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Arkansas Baseball Story Begins in Monkey Run


Roswell, New Mexico, is a tourist town. The little city on the High Plains has merchants who will sell visitors a doll that looks like an alien, comic books about flying saucers, and T-shirts that proclaim the owner was abducted by space creatures in Roswell, New Mexico. The city boasts about its UFO Museum, and if travelers arrive shortly after July 4, they can attend something called the “Ufologist Invasion.” All this promotional activity takes advantage of a flying saucer episode that made national headlines in 1947.

If visitors arrive in mid-summer, they can also catch a baseball game at Joe Bauman Park. The Roswell Invaders, members of an independent loop called the Pecos League, play home games in a baseball venue named after Roswell’s most famous baseball resident.

In the 1950s, two young men with Arkansas connections made baseball history playing for a legendary minor league team called the Roswell Rockets. Both local stars had started their careers as the property of the Little Rock Travelers.

Power hitter Joe Bauman was Hall of Famer George Kell’s first baseball roommate at Newport in the Northeast Arkansas League. The Rockets’ ace pitcher was a county boy from the Ozark Mountains known in Roswell as “Big Dean” Franks. The big hurler had found his way to New Mexico from Monkey Run, Arkansas. Volumes have been written about Joe Bauman, but the story of the pitcher from Monkey Run is more obscure.

Monkey Run, Arkansas, tucked away in South Baxter County, has one of those unique community names that suggests a colorful story. Perhaps the circus train derailed there, and the animals ran rampant through the small town, or maybe a beloved pet escaped and the locals exhorted the captive little critter to freedom, “Run monkey run!” Although the actual origin of the name comes up somewhat less exciting than some possible scenarios, the community does have an interesting history and a unique baseball story. The baseball tale begins with a wedding night and a ballgame in a semi-famous city 800 miles from Monkey Run.

“Wedding Night” at the ballpark in Roswell, New Mexico, was a big deal. Folks ate dinner in the late afternoon to get the best seats, and the Lions Club adjourned early to support the highly publicized event. It would be quite a spectacle in a town known for attention-getting events. Since it had been a couple of years since any UFO action in the area, a wedding night at the ballpark made for an exciting summer night in Roswell.

The stars of pre-game festivities August 17, 1949, were a pair of handsome young folks from Arkansas named Lois Dean Franks and Alma Belle Messick. Before the game, the couple would get married on the field, complete with groomsmen in baseball uniforms and a procession through a cross-bats canopy. After the ceremony, the bride would return to a seat of honor in the stands, and the groom would pitch for the Roswell Rockets. The fact that Dean and Alma were already married was something Rocket fans could overlook. After all, who doesn’t love a ballpark wedding?

Although the Rocket’s season was in progress, Dean decided that he had his life in order well enough to marry his sweetheart back in Arkansas. After all, he was in his second year of pro baseball and it was going well. He was making about $150 a month as a player, and he had a good off-season job cutting wood for barrel staves.

He left the team in August and drove to Arkansas to retrieve his future bride. Roswell was in last place and he was the team’s best pitcher, so why not? There was one complication to the plan. The bride’s father, a Baptist minister, did not think it was appropriate Arkansas behavior for a single girl to travel to New Mexico with her boyfriend. On August 13, 1949, Dean and Alma had their first wedding back in Monkey Run, Arkansas.

Monkey Run in Baxter County was once known as Pilgrims Rest. Original Pilgrims Rest School insert from Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

In those days, Monkey Run, originally known as Pilgrim’s Rest, had a post office, a school and a general store. How Pilgrim’s Rest became Monkey Run has several versions, but the most popular tale starts when a young fellow pilfered a treat from the candy jar at the local store and high-tailed it down the road with the owner in hot pursuit. Witnesses claim the store owner yelled, “Run you little monkey,” as he chased the youngster through the community. The retelling of the tale gave Monkey Run, Arkansas, a lasting identity.

According to Franks, he did not pitch well on his baseball wedding night. His expectations may have been a little misplaced since he had driven 1600 miles and been married twice in the last week. A poor outing on his wedding night did not reflect the success Franks would enjoy in three excellent seasons in Roswell, culminating in a memorable summer that attracted national attention.

In 1951, Franks’ third season in Roswell, he pitched in 44 games and worked a remarkable 311 innings on the mound. His 30 pitching wins not only led the Longhorn League but were the most pitching victories in all minor league baseball. A grateful community hosted “Dean Franks Night” and collected $800 for their hometown hero. Although the Longhorn League was often overlooked by big-league scouts, Franks was promoted to the Class B Austin Pioneers. At age 24, he seemed headed for the major leagues.

After two good years in the Texas capital, Franks was predictably promoted to the Oklahoma City Indians of the Class AA Texas League in 1954. Oklahoma City played at the highest level of minor-league baseball. Seven of Franks’ teammates would eventually make the big leagues.

In hindsight, the promotion had come too late. Franks had worked a total of 900 innings in the three previous seasons, a dangerous workload by today’s standards. When he arrived at Oklahoma City, he was 27 years old, and his arm was showing some of the wear that would require surgery later in his life.

He would struggle through 14 games in Class AA Oklahoma City and 12 more with the Knoxville Smokies. When the Smokies ceased operations in March 1955, Dean Franks may have been the happiest pitcher on the roster to look for a new job. He knew he could find one in Roswell, New Mexico.

Dean Franks and Joe Bauman, 1955

By 1955, hometown hero Joe Bauman had bought a Texaco station outside Roswell. Bauman pumped gas and fixed flats in the daytime and hit home runs for the Rockets in the evening. He had hit a minor league record 72 homers the previous season.

To the delight of the Roswell fans, Bauman would be joined for one fitting curtain call by Big Dean Franks, the Rockets record-setting pitcher. In a movie script season, a sore-armed hometown pitching hero won 27 games, and Bauman hit 48 home runs. The Rockets reached the Longhorn League Playoff finals.

After pitching in 45 games in 1955, Franks made only 28 appearances over the next two seasons. When Big Dean retired in 1957, he and Alma returned to Baxter County where he worked for the Corps of Engineers and Alma joined the staff of Cotter School District. Dean Franks died in 1994 and Alma joined him at Pilgrims Rest Cemetery in Monkey Run, Arkansas, in 2013.

The Monkey Run Legacy:

Jim Franks left and Joe Franks right

Dean and Alma Franks’ sons Jim and Joe both became outstanding college pitchers at the University of Central Arkansas. Jim Franks was named All-Conference as a college pitcher and later became the head baseball coach at Arkansas Tech from 1980-87. During Jim Franks’ time at ATU, the team won two conference championships and two district championships. He was selected as Coach of the Year four times.

Joe Franks led the UCA Bears in pitching wins as a senior. He also enjoyed a highly successful coaching career at both the high school and college levels. Joe Franks was inducted into the Batesville Area Athletic Hall of Fame in 2000.

Lance Franks as a Razorback in 1997 and as a member of the Arkansas Travelers in 2000

Lance Franks, son of Jim and Debbie Franks, was a standout on the mound for the 1996 and 1997 Arkansas Razorbacks. After college, he played eight seasons of professional baseball including the 2000 campaign with the Arkansas Travelers. Lance Franks was a Western League All-Star pitcher with the Chico Heat of Chico, California. He now is the owner and head baseball instructor of the Chico Baseball Academy.

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Jim Yeager is a baseball historian who resides with his wife, Susan, in Russellville. A member of the Society for American Baseball Research and the Robinson-Kell Arkansas Chapter of SABR, Yeager is a frequent presenter on the history of rural baseball in Arkansas. His books titled Backroads and Ballplayers and Hard Times and Hardball feature stories of Arkansans who played professional baseball in the first half of the 20th century. More information on Backroads and Ballplayers, Hard Times and Hardball, and other publications – www.backroadsballplayers.com

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