Category: Baseball History

H. Pazzaro Douthett

1889 mud catsIt’s a pretty well-known photo among minor league baseball historians. The 1889 Houston Mud Cats of the Texas League of Professional Baseball Clubs. The photo isn’t so popular because the Mud Cats won the Texas League Championship that year or the fact they were led by John McCloskey, the “Father of the Texas League.” It’s a classic photo because it epitomizes two eras: the earliest years of the Texas League and late 19th century professional baseball.
Three rows of ballplayers. The two back rows contain the most serious players, probably those who actually carried Houston to the championship. In the front row, we have three mustachioed laid-back gents at the dawn of the Gay ’90s. The man on the right leaning back on his elbow? Meet Homer (or Harry) Pazzaro Douthett, the captain of the 1888 Houston Babies, the team that finished fourth in the inaugural season of the Texas League. John McCloskey stripped Douthett of his captain’s status upon giving up his claim to the 1888 Austin/San Antonio franchise and relocating his interests to Houston. Founding a league had its privileges.
Pazzaro Douthett, who apparently never went by the names Homer nor Harry, was born what is now Marshall County, West Virginia, one of four of the state’s “chimney” counties separating Pennsylvania and Ohio. When Pazzaro was born in 1856, Marshall County was part of Virginia; yet, the Douthett family was anything but southern. Both of Pizarro’s parents, James and Helen Sweeney Douthett, were Pennsylvania natives, and the area of Virginia where they lived in 1860 led the effort to break away from Virginia as secession approached. A year later, the couple had moved their family back to Pennsylvania where James worked as a nailer in Pittsburgh. When war became imminent, James enlisted in the 13th Pennsylvania Militia before he ultimately enlisted in the Union Army in September of 1861, a private in the 101st Pennsylvania Infantry. He remained with his unit for 18 months and was eventually promoted to Corporal before being discharged just prior to the Battle of Gettysburg (coincidentally his wife’s hometown). Although James had completed his duty as far as the Army was concerned, his loyalty led him to reenlist in 1864. He should have stayed in Pittsburgh.
After reenlisting, James Douthett was assigned to the Union-held port city of Plymouth, North Carolina. Shortly after his arrival, the Rebel Army organized to retake the city so important to its supply lines. Over the course of the four-day battle, hundreds of Union soldiers were killed or wounded. They were the lucky ones. Hundreds more were taken prisoner and shipped to the most notorious Civil War prison camp, Andersonville. James Douthett survived the battle and was taken prisoner, but as one of the wounded, he was moved to a prisoner’s hospital in Raleigh. He never experienced the horrors of Andersonville, but he also never left the hospital where he died of his wounds. Back in Pennsylvania, Helen was left a widow with three children.
By 1870, Helen Douthett had remarried a Pittsburgh police officer, and the couple raised five children, including the three Helen brought to the marriage. Pazzaro eventually enrolled in Ohio’s University of Wooster before continuing his education at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. If such a thing existed at the time, Lafayette was a baseball powerhouse. The college fielded its first club team in 1860 and played one of the earliest intercollegiate games in 1869 when it played its nearby rival Lehigh University to a 45-45 tie. It can be assumed that Pazzaro began playing baseball during his college years.
By the time Pazzaro Douthett left college, he was already advancing in age, and in 1883 he is recorded as living with a brother in Pittsburgh, an apparently an unemployed college-educated 27-year-old man. Perhaps for lack of another job, a year later, he made his professional baseball debut with New Brighton in Pennsylvania’s Iron and Oil Association. In 1885, he appeared in only one game with Hartford of the Southern New England League, a club packed with 14 future major league ballplayers including Hall of Fame player and manager Connie Mack. With little room for him in such a potent lineup, the next season, Pazzaro moved to the Northwestern League and played the outfield in both Oshkosh and St. Paul on clubs teams with talent similar to that he left behind in Hartford. Not only was Pazzaro’s college education not particularly helpful in finding a job, his baseball skills didn’t seem to be up to snuff. He gave it another shot in 1887 with Hastings in the Western League. He saw limited action on the field, but he did make contact with John McCloskey, owner, player, and manager, of the St. Joseph, Missouri franchise. It is likely no coincidence that both McCloskey and Douthett found themselves in South Texas in the spring of 1888.
While the Babies didn’t play particularly well in under Douthett’s leadership in 1888, Pazzaro did have his best year as a professional. He appeared in 76 of Houston’s 80 games, leading the team in batting and stolen bases and all of the Texas League in doubles with 22 to his credit. In the 1889 championship season, Pazarro’s production fell sharply; in fact, he went from his team’s leading batter to its worst in just one year. Pazarro Douthett had a championship to his name but his baseball career had come to its end.
Rather than return to Pennsylvania, Pazzaro decided to remain in Houston, working several years overseeing gaming rooms before he and two partners bought out the owner. Nearly 15 years after leaving baseball, Douthett left Houston for New Orleans where he worked for a time as police office for Tulane University. But eventually, Pennsylvania called him home, and he took a job as night manager at the rked as a clerk in Pittsburgh’s Hotel Yoder. With the exception of his baseball career, Pazzaro Douthett had his most notable moment at the hotel when he and a fellow clerk were robbed at gunpoint in November of 1915. Soon, he went into sales, but in the spring of 1920, Homer Pazzaro Douthett succumbed to pneumonia at a Pittsburgh hospital.
Having never been married and with no children, the original Texas League ballplayer was buried in an unmarked grave in Uniondale Cemetery in Bellevue, Pennsylvania. While Pazzaro has been long forgotten, he continues to live on in the classic early baseball photo as a laid-back, macho, mustachioed ballplayer. For that brief moment captured on film, Pazzaro Douthett was one “cool cat,”—a cool Mud Cat, that is.

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

On the prowl for Eugene Burns

Several months ago, I received a call from Tim Newman in Austin, a local baseball historian with an interest in the early Texas League. Tim was hoping I had some information on Gene Burns, a pitcher he had found played for Paris in 1902. I had no record of Burns having played in Paris; however, William Ruggles, long-time Texas League statistician, did note him as appearing with the team. So, I did a little more investigation.

 

As it turns out, if Gene Burns did play with Paris in 1902, it was for a very brief period and he was never listed in a box score. He did, however, play in the Texas League in future years. He appeared briefly with Fort Worth in 1902, followed by a stint with Houston in 1903. His best year came in 1904, though. While shuffling around the league, Burns posted a 24-9 won-loss record. He returned to Galveston in 1905, finally ending his career with Waco the following season. Complete statistics for Gene Burns are as scarce as information about the man himself. He did, however, pitch the first no-hitter in the history of the short-lived South Texas League.

 

Statistics and achievements on the field are interesting, at least to baseball historians, but Gene Burns is also a great example of what goes into the hunt for a long-forgotten personality who left little hint as to his life and what eventually became of him. As is often the case, a tiny nugget of information buried in the page of an old newspaper printed in tiny typeface provided the break in solving the case of Eugene Burns.

 

In early 20th century newspapers, ballplayers are only occasional listed with both their first and last names. At most, one will find a first and middle initial with a last name or sometimes just a nickname. This makes tracking down old Texas Leaguers extremely difficult, especially when a name as common as “Burns” is the subject of the search. After scouring the internet and newspaper archives, though, I finally hit pay dirt with an issue of The Galveston News in 1904. Most of the season the newspaper had included statistics on a player named “Burns,” but buried within a one paragraph article on the sports page I found gold. Gene Burns, the paper noted, worked in the off-season as a wholesale grocer in Fort Worth. With that bit of information, Burns’ life came into focus.

 

Eugene Frank Burns was born August 6, 1882, in Kansas. Unfortunately, his date of birth makes it difficult to track his heritage. He obviously would not be listed in the 1880 census records, and by 1900, he apparently had left home. The secret to his parents would like be held in the 1890 census, but those records were lost long ago in a fire.

 

Even though we can’t tell where Burns came from, there is a wealth of information on what he did over the course of his baseball career and life. In 1907, Gene married Effie E. Burns, a native Texan whose mother also hailed from Texas and her father from Arkansas. The following year, Effie gave birth to the couple’s only child, Eugene Arthur Burns (the small family another difficulty in finding information). The family resided in Fort Worth, where during the off-season, Gene Burns worked in the grocery business for a period spanning at least 35 years. By 1942, he had gone to work for the Texas Ice and Refrigeration Company also based in Fort Worth.

 

Following his baseball career, Burns remained involved in the sport on an amateur level, serving as an umpire in Fort Worth. But his focus remained on the grocery business that earned a good living for his family. By 1940, young Eugene had moved to Arizona where he became a rancher until World War II, when he enlisted in the Marines and served as a sergeant.

 

Eugene Burns died in Dallas on June 23, 1963 of a heart attack while battling colon cancer and high blood pressure. Effie went to work for Contact electronics following his death. She died April 6, 1979, and is buried beside her husband at Grove Hill Memorial Park in Dallas. Interestingly, the couple’s son died in 1972, just nine years after his father. He, too, died while undergoing treatment for colon cancer.

 

So, there’s an inside look into what it takes to track down a long-lost ballplayer who perhaps only Tim Newman of Austin was aware existed. Thank you, Tim, for offering the challenge. The hunt is the most entertaining part of the chase.

“Hick” Munsell:  What a Difference a Year Makes

munsellWhen Emmett Eugene Munsell arrived in Texas from his home state of Missouri in 1908, the fifth of ten children of an Ohio-born lawyer, the 19-year-old right-handed pitcher had big dreams of a future in baseball. Those dreams began in Nacogdoches where he played a few games of semi-pro ball before signing on with the Longview Cannibals. Through 1910, “Hick” Munsell was a Longview fan favorite, and when the Texas League came calling a season later, they were certainly sad to see him go.

In 1910, Munsell began his professional career with Waco, posting a 4-9 record with an earned run average well over 5.00. His accomplishments weren’t a whole lot to write home about that first season, but things would change in 1911 when he joined the Dallas Giants. That year, Munsell started 44 games and dropped his ERA to just 3.69 as he won twenty games for the Giants. The 326 innings he pitched in 1911 gave him an average of 7.40 per game up from 6.18 a year earlier. Still, Munsell had troubles in the loss column, equaling his victory total. The Giants finished the season in fourth place, but just seven games behind TL champion Austin. During the season, Munsell married, and he and his wife went on to have three children.

Despite changing leagues for the following two seasons, Munsell couldn’t raise himself about the .500 mark as a pitcher, posting a 17-23 record with Buffalo and Sacramento in 1912-13. By 1914, he returned to Texas, first signing with the Austin Senators and hoping to turn his fortunes around.

The return to Texas did nothing to improve Munsell’s luck on the mound. Spending a majority of the season with Austin, he posted a miserable 9-27 record, leading the league in both losses and innings pitched. In spite of the fact he allowed fewer hits and walks per nine innings than at any other point in his career, Munsell simply didn’t get the run support needed to win. His teammates couldn’t overcome the 4.5 runs a game he averaged, especially considering the Senators .234 team batting average. Still, Munsell’s  .250 winning percentage bested that of the team as a whole. Austin’s 31-114 record (.214 winning percentage) placed them at the bottom of the TL standings, a full 67.5 games behind champion Houston. Likewise, Austin’s performance in 1914 ranks it as one of the worst TL in history.

With a mediocre career in the record books before the 1914 season, then a true TL debacle with Austin, Munsell was probably a bit surprised when San Antonio invited him to camp in 1915. No one is quite sure what happened to Munsell during the off-season, but his arrival in San Antonio was nothing less than phenomenal. The underachiever started 46 games, lowering his average hits and walks allowed to just 7.4 per game, four baserunners fewer than the previous year. Likewise, his ERA dropped like a rock to just 2.26. Most impressively, though, he pitched 381 innings in 1915 and finished the year with a 25-11 won-loss record, leading the TL in wins.  The improvement of 15 wins over the previous season coupled with 15 fewer losses leaves Emmett Munsell’s turnarounds as one of the most incredible in Texas League, if not baseball, history. How did he do it? San Antonio wasn’t particularly powerful offensively, but they did score nearly four runs a game. And while Munsell led the pitching staff, both Elmer Ponder and Harry Stewart also pitched well. Overall, San Antonio finished in second place, 6.5 games behind champion Waco.

Unfortunately, Munsell’s success was brief, over the next seven years, he returned to his mediocre ways with a rising ERA in route to a 17 and 22 record. In fact, just a year after his outstanding 1915 season, his hits and walks per nine innings ballooned over 20 per game. Still the fact he pitched at all was remarkable, considering he claimed exemption from the WWI draft due to a “crippled hand.” Regardless, Munsell had one last crack in professional baseball in 1922 with Muskogee of the Southwest League and led the team with a 14-4 record, his hand apparently healed. He must have decided to quite while he was ahead, though, as he retired from the professional game at 33.

A year later Hick Munsell organized a new version of the Longview Cannibals, the same team he had left 13 years earlier, in the East Texas League. Munsell pitched and managed off and on for the next three seasons before finally calling it quits. Still, he remained active several years as an executive, helping organize teams in several small East Texas communities. At the same time, he entered the construction business, first as a surveyor and later a contractor.

Munsell never proved to be major league material, but unlike so many other Texas Leaguers of the early 20th century, he did get a shot. Following the incredible 1915 season in San Antonio, John McGraw invited Munsell to join the New York Giants training camp in Marlin, Texas. It was a brief stay. Munsell’s refusal to abandon his curve ball despite McGraw’s orders led to an on-field fistfight during an intra-squad game. The last curve ball that afternoon proved to be Munsell’s last pitch at the major league level, and he is not credited as having appeared in any official major league game.

On December 31, 1974, Emmett Munsell died of lung cancer in Longview. He is buried in Longview’s Greenwood Cemetery.

Ardmore–Yep, the Oklahoma community hosted a Texas League team, twice.

Ardmorites, Ardmorians, or Ardmoraniacs—Whatever you might call a native of Ardmore, Oklahoma, “dishonest” is not a word that comes to mind. So, when someone from Ardmore tells you their city hosted the team holding the worst home winning percentage of any team in professional baseball history, accept them at their word. But how that record came to be takes a bit more explanation.

When William Miller and Guy Rall, two ordinary Fort Worth men with absolutely no experience or any business operating a baseball team, were awarded a Texas League franchise prior to the 1904 season, they were intent on placing their team in Ardmore. The Texas League had previous experience with out-of-state teams, briefly flirting with New Orleans in 1888 and Shreveport in 1895. But it had yet to place a team north of the Red River, in what in 1904 was still known as “Indian Territory.

Ardmore, then a town of about 6,000, was closer to Dallas-Fort Worth than Paris, but Paris had over 9,000 residents and a proven, though fickle, fan base. It also had a record of four season somewhat supporting a Texas League franchise. In the early days of professional baseball a “maybe so” was far more desirable than a “not quite sure,” but, Miller and Rall pushed Ardmore to build the ballpark and sell the season tickets needed to convince other owners it was up to Texas League standards. After all, the city had supported a crack semi-pro club, and the leap to the Texas League wasn’t a challenge that couldn’t be overcome. But, as the 1904 season neared, negotiations with Ardmore city leaders stalled. Miller and Rall reluctantly gave up their effort and sent their franchise where the other league owners wanted it in the first place, Paris.

The history of the 1904 Paris Red Ravens, or “Parasites” as they are often known, has been documented in this column before, but suffice to say, the team owners’ ineptitude as both businessmen and baseball men suffocated any chance for its success. The Red Ravens put on a historically-poor performance in 1904, winning just 23 games. Despite being managed by Texas League Hall of Famer “Big” Mike O’Connor and having serviceable players like  Tom Dugan, Sam Deskin, and Cy Mulkey on the roster, the Red Ravens top pitchers, Al Selby and Earl Zook, combined for a 7-40 won loss record. The team’s failures were monumental both within the history of the Texas League and all of professional baseball.

With good reason, as the season wore on, Paris baseball kranks failed to turn out in sufficient numbers. By mid-season, William Miller was losing money faster than he could earn it at his day job with a Fort Worth printer and abandoned the club, leaving his share in the hands of his partner. Guy Rall didn’t last much longer and soon returned to his more successful venture in the telegraph business. With only a few weeks left in the season, the Texas League had a team without a city, and league officials knew a three team league would not survive more than twenty-four hours without a replacement. Ardmore, unwilling to accept terms before the season began, had an outstanding semi-pro team in 1904.  Suddenly, city leaders believed they were ready for professional baseball. On August 4, the Ardmore Territorians became the first professional baseball team in Oklahoma history when the few remaining players from the Paris roster who hadn’t already signed elsewhere relocated to the city and joined some local amateurs.

According to The Daily Ardmorite, the Territorians were not formally admitted to the league and would simply play exhibition games against Paris’ scheduled opponents; however, the results of those games and player achievements are definitely included in the Texas League’s official records. So, indeed, Ardmore did host a Texas League team in August of 1904. On August 5, the Fort Worth Panthers made the trip across the river to christen Ardmore’s entry into professional baseball with a planned two-game series.

No record can be found of how many spectators turned out in Ardmore that afternoon, and little about the game is known. William “Zena” Clayton, a sixteen-year-old for the Territorians, hit a home run, but the rest of the game was largely a comedy of errors on Ardmore’s part, and Fort Worth took the contest 4-2. A day later, heavy rains came through southern Oklahoma, and Ardmore’s ballfield was described as a “mud pit.” So, Fort Worth headed back to Texas for a series with Corsicana, while Ardmore hit the road to face Dallas in the first game of a ten-day road trip. The team would then close out the season with twelve games at home.

The Territorians won three games in the early stages of its road trip, an impressive number considering Paris won the same number during the entire month of June. But before the team could return to Ardmore for its season-ending home stand, the Texas League abruptly cancelled the remainder of its regular schedule on August 14. The two top teams, Fort Worth and Corsicana, went on to play a marathon 19-game championship series, which Corsicana won, 11 games to 8. Coincidentally, a number of Ardmore’s players signed with Corsicana and Fort Worth and participated in the series.

The Territorians were left out of the Texas League in 1905, and Ardmore did not field another professional team for six seasons. The city did go on to host a number of franchises through the first half of the twentieth century, but another Texas League game was not played in Ardmore until 1961, when league officials once again called on the city to finish out a more lengthy Victoria Rosebud schedule.

In the official record books, the 1904 Ardmore Territorians, the first professional baseball team in what would soon become Oklahoma, posted a home won-loss record of 0-1, a winning percentage of 0.000. When it comes to the list of records that will never be broken, those living in Ardmore can safely say that their Territorians remain as entrenched as Tony Dorsett and his 99-yard touchdown run. While there are likely few Ardmore residents aware of their city’s distinction, rest assured it is no lie.

 

The Serviceable Bill Kemmer

 

When William Edward Kemmerer left his home state of Pennsylvania in 1893, the 19-year-old ballplayer headed west to Kansas where a career in professional baseball awaited.  At the time, it’s unlikely he was sure he would earn a spot on a Western Association club’s roster. The idea that he would go onto a 17-year career and play for 25 teams probably never entered his mind. Although Bill is remembered as a journeyman rather than a star, what he did one April day in 1918 is a record standing the test of time.

Bill did get his chance on his first trip west, playing in a handful of games for Lawrence and Topeka. It would be 1895 until he returned to professional baseball, though, when he arrived in the Texas League and spent 43 games at third base for the Shreveport Grays. His .406 batting average and eight home runs caught the attention of the National League’s Louisville Colonels, and they called him up. Just 21 years old, he couldn’t match his success in the minors. After just 11 games, Bill concluded his major league career with a .184 batting average. But as far as professional baseball was concerned, Bill Kemmerer had barely started.

Although Kemmerer played only partial seasons in 1896 and 1897 with Galveston and Sherman-Denison, he posted a hefty batting average. Houston was quick to sign him prior to the 1898 season and slotted him as their everyday first baseman. By this point, Bill had shortened his last name to “Kemmer” and arrived in Houston set on continuing his rapid rise within the ranks of Texas League infielders. And he did just as he expected, batting .366 through the early portion of the season before the Spanish-American War brought most baseball to a sudden stop. Still, it was on April 18 that Bill Kemmer had the biggest day of his career, one the visiting Fort Worth Panthers would never forget.

Heavy rains had hit the coastal area in the days leading up to the game, and when the teams took the field, conditions were barely playable. The Galveston Daily News described the field as wet and muddy, pointing out that shortly into the game the two teams’ uniforms had become barely discernible. Regardless, the mud or difficult footing had little impact on Bill Kemmer play.

Batting cleanup, Kemmer opened up his day in the first inning with a three-run homer. When Fort Worth responded with four runs of its own, the fans knew they teams were in for a high-scoring affair.  Kemmer had added a single with his fourth RBI in the third inning. When he came to the plate in the fifth, once again two men were on base. Kemmer responded as he had in his first at-bat, blasting his second three-run home run of the game. The Buffaloes added two runs in both the sixth and seventh innings, with Bill singling to drive in two more RBIs, giving him nine on the afternoon. Finally Kemmer came to bat in the ninth inning and finished the game as he started it with another three-run blast. Houston took the victory, 16-10.

Less than three weeks later, the Texas League season came to an end after just 35 games.  Galveston claimed the pennant with a 19-16 record, with Houston finishing in second place two games behind. But any thoughts of baseball quickly fell by the wayside as the country went to war. As such, the events of 1898 have never received much recognition in the history books.

But in the game against Fort Worth on April 18, Bill Kemmer did what no Texas League player had done before, batting in twelve runs, nine of them with home runs. His five hits on the afternoon led the Buffaloes, and he was equally effective in the field. Bill never duplicated his day again; in fact, he hit only one other home run on the season.

A year later, Kemmer returned to the Texas League with Galveston and batted an impressive .331. After 1899, he left Texas and headed back east for two seasons before bouncing around the country for the next decade, including two stints in the Texas League. His batting average and offensive output steadily declined with each year, and he finally called it quits after eleven games with Oklahoma City in 1910. After seventeen seasons, he returned home to Pennsylvania where he went to work in a paper mill. He died in Washington, D.C., on June 8, 1945.

In the 118 seasons since Bill Kemmer batted in twelve runs in a single game for the Houston Buffaloes, no other player has matched the feat. A hundred years after Kemmer’s big day at the plate, Tyrone Horne of the Arkansas Travelers batted in ten runs in even more dramatic fashion. Horne achieved the only “Home Run Cycle” in professional baseball history against San Antonio, hitting four home runs, including a solo shot, a two run and three run homer, and a grand slam. Horne’s achievement is recognized in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Kemmer, however, is merely a footnote in the Texas League history books.

Bill Kemmer never played outstanding baseball for an extended period; in fact, he never stayed with the same team for more than one season, opting to try his hand in different cities, different leagues, and different areas of the country. But for one game in April, 1898, Bill Kemmer stood on top of the baseball world. Today, he still holds the Texas League record for most runs batted in in a single game.

Mama Always said, “Don’t Play Ball on Sunday”

 

 

In the early 20th century, baseball players were anything but role models mothers wanted their children to idolize. Mothers regarded them as a rough-and-tumble bunch; men who would rather play a senseless game than work for a living. With a ballgame played in two hours at most, baseball players had a lot of spare time on their hands. Any mother knew idleness led to trouble when youngsters were involved. And even today, in a mother’s eyes, does a child ever really grow up?

The only thing many mothers of a hundred years ago despised more than baseball itself was the idea of playing the game on Sunday. In many cases, local laws supported them. Blue laws prohibited many Sunday activities, particularly if they involved providing entertainment for profit. Remnants of blue laws still exist. In Texas, liquor stores and auto dealerships are closed on Sundays. A hundred years ago, baseball became the center of the blue law controversy.

As the Texas League gained popularity, pressure increased for laws to be changed to allow baseball seven days a week. A professional franchise sitting idly for just a day could hardly turn a profit. A day gameless meant the loss of the usual $50 guarantee for the visiting team. Still, owners were left with daily expenses and travel costs, and that one game may have meant the difference a team continuing play or dropping out of the league.

More than one owner or manager found ways of working around the blue laws. In putting together its circuit, a meeting held at least annually, Texas League stalwarts like J.M. Gardner, William Ward, and Doak Roberts would dominate discussions and rail against awarding franchises to communities with prohibitions on Sunday baseball. and occasionally a team, was detained for breaking Other owners and managers simply chose to ignore the law, and in most cases the constable simply turned his head. But on occasion, a manager and sometimes even an entire team found itself in jail rather than at the ballpark. Normally, all involved were quickly bailed out of jail by enraged spectators who had paid their nickels to see nine innings of baseball.

By the 1920s, many communities relaxed their prohibition on Sunday activities. Mothers, on the other hand had never been early-adopters when it came to change. The only law that really mattered to a kid with a ball, a bat, and a mitt was the one a mother enforced. Violations were often followed by trips to the woodshed. So it was. For many years, mothers did their best to protect their sons from the game’s inherent and detrimental sins. Some even continued to attempt to influence their sons’ choices long after they had reached adulthood. My great-grandmother, Mary Phillips Rutherford of Petty, Texas, was not an exception.

By the latter half of the 1920s, Mary and her husband Jack had raised a family of seven children—five sons and two daughters—with four of the boys and one girl having survived the dangers of infant mortality. Of the four surviving boys, at least three had an interest in baseball, led by the oldest, Frank, born in 1906. Frank was a member of the Petty “Nine,” the local town ball team that played teams from nearby communities on a regular basis.  In fact, between Frank, his brothers, and their cousins from up the road, the Bevilles, Petty almost had a complete team. The Beville family fielded a fine bunch of ball players itself, led by all-around athlete Elvis and his brother Joe, who became a much sought after pitcher and had tryouts with Oklahoma City of the Texas League and Knoxville of the Southern Association. Ultimately, he played only briefly with Knoxville’s East Texas League affiliate, Tyler, before he decided professional baseball was not for him.

Frank became Petty’s team leader and was well-known on the town ball circuit in Lamar and Fannin Counties. Much to his mother’s chagrin, even after marrying Lorene Dellinger in 1926, Frank continued to play ball when he wasn’t working on the family farm. And Sundays, as always, were certainly no time to be working!

One summer Sunday in the latter half of the 1920s, Frank and his Petty teammates hopped aboard the Texas and Pacific Railroad headed for Paris, where they would challenge a team from the Lamar County seat.  Despite a much smaller pool of talent to choose from, the Rutherford- and Beville-led Petty squad was formidable. With Petty in command on the scoreboard, Frank stood at the plate in the middle innings. Never a shy hitter, he swung at the first pitch and wrapped it past the third baseman into left field. Knowing his team had a substantial lead, Frank tried to stretch his base hit into a double. He didn’t hesitate as he rounded first base.  But Paris’ outfielder hustled to the ball, and Frank could see his two-sacker wasn’t a given. Frank, the second baseman, and the ball all arrived at the bag together, and an unintentional but violent collision ensued. Years later, Roscoe Jones, either a player or a spectator sitting in the bleachers, noted that out of the dust, he heard what sounded like a shotgun.

Frank lay on the ground trying to make sense of the loud crack Roscoe had heard as well as the jarring pain shooting from his lower leg. It wasn’t long before everyone realized Frank had likely fractured or broken some bones, and he was driven to the Paris Sanitarium for treatment.

Family members do not necessarily agree on the name of the doctor treating Frank that afternoon, and there is a question as to whether the physician may have been less than sober when Frank arrived. In order to protect the innocent, we’ll simply note that the doctor confirmed a break in Frank’s lower leg, but he noted it was nothing too severe. Surgery was unnecessary; the doctor merely aligned the bones and applied a cast to Frank’s leg. Believing his patient to be in suitable condition, the doctor announced he would be leaving town for a few days but would return on Friday to see how Frank had progressed. In the meantime, he assigned a far less experienced intern to watch over Frank in his absence.

Long before the 20th century, physicians knew that bones carried blood vessels and were prone to bleed when broken. In response, the tissue around a broken bone can be expected to swell. The swelling may appear immediately, or it can take up to five days to be noticeable. Perhaps Frank Rutherford’s doctor did not believe his leg to be broken so severely that swelling would become an issue; yet, soon after the doctor left the hospital, Frank began to experience extreme discomfort beneath his cast. He repeatedly begged the intern to loosen the wrapping and allow his leg to breathe. But the intern told Frank he was not authorized to alter the cast in any way. Frank continued to writhe in pain, but it lessened as the week went along.

As promised, the doctor returned by the end of the week and cut open the cast to see how well Frank’s leg had healed in the first few days. Upon seeing Frank’s blackened limb, he immediately took him to surgery. The cast had, in fact, been set too tightly to allow for swelling, and the circulation of blood to Frank’s leg had stopped. It wasn’t long before the surgical team realized that gangrene had set in. Frank’s lower leg was “dead,” and amputation was necessary. They could only hope the infection had not entered his bloodstream and spread to other parts of his body.

Many who lose limbs enter into stages of grief, including anger and depression. Frank, on the other hand, took the news in stride. When Lorene asked Frank what he expected to do, he simply responded, “Well, I guess I’ll have to work with my head instead of my feet.” In short order, he did just that. In the coming years, Frank Rutherford worked as a clerk and managed a cotton gin.

When Greenville’s Monty Stratton, a major league pitcher for the Chicago White Sox, lost his leg in a hunting accident in 1938, Frank could do more than simply empathize, and Stratton’s attempt to continue playing on a prosthetic leg inspired him. As he heard of people in the area who lost limbs in farming accidents or of World War II veterans returning home to adjust to life with a disability, Frank made the rounds, speaking with many and explaining that dreams don’t ever die, they just change. He became a self-appointed ambassador for those with disabilities, although no one who ever met him would say Frank had the slightest feeling he had been disabled himself. After all, he had been hurt playing a game. Others with similar injuries had been providing for their families or fighting foreign enemies. Frank felt himself to be fortunate. After all, he was able to work and raise a family, something so many others he met could no longer expect.

Over the years, Frank Rutherford continued to use his head rather than his feet, eventually opening what was essentially an early “convenience store” in Petty, selling groceries and gasoline just a few steps from his house. He continued to operate the store into the late 1970s before retiring.

When I visited my great-Uncle Frank during the ‘70s and early ‘80s, I was mesmerized by his wooden leg and the oval hole I could stick my finger inside. He warned me his leg was home to a family of mice, and he couldn’t guarantee I wouldn’t be bitten; yet, I somehow remained unscathed.

Uncle Frank’s leg did not fail to create its difficulties. His daughter JoAnn, my father’s first cousin, tells of lying in bed with the artificial limb that had essentially become a detachable part of Frank’s existence. She recalls being overcome by the smell of alcohol on heavy wool socks he used to clean the stub of a leg left below his knee. In fact, when she mentioned the smell in a recent email, my senses quickly came alive. I was reminded of the time when, without malice, I kicked Uncle Frank’s wooden leg, knowing he had the one shin I could kick without fearing retaliation. Little did I know that the stub happened to infected at the time, and he found my playful kick quite painful. Uncle Frank was not pleased, and I’ve never kicked another leg since.

Despite what baseball took from him, Frank never lost his love of the game. By about 1975, I had become a baseball fanatic, and on weekend visits to Uncle Frank’s house, I was often greeted by Vin Scully and the NBC Game of the Week on television. I also recall summer evenings sitting on the couch next to Frank’s chair as we struggled to filter the conversation around us and listen to the Texas Rangers broadcast on WBAP out of Dallas. We kept abreast of what the likes of Toby Harrah, Fergie Jenkins, and my personal favorite, Juan Beniquez. All accomplished a lot at much-maligned Arlington Stadium, despite the fact those Rangers teams had normally fallen so deeply in the standings by mid-June that all hope was lost for the long summer ahead.

There is no doubt that if I had the same interest in early twentieth century Texas baseball when I was a teenager as I have today, Uncle Frank could have told enough stories to fill volumes. I have little doubt he personally knew Lamar County Texas League legends like Tony Thebo and Ben Shelton. But when Frank Rutherford died in 1987, he took those stories with him to Forest Hill Cemetery. As so many have during the course of their lives, I often think, “If I could have just one hour…”

Unfortunately, Uncle Frank didn’t leave me with the litany of baseball knowledge I seek today, but his promising, yet all-too-short, baseball career did leave me with one lasting lesson. When Momma says don’t play on Sundays, chances are she’s right.