This story originally appeared in the State Journal-Register
By Steven Spearie
NOKOMIS — Jim Eisenbarth knows that on the Night of Champions, he’ll reflect back fondly on Nokomis High School’s back-to-back state championships in girls basketball in 1998 and 1999.
After all, he had a front-row seat. His daughter, Carrie Eisenbarth, now Carrie Matthews and living in nearby Waggoner, was a starter both years.
“It was a really fun time,” said Jim, 72, a former history teacher at the high school in Nokomis. “There was a real unification of people who didn’t necessarily follow girls basketball. And it was great for the community, though anyone would say that.”
Night of Champions, which also will honor state champions from Raymond Lincolnwood, Shelbyville, Pana, Hillsboro and Taylorville on June 7, kicks off a traveling Smithsonian Institution exhibition called “Hometown Teams” at theBottomley-Ruffing-Schalk Baseball Museum in Nokomis through July 20.
The museum will be open daily and have extended hours during the exhibition’s run. Different venues around town will host special events related to the exhibition, including screenings of “Little Giants” and “42,” a recent movie about the career of Jackie Robinson, and a roundtable with sports media members who will talk about what sports means to the towns and the schools they cover.
The interactive exhibition, which makes six stops in the state, though only one in central Illinois, takes a detailed look at how sports, from sandlots to high schools, shape everyday lives. It includes a section of bleachers with seat cushions with trivia questions on them, a video presentation on college and high school fight songs, a panel honoring mascots, and a collage of cheer-related items.
“Sports is a real drawing card in the community,” said Eisenbarth, who is president of the BRS Museum. “There are emotions involved as well.”
“Smaller communities (like Nokomis) are more community-minded, it seems, when it comes to sports,” said Steve Johnson, the museum’s treasurer. “People tend to travel with the teams. They know the parents or the coaches because maybe they’re neighbors or go to the same church.”
The area state championships will be represented by trophies, plaques, pictures and other artifacts in a special display at the museum.
Eisenbarth said you don’t have to look any further than the museum’s namesakes — “Sunny” Jim Bottomley, Charles “Red” Ruffing and Ray Schalk — to realize that sports is part of the local culture. All three have ties to the area, and all three are members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
The BRS Museum had its origins at the Round Table Cafe (now Demi’s Diner) in 1981. It’s in its fourth location, a stand-alone building on West State Street that opened in 2008.
“When people come in, I can tell by their reactions that they’re surprised,” Eisenbarth said. “(I think that they expect to see) a medium-sized closet full of baseball stuff.
“They’re surprised at what we think is a real treasure.”
Among the items are game-used mitts from Bottomley and Schalk, vintage uniforms and a map pinpointing the birthplaces and statistics of baseball major leaguers from central and southern Illinois.
Eisenbarth said the museum attracts about 30 to 50 visitors a week and has about 180 dues-paying members across the country.
While the BRS is a baseball museum, Eisenbarth said he foresees some future temporary exhibits expanding that scope.
“We think the Smithsonian exhibit is going to help us come up with other occasional programs that will give us more visibility,” he said.
Contact Steven Spearie: email@example.com, 622-1788.
BRS Museum namesakes
* “Sunny” Jim Bottomley (1900-59) played for the St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Browns from 1922 to 1937, when he served as player-manager for the Browns. Bottomley was born in Oglesby and grew up in Nokomis. He won the League Award (given to the most valuable player) in 1928 and was part of world championships with the Cardinals in 1926 and 1931. After his playing career, Bottomley, nicknamed “Sunny” for his cheery disposition, became a minor league manager and scout in the Chicago Cubs organization. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974 by the Veterans Committee.
* Charles “Red” Ruffing (1905-86) pitched in the major leagues from 1924 to 1947 with the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox and was part of six World Series championship teams with the Yankees. He won 273 games and completed 335 of the 536 games he started. Born in Granville and raised in Coalton, he attended school in Nokomis. Ruffing lost four toes in a mining accident when he was 15. After his playing career, he became a coach for the White Sox and New York Mets and a scout and minor league instructor for the Cleveland Indians. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1967.
* Ray “Cracker” Schalk (1892-1970) was considered the greatest defensive catcher of his playing era (1912-29). Schalk played the majority of his career with the Chicago White Sox, with whom he won a World Series title in 1917. He also played in the “Black Sox” World Series in 1919. Schalk was born in Harvel and attended school in Litchfield. After his playing career ended with the New York Giants, he became a coach and scout for the Chicago Cubs. He also was a minor league manager. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1955 by the Veterans Committee.