The Ballad of Neal Vance: Texas League Bad Boy

Neal vanceIn the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, people have a saying: “It’s not that the mountains are so tall; it’s that the valleys are so deep.” Neal Vance was reared in one of those valleys in Jefferson Township, now known as Valley Springs. While the community lies along a major highway today, in the late 19th century, like all of the Ozarks, it was secluded and inaccessible. Those who scraped out a living in this area of the country were hardened souls. So it might have been expected Neal would have a bit of a mean streak in him.

Despite a reputation in baseball circles, whether deserved or undeserved, he seemed to be on his best behavior Texas. Still, when newspapers turned on Vance for alleged on and off-field actions, they placed the blame on Texas and its poor influence. Thus, Vance became one of the most traveled professional ballplayers in the early 20th century. His ballad reads like the log book of a trans-continental airline pilot.

Neal Hendrix Vance, also known as “Neil Vance,” “Gimbert” Vance, and “James G. Vance,” is born in Boone County, Arkansas, on October 10, 1884. Vance is the fourth child and first son of Morris David Vance and his second wife, Terry Hicks. Neal’s father operates a dry goods store in Jefferson Township, a wise choice as opposed to those of frontier Arkansas farmers attempting to scratch out a meager subsistence in the shallow rocky soil surrounding the community. Before entering the mercantile business, M.D. Vance had served as a Confederate Soldier, named a captain in the 11th Arkansas Cavalry when he was only 18-years old. Captain Vance must have impressed, as by war’s end, he is a 20-year old Colonel. Later in life, he informally becomes a General when he is involved in organizing Confederate veteran affairs at the state level in 1920s Arkansas.

Terry Vance dies when Neal is just five-years-old. Having already been married twice, M.D. does not remarry, leaving Neal’s raising in the hands of his three daughters. As Neal grows older, his father enters the insurance business and moves the family to the less rugged but still secluded terrain of Springdale, Arkansas. Exactly where and how Neal becomes involved in baseball is unclear as is most of his career. Record books show Neal Vance playing only three seasons of professional baseball, two in Texas and one in California. Additional research, however, reveals a far more complicated capsule of his career. Neal Vance, to say the least, becomes a well-traveled player, signing with several teams he never plays for under at least four different aliases.

1905: Vance debuts with the South McAlester/Fort Smith of the Missouri Valley League. He plays sparsely and is shipped to the Tulsa Oilers. His 1905 pitching record is an unimpressive 1-4.

1906: Vance arrives in Temple, Texas, to play for Con Lucid’s Boll Weevils. Temple’s season is cut short when Greenville ceases operations and the league drops Temple to allow for even scheduling. Vance leads the Boll Weevils to eight of the team’s twenty wins. It is not documented in Texas newspapers, but later in Vance’s career he is accused of threatening to kill Con Lucid’s replacement, Fred Moore.

1907: Vance moves to Houston and posts a 9-8 record in 22 games. He also plays in the Oklahoma-Kansas League with Bartlesville and Muskogee. As 1908 approaches, Vance’s reputation and legends of the Texas League’s influence send the young pitcher on an eight-year roller coaster ride through baseball.

1908: Vance signs with Waco before Toledo of the American Association purchases his rights. His time in Toledo is short. On April 13, Vance pitches miserably for Toledo’s second team in an exhibition matchup in Fort Wayne. When pulled from the game, the Fort Wayne News reports Vance “went through a few stunts of a highly illuminating nature.” At the hotel that evening, Vance attempts to attack his manager with a steak knife and threatens him with a pistol. Toledo releases Vance, and he is reportedly picked up by Springfield of the Ohio State League. Instead, he plays the season in Green Bay of the Wisconsin-Illinois League.

The incident in Fort Wayne and the newspaper accounts cement public view of Vance’s difficulties having arisen from his time in Texas. Reporters inaccurately state Neal Vance spent “almost his entire life” on the “Texas frontier where he probably picked up his wild and wooly ideas.”  Toledo’s owner notes Vance’s “Indian warfare ideas” as intolerable. Neal begins playing under the alias, “James G. Vance.”

1909: Vance begins the season with York and Johnstown in the Tri-State League but moves to California and pitches with Vernon of the Pacific Coast League. He posts a 6-13 record for the last-place team in a league that plays over 220 games on the season.

1910: Vance signs with the Detroit Tigers of the major leagues, but never plays a game. He does play in Rochester, Minnesota, and is hospitalized after being hit in the head with a pitch. He returns to play with Green Bay for several games. Detroit sells Vance’s rights to the Cleveland Naps for the maximum price, $1,500. Cleveland recognizes an error in the transaction that saves them $700. Detroit balks, and Vance travels to Albany and the New York State League. The Decatur, Illinois, newspaper piles on Vance, noting he is so disruptive no club wants to sign him. The same newspaper reveals the incident with Fred Moore in Temple several years earlier. Vance does not appear with Albany and instead pitches in the Virginia League for Norfolk, his most successful season to date, posting a 16-7 record.

1911-13: Vance returns to New York, winning 7 games for Syracuse. Mid-season, he moves back to the Virginia League, signing with the Petersburg Goobers. Here, Vance has his greatest success. He posts a perfect 11-0 record in is first season. Vance remains in Petersburg the next two seasons, sans a brief move to Roanoke. He leaves Petersburg in late 1913 and returns to Texas, playig a few games with Bonham in the Texas-Oklahoma League.

1914-16: Vance plays for Georgetown of the East Texas League in 1914, takes 1915 off, and finishes his career with Crockett in 1916.

After 11 tumultuous years playing, and sometimes not playing, in cities from California to New York, Neal Vance, “James G. Vance,” and “Gimbert Vance” retires from baseball, likely along with some other alias Vances. For those keeping score, over the course of Vance’s 10 year active career he plays for or is signed to play for 24 franchises in 14 leagues.

Soon after Neal Vance’s baseball career ends, he accepts an honest job with a Tulsa oil company, reportedly as a “chemist.” His career has come full circle as he works in the oil industry in the same city he began his baseball career as a member of the Oilers franchise. But like most everything about Neal Vance’s life, his time in the traditional workforce is short. On the cold evening of February 10, 1919, Vance retires to his room in Tulsa and turns up the gas furnace. The following morning, he is found dead. Reportedly, after just a few hours of exposure to toxic fumes from the furnace, Vance’s body advances to a state of decomposition rendering identification difficult. Officially, the cause of death is listed as “asphyxiation,” something we’d likely consider carbon monoxide poisoning today. In any event, Neal Hendrix Vance dies at the age of 34.

Neal’s father, now working as a janitor in the Central Arkansas town of Conway, brings his son’s body back to his home state where he is buried in Conway’s Oak Grove Cemetery. For 21 years, Neal rests in an unmarked grave until General Morris David Vance dies at the age of 95. The grave marker erected for General Vance recognizes Neal as well.

And so ends the ballad of Neal Hendrix Vance, a man who deserving or not, is labeled as a baseball pariah, thus earning him a hesitant designation as a Texas League “Bad Boy.”

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Beisbol arrives in Paris (Texas)

The history of baseball in Mexico goes back almost as far as it does in the United States. The earliest contests south of the border are thought to have been played in the 1840s, but historians do know for sure that baseball was being played regularly in Mexico by the 1870s. While a century-and-a-half later players of Hispanic or Latino descent make up 30% of all professionals, it took many decades before the first Mexican players signed contracts in the United States. Even in Texas, where professional baseball has been played since 1888 and numerous leagues popped up statewide, including along the Mexico border, Mexicans were not warmly received in American baseball.  In fact, it was 1924, Paris’ 18th season of professional baseball, before Lamar County saw its first player of Mexican descent.

Nazario Faustine Gallegos, Jr., was born September 25, 1898, in New Mexico, the son of a newspaper publisher. Nazario’s grandfather was a prominent farmer, raising 9 children on a farm not too far west of El Paso. Nazario’s grandparents and parents both emphasized the importance of an education, and the Gallegos children were discouraged from pursuing farm work. In fact, the family employed three domestic servants. While it is unknown just how wealthy the Gallegos family may have been or their expectations of Nazario and their other children, Gallegos attended and graduated high school in El Paso before going to work as a typist at his father’s newspaper. But Nazario, who went by the nickname “Teen” (short for his middle name of Faustine), was more interested in making news than typing about someone else’s exploits. By the time he was 22, Teen left Texas for Illinois where he signed to play professional baseball with the Rockford Rox. While Nazario appeared in 134 games in his first season, his .230 batting average did not impress, and he returned to Texas a season later.

The West Texas League was two steps below Rockford, but Narario’s skillset was better suited for the secluded circuit, and he played in both San Angelo and Sweetwater in 1921. By all accounts, he sat out of professional baseball for the following two seasons before turning up in the East Texas League with the Paris North Stars in 1924. It was in Paris that Gallegos’ career started to show promise as he hit for both average and power, and showed speed on the base paths. His work in Paris impressed Texas League owners enough that San Antonio signed him to finish its season. While he played only 14 games in San Antonio, his .326 batting average was an impressive figure in any league. But when the 1925 season opened, Nazario was back in Paris, this time with the newly-named Bearcats. Over the next two seasons, he remained in Paris and put up the best numbers of his career. Nazario batted .320 combined in 1925-26 with 280 base hits, 93 of which he stretched beyond first base.

Following the 1926 season, Nazario Gallegos once again caught the attention of the higher levels of the minor leagues and moved to Jacksonville, Florida, where he played the majority of the next four seasons with the Southeastern League’s Jacksonville Tars. Then he suddenly disappeared from the record books.

It’s unknown what became of Nazario Gallegos in the early 1930s in terms of baseball. In 1930, census records note him employed as a painter in Jacksonville, and a year later the local directory includes a listing under his name as an inspector with Ford Motor Company. Whatever Gallegos had been doing during the early Depression years apparently did not mean baseball was out of his system. In 1936 he returned for one final season of minor league ball, this time splitting the year with four teams affiliated with Cincinnati and Detroit. All four teams allowed Gallegos to continue playing in Florida and Georgia. Following his baseball career, he remained in the area, adopting Florida as home where he lived with his wife, Thelma, and two sons, Faustine and Dudley. No records suggest Nazario Gallegos ever set foot in Paris after the 1926 East Texas League season. After his career ended, he went work as a longshoreman. But that career was short, and in January of 1943, he died of unkown causes.  His place of burial is unknown.

Nazario Faustine “Teen” Gallegos, Jr., may never have been a household name or achieved notable feats in his nine seasons of professional baseball. But in Paris, Texas, baseball circles, he holds one distinction that has like never been recognized or considered particularly important. Gallegos was the first player of Mexican descent to appear in Paris professional baseball uniform.

 

Ben Whittenburg: Lost in the Gap

While Lamar County produced any number of early Texas baseball stars, the same wasn’t true for our friends on the south side of Sulphur River. In fact, Delta County has only a few old ballplayers to its claim, so when we run across one seemingly lost to history, we want to take the time to make sure he gets his due. Such is the case with Ben Whittenburg (or “Whittenberg,” depending on the source).

Joseph Benjamin Whittenburg, Jr., was born June 29, 1885, to his Joseph, Sr., and his wife Lucy Amanda Yeager. A Missouri native, the elder Whittenburg arrived in the area in his youth, first settling in Delta County before moving north of Sulphur, to a farm near Dial. It had been a long trek across the southern U.S. for the Whittenburg family, natives of Germany who arrived in the colonies about 1713. After a few years in North Carolina, members of the family moved to Tennessee then Missoui and eventually Texas. It was at his home in Lamar County that Joseph, Sr., met his future wife, a Lamar County native born in the area in 1866.

Joseph, Jr., or “Ben” as he was known, was the second of three Whittenburg sons who joined two sisters. Aside from the farm, their father was a Methodist minister, accepted into the North Texas Conference in early 1891. His membership did not last long, however, as in the fall of 1891, Joseph, Sr., died of typhoid fever. Lucy and her five children moved across Sulphur River, settling in Pecan Gap.  The records do not indicate that Lucy ever held a job; however, the family did appear to live in Pecan Gap proper, and Lucy owned her home outright. Perhaps the Rev. Whittenburg had made sure he took care of his family.

Ben Whittenburg completed three years of high school, recorded as living in Delta County with his mother, two sisters, and brother-in-law on a farm. Presumably, he was finished with high school by 1902 and worked on the farm and did odd jobs in Pecan Gap in his spare time when he wasn’t pursuing what became his true passion, baseball.

Whittenburg’s first professional appearance came in the North Texas League in 1905, first with the Paris Parasites and then with Hope, Arkansas, after the Paris franchise relocated. Ben was primarily a pitcher, although he did play second base as well. No statistics from his first professional season are recorded.

In 1906, Ben moved to the Texas League, a circuit divided North and South at the time. He played briefly for the Temple Boll Weevils in the North Texas League, managed by Lamar County’s Ben Shelton. After just a handful of games, Ben signed with the Galveston Sand Crabs of the South Texas League, landing on the Island for 29 games his first year. On a team that finished 22 games out of first place, Ben posted an 11-3 record as a pitcher and didn’t do badly at the plate, batting .241. The Galveston News noted that Whittenburg was a fan favorite and one of the best young stars in the Texas League with a great future ahead of him in baseball. All that suddenly changed on August 24, 1906, at precisely 5:00 pm.

As it wasn’t Ben’s day to pitch, he was playing second base for the Sand Crabs in what would turn out to be a ten-inning 3-2 loss to the Austin Senators. But while Whittenburg batted against Austin pitcher Bill Bailey, he leaned into a pitch that struck him at the base of his skull just behind his left ear. For a moment Ben stood silently, then without a sound slumped to the ground. He was immediately taken to an Austin hospital where he remained unconscious several hours. In fact, late on the evening of the 24th, doctors were doubtful he would survive. If he had not, it would have indeed been a tragic weekend for baseball, as just a day early in Pennsylvania, Lehigh University student Caspar Musselman was killed by a pitched ball taken to his chest. Fortunately, Ben Whittenburg didn’t suffer the same fate; however, he was deemed out for the remainder of the season.

After recovering home in Pecan Gap, the Sand Crabs pronounced Whittenburg fit to return for 1907. The North and South Texas circuits had reunited into an eight-team league, and Ben returned, this time pitching and playing in the outfield. In spring training, Ben pitched well; in fact, he pitched two exhibition games against the Major League’s Washington Senators, losing both but by scores of only 2-1 and 5-3. When the regular season arrived, however, whatever effectiveness he had as a pitcher the previous year seemed lost. Ben posted just a 6-16 won-loss record. He also played 64 games in the field, but he seemed to have lost his somewhat limited hitting ability and batted just .206 on the year. Before the season was out, Whittenburg left Galveston for a stint with the Terrell Red Stockings of the North Texas League.

The impact of the previous season’s pitch to the head on Ben Whittenburg’s career will likely never be known. But it must be pointed out that during the 1907season, the young man may have been preoccupied with other thoughts, as on September 13 he married Lucy Vernor of Lampasas. He must have announced his retirement from baseball prior to the wedding, as the article notes the couple immediately headed for Pecan Gap where Ben intended to open a business. In 1910, Ben, Lucy, and their first son, Joseph Benjamin, III, are recorded as living in Pecan Gap at the home of Ben’s mother, with both Ben and Lucy performing “odd jobs.” Soon thereafter, the couple moved west to San Angelo where Ben took a job with Walker and Sons Wholesale Grocery. Over the ensuing years, three more children were born but little else changed in their lives. The Whittenburgs remained at the home they purchased prior to 1920 at 313 Spaulding Street, and Ben remained in the same job with the same company into the 1950s

On July 30, 1969, Ben Whittenburg died in Corpus Christi of unknown causes while visiting his son. His body was returned to his longtime home of San Angelo where he was buried in Fairmount Cemetery, joined just a year later by his wife of 62 years. The majority of his siblings, as well as Ben’s parents, are buried in Whittenburg Cemetery near Dial or across Sulphur River in Pecan Gap.

Ben Whittenburg: a potential baseball star hailing from Pecan Gap who was lost to an unlucky pitched ball and nearly lost to history.

The Roxton Nine

Roxton Baseball Player (2)You might as well take look at ‘em, folks; after all, they’re staring at you. Nine ballplayers are suited up to represent Roxton on the diamond today. Who’s on the schedule? Wolfe City, by chance? They’ll play a good game. Ladonia and Enloe will give us a run for our money, too.  But, considering the intensity on the boy’s faces, a stronger team is probably coming town.  Paris? When the county seat lost its Texas League club last year, a few players returned to the amateur ranks. After the luxury of pro ball, they’ll have a surprise in store traveling to Roxton! Someone needs to tell them it’s not 1904 anymore!

The Santa Fe cut passenger service to Roxton three years ago. A team can talk its way onto a freight car or face a bumpy wagon ride to town that’ll suck the life out of them. Might just as well spot Roxton a five-tally lead! They’ll likely catch the T&P to Brookston or Texas Midland to Howland and walk the other five or so miles into town. Win or lose, our baseball kranks won’t complain. After a long day, the opponent will surely spend the night, and if there’s daylight tomorrow, there’ll play another game. Dr. Maness and T.P. Arnold will be happy. A ball club means more rooms rented in their hotels.

Let’s hope we’re not playing Blossom or Clarksville. Blossom has one of the toughest teams around and just signed a new outfielder from Tennessee, Clyde Milan. Clyde walked all the way from Nashville after hearing Blossom needed a good ballplayer. Apparently, he’s the real deal, and Blossom sure needs help. Blossom’s hurler from last year, Dode Criss, shredded every lineup he faced, but he’s playing in Clarksville now. Clarksville’s looking to land a professional team this year. If Milan is as good as folks claim, Clarksville is sure to pay him money to play alongside Criss. Both could get called to the big leagues.  For Roxton’s sake, let’s hope so!

Take another look at them. They’re still staring us in the eyes waiting for Mr. Mosely’s photographing machine to work. The team doesn’t have a mascot, but do they need anything more than “Roxton”?  Some man suggested the “Lions.” The picture he drew wasn’t a panther or mountain lion but the kind from Africa! Did last summer’s circus even bring an African lion to town? If we need a mascot, “Armadillos,” “Red Squirrels,” “Pole Cats,” or even “Pecans” might work, but “Roxton Lions”? That’ll be the day!

Several of the ballplayers are kin, and you may be kin to them. We have 600 people in Roxton now. A little ciphering will show that working out to around 300 gentlemen and 300 ladies. A good number are single and looking to buy some land, start farms, and raise families to help work the crops. If you’re not kin to one of these boys, hang around another century or so. Chances are their kids and grandkids will see to it we’re all kin, at least by marriage. If the Santa Fe doesn’t restart passenger service, we may all wind up with the same last name! It’s ironic, really. Each of these boys’ families wound up in southwest Lamar County and built Roxton after leaving any number of states back east. None of these boys would be in the studio this morning if not for the decisions their parents or grandparents made. In any case, they’re together now—your 1905 Roxton Nine. Let’s look at this season’s club.

The oldest and best Roxton player is the tall fellow in the back, Frank Jones. Folks call him “Hickory” because he swings a mean bat, but Frank isn’t on the field to drive runs home. He’s our pitcher and a good one at that. His battery mate, Josh O’Brien, is standing to Frank’s left at the end of the back row. With a name like O’Brien, you might assume he’s Irish, and you’d be assuming right. Josh’s daddy walked off the boat and straight into New York City before turning up in Roxton. See the stains on Josh’s jersey? That is one catcher who doesn’t mind roughing it up in the dirt to keep a tally off the scoreboard! Speaking of uniforms, be sure and give a shout-out to local farm implement dealer Seth Warner. The boys had been playing ball in their overalls a few weeks ago. But when Seth saw how good they are, he bought these fancy new digs for them to wear. If one of them turned around, you could see Seth’s advertisement on his back.

In front of Hickory Jones and to his left—that’s Hickory’s younger brother Henderson. He actually goes by his middle name, Powell, but saying “Pal” is easier, and that’s what everyone calls him. Pal is a handsome young man, but he doesn’t have the confident smirk on his face that his brother does this morning. That’s not unusual.  There could be a little bit of brotherly-jealousy involved.  Frank’s pitching prowess places his name in the Dallas Morning News sports page now and again, but the papers never mention Pal’s speed on the base paths. Then again, it may not be baseball at all. Frank left the farm and is trying his hand in the mercantile business, but Pal is getting set for the grinding work of another hot growing season. Let’s just hope, whatever the problem might be, that it stays off the ballfield. We want a team in Roxton, after all. But, just as an aside, keep your eyes on Pal. He should worry more about his own future and less about Frank’s. Pal has a young family to look out for. When a fellow carries a chip on his shoulder—well, let’s just hope Pal knocks in a few runs today.

Two Ausmus boys flank Hickory Jones. Pete, the short clean-shaven fellow is on Frank’s right. The gentleman with the mustache is his first cousin, Arthur. Just call him “Bill.” Whenever the Ausmus boys are kicking the dirt at the baseball grounds, expect a lot of hootin’ and hollerin’. The Ausmus family arrived here some years ago with a bona-fide wagon train from the Midwest.  The name has been spreading ever since, and there’s enough of them around now to line the edges of the playing field three-deep!

Sitting in front of Pete Ausmus is Lee Denton. At the other end of the bench is another Denton; the team calls him “Little Joe.” If you know the Denton family, you also know there isn’t a “Joe” among them. Trying to get “Little Joe” to fess up his real name isn’t working. He’s sitting there all tight-lipped about it. We don’t blame him. He’s a lot younger than his teammates, and most mamma’s don’t want their boys anywhere near a baseball diamond. Ballplayers have a reputation for having too much spare time, too much whiskery, and not near enough good sense. What mamma would want her boy getting wrapped up in a game like that? In fact, you know that outfielder from Paris, Tony Thebo? He’s been tearing up the Texas League in Beaumont and Corsicana. We have it on good authority that Tony actually broke into pro ball when he was just sixteen. He played under an assumed name, so his mamma wouldn’t find out. We suspect “Little Joe” might be doing the same. If you know his real name, drop us a note. In the meantime, we’ll ask around.

Look closely into those Denton boys’ eyes. That’s Roxton history staring back. Dentons have been here since Roxton was Prairie Mount. The family owns most of the property north of West Main Street (the road headed to Petty) all the way to Cane Creek. Just last year, Lee’s uncle put some of the land up for sale, and folks are buying up the lots. A second set may be ready to sell soon. If Roxton is going to grow, it’s going to have to be on land the Dentons now own. Maybe they’ll set aside an acre of two for a school. Bet money on Roxton naming a street after the Dentons one day. Who knows? Maybe they’ll even build a good ball field, but for now we’ll have to make do. Some workers from the cottonseed plant and a crew from the Santa Fe are clearing off a spot east of the Bywaters’ block for today’s game.

The boys are getting a little impatient. That’s Pat Murphree sitting next to Lee Denton. Don’t tell him we know his real name is “Dorr Summerset.” If we were him, we’d go by “Pat,” too! He’s from Mississippi, just like the fellow he’s resting his arm on, Alamo Nathaniel Phillips. You read that right. He’s not even a Texan, but his parents named him Alamo anyway. Then again, his dad, Christopher Columbus Phillips, didn’t help discover America in 1492, either. Alamo just moved here from Hunt County and the family farm. His dad plans to make a living in the newspaper business.  You can’t see true color in this light but take a close look at each player. Alamo is the oddball of the bunch. He has blue eyes like the rest of the team, but everyone other than Alamo has brown hair. Even Josh O’Brien’s Irish lineage couldn’t hide his dark hair. Alamo may not be a ginger, but his head is the only thing keeping Roxton from have a completely blue-eyed, brown-headed ball club. Maybe that’s why they set Alamo alone in the front row. Look at Alamo’s eyes and the way his hands clench the bat. He’s not comfortable in his new surroundings just yet. Give him time.  He looks like a young man searching for his lot in life. When he finds it, he’ll be hard to uproot.

This completes the introduction to your 1905 Roxton Nine. A long, hot summer awaits. They’ll lace up their spikes whenever they get a chance and head to the diamond and make all us proud. Starting next time, join us over in the “Stories Behind the Stones” column. We’ll start looking at how Roxton’s 1905 “Boys of Summer” each arrived in the studio this morning and where life carried them afterwards. Don’t forget! 4:00 pm across from the Bywater’s block. Just a nickel a ticket for the men! As always, ladies and children are free here in Roxton!

Texas League Draws “Baseball Czar’s” Rare Smile

When Shearn Moody, heir to one of Texas’ most wealthy families, went public in January 1931 with his intent to orchestrate the return of Texas League baseball to the “Treasure Island,” few familiar with the Moody name doubted he would succeed. Col. W.L Moody, Shearn’s grandfather, largely oversaw Galveston’s rise to the financial capital of Texas through the cotton exchange, arguably the world’s most important crop at the time.  In the late 1880s, the Colonel’s son, Will, expanded the family influence, pursuing increased profits by focusing on banking and credit to support cotton producers.  By the time Wall Street crashed in 1929, the Moody name and “success” were synonymous, regardless of the endeavor. Even the disastrous hurricane of 1900 couldn’t stop Will Moody’s financial genius. The idea that Wall Street’s difficulties could slow him down seemed almost laughable.

As Will Moody’s youngest son Shearn came of age, he displayed his father’s flair for finance and the future. Before he was 30 year old, Shearn took the reins of the family-owned insurance company, ANICO, and built it into one of the nation’s most notable insurers. He soon turned his attention to what he saw as the future of Galveston, tourism. Shearn oversaw the construction of numerous Island hotels as well as the purchase of others in Texas, including the famed Menger Hotel in San Antonio.  Shrewdly, he also purchased Galveston’s two daily newspapers and merged them into one; thus, Moody would control Galveston’s image across Texas.

Galveston had been a feature city of the early Texas League (TL), fielding a team nearly every year from 1898-1924 under the names “Sand Crabs” and “Pirates.” Despite the city’s longevity, its teams showed little success on the diamond with the exception of championships in 1890 and 1897, as well as 1904 when the TL was split North and South. After two straight seventh-place finishes in 1923-24, interest in the Galveston club was sold to Waco investors, and the TL left Galveston. Just four years later, Shearn Moody was working behind the scenes to convince TL leadership the Island could support a team. With the support of TL President J. Alvin Gardner, by February of 1931 Moody purchased the same franchise that had relocated to Waco and returned it to Galveston, this time under the name “Buccaneers.”

In the early 20th century, minor league baseball parks could be constructed in the bat of an eye. The Beaumont Exporters had built a new stadium in 1929, and it became a prototype for its day.  Shearn Moody built a virtual carbon-copy of the Beaumont facility, although it had a larger playing field. “Moody Stadium,” as it would be known, was scheduled to open to a gala celebration on April 29, 1931, with a game against the Exporters.

When Moody secured a baseball franchise, Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis was beginning his second decade as the Commissioner of Baseball. Landis had already exercised his ability to rule baseball with unimpeachable authority, earning him the title “Baseball Czar” in many of the nation’s newspapers. Landis did not only rule Major League Baseball; he also had authority over the minor leagues, and he took a great deal of interest in their relationship to the majors. When Landis’ schedule allowed, he enjoyed visiting minor league stadiums and helped christen new franchises when he was able. He had missed opening the Beaumont stadium in 1929, so with Galveston set for Moody Stadium’s unveiling, he planned to visit both cities on consecutive days, April 28-29, 1931. To accommodate Landis’ schedule, the TL adjusted, and the Bucs and Exporters would play a home-and-home series, the first game in Beaumont. Landis belatedly dedicated Beaumont’s Stuart Stadium then watched the Exporters edge out the Buccaneers 3-2 before traveling south and boarding the ferry to Galveston.

Shearn Moody’s first endeavor upon gaining a baseball franchise was to assemble a “Knothole Gang.” Intended for children under the age of twelve who gained special admission to games provided they abided by a Code of Ethics, the Knothole Gang virtually guaranteed a sizable crowd at home games. As usual, Moody succeeded, and the better part of the 2,000 Knothole Gang members were on-hand for the opener.

On April 29, the festivities in Galveston began early with a parade of both teams and many dignitaries through the Island’s business district along the Strand. Most businesses closed for the afternoon so employees could attend the game, and TL officials and Landis soon arrived at Moody Stadium. Even before he was inside, Landis began gushing at the facility. He commented that most people judge the quality of a ballpark based on the grandstands, but in his mind, it was the field that mattered. And he specifically pointed out the spacious outfield Shearn Moody had planned, noting that few baseballs would be hit over the outfield fence, but fans could expect inside-the-park home runs, a version of the home run he considered far more exciting.

As game time approached, the group assembled for photos and to hand out and accept praise for what Shearn Moody had accomplished in such a short time. Owners or executives from every TL franchise, J. Alvin Gardner, Kennesaw Mountain Landis, and Shearn Moody stood front and center along with ten-year-old Anne Sproule. Miss Sproule, daughter of Galveston shipping magnate Benjamin “Benno” Sproule and his wife, president of the Galveston Civic League, was well-known on the Island for her song and dance performances at a variety of events, and she was on-hand to break the bottle of champagne christening the stadium. Anne was photographed in numerous shots with the dignitaries, and the framed originals have been displayed in various TL presidents’ offices almost constantly for the past 87 years.

Baseball was played that afternoon, and Beaumont again came out on top, scoring two ninth-inning runs to pull out a 2-1 win. Moody’s newspaper, the Galveston Daily News, took the loss in stride, posting a small headline above the box score in its April 30 edition, “Too Many Innings.”

For Bucs fans, “Too Many Innings” became a battle cry over the next two seasons, or perhaps, “Not Enough” would have been just as appropriate. After poor 1931 and 1932 campaigns, Moody replaced manager Del Pratt with Billy Webb, and the Bucs qualified for the playoffs in 1933. Just a season later, the Bucs won the TL Championship.

Shearn Moody had succeeded. Baseball was popular in Galveston, and Moody had trophies to prove it. Unfortunately for both the Moody family, Galveston baseball, and the Island, Shearn Moody died of pneumonia at age 40 on February 28, 1936. With Shearn out of the picture, no one else in the Moody circle cared to champion the cause of baseball on the Island, and the TL permanently left Galveston at the end of the 1937 season.

Well-known Texas sportswriter Bill Van Fleet, who began his career covering the Buccaneers, wrote in his column the morning after Moody’s death, “There will never be another Shearn Moody backing a ball club. He lent that sport the same zeal, the same engaging energy and the same attention to detail that characterized his every other venture. He made it go.”

Undoubtedly, Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis offered similar praise of Moody.  After all, for a man not known to smile in photographs, on April 29, 1931, he couldn’t help himself as he stood with Shearn,  J. Alvin Gardner, and Anne Sproules. On the other hand, maybe Landis was taken in by Miss Sproule’s charm. By 1940, Anne lived in Beverly Hills, California, where she became a professional dancer.

1896 Denison Indians

Fascinating article on one of North Texas’ earliest ball players. Even more notable, though, is the author’s indisputable proof that the photo often identified by baseball historians (including me) as the Indians is, in fact, the 1896 Denison Maroons, an amateur ball club. The photo is included in the linked article. Anyway, read this article for an extremely detailed biography of a ballplayer long passed.

http://txgenwebcounties.org/grayson/HomeTownHeroes/Athletes/William%20Cleggett%20Bridendolph.pdf

The 2017 Texas League Championship: The Best and the Worst of Times that Try Men’s Souls

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.