Route 66 Museums Honor Sports Legends of the Mother Road

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.

A display recognizing the defunct Joliet Jackhammers baseball team is on the second floor of the Joliet Area Historical Museum.
Photo by Ron Clements

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.

Baseball Hall of Famer Ray Schalk was a Litchfield native.
Photo by Ron Clements

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.

A statue of the legendary Jim Thorpe stands outside the entrance to the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame.
Photo by Ron Clements

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.

The Museum Club in Flagstaff is an iconic music venue on Route 66.
Photo by Ron Clements

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.

Ron Clements

Ron Clements

Ron Clements is a Wisconsin native and Green Bay Packers fan who married a Chicago Bears fan from Peoria, Illinois. Despite the rivalry, Ron and Patti make it work and have been living fulltime in an RV since March 2018. They travel the country in search of new adventures and love attending baseball games and exploring national parks. They visited all 30 MLB stadiums in 2018 and have taken their RV to each of the Lower 48 states. Ron is a veteran journalist of more than two decades and a summa cum laude graduate of East Carolina University, which he attended following his service in the United States Marine Corps. Ron has written for USA Today, Sporting News, CBS Sports, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Omaha World Herald, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Fresno Bee, the Montgomery Advertiser, and many other media outlets. The Sports Fan’s Guide to Route 66 is for anyone who has ever driven past a high school, college, or professional stadium, and thought, “I wonder what it’s like to see a game there.” A Sports Fan’s Guide to Route 66 will be in bookstores and online everywhere on August 3, 2021.

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