Midland Makes History

The Midland RockHounds defeated the Northwest Arkansas Naturals three games to one in the Texas League Championship Series in September. The RockHounds victory hardly came as a shock despite the fact the team finished the season’s second half seven games behind the Corpus Christi Hooks. As they have two consecutive seasons, when playoff time arrived, Midland ousted the Hooks to take the TL South championship. While Corpus Christi can claim 174 wins over the past two seasons, it is Midland that has proven the team to beat come playoff time. By capturing its third consecutive Bobby Bragan Texas League Championship trophy, Midland has accomplished a feat pulled off by only one other team in league history. Or, in reality, three other teams may be more accurate.

The Fort Worth Panthers of the early 1920s are among the most dominant teams in both Texas League and Minor League Baseball history. From 1920-1925, Fort Worth racked up six consecutive championships, and no other teams has come close before or since. Minor League historians Bill Weiss and Marshall Wright include four of the six Panther teams in their book, “The 100 Greatest Minor League Baseball Teams of the 20th Century.”

Fort Worth, an original member of the Texas League, had captured four championships over the course of the league’s first three decades, but when Jake Atz arrived as manager in 1914, the Panthers began to rise to the league’s highest ranks. They would remain there for nearly a decade.

After a pair of second-tier finishes in 1914 and 1916 sandwiched a third place standing in 1914, by 1917 the Panthers rose to second place in the league. They finished second again in 1918 and in the first half of 1919, then followed up the second half by taking first place. The 1919 team lost to Shreveport in the playoffs, but after having its taste of success, the Panthers went on a run during which they devoured both Shreveport and every other Texas League franchise.

The 1920 Fort Worth Panthers took both halves of the season, combining or 108 wins and besting overall second place winner Wichita Falls by 23 games. Fort Worth fielded four 20-game winning pitchers including 26 game winners Joe Pate and Paul Wachtel. The team then challenged Southern Association champion Little Rock to a series of games that changed the fortunes of the Texas League forever. After Fort Worth defeated Little Rock 4 games to 2, the National Association, a new governing body over the minor leagues, upgraded the Texas League to a Class A association. The post-season faceoff of the Texas and Southern League champions also became an annual event known at the “Dixie Series.” In its earliest years, Fort Worth dominated that series as well.

In 1921, Fort Worth picked up where it left off the previous summer. Joe Pate claimed thirty wins on the season and was again joined by three other twenty-game winning teammates. First baseman Clarence Kraft led the offensive onslaught, leading the league with a .352 batting average and 32 home runs. Once again, the Panthers claimed both halves of the season with a total of 107 victories, besting second place Houston by 15.5 games.

When Fort Worth claimed the Texas League championship in 1922, the team won 109 games, placing them 15 games ahead of Wichita Falls at season’s end. While Joe Pate posted a 24-11 won-loss record, Paul Wachtel led the Panthers with a 26-7 record. Clarence Kraft again led the team offensively, hitting 32 home runs with 131 runs batted in. In batting .339, he was one of six full-time Panthers batting over .300 on the year.

The Panthers slipped a bit in 1923, capturing on 96 victories in finishing ahead of San Antonio by 13.5 games. Clarence Kraft continued to pace the team with another 32 home runs and 125 RBI, but he led the league in strikeouts with 109. Kraft’s strikeout rate of one in every 5 at-bats paved the way for outfielder Jack Calvo to lead the team with a .342 batting average.

With four consecutive Texas League championships, the 1924 Fort Worth franchise reached full stride. Its 109-41 record left all other contenders far behind, the closest being Houston, which finished 30.5 out of first place. Shreveport claimed last place, a full 57 games behind the champions. Joe Pate again posted thirty wins. Kraft hit a league leading 55 home runs with 196 RBI on the year, posting a .349 batting average while still striking out at a rate of 20%. Kraft’s 1924 campaign of nearly 200 runs batted in remains a Texas League record to this day, with no player coming within 30 of his mark over the past 92 seasons.

As the 1925 season began, the Panthers had taken five straight championships led largely by a phenomenal pitching staff and Clarence Kraft’s bat. With Kraft having retired following the previous season, Ed Konetchy stepped in and filled Kraft’s shoes admirably. The first baseman led the team with a .345 average, hitting 41 home runs and finishing with 166 RBI. He also struck out a rate less than half that of Clarence Kraft. Three Panther pitchers won twenty games, led by Paul Wachtel’s 23-7 record. Jim Walkup fell just one win short of making the entire Panther starting rotation twenty-game winners. Once again, the Panthers claimed the Texas League crown, finishing seventeen games ahead of Houston. But, when Dallas tied Fort Worth’s record in the season’s second half, many wondered if the dynasty was about to meet its demise.

In 1926, Fort Worth finally fell from the top of the Texas League, finishing 6.5 games behind Dallas in third place, trailing San Antonio by three games. Joe Pate had left the pitching staff for the major leagues, and only Jim Walkup won twenty games for the team. Ed Konetchy was still solid offensively, but he too fell off with a .325 batting average and just 21 home runs.

Things took a turn for the worse after 1926, with the Panthers finishing the following seasons 25 and 20 games, respectively, behind the league champions. A year later, Jake Atz left the Panthers after fourteen years as helmsman.

Over the course of Fort Worth’s reign as Texas League champions, the team averaged 105 wins per season while finishing 19 games ahead of its nearest competitor. The Panthers also claimed five or six Dixie Series championships during its run, its lone loss coming in 1922 against the Mobile Bears.

Although not nearly as dominating, the Midland RockHounds three straight championships place them halfway toward equaling Fort Worth’s achievement. Time will tell if Midland is capable of such a feat. For the time being, though, they hold the distinction of being the only other Texas League team to win three championships outright. And for that accomplishment, the RockHounds are to be congratulated

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