'Grassroots Baseball' tells the story of the game along Route 66

May 18th, 2022
Local Little Leaguers enjoy some ice cream at Ted Drewes in St. Louis. (Photo courtesy of Jean Fruth)

It’s a scene so familiar, it might as well be part of the Little League rulebook. The ballgame ends and, win or lose, players pile into coaches’ and parents’ cars to head over to the local ice cream stand.

In St. Louis, that means the renowned Ted Drewes Frozen Custard on Route 66, where the custards are so thick, the servers turn them upside down before handing them to you through the window. It was a summertime ritual enjoyed by slugger Ryan Howard when he was growing up nearby, and it’s a highlight of a beautiful new book, Grassroots Baseball: Route 66, by photographer Jean Fruth.

With more than 250 images spread over 256 pages, Fruth does what French-born cultural historian Jacques Barzun advised in a 1954 essay: “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game – and do it by watching first some high school or small-town teams.”

Fruth and Jeff Idelson, the former president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, co-founded the non-profit Grassroots Baseball in 2019 to promote and celebrate the game around the globe. Then they spent chunks of the next three years doing just that along the 2,448 miles of the iconic, historic highway that stretches from Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif.

“When we decided we wanted Grassroots Baseball to be more, to start a not-for-profit and give back, it just made so much sense to do Route 66,” Fruth said. “Baseball and Route 66 go together: the Americana and the memories along the way, the nostalgia and the history.”

On the road, Fruth captured youth players barely taller than the bats they carry, high school teams celebrating the joy of a championship or commiserating over a title that fell just out of reach, behind-the-scenes moments with the Double-A Amarillo Sod Poodles, women and girls playing the game in California. They held clinics with kids learning the finer points of the game from Hall of Famers like Jim Thome and George Brett.

“We're both at a place in our lives where giving back is important,” Fruth said. “You surround your work with purpose, and I think it just makes things feel so much better. We’re lucky enough that we’re able to do that in this part of our journey.”

Mixed in with the baseball images are shots of what makes Route 66 a bucket-list item for so many: Cadillac Ranch on a wind-swept Texas plain or the burros that freely roam the streets of Oatman, a former mining town 2,710 feet above the Arizona desert.

There's always time for a game in Claude, Texas. (Photo courtesy of Jean Fruth)

The Mother Road runs through eight states, each one getting a chapter in the book with a notable figure from that state providing an opening essay: Thome in Illinois; Howard in Missouri; Adam LaRoche in Kansas; Johnny Bench in Oklahoma; Paul Matney, a longtime umpire and educator, in Texas; Alex Bregman in New Mexico; Billy Hatcher in Arizona; and Brett in California.

“It just felt good [to be a part of it],” Thome said when asked why he accepted Idelson’s invitation to contribute two essays (he also wrote the afterword). “Growing up where I did and having an opportunity to kind of live what Grassroots represents. It really shows you that the middle of our country has some really cool history of baseball through it.”

About 500 miles from Thome’s central Illinois hometown of Peoria is the childhood home of Mickey Mantle in Commerce, Okla. Those two Hall of Famers accounted for 1,148 home runs between them.

The baseball team from Commerce High School gathers at Mickey Mantle's childhood home in northeast Oklahoma. (Photo courtesy of Jean Fruth)

“It's this long stretch of highway that is emblematic of America -- Americana and American culture,” Idelson said. “Baseball-Reference tells us 2,000-plus baseball players grew up within shouting distance of Route 66, and so it’s the great American story of being able to come out of nothing in a lot of these markets and make it all the way to the top.”

The journey isn’t over for Fruth and Idelson. They’ll spend much of this summer on a book tour that reaches beyond Route 66, with many of their contributors – and other Hall of Famers like Goose Gossage and Greg Maddux – joining them. Along the way, they’re sure to collect more stories.

“[As a photographer,] I like action, of course, but telling stories – everybody has their own baseball stories,” Fruth said. “The first time they went to a game, maybe their dad brought them. The time they met their hero. Their first at-bat. Or they went on a baseball trip – it’s the same thing with Route 66. ‘Oh I was in my parents’ station wagon, and we started in Chicago. And we stopped here, my sister in the back.’ Everybody has memories of both. The personal stories, I never get tired of them. Everybody always has their own story to tell.”

Members of the Los Angeles Monarchs provided the inspiration for the next Grassroots Baseball project, which will be about women and girls in baseball. (Photo courtesy Jean Fruth)