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.

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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.

Billy Doyle: Contributions On and Off the Field

When Dallas Giants manager Charlie Moran signed outfielder Billy Doyle of Portsmouth, Ohio, prior to the 1903 season, he thought he’d found a diamond in the rough. And when owner J.W. Gardner heard St. Louis Cardinals manager Patsy Donovan and baseball magnate Ted Sullivan sing Doyle’s praises after a pre-season matchup between the two teams, he likely saw dollar signs in expectation of quickly selling Billy Doyle’s rights to a big-league franchise. On the other hand, perhaps he didn’t realize that Donovan and Sullivan, both Irishmen, had a natural inclination to support their fellow countrymen, of which Doyle was one.

William Thomas Doyle was born November 3, 1881, to James and Emma Doyle. James, a native of Ireland, and Emma, whose parents had travelled from Ireland to the United States before her birth, raised eleven children in Portsmouth, Ohio, following their marriage in 1862 with James employed as a cooper. Located on the Ohio River, Portsmouth was the ideal city for a cooper as its growing industrial economy relied on shipping containers. Eventually, Portsmouth became established as one of the top shoemaking cities in the country, and the Doyles relied on the shoe industry for income. Every child of the family was either employed in a shoe factory or in the selling of footwear by 1900.

In 1900, Billy Doyle held his first job as a laborer in a shoe factory.  But three years earlier he had chosen what would become his true career when he joined the Portsmouth Victors baseball team. By 1902, Doyle had drawn the attention of several professional teams and was recruited to play in cities including Charleston, Knoxville, and Vicksburg. But Charlie Moran won out when he convinced the young ballplayer to make the move to the Texas League. He immediately made an impact in spring training.

Ted Sullivan, said to have invented the art of scouting ball players, told the Dallas Morning News, “There’s plenty of big league timber in (Dallas). And that fellow Doyle! Oh what would the game be without us Irish!” The same afternoon that Sullivan sang Doyle’s praises, so did Cardinals manager Patsy Donovan. He noted that Doyle had the reputation for smashing the ball whenever it approached home plate, and when he connected it meant either a hard put out for the defenders or Doyle standing safely on base. Although Dallas went on to win the Texas League crown in 1903, Billy Doyle contributed little to the cause, batting just .165 during a season when he was hampered by a nagging “charley horse” injury. A year later, Doyle better met expectations when he appeared in 102 games for the second place Giants, raising his batting average to .255, a respectable number for the dead ball era. But in 1905, he regressed. Despite playing full time in the Giants outfield, Doyle batted just .175. The big league clubs were no longer expressing interest in Doyle, and J.W. Gardner likely wondered just how long he should hold on to what was once his prized ballplayer. The answer arrived in 1906 when Doyle played with the Greenville Hunters. But just how far Gardner actually distanced himself from Billy is debatable.

When the Texas League owners sat down to choose the slate of 1906 teams, Dallas’ J.W. Gardner insisted that he be able to own two franchises, one in Dallas and another in Greenville. The other owners staunchly opposed Gardner’s proposal and rightly so. It was obvious to anyone that Greenville would essentially be a “farm club” to supply Dallas with talent in case of injuries and keep the Giants profitable. Gardner lost the vote on paper but not necessarily in reality. Most agreed that the Greenville “stock ownership” arrangement was financed by Gardner. And Billy Doyle’s signing with Greenville made the franchise’s very existence all the more suspicious, as did his sudden conversion from a fielder to a pitcher.

What Doyle lacked in the field and at bat, he made up for on the pitcher’s mound.  In fact, he pitched phenomenally for Greenville then for Waco after the Greenville franchise folded at mid-season. At season’s end, he had posted a 19-13 won-loss record, and teams like Little Rock and Milwaukee were calling for his services in 1907. Instead, Temple manager Ben Shelton, who accepted ownership of the club with the caveat that he received his choice of players from the other teams, selected Doyle to be the ace of his pitching staff. It was an unmitigated disaster.  While Temple didn’t field a particularly competitive offense in 1907, pitcher Roy McFarland posted a 21-15 record, while William Jarvis managed to win 15 games despite 19 losses. Billy Doyle, however, set a Texas League mark for futility. He won just 8 of 37 starts, and his 28 losses still ranks as the worst of any pitcher in league history 111 years later. At season’s end, Doyle returned to Ohio where he finished out his playing career in 1908 with a 7-11 pitching record and .176 batting average for his hometown franchise. While Doyle’s most notable contribution on the baseball field may be his 1907 Texas League debacle, he was far more successful off the field as a scout.

From 1910 through 1938, Doyle scouted for four major league clubs, most notably a 20-year stint with the Detroit Tigers. He’s credited with discovering dozens of players including Dickie Kerr, George Sisler, Hank Greenberg, Tommy Bridges, and the memorable yet still forgettable Boots Poffenberger.

The end for Billy Doyle came in 1939 when at age 57 he suffered a stroke and passed away in Washington, Pennsylvania. Despite a life that appeared destined for the shoe factories of Ohio 40 years earlier, Doyle went on to spend an entire lifetime in baseball. And in reality, it was not his on-field contribution or even his 28 loss season for which Billy is best remembered. Rather, it is the 50 plus significant major league players he discovered that remain his greatest legacy to the game.

H. Pazzaro Douthett

1889 mud catsIt’s a pretty well-known photo among minor league baseball historians. The 1889 Houston Mud Cats of the Texas League of Professional Baseball Clubs. The photo isn’t so popular because the Mud Cats won the Texas League Championship that year or the fact they were led by John McCloskey, the “Father of the Texas League.” It’s a classic photo because it epitomizes two eras: the earliest years of the Texas League and late 19th century professional baseball.
Three rows of ballplayers. The two back rows contain the most serious players, probably those who actually carried Houston to the championship. In the front row, we have three mustachioed laid-back gents at the dawn of the Gay ’90s. The man on the right leaning back on his elbow? Meet Homer (or Harry) Pazzaro Douthett, the captain of the 1888 Houston Babies, the team that finished fourth in the inaugural season of the Texas League. John McCloskey stripped Douthett of his captain’s status upon giving up his claim to the 1888 Austin/San Antonio franchise and relocating his interests to Houston. Founding a league had its privileges.
Pazzaro Douthett, who apparently never went by the names Homer nor Harry, was born what is now Marshall County, West Virginia, one of four of the state’s “chimney” counties separating Pennsylvania and Ohio. When Pazzaro was born in 1856, Marshall County was part of Virginia; yet, the Douthett family was anything but southern. Both of Pizarro’s parents, James and Helen Sweeney Douthett, were Pennsylvania natives, and the area of Virginia where they lived in 1860 led the effort to break away from Virginia as secession approached. A year later, the couple had moved their family back to Pennsylvania where James worked as a nailer in Pittsburgh. When war became imminent, James enlisted in the 13th Pennsylvania Militia before he ultimately enlisted in the Union Army in September of 1861, a private in the 101st Pennsylvania Infantry. He remained with his unit for 18 months and was eventually promoted to Corporal before being discharged just prior to the Battle of Gettysburg (coincidentally his wife’s hometown). Although James had completed his duty as far as the Army was concerned, his loyalty led him to reenlist in 1864. He should have stayed in Pittsburgh.
After reenlisting, James Douthett was assigned to the Union-held port city of Plymouth, North Carolina. Shortly after his arrival, the Rebel Army organized to retake the city so important to its supply lines. Over the course of the four-day battle, hundreds of Union soldiers were killed or wounded. They were the lucky ones. Hundreds more were taken prisoner and shipped to the most notorious Civil War prison camp, Andersonville. James Douthett survived the battle and was taken prisoner, but as one of the wounded, he was moved to a prisoner’s hospital in Raleigh. He never experienced the horrors of Andersonville, but he also never left the hospital where he died of his wounds. Back in Pennsylvania, Helen was left a widow with three children.
By 1870, Helen Douthett had remarried a Pittsburgh police officer, and the couple raised five children, including the three Helen brought to the marriage. Pazzaro eventually enrolled in Ohio’s University of Wooster before continuing his education at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. If such a thing existed at the time, Lafayette was a baseball powerhouse. The college fielded its first club team in 1860 and played one of the earliest intercollegiate games in 1869 when it played its nearby rival Lehigh University to a 45-45 tie. It can be assumed that Pazzaro began playing baseball during his college years.
By the time Pazzaro Douthett left college, he was already advancing in age, and in 1883 he is recorded as living with a brother in Pittsburgh, an apparently an unemployed college-educated 27-year-old man. Perhaps for lack of another job, a year later, he made his professional baseball debut with New Brighton in Pennsylvania’s Iron and Oil Association. In 1885, he appeared in only one game with Hartford of the Southern New England League, a club packed with 14 future major league ballplayers including Hall of Fame player and manager Connie Mack. With little room for him in such a potent lineup, the next season, Pazzaro moved to the Northwestern League and played the outfield in both Oshkosh and St. Paul on clubs teams with talent similar to that he left behind in Hartford. Not only was Pazzaro’s college education not particularly helpful in finding a job, his baseball skills didn’t seem to be up to snuff. He gave it another shot in 1887 with Hastings in the Western League. He saw limited action on the field, but he did make contact with John McCloskey, owner, player, and manager, of the St. Joseph, Missouri franchise. It is likely no coincidence that both McCloskey and Douthett found themselves in South Texas in the spring of 1888.
While the Babies didn’t play particularly well in under Douthett’s leadership in 1888, Pazzaro did have his best year as a professional. He appeared in 76 of Houston’s 80 games, leading the team in batting and stolen bases and all of the Texas League in doubles with 22 to his credit. In the 1889 championship season, Pazarro’s production fell sharply; in fact, he went from his team’s leading batter to its worst in just one year. Pazarro Douthett had a championship to his name but his baseball career had come to its end.
Rather than return to Pennsylvania, Pazzaro decided to remain in Houston, working several years overseeing gaming rooms before he and two partners bought out the owner. Nearly 15 years after leaving baseball, Douthett left Houston for New Orleans where he worked for a time as police office for Tulane University. But eventually, Pennsylvania called him home, and he took a job as night manager at the rked as a clerk in Pittsburgh’s Hotel Yoder. With the exception of his baseball career, Pazzaro Douthett had his most notable moment at the hotel when he and a fellow clerk were robbed at gunpoint in November of 1915. Soon, he went into sales, but in the spring of 1920, Homer Pazzaro Douthett succumbed to pneumonia at a Pittsburgh hospital.
Having never been married and with no children, the original Texas League ballplayer was buried in an unmarked grave in Uniondale Cemetery in Bellevue, Pennsylvania. While Pazzaro has been long forgotten, he continues to live on in the classic early baseball photo as a laid-back, macho, mustachioed ballplayer. For that brief moment captured on film, Pazzaro Douthett was one “cool cat,”—a cool Mud Cat, that is.