Top 100 Teams
By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
In 1922, for the third time in a row, the Fort Worth Panthers waltzed to an easy Texas League pennant. Two of the more interesting characters playing on this team of veritable all-stars was an outfielder called Ziggy and a catcher known as Possum.
The city of Fort Worth, located just west of Dallas, was a founding member of the Texas League in 1888. During the league’s sporadic existence in the 19th century, the Panthers saw only limited success winning a second half pennant in 1895 and a first half title in 1896.
After an off-and-on first 15 years, the Texas League restarted for good in 1902, albeit as a Class D watered-down circuit. (The southern members of the original 19th century league – Houston, San Antonio, etc. played in a rival loop – the Class C South Texas League through the 1906 season.) In 1905, Fort Worth won the pennant in the upgraded Class C loop by a narrow ˝ game over Temple. The next year, the team won the first half pennant, but had to settle for half of a loaf when the Panthers could not field a team to face the second half winners, Cleburne, in the playoffs. Overall, the Panthers had the best record - .002 ahead of Dallas and .008 over Cleburne. In 1907, with the two halves of the Texas now together, Fort Worth slipped into the second division, not emerging until 1910 with a close third place finish. The team rose to second the following year, but then dropped to the lower echelons once again. In 1917, the Panthers finished second, followed by another runnerup placement in the war-shortened campaign of 1918. The next year, Fort Worth won the second-half title in a prelude to the dynasty that shortly followed.
The 1920 and 1921 Panthers, both top 100 teams, won Texas League pennants. In 1920, Fort Worth was 8 ˝ games ahead of second place Shreveport when the league directors decided to split the season, hoping a fresh start would promote more competition. It didn’t. The Panthers won the second half by 12 games over San Antonio. The 1921 season was a repeat performance. Fort Worth outdistanced second place Houston by 10 games in the first half and 5 ˝ games in the second half. The Panthers’ record was 108-40, .730 in 1920 and 107-51, .677 in 1921.
Fort Worth won again in 1922, but not quite as easily. When spring training began, Jake Atz, manager since 1917, was in a hospital suffering from a severe case of pneumonia. While he was recuperating, he came down with what The Sporting News called “a bum dog.” Whether that was an injury or an infection, the newspaper did not say. By June, he was going to the park every day, but not able to travel with the Panthers or take over active direction of the team from acting manager and third baseman Art Phelan. When Atz did resume managing the team, he had a brace on his leg and walked with a cane. However, The Sporting News said, “his noodle is unimpaired.”
In addition to Atz’s illness, the Panthers were without the league’s top slugger, first baseman Clarence (Big Boy) Kraft for two weeks because of a knee problem. Fort Worth also lost catcher Homer Haworth for almost a month after a freak accident. Haworth was sitting on the bench at Beaumont during batting practice May 26 when a batted ball struck him in the face and fractured his jaw. He’d had another misfortune the year before when, The Sporting News reported, “as an innocent bystander, Haworth was shot in the hip during a street duel between two Texas gunmen and was out for a couple of months.” He was considered one of the best in the league at throwing out base runners. The Panthers’ problems were not confined to players. In late April and again two weeks later, Panther Park was one of the victims of floods which swept over Fort Worth. Three series had to be postponed, leading to an abnormal number of double headers later.
For the first month of the season, Fort Worth, Beaumont and Wichita Falls battled for first place. Then the Panthers took over the lead and except for a few days in early June when Beaumont was on top, Fort Worth led for the rest of the first half. They finished the half with a 50-22, .694 record, seven games ahead of Wichita Falls. The second half started July 2 and again the Panthers and the Spudders contested for first place. Beaumont was no longer a factor in the race. Operating in one of the league’s smallest cities, the Exporters were having financial difficulties and were selling off their better players. They finished last in the second half, winning only 22 of 78 games. Fort Worth won 13 in a row through August 5, but Wichita Falls did even better. They won 25 consecutive games, second only in minor league baseball at that time to the 27 straight won by top 100 Corsicana (Texas) in 1902. That feat put the Spudders in first place temporarily. The 25th victory, won August 12 at Wichita Falls from Dallas 4-3 was protested. Dallas claimed that creosote had been applied to a ball used by Snipe Conley, their spitball pitcher. It doesn’t require much imagination to know what happened when Conley threw the ball and then put his fingers in his mouth for the next spitter. A league meeting was called and the game was forfeited to Dallas. A Wichita Falls player later told a sports writer that one of their players had, in fact, rubbed creosote on the ball. Fort Worth regained the lead at the end of August and by the time the season ended September 14, the Panthers were eight games ahead of the second place Spudders.
On May 2, 1922, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s new radio station, WBAP (still in operation) went on the air. On August 30, the Panthers hosted the Spudders in the first of a crucial five-game series. Wichita Falls (44-19, .698) was one point ahead of Fort Worth (46-20, .697). As related by Bill O’Neal in his book, “The Texas League,” “WBAP sent a man to Panther Park who relayed play-by-play information to an announcer in the downtown studio. Fort Worth won 6-2 and the next afternoon WBAP once more broadcast a relay as the Panthers won again, 7-3. There was an overwhelming reaction from radio listeners, prompting WBAP to send an announcer directly to Panther Park for Friday’s game. Harold Hough, talking into a telephone transmitter connected by 8,000 feet of wire to the studio in the Star-Telegram building, planted himself on an orange crate in the press box and announced a 5-0 Panther shutout. There was no broadcast of the first game of Saturday’s double-header, which the Spudders won 8-2, but Hough was back on his orange crate to broadcast a 4-0 Panther triumph in the second game….WBAP did not broadcast the Dixie Series with Mobile because the station went off the air while replacing its original 20-watt transmitter with a new 500-watt transmitter,” These were the first radio broadcasts of Texas League games.
The Dixie Series between the champions of the Texas League and Southern Association began in 1920 and Fort Worth won the first two battles. Each year, Star-Telegram publisher Amon Carter chartered a special train called “The Dixie Special” to carry Panthers fans to out-of-state games. In 1922 the best-of-seven games series against Mobile opened in Fort Worth and the Panthers won the first two games behind their star pitchers, Joe Pate and Paul Wachtel. This time, Carter also hired a 32-piece band to entertain the Dixie Special passengers and passed out large cowbells to the fans. Unfortunately, it didn’t help the Panthers. Fort Worth didn’t win another game. They lost the first game in Mobile and the second ended in a 6-6 10-inning tie called by darkness. Mobile took the remaining two games at home for a 3-2 series lead. The series moved back to Fort Worth for the seventh game, which the Bears won to capture the series. The Panthers won the Dixie Series the next three years, giving the great Atz teams six out of seven before their Texas League reign ended.
Despite their dominance in the standings, the Panthers were third in batting (.285) and led in only two categories, home runs (84) and walks (593). They were also third in fielding, although their catchers were charged with only five passed balls in 156 games. It was their pitching that told the story. The first five pitchers in the league in ERA and nine of the first twelve, all below 3.00, wore Fort Worth uniforms.
Fort Worth had three 20-game winners. Paul Wachtel, the 34-year-old spitball artist (26-7, 2.43), led the Texas League in wins and shutouts (5), and was second in ERA. 30-year-old lefty Joe Pate (24-11, 2.70) tied for the league lead in innings pitched (302) and was second in wins. Wachtel and Pate were the star duo for all seven of the Panthers’ consecutive string of league champions. Gus (Lefty) Johns, 22, was 21-5, 2.34, leading the league in ERA and percentage (.808).
At the plate the Panthers were led by 35-year-old first baseman Clarence (Big Boy) Kraft (.339-32-131) who paced the league in home runs, RBI and total bases (320). (The careers of Kraft, Wachtel, Pate and Johns are detailed in the reports of other top 100 Fort Worth teams.) Center fielder and leadoff batter Cecil Coombs (.311-10-63) led the league in doubles (45) and games played (156) and was third in walks (103) and fourth in runs (122). Coombs, 34, also filled in capably for Kraft at first base when the latter was sidelined early in the year. He played for 19 teams in 11 leagues over 20 years (1906-25) and was with the Chicago White Sox briefly in 1914 (7 games, .174). He came to Fort Worth in 1921 and played with the Panthers through mid-1923. He was with Wichita Falls the last part of 1923 and all of 1924, winding up his on-the-field career as player manager of Marshall (East Texas) in 1925. Coombs settled in Fort Worth and was business manager of the Texas League club in 1937-38.
Playing left field and batting second was 30-year-old left-handed hitting John (Ziggy) Sears, a member of all the Fort Worth championship teams of the 1920s. Sears batted .304-13-62 in 153 games in 1922. A native of Central City, KY, he broke into pro ball in 1912 with Winchester in the Class D Blue Grass League and reached the Texas League with Fort Worth in 1918. Ziggy was with the Panthers until 1927 when he was traded to San Antonio. He finished his playing career in 1928 with Shreveport. In 11 years in the Texas League he batted .287, hitting over .300 four times and scoring more than 100 runs four times. Sears led the Texas League in doubles (37) in 1920. On May 8, 1925 he hit three homers and a double in a game at San Antonio, driving in 11 runs. Later that year, Ziggy executed a catch that helped clinch the Dixie Series against Atlanta. In the second inning of the deciding game he made what was described as a spectacular twisting catch of a line drive that prevented two runs from scoring and the Panthers went on to win 1-0. In a 1926 interview, when Fort Worth dropped to third place, manager Jake Atz said of Sears, “There is a boy who never has nor never will be appreciated around here. I wish I had nine more hustling scrappers like him and I’d be so far in front they never could catch me.” He was traded to San Antonio in 1927 and wound up his playing career with Shreveport in 1928.
In 1929, Ziggy began a new career, as an umpire in the Texas League. After the 1933 season he was purchased by the National League, where he umpired for 12 years. When such assignments were made on merit, Sears worked in two World Series and two All-Star Games. He umpired in the Pacific Coast League in 1946, scouted for Pittsburgh in 1947, umpired in the PCL again in 1948 and then returned to the Texas League. He retired after the 1950 season. Ziggy’s son, Ken Sears, was a catcher for the New York Yankees in 1943 and the St. Louis Browns in 1946.
Where did John Sears get the unusual nickname of “Ziggy?” According to James Skipper’s book, “Baseball Nicknames,” Hall-of-Fame writer Fred Lieb said that Sears inherited the name. “In 1917, the year before Sears joined the Fort Worth club, a recruit reported to manager Atz carrying a three-month-old baby on one arm and a parrot in a cage on the other. ‘Who are you?’ Jake asked him. ‘I’m Ziggy Sears,’ he told him. ‘Where’s your wife?’ Jake wanted to know. ‘She’s home working. If I make good, she’s going to quit her job and join me.’ Atz ordered the rookie to take the kid home to its mother, and go to work at something else, and that was the end of the original Ziggy Sears. When John William Sears reported to Fort Worth the following year, he reminded manager Atz of the unusual rookie of the year before and he immediately bestowed the name of ‘Ziggy’ on our hero, so it probably never will be known what the nickname really meant.”
The Panthers’ number one catcher was 30-year-old Henry P. Moore from Ft. Smith, AR. In 1922 he hit .275-5-59 in 104 games. Moore was outstanding defensively and a consistent hitter. Throughout his career he was known as “Possum.” He was 5’10” tall and weighed 200 pounds. Moore was usually described as moon-faced and rotund or ponderous. Vince DeVaney, a Fort Worth batboy in the early 1920s and later a pitcher for the Panthers, told writer Bill O’Neal that Moore “looked like a possum and was always talking about eating possum.” He referred to himself as “Henry P.” “The only thing Moore couldn’t do was run,” Atz once said. A line-drive hitter, he was usually held to singles on hits that would have been doubles for a player of even average speed and doubles instead of triples. In a 15-year pro career, he hit only 19 triples and stole just 36 bases. Moore started his pro career in 1912 playing seven games for Dallas. He then played for Paris (Texas-Oklahoma), Kansas City, Tulsa (Western Association), St. Joseph (Western) and Vernon (PCL) before arriving in Fort Worth in 1919. He remained with the Panthers until he retired after the 1926 season. In 1916 at Tulsa he batted .276 in 119 games and led the Western Association in home runs with 22. That was an abnormally high total for Moore. It took him seven more years to hit another 22 and in only one other season did he reach double figures, 12 homers with Fort Worth in 1925.
Fort Worth’s fabulous skein of success ended in 1926 when the team was bounced by its chief rival, Dallas. During the team’s remaining thirty years in the league, four more pennants were sparsely scattered, with three coming in the following decade (1930, 1937 and 1939) and the other in the next (1948). Following the 1958 season, the team left the league for several years before coming back for a cameo appearance in 1964. Eight years later, the American League’s Washington Senators left the nation’s capital to become the Texas Rangers, playing in Arlington – halfway between the two former Texas League rivals, Fort Worth and Dallas.
The six-pennant string in Fort Worth in the first half of the 1920s was in large part achieved with a stable roster which saw five key members of the squad, including Sears and Moore, play for all of the half-dozen teams. In addition, several other players, like Kraft, played in most of the campaigns. The end result of this practice swept the ’22 Panthers into the top 100 along with four of the five other Fort Worth champions of the 1920s.
|1922 Texas League standings|
|FT. WORTH||109||46||.703||-||SAN ANTONIO||76||79||.490||33.0|
|1922 Ft. Worth Panthers batting statistics|
|Big Boy Kraft||1B||140||543||127||184||131||32||4||32||83||73||17||.339|
|Art Ewoldt (Shreveport)||3B||51||183||19||48||21||5||0||0||11||15||8||.262|
|Bad Eye Bill Whittaker||P||29||64||3||8||5||2||0||0||2||22||1||.125|
|1922 Ft. Worth Panthers pitching statistics|
|Bad Eye Bill Whittaker||10||9||.526||29||11||1||172||175||51||62||2.97|