TRI-LAKES AREA It was a walk in the woods Nathan Neighbors will probably never forget.
On April 12, he and a friend were having lunch and listening to a Texas Rangers game on the radio in the old stands overlooking the former Whittington Park, now a stop along the city’s historic baseball trail. Neighbors, recreation superintendent for the Parks and Recreation Department, said he and his friend had been walking the trail when they stopped for lunch.
He said they decided to walk the hill behind the stands looking for the remains of White City Loop the Dips, a roller coaster that adjoined the park in the early 1900s.
“It was the seventh-inning stretch, and not a very exciting game,” Neighbors said. “We got kind of looking around, and I found an object that looked like a Mason jar half-buried in the ground.”
Neighbors said he unearthed the glass container and found it had created “sort of a terrarium” around a baseball — an old, brown one that he at first mistook for an avocado seed. But it was possible the ball had been hit into the stands — or arrived there by some other means — by a visiting player from a professional baseball team like the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Cincinnati Reds, the Philadelphia Phillies or the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Hot Springs was one of the first spring training locations for major league teams, and Whittington Park, built in 1894, was “the epicenter” of baseball in the Spa City. Such players as Babe Ruth and Cy Young were frequent visitors. Whittington Park closed in 1942 and is now featured in an interactive walking tour that brings the city’s baseball heritage to life.
“I fully expected to pull out only half a ball,” Neighbors said, revisiting the woodsy spot where he made the find. Scattered about were some old cans and the remains of the dismantled concrete bleachers. “We figured the players might have hung out behind the stands drinking beer. I mean, they came here to get in their reps and then relax. We hoped we might find something interesting, and we did.”
The jar “had about two inches of dirt around it,” Neighbors said, “but there were no roots growing through the ball. I was scared it might swell and destroy itself — it hadn’t been exposed to humidity in years.”
He said he took the ball home and let it dry. That was when he saw its distinctive red and blue stitching. He said he knew then that he had found an American League ball that was at least 80 years old.
Mike Dugan, a local baseball historian and member of the Brooks Robinson-George Kell Chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research, inspected the ball and agreed with Neighbors’ initial opinion.
“It’s definitely a Reach ball,” Dugan said. “Reach did alternating blue and red stitching for the American League until 1932. This ball is pre-1932, though there is not one trace of ink or writing on it that I could find.
“I’m just amazed at the condition the ball is in. It is very weathered and brown. It just seems like one of those miraculous stories.”
Neither Dugan nor Neighbors believes the ball has any value aside from being a piece of local history.
“They’ve got more of these at Cooperstown than they know what to do with,” Neighbors said.
“From a collector’s standpoint, it has no value whatsoever,” Dugan said. “I told [Neighbors] that, and he didn’t care one bit — it was the story that excited him.”
Both offered theories as to how the ball could have ended up where Neighbors found it, and how long it might have been there. The precise history behind the ball is unknown.
“There was obviously a ton of activity on that field from 1900 on, and it just stands to reason there would be some collateral items up there,” Dugan said.
“All the opinions I’ve heard have been perfectly viable,” Neighbors said. “It might have been fouled off in 1932, or might have been a leftover ball that ended up here 40 or 50 years ago.”
Neighbors said that other than taking care of the ball, he has no immediate plans for it.
“I got the impression [Neighbors] was pleased for the community that he found the ball,” Dugan said. “It would be really nice to see it in some sort of glass case.”
Staff writer Daniel A. Marsh can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or email@example.com.