Bill Kring: One of millions baseball left behind

Part I

Depending on your reference, well over a quarter of a million men have played at some level of professional baseball in the past 140 years. Of those, only a small percentage played in the major leagues, and slightly more earned a realistic opportunity to play for a big league club. Most the minor leaguers were merely members of a cast of thousands who seemingly served as extras in a script written for the few who went onto baseball immortality. And for every career minor leaguer, there were millions of other ballplayers who dreamed of making the big leagues but remained satisfied to play in semi-professional and amateur adult leagues throughout the country. Caught somewhere in between were thousands of others who appeared to have the skills for successful professional careers but who for time, circumstance, or many other reasons never got a real chance to prove themselves. These players, universally unknown for whatever achievements they may have had on the baseball diamond, represent the hard luck cases—those destined for unfulfilled potential; those truly playing for the love of the game.

When William “Bill” Kring was born in Skidmore in 1904, Texas baseball remained in its infancy. The Texas League, the state’s professional baseball circuit, had endured a turbulent fifteen years of existence. Numerous seasons were cut short due to financial difficulties, some were skipped altogether, and another was interrupted by the Spanish-American War. When statewide professional baseball returned in 1902, North and South Texas had split into two independent professional leagues.

Frederick Kring, William’s father and the son of one of the thousands of Germans immigrating to Texas following the Civil War, married Dicey Jane Quinn in 1897. Dicey Jane, born July 30,1872 in Bluntzer, Texas, was the daughter of original Irish colonists who settled in San Patricio, Texas. Her father raised cattle and owned and operated the ferry on the Nueces River. Frederick and Elizabeth settled in San Patricio where Fred worked as a carpenter. They had five children, with the second child dying in infancy. William Lewis Kring, became the couple’s oldest son upon his birth on October 4, 1904.

As Bill grew, so did Texas baseball. By the time he entered Rockport High School in the late 1910’s, the sport had become a major diversion the state’s growing population at the professional, semi-professional, and amateur level. Several league had come and gone by the time Bill was a teenager, with circuits in middle, north, west, and south Texas all having run their course. Countless semi-pro teams played throughout the state, mostly in the larger cities where city and industrial leagues grabbed headlines in their local newspaper as quickly as any big league team. For Bill, the excitement surrounding baseball had already set him on his career path. He planned to become a major league ballplayer and entered high school with the intent to impress any scout who happened to sit in the bleachers during one of his many mesmerizing pitching performances.

While Bill loved baseball, locals knew him as an outstanding all-around athlete. He also played tennis, basketball, football, and track, excelling at each. Other than baseball, he gained particular notoriety on the gridiron, elected as his high school team captain and playing halfback each fall. Still, baseball remained his true passion, as can be seen in the cartoons he drew of himself and various teammates of the Rockport “Americans” during his high school days. Whether the Americans were actually Rockport’s High School team, a summer squad, or simply a group Bill made up while he daydreamed at the sound of his English teacher’s droning voice is not known. Regardless, he seemingly had a fine team led by himself, catcher Lloyd Smith, and first baseman Bobby Haze. And, whether he was a daydreamer or not, he managed to post successful grades in English, earning A’s in both grammar and a report on William Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice.”

After a year at Rockport High, Bill transferred about thirty miles inland and became a member of the Sinton High School baseball team. With Sinton, on June 17, 1921, Bill had perhaps the greatest day of his young career. That afternoon, Corpus Christi brought its all-star semi-pro team to Sinton for an exhibition against the hometown Pirates. Led by “Home Run” Brown, Corpus Christi undoubtedly expected to make short work of Sinton’s boys and be home well-before nightfall. Apparently they did not realize that Sinton had one of the finest young pitchers in all of South Texas on its roster.

While Sinton pounded out thirteen hits against the professionals from Corpus Christi and played errorless ball in the field, “Home Run” Brown and his teammates made no headway against Sinton’s seventeen-year old boy wonder. Kring allowed only three hits on the afternoon, as his pitching led the way to the Pirates 11-1 victory over the Corpus Christi squad. The game made headlines across southeast Texas, and the legend of how a bunch of teenagers from a small town beat a “big league” squad from the city only grew over time. Kring pitched outstanding baseball throughout the season, as Sinton High steadily won ballgames over nearby teams.

Though Bill focused on athletics, his childhood did not lack trauma. In 1919, before he had reached the age of fifteen, a hurricane hit South Texas. While lacking the punch of either the 1900 or 1915 storms striking Galveston, the 1919 storm dumped heavy rains across the area. One of Bill’s neighbors was caught in the rising waters and climbed a mesquite tree to sit out the night. The next morning when Bill found him the man’s hair had turned from brown to grey. The tree was also full of rattlesnakes escaping the flood. Many people drowned in rapidly rising rivers, and when they receded, Bill worked on the front lines of the recovery effort. He spent many days loading the swollen bodies of victims onto the wagons that hauled them away for burial or cremation. Fortunately, swimming was not one of Bill’s favorite sports, as after the experience he told many that he was never comfortable around water again. He buried himself in baseball in an effort to push the memories from his mind.

Part II

Before graduating high school Bill was offered a basketball scholarship to Rice University. He was very athletic and could sink a basketball from the opposite end of the court. Bill turned down the scholarship because his heart was set on playing baseball.

After graduating high school, Bill Kring moved to Houston where he worked at a local grocery store and played as much amateur baseball as he could. In the meantime, he also met his future wife, Bea Otto, whom he escorted to a Halloween Dance on their first date. But, Bill Kring was far from ready to settle down just yet. He still dreamed of a professional baseball career and placed every spare minute of effort into improving as a pitcher. A right-hander standing six-foot and one-inches tall, Bill was well above the average ballplayer of his time from a physical standpoint. Mental toughness and technique would determine his future.

In 1923, the Beaumont Exporters of the Texas League invited Kring to training camp; yet, he received his release before the season began. As a fall back, he entered the Port Arthur City League, pitching for the Texas Company (Texaco) semi-pro club. Primarily a pitcher, he also played first base and outfield as well, batting .290 on the season. In 1924, Kring remained in Port Arthur and played for the Athletics of the Texaco League. Likewise, he occasionally played for the Port Arthur Elks Club, an all-star team which challenged the best players from other city leagues across southeast Texas. The manager of the Port Arthur Elks club recommended Bill for a spot on the Gulf Production team in Goose Creek on the western edge of Galveston Bay, but there is no record he ever actually played for the club. In his letter, the manager called Kring the best amateur pitcher in the area, with a “good fastball, curve, and change of pace.” Likewise, he noted Kring offered more a team more than just an arm, as he batted with equal ability.

By 1925, Bill Kring reached what many would call the pinnacle of semi-pro baseball, playing in the Southern Pacific Railroad League. With teams in Houston, San Antonio, Lafayette, El Paso, and other cities along the line, the SP League pitted workers based in the cities against each other. In most cases, though the men on the teams worked for the railroad in some capacity, they were actually hired to play baseball. Each had its own ballpark just as extravagant as any Texas League club. Kring pitched for Houston in 1925, then again in 1926 when the SP League became known as the Sunset League. In 1927, the Houston City League accepted the SP baseball team, and Kring led them to the city championship. A few days later, he again helped carry them to the district championship over Galveston.

With some quality semi-pro seasons behind him, in 1928 the Texas League’s Houston Buffaloes signed Bill and invited him to spring training. But, like five years earlier in Beaumont, the Buffaloes released him before the season began, and he returned to semi-pro ball.

Bill Kring became well-traveled in 1929. Over the course of the summer he played with three teams beginning with Coleman of the West Texas League. He later moved onto the Dickinson County League, but by June he had signed with the Galveston News-Tribune League. As members of the Cotton Concentration Cottonmen, Kring and his teammates barnstormed across the south, with road trips to Little Rock, Memphis, and Waco. Within Galveston, the Cottonmen’s chief rival was the Dr. Peppers, a team who narrowly beat them out for the championship. Bill quickly joined the Treasure Island League, another Galveston semi-pro circuit. The Galveston Electrics, on the verge of battling the Grade A Dairymen for the city championship initially signed Kring, but somehow he ended up playing for the Dairymen. Unfortunately, the strange change of teams over the course of a few days left Bill on the second place team for the second time in just two weeks, as the Electrics took the championship. At that point, the Cottonmen reorganized to play exhibition games in the area, so Kring rejoined his former teammates, completing a summer in which he played for four teams in four different leagues.

While working for the railroad and playing semi-pro ball, Kring took time out of his schedule in the winter of 1926 to marry Bea Otto following a four year courtship. The couple eventually had four children, all daughters, between 1928 and 1934.

In 1930, the year his second daughter was born, Bill returned to the Southern Pacific Railroad in Port Isabel. With the Great Depression underway, a railroad job offered the security of a paycheck, not to mention the opportunity to resume playing baseball in a respected semi-pro league. But, 1930 also brought Bill Kring another crack at professional baseball. At age twenty-six, Bill knew he was likely facing his last chance to fulfill his dream, and he didn’t hesitate to take his shot with the Lake Charles Newporters of the Cotton States League.

Part III

Though the Cotton States League had never risen above Class D status, by the time Bill Kring arrived in Lake Charles, the circuit was entering its twentieth year, an impressive run for a league consisting of several small Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas cities. The league had proven a breeding ground for major league prospects, with Bill Dickey and Billy Herman both working their way from the Cotton States League to the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers, respectively. Eventually, the experience the two gained in the Class D league helped carry them both to Cooperstown and enshrinement in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. By 1930, both had left the Cotton States League for greater pastures, so Bill had that bit of history on his side.

Lake Charles had entered the Cotton States League on June 17, 1929, when the Meridian Mets relocated to Louisiana. The first season had been disastrous for the Newporters, its 28-43 record after arriving in Louisiana good for last place in the eight-team league, 21-1/2 games behind the champion Alexandria Reds.

With nine-year major league outfielder Al Nixon arriving as manager for the 1930 season, Lake Charles had high hopes for its second year of professional baseball. Nixon was a seasoned veteran who had batted a respectable .277 over the course of his career and committed few fielding errors. But, for six of his nine seasons, Nixon played on some of the worst teams in the history of major league baseball. Beginning with the Brooklyn Robins of the National League in 1915, he played sparingly, though he did have a brief appearance on the Brooklyn team losing to Boston in the 1916 World Series. He later played for the Boston Braves and Philadelphia Phillies of the National League, and never sniffed a winning season again. Though he batted .312 with Philadelphia in 1917, Nixon’s team claimed only fifty-one wins. Apparently, he was the most potent member of the lineup as when his average dropped to .234 a year later, the Phillies posted one of the worst records in baseball history at 43-109. Still, as a Texas League product playing a majority of his minor league career with the Beaumont Exporters, the New Jersey native had developed an affinity for southeast Texas, and the opportunity to manage a team so close to Beaumont was alluring. Unfortunately for Al Nixon, the team he had agreed to lead was more on par with those of his three seasons in Philadelphia than his brief appearance with Brooklyn.

Lake Charles began the 1930 season in dreadful fashion. Like in 1929, the Newporters came out of the gate struggling, and when the first half of the season ended on June 17, they were once again buried in last place with a 24-37 record. Below average hitting, horrific fielding, and equally poor pitching doomed Lake Charles, and they folded before the season’s second half began. Thus, the Lake Charles Newporters, who had arrived in Louisiana exactly twelve months earlier, fell into baseball history, with only twelve of the team’s twenty-one players able to catch on with another professional team. Unfortunately, Bill Kring was not among them.

In ten appearances with Lake Charles, Kring won no games against three losses, pitching just 47 innings and posting a 6.51 earned run average. With the exception of forty-year old former major leaguer John Martina, no one on the staff fared much better. Kring did show some potential at the bat, hitting .304 in twenty-three plate appearances. Still, professional baseball didn’t seem to have a spot for Bill, and even though he had made a professional squad after two failed attempts, his career lasted less than three months. He returned to Port Isabel and resumed his job with the Southern Pacific Railroad, including his duties as a semi-professional pitcher. His love of the game was too strong for Bill to put baseball behind him, professional or not.

During 1930-31, after his time with Lake Charles ended and between pitching with the Railroad squad, Bill Kring also played for amateur teams in both Beeville and Port Isabel. In fact, in 1931 while playing for the Port Isabel Pelicans, Bill led his team to the Valley Amateur League championship. The achievement was no minor story for its day, and local newspapers proudly supported and reported on the Pelicans all season.

By 1932, Bill and Bea Kring had returned to Houston. Bea gave birth to the couple’s third child, and Bill apparently realized it was time he settled down and learned a trade. He went to work with a Houston contractor as an electrical apprentice, where he remained when his last daughter was born in 1934. In 1937, Bill transferred into the shop and became a mechanic. By 1939 he was an apprentice electrician, and worked his way up to a journeyman electrician in 1941. He joined the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local Union 716 in 1942.

In 1943, during World War II, Bill worked as a civilian at the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station. The family moved to Sinton, Texas in the summer of 1944 to be closer to his work. The job was over in the fall of 1944. Houston kept calling him back, though, and in 1945 the family returned. Bill became a skilled electrical welder, specializing in aluminum welding, and was called to work at various large commercial jobs. Their neighbors knew the Kring family as a fun-loving bunch and their house always seemed to be filled with young girls.

For over three decades, he and his wife remained in Houston as he built a career as an electrician and Bea dabbled in the jewelry and floral business. During that time (1945), Bill and Bea purchased 115 acres of land in Dreka, Texas in for retirement. They spent many weekends at the “Goober Hill” farm in Shelby County. In 1954, Bill’s employer, the Foster-Wheeler Corporation, asked him to got to Venezuela to work on building an oil refinery. Bill worked in Venezuela, making occasional trips home until returning to Houston in 1958. By 1968, the couple purchased a lot in Holiday Lakes, near Angleton and built the only new house they ever lived in. Bill retired in 1974, and the couple moved to farmland they owned In Shelby County. In 1977 they sold the farm to move closer their girls and moved to Bryan, Texas. Bill died in January of 1984 due to natural causes, and Bea passed away eight years later.

Bill Kring never realized his dream of playing major league baseball, but unlike so many others, he did get his chance. Three months in the low-level minors are all Bill was afforded for his lifetime dedicated to the game, but Kring learned there was far more to life than baseball. In fact, for the last fifty years of his life, Bill was a fine family man and well-respected in Houston. When asked soon after his fourth daughter was born if he had wanted a son to follow in his athletic shoes, Bill said, “No, my girls are all a man could ask for.” Bill Kring may be thought of by some as just one of untold millions who never fulfilled his dream, but he became proof that dreams can change, and the results can be just as satisfying.

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