On April 15, on the outskirts of Taylortown, Lamar County Commissioners unveiled a plaque dedicating the CR 16590 bridge over Big Sandy Creek as the Duane Allen Memorial Bridge in honor of Lamar County’s favorite son and lead singer of the phenomenally-successful musical group, The Oak Ridge Boys. A crowd far outnumbering the total population of Taylortown and its suburbs combined crowded around as Duane offered an emotional speech that could only be given by a man who, despite worldwide fame, remained firmly -grounded on the blackland farm where he was born. Nearly 35 years ago, Iwell-recall my pilgrimage to the nearby town of Cunningham in search of a boyhood hero.You might say I was musically-misplaced. Unlike the typical late 70’s teenager, I didn’t suffer permanent hearing loss to the likes of Queen, Aerosmith, or AC/DC, bands performing what I still refer to as “snake dancin’ music.” I held far more refined musical tastes. Aside from a very brief and ill-advised KISS phase in the early summer of 1978, I was pure country-country gold, in fact. Glen Campbell, Mel Tillis, Bobby Bare, and Merle (no last name needed) filled my record cabinet. Heck, I’ll admit it. I even had a “Whispering” Bill Anderson album, and my friends snickered heartily. No, my problem with music certainly wasn’t a matter of taste; rather, I suffered from time and location. I was not just country when country wasn’t cool. I was country where country wasn’t cool. In fact, the entire population of Maine found country gold so “uncool,” I had to search late night AM radio for some static-laced clear channel country show from the Midwest.
The programming gods of Maine radio relegated mid-70s country to the occasional crossover hit on WJBQ, better known locally as the home of the Bay City Rollers, Captain and Tennille, and KC and the Sunshine Band. Any other teenager would’ve buckled under the harassment dished my way when I set the old phonograph ablaze with the likes of Charley Pride and Larry Gatlin, but I had knees as solid as Barbara Mandrell’s steel guitar. Plain and simple, if it wasn’t country, it was the Devil’s music. While horrific sounds relentlessly blared from my brother’s bedroom across the hall, I found inner peace as Johnny Horton flew me “North to Alaska” under the protection of stereo headphones. Dad, a fan of what he called “Hillbilly Music,” had given up on traditional country a year or so earlier. When classical strings replaced the twin fiddles backing up Eddie Arnold, he realized the music he grew up with in Roxton listening to WBAP had moved on. Today, he’d be a sure candidate for cognitive therapy as he became musically-bipolar, turning to the outlaw country of Willie and Waylon for kicks and classical composers like Bach and Mozart for sophistication. I was an outsider even in my own house.
The backbone of most 70s music was the band, be it rock, pop, or (forgive my words) heavy metal. Still, soloists ruled the country scene. Stylists like George Jones led the country charge into the 70s before Chet Atkins’ “Nashville Sound” evolved into crossover and country pop. Olivia Newton-John showed up in Kitty Wells’ honky tonk, and John Denver caused Charlie Rich to put on country music’s first pyrotechnic display when the Country Music Association named him the 1976 Entertainer of the Year. Producers, seemingly embarrassed to associate with classic country music, forced Kenny Rogers on the masses, and he soon became the most recognizable voice on both country and pop radio. Group performers in country music remained few and far between, as most potential acts stayed in the shadows and gripped to their gospel roots. In fact, it took two gospel groups to blaze their own crossover trail before Nashville fully-embraced the group performers who came to dominate the genre a decade later.
The Statler Brothers and The Oak Ridge Boys both migrated from the gospel ranks, the former stepping gingerly onto the country scene after a stint as background vocalists for Johnny Cash. The latter, on the other hand, arrived with the splash of a cannonball off a railroad trestle into a Sulphur River swimming hole. Virginia’s Statler Brothers entered the country waters with a boatload of patriotic songs country fans couldn’t help but love. As 1977 approached, the Statlers rested as the most popular group in Nashville as executives fought to keep rebellious group performers like The Charlie Daniels Band out of the mainstream. The Statler Brothers stuck to risk-free songs and nostalgic memories. Blue-haired ladies swooned and hijacked The Music City News awards voting, honoring them as Group of the Year well past their prime until the magazine folded in the mid-90s.
While The Statler Brothers tread lightly in their move to country music, The Oak Ridge Boys transformed overnight, completely abandoning their gospel roots with the unquestionably country single, “Y’all Come Back Saloon.” Featuring Philadelphia-born tenor Joe Bonsall and Camden, New Jersey, native contra-bass Richard Sterban, the only glaringly country member of The Oak Ridge Boys was Brewton, Alabama’s baritone William Lee Golden, an individual who gained fame a few years later by turning so country he might have even alienated the Outlaw crowd. Less conspicuous, but just as country, was lead singer Duane Allen, a native of Lamar County’s Taylortown, a side trip along the route between Deport and Cunningham. Allen, an East Texas State University graduate trained in the classics, aspired to sing in a quartet and brought the smoothest voice in gospel to the country charts. With the members’ diverse backgrounds, The Oak Ridge Boys offered the closest thing mainstream country music had to a hip band; in fact, they almost made country cool.
Now, I have to admit, although a lyric of Chicago or Journey never crossed my lips, peer pressure did play a role in my life. While some early Oak Ridge Boys tunes like the risqué teen pregnancy-focused ballad “Easy” were a bit beyond my eleven year-old comprehension, it took about twenty seconds of “You’re the One” before I realized The Oak Ridge Boys would soon be the face of country group acts. The Statler Brothers would find themselves relegated to “dorky” status, I surmised, and I planned to be on the cutting edge. Santa Claus left two albums under the tree at the Rutherford house in 1978, the Statler Brothers’ “The Originals,” a browning package of 73% torpedoed ground beef, and “The Oak Ridge Boys Have Arrived,” a seasoned filet mignon marinated in fine spices and grilled to perfection. With “Leavin’ Louisiana in the Broad Daylight” and “Dig a Little Deeper in the Well,” the Oak Ridge Boys had indeed arrived and pulled me in a trailer right behind them. Unfortunately, a storm brewed on the horizon.
re not. Well, by 1980, you were either The Oak Ridge Boys or you were not. how original is that?) released its debut album and raced up the charts, country music transformed from entertainment into a contact sport. I may roll wannabes supplant my Oak Ridge Boys as the premier country group. ”s successes as I cheered each gold record. If The Statler Brothers had been ground beef, Alabama was rotting road kill. Yet, as the Alabama hits kept coming, I watched wearily as their albums began to fill the small country section of MusicLand in the Maine Mall. But, country was my brand of music, and The Oak Ridge Boys were my group. I adopted the fight for supremacy as nothing less than a spiritual experience.
A year removed from the hottest summer I can recall during my annual trips to Roxton, in 1981 Dad made the fateful decision the family could survive without air conditioning in the new Chevy station wagon. After all, it was only for three months, and AC wasn’t even standard equipment on New England car lots. Plus, with gas prices topping ninety cents, he figured squeezing a couple more miles out of a tank would save him a nickel or two every three or four months. As we arrived in Texas in mid-June, a blow torch chafed us through the Chevy’s open windows, and Mom repeatedly cussed his thriftiness while nursing a cup of ice. The asphalt bled through the chip seal along Highway 82, and as the summer went on lane markings twisted and slid off the shoulders as the road took on a molasses-like consistency. Not yet a legal driver, the law nonetheless had little impact on my mobility that summer. My grandparents purchased my first car, a ‘73 Impala equipped with the finest air conditioner Detroit ever produced. The Impala and I cruised the back roads all summer, as I avoided the main highways on the oft chance a wayward highway patrolman might spy a hundred-pound adolescent’s eyes just above the steering wheel. But, the world grew a lot smaller behind the wheel of the Impala, and so did Lamar County.
On a roadmap Taylortown looked to be a hundred miles from Roxton. Duane Allen’s hometown might as well have been Lubbock a year earlier, but it now sat just a few gallons of Dad’s ninety-cent gasoline away in the green Impala. I plotted my trek to the holiest of lands, where a young Duane Allen nurtured what had become the finest voice in all of music.
My parents had little problem with me driving the back roads without a license; after all, they did the same thing a quarter-century before, and I certainly ranked as the most responsible of the two Rutherford siblings. The farm-to-markets weren’t a problem either, and I challenged them daily without incident. Highway 24 between Commerce and Paris sat as the only barrier between me and what I knew would be a spiritual country music experience. Any trip from Roxton to Taylortown required crossing what amounted to a major highway in Lamar County. Parental approval was far from guaranteed. I needed a gimmick. My parents’ desperate urge to see the Texas-roots sprout through my Yankee shell seemed just the ticket.
I didn’t exactly consider myself a social outcast. Admittedly, being known as the kid from Texas nine months a year and that “damned Yankee” the other three months played a bit with my sanity, and I wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about great Roxton past-times like fishing with crawdads when normal Americans slept or swimming in snake-infested muddy creeks. I guess if I have to own up to it, my disposition probably did impact on my summer social life. But, I always had my cousin, Brock (known affectionately as “Cousin Brock”), as a companion. A Paris native transplanted to Colorado, like me, Cousin Brock spent the summer months in Roxton with his grandmother. A horror movie aficionado and obsessed with obscure monster magazines, Cousin Brock was every bit as weird as me, and we had a mutual respect for each other’s idiosyncrasies. Regardless, the key to getting permission for such a distant drive was an excuse to socialize with some fine Texas youngsters my own age, and what better social activity could be had than a spirited game of baseball. Baseball….that was the answer. Cousin Brock and I would drive to Taylortown to play baseball with some kids he knew from when he lived in Paris.
The first hurdle behind me, I set my sights on the next goal. Taylortown wasn’t exactly a metropolis, but exactly what, or who, would we find when we arrived? Grandmothers are good at this sort of thing, and most are quite trustworthy. I immediately put mine to work calling every “Allen” in the phone book to locate my hero’s boyhood house. A drive-by photo would be the ultimate prize. To say Granny succeeded is to say Merle Haggard had a hit with “Okie From Muskogee.” Not only did Granny find his house, she found his parents, Loretta and Fred, alive and well in Cunningham. Jackpot! Reportedly, they had a fine conversation, and Mrs. Allen said she’d be thrilled to meet her son’s biggest fan. The stage was set as Cousin Brock and I prepared for the trek across the southern end of the county, armed with a couple of RC Cola’s and the sack of pimento and cheese sandwiches Granny made everyone she knew would be travelling more than 20 miles.
The drive to Cunningham was uneventful, and the crossing of Highway 24 anti-climactic at best. I did make a slight error in judgment waiting far too-long for an old Farmall tractor to clear the intersection, but we arrived mid-afternoon. Sure enough, the first house on the right heading into town sported a mailbox with the name “Allen” in block letters. I pulled the Impala into the driveway and scratched to a stop behind a late model Cadillac parked in the carport. I must admit I found the scene underwhelming. I had imagined a country music superstar’s parents lounging by the pool of a mansion. Instead, the Allen’s lived in a small, mid-century, white-washed bungalow like just about every other older couple in the small towns dotting Lamar County. If it wasn’t for the Cadillac, I’d have been sure we’d picked the wrong house.
Cousin Brock and I sat in the Impala a few seconds alternating between awe and fear as we debated who would take the brave step of knocking on the door. A short, lost argument later, Cousin Brock cowered behind me as I lightly rapped my knuckles on the aluminum screen door. In a matter of seconds a lady looking absolutely nothing like Duane Allen greeted us warmly and invited us inside. Politely turning down the obligatory offer of lemonade and taking a seat on the couch with Cousin Brock, I took in the scene, or at least what there was of it. Family photos covered the walls where I expected to find flashing Oak Ridge Boys signs and concert memorabilia. We patiently sat through a tour of the photo collection, as Mrs. Allen pointed out each daughter and son and praised their successes as a missionary, a doctor, and a few other professions I can’t remember. Finally, she pointed out the man of the hour, though no one would have known it if they hadn’t seen an Oak Ridge Boys album cover. Awkwardly pictured in a family photo like those I used to be coerced into posing for at K-Mart, there was Duane Allen himself, along with the wife and kids. Mrs. Allen said she was kind of embarrassed by his beard, apparently taboo in the Allen household. She’d told him the beard made him look like Jesus in hopes the idea of blasphemy would convince him to shave. But, she claimed his response of “Oh, Mama, I don’t think I’m that good,” pacified her, at least for the time being. The longer we talked, the more amazed I became at the normalcy of it all. I found the furnishings typical, the walls covered in inexpensive paneling, and the house filled with the same aroma of every other old person’s house. If it hadn’t been for the blue water I noticed in the toilet when I politely asked to use the restroom, I would have thought the Allen’s to be everyday people.
After visiting a while, Mrs. Allen retreated to a back room, eventually returning with some souvenirs–an autographed concert program and a couple of tour T-shirts, far too large for either of us but no matter. I was in the midst of the most indirectly famous person I’d ever met. If that shirt had pink lace sleeves, I would have worn it with pride. We soon made our way outside where Mrs. Allen introduced us to Fred, sprawled in a reclining lawn chair. “Sure been a hot summer, ain’t it?” he grumbled from under the brim of his ball cap. A very short conversation made it clear Fred wasn’t at all impressed at his son’s fame. Fred Allen was a farmer, and Duane was a farm boy. No doubt, Fred would have preferred if Duane had put his hands to use hauling hay instead of strumming a guitar. When Fred asked his wife to fry him up a mess of okra, Cousin Brock and I knew it was time to take leave. A few hours later, back in Roxton, I wrote the Allen’s a thank-you note with a Maine return address, just in case they got the urge to have Duane send me some concert tickets or something.
The hot Texas summer soon came to an end, and a month later I was back in Maine and Cousin Brock in Colorado. Soon, I received a letter, not from Duane Allen, but from his mother. Much like she had that day in Cunningham, she filled me in on what each of her children was up to and tossed in a few tidbits about the grandchildren and Fred’s thoughts on the autumn weather. She also pointed out she had to get the letter to the post office. After all, the Boys’ tour bus would be coming by in a while and she’d be heading on the road with them for two weeks. She just loved hearing them perform “Sail Away” in person, she wrote
A second later Dad walked in and took a quick glance at the cameo photo Mrs. Allen had included of her and her son.
“Who’s that with Duane Allen?” Dad asked. “You know, we used to be fraternity brothers.”
What in the name of Elvira?
“He wouldn’t remember me. He’s a singer or something, isn’t he?” Dad added. “Seems like he joined some country group… Alabama, maybe?”
It was at that moment I discovered a boy could indeed choke to death on his own tongue.
Between 1896 and 1957, Lamar County claimed thirty-three professional baseball teams as its own. Paris, of course, was the center of baseball activity, and the city sported franchises in eleven different leagues ranging from the Class B Big State League in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s all the way down to the unclassified and short-lived Southwestern League in 1898. Over the years, hundreds of players passed through Paris either on their way to great baseball accomplishments or just for a brief respite from their regular jobs working the fields. Of all those players, only one, seemingly with no attachment to Lamar County, returned time and time again.
Earl Elmer “Red” Snapp was born in Stephenville in December of 1888, the second son of Hezekiah and Alice Snapp, who had arrived in Texas from Virginia three years earlier. The elder Snapp ran a blacksmith shop in Stephenville, while his wife tended to the couple’s boys, Carl and Earl. By 1908, Earl had left home and traveled 70 miles northeast to Fort Worth, where he attended Texas Christian University and played on the baseball squad. After two years of college, Earl decided it was time to take the plunge into the professional ranks, signing with the Texas Leagues’ Fort Worth Panthers. After three woeful Texas League seasons during which he batted just .226, he left Texas in 1913 and served as player-manager for three teams in Kansas and Nebraska. A year later, though, he returned to Texas, signing with the Paris Boosters of the Texas-Oklahoma League. Earl helped his team to a first place finish, although they lost to Texarkana in the playoffs.
In 1915, Red Snapp moved from the ranks of a player and part-time manager into a full-fledged baseball executive, with duties both on and off-the-field. He brought the Western Association to Paris, and served as owner, secretary, player, and manager of the Paris Red Snappers, the first of many teams bearing his name. The 1915 Snappers finished fifth in the eight team league, with a 66-66 record. In 1916, following the Paris fire on March 21, he briefly left the city to play and manage with the Oklahoma City Senators, but when Paris recovered and fielded a team again, he returned and finished the season as manager of the “Survivors,” a team finishing in last place, thirty-two games behind Denison.
Clearly a far better manager than player, after the 1916 season, Red Snapp retired from baseball, and for the next several years remained in Paris, a shoe salesman for Conway and Short, Inc. on the west side of the plaza. In the meantime, he married and lived on Pine Bluff Street, just a few blocks from Paris’ ballpark. Red and his wife, Maud, soon had two daughters, Elizabeth and Marynel.
By late 1920, baseball once again called, and the Oklahoma City Indians attempted to lure Red out of retirement to manage its Western League franchise. The following season, Snapp did return to baseball, but not in Oklahoma City. Instead, he organized his own franchise in Paris, the Snappers, in the Texas-Oklahoma League. It was here he entered his best years in baseball, as the Snappers took the pennant with an 89-38 record. In the championship series, they faced Ardmore, and with the series tied at four games and scheduled to resume in Paris, Ardmore refused to play. By default, Paris claimed the championship. The Snappers repeated in 1922, posting a 72-36 record before taking the championship series from Greenville in five games. Outfielders Chink Taylor and Joe Bratcher led the Snappers along with pitcher Sam Gray, all future major leaguers.
In 1923, Red Snapp took his team to Ardmore of the Western Association, a Class C League, one step up from Paris. Again, the Snappers claimed the League title, giving Snapp three consecutive championships. For Paris’ part, the city went on to field a team, the Grays, in the East Texas League, and grabbed a third straight title. After a last place finish in 1924, Paris again claimed the championship a year later, while Red Snapp managed Okmulgee of the Western Association. In 1926, he returned to the East Texas League, managing both the Marshall Snappers and Paris Bearcats for parts of the season. In 1927, he spent his last season in Paris and led his Snappers to a fifth place finish in the Lone Star League.
By 1928, with years of minor league experience under his belt, Earl Snapp decided to plunge into League management and formed the West Texas League. He placed his own team in San Angelo and claimed another pennant over the likes of Abilene, Midland, and others. After just one season, he left his brainchild and returned to the Lone Star League, managing the Sherman Snappers for only three weeks before the League disbanded. Without Snapp’s enthusiastic leadership, the West Texas League lasted only one season.
Over the course of Red Snapp’s ten years as a manager, he led his teams to five championships, including two in Paris, the first championship clubs the city ever fielded. He also became known as a prime developer of baseball talent over the course of his career, with nearly two dozen future major leaguers learning their craft under Snapp’s guidance.
In a 1928 profile in The Sporting News, Snapp was recognized as the “King of the Minor Leagues” in Texas, noting him as a one-man board of directors who had experienced success everywhere he went.
After baseball, Snapp settled with his wife and two daughters in Dallas. For forty-five years, he owned and operated Red Snapp’s Service Station at Cadiz and Marilla Streets in the downtown Dallas just a few blocks east of today’s convention center. He passed away January 3, 1974 at the age of 85.
“Where I go, pennants go,” he told TSN in 1928. Based on his record, Red Snapp’s confident statement was not merely a case of bragging.
Few mistook the 1897 Paris Midlands for a quality baseball club. Though backed by the deep pockets of Edward Howland Robinson Green, among America’s richest citizens, the Midlands just didn’t have the lineup to compete with the rest of the Texas League. Finishing the first half of the season buried in last place with a 21-49 record, few had great expectations for the second half, set to begin on June 29 at Dallas. Still, the entire purpose of a split season was to provide hope for baseball kranks of the “tail-enders.” Despite their miserable first-half performance, when the Midlands and Colts met at Fairgrounds Park, all eight Texas League teams entered the day on equal footing. Considering Dallas finished the first half just in one place ahead of Paris, Midlands fans held out hope the three game series might get their team off to a hot start.
Many North Texas farmers feared a coming drought for the summer of 1897, but June 29 dawned with hopes of rain. A southerly wind drove the temperature to the mid-90s by mid-afternoon, but storm clouds could be seen forming southwest of Dallas. Still, there was a ballgame to be played, and at 4 o’clock umpire Mackey signaled for the first pitch. The Midlands sent staff ace Charles “Daddy” Nolan to the mound. Nolan, described as a “fine little twirler” by the Galveston Daily News, came into the game with a poor win-loss record but a fine earned run average, his lack of success in the win column mainly the result of the Midlands miserable offense. In fact, just a few weeks earlier, Nolan had struck out 11 Austin Senators batters, a season-high for Texas League pitchers. He seemed just the pitcher to punch the Midlands ticket to a successful second half.
Paris batters stuck to their usual form that afternoon, notching just three hits and no runs over the first four innings. Charles Nolan while pitching relatively well, found a porous defense behind him. Despite surrendering just six hits on the day, the Midlands defense committed 11 errors over its five innings in the field, giving Dallas 11 runs on the day, only three charged to Nolan. First baseman George Nie, normally among Paris’ most dependable fielders, led the Midlands in errors that afternoon, but the true story of the game isn’t found in the box score.
In 1897, unlike today, the home team batted first. A full five innings had to be played for a game to be considered official. On June 29 in Dallas, the Paris Midlands found themselves down 8-0 after just two innings, and chances of a comeback appeared bleak. Dallas catcher James “Tub” Welch, just a .238 hitter on the season, slammed what the Dallas Morning News claimed as the longest home run ever at Fairgrounds Park in the first inning, and young third baseman Hoover registered a bases-clearing triple. By the top of the fifth inning, as storm clouds settled over Fairgrounds Park, the Midlands realized their best chance to call the afternoon a success would be to insure a rainout before the last inning could be completed.
When the Midlands took the field to lead-off the inning, they did everything possible to delay the game. The usual fast pace of late 19th century baseball slowed to a crawl as Nolan took his time between pitches, lobbed balls half-heartedly over the plate to eager Dallas hitters, and assisted his defense in committing a number of fielding errors even a schoolboy would have turned into outs. With two outs and the skies about to burst, former Midland Warren Beckwith reached base on George Nie’s fourth error of the game, and immediately attempted to steal second by walking to second in hopes of making the inning’s final out. As Nolan made no attempt to toss the ball to second baseman Elmo Jacobs, Beckwith continued his walk to third, passing William Peeples who stood with his hands on his hips. Finally, as Beckwith approached home plate, Nolan offered a veiled attempt to record the out, throwing the ball fall over catcher Dan Boland’s head and allowing Beckwith an easy run. By this point, the umpire caught onto Paris’ scheme and warned team managers Dan Boland and Bobby Burns to play ball or face a forfeit. Whether the managers relayed the order to their team is unknown, but Charles Nolan attempted to slowly offer the next batter a base on balls, pitching wildly outside the strike zone. The Dallas batter, now onto the Midlands plan as well, swung at all three pitches, and registered the final out, seemingly forcing Paris into a final at bat. As the Midlands strolled off the field, the skies opened and sheets of rain swept across the ballpark. Clearly a regulation game would not be played that afternoon, and the Midlands began to look forward to replaying the game from its start the following day, an unblemished 0-0 record still intact.
Unfortunately for Paris, umpires of the day had great leeway in applying the rules as they saw fit. As the rain turned into a torrent, Umpire Mackey declared the game official, with Paris forfeiting by an official score of 9-0. Dan Boland put up a feeble protest, but the umpire’s decision stood. By intentionally delaying play, Paris had manufactured an unofficial game, but Mackey refused to back down. Paris went on to not only lose that game, but six of its first seven to open the season’s second-half. Clearly, the split season would offer the Midlands no chance at redemption.
The results in Dallas did little to dissuade Paris from attempting to take advantage of what they believed was a loophole in the league rules related to official games. Under similar circumstances just over a month later in Galveston, the Midlands attempted the same strategy, this time as a means to a different end.
Although they had little chance of making a run at the second-half title, in Galveston the Midlands were far more interested in getting out of town with the $50 guarantee paid to any visiting team playing an official game. Ranking as the worst drawing card for any team in the league, Paris made far more money on the road than at home, and other Texas League owners dreaded their arrival, knowing the crowd would not pay to watch an uncompetitive game. In fact, in most cases, owners hosting the Midlands were lucky to earn any profit after paying the guarantee. But, the inconvenience didn’t deter the Midlands. Undoubtedly, E.H.R. Green had grown tired of losing money in baseball and ordered team management to avoid financial losses at all costs.
With the team scheduled to spend another night in Galveston before catching a train out to San Antonio the next morning, Boland and Burns realized a shortened game would allow for an overnight train ride, saving hotel costs. So, as Paris quickly fell behind the Sand Crabs, the managers looked to the skies and realized a short game would be to their boss’s financial advantage. As the Midlands put up little effort on defense in hopes the rain would soon begin, the umpire, apparently warned in advance of Paris’ tactics, immediately forfeited the game to Galveston. Mission accomplished. E.H.R. Green saved twenty dollars, and Galveston gleefully accepted the unearned victory as they fought for the league championship.
Limping into San Antonio early the next morning, the weary Midlands put up little fight against the Bronchos a few hours later and played with even less heart over the last 20 games of the season, which they finished with a 5-15 record. The Midlands combined 41 wins in both halves of 1897 left Paris as the cellar dweller in the overall standings, 34-1/2 games behind the champion Sand Crabs, and nearly ten games behind 7th place Dallas.
His endeavor into professional baseball a financial disaster and personal embarrassment, E.H.R. Green moved on to more lucrative pursuits the following year. He quickly built the Texas Midland Railroad, for whom he had named his baseball franchise, into a Texas empire linking the remote northeastern counties to Dallas-Fort Worth and South Texas. Undoubtedly the hotel costs he saved that afternoon in Galveston contributed greatly to his success.
Anthony “Tony” Valle Thebo was born of baseball royalty, at least in Lamar County circles. George, Tony’s father, is the unheralded pioneer of the game in Paris, having introduced the city to baseball when he emigrated from Canada after the Civil War. Over the next thirty years, George watched proudly as both the Thebo family and baseball found a home in Paris.
The second of George Thebo’s three sons, Tony was born in 1881 and tagged along as his father attended impromptu amateur games held in open lots and pastures around Paris. By the mid-1890s Tony had taken up the game himself, mentored by his older brother’s friend, future Texas Leaguer Ben Shelton. Local baseball cranks soon took note of Tony’s skills in the field and on the bases, and by century’s end, Texas League clubs clamored to sign him to a contract.
Officially, Tony Thebo debuted professionally in 1902, a year after his father’s death. Family legend, though, says Tony actually began his career a couple of years earlier under an assumed name, his conservative Catholic mother refusing to hear of him mingling with notoriously heavy drinking and rowdy ballplayers. Regardless, Tony’s name first appears in the Texas League record books as a member of his hometown’s 1902 franchise. Following a season in the Cotton States League, Thebo returned to the Texas League in 1904 and became a mainstay, playing in eight cities over the next decade.
Newspaper accounts describe Tony Thebo as a speedy outfielder who could throw a runner out at any base from seemingly anywhere on the field. His weakness was at the plate, where Tony was said to sport an underhand swing that lifted short fly balls to waiting outfielders. While his .228 career batting average likely cost Thebo any shot at the big leagues, when he did get on base, Tony distracted opponents with the speed that served him so well defensively. His 90 stolen bases in 1908 remain the “modern” Texas League record over a century later.
Interestingly, Thebo’s most productive season was 1917, his last as a full-time professional. Returning to play in Paris for the first time in 15 years, he hammered 19 home runs and accounted for 217 total bases in the Class D Western Association. After a three year hiatus, Thebo attempted a comeback in the Mississippi State League, but at 39 years old, he appeared in only 14 games.
By 1922, Tony Thebo had retired from baseball, living with his wife Anne in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and working as a cotton inspector. His job eventually led the couple to move to Temple, where Tony lived the remainder of his life, dying of a heart attack in January, 1966. He is buried next to his wife in Temple’s Hillcrest Cemetery.
While Tony Thebo’s name continues to be listed in the Texas League record book, his family’s name has not appeared in a Paris directory in decades. In Evergreen Cemetery, though, a small number of Thebo headstones are grouped tightly, including that of George, who not only introduced Paris to baseball but whose son had one of the longest professional careers of any Northeast Texas native.
When Roxton Texas’early settlers arrived in the late 1870s, professional baseball was well on its way to establishing itself as the national pastime. In the 150 years since, Lamar, Delta, and Fannin Counties have turned out a number of professional ballplayers at both the minor and major league levels. Over the next several columns, we’ll take a look at these old ballplayers, some who went onto memorable careers and others whose names and accomplishments have been lost to history.
When it comes to impact on the game, no Lamar County personality meant more to baseball than Ben Shelton. Born in 1878 to an Alabama cotton buyer, Ben moved to Paris as a young boy, and by the mid-1890s had become one of the city’s best ballplayers. Youngsters gazed with awe of his skill on the diamond, and Shelton repaid their admiration by offering tips on the finer points of the game. In 1899, Shelton signed on with the Texas League, splitting the season between Houston and Galveston. His modest .236 batting average raised few eyebrows, but Shelton did finish the year as an infielder with the champion Galveston Sand Crabs. Over the next two seasons, Shelton honed his batting skills in the Pacific Northwest. He returned to Texas in 1902, a .300 hitter with home run power.
Over the course of the next several years, several teams offered Ben Shelton his shot at the major leagues, but “Gentleman” Ben, so named for his mild temperament, had no interest in leaving Texas again. Except for a short stint with Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in the Cotton States League, Shelton played the remainder of his career in the Texas League in ten cities, including Paris. Shelton appeared in nearly 1,000 games over the course of 11 seasons, retiring in 1909 after declaring he was “too fat to play.”
While Shelton succeeded as a player, he excelled as a manager. His 1906 Cleburne Railroaders took the Texas League pennant in the city’s only season in the league. But, winning the championship was far from Shelton’s greatest accomplishment of the season. Against his manager’s wishes, Cleburne owner Doak Roberts’ signed Hubbard, Texas, amateur pitcher Tristam Speaker to a mid-season contract. After a few unimpressive outings, the entire Railroaders roster soured on the youngster’s arrogance and penchant for fighting. Just as he was mulling over releasing Speaker, Shelton watched as the young pitcher shagged pregame flies in the outfield. His keen eye immediately recognized this pitcher was, in fact, no pitcher at all. Tris Speaker was a natural outfielder, who over the remainder of the season, Shelton groomed into the most prized ballplayer in Texas. The conversion became legendary, as a year later Speaker left Texas for a 22-year major league career with the Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians. Over 100 years later, Tris Speaker remains among baseball’s most heralded outfielders, elected to the Hall of Fame in 1937.
While his discovery spent the next two decades shattering baseball’s records, Ben Shelton retired quietly into the cotton business and never stepped on a professional ball field after 1909. A life-long bachelor, Ben Shelton died in Terrell on January 5, 1945, and is buried beneath a modest headstone in Paris’ Evergreen Cemetery, his name merely a footnote in baseball history.