William Van Dresser’s Sketchy Side

William Thatcher Van Dresser is far better known in Paris, France, than Paris, Texas. At one time, he was known locally for leaving his footprints on the infield as a member of Paris’ first professional baseball team. But, the Van Dresser’s prints adorning the covers of magazines the reading rooms of tens of thousands of people nationwide in the first half of the 20th century are far more memorable.

William Van Dresser’s, father, Alfred, fought against the Confederacy for almost the duration of the Civil War, ultimately returning to his life as a New York City businessman in late 1864. Something about the South must have intrigued him. After marrying his fellow New York bride in 1868, the couple returned to southward and settled in Memphis, Tennessee. With the city and region still reeling from the effects of the war, the Van Dresser’s had four children in Memphis, including William on October 28, 1871.

As a youngster, William attended the Memphis Military Academy and excelled as an athlete. After graduation, he worked in the city as a clerk for the Louisville, New Orleans & Texas Railway and later as assistant bookkeeper for I.M. Darnell and Son Lumber Company. At the time, Memphis was known as the “hardwood lumber capital of the world,” benefitting from extensive clearing of acreage across the Mississippi River in the Arkansas Delta region. Whether or not the smell of milled hardwood conjured up memories of his days cracking bats as ball player at Memphis Military Academy isn’t known, but by 1893, Van Dresser had taken to playing semi-pro ball. A year later, he attracted the attention of the Southern Association’s Memphis Giants, but played just six games with the team before it disbanded. The baseball bug had bitten William, and in 1895, he headed for the Texas League.

In a day when an entire baseball team consisted of nine players with the manager available in case of injury, Van Dresser was a valuable commodity.  A utility player, he could handle duties at most any position, and frequently shifted throughout his career. In 1895, he played with the San Antonio Missionaries at second base, third base, shortstop, and the outfield. Van Dresser played in every game of the season for a team finishing with a dismal .226 winning percentage. William batted .248 and led the team in total hits while stealing 26 bases.

In 1896, William Van Dresser took his baseball career north, joining the Sherman Students. He played the first month of the season in Sherman, primarily at shortstop, before the Students relocated to Paris after a spring tornado devastated Sherman. He continued playing with shortstop in Paris, as well as third base on occasion. In the meantime, his batting average steadily rose to a team-leading .281, and he added 33 stolen bases. Although Paris’ winning percentage ranked in the middle of the pack in the eight-team league, the Midlands, along with the three other North Texas teams, folded before the schedule was complete. Van Dresser returned to Memphis where he entered the grocery business, never to return to the Paris we know locally again.

With baseball behind him and little future in a job as a grocery clerk, William searched for his niche. He found it in a talent he had held his entire life without realizing he could parlay his skills into money. William Van Dresser had an ability to draw and illustrate on a world-class level. He decided to pursue that passion, traveling to Chicago, New York, and Paris (France) to study art. By 1900, he had settled on Fifth Avenue in the heart of Manhattan where earned a reasonable living as an artist. Three years later, with his popularity growing, William married an actress, Jasmine Stone. For the remainder of the decade, Van Dresser built his reputation as a commercial artist producing magazine advertisements for many well-known companies. Later, he sold his work to nationally-known magazines including Life, Green Book, and Red Book. He specialized in portraits, and many of his most-recognized works are of elegant Victorian ladies gracing the covers of the magazines that commissioned Van Dresser.

By 1915, the Van Dressers, along with their three children, became well-known in New York City as actors, most notably performing everyday dramatic scenes of an American family for soldiers at nearby military bases. Jasmine wrote the screenplays, noting there was nothing more dramatic than the life of parents dealing with the needs of children. The performances became so popular the Van Dressers were featured in Everyday Magazine. Later that year, William officially reached worldwide fame as an artist when he illustrated one of Jack London’s last novels, The Little Lady of the Big House. He also illustrated novels by Allen Chaffee, Clarence Hawkes, John Reed Scott and others over the course of his career. All the while, he continued producing advertisements and was commissioned to paint portraits of President Calvin Coolidge as well as the official portrait used in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first campaign for the White House. His wife added to the family portfolio, authoring several children’s books published by Rand McNally.

Later in his life, the Van Dressers moved to Boca Raton, Florida, where William continued painting portraits, mainly of local residents. Following Jasmine’s death in 1948, William lived in the couple’s Florida home, noted as “eccentric” by several magazines for its flat roof, pink paint, and Victorian ornamentation. He died there on September 11, 1950, and is buried in a Tampa, Florida cemetery.

A library of William Van Dresser’s original artwork is held at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., while privately-held paintings are sold for considerable sums at auction. Although his baseball career was short, uneventful, and generally forgotten, when it comes to lasting fame off the diamond, William Van Dresser may be the most successful individual to have passed through Paris baseball history.

 

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