Ballplayers sometimes hail from the most unexpected places. Today, Yowell, Texas, is little more than a cluster of houses midway in near the Delta-Hunt County line south of Pecan Gap. Though Yowell never had a railroad connection which helped build so many nearby communities, it slowly grew until the 1930s, when 150 people lived close enough to the two businesses, churches, and store to call Yowell home, whether they lived in Delta or Hunt County.
“Vern” Underhill was born September 9, 1904, the sixth of eight children of William and Ida Walters Underhill. William was a native of Texas, having been born in Hopkins County just after the Civil War, while Ida moved to the area from Waco after spending her early childhood in Indiana. Like most North Texas families at the turn of the twentieth century, the Underhills operated a farm, and by 1920 the business engaged the entire family, including sixteen year-old Vern. By 1930, though, Vern’s parent had moved to the Texas Panhandle, and Vern had moved onto what he considered a better life, professional baseball.
Exactly how Vern Underhill got his start in baseball is unclear. Although the most logical explanation would be that he played for the training school at East Texas Teacher’s College in nearby Commerce, no records exist of his attending the institution. Regardless, in 1926 he got his professional start with Decatur in the Three-I League (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa). Pitching unsuccessfully for the Commodores in eleven winless games, the next season Vern returned to Texas, joining the Tyler Trojans of the Lone Star League. At Tyler, Underhill enjoyed his most successful season, posting a 13-6 won-loss record and leading the Trojans to the league championship. His efforts were enough to gain the attention of major league scouts, and at season’s end he joined the Cleveland Indians. His late season stint with the team did not impress, as he posted a 9.72 ERA in just eight inning pitched. A year later, he began the season with New Orleans of the Southern Association and again showed big league potential, with a 3.34 ERA in 31 games. Cleveland again took a shot with the best ballplayer to ever come out of Yowell, Texas, but he disappointed again, allowing far too many baserunners in his twenty-eight innings. Still he recorded the only win of his major league career for a miserable Indians club.
Though success eluded Vern Underhill in the major leagues, he remained a hot commodity in the minors. In 1929, he enjoyed a successful season back in Decatur in Class B ball, although after moving to Jersey City’s Class AA franchise, his pitching faltered. Nonetheless, in 1930, Underhill returned southward, joining the Texas League’s Shreveport Sports. Once again, he found his form, pitching 199 innings and finishing the season with an 11-6 record on a well-stacked pitching staff that carried the Sports to the playoffs. Still, cracks showed in his game, as he led the team in runs and bases-on-balls allowed. The following season, he again started with Shreveport but pitched only five games before returning to the Southern Assocation’s New Orleans Pelicans. The Pelicans had a potent roster, with eighteen of its twenty-six players eventually spending time in the Major Leagues, but in 1932 many were either past their prime or yet to reach their potential. New Orleans finished out of the playoffs in fifth place, Underhill’s 5-10 record not strong enough as the rotation’s fourth starting pitcher.
In 1932, Vern Underhill, now twenty-seven years old and five years removed from his brief major league career, moved northward to the Western League’s Omaha Packers. For the first time in his career, he didn’t pitch a single game and only played sporadically as a pinch hitter. After just eleven games, Vern decided it was time to give up the dream and retired from baseball.
In 1940, Underhill was Sheriff of Hutchinson County, living with his wife and eight month-old son, Willie Vernon, Jr. By the end of the decade, Vern developed severe allergies and relocated his family to Southeast Texas where he worked in the oil industry. By the mid-1960s, his allergies had developed into Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Ultimately, he died in 1970 of acute respiratory failure at the age of 66. He is buried in Matagorda County.
By the time Vern Underhill passed away, his hometown had become little more than cluster of homes between Pecan Gap and Commerce. Although a road sign still alerts motorists when they arrive at what was once Yowell, there are few signs a community of any significance existed. And, there is no sign of Willie Vernon Underhill, arguably Yowell’s most famous resident.