Okie from Okmulgee

The roots of Ron Gardenhire

The sign on the northern edge of Okmulgee, Oklahoma touts the community of 13,022 as the home of Mel McDaniel, "Recording Artist and Star of the Grand Ole Opry."

I pressed an old fellow at the Shell station in town for additional information regarding McDaniel, and he said, "He's some kind of country and western singer's all I've ever heard. Skeeter Davis is from somewhere around here as well." When I asked the man if he'd ever heard of Ron Gardenhire, another Okmulgee native, he hesitated a moment and then shook his head slowly. "The name's not ringing any bells," he said.

I told the guy that Gardenhire was the manager of the Minnesota Twins and a former Major League player with the New York Mets. "Well, there you go," he drawled. "That's baseball, now, isn't it? This here's pretty much a football town."

While there may have been some truth to that discouraging assessment--shop windows all over the community were crowded with all manner of University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State football souvenirs, from shot glasses to beer steins--it didn't, it turned out, take me long to find plenty of folks who still remembered Gardenhire and his days as an all-state shortstop with the Okmulgee High School Bulldogs.

I hit pay dirt right away, in fact, with the mayor, Everett Horn, a man who drives a tow truck and runs a salvage operation when he's not conducting city business.

"Shoot, yes, I know who Ron Gardenhire is," Horn told me. "I've known his family forever. He's a feather in our cap and we need more like him around here."

Horn sounded suitably chastened when I asked him why Gardenhire's name wasn't on the Okmulgee sign alongside Mel McDaniel's. "That's definitely something I should get on the agenda at the next City Council meeting," he said. "We're gonna have to do something about that. We've got some new industrial parks opening up shortly; maybe we could put his name on one of those or part of the highway."

Okmulgee's in the northeast corner of Oklahoma, 45 miles south of Tulsa and just down the road from Muskogee, the town made famous by Merle Haggard's enduring anthem of Okie pride. At the northern edge of the city, directly across Highway 75 from the Muskogee Creek Nation Tribal Center, sits an empty lot where the sprawling Phillips Oil refinery that was the cornerstone of the local economy once stood. The refinery went under during the oil bust of the late 1970s and was followed by the closing of the community's two large glass factories. Today, after years of decline, Okmulgee is undergoing a sort of humble renaissance, built largely around downtown historic preservation--the handsome Creek Council House, constructed in 1878 as the seat of the Creek Nation tribal government, is in the middle of town--and pecans. Okmulgee throws an annual Pecan Festival, and the community holds the world records for largest pecan pie, pecan cookie, and pecan brownie. Like lots of other similar small towns all over the country, the Okmulgee of the 21st century is a place of almost disorienting diversity, where the Wal-Mart and a Sonic drive-in share space on the main drag with authentic barbecue joints, Mexican restaurants, and old throwback diners like the Wonder Waffle.

Yet while it's clear that the Okmulgee that Ron Gardenhire left after graduating from high school--initially to play baseball at Paris Junior College in Texas--was a substantially different place than it is today, there are still remnants and reminders everywhere of the formative years he spent here. All the members of his immediate family--his mother, older sister, and two brothers--still live in Okmulgee, and the town is full of old friends and high school teammates.

The unofficial Ron Gardenhire shrine in Okmulgee is on the walls and cluttered shelves of Ralph's Barber Shop downtown, where Ralph Kovarik has been cutting hair for 51 years. Ralph is the curator of a modest and constantly expanding little museum devoted to Gardenhire's career, a collection of artifacts, memorabilia, signed photos, and newspaper clippings that stretches from his days as a local schoolboy hero to his years as a player in the Mets system right up to his present status as the first Twins manager to win three consecutive Central Division titles.

Ralph now splits the duties at his four-chair shop with his two sons, Ralph Jr. and Roger, and the Kovariks continue to faithfully follow Gardenhire's career from afar. These days, with the internet and Direct TV's Major League Baseball package--which thanks to Gardenhire does a booming business in Okmulgee--Ralph and his sons know as much about what's going on with the Twins as the most ardent fan in the Twin Cities. The morning after Minnesota clinched its third straight Central Division title in Chicago, as the Kovariks were sitting around the shop watching a video of the 8-2 victory and the celebration that ensued, Gardenhire's older sister, Donna Craddock, stopped in to exchange high fives all around.

After Roger replayed the final out--and a post-game interview with Gardenhire--several times, Ralph Sr. fished a clipping out of his stash and handed it to a visitor. The headline read, "Gardenhire Plates 10, Horns Roll," and the article recounted an 18-3 University of Texas victory over Arkansas in which the former Longhorn drove in a school-record ten runs with two homers and a double.

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