the game domestically and around the world, with profiles of big leaguers discussing their early baseball memories.

Their tour to promote this one begins Sunday in Oklahoma City, with Bench joining a book signing at the home of the Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate. It will reach Chavez Ravine a week from Sunday, with Alan Trammell joining Fruth and Idelson for a book signing at the Dodgers-Mets game.

Why Grassroots Baseball? And why Route 66?

“When I was traveling, shooting the major league game – which I still do – I always took time to shoot the amateur game,” Fruth said during a Zoom interview this week. “It’s where I started shooting sports, with the amateur game, and it’s really where my passion lies, the stuff you don’t write about. It’s not money and contracts or lockouts. It’s just the pure love of the game, and I’ve just always been drawn to that part of baseball.”

These books – the next of which will explore women in baseball, Fruth said – are part of a not-for-profit endeavor, also titled “Grassroots Baseball,” which is intended to celebrate and give back to the amateur game through clinics with Hall of Famers and retired players and equipment giveaways.

“We started the program, the not-for-profit, along Route 66,” she said. “And it was just like, wouldn’t that be a nice place to start? Real Americana, baseball Americana … this cultural tour starting in Chicago, ending in Santa Monica.”

For the record, they tooled along the Mother Road in an RV, and Fruth pointed out that Idelson did all of the driving.

“We all know our strengths,” he deadpanned.

Fruth talked of how, even though it’s the same game, it looks different at various points along Route 66, “geography, topography, culture,” she said. “We’re telling those stories and showing what it looks like all along the route.”

The most surprising takeaway? Baseball can be every bit as much of a unifier in those small, remote towns as the Friday night lights are in the fall.

“What am I going to find in Baxter Springs, Kansas?” she remembered asking herself. “And you just find this really strong community of baseball where opening day of Little League, the stands are completely filled. I haven’t seen that, certainly not in urban towns, but seeing how important local community sports are in the smaller towns, how strong community is and the volunteerism, was surprising. It didn’t floor me, but it was certainly lovely to see. The barber who cuts everybody’s hair has also been dedicating 50 years to cutting the grass at the local field and keeping everything pristine.”

There is also the impact of visiting those small towns where the legends got their start. Fruth recalled her visit to Commerce, Oklahoma, the hometown of the late Mickey Mantle.

“It just gives you chills when you’re there,” she said. “Commerce High School, and going to Mickey Mantle’s house that’s still intact, and the barn where he learned to be a switch hitter. … You can read about it, but when you’re there you’re seeing it right in front of you and you’re like, ‘Wow, this is Mickey Mantle’s house, and the water tower is painted with pinstripes and the No. 7 in this tiny town.’ It’s just really cool to see.”

You want proof of the impact of Route 66 on the game? The Baseball-Reference website has a page listing the 2,016 players who were born within 50 miles of the road and who ended their careers after 1926, when U.S. 66 was first established.

For the record, 45 of the top 100 position players and 58 of the top 100 pitchers, ranked by career WAR, were born in Southern California. That doesn’t even include Brett, born in West Virginia, or others who migrated here, but it does include 10 native Hall of Famers: Don Drysdale (Van Nuys), Bob Lemon (San Bernardino), Trevor Hoffman (Bellflower), Trammell (Garden Grove), Gary Carter (Culver City), and Tony Gwynn, Eddie Murray, Duke Snider, Joe Gordon and Bobby Doerr (all born in L.A.)

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