CHANDLER — Tucked away in the woods just north of sleepy Chandler, there is a place where a man built his dream, baseball ruled the world and generations of boys learned to become men.
Take a drive down Park Road and eventually you’ll come to Chandler Baseball Camp, a hidden treasure rich with history and meaning and nostalgia.
The small cabins where boys lived for three weeks of their summers are still there, untouched. Same with the mess hall and locker rooms and the rest. Time has won its war on the camp’s baseball fields, but with some work, they could look like new.
When the sun begins to set and the light shines just right on the hills near the camp, it looks like a Rockwell painting. A line from a Springsteen song. A time vault. Sixty-two acres of Americana waiting to go back to use.
It remained untouched for the better part of the past seven years. Now, Mike Bay and Butch Schoenhals are trying to change that. Bay is an Oklahoma City businessman, and Schoenhals is a retired surgeon with a meticulous baseball mind.
They might be crazy, but it just might work.
“I really think the Chandler Baseball Camp has something we kind of got away from,” Bay said. “That’s the one thing about it, it puts you in a time capsule. It’s like you’re a kid again when you go out there.”
‘Baseball was the glue’
Bo Belcher always had this vision. In the late 1950s, he took a chance to bring it to fruition.
Belcher didn’t have the money to buy his own large plot of land, but the city of Chandler was looking to move its dump further out of town. Belcher began pitching his grand idea and selling stock to people throughout Chandler. Many, including Bay’s father who ran the local grocery store, invested.
Soon, Belcher agreed with the city to lease the dump for $1 a year.
Belcher built the camp and designed his family home on the land. From the back porch, he had a panoramic view of the property.
In 1958, the camp opened. It quickly gained momentum, and Belcher was a master of promotion.
Belcher ran the camp himself for the first 10 years. He convinced local high school and college coaches to help. He also chose a dozen teenagers each year to serve as counselors.
By 1968, Belcher had his two sons working with him.
Jim Belcher was a catcher at Oklahoma. Tom Belcher was an All-American at Texas and had a brief stint in the New York Mets organization.
When Bo Belcher died in 1970, Tom took over and ran the camp for the next 30 years.
“Unlike a job where people go 9 to 5, we lived there,” said Tom Belcher’s daughter, Leslie. “This was a true family business in every sense of the term. This was something we believed in, they thought they were contributing something good. They poured their whole life into this.”
A typical day at the camp started at 7 a.m. The wake-up call was military music. Songs such as “Stars and Stripes” blasted over the camp’s speaker system.
After breakfast in the cafeteria, practice started at 8:30. Coaches went over every fundamental in the book.
At 11:30, there was a lunch break. By 1 p.m., campers were back on the field for either more practice or an intrasquad scrimmage. After dinner, outside teams would come in and play camps teams on one of five game fields.
That was it. With the exception of occasional weekend breaks to go into town, it was all baseball, all the time.
“There was an ad in the back of Baseball Digest,” said Richard Hellman, who went to the camp in 1973. “It said, ‘Three Weeks of Intensive Training — Chandler Baseball Camp.’ That’s all it said. I signed up and went, and there’s no doubt it was three weeks of intensive training.”
The camp was a home run. It put Chandler on the map. Shean Field, the camp’s main attraction, hosted Oklahoma state championship games for years. Universal Studios even filmed a short movie, “Pee-Wee Leaguers,” at the camp in 1962.
Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman attended CBC. So did Joe Simpson, a former MLB player and current Atlanta Braves broadcaster.
There are hundreds of names carved into the cabin walls. Some are stars. The real story, however, is the others. Kids from all across the nation, even the world, who came to Chandler for a summer of baseball.
“It was truly a field of dreams for a lot of kids,” Leslie Belcher said. “They came from a lot of different backgrounds. Rich, poor, kids who couldn’t speak English. Germans, Hispanics. We had a contingent one year of like 50 kids from Mexico City. But they all got there and liked it. Baseball was the glue.”
Tom Belcher closed the camp after 1999. It wasn’t drawing the same level of interest. The changing landscape of summer baseball along with parents becoming more reluctant to send their children away for three weeks meant the camp was changing.
Sessions got cut to one week. Parents became overly involved. Belcher, who died in 2006, decided it was time to move on.
“We’ve seen too many ballplayers know when to retire, and we’ve seen them play too long,” Leslie Belcher said. “He said, ‘I don’t want to play too long.’”
Leslie Belcher and her sister had both moved to Washington D.C. by then. Leslie said there were times she considered buying the property and running the camp herself, but knew that wasn’t really feasible.
Premier Baseball School Inc. bought the camp and tried to bring it back from 2005-2007, but to no avail.
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