Celebration focuses on baseball icon, community

A large crowd celebrated a new billboard honoring baseball legend Walter Johnson. The festivities also recognized the efforts by community members such as the late Dick Davis of Humboldt and others who have worked to preserve the community's baseball history.



November 17, 2023 - 3:18 PM

Walter Wulf Jr. speaks Thursday at a ribbon-cutting ceremony in front of a new billboard honoring baseball legend Walter Johnson. Much of Wulf's speech focused on the late Dick Davis, a local baseball historian, who worked for years to celebrate Humboldt's ties to the Hall of Famer. Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who disagrees with the notion that Humboldt’s own Walter Johnson was one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history.

But a ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday dedicating a new billboard that notes Johnson’s Allen County roots, was as much a celebration of the partners who brought the billboard project to life.

Allie Utley, center, holds aloft a ceremonial set of shears after cutting the ribbon Thursday in front of a new billboard celebrating Humboldt baseball legend Walter Johnson. Taking part are from left, Jim Frederick and Walter Wulf Jr. of Monarch Cement, Allen Community College baseball player Parker Martin, Allie, Amy and Curtis Utley, Tamisha Sewell of Thrive Allen County and Kansas Department of Tourism Director Bridgette Jobe.Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

A crowd of more than 50 gathered in front of the billboard just south of Humboldt on U.S. 169. Organizing the event was former Iolan Allie Utley, whose love of baseball came from her grandfather, the late Dick Davis.

It was Davis — described by Utley as “a keeper of knowledge of all things baseball” — who put forth several projects decades ago to honor both Johnson and George Sweatt, another Humboldt native who starred in the Negro Leagues in the 1920s.

Her grandfather’s life “was a tapestry of dedication, passion and an unwavering love for the game of baseball, especially for one of its greatest legends, Walter Johnson,” Utley said.

“For my grandfather, Walter was more than just a baseball icon,” she continued. “He was a source of inspiration, a hero whose achievements on the field connected deeply with his own love for the game.”

Just as importantly, it was Davis who stitched a love of baseball into his granddaughter’s heart when she was a toddler, a passion that continues still today. Dick Davis died in 2011.

Utley was joined by Walter Wulf Jr., CEO and chairman of the board of Monarch Cement, who spoke of working in league with Davis to spearhead several baseball-related projects.

Wulf noted that Davis moved to Iola with his family as a child in 1962, and overcame a reading disorder by poring through the sports pages of the Kansas City Times.

Davis also helped develop a board game marketed to help illiterate men and women pursuing a career in trucking study for tests and earn commercial driver’s licenses.

Walter Wulf Jr., left, and Allie Utley hold a file filled with baseball-related projects spearheaded by Utley’s grandfather, the late Dick Davis. Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

Davis coordinated efforts to build George Sweatt Park in the south part of town for youth league games, and then a few years later to add lights.

In 2005, Davis organized a celebration of both Walter Johnson and George Sweatt’s respective World Series titles in 1924 — more on that later — an event that drew dignitaries such as Hall of Famer Buck O’Neil and Henry Thomas, Johnson’s grandson and biographer.

It was also Davis who spearheaded efforts to erect a billboard along 169 to celebrate Humboldt’s connection to Johnson. He even handled the designs and painting.

“I’d like to commend Allie for her carrying on the spirit of her grandfather, and promoting Humboldt and its rich baseball history,” Wulf said.

THE JOHNSON billboard stood prominently for more than 20 years, but the harsh Kansas weather began to take its toll as the lettering faded and wood began to crack.