CWS 2023: The history of baseball in Omaha

The history of baseball is on display at the Douglas County Historical Society.
Published: Jun. 16, 2023 at 10:45 AM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Baseball in Omaha runs deeper than the ping of a hit from an aluminum bat.

An exhibit on display now at the Douglas County Historical Society reveals Omaha is rich in baseball history -- history that threw its first pitch in the 1800s.

“Would be 1887 when Pa Rourke was playing here in Omaha, he eventually became manager of the Rourkes and owner,” said Lisa Kammerer with the Historical Society. “They are considered our first professional baseball league.”

Other pages of Omaha baseball history tell us the first Women’s College World Series was held here.

“UNO hosted the first Women’s College World Series, and then they actually owned the series in 1975, and their coach, Connie Clausen, kind of spearheaded all of that, and then they were able to get more funding, specifically by the early 80s because there were a lot of parents willing to file Title IX lawsuits,” Kammerer said.

Racism was one thing all of baseball had in common in its early days. Johnny Owen, an Omaha ballplayer, felt the racial sting in the 1920s.

“He was the first African-American at least in Omaha, and some say the entire state of Nebraska, to letter in four different sports,” said Elise O’Neil with the Historical Society.

Not only was Owen an outstanding athlete -- he was also an outstanding student. That didn’t mean much if you were Black in the 1920s.

“He wasn’t able to be accepted into UNL because of the color of his skin,” O’Neil said. “He still got an education and he became a state legislator, and he was a pillar of the community. He owned several businesses. He went to South High School, and we checked to see if he was in their Hall of Fame and he’s not. That’s got to change.”

One of the greatest major-league players ever was born in Omaha. Bob Gibson played college ball at Creighton and would go on to play for the St. Louis Cardinals and had a Hall of Fame career.

Omaha was once home to the Cardinals’ minor-league team.

“They were our first minor league team,” O’Neil said. “I think it was AA ball from ‘47 to ‘54, and in 1955 we got our first AAA team, and they stayed until ‘59.”

Omaha eventually rebounded well -- the Royals’ AAA team is here with their own stadium and seven league championships.

There are a lot of stories and a lot of famous people in the Douglas County Historical Society’s exhibit. All of this happened long before the CWS became the latest chapter in the book of the history of baseball in Omaha.