JACK SANDERS DIDN’T MEAN TO FALL INTO THE WORLD OF SANDLOT BASEBALL.
by Joanne Xu
As with all good things, Sanders stumbled across the international sub community within the sport of baseball by pure chance and a bit of luck. In his university days, Sanders was chosen to participate in The Rural Studio, an architectural project run out of rural Alabama by a charming architect slash teacher, Sam Mockbee. He called The Rural Studio “the classroom of the community” — a program that would allow his students, including Sanders, to design and build architectural projects, like houses and churches and landscaping structures, to help sustain underserved communities in rural Alabama. In other words, Sanders got to build cool things from the ground up and learn cool local culture that he’d otherwise never see.
It was there that a young Sanders stumbled across the Newbern Baseball Club “along a dirt road in the middle of nowhere.”
They were simply a group of Newbern folks playing sandlot baseball games for fun — nothing too profound if you asked a fellow local. This was just part of their weekend culture. For Sanders, who’d grown up hoping he’d play professionally someday, this was an epiphany. Here was a community that adored the game as intensely as he did, who didn’t play for stats or wins or tallies on a chalkboard. Just so people could come out, buy pork skins and a beer, and watch on. As Sanders recalls, “this was like a way cooler version of Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams.”
The Newbern Baseball Club would become Sanders’ oasis, as well as his thesis project for The Rural Studio, as well as his later inspiration for founding Texas Playboys. Welcome to the world of sandlot. Everyone is invited.
The Recreationalist: Before your time with the Newbern Tigers, how did you come into your love for baseball?
Jack: I’d grown up playing baseball in Texas and thought from Little League to about tenth grade that I would play professionally. It all came crashing down late in high school due to an injury, plus my development as an artist. I forgot about baseball for almost five or six years. And then when I was working on my college thesis with the Newbern baseball club, I joined the team as a player.
The Recreationalist: How has your relationship with the game changed since your childhood days?
Jack: I think a lot about the way that I played as a kid with my peers in a sandlot. Where we played purely for the joy of it. As a teenager, I was so affected by what I thought was the judgement of my performance, whether it was by coaches or dad or girls. Then at some point, I realized that the impact of me striking out or missing a ground ball was just not that big of a deal. And when I was in Newbern, it wasn’t that big of a deal to anybody either because there were so many other more important things they had to deal with. So my perspective shifted. I realized that the most important thing isn’t whether or not I hit a home run. It’s actually the fact that we’ve created this opportunity for a bunch of people to be outdoors and have fun together.
On Texas Playboys
The Recreationalist: Why did you form the Texas Playboys?
Jack: We formed the Texas Playboys because I had enough friends that wanted to go see the Newbern Baseball Club in Alabama that I kept talking about, which we did just in time before they disbanded. This was 14 years ago, and the Playboys and I — 25 Austin artists and creatives and friends — all got together and flew to Alabama and rented some vans to watch the Newbern Tigers play. Telling the story of Newbern was always exciting, but for my friends to see it in person and have their minds blown too kept us wanting to do this.
It’s crazy because I thought baseball was over for me in like 1993, and now a bunch of aging baseball players and I have played 14 seasons with Texas Playboys.
The Recreationalist: And since then, the club has become co-ed.
Jack: I’ve always thought of the club as co-ed. So when we went as a team of twelve men to Newbern, Alabama for our second game, we were beaten down a bit by injuries. Amy Cook had traveled with us to see The Rural Studio and hang out. I think I’d had a jersey already made for her because she’d played softball and was a league basketball player in college. She ended up coming in late in the game to pitch for us and striked some people out. At our banquet on Feb. 22nd, we moved to elevate her status from player to coach of the Playboys. So we’re following the San Francisco Giants — we now have a female coach as well. But also, she’s one of the best baseball players on the team.
The Recreationalist: You’re an artist and designer by trade. Where does your creative instinct show up in the Playboys?
Jack: I’m not building barns or skyscrapers or houses. I’m building shade structures and benches and stages and very rarely needing to use my tape measure. I have a pretty primal sort of instinct to just build, because I know there’s a problem that needs to be solved for this Saturday’s game. Like a little more shade over here.
The Recreationalist: And you’re still actively building new structures for this baseball field?
Jack: For sure. It’s a work in progress, and it’s all with salvaged materials. I just like the idea that people who haven’t come to The Long Time since October 2019 will come back to something that’s noticeably changed for the better. I think I’ll plant two trees, but then put the third over by the third base side, and then just a couple bags of dirt and two shovels over there. I want people to notice and participate in the growth, and the evolution of the club and the community and the ball field.
Left: 2020 poster, by Sam Schonzeit. Right: Jack White at The Long Time, by Kris Wixom.
The Recreationalist: Why was adding a community aspect to the Playboys so important to you?
Jack: One of the things that was important about Newbern was that it had a service component to it. The gate money that was raised in Newbern was used to put on funerals in the community. It was important for the Playboys to start figuring out how we could get into that kind of stuff too, and for the club to not just be about prolonging our baseball careers, but providing some sort of service too. So we’ve found ways to raise money for local charities at different games.
The Recreationalist: What’s your favorite Playboys tradition?
Jack: After barnstorming at Newbern for two years, we started hosting a black tie event. In early days it was at Rabbits, which is now Whistlers, and then it was at the Sahara Lounge for a little bit, and now it’s at Scholz Garten. And we put on black ties, at least some of us do, and do PowerPoint presentations of the cities we want to play in and we vote. And then we basically tell that city that we’re coming to play. Last year we voted to go to Eaglepass, Texas, which is on the border. The Playboys got sworn in as Maverick County registrars, and we’re going to spend the whole weekend registering voters playing sandlot teams from both the Mexico and US sides. It’s just a really amazing way to travel and be outside and meet people and learn about places.
The Recreationalist: Imagine your perfect game day. What ingredients do you need?
Jack: I think we’re close to figuring that out. Baseball is pretty straightforward. We need 18 people, a baseball, some bats, a protective barrier between us and the fans. But for me, I would definitely add some of the tender things: playing music while we play baseball, and Scholz Garten serving Texas whiskey and Karbach beer and hot dogs. And then what I really like is when the game ends and people stop playing and say good game, if you hit it at just the right time, you get that pink orange Austin sunset.
I THOUGHT BASEBALL WAS OVER FOR ME IN LIKE 1993, AND NOW A BUNCH OF AGING BASEBALL PLAYERS AND I HAVE PLAYED 14 SEASONS WITH TEXAS PLAYBOYS.
View the whole Texas Playboys game calendar on their website.