Omaha has hosted the College World Series for seven decades, but the partnership has not been without its challenges.
Kathryn Morrissey hangs a framed “One Millionth College World Series Fan” pennant in her home. Her grandfather Raymond Maaske grabbed it in 1972 as he walked into Omaha’s Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium, home to the NCAA’s Division I championship baseball tournament from 1950 to 2010.
“It’s a family heirloom,” she says. “A keepsake that is really precious to us.”
Morrissey’s grandfather, a farmer who listened to baseball games on the radio while he drove his tractor, introduced her to the CWS when she was a child. Now the first executive director of CWS of Omaha, Inc.—the nonprofit organizing committee that plans the event each year—Morrissey has spent more than 30 years aiding efforts to preserve Omaha’s “hometown home run.” In 2008, the NCAA and CWS of Omaha signed a contract that will keep the College World Series in the city through at least 2036.
Omaha has hosted 71 CWS tournaments since 1950. Local kids go to games before they can walk. Couples get engaged in the stands. Newlyweds take photos by the stadium. The event has grown from being fully managed by volunteers and played in a mid-century stadium to having year-round employees and a 24,000-seat ballpark. The partnership between Omaha and the CWS has survived early financial struggles, a venue move and the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year, the CWS is back to rolling out the red carpet for the top eight college baseball teams, locals who’ve gone to games for generations and fans from across the country.
“Hell was 2020, when there was no College World Series,” Morrissey says. “We’re not to heaven yet. … We’re in a nice middle place making giant steps toward normal.”
What Morrissey calls “baseball heaven” was spearheaded in the 1940s by Mayor Johnny Rosenblatt and a group of Omaha business leaders—known locally as the founding fathers. Rosenblatt, a baseball fan and former amateur player, pushed the city to build Omaha Municipal Stadium (later renamed for Rosenblatt in 1964) with the goal of attracting minor league baseball. Once the stadium was completed in 1948, Rosenblatt promoted the venue to host everything from NFL exhibitions to the American Legion Little World Series.
The founding fathers came upon their golden opportunity when they traveled to Wichita, Kan., for the 1949 CWS. The tournament was in its third year and had been played in Kalamazoo, Mich., before the move to Wichita. The group successfully pitched Omaha to NCAA officials, and the city hosted its first tournament in 1950.
The CWS failed to turn a profit for 10 of its first 12 years in Omaha, but the city rallied around the event. John Diesing Sr. established CWS of Omaha in 1967, uniting local business leaders to support the tournament. The series’s roots grew deeper than a tournament to crown the best college baseball team—the CWS became a staple of the Omaha community.
Carol Foreman, an Omaha native who now works as a ticket manager for the CWS, began driving rental cars to team hotels as soon as she got her driver’s license. She sold T-shirts, watched her sister Jeanne work as a bat girl and pitched tents in yards near Rosenblatt for tailgating.
“It’s part of the fabric of the city,” Foreman says. “Everyone knows June means College World Series.”
Herb Hames, 69, is a CWS of Omaha board member. He was 16 years old in 1968, when he watched his first CWS game in general admission behind home plate. In his 32 years working with the CWS, he’s seen others fall for the tournament the same way he did—by going to the ballpark.
Attendance is the foundation of the tournament’s success locally, Hames says. Omaha relies on physical general admission ticket books to get fans to the park. Since 1989, he has recruited anywhere from 75 to 100 people each year to sell books of 10 general admission tickets to any CWS game. The books start selling months before the tournament and go to everyone from Little League families to corporations. The price for a book has tripled in the decades since, selling for $30 in the late 1980s and climbing to $90 in 2019.
“What I’ve seen in over 30 years is a fan loyalty like you can’t believe,” Hames says.
Local service clubs have been welcoming athletes, coaches and their families to Omaha since the 1960s. Volunteers drive teams from the airport, take them around the city and serve as contacts if players need emergency dental appointments or coaches need babysitters.
Jim Costello has hosted CWS teams since 1983 as a member of the Kiwanis Club, and the relationships last for years after the team’s final out is recorded. After he hosted 2008 national champion Fresno State, the program invited him to California to be honored at a football game. He’s friends with Ray Tanner, the South Carolina athletic director who coached back-to-back championship teams in 2010 and ’11. Some coaches will send him Christmas cards.
“I’ve talked to some of these folks [throughout] the years, and they remember their experience in Omaha,” Costello says. “That says we’ve done a good job.”
Maintaining the 70-plus year connection between the CWS and Omaha hasn’t come without behind-the-scenes challenges. Though Rosenblatt Stadium had been the tournament’s home base for six decades, the venue needed an upgrade to address issues with parking and seating capacity. In 2008, the NCAA and CWS of Omaha agreed to a 25-year contract and the $140 million construction of TD Ameritrade Park Omaha, three miles up the road from Rosenblatt.
It wasn’t easy for the CWS community to let go of Rosenblatt. Hames remembers the disappointment of season ticket holders those first few years after they were told they’d have to move from the seats they’d had for generations. TD Ameritrade Park is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, but Morrissey still catches herself calling it “the new ballpark.”
The certainty of a long contract with the NCAA didn’t mitigate any effects the COVID-19 pandemic had on the CWS. Morrissey says the cancellation of the 2020 tournament put the community in “stunned silence.” She checked in with season ticket holders, moved to remote working and kept in touch with staff video calls. There were days when it was tough to stay positive.
The CWS of Omaha initially anticipated 25% attendance at this year’s tournament, in line with the NCAA’s winter events. In April, they received news that there would be a 50% capacity limit, before the would-be restrictions were lifted on May 19. Morrissey says the announcement allowing full attendance felt like a “birthday party”—until reality set in. They had exactly one month to prepare before the June 19 first pitch.
To Kristyna Engdahl, that month-long scramble felt much shorter. Engdahl works with the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority, which manages TD Ameritrade Park. In the month leading up to the CWS, Engdahl hurried to staff a 100% capacity event. Another challenge was making sure there would be enough hot dogs and chicken strips. Local breweries chipped in to help with last-minute beer.
“We’re just focusing on getting back to the basics,” Engdahl says.
Omaha’s CWS experience is returning to pre-pandemic shape, but it’s not there yet. The service club hosts aren’t able to feed hundreds of steaks to baseball players. There are no physical ticket books—everything is digital. The beloved general admission seats shifted to reserved seating. As a result, ticket prices have shot up this year. The lowest price for a Game 2 championship seat was $234 on Ticketmaster as of Tuesday morning. Morrissey is often asked whether the general admission line will be open next year.
Lt. Mark Desler, a 25-year veteran of the Omaha Police Department, has noticed a difference in this year’s CWS. There are plenty of fans at the ballpark and plenty of people walking around town, he says, but it doesn’t feel the same yet.
Morrissey is optimistic the CWS will make its full return in 2022. She finds hope when she looks out of her office window and sees a familiar view. Baseball fans young and old walk up to the ballpark. Dressed in their team’s colors, they’re tailgating, smiling and creating memories with their families—just like she did with her grandfather.
“It’s like the generations before,” she says. “I feel like I’m doing this for grandpa.”
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