Digging through the annals and old minor league box scores, one occasionally comes across a player whose performance dazzles the mind. Whether it was for a day, a week, a season, or several years, many outstanding players toiled in the minors their entire careers, never getting a whiff of the big leagues. For some, it was a choice; for others, it was circumstances. Why John Sears never got his shot is unknown.
John William Sears was born in Kentucky in 1892, the oldest son of Mattie and George Sears, a Muhlenberg County coal miner. The Sears family, like most in the area, was poor. Appalachia let few people escape the clutch of poverty, and when his mother died when he was a teenager, John seemed destined to follow in his father’s footsteps. By the time he turned 18, John worked the dark coal mines, playing a little baseball on the side, possibly for the company team. As it turned out, even Appalachia liked baseball, and the sport became John’s ticket from what might have been a short life as a miner.
By 1912, John Sears broke into professional baseball in the Bluegrass League. Over the course of the next three seasons, he batted about .280 while playing outfield for small leagues in nearby Tennessee and Illinois. His clean break from Appalachian life came in 1914 when he finished out the season with the Central League franchise in Marshalltown, Iowa. He remained in the area until 1917, playing for teams in Clinton and Dubuque, then he made his way to Texas and signed with the Texas League’s Fort Worth Panthers.
Sears’ arrival in Fort Worth did little to impress legendary Texas League manager Jake Atz. Stating that he didn’t believe in having anyone named “John” playing on his team, Atz attached the nickname of a recently released player, “Ziggy” Shears, to his new outfielder. The name stuck for the rest of John “Ziggy” Sears’ life.
Ziggy arrived in Fort Worth in time to become a major player in the Panthers’ roaring ‘20’s dominance of the Texas League. After finishing in second place in 1917, Fort Worth duplicated the effort in the war-shortened 1918 season, both times falling a few games shy of the champion Dallas Giants. As 1919 approached, Fort Worth signed one of the Texas League’s earliest affiliation agreements with a major league club, becoming a farm team of the Detroit Tigers. Ziggy played a league-leading 158 games that season and helped lead his club to a first place finish, 8.5 games in front of second place Shreveport. But, when the playoffs arrived, Shreveport outlasted the Panthers and was crowned champion. It would be several years before Ziggy Sears or the Panthers would be denied again.
In 1920, Ziggy hit his stride, batting .279 and leading the league in doubles as the Panthers posted 108 wins, besting second-place Wichita Falls by 23 games. At season’s end, the Texas League Champions took on Southern Association pennant winner Little Rock in the first of several “Dixie Series.” Fort Worth was crowned as champion of the South with a 4-2 series win.
The quality of play in 1920 encouraged baseball moguls to upgrade the Texas League to a Class A circuit. For the next seven seasons, Fort Worth dominated minor league baseball in the southern United States winning an incredible 632 games, a .684 winning percentage. Along the way, they collected six consecutive Texas League pennants and five Dixie Series trophies. And, all the while, Ziggy Sears only got better, steadily increasing his average until he became a durable, power-hitting, seemingly flawless outfielder for what was arguably among the greatest baseball dynasties in history. Yet, Ziggy saved his best for one spring series in San Antonio against the formidable San Antonio Bears.
In 1925, Jake Atz began his twelfth consecutive season as manager or co-manager of the Fort Worth Panthers. The second half of that stint he had led his team to a nearly flawless record, claiming six consecutive Texas League pennants. But, Atz couldn’t take all of the credit himself. A steady stream of iron men and pitching workhorses passed through Fort Worth, not the least of which was John William “Ziggy” Sears, a Kentucky-born former coal miner who had made a name for himself in the Texas League. Entering his 14th year of professional baseball, Ziggy had just come off the best season of his career, posting a .323 batting average, his third consecutive season of double digit home runs, and having committed just 8 errors in nearly 300 fielding chances. At 33 years of age, the veteran showed no signs of slowing down.
As had become expected, the Panthers burst out of the gate in April and by mid-May led the league with a 20-8 record. Unexpectedly, though, the San Antonio Bears had matched Fort Worth’s pace, and as the Panthers train rolled into the Alamo City on May 19, only one game separated the two teams, with three to be played before Fort Worth left town. The Bears had finished in the middle of the pack a season earlier, but with a powerful offense and formidable pitching staff, over a month into the 1925 season, the team was challenging the perennial champion for supremacy. The Panthers new it was time to make a statement, and Ziggy Sears was up to the challenge.
Fort Worth only needed one inning to send the Bears the message that the Panthers were still the class of the Texas League. In the first inning of game one, Ziggy Sears and two teammates hit home runs and by the bottom of the second inning held an 8-0 lead. But, Ziggy was far from done. By the end of the afternoon, Fort Worth had beaten San Antonio 19-8 behind Ziggy Sears’ three home runs, a double, and a modern professional baseball record 11 runs batted in. A day later, the consequences for San Antonio were even more dire.
While Ziggy Sears hit another home run in game two of the series, he did most of his damage on the base paths, racking up five singles and five runs while having a 6-8 afternoon at the plate. The rest of the lineup got in on the act as well, with every player other than the pitcher having multiple hits and runs scored in a 29-9 thrashing of San Antonio. The 4,000 spectators who just 24 hours earlier were geared up to watch the hometown club capture first place, could only look on in awe of the offensive spectacle before them. With another game to go, saving face seemed impossible.
As luck would have it, on May 21, San Antonio managed to gain a 4-2 lead over the Panthers at the end of two innings. But, in the top of the third, the floodgates opened. Over the next four innings, Panther bats pounded the Bears pitching staff for 22 runs, Ziggy Sears adding another two home runs to his series total while batting 4-5 on the afternoon. The Panthers once again flogged their opponent, this time by a score of 24-12. With the frustration mounting, when the home plate umpire ejected a San Antonio batter in the fifth inning, the simmering crowd reached a boil. The Bears manager erupted from the dugout to protest, and the crowd urged him to physically assault the umpire. As neither the manager nor ejected player left the field, the umpire summoned the police, at which point over 100 spectators ran onto the field, at least one breaking through the swarm of policeman to strike the umpire in the head. To prevent further escalation, the San Antonio constable ordered the police to escort both umpires from the field. With the ruckus quelled, the game continued with substitute umpires, one of which was a San Antonio police officer. Regardless of who was behind the plate, the Bears proved they were not yet in the same league with the Fort Worth Panthers. Following the series, Fort Worth continued on to capture another pennant with 103 victories, while San Antonio returned to its normal position in the middle of the Texas League standings.
For Ziggy Sears, the three games in San Antonio became a career highlight. His 14 hits in 18 at-bats, 12 runs scored, 6 homes runs, and 16 runs batted in remain in the records books today. Ziggy came to San Antonio with something to prove, and when he left few doubted the Panthers were, once again, the class of the league.
Following the 1925 season, Sears’ career rapidly declined. He posted decent statistics in 1926, but Fort Worth fell short of its seventh consecutive pennant. The following season, Sears left the Panthers for San Antonio before finishing out his career in Waco and Shreveport. When he hung up his playing spikes after the 1928 season, Ziggy had accomplished just about everything a ballplayer could have hoped; however, he never played on a big league roster.
After his retirement, Ziggy Sears began a career as an umpire, working the Texas circuit for a number of seasons until 1934, when the National League called on him to be a major league umpire. He remained there for 11 seasons, umpiring an All-Star game and two World Series. Later, he took his officiating skills to the college level, serving as a football and basketball referee in the Southwest Conference.
Eventually, Ziggy became a scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates and moved to Houston. He died there on December 16, 1956, of an aortic aneurysm. Along with his long-time manager Jake Atz, Sears is a member of the Texas League Hall of Fame.