By Mark Presswood
Sports teams have for many years cast a magical spell over Texas cities and towns, giving citizens a pride in the community while providing a social gathering for otherwise distant neighbors. High school football currently provides this excitement, and stadiums are full during Friday night home games under the lights.
Not so long ago, it was professional minor league baseball that entertained fans throughout Texas. Over 100 communities in Texas have hosted a professional baseball team. The Texas League, established in 1888, has been the most well-known and continuous circuit for the larger cities of San Antonio, Houston, Fort Worth, Dallas, Beaumont, El Paso, Waco, Wichita Falls and Midland. Round Rock, Corpus Christi and Frisco are new additions to the Texas League family of franchises, but 50 years ago, fans sat in dimly lit ballparks rooting for the Paris Red Peppers, the Plainview Ponies and the Vernon Dusters.
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In its early years, the Texas League, like any new business, was struggling to stay organized and turn a profit. The Spanish-American War stopped operations in 1898, as would other wars in later years. From 1899 through 1902, only the southern teams survived under another league designation, and the northern cities, except for a one-year run by Dallas, struggled to find organization. Travel was a major concern as new railroad tracks were still to be laid and a wagon trip between cities was an all-day or two-day excursion. The Texas League was a split league from 1902 through the 1906 season, with the northern cities keeping the Texas League name and the southern cities using the South Texas League moniker. During those years, Sherman-Denison, Corsicana and Paris all experienced their brief Texas League histories.
During this early era, all minor league baseball teams were independent clubs with talent being bought and sold throughout the country. There was little governance or rules about players leaving teams and finding higher pay. In 1901, the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues was formed to give the minor league a structure and rules between leagues. This led to the classification system of leagues but affiliation with major league teams was still 30 to 40 years away. Branch Rickey is credited with starting the affiliation of major league teams with minor league programs when, as general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, he purchased the Houston Buffalos and other teams. The idea was to control costs of purchasing players from independent teams and to teach the same techniques at all levels as the players progressed. The concept quickly caught on and by the 1940s, all major league teams began building their minor league systems.
The Texas League eventually earned a high ranking of Class AA baseball but many of the smaller leagues carried a Class B, C or D classification. This was by no means an indication of the talent; most circuits had an alumnus who found his way onto a major league roster.
There have been minor leagues in Texas every decade of the last century. Professional baseball has been played from the mountains of El Paso to the Louisiana border in Texarkana and from the plains of Amarillo to the tip of Texas in Brownsville. Economic prosperity, competitive spirit and a love of the game has allowed baseball to entertain fans for almost 125 years.
The Panhandle region of Texas witnessed professional baseball starting in the early 1920s. The West Texas League, West Texas/New Mexico League, Longhorn League and Sophomore League all provided organization to baseball in the wide-open plains of West Texas. These leagues also included many towns in southeastern New Mexico and introduced professional baseball to Roswell, Artesia, Hobbs, Carlsbad and Clovis. The dry, arid and windy conditions of West Texas gave enormous flight to home runs, and many big hitters took advantage of those prevailing winds. Pitchers hated seeing fly balls rocket out of parks, but it became a big favorite of fans to root for their big sluggers. Joe Baumann of the Roswell Rockets broke longstanding home run records when he belted 72 round-trippers in 1954. In 1947, a small shortstop named Bill Serena led all of baseball with 57 homers and led the league in RBIs (190) and runs (183) playing for the Lubbock Hubbers.
The first western Texas circuit, the West Texas League (1920–1922 and 1928–1929) was a short-lived affair in the oil towns of Cisco, Eastland, Gorman, Coleman, Winters, Abilene, Sweetwater and San Angelo. The nicknames for several teams reflected the oil industry impact, such as the Nitros in Ranger and the Gassers in Amarillo. The area’s western heritage was also represented by the Midland Colts; the Big Spring Cowboys; the Coleman Bobcats; and the Colts, Bronchos and Sheep Herders of San Angelo. The Resorters of Mineral Wells gave recognition to the mineral water baths of the Crazy Water area, and the Hubbers in Lubbock recognized the “Hub City” nickname. The oil prosperity also gave rise to other opportunities, such as Conrad Hilton’s purchase of his first hotel in the home of the Cisco Scouts.
The West Texas/New Mexico League was by far the most stable of the West Texas organizations and reigned from 1937 through the 1955 season, with the exception, as with many leagues, of the war years (1943–1945). Abilene, Pampa, Amarillo, Lubbock, Borger and Lamesa were stable throughout the league’s tenure, but El Paso and Plainview replace Borger and Lamesa, respectively, near the league’s end. El Paso spent many years in the Arizona/Texas League as the lone Texas representative.
After helping to establish the Abilene franchise in the WT/NM League, Abilene sports reporter Howard Green became the youngest president of a minor league. He accomplished this in 1947 when he began a nine-year run as president of the Longhorn League. The Longhorn League provided a framework for teams in the southern part of the Panhandle and offered fans in Midland, Odessa, Big Spring, Sweetwater, Vernon, San Angelo and Ballinger a chance to root for their home-town team. The Midland Indians, Odessa Oilers and Big Spring Broncs were all former members of the WT/NM League before moving to the Longhorn League, as were several of the southern New Mexico teams.
The Blue Sox of Abilene played in Blue Sox Stadium on the northeast corner of Barrow and South 14th streets, currently home to an H-E-B grocery store. Plainview showcased the Ponies at Jaycee Park, and Kokernot Field in Alpine still serves as home to the Sul Ross State University baseball team after having hosted the Alpine Cowboys for several years. The Lubbock Hubbers played at Rosenthal Field near the railroad tracks and Vernon Avenue and Midland built Christensen Stadium in 1952 before moving to the new First American Bank Ballpark in 2002.
Oil also had an impact on the eastern part of the state and made boom towns of Kilgore, Marshall and Henderson. Oil brought in millions of dollars to local coffers and, more importantly for professional baseball, it brought in oilfield workers who needed the escape an evening of minor league baseball could offer.
The East Texas League name was used six times to organize the cities of East Texas. Twice the league changed its name to the Lone Star League, and in one stretch during the Great Depression, it became the Dixie and West Dixie leagues.
The prosperity of oil gave fans the Cannibals of Longview; the Oilers of Henderson; the Rangers, Boomers and Drillers of Kilgore; the Jax of Jacksonville; the Indians, Tigers and Browns of Marshall; and the Trojans, Tigers and East Texans of Tyler. Other teams that were brief members of the East Texas Leagues at different stages include the Gladewater Bears; the Paris Bearcats, Panthers and Red Peppers; the Palestine Pals; the Sulphur Springs Lions, Saints and Spartans; the Lufkin Foresters; and the Texarkana Liners and Bears.
Driller Park in Kilgore is still a jewel supporting local high school and community college baseball teams. Built in 1947 from oilfield materials, the park hosted a 2006 exhibition game between the Fort Worth Cats and Shreveport Sports where nearly 2,000 fans witnessed professional baseball for the first time in many years. The remains of Henderson Park in Henderson can still be seen behind the old middle school at Fair Park and South High streets. The Jacksonville Jax played at the current rodeo arena on the corner of Mulberry and Bridge streets, with home plate in the northwest corner of the lot.
One of the more successful and longest running leagues borrowed a reference for the state of Texas and called itself the Big State League. This effort began in 1947 and continued through the 1957 season. Wichita Falls, Waco, Greenville, Gainesville, Temple, Austin, Texarkana and Sherman-Dennison were the heart of the league. In later years when financial circumstances caused a movement among teams, Bryan, Paris, Galveston, Beaumont, Port Arthur, Tyler and Corpus Christi were members when needed. Rated a Class B league for much of its history, the circuit also featured some of the most famous executives in Texas baseball lore. J. Walter Morris served as president from 1947–1950, Howard Green replaced Morris through the 1955 season, and Howard Sayles led the league until its demise in 1957.
The Pioneers in Austin played at Disch Field, currently an empty pasture behind the Convention Center south of downtown, and the Gainesville Owls played at Locke Field on Interstate 35 in Gainesville. All that remains of Majors Field in Greenville are the bricked archways marking the entrance to the stadium on Lee Street. Travis Field in Bryan is still playable, and the Brazos Valley Bombers began calling the park home for the 2007 season of the Texas Collegiate League.
Katy Park, formerly at the corner of Eighth and Webster streets in Waco, was the first ballpark to host a night game in 1933 when the Texas League Waco Cubs hosted the Fort Worth Cats. Train tracks ran to the park’s west side, and then–General Manager Buster Chatham constantly complained about the trains being parked so close to the front entrance of the ballpark. In May 1953, a tornado ripped through Waco destroying much of Katy Park, but Chatham found refuge in a large engine car and never again complained about the trains.
The precursor to the Big State League was the Central Texas and Texas Association leagues of the late 1910s and early 1920s. The Texas Association featured the Marlin Bathers, the Mexia Gushers, the Terrell Terrors and the Palestine Pals. It also included teams from Austin, Corsicana, Sherman, Temple and Waco.
The Gulf Coast region of Texas has been home to several leagues whose founders believed the good weather, close proximity of cities and a love of baseball would signal good fortunes in the ticket office. The first organized leagues fielded teams in 1910, 1911 and 1931 but a more successful post-WWII Rio Grande Valley League had a two-year run before being morphed into the Gulf Coast League. The Galveston White Caps, Texas City Texans, Brownsville Charros, Port Arthur Sea Hawks, Laredo Apaches, Harlingen Capitols, McAllen Giants and Palms, and the Corpus Christi Aces and Seahawks all competed for Gulf Coast supremacy.
In 1976 and 1977, a brief attempt at independent baseball was organized to bring baseball to a new generation of fans. Mr. Baseball, Bobby Bragan, with help from several others including Bill Wood, Dick King and Howard Green, found support for new franchises in Beeville, Seguin, Baton Rouge, Victoria, Corpus Christi and Harlingen (Rio Grande Valley). The Gulf States League changed names the following year to the Lone Star League and was unceremoniously blown away at the end of 1977 when a hurricane pelted Cabiness Field in Corpus Christi resulting in a cancelled championship series and an abrupt end to the attempt.
Robinson Park served as home to the Texas City Stars, Fairgrounds Park hosted the Seguin Toros, and Joe Hunter Field on the campus of Bee County Junior College was home to the Beeville Bees and Blazers.
Many cities experienced only brief flirtations with professional baseball, either as members of a single season forgotten league or a mid-season replacement for troubled franchises. Brenham, Bay City, Corsicana, Crockett, Donna-Weslaco, Del Rio, Ennis, Hamlin, Kaufman, Hillsboro, Mission, Nacogdoches, Rusk, Waxahachie and Winters are but a few of the cities and towns that entertained fans with the “National Pastime,” though for a fleeting moment.
Recently, independent baseball has again revived professional minor league teams for many smaller markets. The defunct Texas Louisiana/Central Baseball League had teams in Tyler, Lubbock and Abilene. Former members Fort Worth and Coastal Bend (Robstown) are now part of the Independent American Association, and Amarillo, San Angelo, Laredo, Edinburg and Rio Grande Valley (Harlingen) are now having a resurgence in the United League of Professional Baseball.
— written by Mark Presswood for the Texas Almanac 2008–2009. Mr. Presswood is historian for the Fort Worth Cats Baseball Club.