Wayne McCombs – Safe at Home

 by

 Jake Cornwell

On an overcast March day—too dark for sunglasses, too bright to go without—Tulsa baseball historian, Wayne McCombs, eases his sky blue Mercury just beyond the shadows of "old" Drillers Stadium and parks cattycorner in a nor'easter view.  McCombs looks calm and collected.  Outside his driver side window he hears the chatter and bustle of 15th Street traffic nearing the light at Yale.  He cuts his attention to the deathly-still ambiance of the ballpark that saved professional baseball for the city.  This ecclesiastical structure once was a home away from home for 29 years.  The tickity-tickity-tickity of the metal ballpark shudders in a subtle wind illustrating the absence of groundskeepers, front office personnel, and summertime foot traffic.  A lonely "Welcome Baseball Fans" sign awaits patrons that no longer come.  Sprigs of crabgrass and dandelions dot the cracks of parking lot asphalt and concrete sidewalks.  The temperature is in the 70s, but it's cold here.  A dusty pool-chalk blue pergola and peeling gray press box reveals years and years of color choices.  Sagging and hole-ridden outfield nets slowly flutter in and out, breathing the spring-like air.  Upturned picnic tables blockade one-time beer kiosks and concourse entrances.  Promotional fodder printed on plywood rots from two years of neglect.  No more "Stomp. Stomp. Clap" concussive footwork to Queen's "We Will Rock You" rumbles throughout these aluminum bleachers.  No more KJRH Channel 02 promotional jerseys find the hands of young fans.  No more.  The Drillers aren't gone.  No, they just moved to fancier digs in downtown.  The deserted complex stares west to an empty parking lot where Oiler Park once stood and sees a grim future.  She recalls many burgeoning triumphs in seating 11,000 people and aches in the absence from losing one of her own on the road.  Wayne McCombs remembers, too.

The Tulsa baseball man's road to history started years ago as a fan with credentials: "I was a newsman as KVOO radio.  I summoned up all my courage and wrote a letter to [Oiler owner] A. Ray [Smith] asking for a press pass.  Boom, there it was one day in the mail: "Admit to the Tulsa Oiler Press Box: also good for The Foul Ball Club."  And I didn't even know what The Foul Ball Club was." Though Wayne didn't drink, he was excited to find out that The Foul Ball Club was a private meeting room that served liquor by the glass.  In the upper deck of Oiler Park the entrance of the VIP quarters looked "kind of like a broom closet."  Wayne slid the door open to find an "immaculate room" gilded in mirrors and red velvet walls.   The room practically hypnotized the young man.  He stared in teenage wonder. "It looked like something out of a movie," says McCombs. "It was just a really a special thing."  Sometimes after the game, the opposing managers and other well-known baseball men like Warren Spahn or Ken Boyer stopped by to wet their whistles.  Inside The Foul Ball Club was where Wayne McCombs became acquainted with a legend:

[Satchel Paige] was just sitting there one day by himself and I said,"Mr. Paige..." 

He said, "Call me Satchel, son.  My name's Satchel."

"Okay. M-May I visit with you?" 

"Sure!  Sit down.  What's your name?" 

Satchel Paige calling me "son."  I know he called everybody younger ["son"], but it seemed like,"Gosh, this guy likes me." ...I think after a half hour he knew I knew who [famous Negro League catcher] Josh Gibson was [and that] I understood..."Old Time Baseball."

Wayne continues, "He really opened up and started telling me stories he might not have told [to] a casual fan."

The 1970s was a troublesome time for minor league baseball and many teams were on the brink of financial ruin.  Wayne recalls, "I knew of a club in Double-A that sold for three hundred thousand dollars."  But the rotund A. Ray Smith did all he could to keep baseball interesting.  He often hired baseball veterans as a draw to the ballpark. "Smith," McCombs remembers, 'found' [Satchel Paige] some place and offered him a job as a PR guy and a pitching coach for the Oilers....I remember several articles of him.  He was pictured in the Oilers bullpen sitting in a rocking chair, you know, all the cute props that would work with him.  He was such a nice guy, such a nice guy."  Satchel would tell stories so funny "you'd be crying."  If rubbing elbows with major league all-stars and Hall of Famers wasn't enough for the young journalist, ballpark freebies surely were comparable to a runner stealing home.  Wayne says, "I could go to a ballgame, sit in the press box, get a free hotdog and free pop.  It was unbelievable.  I was 19 years old.  I thought I was at Yankee Stadium!" 

Long before the memorabilia boom of the 1980s, Wayne McCombs foresaw an historic value in preserving Tulsa baseball's past. "I started collecting...Oiler stuff...through dumpster diving," he says.  When team owner, A. Ray Smith, decided it was time to move the long-loved Tulsa Oilers to another city, he told Wayne, "Stuff's in the dumpster.  Take what you want."  And that he did.  McCombs loaded up his car with all it could handle.  Jerseys, chairs, signs, photos, you name it, and he probably snagged it.  He snickers and says, "Thankfully at that time, I was not married."  Wayne's deep-seated loyalty surpasses allegiance to one team or even its immediate geographical location.  He sees Tulsa baseball as part of his own genealogy: 

I didn't see [collecting Oiler Park artifacts] as, "Oh, I'm gonna write a book and make some money," or "I'm gonna reprint these pictures and sell them."  No!  That was part of my life.  That'd be like if...your grandmother [was] about to die [and] somebody didn't know what things were and they threw all the family pictures in the dumpster.  Well, of course you want those!  They're extremely valuable to you.

McCombs' sentimentality and unique experiences eventually provoked him to document Tulsa's colorful baseball past.  He says in his first book, Let's Goooooooooo Tulsa, "With apologies to Abner Doubleday [fabled inventor of baseball], the idea for this book was born at a college football game."  Semper Fidelis, Always Faithful.  If ever a "Love for the Game" existed, it pulses through every fiber of Wayne McCombs.  He bleeds Oiler Red and Driller Blue. 

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