King of Diamonds
Alpine’s Kokernot Field may be the prettiest little baseball stadium in the country. But it’s the story behind the stadium—of a wildly generous rancher and his legendary semipro baseball club—that makes it a real field of dreams.
The story is this: in 1946 Herbert Kokernot Jr., the owner and operator of the massive Kokernot 06 Ranch, which spans Brewster, Jeff Davis, and Pecos counties, took over a local semipro baseball team, the Alpine Cats. Mr. Herbert, as he was known, was very fond of baseball. As a young man, he’d played for a previous Alpine team called the Independents. His new team was average, and the stadium it played in was just some chicken wire, corrugated tin, and a few old wooden planks, but Mr. Herbert took pride in it, painting his ranch’s brand on the outfield fences. When his father saw the field, he said, “Son, if you’re going to put the 06 brand on something, do that thing right.”
To say that Mr. Herbert followed his father’s advice would be an understatement. He immediately set about constructing the most magnificent baseball stadium imaginable for his team, which he renamed the Alpine Cowboys. Ultimately, Mr. Herbert would spend $1.25 million on the stadium. To understand just how extravagant this was, consider that the population of Alpine was about five thousand souls. But money was no object to Mr. Herbert. In 1958, when he decided to equip the field with lights for night games, he toured ballparks all over Texas, counting the bulbs. He wanted to make sure his park had the most.
Back then just about every small town in America had a semipro club. The national pastime really was a national pastime, especially in a place as remote and as sparsely populated as far West Texas. A game was a chance for the community to gather together to gossip, flirt, talk politics, and root for the home team, and Mr. Herbert’s Cowboys gave the locals plenty of reasons to cheer. Thanks to his aggressive recruiting and generous salaries, the Cowboys immediately established themselves as the best semipro team in the Southwest.
Word of the generous owner with his magical stadium and dominant ball club spread around the country. Mr. Herbert would often pay to fly in major league talent for exhibition games at Kokernot Field, stars like Don Newcombe, Johnny Pod-res, and Satchel Paige. As a teenager, future Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry pitched briefly for the Cowboys. The stands were always packed with fans. And in the off-season, the Sul Ross State University Lobos played on what was likely the finest college baseball field in the world.
Those first twelve seasons of Kokernot Field baseball would prove to be the high point. In 1959, with semipro leagues on the wane, Mr. Herbert reluctantly hitched his Cowboys to the farm system of the Boston Red Sox, making Alpine the smallest town in the nation with a professional baseball team. It was an awkward fit. As Nicholas Dawidoff wrote in “The Best Little Ballpark in Texas (or Anywhere Else),” a wonderful 1989 Sports Illustrated story about Kokernot Field: “There were things, however, about these ’fessionals, as he called them, that Mr. Herbert couldn’t abide. In the old days when a slight rainfall softened his infield, Mr. Herbert had simply called the game off, telling ticket holders to use their stubs the next day. You couldn’t do that with the pros. [Local ballplayer Ray] McNeil remembers, ‘He told me, “I’m fed up with this ’fessional baseball. Why, they trade these boys right and left, selling them off like cattle.” ’ ”
After the arrangement came to an end following the 1961 season, the Lobos became the sole inhabitants of Kokernot Field, until the dark day in 1968 when Sul Ross president Norm McNeil discontinued the baseball program. Mr. Herbert gave the park to the local high school, and over the next fifteen years, it fell deeper and deeper into disrepair. As Dawidoff notes, “After that he wasn’t seen around town as much.”
During Mr. Herbert’s glory days, one of his players was a Dallas southpaw named Doyle Stout. Stout’s son D.J. would later become the art director of this magazine, from 1987 to 1999. D.J. grew up hearing his father’s stories about the Cowboys, and in 2008 he began collecting photographs for a book about Mr. Herbert’s ball club. The photos and interviews on the following pages are excerpted from D.J.’s book, The Amazing Tale of Mr. Herbert and His Fabulous Alpine Cowboys Baseball Club, published this fall by the University of Texas Press (and featuring Dawidoff’s story as an introduction).
As for Mr. Herbert and his field of dreams, the great patron of Big Bend baseball died in 1987, three years after the Lobos had resumed playing at Kokernot Field. In 2009 pro ball returned to the stadium, when a team called the Big Bend Cowboys organized to play in the Continental Baseball League. In their first season, these new Cowboys went 37-23 and finished third. In their second season, which ended in July, the team won the league championship. Mr. Herbert would have been proud.
1. Leo Burkhalter
All the players looked forward to the road trips. Mr. Herbert would always have money for us when we boarded the bus. We always stayed in the best hotels and ate like kings. We could order anything we wanted and just had to sign the ticket. Mr. Herbert also included our wives on several trips to Chihuahua, Mexico, and Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. On one of our trips to Colorado, R. L. Patterson threw a French harp off the Royal Gorge Bridge. It played all the way down.
2. Ty Newton
We had a ballpark that was as good as any in the country, and better than most. We lived free in the Holland Hotel. We were treated like celebrities by the people in town. Along the way we got to play against many major league ballplayers, some of whom were drafted during the Korean War and were playing for Army teams at Fort Bliss and Fort Sam Houston. And we got to participate in roundups and chuck-wagon dinners at Mr. Herbert’s ranch. I will always be thankful.
3. Doyle Stout
The big event in West Texas in 1955 was that the colossal film Giant was being filmed in Marfa, a mere 25 miles away. The movie had several major movie stars, including Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean. The Cowboys were given a brief tour of the set and introduced to some of the actors. James Dean asked me, “What do you guys do here for excitement?” I mentioned that one of my favorites was rabbit hunting on the plains of West Texas. I explained that you sit on the fender of the car with a 35-inch baseballbat and chase jackrabbits and whack them. He thought that was the greatest thing he had ever heard of and asked if he could do it. He did, about two or three days later, yelling, cursing, and screaming the whole time. He swung a lot and didn’t hit a lot. I kept thinking he was going to fall off the fender and that I would run him down and then be infamous as the guy who ran over James Dean. He was most thankful and said it was the highlight of his time in Marfa. Tragically, he killed himself in an automobile wreck some months later in California. The rabbit hunt never made the press—such as it was in those days—but it was a wonderful experience. I sold my car for $500, since James Dean had used it for rabbit whacking.