Category: Northeast Texas

John L. Highberger – A Texas Minor League Name You’ve Never Heard of Before

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.

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“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.

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.