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I was riding on the new high-speed train connecting Beijing and Shanghai when I met Zhao Long, a sports reporter for China Central Television (CCTV). He was heading to Changzhou to cover the opening of a baseball academy which was also being attended by the owner of Major League Baseball’s Colorado Rockies. I had never heard of baseball in China so it was worth checking out.

Zhao explained that Major League Baseball (MLB) wants to follow in the footsteps of professional basketball to create growing popularity for their sport. Part of this effort is to develop Chinese talent that will eventually play at the major league level.

It’s already been proven that American sports can be big in China. In the 1980’s National Basketball Commissioner David Stern did a rather smart thing. He approached the Chinese government and offered to provide NBA programming to Chinese television for free. Stern knew the potential market was immense and wanted the NBA to have a toehold in it.

Due to Stern’s foresight, Chinese kids were raised watching the exploits of the NBA, a style of basketball they had never seen before, and were particularly impressed watching Michael Jordan. One of those impressionable youngsters was Yao Ming, who grew  to be 7’ 6” tall and an NBA superstar. He can be added to the long list of successful Chinese exports.

Baseball in china

Drill, baby, drill

Major League Baseball was a little slower to the table but is now actively seeking talent in China. In cooperation with the Chinese Baseball Association and the local government they recently opened a baseball academy in Changzhou, a city of three million people located between Beijing and Shanghai. In 2008, the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres played a series of games in China, it was the first time Chinese fans saw Major League Baseball firsthand. The MLB website is also now available in Chinese.

These are smart moves. Players such as Hideki Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki have made American baseball ever more popular in Japan so China is the next logical step, one that could dwarf the Japanese market. Increasing the popularity of baseball in China is not as easy as it was for basketball though. The Chinese government is focused on Olympic sports so it can increase the country’s medal count at the Games. Since baseball has been dropped from the Olympic roster, it does not receive government financing for its development.

In fact, after the 2008 Beijing Olympics the baseball stadium used for it was demolished. Like so many other sites in the capital city it is now covered by high-rise apartments. It’s a little difficult to play a sport when an elevator lobby now stands where home plate used to be.

But MLB and local Chinese groups will continue to provide funding to find the next Yao Ming for America’s pastime. In the intertwined global economy they can’t afford to ignore a market with a billion-plus potential viewers. Major League Baseball may be a little late to the party but it looks like it’s going to be an all-nighter.

Commerce, Oklahoma was the hometown of baseball legend Mickey Mantle, whose boyhood home appears pretty much unchanged since his youth. Baseball’s greatest power hitting switch-hitter learned to hit in the side yard, his father and grandfather would take turns pitching to him. Since one pitched righty and the other lefty, the young Mantle practiced hitting from both sides of the plate, hence his switch-hitting prowess.

mcikey mantle boyhood home commerce oklahoma

Oh lordy I was quite the porker a few years ago. Kids, this is what happens when you let a donut fetish get out of control. Look and learn.

As a child growing up in New York in the 1960s, Mickey Mantle was my favorite player, and not just because we shared the same initials. My mom even got an iron-on #7 to put on a t-shirt so I could pretend I was wearing his jersey.

The funny thing is, as I was motoring along Route 66 I didn’t even know Mantle’s home was nearby. I just happened to stop at a Dairy King in a converted gas station that had a sign out front advertising “Route 66 cookies.” One look at me in the picture above and you’ll realize I stopped for signs like that back then. (Ok, truth be told, I still do.)

Dairy King Route 66 Commerce Oklahoma

Charles in front of the Dairy King he operates with his mother. The store used to be a Marathon station.

As I was chatting up Charles the shop owner, between bites of cookies shaped like the Route 66 road sign, he happened to mention that Mantle’s home was only a few block away.  He called his mother to watch the store and drove me over to the house. (Another great reason for taking road trips on back roads, these serendipitous moments don’t happen on the Interstate.)


The house, at 319 South Quincy Street, is just a few hundred yards off Route 66. The tin-sided barn you can see in the background of the picture at the top of this post even bears baseball dents from the “Commerce Comet’s” early batting power.  If you’ve made it this far, drop by the ball field at Commerce High School to see the 9-foot tall statue of the Mick that was dedicated in 2010.

When I visited the Mantle home a few years ago it was closed but you could walk right up onto the porch and peer in the windows. A neighbor told me there was talk of turning it into a museum but I’m not sure if that’s happened yet. It seems a shame to let the sight go to waste, a view of the empty storefronts of downtown Commerce belies the town’s name, it could sure use some visitors.

commerce oklahoma route 66 old gas station

An old gas station straddling Route 66 in Commerce, Oklahoma.


Further information: Mickey Mantle’s father worked at the lead and zinc mines in nearby Picher, Oklahoma. Read how the mines turned Picher into a modern American ghost town.

You may be interested in seeing a tribute to one of Mantle’s teammates at the Roger Maris Museum in Fargo, North Dakota.

28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

Update June, 2017: Since our visit to North Korea in 2011, the recent death of American tourist Otto Warmbier, who was detained while visiting the country, is a tragic situation that is inexcusable. Accordingly, despite our feelings that tourism in North Korea has positive benefits by exposing the North Korean people to visitors from the outside world, we can no longer recommend that Americans visit the country. It is too easy for the DPRK to make them pawns for continuing tensions between the two countries.

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In 2011 we attended the Arirang Mass Games in Pyongyang, North Korea. With more than 100,000 performers it is billed as the biggest show on Earth by no less than Guinness World Records. The Mass Games are a combination of gymnastics, circus high-wire act, mass dancing, drama and all wrapped up in a veneer of self-promoting “long live the Fatherland” type of propaganda.

Over 20,000 of the performers holding books filled with multi-colored pages sit opposite the audience. They flip the pages in the books on cue to reveal stadium-sized murals highlighting everything from nature to people to weaponry. (This is a military-first society after all.) The show takes place in Rungrado May Day Stadium that reputedly holds over 105,000 spectators. When we attended the majority of them were wearing dark green army uniforms. During some portions the show felt very much like a military rally.

It’s really hard to describe the Mass Games so for once I’ll shut up and let the video and pictures do the talking:

During the next part the child performers appeared to be about seven years old. While their performance was uniformly impressive, seeing kids this age being so obviously coached and trained was sort of like watching a Stalinist version of Toddlers & Tiaras:

This next section included the Tae Kwon Do performance, a sport in which North Korea is a world leader:

The stated purpose of the Mass Games is to celebrate Kim Il Sung’s birth. He was born in April, but for some reason the games are held in August and September. When the mural shown below flashed in the stadium I was surprised that the applause wasn’t as unbridled as I expected. I wonder if this means anything for the future of North Korea.

The “Great Leader” done in flash cards.

By the way, this was a difficult post for me to put together because the treble-heavy patriotic music started to drive Larissa a little crazy, but I hope you enjoyed this window into a totally different world.  You can only visit North Korea as part of a pre-approved group tour, the most experienced company is Koryo Tours. It is run by a Nick Bonner, a Brit based in Beijing.

Click the link for more stories about our trip to North Korea.

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I tend to like museums like the Roger Maris Museum that are devoted to one person. They usually fly under the radar and reflect local civic pride honoring a native son or daughter. The Deke Slayton Memorial Space & Bike Museum that I visited in Sparta, Wisconsin comes to mind. As far as I know it’s the only museum in the world dedicated to a NASA astronaut and bicycles. Who knew they had so much in common? (Although I am impressed by whoever came up with the name for the “Rockets & Sprockets” gift shop inside.)

Often the exhibits have the sort of homespun memorabilia and little known facts that aren’t found in larger museums. Thus with a high degree of anticipation I sought out the Roger Maris Museum in Fargo, North Dakota.

Roger Maris Museum

Roger Maris Museum, Fargo, North Dakota

At first I couldn’t find it. I double checked the address and instead of a museum all I could see was the West Acres Shopping Center, a large regional mall. In Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania I came across a mall that has the aptly named “Church on the Mall” so I finally realized that the museum was actually in the mall; somewhere among the shops and kiosks selling personalized coffee mugs and tutti-frutti  yogurt.  I went inside and there it was, occupying a prime corner piece of real estate between Spencer Gifts and Tip Top Tux.

The tagline for the museum is “A permanent shrine to a reluctant hero.” Maris was a soft-spoken player who didn’t let his fame get to his head. He only agreed to the museum if it was placed in his hometown of Fargo, was free and was at a site where the greatest number of people could see it; and that’s how the museum dedicated to the man who broke Babe Ruth’s single season home run record ended up at a suburban North Dakota shopping mall.

Roger Maris signed baseball card

Maris is in pretty good company

For being in a mall the exhibit is well done. Maris donated every major piece of memorabilia he had. On display are his two MVP awards (that’s right his record shattering year wasn’t some flash in the pan, he won the MVP in 1960 as well) and various uniforms, bats and home run balls from throughout his career. A little nook off to the side has seats from the original Yankee Stadium where you can sit and watch a grainy newsreel highlighting Maris’ career.

His single season home run record was later broken several times by players who could only do so because they were puffed up on steroids. Reflecting on Maris’ accomplishments made me realize that he should be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. I’m not saying that just because when I was a chubby little kid he gave me his autograph. Although it didn’t hurt.

Here’s a link to the Roger Maris Museum. Next time you’re in Fargo check it out.