Hall of Famer Jim Thome helps launch Grassroots Baseball tour at Dozer Park


Posted May 2, 2019

PEORIA — Jim Thome never hit leadoff in his Hall of Fame baseball career. But he did a good job of it Thursday at Dozer Park as the first guest celebrity ballplayer to join the inaugural Route 66 youth clinic tour for Grassroots Baseball.

The 12-stop tour, which loosely follows historic U.S. Route 66 that wound from Chicago to Los Angeles, began with one of baseball’s newest Hall of Famers talking to and playing catch with 35 kids from the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Peoria.

Photo Credit: Ron Johnson, Peoria Journal Star

“You couldn’t find a nicer guy to get us started,” said Jean Fruth.

The kids, several of whom had never played baseball, were rewarded with Big League Chew bubble gum, a baseball and a new Rawlings baseball glove.

Grassroots Baseball was the brainchild of Fruth, a renowned baseball photographer. She enlisted retiring Baseball Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson to be her traveling and organizational partner. The pair has rented a small recreational vehicle to cover the 2,400-plus mile off-and-on journey that will last through October.

“Route 66 ties in Americana and the culture of baseball,” Fruth said. “Along the way is a give back program to celebrate baseball. If you put a glove in the hands of a kid who doesn’t have one, maybe it will be the start of that kid playing the game. Route 66 is the forgotten road in so many ways. Let’s not forget these small towns and underprivileged areas.”

Fruth will be documenting the journey through a photo book called “Grassroots Baseball: Route 66.” It’s the second Grassroots book in the series. The first book, to be released in June, is called “Grassroots Baseball: Where Legends Begin.”

The next couple of stops on the tour will be in Chicago, where Goose Gossage is the Hall of Famer on hand; and St. Louis, where Ozzie Smith will join the cause. Gossage is the national spokesman for Grassroots.

Other Hall of Famers to appear are Johnny Bench in Oklahoma City and George Brett in El Segunda, Calif., near the end of the old highway. Some other ex-major leaguers taking part are Adam LaRoche in Kansas, Billy Hatcher in Arizona and Ryan Howard, who grew up in St. Louis.

“The guys we asked to participate, it was all very natural of them to say yes when they heard it was a give back for kids,” said Idelson. “For those guys who grew up on Route 66, there’s also that civic pride.”

Idelson, who will soon be ending a 25-year association with baseball’s shrine in Cooperstown, N.Y., the last dozen as president, was particularly touched by the Thomes’ presence last July during the induction of Thome and five other baseball greats.

“One of the best moments we’ve had was when Jim’s dad (Chuck Jr.) was screwing Jim’s plaque into the wall,” Idelson said. “It was pretty powerful to have your dad seal your final place in history by putting the screws into your Hall of Fame plaque.”

Jim said he felt blessed that his father, who was battling cancer, could attend the ceremony. The elder Thome died in March.

“It’s been an incredible ride since the induction,” Jim Thome said. “To know that Pops got to see the whole journey makes it all so special. It’s a lot more relaxing now than it was a year ago. Now you become part of this fraternity family and we’re all in this together. Now I get why all these Hall of Famers come back.”

Thome, in his sixth year as a special assistant to the general manager for the Chicago White Sox, is planning to attend this year’s Cooperstown ceremony with his own family.

“I think my kids are more excited about it than me,” he said.

Thome completed his day at the ballpark by throwing out the first pitch of the Peoria Chiefs’ game against Dayton.

Meanwhile, the Grassroots RV prepared for its next stop in Chicago.

“Jeff asked me to be a part of this and it was a no-brainer,” Thome said. “I’ll do anything I can do to help the Hall of Fame, baseball, Peoria and the Boys and Girls Club. This journey (Fruth and Idelson) are going on, they get to see where all these guys came from, all the different cultures and do something special for kids. What a fun thing.”