Minor League Baseball in Topeka

As far back as the 1880s Topeka has hosted minor league baseball teams of varying ability. The team most people around here remember fondly is the Topeka Owls, who competed in Western Association, a Class D league, from 1939 until 1942. The team did not play during the war years primarily due a shortage of qualified players and numerous wartime restrictions. The team resumed play in 1946 and represented Topeka through the the 1954 season.

In 1946 until 1954 the Owls played in a stadium located at the intersection of Topeka Blvd and Lyman Rd. It has long since been torn down. The eight-year period was the golden era of minor league baseball in Topeka. Affiliated with the St. Louis Browns, the major league Browns would supply the Owls with players if they ran short. Minor league baseball in the post-war era was a mixture of older players hoping to renew their career after coming back from the service and youngsters just starting out their careers. They were a pretty darn good ball club remembered Owls hard-throwing pitcher, Lee Dodson.

In a 2003 Capitol Journal article Bob Lee recounts that he played for the Owls while a student at Washburn University. Lee said even though they played in a Class C league they drew pretty good attendance. He had two good years here, and the Owls won their share of ballgames.

Another former Owl Bob Hedgwood, said the Owls played teams from seven other towns including Salina, Hutchinson and Leavenworth.  Hedgwood remembers bus rides, $2 a day meal money and loyal fans who would follow the team to road games. Owl players were paid about $150 to $200 a month and most worked a full-time job as well.

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Lee Dodson, Mr. Baseball of Topeka

You can’t talk about the Owls without mentioning Butch Nieman a power hitting outfielder who also was the manager of the team. Future major league player Solly Drake was also a member of this team. The team qualified for the league playoffs regularly. In 1951 the team won the Western League Pennant with a 74- 44 record. Declining attendance and other economic factors led to the Owls demise.

Butch Nieman, player/manager of the Topeka Owls, 1949. Nieman joined the Owls in 1947 as an outfielder, became the team's player/manager in 1948, and continued in that dual role through 1951. Nieman was the Western Association league leader in home runs in each of his five seasons with the Owls. SCBHOF inductee, 2014. (Kansas Historical Society)

Butch Nieman, player manager of the Owls.

Minor league baseball returned to Topeka in 1956 until 1961. First as the Topeka Hawks and finally as the Topeka Reds. The 1961 Topeka Reds fielded a excellent team with players like Cal Ripken Sr.,Art Shamsky, a member of the Miracle Mets, and future National League All Stars Tommy Harper, Jim Maloney and Tommy Helms, a member of the powerful Big Red Machine.

Those are a few memories of a bygone era of sports in this city. I’m putting together a presentation on minor league baseball in Topeka and I would love to hear from you. If you have any information or stories to share about the history of baseball in Topeka, please pass them on to me. Call me at the library 785-580-4400 or send me a email at dcoleman@tscpl.org.