Fascinating article on one of North Texas’ earliest ball players. Even more notable, though, is the author’s indisputable proof that the photo often identified by baseball historians (including me) as the Indians is, in fact, the 1896 Denison Maroons, an amateur ball club. The photo is included in the linked article. Anyway, read this article for an extremely detailed biography of a ballplayer long passed.
The 2017 Texas League Championship Series. After taking the first two games on the road in Midland, the Tulsa Drillers returned home needing just one win in three games to capture their first title in 19 years. As a Drillers fan, I sensed something magical might happen. As a fan of Texas League baseball, I suspected something magical was bound to happen. As a Texas League historian, I knew historic, if not magical, had to happen. And I intended to be in Tulsa when it did.
Minor league baseball fans are a unique breed, and the 130 year history of the Texas League (TL) offers plenty of proof of what “kranks” will do to support their teams. In fact, fans particularly interested in Double-A baseball face the most gut-wrenching tests of loyalty in all sports. But thanks to the foresight of the TL’s founding fathers, fan loyalty less trying than in some leagues. The split-season format gives even first half tail-enders hope for redemption and a new beginning as the summer heats up. Still, in other ways TL fans face the same challenges found in the Southern and Eastern Leagues.
Double-A rosters change and players come and go faster than pre-school best friends. The first baseman you watch slam 30 home runs over the first 60 games is a distant memory when the playoffs approach. If your team runs away with the first half, expect it to plunge in the second as promotions to Triple-A and an unhealthy dose of complacency take their tolls.
Roster instability is one challenge Double-A baseball fans must learn to live with, but another creates greater difficulties. Even though a city may host a team continuously, few remain affiliated with the same major league club for eternity. Changing operating agreements often make as little sense geographically as they do in terms of building fan loyalty. The TL is no exception.
For years, the Arkansas Travelers were linked to the St. Louis Cardinals. The fit was natural; after all, Arkansas is filled with Cardinals fans. But in 2002, what Travelers fans saw as the perfect arrangement came to an end when St. Louis split ties and eventually affiliated with a new Texas League franchise in Springfield. In the meantime, Anaheim Angels hopefuls arrived in Little Rock each springs. I can attest that Arkansas holds a limited supply of Angels supporters. I can also attest that when the Travelers affiliation changed to the Seattle Mariners before the 2017 season, it meant that with the exception of a few immigrants, not a single Arkansas resident had emotional attachment with the Travelers major league club.
Yes, it takes a special breed of fan to follow minor league baseball on more than a casual basis. The ups and downs are not just season to season; they occur hour to hour. The minors test loyalties, complacency leads to indifference, and fan frustration is noted in the one spot a franchise can least afford it—at the turnstiles. It all makes for a wary existence. Then there are fans of the Tulsa Drillers.
Tulsa’s baseball tradition is as rich as any of the 43 cities to have hosted a TL franchise. Tulsa has fielded TL teams, either as the Drillers or Oilers, for 71 seasons since the 1930s. About 14.5 million fans have attended games over those 7 decades, and Tulsa has seen 53 playoff series for a total of 243 combined home and road contests. For perspective, San Antonio, an original TL member in 1888, has played a total of 118 seasons and appeared in 52 playoff series totaling 229 games. While San Antonio has played about 4,500 more TL contests and has a population nearly quadruple that of Tulsa, its teams have drawn just a half-million more spectators. Tulsa’s TL roots run deep, and aside from San Antonio, it is the longest–tenured city in the circuit.
Even though I hail from Texas and somehow endured growing up in New England, I connected with the Tulsa Drillers rather early in life. The Texas Rangers affiliated with the Drillers in 1977, and for 25 years the route to Arlington passed through Tulsa. My Ranger favorites like Pete O’Brien, Steve Buechele, George Wright, Curtis Wilkerson, Juan Gonzalez, and Ivan Rodriguez all arrived in the big leagues by way of the Drillers. When I moved from New England to Arkansas in 1986, I was in the next best thing to minor league heaven as I could see my Drillers play whenever they visited Little Rock.
When I had kids in the 1990s, we attended many Arkansas-Tulsa games, and my youngsters became ball-gathering magnets. We seldom left the ballpark without at least one ball tossed to us by the likes of Brad Arnsberg and Bobby Jones. The fact we were the only family wearing Drillers caps probably had something to do with it. But the ever-present cloud minor league fans burst in 2002 when the Rangers moved their Double-A team to Frisco and the Colorado Rockies adopted Tulsa. The Rockies? Did Colorado even exist when Tulsa first entered the TL? Nonetheless, I find it immoral to change sporting allegiances, and I stuck with Tulsa.
While minor league baseball fans are unique, overall, my youngest son, Kolton, is probably the most unique sports fan I have met. He follows all sports from English Premier League Soccer to the National Hockey League with equal ferocity. By the time he was 8-years old, Kolton could (and I’m not exaggerating) recite on cue the name, number, and position of any NFL player from the Cowboys starting quarterback to the Jaguars backup placeholder. I guess one acquires such skills when sleeping to the sounds of the NFL Network and measuring Madden PlayStation game time in months rather than hours. If only he had slept to voices of the Algebra Channel commentators. At 19, Kolton’s lifelong fascination with sports is beginning to pay off. The kid who can speak with authority on the disparity of salaries between members of the U.S. Men’s and Women’s Soccer teams as knowledgably as he can defend every ad-lib error of Tony Romo’s career was named sports editor of his college newspaper—as a freshman.
When it comes to sports, I trust Kolton far more than any network pundit. But when he was born in late 1997, something sinister arrived with him. I call it the “Kurse of Kolton.” In tabulating the four major U.S. team sports and tossing-in the Texas League, English Premier League, and Major League Soccer, Kolton has lived through 142 sporting season. His success rate in terms of championships is 0.007%. That right; seven-tenths of one percent. Kolton has enjoyed just one championship season, coincidentally that of the 1998 Tulsa Drillers who claimed the TL championship when Kolton was 9 months old. Still, he was already a Drillers fan, and he has the bruises to prove it. Kolton is one of the relative few who can honestly claim to have seen the tragic Mike Coolbaugh incident in-person in 2007. And he was behind home plate in 2014 when the Drillers clinched a trip to the TL Championship in a classic game of shifting momentum against the Travelers
A couple of weeks ago, it appeared the Kurse would be lifted, if only briefly. After winning the second half of the TL’s North Division in the regular season’s final weekend, the Drillers outlasted NW Arkansas in the playoffs’ opening round. In the meantime, the three-time defending champion Midland RockHounds qualified for the playoffs through a tie-breaker, earning the right to take on San Antonio, a rare winner of both the first and second half South Division title. Like Tulsa, Midland took five games to knock the Missions out of contention and earn the right to play for a fourth straight TL title. It would be a rematch of the 2014 championship series when the RockHounds began their spectacular run, besting the Drillers 3 games to 2. Regardless of what happened in 2017, one thing was certain. The final game would be played, and the Bobby Bragan Trophy awarded, at ONE OK Field in downtown Tulsa. Local fans had not seen their team clinch a championship on home turf since 1962, and when Tulsa defeated the RockHounds in Midland in Games 1 and 2, all signs pointed to something magical about to happen in Tulsa.
The Drillers fan in me sensed the magic about to take place; yet, my senses as a TL historian were hardly convinced of the direction the magic wand was pointed. Tulsa winning a championship on its home field and its first in nearly two decades would be historic, but if Midland rallied from three games down on the road to claim its fourth consecutive title, it would be an unprecedented feat, placing the RockHounds just two championship shy of Fort Worth’s six straight championships from 1920-1925. Regardless, when LA Dodgers pitcher Brandon McCarthy was named the Game 3 starter for Tulsa in a rehab assignment, all signs suggested the magic finally rested with the Drillers. I purchased tickets directly behind home plate for the final games of the series, and Kolton and I made the four hour drive from Little Rock to Tulsa. If one of his teams was going to finally win a championship, he deserved to see it in person. I fully-expected a one-night stay.
Game 3 went as expected for Tulsa pitching. Brandon McCarthy threw six solid innings and allowed just two runs. Unfortunately, Tulsa’s powerful bats went silent. The team wrapping 26 hits in 2 games in Midland only managed to scatter 5 against the RockHounds Heath Fillmyer and three relievers. Likewise, the Midland defense, particularly the infield, was outstanding. Second baseman Max Schrock, all five feet, eight-inches of him, robbed Drillers hitters of line drive base hits in every possible scoring situation, and when he didn’t, shortstop Jorge Mateo did. Of course, Tulsa batters Peter O’Brien and Garrett Kennedy helped Midland’s cause when both left the bases loaded in the second and fourth innings. The result was a 2-0 Midland win that sent over 6,000 Tulsa fans home in disappointment. Even the two middle-aged ladies sitting a few rows behind us were silenced after their impressive nine-inning chorus of incessant baseball chants I hadn’t heard since Little League. “Nothing over; nothing through“ and “Home run, single; we don’t care. Hit it! Hit it, anywhere!” will echo in my ears the entire off-season.
The crowd for Game 4 dropped by about half, college football underway and the Oklahoma Sooners competing for fans’ attention. Still, the 3,000+ Drillers fans turning out remained enthusiastic, and the ladies of Section 109 could be heard throughout the ballpark. Unfortunately their efforts were often drowned by an increasingly raucous and frustrated group of Tulsa fans who took their angst out on home plate umpire Sean Allen with every pitch. But the true culprit, and the story of Game 4 from this fan’s point of view, was once again Max Schrock and Jorge Mateo. Schrock, displaying a vertical leap to rival Michael Jordan, again repeatedly robbed Tulsa hitters of line drive base hits. But in Game 4, it was Mateo who made the play of the night.
For the second straight game, Tulsa managed just five hits, but this time they manufactured three runs and entered the bottom of the ninth trailing 6-3. Drew Jackson led off with a walk, and DJ Peters, in just his second game at the Double-A level, received a free pass on a catcher interference call mutually agreed upon after an umpires’ conference. The tying run came to the plate with no outs in catcher Keibert Ruiz. Ruiz was not only playing in his first game as a Driller and at the Double-A level, he was making just his second plate appearance. For a brief instant, Ruiz didn’t disappoint as he swatted a line drive with sights for the grass in left-center field. But Jorge Mateo promptly plucked from Ruiz’ pending RBi single from the air and stepped on second base to double-up Drew Jackson who committed too early in his plans to cut the Midland lead to two runs. A batter later, Game 4 was in the books. For the second night in a row, Tulsa’s powerful offense was held to five hits. Through four games the team that hit 168 regular season home runs had not even come close to sending a pitch over the wall. The magician’s wand was at work, and no one leaving ONE OK Field had a clue how matters would be settled Sunday evening in the fifth and deciding game. As for me, I had my suspicions. After all, I couldn’t ignore my roommate and the Kurse he had carried from Little Rock.
With both first round playoff series going five games and the Championship Series set for a Game 5 of its own, it was only natural that rain would interrupt the agony of Drillers fans. After over an hour delay, the game got underway with Drillers pitcher Dennis Santana facing off against Midland’s James Naile. What set up for a fascinating finish to a fascinating series from the historian’s perspective, and a heart-thumping experience from that of a Drillers fan, was about to collapse in a heap of misplays and great memories never created.
Jorge Mateo led off the game for Midland, and he once again made his mark, this time with a ground ball to Tulsa third baseman Erick Mejia. What should probably have been an out ended with Mateo standing beside Mejia on third base after Matt Beaty couldn’t handle the wild throw. With two outs, Viosergy Rosa sent Mateo home with a single, and Midland was on the board with an unearned run. It looked like Tulsa might manufacture one of its own in the bottom of the inning when the leadoff batter was hit by a pitch. But for just the third time in the series, Tulsa attempted to steal a base, and the play at second wasn’t close. After a walk, a single, and a fielder’s choice, Tulsa had runners at the corners with two outs. Just like the previous two games, the runners were left stranded. Tulsa managed a couple of base runners in the second inning, but with the fourth attempted stolen base of the series, Drew Jackson was cut down.
While Santana held the RockHounds bats in check and scattered six hits, Tulsa desperately tried to pull out of a hitting slump that had struck the team at the worst possible moment in its 71-year history. In the fourth, the Drillers led off the bottom half of the inning with two singles, but a double play silenced the momentum. It was lights out until the bottom of the ninth as Midland clung to its 1-0 lead. Scott Finnegan came on to close out the game and for the first three batters he did just that, cutting Tulsa with a fly out, a soft line drive to third, and a strikeout to seemingly close the game. But strike three bounce away from catcher Sean Murphy, and Tulsa’s Mejia easily strolled to first base.
Could the magic I had expected really come in the form of a wild third strike followed with a series winning home run? Had any championship ever ended with such an odd twist of fate? I pondered the thought and felt my heart leap ever so slightly as the two middle-aged ladies behind us briefly began another of their incessant chants. Three pitches later Keibert Ruiz bounced a soft ground ball to my new nemesis Max Schrock at second base. The toss to first ended it. The Drillers had dropped 3 consecutive home games after losing just 3 of 23 to end the season. In the process, they managed a total of fifteen hits and three runs while being shut out twice.
The magic that had to happen did. Not only did the Midland RockHounds win their fourth consecutive Texas League title, they did so under almost impossible circumstances, dropping two home games before winning three straight elimination contests against the hard-hitting Drillers in Tulsa.
You may have heard the joke about the West Texas old man sitting on the porch with his 70-year-old son. A passerby mentions rain to be in the forecast. “I sure hope so,” the old man answers. “Not so much for me, but for my son here. After all, he’s never seen rain before.”
I glanced at Kolton who silently chewed his fingernails as we drove back to Little Rock in the wee hours of Monday morning.
He’ll be okay, I thought. After all, it’s his lot in life.
When Dallas Giants manager Charlie Moran signed outfielder Billy Doyle of Portsmouth, Ohio, prior to the 1903 season, he thought he’d found a diamond in the rough. And when owner J.W. Gardner heard St. Louis Cardinals manager Patsy Donovan and baseball magnate Ted Sullivan sing Doyle’s praises after a pre-season matchup between the two teams, he likely saw dollar signs in expectation of quickly selling Billy Doyle’s rights to a big-league franchise. On the other hand, perhaps he didn’t realize that Donovan and Sullivan, both Irishmen, had a natural inclination to support their fellow countrymen, of which Doyle was one.
William Thomas Doyle was born November 3, 1881, to James and Emma Doyle. James, a native of Ireland, and Emma, whose parents had travelled from Ireland to the United States before her birth, raised eleven children in Portsmouth, Ohio, following their marriage in 1862 with James employed as a cooper. Located on the Ohio River, Portsmouth was the ideal city for a cooper as its growing industrial economy relied on shipping containers. Eventually, Portsmouth became established as one of the top shoemaking cities in the country, and the Doyles relied on the shoe industry for income. Every child of the family was either employed in a shoe factory or in the selling of footwear by 1900.
In 1900, Billy Doyle held his first job as a laborer in a shoe factory. But three years earlier he had chosen what would become his true career when he joined the Portsmouth Victors baseball team. By 1902, Doyle had drawn the attention of several professional teams and was recruited to play in cities including Charleston, Knoxville, and Vicksburg. But Charlie Moran won out when he convinced the young ballplayer to make the move to the Texas League. He immediately made an impact in spring training.
Ted Sullivan, said to have invented the art of scouting ball players, told the Dallas Morning News, “There’s plenty of big league timber in (Dallas). And that fellow Doyle! Oh what would the game be without us Irish!” The same afternoon that Sullivan sang Doyle’s praises, so did Cardinals manager Patsy Donovan. He noted that Doyle had the reputation for smashing the ball whenever it approached home plate, and when he connected it meant either a hard put out for the defenders or Doyle standing safely on base. Although Dallas went on to win the Texas League crown in 1903, Billy Doyle contributed little to the cause, batting just .165 during a season when he was hampered by a nagging “charley horse” injury. A year later, Doyle better met expectations when he appeared in 102 games for the second place Giants, raising his batting average to .255, a respectable number for the dead ball era. But in 1905, he regressed. Despite playing full time in the Giants outfield, Doyle batted just .175. The big league clubs were no longer expressing interest in Doyle, and J.W. Gardner likely wondered just how long he should hold on to what was once his prized ballplayer. The answer arrived in 1906 when Doyle played with the Greenville Hunters. But just how far Gardner actually distanced himself from Billy is debatable.
When the Texas League owners sat down to choose the slate of 1906 teams, Dallas’ J.W. Gardner insisted that he be able to own two franchises, one in Dallas and another in Greenville. The other owners staunchly opposed Gardner’s proposal and rightly so. It was obvious to anyone that Greenville would essentially be a “farm club” to supply Dallas with talent in case of injuries and keep the Giants profitable. Gardner lost the vote on paper but not necessarily in reality. Most agreed that the Greenville “stock ownership” arrangement was financed by Gardner. And Billy Doyle’s signing with Greenville made the franchise’s very existence all the more suspicious, as did his sudden conversion from a fielder to a pitcher.
What Doyle lacked in the field and at bat, he made up for on the pitcher’s mound. In fact, he pitched phenomenally for Greenville then for Waco after the Greenville franchise folded at mid-season. At season’s end, he had posted a 19-13 won-loss record, and teams like Little Rock and Milwaukee were calling for his services in 1907. Instead, Temple manager Ben Shelton, who accepted ownership of the club with the caveat that he received his choice of players from the other teams, selected Doyle to be the ace of his pitching staff. It was an unmitigated disaster. While Temple didn’t field a particularly competitive offense in 1907, pitcher Roy McFarland posted a 21-15 record, while William Jarvis managed to win 15 games despite 19 losses. Billy Doyle, however, set a Texas League mark for futility. He won just 8 of 37 starts, and his 28 losses still ranks as the worst of any pitcher in league history 111 years later. At season’s end, Doyle returned to Ohio where he finished out his playing career in 1908 with a 7-11 pitching record and .176 batting average for his hometown franchise. While Doyle’s most notable contribution on the baseball field may be his 1907 Texas League debacle, he was far more successful off the field as a scout.
From 1910 through 1938, Doyle scouted for four major league clubs, most notably a 20-year stint with the Detroit Tigers. He’s credited with discovering dozens of players including Dickie Kerr, George Sisler, Hank Greenberg, Tommy Bridges, and the memorable yet still forgettable Boots Poffenberger.
The end for Billy Doyle came in 1939 when at age 57 he suffered a stroke and passed away in Washington, Pennsylvania. Despite a life that appeared destined for the shoe factories of Ohio 40 years earlier, Doyle went on to spend an entire lifetime in baseball. And in reality, it was not his on-field contribution or even his 28 loss season for which Billy is best remembered. Rather, it is the 50 plus significant major league players he discovered that remain his greatest legacy to the game.
It’s a pretty well-known photo among minor league baseball historians. The 1889 Houston Mud Cats of the Texas League of Professional Baseball Clubs. The photo isn’t so popular because the Mud Cats won the Texas League Championship that year or the fact they were led by John McCloskey, the “Father of the Texas League.” It’s a classic photo because it epitomizes two eras: the earliest years of the Texas League and late 19th century professional baseball.
Three rows of ballplayers. The two back rows contain the most serious players, probably those who actually carried Houston to the championship. In the front row, we have three mustachioed laid-back gents at the dawn of the Gay ’90s. The man on the right leaning back on his elbow? Meet Homer (or Harry) Pazzaro Douthett, the captain of the 1888 Houston Babies, the team that finished fourth in the inaugural season of the Texas League. John McCloskey stripped Douthett of his captain’s status upon giving up his claim to the 1888 Austin/San Antonio franchise and relocating his interests to Houston. Founding a league had its privileges.
Pazzaro Douthett, who apparently never went by the names Homer nor Harry, was born what is now Marshall County, West Virginia, one of four of the state’s “chimney” counties separating Pennsylvania and Ohio. When Pazzaro was born in 1856, Marshall County was part of Virginia; yet, the Douthett family was anything but southern. Both of Pizarro’s parents, James and Helen Sweeney Douthett, were Pennsylvania natives, and the area of Virginia where they lived in 1860 led the effort to break away from Virginia as secession approached. A year later, the couple had moved their family back to Pennsylvania where James worked as a nailer in Pittsburgh. When war became imminent, James enlisted in the 13th Pennsylvania Militia before he ultimately enlisted in the Union Army in September of 1861, a private in the 101st Pennsylvania Infantry. He remained with his unit for 18 months and was eventually promoted to Corporal before being discharged just prior to the Battle of Gettysburg (coincidentally his wife’s hometown). Although James had completed his duty as far as the Army was concerned, his loyalty led him to reenlist in 1864. He should have stayed in Pittsburgh.
After reenlisting, James Douthett was assigned to the Union-held port city of Plymouth, North Carolina. Shortly after his arrival, the Rebel Army organized to retake the city so important to its supply lines. Over the course of the four-day battle, hundreds of Union soldiers were killed or wounded. They were the lucky ones. Hundreds more were taken prisoner and shipped to the most notorious Civil War prison camp, Andersonville. James Douthett survived the battle and was taken prisoner, but as one of the wounded, he was moved to a prisoner’s hospital in Raleigh. He never experienced the horrors of Andersonville, but he also never left the hospital where he died of his wounds. Back in Pennsylvania, Helen was left a widow with three children.
By 1870, Helen Douthett had remarried a Pittsburgh police officer, and the couple raised five children, including the three Helen brought to the marriage. Pazzaro eventually enrolled in Ohio’s University of Wooster before continuing his education at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. If such a thing existed at the time, Lafayette was a baseball powerhouse. The college fielded its first club team in 1860 and played one of the earliest intercollegiate games in 1869 when it played its nearby rival Lehigh University to a 45-45 tie. It can be assumed that Pazzaro began playing baseball during his college years.
By the time Pazzaro Douthett left college, he was already advancing in age, and in 1883 he is recorded as living with a brother in Pittsburgh, an apparently an unemployed college-educated 27-year-old man. Perhaps for lack of another job, a year later, he made his professional baseball debut with New Brighton in Pennsylvania’s Iron and Oil Association. In 1885, he appeared in only one game with Hartford of the Southern New England League, a club packed with 14 future major league ballplayers including Hall of Fame player and manager Connie Mack. With little room for him in such a potent lineup, the next season, Pazzaro moved to the Northwestern League and played the outfield in both Oshkosh and St. Paul on clubs teams with talent similar to that he left behind in Hartford. Not only was Pazzaro’s college education not particularly helpful in finding a job, his baseball skills didn’t seem to be up to snuff. He gave it another shot in 1887 with Hastings in the Western League. He saw limited action on the field, but he did make contact with John McCloskey, owner, player, and manager, of the St. Joseph, Missouri franchise. It is likely no coincidence that both McCloskey and Douthett found themselves in South Texas in the spring of 1888.
While the Babies didn’t play particularly well in under Douthett’s leadership in 1888, Pazzaro did have his best year as a professional. He appeared in 76 of Houston’s 80 games, leading the team in batting and stolen bases and all of the Texas League in doubles with 22 to his credit. In the 1889 championship season, Pazarro’s production fell sharply; in fact, he went from his team’s leading batter to its worst in just one year. Pazarro Douthett had a championship to his name but his baseball career had come to its end.
Rather than return to Pennsylvania, Pazzaro decided to remain in Houston, working several years overseeing gaming rooms before he and two partners bought out the owner. Nearly 15 years after leaving baseball, Douthett left Houston for New Orleans where he worked for a time as police office for Tulane University. But eventually, Pennsylvania called him home, and he took a job as night manager at the rked as a clerk in Pittsburgh’s Hotel Yoder. With the exception of his baseball career, Pazzaro Douthett had his most notable moment at the hotel when he and a fellow clerk were robbed at gunpoint in November of 1915. Soon, he went into sales, but in the spring of 1920, Homer Pazzaro Douthett succumbed to pneumonia at a Pittsburgh hospital.
Having never been married and with no children, the original Texas League ballplayer was buried in an unmarked grave in Uniondale Cemetery in Bellevue, Pennsylvania. While Pazzaro has been long forgotten, he continues to live on in the classic early baseball photo as a laid-back, macho, mustachioed ballplayer. For that brief moment captured on film, Pazzaro Douthett was one “cool cat,”—a cool Mud Cat, that is.
Over the course of its history, nearly 200 Texas League pitchers (or combinations of pitchers) have thrown no hit ball games of nine innings or more. For a league in existence since 1888, the statistic may not sound all that impressive; after all, in the same time frame, Major League Baseball has seen 272 no- hitters. Then again, when considering the fact that the Texas League has, for the most part, been an eight-team circuit throughout its existence, an average of 1.5 no-hit games per season means one of two things: the League has seen its share of great pitching or its share of lousy hitting.
While the list of Texas Leaguers having achieved every pitcher’s dream afternoon includes a sprinkling a names casual 21st century baseball fans might recognize like Martin Perez, Neftali Feliz, and Matt Harrison (oddly, all future Texas Rangers); a few true baseball buffs may recall from the 1970s and 80s: Larry Andersen, Greg Harris, Edgar Ramos, Bob Forsch; and maybe one “household” name among fans, Johnny Van der Meer, the list is littered with names mostly remembered only in the records books and newspaper archives. Names like Farmer Moore, Rick Adams, Ivy Tevis, Joe Berry, Red Mann, and Hooks Lotts make up most of the list.
Even the Texas Leaguers pitching multiple no-hitters like Dode Criss (3, including two in 1915); Grover Brant (3, including a 12-inning and 6-inning game); Rick Adams (2); George Henrickson (2); Henry Thormalen (2), and Harry Ogle (2) ring hollow in the ears of even seasoned baseball fans. A couple of truly household names are also on the list: Hornsby (sorry, the older brother) and Dimaggio (no known relation).
Of all those whose names are in the Texas League record book, a few went on to the major leagues, if only briefly, and a few toiled season after season in the minors. Most, on the other hand, could probably be classified as “One Afternoon Wonders.” The first no-hitter, pitched by Jess Derrick in just the Texas League’s second season in 1889 surely falls into the latter category.
On June 24, 19889, Jesse Thomas Derrick led his Waco Babies to a 3-0 win over the Austin Senators. For the 26-year old playing in just his first full professional season, Derrick’s pitching performance that afternoon turned out to be the highlight of his otherwise brief and forgettable career.
Jess Derrick was born February 10, 1863, the second child of Albert Derrick and Miriam Cohee Derrick in Tippecanoe County, Indiana. His father had enlisted in the Union Army the previous July, serving in the 72nd Indiana Infantry. In January of 1863, however, Albert Derrick was wounded in action at Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and received his discharge. He was home in time to witness Jess’ birth but died just two days later. Jess’ 21-year old mother was left to raise two sons, Jess and his 2-year old brother, Albert. But even that bit of comfort didn’t last long for the Derrick boys, whose early lives were filled with tragedy. Less than three years later, they lost their mother as well.
While Jess and Albert had been orphaned before either turned five-years-old, the Derrick-Cohee family was large, and most lived in Indiana. Although the boys became separated, Jess grew up in the home of his uncle and aunt, Joseph and Rebecca Switzer, while Albert was sent to live with other relatives. By the time he reached seventeen, though, Jess had set out on his own, living and working on a farm in Jackson, Indiana. In 1885, he worked as a mechanic in Wellington, Kansas. That same year, Jess married Elizabeth Scott, a Kansas schoolteacher also from Indiana. Albert, on the other hand, became a bit of an adventurer and staked his claim in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma during the 1893 land run.
Exactly how Jess Derrick became involved in baseball is unclear. No records of him playing prior to 1888 exist, but it’s likely he played at the amateur or semi-pro level for a number of years. In any event, in 1888 Derrick traveled south to join the Fort Worth franchise of the newly-formed Texas League of Professional Baseball Clubs. Records show Derrick appeared in just one game with the Panthers, but the following season he signed with Waco, a new entrant into the league. As a whole, Jess Derrick had a dismal season, pitching 37 games and finishing the year with a 13-24 won-loss record. He was equally ineffective as a batter, posting a .181 batting average. But the Babies as a whole didn’t offer the rest of the league much competition, finishing finished in last place with a 33-50 record. The sole bright spot for Waco was pitcher Edgar McNabb, who somehow managed to win 20 games for a team that batted just .222 on the season. Perhaps his league-leading 261 strikeouts and a 1.53 earned run average helped his cause.
Waco’s initial year in the Texas League was forgettable, as was Jess Derrick’s. But for one hot afternoon on June 24, everything fell into place, and Derrick permanently placed his name in the league record books.
While the Waco Babies brought up the tail-end of the 1889 Texas League, on June 24, they played host to the Austin Senators. The Senators, on their way to a third-place finish on the season, were led by Texas League Hall of Famer Mike O’Connor and 25-game winner George Kittle. The previous week, the Senators had dominated Waco in Austin, and with the Babies having fallen from contention, the expectations for the series in Waco were no different. In fact, rather than sending Kittle to the pitcher’s circle, Austin started John Bates. Though not nearly as powerful as George Kittle, Bates could be expected to hold the light-hitting Waco club in check after several days of rest. Likewise, with Jess Derrick pitching for the opposition, Austin manager Mike O’Connor probably assumed an easy tally in the win column. What he didn’t expect was that Derrick would pitch the finest game in the Texas League’s short history on an afternoon when the temperature in Waco reached 96 degrees.
Based on the Galveston Daily News’ account of the game, it’s a wonder O’Connor’s expectations didn’t come true. Reportedly, the umpire favored Austin throughout the game to the point that Waco spectators called for his removal in unison. In the seventh inning, the crowd had become so hostile that the umpire singled out a seven-year-old and ordered him removed from the grounds or he’d declare Austin a victor by forfeit. Despite his threats, the boy remained and Austin did not receive an unearned win.
For Jess Derrick’s part, however poor the umpiring may have been, nothing was going to overcome his pitching performance. He struck out ten Austin batters on the afternoon or in the words of the Galveston News, “The Austin batters failed to find the ball except in a few instances when they were thrown out at first.” Aside from three walks and a reportedly mean beaning of Austin third baseman William Mussey, Jess Derrick was perfect on the afternoon and did not yield a single base hit to Senators’ batters. While, as usual, the Waco offense didn’t lend much support, left fielder C.A. O’Neil’s three hits along with four Austin fielding errors provided just enough firepower to help Derrick to a 3-0 win. Perhaps not realizing the significance of Jess Derrick’s achievement, newspapers paid little attention. The Galveston News noted that Derrick “pitched a fine game.” Another Texas Leaguer would not pitch such a fine game until 1902.
Despite Derrick’s mediocre season with Waco, the Burlington Daily Gazette (Iowa), referred to him as the “crack pitcher of the Texas state league” when lauding the Evansville franchise signing him for the 1890 season. In reality, he never played for Evansville, as in 1890 Derrick returned to Waco and posted a 6-4 record before playing one game with Galesburg/Indianapolis in the Central Interstate League. Over the next several seasons, Derrick played sporadically in the Midwest, turning up in Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Nebraska, Missouri, and his home state of Indiana. Perhaps his 1895 stint with the Kalamazoo Celery Eaters left a lasting impression, as after his retirement from baseball in 1898, he relocated from his offseason home in Kansas and soon settled in Michigan with his wife Elizabeth and two children.
Following his baseball career, Jess Derrick entered the construction business, serving as a wrecking/construction superintendent in Detroit until 1930 before he became involved in fire equipment sales. Following the death of his wife in 1935, he returned to construction, working beyond his beyond his 80th birthday. Ultimately, Jesse Thompson Derrick died on November 6, 1951, at the age of 88. He is buried alongside his wife Elizabeth in Clark’s Hill Cemetery in Tippecanoe County, Indiana.
Since Jess Derrick’s no-hitter on June 24, 1889, many other Texas League pitchers have accomplished the same feat. Lamar County’s Rick Adams through one in 1905, and in 1910 Roxton’s own Bill Lattimore tossed a no-hitter for Fort Worth. Most impressively, however, Blossom native Dode Criss threw three no-hitters in an eleven month stretch in 1914-1915. Five no-hitters from pitcher’s hailing from a small, rural northeast Texas county is likely a record in itself.
The last no-hit game pitched in the Texas League was on May 17, 2016, when Arkansas’ Jordan Kipper added his name to the record books in a 6-0 victory over the Northwest Arkansas Naturals. Though the feat is not achieved nearly as often as it was during the first three decades of the 20th century, place your money on a new pitcher being listed beside Jess Derrick in the upcoming season.
Ballplayers sometimes hail from the most unexpected places. Today, Yowell, Texas, is little more than a cluster of houses midway in near the Delta-Hunt County line south of Pecan Gap. Though Yowell never had a railroad connection which helped build so many nearby communities, it slowly grew until the 1930s, when 150 people lived close enough to the two businesses, churches, and store to call Yowell home, whether they lived in Delta or Hunt County.
“Vern” Underhill was born September 9, 1904, the sixth of eight children of William and Ida Walters Underhill. William was a native of Texas, having been born in Hopkins County just after the Civil War, while Ida moved to the area from Waco after spending her early childhood in Indiana. Like most North Texas families at the turn of the twentieth century, the Underhills operated a farm, and by 1920 the business engaged the entire family, including sixteen year-old Vern. By 1930, though, Vern’s parent had moved to the Texas Panhandle, and Vern had moved onto what he considered a better life, professional baseball.
Exactly how Vern Underhill got his start in baseball is unclear. Although the most logical explanation would be that he played for the training school at East Texas Teacher’s College in nearby Commerce, no records exist of his attending the institution. Regardless, in 1926 he got his professional start with Decatur in the Three-I League (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa). Pitching unsuccessfully for the Commodores in eleven winless games, the next season Vern returned to Texas, joining the Tyler Trojans of the Lone Star League. At Tyler, Underhill enjoyed his most successful season, posting a 13-6 won-loss record and leading the Trojans to the league championship. His efforts were enough to gain the attention of major league scouts, and at season’s end he joined the Cleveland Indians. His late season stint with the team did not impress, as he posted a 9.72 ERA in just eight inning pitched. A year later, he began the season with New Orleans of the Southern Association and again showed big league potential, with a 3.34 ERA in 31 games. Cleveland again took a shot with the best ballplayer to ever come out of Yowell, Texas, but he disappointed again, allowing far too many baserunners in his twenty-eight innings. Still he recorded the only win of his major league career for a miserable Indians club.
Though success eluded Vern Underhill in the major leagues, he remained a hot commodity in the minors. In 1929, he enjoyed a successful season back in Decatur in Class B ball, although after moving to Jersey City’s Class AA franchise, his pitching faltered. Nonetheless, in 1930, Underhill returned southward, joining the Texas League’s Shreveport Sports. Once again, he found his form, pitching 199 innings and finishing the season with an 11-6 record on a well-stacked pitching staff that carried the Sports to the playoffs. Still, cracks showed in his game, as he led the team in runs and bases-on-balls allowed. The following season, he again started with Shreveport but pitched only five games before returning to the Southern Assocation’s New Orleans Pelicans. The Pelicans had a potent roster, with eighteen of its twenty-six players eventually spending time in the Major Leagues, but in 1932 many were either past their prime or yet to reach their potential. New Orleans finished out of the playoffs in fifth place, Underhill’s 5-10 record not strong enough as the rotation’s fourth starting pitcher.
In 1932, Vern Underhill, now twenty-seven years old and five years removed from his brief major league career, moved northward to the Western League’s Omaha Packers. For the first time in his career, he didn’t pitch a single game and only played sporadically as a pinch hitter. After just eleven games, Vern decided it was time to give up the dream and retired from baseball.
In 1940, Underhill was Sheriff of Hutchinson County, living with his wife and eight month-old son, Willie Vernon, Jr. By the end of the decade, Vern developed severe allergies and relocated his family to Southeast Texas where he worked in the oil industry. By the mid-1960s, his allergies had developed into Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Ultimately, he died in 1970 of acute respiratory failure at the age of 66. He is buried in Matagorda County.
By the time Vern Underhill passed away, his hometown had become little more than cluster of homes between Pecan Gap and Commerce. Although a road sign still alerts motorists when they arrive at what was once Yowell, there are few signs a community of any significance existed. And, there is no sign of Willie Vernon Underhill, arguably Yowell’s most famous resident.
Digging through the annals and old minor league box scores, one occasionally comes across a player whose performance dazzles the mind. Whether it was for a day, a week, a season, or several years, many outstanding players toiled in the minors their entire careers, never getting a whiff of the big leagues. For some, it was a choice; for others, it was circumstances. Why John Sears never got his shot is unknown.
John William Sears was born in Kentucky in 1892, the oldest son of Mattie and George Sears, a Muhlenberg County coal miner. The Sears family, like most in the area, was poor. Appalachia let few people escape the clutch of poverty, and when his mother died when he was a teenager, John seemed destined to follow in his father’s footsteps. By the time he turned 18, John worked the dark coal mines, playing a little baseball on the side, possibly for the company team. As it turned out, even Appalachia liked baseball, and the sport became John’s ticket from what might have been a short life as a miner.
By 1912, John Sears broke into professional baseball in the Bluegrass League. Over the course of the next three seasons, he batted about .280 while playing outfield for small leagues in nearby Tennessee and Illinois. His clean break from Appalachian life came in 1914 when he finished out the season with the Central League franchise in Marshalltown, Iowa. He remained in the area until 1917, playing for teams in Clinton and Dubuque, then he made his way to Texas and signed with the Texas League’s Fort Worth Panthers.
Sears’ arrival in Fort Worth did little to impress legendary Texas League manager Jake Atz. Stating that he didn’t believe in having anyone named “John” playing on his team, Atz attached the nickname of a recently released player, “Ziggy” Shears, to his new outfielder. The name stuck for the rest of John “Ziggy” Sears’ life.
Ziggy arrived in Fort Worth in time to become a major player in the Panthers’ roaring ‘20’s dominance of the Texas League. After finishing in second place in 1917, Fort Worth duplicated the effort in the war-shortened 1918 season, both times falling a few games shy of the champion Dallas Giants. As 1919 approached, Fort Worth signed one of the Texas League’s earliest affiliation agreements with a major league club, becoming a farm team of the Detroit Tigers. Ziggy played a league-leading 158 games that season and helped lead his club to a first place finish, 8.5 games in front of second place Shreveport. But, when the playoffs arrived, Shreveport outlasted the Panthers and was crowned champion. It would be several years before Ziggy Sears or the Panthers would be denied again.
In 1920, Ziggy hit his stride, batting .279 and leading the league in doubles as the Panthers posted 108 wins, besting second-place Wichita Falls by 23 games. At season’s end, the Texas League Champions took on Southern Association pennant winner Little Rock in the first of several “Dixie Series.” Fort Worth was crowned as champion of the South with a 4-2 series win.
The quality of play in 1920 encouraged baseball moguls to upgrade the Texas League to a Class A circuit. For the next seven seasons, Fort Worth dominated minor league baseball in the southern United States winning an incredible 632 games, a .684 winning percentage. Along the way, they collected six consecutive Texas League pennants and five Dixie Series trophies. And, all the while, Ziggy Sears only got better, steadily increasing his average until he became a durable, power-hitting, seemingly flawless outfielder for what was arguably among the greatest baseball dynasties in history. Yet, Ziggy saved his best for one spring series in San Antonio against the formidable San Antonio Bears.
In 1925, Jake Atz began his twelfth consecutive season as manager or co-manager of the Fort Worth Panthers. The second half of that stint he had led his team to a nearly flawless record, claiming six consecutive Texas League pennants. But, Atz couldn’t take all of the credit himself. A steady stream of iron men and pitching workhorses passed through Fort Worth, not the least of which was John William “Ziggy” Sears, a Kentucky-born former coal miner who had made a name for himself in the Texas League. Entering his 14th year of professional baseball, Ziggy had just come off the best season of his career, posting a .323 batting average, his third consecutive season of double digit home runs, and having committed just 8 errors in nearly 300 fielding chances. At 33 years of age, the veteran showed no signs of slowing down.
As had become expected, the Panthers burst out of the gate in April and by mid-May led the league with a 20-8 record. Unexpectedly, though, the San Antonio Bears had matched Fort Worth’s pace, and as the Panthers train rolled into the Alamo City on May 19, only one game separated the two teams, with three to be played before Fort Worth left town. The Bears had finished in the middle of the pack a season earlier, but with a powerful offense and formidable pitching staff, over a month into the 1925 season, the team was challenging the perennial champion for supremacy. The Panthers new it was time to make a statement, and Ziggy Sears was up to the challenge.
Fort Worth only needed one inning to send the Bears the message that the Panthers were still the class of the Texas League. In the first inning of game one, Ziggy Sears and two teammates hit home runs and by the bottom of the second inning held an 8-0 lead. But, Ziggy was far from done. By the end of the afternoon, Fort Worth had beaten San Antonio 19-8 behind Ziggy Sears’ three home runs, a double, and a modern professional baseball record 11 runs batted in. A day later, the consequences for San Antonio were even more dire.
While Ziggy Sears hit another home run in game two of the series, he did most of his damage on the base paths, racking up five singles and five runs while having a 6-8 afternoon at the plate. The rest of the lineup got in on the act as well, with every player other than the pitcher having multiple hits and runs scored in a 29-9 thrashing of San Antonio. The 4,000 spectators who just 24 hours earlier were geared up to watch the hometown club capture first place, could only look on in awe of the offensive spectacle before them. With another game to go, saving face seemed impossible.
As luck would have it, on May 21, San Antonio managed to gain a 4-2 lead over the Panthers at the end of two innings. But, in the top of the third, the floodgates opened. Over the next four innings, Panther bats pounded the Bears pitching staff for 22 runs, Ziggy Sears adding another two home runs to his series total while batting 4-5 on the afternoon. The Panthers once again flogged their opponent, this time by a score of 24-12. With the frustration mounting, when the home plate umpire ejected a San Antonio batter in the fifth inning, the simmering crowd reached a boil. The Bears manager erupted from the dugout to protest, and the crowd urged him to physically assault the umpire. As neither the manager nor ejected player left the field, the umpire summoned the police, at which point over 100 spectators ran onto the field, at least one breaking through the swarm of policeman to strike the umpire in the head. To prevent further escalation, the San Antonio constable ordered the police to escort both umpires from the field. With the ruckus quelled, the game continued with substitute umpires, one of which was a San Antonio police officer. Regardless of who was behind the plate, the Bears proved they were not yet in the same league with the Fort Worth Panthers. Following the series, Fort Worth continued on to capture another pennant with 103 victories, while San Antonio returned to its normal position in the middle of the Texas League standings.
For Ziggy Sears, the three games in San Antonio became a career highlight. His 14 hits in 18 at-bats, 12 runs scored, 6 homes runs, and 16 runs batted in remain in the records books today. Ziggy came to San Antonio with something to prove, and when he left few doubted the Panthers were, once again, the class of the league.
Following the 1925 season, Sears’ career rapidly declined. He posted decent statistics in 1926, but Fort Worth fell short of its seventh consecutive pennant. The following season, Sears left the Panthers for San Antonio before finishing out his career in Waco and Shreveport. When he hung up his playing spikes after the 1928 season, Ziggy had accomplished just about everything a ballplayer could have hoped; however, he never played on a big league roster.
After his retirement, Ziggy Sears began a career as an umpire, working the Texas circuit for a number of seasons until 1934, when the National League called on him to be a major league umpire. He remained there for 11 seasons, umpiring an All-Star game and two World Series. Later, he took his officiating skills to the college level, serving as a football and basketball referee in the Southwest Conference.
Eventually, Ziggy became a scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates and moved to Houston. He died there on December 16, 1956, of an aortic aneurysm. Along with his long-time manager Jake Atz, Sears is a member of the Texas League Hall of Fame.