The 2017 Texas League Championship Series. After taking the first two games on the road in Midland, the Tulsa Drillers returned home needing just one win in three games to capture their first title in 19 years. As a Drillers fan, I sensed something magical might happen. As a fan of Texas League baseball, I suspected something magical was bound to happen. As a Texas League historian, I knew historic, if not magical, had to happen. And I intended to be in Tulsa when it did.
Minor league baseball fans are a unique breed, and the 130 year history of the Texas League (TL) offers plenty of proof of what “kranks” will do to support their teams. In fact, fans particularly interested in Double-A baseball face the most gut-wrenching tests of loyalty in all sports. But thanks to the foresight of the TL’s founding fathers, fan loyalty less trying than in some leagues. The split-season format gives even first half tail-enders hope for redemption and a new beginning as the summer heats up. Still, in other ways TL fans face the same challenges found in the Southern and Eastern Leagues.
Double-A rosters change and players come and go faster than pre-school best friends. The first baseman you watch slam 30 home runs over the first 60 games is a distant memory when the playoffs approach. If your team runs away with the first half, expect it to plunge in the second as promotions to Triple-A and an unhealthy dose of complacency take their tolls.
Roster instability is one challenge Double-A baseball fans must learn to live with, but another creates greater difficulties. Even though a city may host a team continuously, few remain affiliated with the same major league club for eternity. Changing operating agreements often make as little sense geographically as they do in terms of building fan loyalty. The TL is no exception.
For years, the Arkansas Travelers were linked to the St. Louis Cardinals. The fit was natural; after all, Arkansas is filled with Cardinals fans. But in 2002, what Travelers fans saw as the perfect arrangement came to an end when St. Louis split ties and eventually affiliated with a new Texas League franchise in Springfield. In the meantime, Anaheim Angels hopefuls arrived in Little Rock each springs. I can attest that Arkansas holds a limited supply of Angels supporters. I can also attest that when the Travelers affiliation changed to the Seattle Mariners before the 2017 season, it meant that with the exception of a few immigrants, not a single Arkansas resident had emotional attachment with the Travelers major league club.
Yes, it takes a special breed of fan to follow minor league baseball on more than a casual basis. The ups and downs are not just season to season; they occur hour to hour. The minors test loyalties, complacency leads to indifference, and fan frustration is noted in the one spot a franchise can least afford it—at the turnstiles. It all makes for a wary existence. Then there are fans of the Tulsa Drillers.
Tulsa’s baseball tradition is as rich as any of the 43 cities to have hosted a TL franchise. Tulsa has fielded TL teams, either as the Drillers or Oilers, for 71 seasons since the 1930s. About 14.5 million fans have attended games over those 7 decades, and Tulsa has seen 53 playoff series for a total of 243 combined home and road contests. For perspective, San Antonio, an original TL member in 1888, has played a total of 118 seasons and appeared in 52 playoff series totaling 229 games. While San Antonio has played about 4,500 more TL contests and has a population nearly quadruple that of Tulsa, its teams have drawn just a half-million more spectators. Tulsa’s TL roots run deep, and aside from San Antonio, it is the longest–tenured city in the circuit.
Even though I hail from Texas and somehow endured growing up in New England, I connected with the Tulsa Drillers rather early in life. The Texas Rangers affiliated with the Drillers in 1977, and for 25 years the route to Arlington passed through Tulsa. My Ranger favorites like Pete O’Brien, Steve Buechele, George Wright, Curtis Wilkerson, Juan Gonzalez, and Ivan Rodriguez all arrived in the big leagues by way of the Drillers. When I moved from New England to Arkansas in 1986, I was in the next best thing to minor league heaven as I could see my Drillers play whenever they visited Little Rock.
When I had kids in the 1990s, we attended many Arkansas-Tulsa games, and my youngsters became ball-gathering magnets. We seldom left the ballpark without at least one ball tossed to us by the likes of Brad Arnsberg and Bobby Jones. The fact we were the only family wearing Drillers caps probably had something to do with it. But the ever-present cloud minor league fans burst in 2002 when the Rangers moved their Double-A team to Frisco and the Colorado Rockies adopted Tulsa. The Rockies? Did Colorado even exist when Tulsa first entered the TL? Nonetheless, I find it immoral to change sporting allegiances, and I stuck with Tulsa.
While minor league baseball fans are unique, overall, my youngest son, Kolton, is probably the most unique sports fan I have met. He follows all sports from English Premier League Soccer to the National Hockey League with equal ferocity. By the time he was 8-years old, Kolton could (and I’m not exaggerating) recite on cue the name, number, and position of any NFL player from the Cowboys starting quarterback to the Jaguars backup placeholder. I guess one acquires such skills when sleeping to the sounds of the NFL Network and measuring Madden PlayStation game time in months rather than hours. If only he had slept to voices of the Algebra Channel commentators. At 19, Kolton’s lifelong fascination with sports is beginning to pay off. The kid who can speak with authority on the disparity of salaries between members of the U.S. Men’s and Women’s Soccer teams as knowledgably as he can defend every ad-lib error of Tony Romo’s career was named sports editor of his college newspaper—as a freshman.
When it comes to sports, I trust Kolton far more than any network pundit. But when he was born in late 1997, something sinister arrived with him. I call it the “Kurse of Kolton.” In tabulating the four major U.S. team sports and tossing-in the Texas League, English Premier League, and Major League Soccer, Kolton has lived through 142 sporting season. His success rate in terms of championships is 0.007%. That right; seven-tenths of one percent. Kolton has enjoyed just one championship season, coincidentally that of the 1998 Tulsa Drillers who claimed the TL championship when Kolton was 9 months old. Still, he was already a Drillers fan, and he has the bruises to prove it. Kolton is one of the relative few who can honestly claim to have seen the tragic Mike Coolbaugh incident in-person in 2007. And he was behind home plate in 2014 when the Drillers clinched a trip to the TL Championship in a classic game of shifting momentum against the Travelers
A couple of weeks ago, it appeared the Kurse would be lifted, if only briefly. After winning the second half of the TL’s North Division in the regular season’s final weekend, the Drillers outlasted NW Arkansas in the playoffs’ opening round. In the meantime, the three-time defending champion Midland RockHounds qualified for the playoffs through a tie-breaker, earning the right to take on San Antonio, a rare winner of both the first and second half South Division title. Like Tulsa, Midland took five games to knock the Missions out of contention and earn the right to play for a fourth straight TL title. It would be a rematch of the 2014 championship series when the RockHounds began their spectacular run, besting the Drillers 3 games to 2. Regardless of what happened in 2017, one thing was certain. The final game would be played, and the Bobby Bragan Trophy awarded, at ONE OK Field in downtown Tulsa. Local fans had not seen their team clinch a championship on home turf since 1962, and when Tulsa defeated the RockHounds in Midland in Games 1 and 2, all signs pointed to something magical about to happen in Tulsa.
The Drillers fan in me sensed the magic about to take place; yet, my senses as a TL historian were hardly convinced of the direction the magic wand was pointed. Tulsa winning a championship on its home field and its first in nearly two decades would be historic, but if Midland rallied from three games down on the road to claim its fourth consecutive title, it would be an unprecedented feat, placing the RockHounds just two championship shy of Fort Worth’s six straight championships from 1920-1925. Regardless, when LA Dodgers pitcher Brandon McCarthy was named the Game 3 starter for Tulsa in a rehab assignment, all signs suggested the magic finally rested with the Drillers. I purchased tickets directly behind home plate for the final games of the series, and Kolton and I made the four hour drive from Little Rock to Tulsa. If one of his teams was going to finally win a championship, he deserved to see it in person. I fully-expected a one-night stay.
Game 3 went as expected for Tulsa pitching. Brandon McCarthy threw six solid innings and allowed just two runs. Unfortunately, Tulsa’s powerful bats went silent. The team wrapping 26 hits in 2 games in Midland only managed to scatter 5 against the RockHounds Heath Fillmyer and three relievers. Likewise, the Midland defense, particularly the infield, was outstanding. Second baseman Max Schrock, all five feet, eight-inches of him, robbed Drillers hitters of line drive base hits in every possible scoring situation, and when he didn’t, shortstop Jorge Mateo did. Of course, Tulsa batters Peter O’Brien and Garrett Kennedy helped Midland’s cause when both left the bases loaded in the second and fourth innings. The result was a 2-0 Midland win that sent over 6,000 Tulsa fans home in disappointment. Even the two middle-aged ladies sitting a few rows behind us were silenced after their impressive nine-inning chorus of incessant baseball chants I hadn’t heard since Little League. “Nothing over; nothing through“ and “Home run, single; we don’t care. Hit it! Hit it, anywhere!” will echo in my ears the entire off-season.
The crowd for Game 4 dropped by about half, college football underway and the Oklahoma Sooners competing for fans’ attention. Still, the 3,000+ Drillers fans turning out remained enthusiastic, and the ladies of Section 109 could be heard throughout the ballpark. Unfortunately their efforts were often drowned by an increasingly raucous and frustrated group of Tulsa fans who took their angst out on home plate umpire Sean Allen with every pitch. But the true culprit, and the story of Game 4 from this fan’s point of view, was once again Max Schrock and Jorge Mateo. Schrock, displaying a vertical leap to rival Michael Jordan, again repeatedly robbed Tulsa hitters of line drive base hits. But in Game 4, it was Mateo who made the play of the night.
For the second straight game, Tulsa managed just five hits, but this time they manufactured three runs and entered the bottom of the ninth trailing 6-3. Drew Jackson led off with a walk, and DJ Peters, in just his second game at the Double-A level, received a free pass on a catcher interference call mutually agreed upon after an umpires’ conference. The tying run came to the plate with no outs in catcher Keibert Ruiz. Ruiz was not only playing in his first game as a Driller and at the Double-A level, he was making just his second plate appearance. For a brief instant, Ruiz didn’t disappoint as he swatted a line drive with sights for the grass in left-center field. But Jorge Mateo promptly plucked from Ruiz’ pending RBi single from the air and stepped on second base to double-up Drew Jackson who committed too early in his plans to cut the Midland lead to two runs. A batter later, Game 4 was in the books. For the second night in a row, Tulsa’s powerful offense was held to five hits. Through four games the team that hit 168 regular season home runs had not even come close to sending a pitch over the wall. The magician’s wand was at work, and no one leaving ONE OK Field had a clue how matters would be settled Sunday evening in the fifth and deciding game. As for me, I had my suspicions. After all, I couldn’t ignore my roommate and the Kurse he had carried from Little Rock.
With both first round playoff series going five games and the Championship Series set for a Game 5 of its own, it was only natural that rain would interrupt the agony of Drillers fans. After over an hour delay, the game got underway with Drillers pitcher Dennis Santana facing off against Midland’s James Naile. What set up for a fascinating finish to a fascinating series from the historian’s perspective, and a heart-thumping experience from that of a Drillers fan, was about to collapse in a heap of misplays and great memories never created.
Jorge Mateo led off the game for Midland, and he once again made his mark, this time with a ground ball to Tulsa third baseman Erick Mejia. What should probably have been an out ended with Mateo standing beside Mejia on third base after Matt Beaty couldn’t handle the wild throw. With two outs, Viosergy Rosa sent Mateo home with a single, and Midland was on the board with an unearned run. It looked like Tulsa might manufacture one of its own in the bottom of the inning when the leadoff batter was hit by a pitch. But for just the third time in the series, Tulsa attempted to steal a base, and the play at second wasn’t close. After a walk, a single, and a fielder’s choice, Tulsa had runners at the corners with two outs. Just like the previous two games, the runners were left stranded. Tulsa managed a couple of base runners in the second inning, but with the fourth attempted stolen base of the series, Drew Jackson was cut down.
While Santana held the RockHounds bats in check and scattered six hits, Tulsa desperately tried to pull out of a hitting slump that had struck the team at the worst possible moment in its 71-year history. In the fourth, the Drillers led off the bottom half of the inning with two singles, but a double play silenced the momentum. It was lights out until the bottom of the ninth as Midland clung to its 1-0 lead. Scott Finnegan came on to close out the game and for the first three batters he did just that, cutting Tulsa with a fly out, a soft line drive to third, and a strikeout to seemingly close the game. But strike three bounce away from catcher Sean Murphy, and Tulsa’s Mejia easily strolled to first base.
Could the magic I had expected really come in the form of a wild third strike followed with a series winning home run? Had any championship ever ended with such an odd twist of fate? I pondered the thought and felt my heart leap ever so slightly as the two middle-aged ladies behind us briefly began another of their incessant chants. Three pitches later Keibert Ruiz bounced a soft ground ball to my new nemesis Max Schrock at second base. The toss to first ended it. The Drillers had dropped 3 consecutive home games after losing just 3 of 23 to end the season. In the process, they managed a total of fifteen hits and three runs while being shut out twice.
The magic that had to happen did. Not only did the Midland RockHounds win their fourth consecutive Texas League title, they did so under almost impossible circumstances, dropping two home games before winning three straight elimination contests against the hard-hitting Drillers in Tulsa.
You may have heard the joke about the West Texas old man sitting on the porch with his 70-year-old son. A passerby mentions rain to be in the forecast. “I sure hope so,” the old man answers. “Not so much for me, but for my son here. After all, he’s never seen rain before.”
I glanced at Kolton who silently chewed his fingernails as we drove back to Little Rock in the wee hours of Monday morning.
He’ll be okay, I thought. After all, it’s his lot in life.
When Dallas Giants manager Charlie Moran signed outfielder Billy Doyle of Portsmouth, Ohio, prior to the 1903 season, he thought he’d found a diamond in the rough. And when owner J.W. Gardner heard St. Louis Cardinals manager Patsy Donovan and baseball magnate Ted Sullivan sing Doyle’s praises after a pre-season matchup between the two teams, he likely saw dollar signs in expectation of quickly selling Billy Doyle’s rights to a big-league franchise. On the other hand, perhaps he didn’t realize that Donovan and Sullivan, both Irishmen, had a natural inclination to support their fellow countrymen, of which Doyle was one.
William Thomas Doyle was born November 3, 1881, to James and Emma Doyle. James, a native of Ireland, and Emma, whose parents had travelled from Ireland to the United States before her birth, raised eleven children in Portsmouth, Ohio, following their marriage in 1862 with James employed as a cooper. Located on the Ohio River, Portsmouth was the ideal city for a cooper as its growing industrial economy relied on shipping containers. Eventually, Portsmouth became established as one of the top shoemaking cities in the country, and the Doyles relied on the shoe industry for income. Every child of the family was either employed in a shoe factory or in the selling of footwear by 1900.
In 1900, Billy Doyle held his first job as a laborer in a shoe factory. But three years earlier he had chosen what would become his true career when he joined the Portsmouth Victors baseball team. By 1902, Doyle had drawn the attention of several professional teams and was recruited to play in cities including Charleston, Knoxville, and Vicksburg. But Charlie Moran won out when he convinced the young ballplayer to make the move to the Texas League. He immediately made an impact in spring training.
Ted Sullivan, said to have invented the art of scouting ball players, told the Dallas Morning News, “There’s plenty of big league timber in (Dallas). And that fellow Doyle! Oh what would the game be without us Irish!” The same afternoon that Sullivan sang Doyle’s praises, so did Cardinals manager Patsy Donovan. He noted that Doyle had the reputation for smashing the ball whenever it approached home plate, and when he connected it meant either a hard put out for the defenders or Doyle standing safely on base. Although Dallas went on to win the Texas League crown in 1903, Billy Doyle contributed little to the cause, batting just .165 during a season when he was hampered by a nagging “charley horse” injury. A year later, Doyle better met expectations when he appeared in 102 games for the second place Giants, raising his batting average to .255, a respectable number for the dead ball era. But in 1905, he regressed. Despite playing full time in the Giants outfield, Doyle batted just .175. The big league clubs were no longer expressing interest in Doyle, and J.W. Gardner likely wondered just how long he should hold on to what was once his prized ballplayer. The answer arrived in 1906 when Doyle played with the Greenville Hunters. But just how far Gardner actually distanced himself from Billy is debatable.
When the Texas League owners sat down to choose the slate of 1906 teams, Dallas’ J.W. Gardner insisted that he be able to own two franchises, one in Dallas and another in Greenville. The other owners staunchly opposed Gardner’s proposal and rightly so. It was obvious to anyone that Greenville would essentially be a “farm club” to supply Dallas with talent in case of injuries and keep the Giants profitable. Gardner lost the vote on paper but not necessarily in reality. Most agreed that the Greenville “stock ownership” arrangement was financed by Gardner. And Billy Doyle’s signing with Greenville made the franchise’s very existence all the more suspicious, as did his sudden conversion from a fielder to a pitcher.
What Doyle lacked in the field and at bat, he made up for on the pitcher’s mound. In fact, he pitched phenomenally for Greenville then for Waco after the Greenville franchise folded at mid-season. At season’s end, he had posted a 19-13 won-loss record, and teams like Little Rock and Milwaukee were calling for his services in 1907. Instead, Temple manager Ben Shelton, who accepted ownership of the club with the caveat that he received his choice of players from the other teams, selected Doyle to be the ace of his pitching staff. It was an unmitigated disaster. While Temple didn’t field a particularly competitive offense in 1907, pitcher Roy McFarland posted a 21-15 record, while William Jarvis managed to win 15 games despite 19 losses. Billy Doyle, however, set a Texas League mark for futility. He won just 8 of 37 starts, and his 28 losses still ranks as the worst of any pitcher in league history 111 years later. At season’s end, Doyle returned to Ohio where he finished out his playing career in 1908 with a 7-11 pitching record and .176 batting average for his hometown franchise. While Doyle’s most notable contribution on the baseball field may be his 1907 Texas League debacle, he was far more successful off the field as a scout.
From 1910 through 1938, Doyle scouted for four major league clubs, most notably a 20-year stint with the Detroit Tigers. He’s credited with discovering dozens of players including Dickie Kerr, George Sisler, Hank Greenberg, Tommy Bridges, and the memorable yet still forgettable Boots Poffenberger.
The end for Billy Doyle came in 1939 when at age 57 he suffered a stroke and passed away in Washington, Pennsylvania. Despite a life that appeared destined for the shoe factories of Ohio 40 years earlier, Doyle went on to spend an entire lifetime in baseball. And in reality, it was not his on-field contribution or even his 28 loss season for which Billy is best remembered. Rather, it is the 50 plus significant major league players he discovered that remain his greatest legacy to the game.
Over the course of its history, nearly 200 Texas League pitchers (or combinations of pitchers) have thrown no hit ball games of nine innings or more. For a league in existence since 1888, the statistic may not sound all that impressive; after all, in the same time frame, Major League Baseball has seen 272 no- hitters. Then again, when considering the fact that the Texas League has, for the most part, been an eight-team circuit throughout its existence, an average of 1.5 no-hit games per season means one of two things: the League has seen its share of great pitching or its share of lousy hitting.
While the list of Texas Leaguers having achieved every pitcher’s dream afternoon includes a sprinkling a names casual 21st century baseball fans might recognize like Martin Perez, Neftali Feliz, and Matt Harrison (oddly, all future Texas Rangers); a few true baseball buffs may recall from the 1970s and 80s: Larry Andersen, Greg Harris, Edgar Ramos, Bob Forsch; and maybe one “household” name among fans, Johnny Van der Meer, the list is littered with names mostly remembered only in the records books and newspaper archives. Names like Farmer Moore, Rick Adams, Ivy Tevis, Joe Berry, Red Mann, and Hooks Lotts make up most of the list.
Even the Texas Leaguers pitching multiple no-hitters like Dode Criss (3, including two in 1915); Grover Brant (3, including a 12-inning and 6-inning game); Rick Adams (2); George Henrickson (2); Henry Thormalen (2), and Harry Ogle (2) ring hollow in the ears of even seasoned baseball fans. A couple of truly household names are also on the list: Hornsby (sorry, the older brother) and Dimaggio (no known relation).
Of all those whose names are in the Texas League record book, a few went on to the major leagues, if only briefly, and a few toiled season after season in the minors. Most, on the other hand, could probably be classified as “One Afternoon Wonders.” The first no-hitter, pitched by Jess Derrick in just the Texas League’s second season in 1889 surely falls into the latter category.
On June 24, 19889, Jesse Thomas Derrick led his Waco Babies to a 3-0 win over the Austin Senators. For the 26-year old playing in just his first full professional season, Derrick’s pitching performance that afternoon turned out to be the highlight of his otherwise brief and forgettable career.
Jess Derrick was born February 10, 1863, the second child of Albert Derrick and Miriam Cohee Derrick in Tippecanoe County, Indiana. His father had enlisted in the Union Army the previous July, serving in the 72nd Indiana Infantry. In January of 1863, however, Albert Derrick was wounded in action at Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and received his discharge. He was home in time to witness Jess’ birth but died just two days later. Jess’ 21-year old mother was left to raise two sons, Jess and his 2-year old brother, Albert. But even that bit of comfort didn’t last long for the Derrick boys, whose early lives were filled with tragedy. Less than three years later, they lost their mother as well.
While Jess and Albert had been orphaned before either turned five-years-old, the Derrick-Cohee family was large, and most lived in Indiana. Although the boys became separated, Jess grew up in the home of his uncle and aunt, Joseph and Rebecca Switzer, while Albert was sent to live with other relatives. By the time he reached seventeen, though, Jess had set out on his own, living and working on a farm in Jackson, Indiana. In 1885, he worked as a mechanic in Wellington, Kansas. That same year, Jess married Elizabeth Scott, a Kansas schoolteacher also from Indiana. Albert, on the other hand, became a bit of an adventurer and staked his claim in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma during the 1893 land run.
Exactly how Jess Derrick became involved in baseball is unclear. No records of him playing prior to 1888 exist, but it’s likely he played at the amateur or semi-pro level for a number of years. In any event, in 1888 Derrick traveled south to join the Fort Worth franchise of the newly-formed Texas League of Professional Baseball Clubs. Records show Derrick appeared in just one game with the Panthers, but the following season he signed with Waco, a new entrant into the league. As a whole, Jess Derrick had a dismal season, pitching 37 games and finishing the year with a 13-24 won-loss record. He was equally ineffective as a batter, posting a .181 batting average. But the Babies as a whole didn’t offer the rest of the league much competition, finishing finished in last place with a 33-50 record. The sole bright spot for Waco was pitcher Edgar McNabb, who somehow managed to win 20 games for a team that batted just .222 on the season. Perhaps his league-leading 261 strikeouts and a 1.53 earned run average helped his cause.
Waco’s initial year in the Texas League was forgettable, as was Jess Derrick’s. But for one hot afternoon on June 24, everything fell into place, and Derrick permanently placed his name in the league record books.
While the Waco Babies brought up the tail-end of the 1889 Texas League, on June 24, they played host to the Austin Senators. The Senators, on their way to a third-place finish on the season, were led by Texas League Hall of Famer Mike O’Connor and 25-game winner George Kittle. The previous week, the Senators had dominated Waco in Austin, and with the Babies having fallen from contention, the expectations for the series in Waco were no different. In fact, rather than sending Kittle to the pitcher’s circle, Austin started John Bates. Though not nearly as powerful as George Kittle, Bates could be expected to hold the light-hitting Waco club in check after several days of rest. Likewise, with Jess Derrick pitching for the opposition, Austin manager Mike O’Connor probably assumed an easy tally in the win column. What he didn’t expect was that Derrick would pitch the finest game in the Texas League’s short history on an afternoon when the temperature in Waco reached 96 degrees.
Based on the Galveston Daily News’ account of the game, it’s a wonder O’Connor’s expectations didn’t come true. Reportedly, the umpire favored Austin throughout the game to the point that Waco spectators called for his removal in unison. In the seventh inning, the crowd had become so hostile that the umpire singled out a seven-year-old and ordered him removed from the grounds or he’d declare Austin a victor by forfeit. Despite his threats, the boy remained and Austin did not receive an unearned win.
For Jess Derrick’s part, however poor the umpiring may have been, nothing was going to overcome his pitching performance. He struck out ten Austin batters on the afternoon or in the words of the Galveston News, “The Austin batters failed to find the ball except in a few instances when they were thrown out at first.” Aside from three walks and a reportedly mean beaning of Austin third baseman William Mussey, Jess Derrick was perfect on the afternoon and did not yield a single base hit to Senators’ batters. While, as usual, the Waco offense didn’t lend much support, left fielder C.A. O’Neil’s three hits along with four Austin fielding errors provided just enough firepower to help Derrick to a 3-0 win. Perhaps not realizing the significance of Jess Derrick’s achievement, newspapers paid little attention. The Galveston News noted that Derrick “pitched a fine game.” Another Texas Leaguer would not pitch such a fine game until 1902.
Despite Derrick’s mediocre season with Waco, the Burlington Daily Gazette (Iowa), referred to him as the “crack pitcher of the Texas state league” when lauding the Evansville franchise signing him for the 1890 season. In reality, he never played for Evansville, as in 1890 Derrick returned to Waco and posted a 6-4 record before playing one game with Galesburg/Indianapolis in the Central Interstate League. Over the next several seasons, Derrick played sporadically in the Midwest, turning up in Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Nebraska, Missouri, and his home state of Indiana. Perhaps his 1895 stint with the Kalamazoo Celery Eaters left a lasting impression, as after his retirement from baseball in 1898, he relocated from his offseason home in Kansas and soon settled in Michigan with his wife Elizabeth and two children.
Following his baseball career, Jess Derrick entered the construction business, serving as a wrecking/construction superintendent in Detroit until 1930 before he became involved in fire equipment sales. Following the death of his wife in 1935, he returned to construction, working beyond his beyond his 80th birthday. Ultimately, Jesse Thompson Derrick died on November 6, 1951, at the age of 88. He is buried alongside his wife Elizabeth in Clark’s Hill Cemetery in Tippecanoe County, Indiana.
Since Jess Derrick’s no-hitter on June 24, 1889, many other Texas League pitchers have accomplished the same feat. Lamar County’s Rick Adams through one in 1905, and in 1910 Roxton’s own Bill Lattimore tossed a no-hitter for Fort Worth. Most impressively, however, Blossom native Dode Criss threw three no-hitters in an eleven month stretch in 1914-1915. Five no-hitters from pitcher’s hailing from a small, rural northeast Texas county is likely a record in itself.
The last no-hit game pitched in the Texas League was on May 17, 2016, when Arkansas’ Jordan Kipper added his name to the record books in a 6-0 victory over the Northwest Arkansas Naturals. Though the feat is not achieved nearly as often as it was during the first three decades of the 20th century, place your money on a new pitcher being listed beside Jess Derrick in the upcoming season.
Ballplayers sometimes hail from the most unexpected places. Today, Yowell, Texas, is little more than a cluster of houses midway in near the Delta-Hunt County line south of Pecan Gap. Though Yowell never had a railroad connection which helped build so many nearby communities, it slowly grew until the 1930s, when 150 people lived close enough to the two businesses, churches, and store to call Yowell home, whether they lived in Delta or Hunt County.
“Vern” Underhill was born September 9, 1904, the sixth of eight children of William and Ida Walters Underhill. William was a native of Texas, having been born in Hopkins County just after the Civil War, while Ida moved to the area from Waco after spending her early childhood in Indiana. Like most North Texas families at the turn of the twentieth century, the Underhills operated a farm, and by 1920 the business engaged the entire family, including sixteen year-old Vern. By 1930, though, Vern’s parent had moved to the Texas Panhandle, and Vern had moved onto what he considered a better life, professional baseball.
Exactly how Vern Underhill got his start in baseball is unclear. Although the most logical explanation would be that he played for the training school at East Texas Teacher’s College in nearby Commerce, no records exist of his attending the institution. Regardless, in 1926 he got his professional start with Decatur in the Three-I League (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa). Pitching unsuccessfully for the Commodores in eleven winless games, the next season Vern returned to Texas, joining the Tyler Trojans of the Lone Star League. At Tyler, Underhill enjoyed his most successful season, posting a 13-6 won-loss record and leading the Trojans to the league championship. His efforts were enough to gain the attention of major league scouts, and at season’s end he joined the Cleveland Indians. His late season stint with the team did not impress, as he posted a 9.72 ERA in just eight inning pitched. A year later, he began the season with New Orleans of the Southern Association and again showed big league potential, with a 3.34 ERA in 31 games. Cleveland again took a shot with the best ballplayer to ever come out of Yowell, Texas, but he disappointed again, allowing far too many baserunners in his twenty-eight innings. Still he recorded the only win of his major league career for a miserable Indians club.
Though success eluded Vern Underhill in the major leagues, he remained a hot commodity in the minors. In 1929, he enjoyed a successful season back in Decatur in Class B ball, although after moving to Jersey City’s Class AA franchise, his pitching faltered. Nonetheless, in 1930, Underhill returned southward, joining the Texas League’s Shreveport Sports. Once again, he found his form, pitching 199 innings and finishing the season with an 11-6 record on a well-stacked pitching staff that carried the Sports to the playoffs. Still, cracks showed in his game, as he led the team in runs and bases-on-balls allowed. The following season, he again started with Shreveport but pitched only five games before returning to the Southern Assocation’s New Orleans Pelicans. The Pelicans had a potent roster, with eighteen of its twenty-six players eventually spending time in the Major Leagues, but in 1932 many were either past their prime or yet to reach their potential. New Orleans finished out of the playoffs in fifth place, Underhill’s 5-10 record not strong enough as the rotation’s fourth starting pitcher.
In 1932, Vern Underhill, now twenty-seven years old and five years removed from his brief major league career, moved northward to the Western League’s Omaha Packers. For the first time in his career, he didn’t pitch a single game and only played sporadically as a pinch hitter. After just eleven games, Vern decided it was time to give up the dream and retired from baseball.
In 1940, Underhill was Sheriff of Hutchinson County, living with his wife and eight month-old son, Willie Vernon, Jr. By the end of the decade, Vern developed severe allergies and relocated his family to Southeast Texas where he worked in the oil industry. By the mid-1960s, his allergies had developed into Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Ultimately, he died in 1970 of acute respiratory failure at the age of 66. He is buried in Matagorda County.
By the time Vern Underhill passed away, his hometown had become little more than cluster of homes between Pecan Gap and Commerce. Although a road sign still alerts motorists when they arrive at what was once Yowell, there are few signs a community of any significance existed. And, there is no sign of Willie Vernon Underhill, arguably Yowell’s most famous resident.
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.
On April 15, on the outskirts of Taylortown, Lamar County Commissioners unveiled a plaque dedicating the CR 16590 bridge over Big Sandy Creek as the Duane Allen Memorial Bridge in honor of Lamar County’s favorite son and lead singer of the phenomenally-successful musical group, The Oak Ridge Boys. A crowd far outnumbering the total population of Taylortown and its suburbs combined crowded around as Duane offered an emotional speech that could only be given by a man who, despite worldwide fame, remained firmly -grounded on the blackland farm where he was born. Nearly 35 years ago, Iwell-recall my pilgrimage to the nearby town of Cunningham in search of a boyhood hero.You might say I was musically-misplaced. Unlike the typical late 70’s teenager, I didn’t suffer permanent hearing loss to the likes of Queen, Aerosmith, or AC/DC, bands performing what I still refer to as “snake dancin’ music.” I held far more refined musical tastes. Aside from a very brief and ill-advised KISS phase in the early summer of 1978, I was pure country-country gold, in fact. Glen Campbell, Mel Tillis, Bobby Bare, and Merle (no last name needed) filled my record cabinet. Heck, I’ll admit it. I even had a “Whispering” Bill Anderson album, and my friends snickered heartily. No, my problem with music certainly wasn’t a matter of taste; rather, I suffered from time and location. I was not just country when country wasn’t cool. I was country where country wasn’t cool. In fact, the entire population of Maine found country gold so “uncool,” I had to search late night AM radio for some static-laced clear channel country show from the Midwest.
The programming gods of Maine radio relegated mid-70s country to the occasional crossover hit on WJBQ, better known locally as the home of the Bay City Rollers, Captain and Tennille, and KC and the Sunshine Band. Any other teenager would’ve buckled under the harassment dished my way when I set the old phonograph ablaze with the likes of Charley Pride and Larry Gatlin, but I had knees as solid as Barbara Mandrell’s steel guitar. Plain and simple, if it wasn’t country, it was the Devil’s music. While horrific sounds relentlessly blared from my brother’s bedroom across the hall, I found inner peace as Johnny Horton flew me “North to Alaska” under the protection of stereo headphones. Dad, a fan of what he called “Hillbilly Music,” had given up on traditional country a year or so earlier. When classical strings replaced the twin fiddles backing up Eddie Arnold, he realized the music he grew up with in Roxton listening to WBAP had moved on. Today, he’d be a sure candidate for cognitive therapy as he became musically-bipolar, turning to the outlaw country of Willie and Waylon for kicks and classical composers like Bach and Mozart for sophistication. I was an outsider even in my own house.
The backbone of most 70s music was the band, be it rock, pop, or (forgive my words) heavy metal. Still, soloists ruled the country scene. Stylists like George Jones led the country charge into the 70s before Chet Atkins’ “Nashville Sound” evolved into crossover and country pop. Olivia Newton-John showed up in Kitty Wells’ honky tonk, and John Denver caused Charlie Rich to put on country music’s first pyrotechnic display when the Country Music Association named him the 1976 Entertainer of the Year. Producers, seemingly embarrassed to associate with classic country music, forced Kenny Rogers on the masses, and he soon became the most recognizable voice on both country and pop radio. Group performers in country music remained few and far between, as most potential acts stayed in the shadows and gripped to their gospel roots. In fact, it took two gospel groups to blaze their own crossover trail before Nashville fully-embraced the group performers who came to dominate the genre a decade later.
The Statler Brothers and The Oak Ridge Boys both migrated from the gospel ranks, the former stepping gingerly onto the country scene after a stint as background vocalists for Johnny Cash. The latter, on the other hand, arrived with the splash of a cannonball off a railroad trestle into a Sulphur River swimming hole. Virginia’s Statler Brothers entered the country waters with a boatload of patriotic songs country fans couldn’t help but love. As 1977 approached, the Statlers rested as the most popular group in Nashville as executives fought to keep rebellious group performers like The Charlie Daniels Band out of the mainstream. The Statler Brothers stuck to risk-free songs and nostalgic memories. Blue-haired ladies swooned and hijacked The Music City News awards voting, honoring them as Group of the Year well past their prime until the magazine folded in the mid-90s.
While The Statler Brothers tread lightly in their move to country music, The Oak Ridge Boys transformed overnight, completely abandoning their gospel roots with the unquestionably country single, “Y’all Come Back Saloon.” Featuring Philadelphia-born tenor Joe Bonsall and Camden, New Jersey, native contra-bass Richard Sterban, the only glaringly country member of The Oak Ridge Boys was Brewton, Alabama’s baritone William Lee Golden, an individual who gained fame a few years later by turning so country he might have even alienated the Outlaw crowd. Less conspicuous, but just as country, was lead singer Duane Allen, a native of Lamar County’s Taylortown, a side trip along the route between Deport and Cunningham. Allen, an East Texas State University graduate trained in the classics, aspired to sing in a quartet and brought the smoothest voice in gospel to the country charts. With the members’ diverse backgrounds, The Oak Ridge Boys offered the closest thing mainstream country music had to a hip band; in fact, they almost made country cool.
Now, I have to admit, although a lyric of Chicago or Journey never crossed my lips, peer pressure did play a role in my life. While some early Oak Ridge Boys tunes like the risqué teen pregnancy-focused ballad “Easy” were a bit beyond my eleven year-old comprehension, it took about twenty seconds of “You’re the One” before I realized The Oak Ridge Boys would soon be the face of country group acts. The Statler Brothers would find themselves relegated to “dorky” status, I surmised, and I planned to be on the cutting edge. Santa Claus left two albums under the tree at the Rutherford house in 1978, the Statler Brothers’ “The Originals,” a browning package of 73% torpedoed ground beef, and “The Oak Ridge Boys Have Arrived,” a seasoned filet mignon marinated in fine spices and grilled to perfection. With “Leavin’ Louisiana in the Broad Daylight” and “Dig a Little Deeper in the Well,” the Oak Ridge Boys had indeed arrived and pulled me in a trailer right behind them. Unfortunately, a storm brewed on the horizon.
re not. Well, by 1980, you were either The Oak Ridge Boys or you were not. how original is that?) released its debut album and raced up the charts, country music transformed from entertainment into a contact sport. I may roll wannabes supplant my Oak Ridge Boys as the premier country group. ”s successes as I cheered each gold record. If The Statler Brothers had been ground beef, Alabama was rotting road kill. Yet, as the Alabama hits kept coming, I watched wearily as their albums began to fill the small country section of MusicLand in the Maine Mall. But, country was my brand of music, and The Oak Ridge Boys were my group. I adopted the fight for supremacy as nothing less than a spiritual experience.
A year removed from the hottest summer I can recall during my annual trips to Roxton, in 1981 Dad made the fateful decision the family could survive without air conditioning in the new Chevy station wagon. After all, it was only for three months, and AC wasn’t even standard equipment on New England car lots. Plus, with gas prices topping ninety cents, he figured squeezing a couple more miles out of a tank would save him a nickel or two every three or four months. As we arrived in Texas in mid-June, a blow torch chafed us through the Chevy’s open windows, and Mom repeatedly cussed his thriftiness while nursing a cup of ice. The asphalt bled through the chip seal along Highway 82, and as the summer went on lane markings twisted and slid off the shoulders as the road took on a molasses-like consistency. Not yet a legal driver, the law nonetheless had little impact on my mobility that summer. My grandparents purchased my first car, a ‘73 Impala equipped with the finest air conditioner Detroit ever produced. The Impala and I cruised the back roads all summer, as I avoided the main highways on the oft chance a wayward highway patrolman might spy a hundred-pound adolescent’s eyes just above the steering wheel. But, the world grew a lot smaller behind the wheel of the Impala, and so did Lamar County.
On a roadmap Taylortown looked to be a hundred miles from Roxton. Duane Allen’s hometown might as well have been Lubbock a year earlier, but it now sat just a few gallons of Dad’s ninety-cent gasoline away in the green Impala. I plotted my trek to the holiest of lands, where a young Duane Allen nurtured what had become the finest voice in all of music.
My parents had little problem with me driving the back roads without a license; after all, they did the same thing a quarter-century before, and I certainly ranked as the most responsible of the two Rutherford siblings. The farm-to-markets weren’t a problem either, and I challenged them daily without incident. Highway 24 between Commerce and Paris sat as the only barrier between me and what I knew would be a spiritual country music experience. Any trip from Roxton to Taylortown required crossing what amounted to a major highway in Lamar County. Parental approval was far from guaranteed. I needed a gimmick. My parents’ desperate urge to see the Texas-roots sprout through my Yankee shell seemed just the ticket.
I didn’t exactly consider myself a social outcast. Admittedly, being known as the kid from Texas nine months a year and that “damned Yankee” the other three months played a bit with my sanity, and I wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about great Roxton past-times like fishing with crawdads when normal Americans slept or swimming in snake-infested muddy creeks. I guess if I have to own up to it, my disposition probably did impact on my summer social life. But, I always had my cousin, Brock (known affectionately as “Cousin Brock”), as a companion. A Paris native transplanted to Colorado, like me, Cousin Brock spent the summer months in Roxton with his grandmother. A horror movie aficionado and obsessed with obscure monster magazines, Cousin Brock was every bit as weird as me, and we had a mutual respect for each other’s idiosyncrasies. Regardless, the key to getting permission for such a distant drive was an excuse to socialize with some fine Texas youngsters my own age, and what better social activity could be had than a spirited game of baseball. Baseball….that was the answer. Cousin Brock and I would drive to Taylortown to play baseball with some kids he knew from when he lived in Paris.
The first hurdle behind me, I set my sights on the next goal. Taylortown wasn’t exactly a metropolis, but exactly what, or who, would we find when we arrived? Grandmothers are good at this sort of thing, and most are quite trustworthy. I immediately put mine to work calling every “Allen” in the phone book to locate my hero’s boyhood house. A drive-by photo would be the ultimate prize. To say Granny succeeded is to say Merle Haggard had a hit with “Okie From Muskogee.” Not only did Granny find his house, she found his parents, Loretta and Fred, alive and well in Cunningham. Jackpot! Reportedly, they had a fine conversation, and Mrs. Allen said she’d be thrilled to meet her son’s biggest fan. The stage was set as Cousin Brock and I prepared for the trek across the southern end of the county, armed with a couple of RC Cola’s and the sack of pimento and cheese sandwiches Granny made everyone she knew would be travelling more than 20 miles.
The drive to Cunningham was uneventful, and the crossing of Highway 24 anti-climactic at best. I did make a slight error in judgment waiting far too-long for an old Farmall tractor to clear the intersection, but we arrived mid-afternoon. Sure enough, the first house on the right heading into town sported a mailbox with the name “Allen” in block letters. I pulled the Impala into the driveway and scratched to a stop behind a late model Cadillac parked in the carport. I must admit I found the scene underwhelming. I had imagined a country music superstar’s parents lounging by the pool of a mansion. Instead, the Allen’s lived in a small, mid-century, white-washed bungalow like just about every other older couple in the small towns dotting Lamar County. If it wasn’t for the Cadillac, I’d have been sure we’d picked the wrong house.
Cousin Brock and I sat in the Impala a few seconds alternating between awe and fear as we debated who would take the brave step of knocking on the door. A short, lost argument later, Cousin Brock cowered behind me as I lightly rapped my knuckles on the aluminum screen door. In a matter of seconds a lady looking absolutely nothing like Duane Allen greeted us warmly and invited us inside. Politely turning down the obligatory offer of lemonade and taking a seat on the couch with Cousin Brock, I took in the scene, or at least what there was of it. Family photos covered the walls where I expected to find flashing Oak Ridge Boys signs and concert memorabilia. We patiently sat through a tour of the photo collection, as Mrs. Allen pointed out each daughter and son and praised their successes as a missionary, a doctor, and a few other professions I can’t remember. Finally, she pointed out the man of the hour, though no one would have known it if they hadn’t seen an Oak Ridge Boys album cover. Awkwardly pictured in a family photo like those I used to be coerced into posing for at K-Mart, there was Duane Allen himself, along with the wife and kids. Mrs. Allen said she was kind of embarrassed by his beard, apparently taboo in the Allen household. She’d told him the beard made him look like Jesus in hopes the idea of blasphemy would convince him to shave. But, she claimed his response of “Oh, Mama, I don’t think I’m that good,” pacified her, at least for the time being. The longer we talked, the more amazed I became at the normalcy of it all. I found the furnishings typical, the walls covered in inexpensive paneling, and the house filled with the same aroma of every other old person’s house. If it hadn’t been for the blue water I noticed in the toilet when I politely asked to use the restroom, I would have thought the Allen’s to be everyday people.
After visiting a while, Mrs. Allen retreated to a back room, eventually returning with some souvenirs–an autographed concert program and a couple of tour T-shirts, far too large for either of us but no matter. I was in the midst of the most indirectly famous person I’d ever met. If that shirt had pink lace sleeves, I would have worn it with pride. We soon made our way outside where Mrs. Allen introduced us to Fred, sprawled in a reclining lawn chair. “Sure been a hot summer, ain’t it?” he grumbled from under the brim of his ball cap. A very short conversation made it clear Fred wasn’t at all impressed at his son’s fame. Fred Allen was a farmer, and Duane was a farm boy. No doubt, Fred would have preferred if Duane had put his hands to use hauling hay instead of strumming a guitar. When Fred asked his wife to fry him up a mess of okra, Cousin Brock and I knew it was time to take leave. A few hours later, back in Roxton, I wrote the Allen’s a thank-you note with a Maine return address, just in case they got the urge to have Duane send me some concert tickets or something.
The hot Texas summer soon came to an end, and a month later I was back in Maine and Cousin Brock in Colorado. Soon, I received a letter, not from Duane Allen, but from his mother. Much like she had that day in Cunningham, she filled me in on what each of her children was up to and tossed in a few tidbits about the grandchildren and Fred’s thoughts on the autumn weather. She also pointed out she had to get the letter to the post office. After all, the Boys’ tour bus would be coming by in a while and she’d be heading on the road with them for two weeks. She just loved hearing them perform “Sail Away” in person, she wrote
A second later Dad walked in and took a quick glance at the cameo photo Mrs. Allen had included of her and her son.
“Who’s that with Duane Allen?” Dad asked. “You know, we used to be fraternity brothers.”
What in the name of Elvira?
“He wouldn’t remember me. He’s a singer or something, isn’t he?” Dad added. “Seems like he joined some country group… Alabama, maybe?”
It was at that moment I discovered a boy could indeed choke to death on his own tongue.
Before you begin reading, I recommend you visit my website, http://www.krisrutherford.com, and click “About Me.” You’ll come away with a much better understanding of how I think and, hence, write. Basically, don’t take anything I write too seriously. I’ll give my opinions, but I have a tendency to exaggerate for dramatic effect on occasion (maybe every other sentence to two). After checking out the page (feel free to buy some books while you are there), return to the homepage and click the “Me & Jerome” link to return here.
As my family drove the 250-mile trek from Central Arkansas to our weekend home in Texas the other day, a shuffle of Gene Watson and the Oak Ridge Boys playing on my IPhone, I caught myself wondering about all the undiscovered classic country songs. I mean, have you ever wondered where the unseen jewels of classic country music are actually stored? No, I don’t mean those hidden in the crown George Strait wears under his black Resistol. Nor am I referring to those that echo in some long-shuttered West Texas dance hall or rest in a yellowing sludge pile in a corner office on Music Row. The real gems of country music are readily open for public viewing (or listening) every day. Today’s generation of country (I use the term loosely) fans just don’t have a clue where to find them and wouldn’t recognize them if they did. As an Oak Ridge Boys fan of the late 70’s and 80’s (which I assume you are since you are reading this), I assure you, the hidden gems are right under your nose.
You can find classic country’s jewels right between the wide lines on your old ORB vinyl LPs—the tracks you never ran your needle through like you did with “Elvira,” “I’ll Be True to You,” or “You’re the One.” On the other hand, if you’re a collector of old 45 RPMs, take a look at the flip side you’ve ignored for the past thirty-plus years. There they are—the precious stones of classic country music. Most never made it to radio and haven’t been played in a live ORB concert in years, but give them a listen. You’ll find some of the ORB’s finest work. As a fan since the tender age of ten when the Y’all Come Back Saloon album first charted, I’ve carefully selected my favorite ten ORB songs that would, or should, be gold. So, in no particular order:
1. “Easy”— As far as I’m concerned, the body of work of Y’all Come Back Saloon remains the ORB masterpiece to this day. Other albums offered bigger hits, but as a collection, it’s hard to top the ten tracks on this record. Give me one album to listen to on a cross-country bike ride, and it’s no contest. Y’all Come Back Saloon put country music on notice that gospel didn’t have the ORB under lock and key. No song better exemplifies the transformation than “Easy.” Keep in mind, this was back in the days when Dallas’ WBAP still used that annoying “BLEEEEP” to censor Faron Young’s “Here I am in Dallas, Where the Hell are You?” The uproar from country’s conservative audience hearing “Easy” over the public airwaves would have deafened any outcry from Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore being shown sleeping in the same bed. Nearly four decades later, the risqué lyrics of promiscuity and teen pregnancy featured in “Easy” are mild at best, but I’m not even sure Outlaw Country Artists would have been so bold in 1977.
Duane Allen’s vocals on “Easy” are, to at least my two ears, the best piece of work he ever recorded. Changing his voice inflection from a “matter-of-fact” mood to one of sympathy with a touch of anger to understanding and tenderness in the span of three minutes must have been a hard chore. Now, at the age of ten, a few years before cable TV and a long time before the internet, I had nary a clue what “Easy” really meant. When I reached high school and beyond, though, the raw honesty, emotion, and depth of the lyrics became clear. Never released as a U.S. single, “Easy” became an overseas hit and the subject of a very early music video. Had conservative country radio been ready to openly discuss the topic matter at hand, “Easy” would have surely been a chart-topper. Thinking back on it, I may remember “Easy” so well from the infamous episode when my mother heard me singing along and asked me if I even knew what the words meant. Without thinking, I responded with a short, “No, but it’s a hell of a tune, ain’t it?” She bleeped me all the way to my bedroom.
2. “Didn’t She Really Thrill Them (Back in 1924):” Shockingly, I have read reviews naming “Didn’t She Really Thrill Them” as the weakest link on the ORB debut country album. I beg to differ. Even though I was wet behind the ears, I connected with the song immediately. I may have been a legal resident of Maine, moving there at just three months of age, but Mainers only accept someone as native if they are born inside the state’s boundaries. As far as they were concerned, I was a “From Away,” and the summers I spent in Texas did little to hide the Scarlet “FA” showing brightly in my sleeve. I may have been ostracized as a foreigner in New England and considered a Yankee in Texas, but those summers in the South allowed me to experience rural life. Northeast Texas’ Lamar County, my summer home and the roots of the modern Rutherford family, is an area still 99.7% rural as it approaches the age of 175. For a kid, that statistic translated to 99.7% old people. After all, how many kids do you remember from “The Beverly Hillbillies?” Jethro doesn’t count.
The lyrics of “Didn’t She Really Thrill Them” still ring my senses today, the story of an old maid and a schoolgirl taking me back to the many hours I spent around country ladies who, at the time, seemed ancient. Duane Allen’s trademark smooth delivery raises memories of sipping iced tea from one of those ribbed yellow and red striped “hoop” glasses made back in the 50s. Those glasses must have been molded from lexan, because every old lady I knew still had a complete set they’d used every day since the Korean War. I can picture myself in the shoes of the schoolgirl (well, you get my point) who made daily visits to the old maid’s house. Rather than trying on dresses and looking at old dance cards, I could be found sucking on three or four lemon drops melted together in a cut-glass bowl because old people hadn’t yet discovered the convenience of air conditioning. Or, how about those candy gel-like orange slices covered with sugar? I never had the heart to tell an old lady even solid sugar comes with an expiration date and turns to concrete after about six years.
In the end, “Didn’t She Really Thrill Them” isn’t really a song about an old maid and a teenage girl. It’s about choices—making choices that may be unpopular with some but living with the choices that can’t be undone. ORB lawyers should have sued George Jones’ songwriter for stealing their idea twenty years later.
3. “An Old Time Family Bluegrass Band”—I told you, it’s hard to get away from the ORB first country album when looking for their hidden gems. Dad was a bluegrass fan when I was a kid, but I didn’t get it. Sure I loved “The Beverly Hillbillies” theme, but bluegrass was way too primitive for me. How about using some electricity when you cut an album? “An Old-Time Family Bluegrass Band” changed my attitude. I became downright addicted to the sweet cocktail of fiddles, mandolins, guitars, and banjos the song featured. Despite his Philadelphia upbringing, Joe Bonsall puts on a pretty good impersonation of having been reared in the deep woods of Eastern Kentucky. The song is the story of bluegrass itself and depicts the genre in no uncertain terms. No one can walk away from “An Old-Time Family Bluegrass Band” without understanding bluegrass music is all about preserving the rural lifestyle, simpler times, and the sense of family among those who may have been separated by miles of wooded hills.
4. “Dig a Little Deeper in the Well”—As hard as it is, I’m breaking away from 1977 and skipping ahead two years to the ORB’s third album, The Oak Ridge Boys Have Arrived. For those who inexplicably missed out on the debut album, the hit songs “Sail Away” and “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight,” and the Richard Sterban masterpiece “Dream On” caught undoubtedly caught their attention. For my money, though, there isn’t a better song in the bunch than “Dig a Little Deeper in the Well.” The upbeat tune features each vocalist’s distinct tone in its three stanzas, the perfect harmonies pulling the listener into the recording studio. The song is even better live and has been a favorite at every ORB concert I’ve attended, playing second fiddle only to “Elvira.” “Dig a Little Deeper in the Well” is classic country at its finest, its lyrical euphemisms and energy carrying through until the band hits the tune’s last abrupt note.
5. “Dancing the Night Away”—Country radio didn’t seem to care for five-minute recordings in the 70s. A few novelty songs like “Convoy” managed to top the charts, but songwriters seemed hooked on what I call the “Rhinestone Cowboy Formula”—Verse 1- Chorus-Verse 2-Chorus-Repeat Chorus-Fade. “Dancing the Night Away, featuring Joe Bonsall’s elevated tenor offered a whole new ORB sound. Maybe an intentional throwback to Bonsall’s American Bandstand days, the song abandoned pure country for a bit of rock-pop and should have exposed the ORB to fans from other walks of life. Anyone who knows me knows I am no fan of crossover country, but this tune showcased the ORB’s diversity and ability to perform gospel, classic country, and pop. Little did we know the song was a precursor of things to come just a couple of years later.
6. “I Would Crawl All the Way to the River”—1981 brought ORB fans Fancy Free, the multi-platinum album remaining the group’s top-seller to this day. Fancy Free, of course, is known for the ORB’s signature song and megahit “Elvira.” In fact, “Elvira” alone likely carried the album to its success and entrenched the ORB as a major player across musical genres. The tune drove the Boys into the crossover ranks, but without the “in your face” plunge a few unnamed country artists took. Yes, at least one of those gamblers won big-time, but was it really good for country music? Yet, I digress.
While Fancy Free took the ORB to an entirely new level in the national spotlight, the album also returned them to their gospel roots. The only thing I knew about gospel music at the time came from mouthing my “ABCs” silently as a congregation belted out seemingly unending verses from dusty church hymnals. In short, my gospel exposure was bo-ring. No offense to a gospel aficionado who may be reading, and I am certainly not demeaning religious songs, but any kid exposed to off-key singing accompanied by an out-of-tune piano would have had the same reaction. I had heard the ORB had been founded as a gospel group and remained so until I picked up their first country album, but I couldn’t name a single gospel song they’d recorded. The lively hidden gem from this album, “I Would Crawl All the Way to the River,” caused me to seek out some of those early tunes that earned the group multiple Dove Awards. Gospel, I realized, wasn’t necessarily painfully-slow, poorly-sung songs from the pews of a church with bad acoustics and an outdoor toilet. Thanks to this song, the last on side two of the album, I discovered earlier ORB recordings like “Heaven Bound” and “The Baptism of Jessie Taylor.” Both have become favorites.
7. “Would They Love Him Down in Shreveport”—1982’s “Bobby Sue” album introduced ORB fans to who I guess must be the third lady in a string of their hearts’ desires after “Emmylou” and “Elvira.” For the second straight album, the ORBs included a gospel tune to offset the title cut, a song may be the most energetic they ever recorded. This time the gospel selection couldn’t have been more opposite from the album’s hit. “Would They Love Him Down in Shreveport,” also recorded by George Jones in 1990 (do I sense a pattern here?), didn’t offer the up-tempo energy of “I Would Crawl All the Way to the River,” but I was actually beginning to pay real attention to lyrics and they grew on me quickly. I’ve always been a bit of a geography nerd, so the featured cities of Nashville, New York City (Wall Street), Wichita, Salt Lake City, Boston, and Shreveport naturally piqued my curiosity. The words, though wrapped around a religious theme, stretch far beyond gospel and hold deep meaning in secular life as well. While several cities are called out by name, any American town could be inserted in place of any on the list. The lyrics offer no condemnation of those who live in these places, but they highlight stereotypes and prejudices that are simply a fact of life in all areas of the country. Featuring all four vocalists in separate verses, “Would They Love Him Down in Shreveport” forces the listener to look inward. Duane Allen seemingly directs the song’s final word to the individual, as “Would you laugh and call him crazy and send him on his way?” forces each to face his or her own pitfalls and accept their own prejudices. Gospel or not, the theme cannot help but resonate with anyone who pays attention.
8. “My Radio Sure Sounds Good To Me”—Any list of ORB favorites would be incomplete without including a song featuring contra-bass Richard Sterban. Long before he “Oom-pop-a-mow-mowed” his way into country music history, you could find Richard “On the radi-i-o-i-o-o.” Oddly enough, “My Radio Sure Sounds Good To Me” isn’t country, and it isn’t pop. Technically, it’s a pure 1970’s Funk tune (I admit I found that on Wikipedia, so it must be true). I’d forgotten all about Funk. From what I can tell, some Funk group named Graham Central Station actually recorded the song a year before the ORBs. So, here we have a group of four guys who can sing gospel, country, crossover-country, and pop, and I can now add Funk to the mix! Allow me to pause while I take some deep breaths as this sinks in. Well, at least they haven’t released any heavy metal…..yet.
I guess a little Funk makes sense. As I recall from my vague memory of the genre, it was all about fun, and “My Radio Sure Sounds Good To Me” is nothing if not a fun tune. Don’t try to find any depth in the lyrics, because they are pretty shallow. As a matter of fact, is it even possible to put the lyrics of this song in writing? Every once in a while it’s nice to read a piece corny poetry from Robert Frost or find some William Faulkner short story he enjoyed writing but would probably rather forget. Such is the case with “My Radio Sure Sounds Good To Me.”
“On the radi-i-o-i-oi-o…..” You gotta love it. Incidentally, are you aware that “Funk” is derived from an African word meaning “bad body odor?” Amazing what you can learn on Wikipedia.
9. “Old Time Lovin’”—Say I lack creativity all you want, but when I’m looking for ORB hidden gems, I just can’t get away from 1977. Once again a few years ahead of my time in subject matter, “Old Time Lovin’” is another slice of undeniably classic country music. This cut, like so many others in the ORB discography, features a solo of all for members and teases the ear with a bluegrass-country blend. The arrangement of harmonies versus the lead, tenor, baritone, and bass solos on this recording keep every vocalist fully engaged. Richard Sterban’s bass sets a perfect lead-in to the harmonic, “How I want that old time love again with you” on two occasions, and the change of key in the oft-repeated ending chorus puts the icing on the cake. Plus, the ORB performed the song on an episode of “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Can it get any more country?
10. Well, I’m down to the last of my top ten ORB songs that be gold. It’s a tough, tough choice, and frankly, one I’m not going to make (because it’s my blog and I can do whatever I want). Instead, I’d rather get on my soap box for a minute and address what I believe is not just a hidden gem, but a lost gem of the entire essence of the Oak Ridge Boys. I warn you, this will probably enrage a few of you, so before you read further, go back and re-read my opening paragraph. Now, if you will indulge me, the following is an open letter to Richard Sterban:
Dear Richard… Rich… Rick… Ricky,
I don’t know what happened about a decade ago. Perhaps it was a late-blooming mid-life crisis. If so, I feel your pain. I had my first at 16 and have continued to have one about twice a year ever since. But, Richard, I don’t know you anymore. The distinctive personality and persona of Duane, Joe, William Lee, and yourself offered the ORB’s greatest appeal at a time when so many followed the crowd. While some other country groups of the 70s featured four guys dressed identically in suits pulled out of the Brady Bunch dressing room, y’all have always kept to your roots. We still admire Joe’s hip urban appearance, Duane’s contemporary casual look, and William Lee’s….errrr….rural attire. But, what happened to the Richard who stood heir apparent to Ray Price as the best dressed man in country music? The voice I hear belongs to a clean-cut, buttoned-down, dapper looking fellow tapping a tambourine against his finely-tailored, creased dress pants on the left side of the stage.
Now, we both know there’s some gray in your hair. I’m a quarter-century younger, and I even have a touch of it. But, your voice hasn’t aged a minute in the 37 years I’ve been listening. There’s no need to maintain a “more youthful than you are” appearance,” because you don’t look old just yet. Think about it. Would George Strait wear anything other than Wranglers and a Resistol? Would John Conlee ever be the same if he took off those dated rose-colored glasses? And, how about Willie? Imagine Willie without the bandana and ponytail, braids, or whatever he calls those things hanging off the side of his head (hint: you can find an early sixties version of a clean-cut Willie Nelson on YouTube. It kind of destroys the image he’s worked so hard to convey). So, go ahead and cover up the gray if you want to, but can I please have the old look back.
All my best,
P.S. You might remember me. I was the kid you inspired to switch from the standard B-flat clarinet to bass clarinet back in 1979.
So, there you have it—my top ten ORB songs that would be gold. With or without “Would They Love Him Down in Shreveport?” as inspiration, I fully admit my list shows a great deal of prejudice. I’m a conservative fellow, I don’t like change, and I am no fan of what today’s radio promotes as country music. Obviously, I have a bias toward the ORB’s earliest albums when they were still establishing themselves as a country act. But, 1977-1982 represent what I consider my formative years in developing a musical taste. The body of work the ORB put out during those years made me the only young lad in New England who claimed a country group as his favorite. While the rest of my running crowd scrambled their brains with the likes of KISS, Queen, and Iron Maiden (I wouldn’t even remember those names if their “music” wasn’t so painfully neurotic), by 1985 I hummed “Ozark Mountain Jubilee” and my all-time favorite “Heart of Mine”—in public. Country music had firmly entrenched itself as my genre, and I never planned to listen to anything else. Somewhere, though, the country music I loved lost its bearings.
The phenomenal success of George Strait in the mid-80s gave rise to a jumbled group of solo “hat acts.” Though I can find an occasional keeper among their collective body of work, in general I remember hat act vocalists as punctuating the end of stylists in country music. No doubt Tracy Byrd, Mark Chesnutt, and Rick Trevino all had decent voices, but they couldn’t be distinguished without music videos. Thanks to MTV and CMT, appearance became more important than musical ability (do you really think Little Jimmy Dickens would have a chance today?). By the mid-90s, the ORB had largely fallen from the charts and a new breed of country fans decided they preferred light shows, fireworks, and theatrics to music, and I pretty much disowned modern country. Music is meant to be heard, not watched. I yearn for the days of a stool, a spotlight, and a guy (or four) with a guitar. Today’s, young crowd screams wildly at the likes of Billy Currington, Luke Bryan, and the Zach Brown Band. Personally, I can’t name a single song they’ve recorded. Maybe the ORBs fall from the charts was simply a sign of the times. Unlike Garth Brooks (a soapbox I could write 5,000 words about in a single sitting), the ORBs kept their feet planted firmly on the stage instead of flying across it on a tethered wire. Kids developing their musical tastes today find two hours of pure country music dulling to the senses.
Though we seemed to have lost our place on the dial, a few years ago the media giants controlling country radio realized they had lost a huge market. Hence, they came up with the novel idea rock/pop radio executives had about forty years before—oldies, or “classic country.” Be still my heart, I had been saved! Unfortunately, I probably won’t find any of the songs on my list played on even the classic country stations, but you will find the Oak Ridge Boys and a satchel full of 70’s and 80’s recordings firmly established them as one of music’s most successful groups. And, you can rest assured whether they are playing one of country music’s all-time greatest hits or a filler song on the flip side of a 45 single, one thing will not change. The Oak Ridge Boys will remain true to their roots, and as a fan, they’ll be true to you.
Now, Richard, let’s talk some more about that hair thing…..