To see minor league baseball in New Mexico through July 27, follow these Pecos League teams: the Las Cruces Vaqueros, Las Vegas Train Robbers, Roswell Invaders, Santa Fe Fuego, and White Sands Pupfish
The Albuquerque Isotopes are the Triple-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies. Home games are played at Isotopes Park through August. abqisotopes.com
A snowy-haired fellow with a cowpoky twang is giving directions. “Hang a left up there. No, wait, uh... Better hang a right.” The old-timer laughs. “I’d starve if I had to drive a taxicab in Roswell. Wouldn’t know where I was half the time.”
Jim Waldrip, an 86-year-old resident of the town, is our rattled tour guide. He has agreed this spring afternoon to show a writer and a photographer the sights of Roswell. Not the Roswell where aliens from space supposedly dawdled, but the Roswell where he watched a real-life legend launch baseballs into space.
Semi-arid and flat as a fritter, Roswell holds its sports heroes in high regard. The local pantheon includes LPGA legend Nancy Lopez, who grew up here; former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, who prepped for the Naval Academy at New Mexico Military Institute; and an amiable, uncomplicated gent named Joe Willis Bauman.
No average Joe, Bauman was the Babe Ruth of minor league hardball, the Sultan of Sandlot Swat. In 1954, the hulking, square-jawed, left-handed-hitting first baseman socked 72 home runs for the Roswell Rockets of the Class C Longhorn League. The Rockets and that league expired shortly thereafter. Bauman’s mark, however, remained a record in professional baseball for 47 years, unbroken till Barry Bonds hit 73 in 2001 for the San Francisco Giants.
In a sport where numbers tell a story, the legacy of that ’54 season remains eye-popping. On top of the homers that came off his bat in bunches, Bauman knocked in 224 runs and racked up a .400 batting average. Somehow, the size-XXXL slugger even stole four bases.
Yet Joe Bauman’s name doesn’t resonate with many people, even here in New Mexico. A lot of this is because Bauman never spent a minute in the major leagues. He was a bush leaguer through and through. Playing at the basement level, he toiled seven summers in windswept towns of New Mexico and West Texas. Attendance spiked whenever Bauman appeared for games at little places like Sweetwater and Big Spring, Texas, or bigger ones like Albuquerque and Carlsbad. For young or old, man or woman, his arrival was like the circus coming to town.
Joe loved chile rellenos,” Waldrip announces as he squints out the car’s windshield in search of a café that no longer exists. Dressed in a Rockets jersey and toting a fungo bat for a cane, he’s riding shotgun to spot landmarks along the way. “A night out to Joe usually meant chile rellenos.”
Bauman is the reason Waldrip wound up in Roswell in the first place. Big Joe—the nickname sportswriters gave him for his six-foot-four-inch height and the 235 pounds he carried—was an Okie. So is Waldrip. As a schoolboy in little Healdton, Oklahoma, Waldrip heard all about this belting behemoth, six years older and six inches taller. At Capitol Hill High School in Oklahoma City, Bauman played the game like a full-grown man. Waldrip always knew Bauman as “this big ol’ kid who hit the ball so’s you couldn’t find it.”
At a stoplight, Waldrip tells us how he first met the legend when they both were playing semi-pro ball in Oklahoma. “I pitched to Joe a few times. No, I don’t remember him ever hitting a home run off me. I tried to throw him high and tight. He’d foul those off. After games we’d get to visiting.”
Early in his career, Bauman had signed a contract with the Boston Braves. He played minor league ball in their farm system back east, but he was homesick for the Southwest, where he soon returned. The closest he got to the big leagues came in a lone game in Triple-A, in 1948. He went hitless in his one at-bat. Back in Oklahoma, Bauman happily signed on with a semi-pro outfit and stayed there for three years. In 1952, Big Joe accepted an offer to suit up in New Mexico for the Artesia Drillers of the Longhorn League, a legit minor league circuit. He slammed 105 home runs over two seasons in Artesia, but by this time he was 30, and no major league club came knocking.
The following year, Bauman moved up US 285 to Roswell. The pay was decent, and there was this bonus: Ballplayers in the Southwest could pocket “screen money,” bills that appreciative fans stuck in chicken-wire screens behind home plate. In 1954, when he bashed all those balls over all those fences, Joe Bauman went home many nights with several hundred dollars in cash.
Things got even better when Jim Waldrip, his Oklahoma chum, joined the Rockets in 1955. That off-season, Bauman had gone back to Oklahoma with the Rockets’ manager to scout prospects. They convinced Waldrip, then teaching school, that he ought to come down to New Mexico. “I pretty much knew I was never going to reach the bigs,” Waldrip says.
Bauman surely knew he wouldn’t be called up, either. If Big Joe regretted not reaching the Show, he did not voice it aloud. Instead, he spent his saved-up screen money to buy a gas station in Roswell, the city he would call home for the next half-century.
Our car is proceeding down Cañoncito Drive when suddenly Waldrip swivels and says, “See that old bus there?” He points toward a rusted, permanently parked Greyhound that slumps inside the lot of the Enchanted Lands Self Storage. “Joe and I used to travel in a bus like that with the Rockets. When the bus broke down, we went in station wagons. Our bus had six bunks in the back—for the starting pitcher and five veterans.”
When Waldrip was scheduled to pitch in a game for the Rockets, he would sit next to Big Joe on the bus and ask him about the opposing team’s hitters. Though Bauman was easily the Rockets’ shiniest star, he was no prima donna. “Joe would never sleep in one of those bunks. That wasn’t like him. Anyway, he was too long.”
During road trips, Bauman refused a private room. “What the heck for?” he said. And he was just as collegial at home. The Baumans—Joe and his wife, Dorothy, had been high school sweethearts—welcomed Waldrip and his wife, Jo Anne, to Roswell.
“Some good times in there,” Waldrip says as our car idles in front of a white, low-slung ranch house on Cedar Drive. “This was the first house Joe and Dorothy lived in. We had a lot of parties here. One time Joe was cooking on a barbecue grill and a fire started. Joe tried to put it out with water but couldn’t. Earl Perry hurried over to help out and walked straight into a glass door that smashed. Earl didn’t get himself but a scratch.”
At West Second Street, Waldrip says, “Hold up and take a right a little ways down.” We swing in front of a business called Car Tunes & Tint. Decades ago, this structure was the Joe Bauman Texaco. Bauman had co-owned a Texaco station on Route 66 when he played semi-pro back in Oklahoma. To him, there was no better life than running a filling station. He even brought his teammate on board.
“I got paid a dollar an hour from Joe,” Waldrip says. “Spent three summers here. I did detailing and repaired tires.” Dorothy took care of the cash register, and Joe worked the pumps. When the Rockets were playing at home, Bauman left the station at about 5 p.m. and headed off for the ballpark, a four-mile drive.
It was at that Roswell ballpark that he ended his baseball-playing career, a third of the way into the 1956 season for the Rockets. He was having trouble running. Far worse, he was whiffing at pitches he used to clock into the rodeo grounds beyond right field. Waldrip remembers it well. “He told me, ‘Jim, I can’t pick up the ball no more.’”
Waldrip nods toward an abandoned building across the way from where the gas station stood. “That’s where Pop’s Drive-In used to be.” You could get a 10-cent hamburger at Pop’s. Their slogan was “Worst Food in New Mexico.” For years the sign attracted the curious. Now the location brings a mournful stare from Waldrip. So much is gone.
Roswell didn’t witness Bauman’s record home run number 72 in 1954—that happened in Artesia, during the second game of a season-ending doubleheader. The 69th and final homer he hit at home during that summer had come three days before. Fans that night stuffed the Roswell ballpark to see Big Joe wallop a 375-footer to deep right. The Roswell Daily Record reported that the cheers could be heard downtown, two miles away.
Pull up at that light-blue house yonder,” Waldrip instructs as we tootle along West Deming Street, toward the last house the Baumans owned in Roswell. Two big mulberry trees stand sentinel in the front yard. “Dorothy always had Christmas lights,” Waldrip says, lost in a reverie of reminiscence as we sit and stare. “She would always have to remind Joe to mow the lawn.”
In his later years, Bauman liked nothing more than to sit in his recliner and watch a ballgame on TV while sipping a beer. When news of major league ballplayers using steroids started coming out, reporters telephoned Bauman to ask if he had ever juiced up. Waldrip smiles and shakes his head. “After a game, all Joe needed was a couple of bottles of cold Miller High Life.”
(photo by Steven St. John)
South Park Cemetery lies at the south end of Roswell. Joe and Dorothy are buried here, as is Jo Anne Waldrip. “I’ll be here, too,” Jim says. In fact, a tombstone with Jo Anne’s name and dates and Jim’s name and birth date stands two graves away from Big Joe’s resting spot. “I wanted to be right next to Joe, but someone beat me to it.” A baseball pitcher is carved into Waldrip’s headstone. He is winding up and throwing toward Bauman’s marker, which features a batter.
“It’s kind of corny, I know, but see, I’m pitching to Joe.”
Joe Bauman’s name can be found in an exhibit titled “One for the Books” in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. The Joe Bauman Award is given annually to the minor leaguer who hits the most home runs. Though Bauman is remembered hereabouts, for a long time no statue or plaque in Roswell publicly recognized his feats. In August 2005, Fair Park Stadium, Roswell’s home field, where Big Joe had his grandest year, was renamed Joe Bauman Stadium Coca-Cola Park. Bauman was invited to speak at the dedication. Left frail by a stroke, he moved creakily. He hadn’t wanted to attend, but Waldrip talked him into it.
“When we got there, I told the people in charge to be sure to have someone walk with Joe to the podium,” Waldrip remembers. That detail was somehow passed over. As Big Joe went to read his speech, he slipped and broke his pelvis. He died the following month at the age of 83, with Waldrip standing at his bedside.
Late afternoon has arrived, and a baseball game is approaching at Joe Bauman Stadium. It’s a Pecos League game, a contest between two teams of mostly young guys fresh out of high school. The Roswell Invaders are playing host to the Douglas (Arizona) Diablos.
A sea of empty spaces greets us in the parking lot, where we turn the engine off. “This used to be an all-wood stadium,” Waldrip says as he carefully lowers himself out of the car. He begins to amble slowly toward the entrance of the ballyard, fungo bat in hand. “Everything’s metal now. The fences are about the same distance they were when Joe played. Joe was a dead pull hitter, though he could hit to the opposite field. One game I saw him get a home run over the left field fence here, one over center, one over right.”
At the sight of Waldrip’s throwback Roswell Rockets jersey, members of the home team drift over to him. “Did you play?” Rob Warnock, the manager of the Invaders, asks.
Waldrip grins. “You need someone to come outta the bullpen?”
Approximately 60 fans are on hand this night, an average crowd in the Pecos League. An eager young man in a golf shirt appears. He wants to know who Waldrip is.
“He used to pitch for the Roswell Rockets,” the man is told. “He played here, with Joe Bauman.”
He nods twice, then hurries off to the press box. A few moments later, the man, who is the public address announcer, says, “Throwing out the first pitch tonight is Joe Waldrip of the Roswell Rockets.”
Polite applause follows. Jim Waldrip, who says his hearing in one ear is poor as a fence rail, apparently does not catch the botched intro. That’s OK, because this is all about Joe Bauman anyway, as Waldrip wanted it to be. For him, Big Joe is back in the home ballpark one more time. The legend is here, standing in his field in Roswell, along with a good old friend. You can almost hear the cheers.