by Kevin Walsh, SLW Senior Writer
With heavy metal music blaring, NASCAR the dominating topic of conversation, and enough cigarettes and dip to embarrass a non-gay cowboy, Shangri La’s Lakefront Stadium has long been as white as a clean pointed sheet. That remained the case until a beacon of darkness shone through the white in 2004 when James Morton made his wiffleball debut, 57 short years after Jackie Robinson.
What Morton found, or rather what found Morton, was a welcoming, fun loving group of wifflers who enjoyed nothing more than a few innings on the diamond, a shower in the lake and some of the best food north of the Mason-Dixon line all the while catching up with friends.
“Everyone has treated me very well over the years at Shangri La’,” Morton said. I was embraced immediately as just another wiffler even though clearly I had a better tan than everyone there-except for Spence. He is one bronze dude.”
The ease with which Morton was accepted, he feels, can be directly attributed to the fact that many wifflers attended nearby Unity High School, where as the name suggests bigotry and intolerance did not exist.
“Unity High School is probably one of the most diverse places I have ever heard of,” Morton shared. “I remember when Lupe and Tyrone got in trouble for stealing cars that one time. It was hilarious.”
“I think Unity is where most of the wifflers developed their tolerance for other cultures. Being around all those different types of people really fosters growth and maturity.”
Being accepted off the field was easy, but being accepted on the field did not come as easily for Morton.
“I felt like I had to prove to people that I belonged, especially after being the last pick as an unknown in 2004. I think I accomplished that my first year by winning rookie of the year and helping my team get to the championship game, which should have been a series but was cut short due to the rain.”
Growing up as a child in rural Kansas surrounded by silos and wheat – because that and hair-piece wearing coaches are all they have in Kansas – young Jimmy Morton spent his summers day-dreaming of finding his yellow brick road leading to a mysterious and extraordinary land. Built as a football player, Morton’s path took him to the defensive line at Ft. Hays St. University and then to Lawrence, Kansas before he settled in at the University of Illinois athletic department as part-time employee and part-time noon ball player.
At the U of I, Morton had the great fortune of meeting the man behind the Shangri La’ Wiffleball curtain, Commissioner James R. Hixson, a gentleman more in the mold of Branch Rickey than Adolph Rupp.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would end up being the first black wiffler,” Morton explained. “Growing up I just dreamed of making it out of the wheat fields of western Kansas and ending up in a magical and exotic place. Sure enough, I ended up in the corn fields of central Illinois where there is a magical place called Shangri La’.”
Thus began Morton’s transformation from football and basketball phenom to SLW pioneer.
“Getting here was a long and arduous journey that entailed witnessing TStein (former SLW Rookie of the Year Travis Steiner) attempting to play basketball and watching Kevin wear his dress socks with his basketball sneakers. Needless to say it was a challenge to show up every day. And while you would think because I am black I would be a good basketball player I am not. However, Kevin and Travis still welcomed me into the group by inviting me over to the commissioner’s place for a couple of cocktails and some bowling. From there friendships were born and eventually the invite (to Shangri La’) was extended.”
“I was both excited and astonished that I got the invite,” Morton continued. “I couldn’t believe Hixson was willing to take the risk. I also couldn’t wait to put my skills on display to show everyone he made the right decision in giving me the invite. I credit Commissioner Hixson for having a vision of what the future could be.” It didn’t take long for Morton to pay his dues at Lakefront Stadium after being roped into the construction of the state-of-the art backstop with the commissioner and jack-of-all-trades Jim Hixson. “It must have been a million degrees that day,” Morton remembered, “but the time spent was well worth it.”
Although Morton did not wiffle growing up, he was intrigued by westward travelers who spun tales of Lake legends of yore and allowed him to entertain the notion of booting down the barrier.
“I think most people assume I was born with a wiffle bat in my hands based on how good I am, but I didn’t pick up the game until later on in life when I moved to Illinois. Clearly I was meant to play the game and I’m glad that Shangri La’ Wiffleball has allowed me to put my talents on display,” Morton said.
“TA was one of the first wifflers whom we emulated. We heard accounts of him and his prodigious talents all the way back in Kansas. I always hoped I could be as good as him and that is still what keeps me motivated to this day.”
As with most athletes, Morton finds motivation in many things, including music, and while the Maxim 2010 I-Pod of the year spits out ear pleasing tunes for many wifflers, Morton would not mind a little more variation.
“As part of the effort to make me feel like a member of the group, Geoff Hixson will play one rap song a year on the sound system,” Morton mentioned.
Other than the lack of urban music, Morton concedes there is nothing he would change from his journey.
“It has been a blast,” Morton said.
Morton has persevered and endured on his way to becoming the first black wiffler and may one day have his own wing in the SLW Hall of Fame.
NOTE: Commissioner Hixson declined to comment on this story as any discussion on race, sex or vegetables makes him fidgety and uncomfortable. As a result, the league office and the Commissioner do not endorse this story.