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Mark Bennett Opinion

June 5, 2010

MARK BENNETT: Rex shine light long after TH baseball's 'Dark Day'

After nearly 54 years, passion puts a team on the field and baseball returns

TERRE HAUTE — Somewhere, Paul Frisz was smiling Thursday night.

The new Terre Haute Rex baseball club debuted at Bob Warn Field. It was the first game for a Terre Haute-based team in an organized league since July 3, 1956. That night, the city’s last professional minor-league franchise — the Terre Haute Huts — beat Three-I League rival Keokuk 5-0, and then folded. The emergence of television depleted attendance in the mid-1950s. It forced Frisz, the team president and general manager, to pull the plug.

The first two words of Frisz’s solemn telegram to Three-I League President Hal Totten were “Extremely sorry.”

And Frisz meant it. Anything worthwhile requires commitment. Huts manager Charlie Metro witnessed the depth of Frisz’s passion for local baseball earlier in the summer of ’56. Until that moment, Metro had no idea the Huts were in danger of going out of business. He spotted Frisz inside the Central Hotel, the team’s downtown living quarters.

“I walked into Paul’s office one day at the hotel, and he was pulling out war bonds,” Metro said in a 2007 interview with the Tribune-Star. “And I said, ‘Paul, what in the hell are you doing?’ And he said, ‘I’ve got to make payroll.’” Metro urged Frisz not to resort to such extreme measures, without success. So Metro, a tough but beloved baseball veteran, tried to get Frisz — “a wonderful man” who died in 1990 — some help.

Metro telephoned a front-office official with the Detroit Tigers, the Huts’ big-league parent club, and asked him to give Frisz extra time and some financial breathing room. No dice, the exec coldly told Metro.

Decades later, that refusal still irked Metro. “That crushed me,” he recalled. “I mean, here’s a man who’s spending his life savings to save the ball club.”

A couple weeks later, 580 fans watched the second-place Huts beat Keokuk at old Memorial Stadium. Moments later, Frisz sent that infamous telegram to the Three-I League.

“It was a dark day,” Metro said.

The next morning, stories in the Terre Haute newspapers lamented the team’s demise, but expressed hope that organized ball would soon return.

Instead, its absence lasted 53 years and 335 days.

The presence of the Rex shows the city’s fondness for baseball didn’t die with the Huts.

The turnout of 1,300 fans for the Rex’s opening night game against the Springfield Sliders on Thursday proves there is interest, even if the new franchise isn’t at the minor-league level.

The Rex play in the Prospect League, which uses offseason college players whose lodging and meals are provided by host families. They don’t get paid.

The Rex’s home park — Bob Warn Field at Sycamore Stadium — contains a modest 878 permanent seats, with additional temporary spots to accommodate extra spectators. By contrast, Memorial Stadium, where the city’s minor-league clubs played, seated nearly 16,000 people.

Attendance peaked at an average of 2,120 fans a night when Terre Haute was a Philadelphia Phillies farm club (1946-54). By ’56, the Huts averaged 650 a night.

It’s funny how time changes expectations. If the Rex draw crowds of 650 people a night, filling three-quarters of the Sycamore Stadium, they’ll be considered a success.

Thursday night’s overflow attendance validates the possibility that Terre Haute can support a ball club. Afterward, Rex General Manager Roland Shelton said he hoped the packed stands continue.

For years, every time someone raised the idea of minor-league baseball returning to town, the number of skeptics usually equaled the number of enthusiastic folks. The doubters would understandably point to the low attendance at Indiana State University basketball games, even during their years atop the Missouri Valley Conference from 1999 to 2001, and the minuscule following of ISU’s beleaguered football program.

Still, this is different. It’s not a team directly tied to the university, which — for whatever reason — struggles to emotionally connect with the community. Though the ISU Foundation owns the Rex, the team bears the name of the city.

After their 5-2 debut loss to Springfield, you could look at the Prospect League’s Central Division standings and read: “Terre Haute 0 (wins) 1 (loss).” The entire local community — the campus dwellers, the suburbians, city folks, farmers, nurses, aeronautics engineers and insurance agents — has the opportunity to follow Terre Haute’s team.

Hopefully, the Rex succeed and pave the way for a minor-league franchise to step in. That would require a deep commitment by lots of people.

Anyone needing inspiration should remember Paul Frisz.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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