Among those whose dreams drowned in 1951 flood – Topeka Owls

Topeka Capital-Journal – July 11, 2001

It is not my intent to make light of the events that followed what historians call the worst chapter in Topeka’s history — 50 years ago this week — but there was some humor in that disastrous flood. One piece of it is a story that still makes me laugh, when I probably should weep.

It happened in the old Topeka Daily Capital newsroom at 8th and Jackson, when water 15 to 20 feet deep covered North Topeka, and nobody yet knew how bad it really was.

Some background: When the flood hit here, the Topeka Owls were in first place in the Class C Western Association pennant race and were drawing good crowds. Their ballpark was in North Topeka, near US-24 highway, east of where the China Inn is today.

Owls’ owner Link Norris was a happy man, because he was looking at his best season financially, which would make up for some that hadn’t gone so well. But suddenly, the flood turned his world upside down.

He didn’t know how much his ballpark had suffered from the water and mud. He didn’t know how deep the water was, when it would go down, when he could get the park playable again, or if fans would ever come back to North Topeka to see a ball game. He couldn’t go see the damage because the only way for him to get there was by boat from the north end of the Topeka Boulevard bridge, and that travel was restricted to selected officials.

I was sports editor of The Daily Capital at the time, and Link would call me almost hourly to ask if I’d heard anything about the park. I’d tell him no, that our reporters and photographers hadn’t been out there yet, and he would groan and say, “Oh, my God.”

But soon, our main flood reporter, Bobby Fisher, told me he had seen the disaster that once was the home of the Owls, and it was awful. I called Link and told him to come to the newsroom and talk to Bobby.

Let me insert here that one of the features of Owl games was the organ music of Ole Livgrin, better known than most of the players. Fans enjoyed Ole’s tunes from his perch up behind home plate.

Bobby didn’t know anything about that. Bobby probably didn’t know how many were on a side in baseball, and didn’t care. But he talked to Link, and to others in the newsroom who gathered to hear what he had to say about the critical condition of baseball in our city.

Link, wringing his hands, asked Bobby, “Have you seen the ball park?”

“Saw it today,” said Bobby.

“How bad is it?” Link asked.

“Pretty bad,” said Bobby.

“How deep is the water?”

“Pretty deep,” said Bobby.

And Link asked, “Is it up to Ole’s organ?”

Bobby thought about that, wondering if the joke was on him. There was laughter, and Link was fuming until he realized what he’d said, and then forced a smile. Bobby managed a punch line, but everyone already had guessed it.

For the baseball record, Link had the option of skipping the rest of the season, but he stubbornly moved home games to the Highland Park High diamond. There was no way to charge admission, so a hat was passed among the fans. Link lost his shirt, and it’s a wonder nobody stole his hat.

It is to his everlasting credit that he endured, and that eventually both the ball club and the fans returned to North Topeka.

Soon after the newsroom encounter, I had an inoculation and was cleared to ride a boat out to Owl Park. We cruised in over the outfield fence, and I made a point of noting the water wasn’t up to the organ. Not quite. There was, however, a dead cow floating above the first base dugout. I was very glad Link wasn’t with me.

So much for sick humor, but I also have a favorite un-funny, delayed-action flood story. One night early in our marriage Barbara and I came home to our furnished downtown “terrace level” (actually basement) apartment, and when we opened the door we saw a zillion big black bugs swarming on the walls, drapery and furniture.

I’m talking blankets of bugs, like in an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

We shut the door and went to the Kansan Hotel for the night. I never went back to our “terrace level” dream nest, because next day Barbara found us a new duplex in Highland Park and went alone to get our stuff out of the bughouse. We were told the recent flood had created the bug problem.

The flood brought out the worst in bugs, but the best in a lot of people, including all who worked at The Daily Capital, and at our competitor, The State Journal. Everyone worked long hours, and after the newspapers were put to bed, some joined sand-bagging, rescue and cleanup crews.

I wasn’t one of them, but I did my share, keeping watch for more water from atop Burnett’s Mound.

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