Songs that Would be Gold

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.
Welcome back.

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,

Kris Rutherford

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…..

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Pardon these next two non-baseball posts, but they are some of my most popular blog posts from a site I no longer use. I’d hate  to lose them. And if you’re a fan of classic country music, you might just like them….

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

A story about a Texas baseball personality you’ve probably never heard of? Ask and you shall receive, and I doubt many are more obscure than this one.

John L. Highberger (possibly “Highburger”) was born February 16, 1872, south of Paris near Atlas. His parents, George Crawford Highberger and Louviana Susanna Stinson Highberger, and quite possibly his grandfather, John Washington Stinson, all died in 1879. The only confirmed date of death noted is for the elder Stinson, who passed away on April 10. Whether other family members died of a contagious illness or if a tragedy such as a fire led to the rash of 1879 deaths is unknown. Neither George, a Union Civil War veteran, nor his wife’s graves are marked, but both are believed to be buried in Brakeen Cemetery. In any event, until their deaths, the family lived on a farm in the area of Crowley Hill near Atlas.

John, one of four children of George and Louvinia, was raised by his maternal grandmother with the help of his mother’s brothers and sisters. Little is known of John’s early life; however, his brother DeWitt did die in Paris in 1900, just 27 years of age. By this same time, John Highberger had begun to make a name for himself in Paris’ amateur baseball circles, managing the local team and playing as well. While Paris did play home to a professional Texas League club at the time, no information suggests Highberger’s involvement either as a player or in team affairs.

When the Texas League left Paris for cities closer to Dallas and Fort Worth following the 1904 season, the city’s thirst for the National Game had not been quenched. While smaller cities throughout the country were beginning to be squeezed out of similar statewide leagues, it usually didn’t take long before a group of enterprising men from a few nearby communities began putting together a league of their own. Such was the case in early 1905 when Texarkana’s  J.B. King  and Paris’ L.D. Corbett set their sights on fielding a Class-D North Texas League. Initially, other cities interested in fielding teams included Denison, Sherman, and Clarksville. Likewise, Corbett, secretary of the league pushed hard for a Bonham team. In the few weeks between late February through the end of March, Denison and Sherman both lost interest, but Greenville agreed to field a team. With Paris, Texarkana, and Greenville dedicated to the circuit, one additional team was needed. Paris continued to push hard for a Bonham entry.

As April neared, and with the season set to begin April 25, pressure to finalize a league increased. L.D. Corbett made several trips westward along the Texas & Pacific Railway to lure representatives of the Fannin County seat to put up the $1,000 guarantee, a sum the other three cities had raised through stock agreements. Still, Corbett had been unsuccessful. As Paris and Bonham had long competed on the amateur baseball scene, and Corbett could see potential financial benefits from the natural rivalry, he enlisted John Highberger to visit the city and encourage his amateur contacts to pressure city officials into joining the league. Ultimately, Bonham opted to remain on the sidelines, and Clarksville entered the league as the fourth team.

The North Texas League, while generally successful in its first season, was short-lived. By the end of July, Paris relocated its league-leading franchise to Hope, Arkansas. The added travel distance forced Greenville to disband. Days later, a yellow fever epidemic in Texarkana did the same, and the league was left with teams in Hope and Clarksville. Three days later, the North Texas League called it quits. Since Hope had only played nine games in the league, the pennant was awarded to Paris, with Clarksville runner-up. Two years later, the North Texas League briefly revived, but the small circuit was soon supplanted by the Western Association and the Texas-Oklahoma League in Paris. In fact, Clarksville’s very successful 1905 season marked the first and last professional baseball team in the Red River County seat.

Over the next several years, John Highberger continued managing an amateur team in Paris that traveled to nearby cities like Bonham, Sulphur Springs, and others willing to put their local “nine” on the field against Paris. He also built a career as one of Paris early electric streetcar conductors then went onto become an engineer the streetcar companies power plant. In 1913, he married Minnie Kaiser in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and the couple settled in Oklahoma City where John continued his career in electric streetcars. Eventually, he became an electrician and lived the remainder of his life in Oklahoma City. John and Minnie Highberger never had children. On January 22, 1953, John L. Highberger, a Lamar County orphan, passed away and is entombed in an Oklahoma City mausoleum.

So, there you have it—one more Texan who impacted the state’s long baseball history, if not on the professional level, certainly as an amateur. Somewhere, it is likely that someone knows the full story of John Highberger’s childhood and what happened to his family in Atlas in 1879. And, if anyone does, I’d love to hear from you.

Midland Makes History

The Midland RockHounds defeated the Northwest Arkansas Naturals three games to one in the Texas League Championship Series in September. The RockHounds victory hardly came as a shock despite the fact the team finished the season’s second half seven games behind the Corpus Christi Hooks. As they have two consecutive seasons, when playoff time arrived, Midland ousted the Hooks to take the TL South championship. While Corpus Christi can claim 174 wins over the past two seasons, it is Midland that has proven the team to beat come playoff time. By capturing its third consecutive Bobby Bragan Texas League Championship trophy, Midland has accomplished a feat pulled off by only one other team in league history. Or, in reality, three other teams may be more accurate.

The Fort Worth Panthers of the early 1920s are among the most dominant teams in both Texas League and Minor League Baseball history. From 1920-1925, Fort Worth racked up six consecutive championships, and no other teams has come close before or since. Minor League historians Bill Weiss and Marshall Wright include four of the six Panther teams in their book, “The 100 Greatest Minor League Baseball Teams of the 20th Century.”

Fort Worth, an original member of the Texas League, had captured four championships over the course of the league’s first three decades, but when Jake Atz arrived as manager in 1914, the Panthers began to rise to the league’s highest ranks. They would remain there for nearly a decade.

After a pair of second-tier finishes in 1914 and 1916 sandwiched a third place standing in 1914, by 1917 the Panthers rose to second place in the league. They finished second again in 1918 and in the first half of 1919, then followed up the second half by taking first place. The 1919 team lost to Shreveport in the playoffs, but after having its taste of success, the Panthers went on a run during which they devoured both Shreveport and every other Texas League franchise.

The 1920 Fort Worth Panthers took both halves of the season, combining or 108 wins and besting overall second place winner Wichita Falls by 23 games. Fort Worth fielded four 20-game winning pitchers including 26 game winners Joe Pate and Paul Wachtel. The team then challenged Southern Association champion Little Rock to a series of games that changed the fortunes of the Texas League forever. After Fort Worth defeated Little Rock 4 games to 2, the National Association, a new governing body over the minor leagues, upgraded the Texas League to a Class A association. The post-season faceoff of the Texas and Southern League champions also became an annual event known at the “Dixie Series.” In its earliest years, Fort Worth dominated that series as well.

In 1921, Fort Worth picked up where it left off the previous summer. Joe Pate claimed thirty wins on the season and was again joined by three other twenty-game winning teammates. First baseman Clarence Kraft led the offensive onslaught, leading the league with a .352 batting average and 32 home runs. Once again, the Panthers claimed both halves of the season with a total of 107 victories, besting second place Houston by 15.5 games.

When Fort Worth claimed the Texas League championship in 1922, the team won 109 games, placing them 15 games ahead of Wichita Falls at season’s end. While Joe Pate posted a 24-11 won-loss record, Paul Wachtel led the Panthers with a 26-7 record. Clarence Kraft again led the team offensively, hitting 32 home runs with 131 runs batted in. In batting .339, he was one of six full-time Panthers batting over .300 on the year.

The Panthers slipped a bit in 1923, capturing on 96 victories in finishing ahead of San Antonio by 13.5 games. Clarence Kraft continued to pace the team with another 32 home runs and 125 RBI, but he led the league in strikeouts with 109. Kraft’s strikeout rate of one in every 5 at-bats paved the way for outfielder Jack Calvo to lead the team with a .342 batting average.

With four consecutive Texas League championships, the 1924 Fort Worth franchise reached full stride. Its 109-41 record left all other contenders far behind, the closest being Houston, which finished 30.5 out of first place. Shreveport claimed last place, a full 57 games behind the champions. Joe Pate again posted thirty wins. Kraft hit a league leading 55 home runs with 196 RBI on the year, posting a .349 batting average while still striking out at a rate of 20%. Kraft’s 1924 campaign of nearly 200 runs batted in remains a Texas League record to this day, with no player coming within 30 of his mark over the past 92 seasons.

As the 1925 season began, the Panthers had taken five straight championships led largely by a phenomenal pitching staff and Clarence Kraft’s bat. With Kraft having retired following the previous season, Ed Konetchy stepped in and filled Kraft’s shoes admirably. The first baseman led the team with a .345 average, hitting 41 home runs and finishing with 166 RBI. He also struck out a rate less than half that of Clarence Kraft. Three Panther pitchers won twenty games, led by Paul Wachtel’s 23-7 record. Jim Walkup fell just one win short of making the entire Panther starting rotation twenty-game winners. Once again, the Panthers claimed the Texas League crown, finishing seventeen games ahead of Houston. But, when Dallas tied Fort Worth’s record in the season’s second half, many wondered if the dynasty was about to meet its demise.

In 1926, Fort Worth finally fell from the top of the Texas League, finishing 6.5 games behind Dallas in third place, trailing San Antonio by three games. Joe Pate had left the pitching staff for the major leagues, and only Jim Walkup won twenty games for the team. Ed Konetchy was still solid offensively, but he too fell off with a .325 batting average and just 21 home runs.

Things took a turn for the worse after 1926, with the Panthers finishing the following seasons 25 and 20 games, respectively, behind the league champions. A year later, Jake Atz left the Panthers after fourteen years as helmsman.

Over the course of Fort Worth’s reign as Texas League champions, the team averaged 105 wins per season while finishing 19 games ahead of its nearest competitor. The Panthers also claimed five or six Dixie Series championships during its run, its lone loss coming in 1922 against the Mobile Bears.

Although not nearly as dominating, the Midland RockHounds three straight championships place them halfway toward equaling Fort Worth’s achievement. Time will tell if Midland is capable of such a feat. For the time being, though, they hold the distinction of being the only other Texas League team to win three championships outright. And for that accomplishment, the RockHounds are to be congratulated

On the prowl for Eugene Burns

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

“Hick” Munsell:  What a Difference a Year Makes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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