By Mark Presswood
Though much has been written and researched about the Negro National and American professional leagues, little is known about black minor league and semiprofessional baseball in Texas. Unfortunately, the major newspapers of the day, whose archives are readily available, carried little information about black ballgames or their organization, and the black newspapers have little or no archives chronicling the early years of organized black baseball.
Dr. Layton Revel, of the Center for Negro League Baseball Research in Dallas, and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City have done a very credible job of gathering interviews and researching what archives exist but still much is not known. What we do know is the great impact Texas-born black baseball stars had not only in Texas but across the nation as they founded and shaped the black baseball leagues. Rube Foster, who was born and raised in Calvert, is credited with the formation of the Negro National League in 1920.
Foster started playing for amateur and semiprofessional teams in the late 1800s and early 1900s, primarily with teams from Waco and Fort Worth. His skill as a pitcher soon earned him recognition on a national scale, and barnstorming teams throughout the country were securing his services.
Barnstorming was a common occurrence in the early part of the 1900s, as all-star teams would organize, travel around the country, and play local amateur, semiprofessional or professional teams. Professional baseball players were paid specifically to play baseball and were held to that team by contract or team agreement. Semiprofessional players were paid only if the gate receipts exceeded the cost of the event and a profit for the promoter.
Early black baseball teams in Texas were primarily barnstorming semiprofessionals but included some of the best baseball in the nation. The Fort Worth Wonders formed in 1905 and featured at different times George “Dibo” Johnson and Louis “Big Bertha” Santop from Tyler, who both would find recognition as some of the greatest black baseball stars of the era.
Several times during this period attempts were made to form professional leagues in Texas. One of those was a circuit started in 1916 called the Colored Texas League. Fort Worth native Hiram McGar served as league president and also manager of the Fort Worth Black Panthers. Other cities in the league included Cleburne (Yellow Jackets), Dallas, Waco, Houston, San Antonio, Beaumont and Galveston. The teams played a 142-game schedule but travel was difficult and expensive, and it is unknown whether the league finished the season.
In 1920, another attempt at organization led to the formation of the Texas Negro League. McGar again was a leader in the organization and was assisted by A.S. Wells of Dallas. Wichita Falls (Black Spudders), San Antonio (Black Indians), Beaumont, Houston (Black Buffalos), Dallas (Black Giants) and Fort Worth formed the nucleus of teams the first year. Austin (Black Senators), Abilene (Eagles), Paris (Giants), San Angelo and Waco also would field teams in later years. This organization lasted through the 1927 season, when poor economics and other circumstances led to its disbanding.
The next attempt at forming a professional black league happened in 1929. Quincy Gilmore, a former secretary of the Negro National League, called several black community leaders and met at the Pythian Temple in Dallas. Shreveport, Dallas, Houston, Tulsa, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Wichita Falls and Fort Worth were all represented and all agreed to form teams. These teams, as had been done in former leagues, would play in the ballparks of the white Texas League teams when they were on the road and would usually adopt their nickname, though prefaced with the word black.
It was recorded that one game in Dallas between the Black Giants and the Fort Worth Black Panthers drew almost 6,000 fans. William Tresivant of Fort Worth served as the league’s first commissioner, and the league lasted through the 1932 season. The Great Depression caused too many financial difficulties for the league to survive, as was the case with many other minor leagues, both black and white.
The Depression did not deter black ballplayers from playing the game they loved but caused them to return to barnstorming and amateur organizations. The Fort Worth Black Cats, the Mineola Black Spiders, the Waco Tigers, the Jasper Steers and the Dallas Brown Bombers played all over Texas and as far north as Canada. These teams and a few others were recognized as having some of the greatest black baseball talent not in the Negro National or American leagues, and many of these players went on to play in those leagues.
When integration of Major League Baseball occurred in 1947, many of the great stars of the Negro professional leagues turned their attention to playing in the major leagues. This led to an economic decline of professional black leagues, but it was also the only time a Texas city was part of the Negro American League. In 1949, the Newark Eagles were sold and moved to Houston. The Houston Eagles had a two-year run before being sold and moved to New Orleans, but manager “Red” Parnell and Bill “Fireball” Beverly led the team to a competitive finish.
Integration for the Texas League happened shortly thereafter when Dave Hoskins was signed to play for the Dallas Eagles. Maury Wills and Eddie Moore signed with the Fort Worth Cats in 1955, and many other teams followed suit. Shreveport was the lone holdout in the Texas League, and teams visiting Shreveport were given roster exemptions to add white ballplayers to their teams because black players were still not allowed to play in Shreveport. Although integration removed the need to organize professional black leagues, black semiprofessional leagues still offered opportunities not yet offered to all.
The South Texas Negro League and the West Texas Colored League were two examples of strong semiprofessional competition throughout Texas. For many years, a Texas “colored” team championship was held in Waco but was moved to Fort Worth when a tornado tore through Waco’s Katy Park. These segregated leagues also led to an unexpected story when Jerry Craft, who currently is the mayor of Jacksboro, became the first white player in an all-black league. His story is being chronicled by author Kathleen Sullivan in her tentatively titled book Our White Boy, due to be printed by the Southern Methodist University Press Sports Series.
Today the black community is challenged with reintroducing baseball to the black youth. Football and basketball have a stronghold with many in these communities; however, Major League Baseball’s RBI program and other efforts have been formed to spur renewed interest in baseball.
— written by Mark Presswood for the Texas Almanac 2008–2009.