The Oxford Barnstorm

Oxford Barnstorm

Each summer the Texas Playboys baseball team hits the road for a game and an adventure. This time, TRIBEZA hitched a ride.

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This is not your typical dugout. On the bench, gold ostrich leather boots mingle with navy suede cleats. Beneath the baseball caps, there is an unusually high ratio of woolly beards, and player Taylor Tehan (manager at Austin’s Billy Reid store) sports a stash, shades, and a long, flowing mane that suggest a 70s cop show more than a ball field. An eager 13-year (a nephew of the second baseman) adjusts his cap alongside a silver-haired pitcher. Then again, lush, manicured Swayze Field, home of the University of Mississippi Rebels in Oxford, is not a typical venue for the Texas Playboys, a team comprising an impressive roster of some of Austin’s best filmmakers, musicians, and designers.

But the spirit of sandlot baseball (more accustomed to lumpy infields and potholes in the outfield) and its ability to gather a community around a ball field is on the rise, and apparently that puts new diamonds within reach. Designer Jack Sanders founded the Texas Playboys in 2006, but the story begins years earlier when he was an architecture student at Auburn. Sanders enrolled in the school’s Rural Studio and studied under the architect Samuel Mockbee. The program (which ultimately fueled Sanders’s own Design Build Adventure concept), aiming to make modern architecture approachable and expose students to the extreme poverty in the Deep South, was located miles from campus, in Hale County. It was here that Sanders started watching—and then eventually playing with—the Newbern Tigers, a black sandlot team that had been active in the area for decades. The experience was inspirational and lasting in many ways. For his thesis, Sanders designed a new backstop for the Tigers behind home plate, made of steel pipe and chain-link fencing. The other takeaway was the power of a diamond—any diamond—to pull people together to eat, drink beer, have fun, and cheer on a game.

“Originally, we formed the Playboys to return to Newbern and play my former team, which I thought was my part in preserving the Newbern Baseball Club and this type of sandlot baseball,” Sanders says. “As it turns out, the model is just an exciting way to travel and learn about people and places.” And that’s how the annual barnstorm was born. In recent years, the Playboys have gone on to challenge Marfa, New Orleans, Houston, and Florence, Alabama (playing a team organized by designer Billy Reid).

“I love discovering new sandlots, specifically the private ‘field of dreams’ type places,” Sanders says. “Like the one behind a pallet maker’s warehouse in Del Valle that on weekends has big crowds; or a lawyer near Webberville that lets us play on his field.”

Each year’s destination is selected in February at the team’s annual black tie banquet, when players pitch various cities. John Hart Asher, an environmental designer at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (and Ole Miss alum), and photographer Dave Mead lobbied hard for Oxford (amid other suggestions, like Nashville and Mexico City). The team voted, and four months later, they were Delta-bound. “I’m planning my Dominican Republic presentation for next season,” Sanders says.

“From the get-go, the Playboys were thrilled with the idea of traveling to Oxford,” says Mead (the photographer for this piece). “The barnstorm has always been about the trek, the adventure, the camaraderie. Clearly, the game is always a thrill, but traveling together as a team has provided us with some pretty fantastic stories.”

Sanders thinks there are other benefits to assembling on the field, too. “As artists and creatives, we have a bunch of Playboys who are realizing in their careers that their best comes out when they trust their instincts, their hearts, and put themselves out there no matter the results. Our films, albums, and design projects may or may not go exactly as planned. And we may even strike out. But you will see me at bat again, and we are all just waiting for our pitch.”

Each year’s barnstorm inspires a cultural itinerary that makes the most of the destination. Which means that en route to Swayze Field there were essential stops at Gus’s Fried Chicken in Memphis, juke joints in Clarksdale, Mississippi (and a night at the Shack Up Inn, a funky lodge composed of gussied-up sharecropper shacks), shrimp and grits at City Grocery, and a stop at Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s former residence in Oxford.

When the game finally commenced on a sunny Saturday in late June, the Playboys, donning their new Fort Lonesome throwback jerseys, put three quick runs on the board in the top of the first to kick things off and announce their arrival to the handful of friends and family in attendance, including one man who repeatedly blew a conch horn. Starting pitcher John Hughes took the mound and proceeded to frustrate our opponents, The Mississippi Flood, with his wicked offspeed flutterball. Three up, three down, and at the bottom of the first things looked promising: Playboys 3, Flood 0. But then the Floodgates opened. Mississippi (and its roster of former Ole Miss Rebels ringers) loaded up the bases in the second and third innings, and the Playboys spent the rest of the day rallying from way down. They pitched, hit, fielded, and competed gamely, but ultimately fell short. Final score: Flood 18, Playboys 10.

But there was no time for low spirits. Sweaty, dusty players, family, and friends from both teams convened for a crawfish boil and plenty of cold beer. If I learned one thing on this trip, it was that barnstorms are about much more than the score and batting averages; the focus is the fun and comraderie that surround the journey.

Jack Sanders’s Delta Diamonds

The Playboys founder and coach shares his trip highlights.

  • John Hart Asher’s route to Po’ Monkey’s, the infamous juke joint in the middle of a cotton field, involved leaving paved road, which I would expect. But then we left dirt road and cut across a pasture. Just when everybody started freaking out, we were there.
  • Red’s Lounge (395 Sunflower Ave.) in Clarksdale. It’s the real deal.
  • Going to Big Bad Breakfast (719 North Lamar, Oxford), with my family. Go for the Big Bad Breakfast Plate: two eggs, country ham or Tabasco/brown sugar cured bacon, peppery biscuits, and grits.
  • Standing on the pitcher’s mound at Swayze Field. It was a dream come true to pitch from a mound of that quality.
  • The Library Sports Bar (120 South 11th St., Oxford) post-game. I loved it. I still don’t know if it was indoor or outdoor, but it’s a really cool place.

Credits

Photography by Dave Mead and Charles Mead

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