In the spring of 1998, I received a call from a Webb City High School counselor asking me if I would have any internships open for graduating high school seniors. He had a number of students who were looking for work, and at the least, wanted each of them to go through the interview process. I was looking for fill-in help for the summer, since this was a time when we were losing our lifestyles editor Amy Lamb Campbell and our sports editor Brian Webster, so I jumped at the opportunity.
And that was when I first met Jana Blankenship, a tiny blond who played a huge role in keeping our news staff afloat during those trying summer months. I can't recall what question I asked that brought the response, but at one point, Jana said she would even be willing to clean the bathrooms to get the job. Fortunately for Jana, we already had someone to clean the bathrooms, but her resume was excellent, she had written some strong stories for her high school newspaper, and she had previous work experience, so a couple of days later I hired her, knowing that she was willing to try to write anything except for sports.
That changed on June 16 when The Press threw blanket coverage on the reunion of the KOM (Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri) League, which gave Carthage a taste of minor league baseball in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Our interim sports editor, a stopgap fill-in who I was forced to hire to make sure we got the pages out, was ostensibly the point man for our coverage, but I made sure the important stories were being done by the people whom I trusted.
On the day of the oldtimers baseball game, Marla Hinkle, an MSSC student who was also interning for us that summer, covered the effect the reunion was having on the Carthage economy; Ron Graber provided photographic coverage, while Jana and I handled the features.
Jana conducted an interview with a KOM wife, Delores Liston and I loved her lead, "It was a scorching hot morning Tuesday as Delores Liston sat in the stands of Carl Lewton Stadium to watch her soon-to-be 72-year-old husband play baseball. She whooped and hollered at all the players and cheered when they made a good play. "I'm not really on either side. I like to cheer for all of them," she said. "The game reminds me a lot of our grandson's games."
Jana smoothly guided the reader through the Listons' courtship and how they celebrated their 46th wedding anniversary at Carl Lewton Stadium the previous day. As with most good feature writers, Jana saved the best for last:
But throughout the years, he continued to play baseball. He played until he was in his 50s and then continued to play softball until he was 61.
"In fact, he played for so long that he even played on the same team as his oldest son, Mrs.Liston said, 'One day my son came to me and he said, 'Mom, how do I tell dad that I'm too old to play ball anymore?' " She simply told him, 'That's between you and your father.' "
After Jana interviewed Mrs. Liston, she tagged along with me as I did the remainder of the feature coverage. That included an interview with 77-year-old Jumpin' Joe Pollock, who was described in John Hall's classic book, "Majoring in the Minors," as the fastest man in the KOM League, and Mr. Pollock's wife.
Pollock at one time had been in a race with legendary Olympic champion Jesse Owens. He lost, but he kept up with him for a little bit. On that June day in Carthage, Jumpin' Joe Pollock made what was probably his last appearance as a ballplayer...despite having had knee replacement surgery on both knees.
He just shook his head when I asked him about that. "I guess we still love baseball," he said.
Jana, who was not a big baseball fan, was entranced as Joe Pollock began describing his days in the KOM league, including a time when he stole six bases in one game (including home twice) and the fans passed the hat and collected $150 for him. "And the players were paid $150 a month at that time," he said.
He then talked about his coaching days after baseball, with his players including two Miami, Okla. greats Steve and Tinker Owens.
When the interview was over, Jana told me, "I could have listened to him all day." I fully agreed.
Those boys of summer are vanishing and until a few days ago, I was unaware that one of those boys who was no longer with us was Jumpin' Joe Pollock. He died in 2003. John Hall, in his regular KOM update, wrote a few days ago about the dedication of a field to Mr. Pollock in his beloved Miami.
That is a wonderful tribute to a man who played and coached for the love of the game...and who for one pre-summer day at least, shared that love and taught some lessons in life to young Jana Blankenship.