Almost a Texan: Frank Abercrombie

 

But for a bend in the Red River, Lamar County may have been home to one of America’s earliest professional baseball players.

In the mid-19th century Fort Towson sat in Indian Territory, just north of the Red River and what would later be the boundary of Lamar and Fannin Counties. The U.S. Army established Fort Towson in 1831 to protect the Choctaw Territory, it lost importance a decade later when the army constructed Fort Washita along the Red River to the west. But, Fort Towson did not close, and it remained a garrison for soldiers until 1854. Among the soldiers based at Fort Towson during the period was John J. Abercrombie, a career military serviceman graduating from the U.S. Military Academy in 1822. Over the next 30 years, Abercrombie would fight in the Black Hawk, Seminole, and Mexican-American Wars, rising through the ranks to become a Colonel stationed at Fort Towson in 1850. Two years earlier, Col. Abercrombie had married Mary Patterson, the daughter of General Robert Patterson of Philadelphia.  On January 2, 1850, Mary gave birth to the Francis Patterson Abercrombie within the confines of Fort Towson.  A few months later, the army relocated the family to San Antonio.

By 1857, the now Lt. Col. Abercrombie had been shipped to North Dakota where he oversaw establishment of Fort Abercrombie. Three years later, the Abercrombies had once again relocated, this time to Fort Ripley in Minnesota. The family remained here until the outbreak of the Civil War, when Abercrombie was promoted to Brigadier General, serving in the Army of the Potomac and eventually in the defense of Washington, D.C.

Not much is known about the early life of Francis “Frank” Abercrombie, but suffice to say he may have been the original military “brat.”  His father managed to enroll Frank in the U.S. Naval Academy before he reached the age of 15. He arrived at the academy on October 10, 1864, and over the next two months acquired enough demerits to satisfy the needs of a life-long drunken sailor. Officially, Frank “resigned” from the academy in December; however, it can be inferred from his conduct record that the Navy likely found young Abercrombie incompatible with military service. After his father retired following the War, Frank enrolled in St. Mark’s School in Southampton, Massachusetts, where he received his formal high school education. He then attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and earned a degree in civil engineering. In future years, Abercrombie became a prominent railroad superintendent of several railroad divisions throughout Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey during the course of his career. But, somewhere, presumably at St. Mark’s, Frank Abercrombie discovered baseball.

How Abercrombie came to play baseball or how long he played on an amateur level is lost to history. Minor leagues did not exist in the earliest years of professional baseball, so when Frank Abercrombie took to the infield as shortstop of the Troy Haymakers on October 21, 1871, he became just the 113th professional player in history. That afternoon against the Chicago White Stockings, Abercrombie, still a student at Rensselaer Institute, batted seventh in the Haymakers lineup behind pitcher John McMullin, the only pitcher on the roster. Led by George Zettein, who posted an 18-9 pitching record for Chicago in 1871, the White Stockings made short work of Troy. Left fielder Fred Treacey led Chicago in batting, but eleven Haymakers fielding errors contributed to the 11-5 victory. On the day, Frank Abercrombie came to bat four times with no success, although he did have three assists from his position at shortstop. More importantly, he contributed two fielding errors. And, with his nine innings against the White Stockings, Frank Abercrombie ended his career in professional baseball.

While working for the railroad, Abercrombie lived several years in Williamsport, the home of Little League baseball. But, whatever connections he had with the sport, Abercrombie had no involvement in the founding of organized youth baseball, as it did not begin until 1939, two years after his death in Philadelphia. But, Abercrombie did continue in athletics after his brief professional appearance, as he was a long-time member of the Philadelphia Cricket Club.

Various historic records list Frank Abercrombie’s birthplace as Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Arkansas, and Texas. In reality, though, he was born just beyond the boundaries of Lamar County at a virtually abandoned military outpost in southern Indian Territory. Over the years, Fort Towson developed into a small community, receiving a significant boost when the railroad arrived in the 1870s. But, while Durant rapidly grew around Fort Washita, Fort Towson topped out at about 700 citizens before declining to about 500 today. A state historic site and some stone ruins are all that remain of the original Fort Towson. Memories of the frontier outpost’s service are as limited as those of what is likely one of its only true native sons, Frank P. Abercrombie. Had the Red River looped just a little further northward, Lamar County may have claimed the 113th professional ballplayer in American history as its own. Then again, history is still being written, and the Red River continues to snake through the valley separating Texas and Oklahoma. Someday, the Frank Abercrombie story may be rewritten.

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