(E) Where were you on Sunday, September 3, 1939.
Where were you on Sunday, September 3, 1939? If you were living in Kansas City, Kansas at that time, the chances were very good that you spent your day at the 3rd annual Croatian Day Picnic at old City Park. On that day, following Mass at St. John the Baptist Croatian Catholic Church, the park filled with members of St. John’s Catholic Club and their family and friends. Matt Grisnik and his Tamburitzan orchestra furnished the music. There were couples in Croatian costumes dancing to the national music and the St. John’s Singing and Dramatic Club sang Croatian songs. Kansas City Kansas Mayor, McCombs, crowned miss Catherine Horvat, then a 17-year old senior at Ward High School, as “Queen of Croatian Day” as a large crowd looked on.
This Sunday, June 2, 2002, the history continues with the 65th annual Croatian Day Picnic. This year’s event will be held on the grounds of the historic Strawberry Hill Museum, fourth and Barnett, Kansas City, Kansas starting at 4:30. Polka Hall-of-Famer, Don Lipovac, and his internationally know band, will furnish the music this year. Plenty of food and drink will be available as usual. St. John’s Catholic Club president, Kenny Yarnevich, promises that the Club and its members will do their very best to make this year’s celebration as momentous as the previous 64 and invites all to join in the fun. He says the Club is committed to maintaining all the rich traditions of the Croatian Day Picnic begun many years ago with the founders of the Club.
In the summer of 1922, young Croatian boys in their teens wandered aimlessly on the various streets of the eastern part of Kansas City, Kansas. They were divided by groups, some of them calling themselves the Fourth Street Group, Fifth Street Boys, Bottom Jakes (those who lived across the river along James Street), to name a few. Virtually every corner was a rendezvous. A spot just off the east entrance of the old Public Library Building was the meeting place of one group with no particular name. In this group were: Joseph A “Brass” Bartolac, Henry “Hank” Dehlic, Nicholas “Corn” Jarnevic, Nicholas “Ty Cobb” Krall, Anthony “Lefty” Kostelac, Joseph “Doc” Kostelac, George “Curly” Mikesic, Joseph “Skinny” Preblic, Charles “Smith” Simatic, John Tomasic and Joseph Stimac (both of whom seemed to have escaped nicknames). They would walk along the Avenue (Minnesota), stopping to patronize Jim Cummins Pool Hall, the Den of Sweets, Electric Theater or other popular recreation places.
Being neither better nor worse than any other group of young men, they held serious discussions which resulted in a decision to organize a club. A committee approached Father Martin D. Krmpotic, the pastor of St. John the Baptist Croatian Catholic Church. They requested the use of the hall beneath the church for meetings and social gatherings. Permission was readily granted. The purpose of the club was to provide fellowship and a place for recreation. They also discussed long-range plans for their contribution to the church and the Croatian community. The group proceeded to invite other young men to join. The response was great.
Thus, from corner meetings of little significance to gatherings with a definite purpose, St. John's Catholic Club was first organized.
Some of the activities in those early years included games, boxing and wrestling matches and dances. Within three years their meeting place became too small, and it was decided to build a two-story building with the lower floor consisting of clubrooms and the upper floor an auditorium. The location was to be immediately west of the church. Financing was by sale of shares to parishioners (which would be repaid without interest when the club became financially solvent).
Response was generous, and only a small loan made elsewhere was necessary. Parishioners, young and old, volunteered their time, talent and tools in the construction. On June 24, 1925 the building was blessed
Economic conditions in the 1930's were such that few men had jobs. The club became a haven for them. Their favorite pastime was sports of all varieties. Under the direction of an Athletic director, competition was had in cards, checkers, basketball, football, softball, tennis, table tennis, boxing, bowling, baseball and wrestling. Bowling was most popular. St. John's was second only to Grindel-Lembke (a commercial recreation establishment on Minnesota Avenue). In 1939 and 1947, additional lanes were installed bringing the total to six lanes.
Many outstanding bowlers went on to ably represent St. John's in city classic league, city, state and national tournaments and also regional and national lodge tournaments. Interest in boxing was high throughout the 1930's. Under the careful coaching of Mike Koska, many of the members made use of the workout room located on the upper floor where the kitchen is now located. The first amateur match was presented in 1938.
The baseball team was very well known throughout the Midwest area. During the early 1930's and immediately after the war, it competed with and defeated the best in semi-pro baseball. A highlight of the baseball team was the Kansas State Semi-Pro Championship game at Ward Field in 1937 against Wear Coal Company. The team, managed by Paul “Barney” Novogradac, went down in defeat to a 19- year-old pitcher by the name of Elwin Roe, from Viola, Arkansas, who went on to achieve professional fame as “Preacher Roe” of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Their loss was avenged one week later when they defeated the same team at Klamm Park, and the losing pitcher for the Coalmen was George Verbeck.
The annual married men versus single men game was enjoyed as much by the players as by the fans.
The Entertainment Committee of the Club sponsored weekly Sunday night dances during the 1930’s. Les Copley and his Kansas Citians provided music. This Committee made an effort to offer a diversified calendar of events to interest as many members as possible.
So it was that in 1937, the Club sponsored the very first Croatian Day Picnic at the old City Park.
Over the ensuing 65 years, the annual picnic has drawn, not only Croatians from around the community, but also many friends and guests wanting to enjoy good fellowship.