It wasn’t that Leander Jackson “Jack” Bankhead Jr. didn’t like baseball. He simply knew his future lay in finance. Like his friends and fellow Parisians Ben Shelton, Tony Thebo, and Mickey Coyle, Jack played sandlot ball in Paris during the late 1800s and soon became the best young pitcher in town. But, unlike his friends, Jack had no interest in taking his skills to the next level. He knew ballplayers carried shady reputations, and Jack couldn’t have a questionable past overshadowing his bright future. Affable and well-liked in the community, Jack graduated from Paris High School in 1899 and immediately chased his business dreams. By 1904, he served as teller at Paris’ Citizens National Bank, a highly-prestigious position at the time. Meanwhile, his three friends launched professional baseball careers that Jack knew would not last nearly as long or be as lucrative as his own.
By late May of 1904, Paris baseball kranks recognized the city’s Texas League franchise as a debacle. Originally destined for Ardmore, Oklahoma, the League assigned the club to Paris as a last resort when its novice owners, William Miller and Guy Rall of Fort Worth, could not work out an agreement to play across the Red River. A typesetter and a furniture salesman, Miller and Rall had neither the knowhow nor money to manage a professional baseball team, and their inept ownership soon spilled onto the field. By late May, their Paris Red Ravens lay buried in last place, having won just four of their first twenty-two games.
Despite the team’s dismal performance, Paris fans looked forward to the end of the month when the Red Ravens would host the Corsicana Oil Citys. Though a far cry from the dominant team Corsicana fielded in 1902, its 1904 squad sat high atop the Texas League standings. More importantly, its core lineup consisted of the three Parisians Shelton, Thebo, and Coyle. Locals looked forward to watching their native sons on the field, even if in the opposing uniform.
The first two games with Corsicana drew sizable crowds and proved to be unexpected Paris victories, but the Red Ravens quickly returned to form and dropped the next two games by large margins. With only a small crowd expected for the series’ final game on Thursday, May 26th, the Oil Citys’ three Parisians realized the situation as a poor omen for a team and two owners already in desperate financial straits. While certainly not willing to phone in the game to appease the hometown fans, they wanted professional baseball to succeed in Paris. So, following Wednesday’s 18-8 shellacking of the Red Ravens, the trio devised a plan to ensure the whole city would turn out the next day.
Shelton, Thebo, and Coyle knew Jack Bankhead had a nose for finance, but they also knew he never lost his love for baseball. He still pitched an occasional amateur ballgame on the weekends, his dancing curveball mowing down opposing batters. His friends knew Jack’s reputation, and they knew Parisians would turn out en masse to watch him pitch. So, the three Oil Citys’ stars approached Jack with a proposition to pitch for Corsicana against Paris in the final game before leaving town. Whether the offer actually intrigued the young bank teller or the word quickly spreading through the city left him no choice, Thursday afternoon Jack Bankhead appeared on the Pine Bluff Street diamond in a Corsicana uniform. With Ben Shelton’s younger brother Robert enlisted as umpire, a certain Parisian charm surrounded the entire game.
As expected, a huge crowd turned out for the game, and the homegrown boys didn’t disappoint. Corsicana’s lineup battered Paris pitcher Cy Mulkey of Grayson County all afternoon, with the Oil Citys’ Paris contingent accounting for five hits and three runs scored. But, the real story was Jack Bankhead’s work in the pitcher’s circle. He perplexed the Paris nine all afternoon, surrendering just two hits in a 7-0 shutout victory. Aside from suffering their twentieth loss on the young season, the Red Ravens had to be dismayed as their home crowd cheered relentlessly for the opposition. When several hard-core kranks carried Jack Bankhead off on their shoulders after the game, co-owner William Miller recognized his brief foray into professional baseball as a lost cause. Two days later he handed his share of the team to Guy Rall and returned to his typesetting job in Fort Worth.
For Paris, 1904 represented its last year hosting Texas League baseball, the Red Raven’s .254 winning percentage still among the worst in League history. Before the season ended, Guy Rall, like his partner, bailed on his investment, and the Red Ravens played its schedule’s final two weeks in Ardmore, the franchise’s original destination. Corsicana, on the other hand, rode its Paris-laced lineup to its second Texas League crown in three years; however, it did so without Jack Bankhead. The morning after his stellar performance for the Oil Citys, Jack again sat behind the teller desk as Citizen’s Nation Bank. He never appeared in another professional baseball game.
Ben Shelton, Tony Thebo, and Mickey Coyle all had successful minor league careers, but Jack Bankhead’s dreams came true as well. He soon married Kittie Gibbons, daughter of one of Paris’ leading citizens, and spent a career in the cotton business, eventually owning the Gibbons’ mansion still standing on 6th Street SE. Jack’s son, Leander Jackson Bankhead III, became the most legendary member of the family in athletic circles as coach of the Paris Junior College track team in the 1950 and 60s. Even then, it’s likely few remembered the day in 1904 when his father took the pitcher’s circle against his hometown team and hurled one of the most memorable, albeit forgotten, games in Paris baseball history.