OK’s Major-League Production
A legacy of big-time ballplayers
Photo by M.J. Alexander
Baseball is said to have first been played in present-day Oklahoma in 1869, when Fort Sill hosted games between soldiers of the 7th U.S. Cavalry, under the command of George Armstrong Custer, and the 19th Kansas Volunteers.
Over the decades since, Oklahoma-born Hall of Famers include New York Yankee legend Mickey Mantle (Spavinaw); 14-time All-Star catcher Johnny Bench, Gold Glove winner Bobby Murcer and Kansas City Monarchs star Charles Wilber “Bullet Joe” Rogan (Oklahoma City); Paul “Big Poison” and Lloyd “Little Poison” Waner (Harrah); and Willie Stargell (Earlsboro). They’re part of the state’s impressive legacy; however …
THE CLAIM: Oklahoma has sent more baseball players to the major leagues than any other state.
THE SOURCE: Moments in Oklahoma History, by Bonnie Spear. Published by Reliance Press, 1988.
FACT CHECK: False.
The Baseball Almanac reports that every state in the Union has produced at least one Major League Baseball player. From the sport’s first major league season in 1876 through the 2017 World Series, analyzing rosters for the home states of the 16,563 athletes born in the U.S. shows California as the runaway winner with 2,224 players.
Oklahoma – and its territorial lands before statehood – is listed as the birthplace of 263 MLB players, 20th overall in the nation.
The first Major League Baseball player born in what is now Oklahoma was Adair Bushyhead Mayes, nicknamed Paddy Mayes after his arrival on St. Patrick’s Day 1885. The native of Locust Grove, Cherokee Nation, played outfield in five June games for the 1911 Philadelphia Phillies, recording a walk and no hits in five at-bats.
He was followed by two Territory-born classmates from the famed Carlisle Indian Industrial School: Mike Balenti Jr. and the legendary Jim Thorpe.
Balenti was born July 3, 1886, in Calumet, to Cheyenne Belle Rath, daughter of renowned buffalo hunter Charles Rath, and a Hungarian immigrant. Balenti played in 1911 for the Reds and 1913 for the Browns.
Thorpe was born May 28, 1887, in Prague. He excelled in track, baseball and football and shattered world records in the 1912 Olympic decathlon and pentathlon. His medals were stripped away months later when it was reported he was paid $2 a game to play baseball with the Class D Rocky Mount Railroaders. New York Giants manager John McGraw would offer Thorpe a three-year deal worth $6,000 a season, making him at the time the highest-paid rookie in the sport’s history.
Senior among Oklahoma’s MLB players active in the 2017 season is seven-time All Star Matt Holliday, born in Stillwater on Jan. 15, 1980. The 2007 National League batting champion and a key member of the St. Louis Cardinals 2011 World Series Champion squad, he ended the year with a career total of 314 homeruns. Newcomers Koda Glover, Michael Fulmer and Brian Anderson, all born in the spring of 1993 and making their MLB debuts in the last two seasons, are among those continuing Oklahoma’s baseball tradition.
The Top 20
MLB players by U.S. state of birth, all time
New York: 1,141
New Jersey: 420
North Carolina: 409
Dominican Republic: 707
Puerto Rico: 263
Editor’s note: Oklahoma is rich with history, lore and fun facts, but some of them aren’t quite factual. In this series, M.J. Alexander hunts for the accuracy – or lack thereof – behind some of our state’s stories.