The Arkansas Travelers Museum shares the colorful history of the beloved baseball team
Baseball mitts were as small as oven mitts, and Theodore Roosevelt was President of the United States when Little Rock travelers posed for photographs now on display at Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock.
These 1901 photos and a medley of other memorabilia, some of which date back to when baseball was actually our national pastime, fill a cozy museum that’s usually but perhaps unfairly omitted from lists of Pulaski County tourist attractions.
The Arkansas Travelers Museum, open when the current Texas League team plays at home, is undoubtedly of greatest interest to baseball fans who paid $7-13 for a game ticket. But the buffet of exhibits also serves up a slice of central Arkansas history dating back to when the first automobiles heralded the end of the age of horses and buggies.
Museum visitors learn that the team has gone through a checkered existence spanning more than a century, with occasional lapses as the franchise went into hibernation. The name was changed in 1957 from “Little Rock Travelers” to “Arkansas Travelers” to broaden geographic appeal.
Once inside the ballpark, it is free to enter the one-room museum in the main lobby on the third base side of home plate. Looking at the jumble of bats, balls, jerseys, scoreboards, trophies, photos, and other collectibles is akin to rummaging through a pack rat uncle’s attic and throwing up some unexpected surprises for him.
Several photographs show the baseball stadium where Voyageurs played from 1901 to 1931, on the current site of the Little Rock Central High School football stadium. Originally called West End Park, the land was renamed in honor of Judge William M. Kavanaugh.
Older Voyager fans will enjoy the assorted memorabilia of Ray Winder Field, the team’s beloved but antiquated home in War Memorial Park from 1932 until moving north across the Arkansas River in 2007 to the whole new Dickey-Stephens Park.
A surprising object is a weathered cooker. It belonged to gardener Arthur “Rabbit” Reaves, who helped build Ray Winder Field. Then hired as head groundskeeper, Reaves set up a one-room apartment under the first base stand where he lived for about 20 years.
Ray Winder is hailed on a museum plaque as “a .400 hitter in the game of life” for his longtime role in keeping the franchise alive. Before retiring in 1965, he designed the new public ownership plan that still works.
The team’s public face from 1976 to 2009 was Bill Valentine, a former major league umpire who served as publicity-savvy general manager. He coined the phrase “the greatest show on dirt,” which brought a copyright infringement claim from Ringling Bros. and the Barnum & Bailey Circus.
The museum houses the two green wooden seats of Ray Winder Field that were marked for years as reserved for Valentine. This seated shrine pays homage to an impresario who relished stadium stunts. At the annual Clunker Car Night, he handed out rattle cars that still more or less worked. For two decades, he brought in Captain Dynamite every year, who locked himself in a coffin and blew up four sticks of dynamite.
An exposed baseball was hit on April 12, 2007, on the first home run at Dickey-Stephens Park. He was powered by Curtis Pride, an unusual member of the Travelers for two reasons: He was 38 and nearing the end of his baseball career, almost a generation older than most of his teammates. He was also deaf, having lost his hearing to measles as a child.
Along with the nostalgia rooted in the Voyageurs story, the museum commemorates a moment of tragedy. Three photographs show Mike Coolbaugh, who was killed when a line drive hit him in the neck while training at first base for the visiting Tulsa Drillers at Dickey-Stephens Park on July 22, 2007.
A scattering of other American baseball parks contain a museum featuring the hometown team. But almost none were born of personal inspiration, as was evidently the case at Dickey-Stephens Park. The idea came from Valentine, whose cluttered office at Ray Winder Field had prompted a number of visitors to say, “Hey, this place looks like a museum.”
The Arkansas Travelers will next play at Dickey Stephens Park May 17-22 and May 24-29. Ticket information is available at milb.com/arkansas/tickets/.