Route 66 and history go together like peanut butter and jelly or milk and cookies. But it’s not just the history of the byway or its motels, diners, and classic cars. Sports teams and athletes are recognized inside the multitude of museums on Route 66.
The first museum is the Joliet Area Historical Museum and Route 66 Welcome Center, which has a display honoring the first-ever minor league baseball team to play in the city. The Joliet Jackhammers held their inaugural season in 2002 and were later replaced by the current Joliet Slammers in 2011. A display at the museum contains several Jackhammers items from 2002, including a team photo and game program.
Down the road a bit is the town of Litchfield, where one of the first items you’ll see at the Litchfield Museum and Route 66 Welcome Center is a a poster recognizing Litchfield as the hometown of Baseball Hall of Famer Ray Schalk. Known as the best defensive catcher of his era, Schalk helped the Chicago White Sox win the 1917 World Series, but he was also a member of the infamous Black Sox team of 1919. A glass display honoring Schalk’s MLB career includes a biography and an image of his Hall of Fame plaque.
The St. Louis Cardinals opened Ballpark Village in 2014 and the entertainment complex houses the Cardinals Hall of Fame and museum, which is chock full of Cardinals memorabilia. The Cardinals have a storied legacy second only to the New York Yankees and the team’s hall is a must-see for baseball fans.
Missouri has several museums along Route 66 in Cuba, Lebanon, Springfield, Carthage, and Joplin, but those don’t include much in terms of sports. Springfield is home to the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, which is a fantastic museum dedicated to spotlighting teams, coaches, and athletes in the Show-Me State. The Missouri Sports Hall is about 15 miles south of Route 66 in Springfield.
One of the most famous Route 66 athletes is baseball great Mickey Mantle. The Commerce, Oklahoma, native and New York Yankees Hall of Famer got his start as a youngster playing in leagues across Oklahoma and Kansas. Mantle is among those recognized at the Little League Museum in Baxter Springs, Kansas.
Mantle is also honored at the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. The museum is adjacent to Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark, home to the Triple-A Oklahoma City Dodgers. A statue of legendary Jim Thorpe, who grew up in Stroud, greets visitors to the museum that bears his name. Also located in OKC is the National Softball Hall of Fame and Museum, which opened in 1976 and honors the game’s great players, coaches, and even umpires. The softball hall is a minutes walk from the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.
Sports don’t always take place on a field or pitch, or even in a pool or river. Some take to the air. Balloon racing is one of the most unique and challenging sporting events. Some of the world’s best balloon racers are recognized at the International Balloon Museum and Ballooning Hall of Fame in Albuquerque. The museum opened in 2005 and details the history of hot-air ballooning from its early days of trial-and-error to weather balloons. There are several interactive exhibits, and you can virtually lift and land your own hot-air balloon.
More Route 66 museums await in Arizona and California, and a “museum” of a different sort is among the most popular Route 66 stops. The Museum Club in Flagstaff, Arizona, is a must-see music venue that has seen legends like Wanda Jackson and Willie Nelson perform. Unwind after watching a Northern Arizona University game with a cold drink and live music.
More details on the myriad museums along Route 66 can be found in A Sports Fan’s Guide to Route 66, which will be released on August 3.