Top 100 Teams
By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
In 1919, the Fort Worth Panthers came on strong to capture the second-half Texas League pennant with a .651 winning percentage. Although a seemingly lofty total, only once in the next six years did the team slip below this mark, either in a full or split season. The main architect behind this success was a former major league infielder who became a legendary minor league manager.
The city of Fort Worth, located in north-central Texas, placed a team in the Texas League in 1902 in the first year of the 20th century stable version of the circuit, coming after years of partial seasons and disarray in the 1880s and 1890s. The Panthers won a pair of pennants a few years later (1905-06) but didn’t taste victory again for more than a dozen years.
Following the 1916 season, the club was purchased by a small group headed by Fort Worth businessman W.K. Stripling, who became the team’s president. Paul A. LaGrave was named business manager and Jake Atz, fired by the previous ownership, was brought back as manager. In his book, “The History of the Texas League,” William B. Ruggles says of LaGrave, “while never titular president, Mr. LaGrave actually operated the Panther team from 1916 to his death in 1929. The directing genius of the Stripling-LaGrave-Atz combination, and regarded as one of the shrewdest baseball men in the minors, he was one of the outstanding figures of Texas League history.” LaGrave, originally from St. Louis, MO, was signed by San Antonio of the South Texas League as an 18-year-old third baseman in 1903. After eight years as a player and manager, he went to work in the Fort Worth club’s office in 1911. He remained as business manager until his untimely death in January 1929. Ruggles says, “LaGrave was a remarkable judge of playing talent responsible for the personnel of the teams that from 1919 through 1925 led the league annually in games won, took six straight pennants and five out of six Dixie Series.”
In 1911, the team began playing in a new facility, Panther Park, which seated 4,600. It was the first steel and concrete stadium in the Texas League and had the first reserved seat section and the first turnstiles in the league. In 1926, a new Panther Park, seating 12,500 and described as a “showplace,” was constructed a few blocks away. Following Paul LaGrave’s death, the park was renamed LaGrave Field.
Jake Atz, the field general of the Fort Worth dynasty, was born John Jacob Zimmerman in Washington, DC, July 1, 1879. He learned the plumber’s trade, then in his early 20s did fairly well financially as a vaudeville comedian. However, his true love was baseball. In 1945, after Atz’s death, Fred Lieb wrote in The Sporting News that “he landed a job (as a second baseman) with a small club in North Carolina around the turn of the century. The club soon got into financial difficulties and paid off the players with what remained in the treasury. The athletes lined up in alphabetical order and by the time they arrived at Zimmerman, the till was empty.” Jake decided he would never be in that position again. When he signed his next contract he was John Jacob Atz, making sure he would be at the head of the line, not the rear. He subsequently had the name change legalized. He reached the majors for the first time in 1902 with his hometown Washington team, going 1-for-10 in three games. After playing for seven minor league clubs in the next five years, he returned to the majors when the Chicago White Sox purchased him from New Orleans late in 1907. Atz was with the White Sox through 1909, batting .209 in 218 games. He was traded to Providence (Eastern) and had his first managerial experience there, replacing Jimmy Collins on June 1, 1911. The Grays were seventh when Atz was appointed, sank to eighth within a month and stayed there. Jake remained with Providence as a player in 1912 and was with New Orleans (Southern) in 1913. He first joined Fort Worth in 1914 and replaced William (Kid) Nance as manager July 7. The Panthers were in fifth place and stayed there the rest of the season. Once again in 1915, Atz began the season as Fort Worth’s second baseman with Nance as manager and again Jake took over the reins, this time on June 15 with the team in fifth place. He brought them home in third place and started the 1916 season as the Panthers’ skipper. Fort Worth was in third place on July 4, 1916 when owner F.M. Weaver gave Atz his “independence” and replaced him with Otto McIver. He finished the season as a player for Galveston. LaGrave brought Atz back as manager in 1917 and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.
Atz remained the Fort Worth manager for the next 12-½ years, winning a Texas League record six consecutive championships (1920-25) and five Dixie Series. He was released on July 1, 1929 with the Panthers in fourth place. He managed Dallas in 1930, Shreveport in 1931 and New Orleans in 1932, his teams finishing in the second division each year. In 1933, Atz started the season as a Texas League umpire, but on May 18 he was signed to manage Fort Worth again, replacing ex-major league first baseman Walter Holke. The Cats wound up the season in seventh place. He managed Tulsa in 1934 and the Oilers had a decent 77-75 record, but finished fifth, a game out of fourth place and missed the playoffs. He was out of baseball in 1935. In 1936, Atz replaced Jack Mealey as manager of Galveston on May 29, but had little talent to work with and finished last. The next year he worked in the Galveston front office. In 1938, he was president and manager of Harlingen in the one-year Class D Texas Valley League. His Hubs, with a Detroit working agreement, finished second. His son, Jake Atz, Jr., was the team’s treasurer and business manager. Father and son filled the same positions with Henderson in the Class C East Texas League in 1939-40. That team, again a Detroit affiliate, finished second in 1939 and won the playoffs. In 1940, they won the second half of a split season, but lost the playoffs. Atz’s last job in baseball was managing the Tigers’ farm club at Winston-Salem in the Class B Piedmont League in 1941, a last-place team. In his 27 years as a manager, Jake Atz’s teams posted a 1,972-1,619, .549 record.
When LaGrave took over in 1917, he began to put together the components of a championship team. By the time he was finished, only one player on the 1920 roster, shortstop Bobby Stow, remained from the fifth-place losers of 1916. Pitcher Bill Whittaker and outfielder Rhino Williams were added in 1917 as the team won 20 more games and jumped up to second place, 5-½ games behind Dallas. In the war-shortened season of 1918, the Panthers again came in second, but narrowed Dallas’ winning margin to 3-½ games. LaGrave added the great lefty-righty combination of Joe Pate and Paul Wachtel, plus slugging first baseman Clarence (Big Boy) Kraft and outfielder Ziggy Sears. In 1919, the Panthers brought in pitcher Dick Robertson, catchers Homer Haworth and Possum Moore, infielders Frank Haley and Dutch Hoffman, and outfielder Ray O’Brien. Fan support was good in that first postwar season, but the weather was not. With an unprecedented number of rainouts, the Texas League directors voted in late June to split the season for the first time in 12 years and to lengthen the schedule by two weeks. When the first half ended July 3, Fort Worth was in second place, 7-½ games behind Shreveport. In the second half, Shreveport faded to fifth place and the Panthers won by 7-½ games over Houston. Overall, Fort Worth had the best record, 94-61, .610, six games better than Shreveport. However, the Panthers lost the playoff, 4 games to 2 with one tie.
Only two new players were added to the Panthers roster in 1920, veteran ex-National League infielder Art Phelan as a utilityman and pitcher Roy Appleton. Spring training, held at home, was uneventful except for the presence of a rookie pitcher, Lou Kraft (apparently no relation to Clarence), who was trying to make the team. The Sporting News reported that, “while he was getting free board from LaGrave, Atz & Co., he decided he might as well pick up an extra shekel occasionally. He told the Panther City Athletic Club what an excellent boxer he was. They told young Kraft to go to work. After five days of training he went up against one of the toughest birds in Texas in a preliminary and made his opponent’s seconds throw in the sponge before the bout was three rounds old.” The matchmaker decided to move him up a notch and in his next bout Kraft knocked out an experienced opponent in the second round. Kraft then decided that the ring held more promise than the mound and concentrated on boxing. He knocked out ten of his first eleven opponents. A local promoter, John Flynn, leased Panther Park and decided to stage boxing matches. On his first card, Kraft was in the semi-windup. There was no further mention of Kraft in The Sporting News, but something must have gone amiss with the boxing, because in 1921 he was back in baseball. Kraft pitched for Beaumont in 1921-22 and San Antonio and Galveston in 1923 with a 16-27 record. He led Texas League pitchers in double plays in 1922.
Fort Worth lost the opening game of the 1920 season and two of their first three games. Wichita Falls led after the first two weeks, but the Panthers then took the lead and held it. On June 26, with Fort Worth 8-½ games ahead of second place Shreveport, the league directors again decided to split the season. The Panthers got off to a fast start in the second half, 7-2 at the end of the first week, and were out of first place for only a few days in mid-July when San Antonio was on top. From August 4-15 the Panthers were undefeated in 11 consecutive games, ten wins and a 14-inning 0-0 tie with San Antonio. When the second half ended, Fort Worth had won by 12 games over San Antonio. Their overall record was 108-40, .730, with the highest number of wins in Texas League history up to that time.
As the season neared its end, LaGrave and Texas League president J. Walter Morris challenged the Southern Association to a post-season series that became known as the Dixie Series. When the National Association was founded in 1902, the Southern was a Class B League, upgrading to Class A three years later. The Texas League had to work its way up the ladder from D to C to B as the population of its cities increased. The Southern’s directors voted against the proposed series, but Bob Allen, owner of the Little Rock Travelers, in first place and headed for the league championship, accepted. Before the series started, Fort Worth displayed a rare example of sportsmanship. In the final series of the regular season, Little Rock second baseman George Distel, described by The Sporting News as “the life of the team,” broke his ankle sliding into home plate. When LaGrave heard of the injury he told Allen that “he hoped the Travelers would secure the best second baseman in the Southern Association to fill the vacancy as Fort Worth wished to win the series, if it were so fortunate, from a team which could present no alibi.” Allen then secured permission from Chattanooga to use their second baseman, Bill Gleason, who had out-hit Distel by 20 points and was third in the league in stolen bases.
The series opened in Fort Worth and the Panthers took both games played there, 3-2 and 4-2 behind Whittaker and Robertson. The next three games were played in Little Rock with the Travelers winning the first and third, 5-2 and 4-3. The second contest ended in a ten-inning 2-2 tie, called because of darkness. In the 5-2 game, Pate and Wachtel were roughed up, allowing a total of 14 hits, while Little Rock ace Moses Yellowhorse held the Panthers to five safeties. An oddity of that game was that Little Rock first baseman Bill (Chief) Wano had only one putout, on a foul pop fly. Two days later, Yellowhorse, with relief help from Claude Jonnard, was the winner again. Little Rock had only four hits, but Pate walked six batters. Back home at Panther Park the next day, Fort Worth took the series lead on Wachtel’s 6-0 five-hitter. Returning to Little Rock the following day, the Panthers won the series, taking advantage of five Travelers errors for a 4-2 victory. Whittaker gave up 12 hits and four walks, but bore down in the tight situations and Little Rock stranded 12 base runners. Whittaker was the pitching star of the series, winning two of the four Panther victories, pitching three complete games, including the ten-inning tie, and relieved once. He worked a total of 29 innings.
Winning was financially rewarding for the Panthers players. Each player received $550 from the Dixie Series proceeds, they split $5,000 from the Fort Worth Baseball Association and another $2,000 from an “admiration fund” of contributions from fans. That adds up to $887 for each of the 16 players. The average salary in the Texas League in 1920 was $165 a month.
In two respects, the roster and the lineup, the 1920 Fort Worth Panthers were unique in baseball annals. Only 19 players appeared in a Panther uniform and that includes Atz, who played second base in the last few innings of the final game of the regular season. Fifteen men were with the team all year. Infielder Olen Nokes pinch-hit in one game the first week of the season and was sold on waivers to Dallas. A rookie pitcher with the intriguing name of Happy Jack Kotzelnick relieved in three games and was farmed out to Cisco in the West Texas League. Rookie southpaw Gus Johns, who became a Panther star in future years, was picked up in July from Wichita Falls.
The lineup was even more unusual. The batting order never varied. It was the same from opening day to the last game of the Dixie Series: Stow, ss; Sears, lf; Williams, rf; Kraft, 1b; Hoffman, 2b; Haley, 3b; O’Brien, cf; Haworth or Moore, c. Stow, Kraft and O’Brien played every inning. Hoffman and Sears missed two games each, Williams nine. Haley was sidelined 11 days near the end of the season by a hand injury. When those players were out of the lineup they were replaced by Phelan, who batted in the same slot as the man for whom he was substituting. The team used only nine men in 100 of the 151 games.
Despite their success on the field, the Panthers did not lead the league in any team batting department. They were second in fielding (.970), just two points behind San Antonio and led in assists (2,033). As with most of the LaGrave-Atz teams, the main strength of the 1920 Panthers was their pitching staff. The “Big Four” starters, Pate, Wachtel, Whittaker and Robertson won 96 of the team’s 108 victories. The starter went the distance in 126 of the 151 games. Pate (26-8, 1.71) and Wachtel (26-10, 2.43) tied for the league lead in wins. Pate also led in ERA and shutouts (9), and tied for second in complete games (31). Whattaker (24-6, 2.25) led in percentage (.800) and was third in wins. In May he won eight games without a loss. Robertson (20-7, 1.98) was second in ERA and shutouts (8).
Robert William (Bill) Whittaker also was known as Buzzer and Bad-Eye Bill. A 5’7 ½ “ right-hander, he was 29 and in his 11th year in pro ball in 1920. Later in his career, when he was pitching for Shreveport, local sports editor Otis Harris described Whittaker as “squint-eyed, hog-fat, but smart as a steel trap behind his rather grotesque appearance.” The Sporting News once described him as “one of the most colorful figures in minor league baseball.” Whittaker began his pro career with La Crosse in the Minnesota-Wisconsin League in 1910. On August 12, 1913, while with Keokuk (Central Association) he pitched 21 shutout innings in a double-header against Waterloo, allowing only five hits. He won the first game 2-0 in nine innings, then pitched a 12-inning 1-0 shutout which he capped by scoring the winning run. He arrived in the Texas League in 1917 with Galveston and was acquired by Fort Worth during that season. He pitched for the Panthers through 1922, winning 20 or more games four times (21 in 1917, 24 in 1919-20 and 23 in 1921). His only shot at the majors came when the Boston Red Sox purchased his contract after the 1920 season, but he was returned to Fort Worth before the 1921 season began. From 1923-25 Whittaker pitched for New Orleans and in 1923 went 19-12, 2.66 in helping the Pelicans to the Southern Association championship. He pitched for Shreveport in 1926-27, but his arm was gone and his career was over.
Fort Worth’s other 20-game winner was 29-year-old right-hander Preston (Dick) Robertson, like Wachtel a spitball specialist. Robertson attended Georgetown University in his hometown of Washington, DC. In his first pro year, 1911, he was 16-26 and led the South Atlantic League in losses. Two years later, with the same team, he went 28-8 and led the league in wins, percentage (.778) and strikeouts (235). He was purchased by Cincinnati and was 0-1, 7.20 in two games at the end of the season. He pitched the next five years in the Southern Association with Birmingham and New Orleans. In 1918 he was 10-1 for New Orleans when the league suspended play because of the government’s work-or-fight order and finished the season with Brooklyn, posting a 3-6, 2.59 record. He started 1919 with New Orleans, then was bought by Washington. After going 0-2, 2.25 for the Senators he was released to Fort Worth. He won 11 and lost only 1 and had an infinitesimal 1.16 ERA. Robertson was with Houston in 1921, then retired from the game. He attempted a comeback in 1927 with Shreveport, then left the game for good.
Sears, who batted .279, was the only Panther who led the league in any offensive category with 37 doubles. The switch-hitting Hoffman (.322) was the team’s only .300 hitter, fifth in the league. Williams was second on the team (.280). Rinaldo C. (Rhino) Williams, 26, from Santa Cruz, CA, was one of the limited number of players who were with two Top 100 teams in different leagues in successive seasons. Williams played for the Memphis Chicks in 1921.
1920 was the last year of the “dead ball” era in the Texas League as a statistical comparison with the following year indicates. The 1920 Panthers batted .257, scored 619 runs and hit 32 homers. The 1921 edition that won just one game less hit .286, scored 825 runs and hit 84 home runs. The 1920 team hit one more home run than Kraft alone hit in 1921. Kraft batted .258 with 6 home runs and a team-high 86 RBI in 1920. The next season he hit .352 with 31 homers and 141 RBI and those figures were typical of his record during the remainder of his Fort Worth career. (The careers of Kraft, Pate, Wachtel, Johns, Sears, Hoffman and Moore are detailed in the reports of Fort Worth’s other Top 100 teams.)
Behind Atz, the Panthers went on to win the next five Texas League pennants. In 1921, 1922, 1924 and 1925, the league opted for a split-season format, most halves of which Fort Worth won with ease. In 1923, the league decided to take its chances in a full-season format but the Panthers won the flag anyway with a 96-56, .632 record. Although a good record, it wasn’t up to the level of the other Fort Worth champions. As a result, the ’23 Panthers were the only entry in the Fort Worth string of champions in the early 1920s not to be included in the Top 100.
In their remaining years in the Texas League, the team won a smattering of titles. They included a second-half crown in 1930 and playoff titles in 1937 and 1939. Another run of success came in the late 1940s when the team finished either first or second four years running (1946-49). Imbedded in this streak was a regular season title in 1946, a playoff champion in 1948 and a regular season pennant in 1949. The team left the league for good following the 1964 season. Eight years later, the region was represented in baseball by the Texas Rangers who moved west from Washington.
Led by the legendary Jake Atz, the Fort Worth dynasty in the early 1920s ranks as one of the top pennant strings in the history of the national pastime. Noteworthy in the skein were the 1920 Texas League champions, whose .730 overall winning percentage ranks as the second best total in league history.
|1920 Texas League Standings|
|FT. WORTH||108||40||.730||-||SAN ANTONIO||79||71||.527||30.0|
|1920 Ft. Worth Panthers batting statistics|
|Big Boy Kraft||1B||151||554||62||143||86||22||8||6||57||77||30||.258|
|Bad Eye Bill Whittaker||P||35||104||9||19||8||3||0||2||3||32||0||.182|
|Gus Johns (Wichita Falls)||P||13||19||0||1||2||0||0||0||0||2||0||.053|
|1920 Ft. Worth Panthers pitching statistics|
|Bad Eye Bill Whittaker||24||6||.800||37||27||4||281||256||66||84||2.25|
|Gus Johns (Wichita Falls)||4||1||.800||13||4||1||73||64||29||39||2.43|
|Happy Jack Kotzelnick||0||0||----||3|