Jun. 16—A wooden center field sign that bears the name of "Sunny Jim" Walters, who's considered to be the father of Little League Baseball in Joplin, is being restored and put back into use.
The Joplin Little League park off 20th Street across from Joplin High School is named in honor of "Sunny Jim" Walters, who helped purchase the land that led to the creation of the ballpark where league play began in 1951. Little League Baseball has become the world's largest organized youth sports program.
For years, the rectangular, wooden sign proclaiming "Sunny Jim Park — Home of the Little Leaguers" in large white and black lettering was hidden underneath a "Sunny Jim Park" banner. But instead of fading into the background, it's being given new life and a fresh coat of paint.
The man behind the paintbrush is Bobby Gough, 69, of Joplin, a volunteer with Joplin Little League. He sanded the sign earlier this week and completed painting over the old lettering on Tuesday.
"When we uncovered this sign (underneath the banner), we knew we had to go back" to showing off the sign, said Gough, a retired car salesman of 43 years.
"I'm a do-it-yourself kind of a guy, but I'm not a painter," Gough said atop a ladder at Sunny Jim Park. "I do anything that needs to be done — fix fences, gates, mow, plumbing work. Somebody asked me the other day if it's hard work, and it is hard, but when you see those kids go out and play ball, it makes it worthwhile. I have a grandson who still plays ball, and my kids used to play."
Gough played Little League Baseball in Joplin during his youth. He wants other youths to have that same opportunity, which is why he has volunteered regularly at Little League parks throughout the city for the last two years.
"Instead of putting up a new banner, the wood was still good on the sign, and we thought we'd take it back to the original Sunny Jim look," Gough said. "We're going a little retro, a little nostalgic. I never played here, but I can remember this was the park to play at back in those days."
After he retired in 2019, Gough said, he wanted to help out with restoration after the Sunny Jim Park was heavily vandalized. Now, he volunteers about 30 hours per week at Sunny Jim, Bill Ray Field and Landreth Park over the summer months.
"I was in the car business all of my life, and I worked 60-70 hours a week, so when my kids played ball, I really couldn't help," he said. "I just felt that I'm retired now and I had the time."
Love of game, Joplin
Tracy Horton, who's married to Nathan Horton, president of the Joplin Little League Board of Directors, said they've helped run the league for four years because they love Joplin and baseball.
Horton said that they don't receive any financial assistance from the city to maintain the ballfields, and no one is paid except umpires. Their main sources of funding are concession sales and fundraisers. So volunteers, coaches and parents help make up the lifeline of the league.
"Watching them play and enjoying baseball makes all of the blood, sweat and tears worth it," she said. "We have fabulous coaches, and these are men and women who work at the bank and teach at the school. Joplin Little League is more of a community organization because it's for people who just want to play baseball and play locally."
The Hortons' youngest son, 10-year-old Evan, volunteers by helping rake the fields, pick up trash and assist with the concession stand. He said catcher is his favorite position to play.
"I'm involved in every play as catcher," he said. "I've been playing since I was 8 years old, and this will be my third year. It's fun playing with friends."
Bob Ventura, vice president of the Joplin Little League Board and volunteer, said the local league is one of the longest running youth leagues in Missouri. There are 450 players ages 4 to 16 years old enrolled in the Joplin league this year, but more coaches are needed.
"Anyone who wants to play will get to play, regardless of their monetary situation," Ventura said. "They can play for free if they need to. It's a Little League requirement, and it's certainly ours. Every kid who wants to play is going to play, as long as we have coaches. That's the unfortunate thing this year, is we didn't have enough coaches."
Ventura, 69, has been volunteering with Joplin Little League for seven years and has served on the board for six years since his retirement from the business industry in 2010. He mainly spends most of his time sprucing up the three ballfields at Landreth Park, but this is the first time the Sunny Jim Park sign has been repainted since he's been on the board.
"One of the things that makes Sunny Jim Park special is the fact that we have the sign boards, and the field was donated back in the early 1950s by Jim Walters and his wife, who owned a candy store," Ventura said. "All of the kids knew him."
As far as help, the Joplin Little League is always looking for more volunteers to assist with cleanup, mowing and maintenance of the fields. Ventura said volunteerism is becoming more and more scarce.
"For the first five years that I was on the board, I did everything at all of the fields, and at one point, we even had two fields at Wildcat (Park) on top of the five we have now," he said. "I had seven fields where I was the only one mowing and fixing stuff. It just became too much. But my two grandsons, who are now college age, have helped me a lot. I wouldn't have made progress without them. I'm thankful Bobby came along because it was all the three of us could handle."
To volunteer or become a member of the board of directors, visit joplinlittleleague.org or the Joplin Little League Facebook page.