A story about a Texas baseball personality you’ve probably never heard of? Ask and you shall receive, and I doubt many are more obscure than this one.
John L. Highberger (possibly “Highburger”) was born February 16, 1872, south of Paris near Atlas. His parents, George Crawford Highberger and Louviana Susanna Stinson Highberger, and quite possibly his grandfather, John Washington Stinson, all died in 1879. The only confirmed date of death noted is for the elder Stinson, who passed away on April 10. Whether other family members died of a contagious illness or if a tragedy such as a fire led to the rash of 1879 deaths is unknown. Neither George, a Union Civil War veteran, nor his wife’s graves are marked, but both are believed to be buried in Brakeen Cemetery. In any event, until their deaths, the family lived on a farm in the area of Crowley Hill near Atlas.
John, one of four children of George and Louvinia, was raised by his maternal grandmother with the help of his mother’s brothers and sisters. Little is known of John’s early life; however, his brother DeWitt did die in Paris in 1900, just 27 years of age. By this same time, John Highberger had begun to make a name for himself in Paris’ amateur baseball circles, managing the local team and playing as well. While Paris did play home to a professional Texas League club at the time, no information suggests Highberger’s involvement either as a player or in team affairs.
When the Texas League left Paris for cities closer to Dallas and Fort Worth following the 1904 season, the city’s thirst for the National Game had not been quenched. While smaller cities throughout the country were beginning to be squeezed out of similar statewide leagues, it usually didn’t take long before a group of enterprising men from a few nearby communities began putting together a league of their own. Such was the case in early 1905 when Texarkana’s J.B. King and Paris’ L.D. Corbett set their sights on fielding a Class-D North Texas League. Initially, other cities interested in fielding teams included Denison, Sherman, and Clarksville. Likewise, Corbett, secretary of the league pushed hard for a Bonham team. In the few weeks between late February through the end of March, Denison and Sherman both lost interest, but Greenville agreed to field a team. With Paris, Texarkana, and Greenville dedicated to the circuit, one additional team was needed. Paris continued to push hard for a Bonham entry.
As April neared, and with the season set to begin April 25, pressure to finalize a league increased. L.D. Corbett made several trips westward along the Texas & Pacific Railway to lure representatives of the Fannin County seat to put up the $1,000 guarantee, a sum the other three cities had raised through stock agreements. Still, Corbett had been unsuccessful. As Paris and Bonham had long competed on the amateur baseball scene, and Corbett could see potential financial benefits from the natural rivalry, he enlisted John Highberger to visit the city and encourage his amateur contacts to pressure city officials into joining the league. Ultimately, Bonham opted to remain on the sidelines, and Clarksville entered the league as the fourth team.
The North Texas League, while generally successful in its first season, was short-lived. By the end of July, Paris relocated its league-leading franchise to Hope, Arkansas. The added travel distance forced Greenville to disband. Days later, a yellow fever epidemic in Texarkana did the same, and the league was left with teams in Hope and Clarksville. Three days later, the North Texas League called it quits. Since Hope had only played nine games in the league, the pennant was awarded to Paris, with Clarksville runner-up. Two years later, the North Texas League briefly revived, but the small circuit was soon supplanted by the Western Association and the Texas-Oklahoma League in Paris. In fact, Clarksville’s very successful 1905 season marked the first and last professional baseball team in the Red River County seat.
Over the next several years, John Highberger continued managing an amateur team in Paris that traveled to nearby cities like Bonham, Sulphur Springs, and others willing to put their local “nine” on the field against Paris. He also built a career as one of Paris early electric streetcar conductors then went onto become an engineer the streetcar companies power plant. In 1913, he married Minnie Kaiser in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and the couple settled in Oklahoma City where John continued his career in electric streetcars. Eventually, he became an electrician and lived the remainder of his life in Oklahoma City. John and Minnie Highberger never had children. On January 22, 1953, John L. Highberger, a Lamar County orphan, passed away and is entombed in an Oklahoma City mausoleum.
So, there you have it—one more Texan who impacted the state’s long baseball history, if not on the professional level, certainly as an amateur. Somewhere, it is likely that someone knows the full story of John Highberger’s childhood and what happened to his family in Atlas in 1879. And, if anyone does, I’d love to hear from you.