Digging through the annals and old minor league box scores, one occasionally comes across a player whose performance dazzles the mind. Whether it was for a day, a week, a season, or several years, many outstanding players toiled in the minors their entire careers, never getting a whiff of the big leagues. For some, it was a choice; for others, it was circumstances. Why John Sears never got his shot is unknown.
John William Sears was born in Kentucky in 1892, the oldest son of Mattie and George Sears, a Muhlenberg County coal miner. The Sears family, like most in the area, was poor. Appalachia let few people escape the clutch of poverty, and when his mother died when he was a teenager, John seemed destined to follow in his father’s footsteps. By the time he turned 18, John worked the dark coal mines, playing a little baseball on the side, possibly for the company team. As it turned out, even Appalachia liked baseball, and the sport became John’s ticket from what might have been a short life as a miner.
By 1912, John Sears broke into professional baseball in the Bluegrass League. Over the course of the next three seasons, he batted about .280 while playing outfield for small leagues in nearby Tennessee and Illinois. His clean break from Appalachian life came in 1914 when he finished out the season with the Central League franchise in Marshalltown, Iowa. He remained in the area until 1917, playing for teams in Clinton and Dubuque, then he made his way to Texas and signed with the Texas League’s Fort Worth Panthers.
Sears’ arrival in Fort Worth did little to impress legendary Texas League manager Jake Atz. Stating that he didn’t believe in having anyone named “John” playing on his team, Atz attached the nickname of a recently released player, “Ziggy” Shears, to his new outfielder. The name stuck for the rest of John “Ziggy” Sears’ life.
Ziggy arrived in Fort Worth in time to become a major player in the Panthers’ roaring ‘20’s dominance of the Texas League. After finishing in second place in 1917, Fort Worth duplicated the effort in the war-shortened 1918 season, both times falling a few games shy of the champion Dallas Giants. As 1919 approached, Fort Worth signed one of the Texas League’s earliest affiliation agreements with a major league club, becoming a farm team of the Detroit Tigers. Ziggy played a league-leading 158 games that season and helped lead his club to a first place finish, 8.5 games in front of second place Shreveport. But, when the playoffs arrived, Shreveport outlasted the Panthers and was crowned champion. It would be several years before Ziggy Sears or the Panthers would be denied again.
In 1920, Ziggy hit his stride, batting .279 and leading the league in doubles as the Panthers posted 108 wins, besting second-place Wichita Falls by 23 games. At season’s end, the Texas League Champions took on Southern Association pennant winner Little Rock in the first of several “Dixie Series.” Fort Worth was crowned as champion of the South with a 4-2 series win.
The quality of play in 1920 encouraged baseball moguls to upgrade the Texas League to a Class A circuit. For the next seven seasons, Fort Worth dominated minor league baseball in the southern United States winning an incredible 632 games, a .684 winning percentage. Along the way, they collected six consecutive Texas League pennants and five Dixie Series trophies. And, all the while, Ziggy Sears only got better, steadily increasing his average until he became a durable, power-hitting, seemingly flawless outfielder for what was arguably among the greatest baseball dynasties in history. Yet, Ziggy saved his best for one spring series in San Antonio against the formidable San Antonio Bears.
In 1925, Jake Atz began his twelfth consecutive season as manager or co-manager of the Fort Worth Panthers. The second half of that stint he had led his team to a nearly flawless record, claiming six consecutive Texas League pennants. But, Atz couldn’t take all of the credit himself. A steady stream of iron men and pitching workhorses passed through Fort Worth, not the least of which was John William “Ziggy” Sears, a Kentucky-born former coal miner who had made a name for himself in the Texas League. Entering his 14th year of professional baseball, Ziggy had just come off the best season of his career, posting a .323 batting average, his third consecutive season of double digit home runs, and having committed just 8 errors in nearly 300 fielding chances. At 33 years of age, the veteran showed no signs of slowing down.
As had become expected, the Panthers burst out of the gate in April and by mid-May led the league with a 20-8 record. Unexpectedly, though, the San Antonio Bears had matched Fort Worth’s pace, and as the Panthers train rolled into the Alamo City on May 19, only one game separated the two teams, with three to be played before Fort Worth left town. The Bears had finished in the middle of the pack a season earlier, but with a powerful offense and formidable pitching staff, over a month into the 1925 season, the team was challenging the perennial champion for supremacy. The Panthers new it was time to make a statement, and Ziggy Sears was up to the challenge.
Fort Worth only needed one inning to send the Bears the message that the Panthers were still the class of the Texas League. In the first inning of game one, Ziggy Sears and two teammates hit home runs and by the bottom of the second inning held an 8-0 lead. But, Ziggy was far from done. By the end of the afternoon, Fort Worth had beaten San Antonio 19-8 behind Ziggy Sears’ three home runs, a double, and a modern professional baseball record 11 runs batted in. A day later, the consequences for San Antonio were even more dire.
While Ziggy Sears hit another home run in game two of the series, he did most of his damage on the base paths, racking up five singles and five runs while having a 6-8 afternoon at the plate. The rest of the lineup got in on the act as well, with every player other than the pitcher having multiple hits and runs scored in a 29-9 thrashing of San Antonio. The 4,000 spectators who just 24 hours earlier were geared up to watch the hometown club capture first place, could only look on in awe of the offensive spectacle before them. With another game to go, saving face seemed impossible.
As luck would have it, on May 21, San Antonio managed to gain a 4-2 lead over the Panthers at the end of two innings. But, in the top of the third, the floodgates opened. Over the next four innings, Panther bats pounded the Bears pitching staff for 22 runs, Ziggy Sears adding another two home runs to his series total while batting 4-5 on the afternoon. The Panthers once again flogged their opponent, this time by a score of 24-12. With the frustration mounting, when the home plate umpire ejected a San Antonio batter in the fifth inning, the simmering crowd reached a boil. The Bears manager erupted from the dugout to protest, and the crowd urged him to physically assault the umpire. As neither the manager nor ejected player left the field, the umpire summoned the police, at which point over 100 spectators ran onto the field, at least one breaking through the swarm of policeman to strike the umpire in the head. To prevent further escalation, the San Antonio constable ordered the police to escort both umpires from the field. With the ruckus quelled, the game continued with substitute umpires, one of which was a San Antonio police officer. Regardless of who was behind the plate, the Bears proved they were not yet in the same league with the Fort Worth Panthers. Following the series, Fort Worth continued on to capture another pennant with 103 victories, while San Antonio returned to its normal position in the middle of the Texas League standings.
For Ziggy Sears, the three games in San Antonio became a career highlight. His 14 hits in 18 at-bats, 12 runs scored, 6 homes runs, and 16 runs batted in remain in the records books today. Ziggy came to San Antonio with something to prove, and when he left few doubted the Panthers were, once again, the class of the league.
Following the 1925 season, Sears’ career rapidly declined. He posted decent statistics in 1926, but Fort Worth fell short of its seventh consecutive pennant. The following season, Sears left the Panthers for San Antonio before finishing out his career in Waco and Shreveport. When he hung up his playing spikes after the 1928 season, Ziggy had accomplished just about everything a ballplayer could have hoped; however, he never played on a big league roster.
After his retirement, Ziggy Sears began a career as an umpire, working the Texas circuit for a number of seasons until 1934, when the National League called on him to be a major league umpire. He remained there for 11 seasons, umpiring an All-Star game and two World Series. Later, he took his officiating skills to the college level, serving as a football and basketball referee in the Southwest Conference.
Eventually, Ziggy became a scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates and moved to Houston. He died there on December 16, 1956, of an aortic aneurysm. Along with his long-time manager Jake Atz, Sears is a member of the Texas League Hall of Fame.
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
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.
When 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.
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.
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.
Until recently, the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), held the official position that Frank J. Hoffman, long-believed to be born in Houston, was the first native Texan to appear in the major leagues. Hoffman, a right-handed pitcher, debuted with the Kansas City Cowboys of the American Association in August, 1888, a year after his professional career began with the Southern League’s New Orleans Pelicans. Between New Orleans and Kansas City, Hoffman played for the Austin/San Antonio franchise in the Texas League’s inaugural season and posted a 22-11 won-loss record with an incredible 0.70 earned run average. By default, it would appear that Frank Hoffman was not only the first Texas-born major leaguer, but also the first in the Texan to play in the Texas League (TL) as well.
After Hoffman left San Antonio for Kansas City, he was apparently dubbed “The Texas Wonder” by a sportswriter or teammate. But he was far from a “wonder” in the American Association. Hoffman pitched only 12 games for Kansas City, finishing with a 3-9 record and a comparatively horrific 2.77 ERA. Those 12 games represented the extent of Frank J. Hoffman’s big league career. The following spring, after being released by Kansas City, Hoffman signed with Denver of the Western Association then returned to the TL in 1890 with the Houston Mud Cats. Later, he left for the West Coast and was out of baseball by 1893. Circumstantial evidence led most researchers to believe Hoffman was, indeed, the first Texan to play in the major leagues, and likewise the first in the TL. This was largely considered fact until about three weeks ago.
Bill Carle, a baseball historian and member of SABR, recently completed thorough research into Frank Hoffman’s life. Though a difficult man to trace, Carle found documentation indicating Hoffman was not born in Texas at all; rather, he was a Mississippi native. So, the question is once again on the table. “Who was the first native Texan to play in the TL?”
When the TL formed, many of its ballplayers followed the league’s founder, John McCloskey, from Missouri and other Midwestern states. In fact, in the first two years of the TL, not a single player has been documented with Texas listed as his home state. But, many of the names on those early rosters have no associated birthplace. Fortunately, few “Smiths” or “Browns” are included, and researching the birthplace, or at the where the players were not born is not very complicated, although a bit tedious. Over the past few weeks, I have reviewed the rosters of all Texas League clubs in 1888, 1889, and 1892, the league’s first three years of operation, and I believe I have narrowed the contenders for the coveted title of “The Texas League’s First Texan” to four players. Interestingly, three can be traced to Texas’ most important city in the late 1800’s, Galveston.
First, George “Piggy” Page is a documented “Born on the Island” (BOI) resident, from 1873. Page debuted with his hometown Galveston Sand Crabs in 1892 then went on to play numerous seasons until 1908, mostly in Texas, either with the TL or a smaller circuit.
The next candidate also began his career in 1892 and played alongside George Page in Galveston. Claude G. Hardy was three years older than his teammate, but documents confirm he, too, was BOI. Hardy eventually pitched and played outfield for Galveston, Houston, and Waco. Hardy played five professional seasons, all in Texas except for a brief stint with Natchez of the Mississippi State League in 1893.
A third candidate is James P. Toohey, also a Galveston resident with records indicated his being born on the island and residing there his entire life. Toohey appeared in nineteen games with the 1889 Sand Crabs. If truly a native Texan, his appearance three years before Page or Hardy would likely clear the way for James Toohey to be the TL’s first home-grown player. But, one more obscure contender remains.
Wiliam “Billy” Koerps, a San Antonio resident officially recorded as having played in a single game for his hometown Missionaries on August 7, 1892, can be documented as having been born in Texas. Newspaper accounts suggest Koerps played for San Antonio’s railroad team, the Galveston, Houston & San Antonio railroad club, both before and after his TL appearance.
As interesting as it might be to declare Billy Koerps, a completely unknown player who barely even sipped coffee in the TL, as the first Texan to appear in a TL, unfortunately his debut in August, 1892, makes him the easiest to eliminate, as both Page and Hardy appeared earlier in the season. And, the Page-Hardy question is quickly answered with a glance at the opening day box scores of May 7, 1892. On that day, Claude Hardy pitched for the Texas Stars, a barnstorming team unaffiliated with the TL. George Page, on the other hand, was in the starting lineup for the Galveston Sand Crabs in their season opening loss to Houston.
So, the question of the First Texan in the TL, can be narrowed to two players, George Page and James P. Toohey. The answer lies with the true identity and birthplace of Toohey.
James Patrick Toohey was born around 1865 and initially began his baseball career in 1889 in the Southern League, first with Birmingham, then Mobile. Later in the year, he played catcher and first base with Galveston. But, when it comes to Toohey, records of his birthplace are contradictory.
A railroad engineer most of his life, James Toohey is listed in the 1920 census as living in Galveston and having been born in Texas in 1865. Then again, in both 1900 and 1930, the same James Toohey with the same wife, is listed as being born in New Orleans in 1862. The lack of census records for 1890 complicates matters. According to baseball records, Toohey played the 1890 season in Canada and 1891 in the Eastern Association. Combined with his 1889 play, the three seasons represent his entire professional baseball career.
There is no indication, however, of the James Patrick Toohey of Galveston ever playing professional baseball. His obituary only mentions his life as a locomotive engineer, and it does not include his birthplace. Likewise, Toohey’s son, born in 1908, is repeatedly listed in the U.S. Census records from 1910-1940 as being born of a father from Louisiana. Newspapers, in particular the The Galveston Daily News, never mention Toohey in connection with baseball, although he is often referred to on the “Society” page.
Ultimately, the evidence in confirming James Toohey as a native Texan, and the James Toohey residing in Galveston from the 1880’s through his death in 1935 ever having played professional baseball, is scant, and most likely in error. With that, George Page, a rookie with the Galveston Sand Crabs in 1892, can likely be designated as the first native born Texan to play in the Texas League.
In reality, the answer will probably never be known for sure. At some point, a team may have found itself short a player and picked up a local ballplayer for a game sometime in 1888 or 1889. This type of information is not easily found, however, and even if a Texas-resident has filled in now and then, there is nothing to say any was actually born in Texas.
Based on the evidence at hand, it would appear that George “Piggy” Page has wrestled the title of the “Texas League’s First Texan” from Frank Hoffman, an apparent imposter for the past 125 years. The next question at hand—If not Frank Hoffman, who was the first Texan to play in the major leagues? I’ll hold that for a future project.