Herbert Kokernot Jr. loved baseball and in 1946 started the Alpine Cowboys, a winning semi-pro team that went to the national finals nine times. One year, he had 14 "All-Southwest Conference" players on his team.
"Mr. Herbert" as he was fondly referred to, built the famous Kokernot Field in Alpine for the Cowboys to play in; and in 1952 the National Baseball Congress named him as America's No. 1 sponsor of semi-pro baseball for the decade. (www.dianelacy.com)
The ballpark gained national recognition. In a 1989 feature, Sports Illustrated called it "The Best Little Ballpark In Texas [or Anywhere Else]".
In the fall fo 2010, a book on the Alpine Cowboys is to be published.
“The Amazing Tale of Mr. Herbert and His Fabulous Alpine Cowboys Baseball Club: An Illustrated History of the Best Little Semi-Pro Baseball Team in Texas” is the work of author D.J. Stout.
The following piece appeared in the local paper, the Alpine Avalance in 2000.
A Diamond in the Rough
Kerry Laird, Alpine Avalanche Staff Writer
As we prepare for the first season of baseball in the new millennium, we hark back to a tradition of noble history, sewn into the fabric of our lives. It is the simplicity of the game and the strategic, often methodical cadence that draws us back to the plate year after year, long after youth-filled days of games past have laid the roots for games to be.
As the ever-expanding borders of American culture extend to include those born south of the border, baseball, too, grows and evolves to include players hitherto unheard of, but rich in skill. These young players, developed and proven in the barrios and of Latin America, come to play baseball in the land of its birth. They are driven by the late night thought-dreams of players like Jose Cruz and Roberto Clemente, and stadiums as great as Wrigley Field and Fenway Park.
Baseball stadiums are long-standing icons, pillars in the community where friends and family can come together and share the experience that has become known as America's national pastime. Towns and cities have chosen to struggle under heavy taxes in order to give their respective hometowns the state-of-the-art stadiums that will bring in the fans regardless of the winning percentage of the home team. The end of the twentieth-century has witnessed a rebirth of the placid realism borne by the great stadiums of the past, reconstructed and emulated by the stadiums of the present. The revamped vestiges fall short in comparison to the ballparks of the past. They lack the spirit, the memories, the murmuring of players past in the opposing dugouts. A baseball field carries a unique history, growing more and more ingrained with the surrounding town as the seasons pass. Such is the proud history of Kokernot Field.
The ballpark is a jewel in the rough of the Big Bend region. An old adage passed down through the years claims that "Visiting teams never do well the first time they come to Kokernot Field. Their mouths are hanging open at the sight of the ballpark." The native red stone that surrounds the field was blasted from the ground of the 06 ranch owned at the time by Herbert Kokernot, Jr. Mr. Herbert, as he was known in the town, bought the semi-pro team called the Cats and turned them into the Cowboys; complete with brand new uniforms and reeled in talent. He then turned his attention to the necessity of a field that would typify the tenacity and calm demeanor of West Texans. With a pricetag of $1.25 million, Kokernot Field opened in 1947 with the Cowboys defeating the Carlsbad Miners. That inaugural year was a doosey for the Cowboys who went on to win two state regional championships and an opportunity to go to the national tournament in Wichita where they won two and lost two.
Semi-pro teams of the day did not pay much, but that did not stop Mr. Herbert from hiring college ball players from schools like Texas A&M and Baylor to come play for Alpine's team in the summer. Furthermore, Mr. Herbert made a habit of paying the players $100 for home runs; $75 for triples, and so on. "Flop" Parsons, Cowboys shortstop in '53 and '54, remembers that "When [Mr. Herbert] shook hands with you after a game, he usually left something in the handshake."
Valenzuela was one of the "official" ball chasers Mr. Herbert had stationed at left, right, and center field. He says the reward for retrieving foul balls and misplaced hits was ten cents, and a dollar for home runs. "You could really make some money chasing balls at Kokernot in those days."
Although, Mr. Herbert was not into the common practice of the day of selling his good players for profit. "I sell my cattle but not my ballplayers." This practice allowed the cattle baron to give Alpine a champion baseball club throughout the fifties. Lights were added to the field in 1958 after Mr. Herbert traveled to different ballparks across the country to find the best illumination that would make his diamond sparkle. Upon returning to Alpine, he hired a contractor and told him "I want lights better than Yankee Stadium's."
The Sul Ross Lobos baseball team took to the field in 1957 at Kokernot and played a championship season, winning the first NAIA World Series. Sul Ross currently leases the field from Alpine High School which took possession in 1968, making it the top field in high school baseball. When Sul Ross first leased the field in 1983, the school spent an estimated $150,000 to revamp the decaying vestige of the great ballpark.
The spirit of the park rests at homeplate where a person can look out on the Davis Mountains in the distance and dream of hitting one out over the 430' mark in center field. "When you hit a home run in Kokernot Field, you have hit a home run ," says Kachoo Valenzuela, 1957 shortstop for the Internationals. Not many major league fields even come close to the distance Kokernot bears from home to dead center.
From time to time, All-star major league players have come to play in the friendly and luxurious confines of Kokernot Field. A call made to the manager of the Cowboys from a scout in Georgia told of a wiry, young, high school upstart who showed promise. The Alpine team was reluctant to take on a high school kid, but took the chance upon prompting from the scout. The ballplayer, known as Gaylord Perry, came to West Texas and spent one summer here developing his existing talent before heading to the majors and a career 314 wins before retiring in 1983. When asked about his stint in Alpine, Perry says, "Playing out there in Alpine and staying in the Sul Ross dormitories, that was a special summer."
Other great players have graced the field at Kokernot, as well. In order to keep baseball in Alpine during the slow years of semi-pro, Mr. Herbert would hire major league teams to play exhibition games. On those days, people would come from miles around, packing the highways, to see professional baseball played on the diamond of the West. In 1951, the St. Louis Browns and Satchell Paige took on the Chicago White Sox in front of some 6000 folks who lined both sides of the field in bleachers that barely contained them. Kokernot also was the home of a professional minor league team which was purchased by Mr. Herbert when semi-pro baseball finally struck out due to a lack of sponsorship in 1959. The team, a franchise under the Boston Red Sox organization, agreed to keep the name of the Cowboys because of its rich history and the cheerful following the team had produced. Unfortunately, the league folded after three years.
Now, the field is used by the High School and the University, and an "old timers" league which plays during the summer. Attendance seldom reaches the pinnacle it showed in the fifties, but the games are still just as exciting. Valenzuela feels that "local people don't appreciate what they've got. I'm one of these guys that'll just get out there and walk around in the field."
The smell of the dirt and the turf are accentuated by the rising mountains in the distance and the cool, crisp, desert air. Many have stepped up to the plate at Kokernot, and are not soon to likely forget it. Jim Fregosi, a California Angel All-star shortstop, played 18 years in the majors in ballparks all over America, but Kokernot sticks out in his mind, "It's the best ballpark I ever played in."
When the boys of summer take the field, Kokernot builds its legends and Alpine remembers its heroes.
Tom Chandler, playing manager of the Alpine Cowboys 1950-1958, died at age 76 in the fall of 2001. Chandler, a Hall of Fame coach at Texas A&M University, joined the Cowboys after two years in the Pittsburgh farm system. He took over the Aggies program in 1959, leading the club for 26 years.