Top 100 Teams
Big State League
By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
Over the course of minor league history, several teams have made last to first reverses. However, very few accomplished the feat quite like this mid-1950s Texas champion. Although this team cruised to an easy flag with one of the highest winning totals of the era, remarkably, just two scant years before, the team had set an equally notably record of futility.
The town of Waco, located in Eastern Texas, participated for the first time in Organized Baseball in 1889, fielding a team in the Texas League in the loop’s second year of existence. After folding mid-season during their first season in the league, the Babies finished third (24-20) in an abbreviated 1890 campaign. Waco was back in the Texas League for the second half of the 1892 season and the team featured a 14-year-old pitcher named Ed Grider, who apparently held his own against adult batters. Waco was 16-16. Waco reappeared in the Texas League in 1897, replacing Sherman-Denison for the second half. The 1897 team carried the nickname Tigers.
In 1902, in a revamped Texas League, the Waco Tigers went 27-36 before disbanding in July. The following year, the team joined the loop for the second half as a replacement for the first half pennant winners, Paris. The club could not duplicate the success, and went 19-36 over the rest of the campaign. In the ensuing playoffs, the Steers lost to the second half winners Dallas, seven games to three.
In 1905, Waco rejoined the Texas League, this time for a 15-year stay. After finishing in the cellar three times in the first seven years, the Waco Navigators tied Houston for the league championship in 1914 and won the flag outright in 1915-16. Those years were considered by local fans the golden era of Waco baseball. The team was managed by the very popular Ellis Hardy from 1911-1918. Hardy was the baseball coach at Texas Christian during the years the college was located in Waco. How did a team in Waco, about 150 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, get the nickname of Navigators? At the time, there were big plans to make the Brazos River, which runs through Waco, navigable for ocean-going ships.
After 1916, Waco slid back down to the second division and, following the 1919 season, the franchise was sold to Wichita Falls. A Waco team called the Indians was a member of the Class D Texas Association in 1923-24, but the fans were accustomed to a better grade of baseball and failed to support the club. The Texas League had been forced to take over the Galveston franchise after the 1924 season and a group of local businessmen were able to buy the franchise for Waco. A contest was held and the new club was named the Cubs. Longtime major league infielder Derrill (Del) Pratt was named playing manager. In 1927, he led the Cubs to second place behind Wichita Falls and was the Texas League’s only Triple-Crown winner until Midland’s Adam Piatt accomplished the feat in 1999.
On June 20, 1930, the first night game in Texas League history was played at Katy Park in Waco. On the night of August 6, 1930, history was made at Katy Park. In the eighth inning of a night game against Beaumont, Waco left fielder Gene (Half Pint) Rye became the only player in the history of professional baseball to hit three home runs in one inning. Waco scored 18 runs in the frame for a 20-7 victory. Rye led off the inning with a homer to left, homered to right in his second AB and in his third trip to the plate sent one over the right-center field wall. He drove in eight runs in the inning.
The Great Depression was taking its toll and at the end of the 1930 season Waco team directors sold the club to Galveston, hoping to rejoin the Texas League when better times returned. However, that turned out to be Waco’s last Texas League season. In 1933, the Class C Dixie League was organized with Waco as the western-most member. That team was transferred to Pine Bluff, AR, on June 27.
Waco fielded some strong semi-pro teams in the 1930s and early 1940s. During the World War II years of 1943-44-45, the powerful Waco Army Air Field team was probably the best in the state. Many major leaguers played for the team and it was managed by big league catcher Birdie Tebbetts.
In 1947 the Class B Big State League was organized with Waco as a member. The Waco Dons finished in the cellar and money had to be raised by merchants and fans throughout the season to keep the team afloat financially. In 1948, A.H. Kirksey, owner of Katy Park, persuaded the Pittsburgh club to take over the Waco operation and the nickname was changed to Pirates. The Pirates vaulted into third place in 1948. They dropped a notch to fourth in 1949, but prevailed in the playoffs to win the league championship. The Pirates then tumbled into the second division, bottoming out with a dreadful 29-118, .197 club in 1952. This mark ranks as one of the 10 worst marks of any 20th century full-season team. The club finished 56 games out of first with the worst hitting, fielding and pitching team in the circuit. For example, the “best” pitcher on the team was James McGee (2-14, 4.62).
Disaster of another sort wiped out Waco’s 1953 season. On May 11, a tornado struck the city, killing 114 persons and destroying a large part of Waco, including Katy Park. The team relocated to Longview to finish the season and finished a respectable third with a 77-68 record. Kirksey, meanwhile, orchestrated the rebuilding of Katy Park, replacing the old wooden stands with one of concrete and installing a new lighting system, rated one of the best in the minors. By the time he was finished, Kirksey had spent about $400,000 to keep the game alive in Waco. Pittsburgh general manager Branch Rickey, an old friend of Kirksey’s, took a three-year lease on the park and Waco was back in the league in 1954.
Charles L. (Buster) Chatham, a former Boston Braves infielder who played for 24 years, 17 of them in the high minors, was Waco’s vice-president and general manager. The Pirates were managed by 32-year-old Jack Paepke, who both pitched and caught for Waco, going 6-1, 3.49 on the mound and batting .314-8-48 in 75 games. A fractured thumb kept him out of the lineup for some time early in the season. Paepke had started his pro career in 1941 as a pitcher for the Brooklyn-owned Santa Barbara Dodgers in the California League. He pitched for Montreal (International) in 1942, then spent three years in the Navy. After the war, he became primarily a catcher with Fort Worth, St. Paul, Hollywood and New Orleans, although he still pitched occasionally. Paepke began his managerial career in 1953 at Brunswick, Pittsburgh’s farm club in the Class D Georgia-Florida League. He remained in the Pirates’ organization as a player-manger through 1958. From 1961-66, Paepke was a major league coach for the Los Angeles and California Angels. He scouted for the Angels for eight years, then became a member of the team’s speaker bureau. Jack’s son, Dennis Paepke, caught for the Kansas City Royals from 1971-74.
Waco rose to the top of the standings early in the 1954 season, but until late June there was a nip-and-tuck battle among Waco, Tyler and Corpus Christi for first place. Then, the Pirates began to pull away. From June 17 to July 30 Waco won 38 games and lost only 6. They coasted through August and finished with a 105-42, .714 record, 13 games ahead of second place Tyler. The Pirates defeated fourth-place Austin in the first round of the playoffs while third place Corpus Christi dispatched Tyler.
Waco took two of the first three games of the finals at home. Then the series shifted to Corpus Christi. The Pirates were ahead going into the seventh inning in game four when the Clippers erupted for 11 runs. Big State League Triple Crown winner Dean Stafford hit two home runs in the inning, one a grand-slam, the other with two men on base. The final score was 16-8. The next night, Corpus Christi battered 10-1 to take the series lead, 3 games to 2. and it appeared the Pirates might be on the ropes. However, the series returned to Waco for game six and Paepke pitched an 8-0 one-hitter, carrying a no-hit game into the eighth inning. The following night, with Paepke behind the plate, Waco won 3-1 on a three-hitter by Don Kildoo to capture the championship and give the city its first title since 1916.
The batting star of the Pirates was 22-year-old right-handed hitting outfielder Roman Mejias, a native of Abreu, Las Villas, Cuba, who now resides in Los Angeles. Mejias hit.354-15-141 in 139 games. He led the league in doubles (49), was second in RBI and total bases (316) and fourth in batting. Mejias hit safely in 55 consecutive games, setting a record for lower classification leagues. The streak, which ended August 2, coincided with Waco’s surge into its commanding lead. Mejias jumped all the way to Pittsburgh the next season and spent all or part of nine years in the majors with Pittsburgh, Houston and Boston, compiling a .254-54-202 record in 627 games. His best year was 1962 with Houston when he hit .286-24-76 in 146 games.
Jack Falls, a 23-year-old left-handed hitting outfielder from Gastonia, NC, was the Pirates’ next best hitter at .349-22-110. He never advanced past Class A. Roberto Sanchez, a 20-year-old, 5’7” right-handed hitting shortstop, was Waco’s only other .300 hitter, batting .301-16-95 in 141 games. He led the league in stolen bases (26) and was third in runs (130).
The pitching corps was led by right-handers Ron Sheetz (19-7, 2.67) and Dick Hoffman (15-7, 3.42), and left-handers Kildoo (15-4, 3.39) and Roger Sawyer (14-6, 3.03). None ever pitched in the majors. Kildoo and Sawyer each spent some time in AAA. Kildoo pitched a no-hit, no-run game for New Orleans (Southern Association) in 1956. Sheetz was second in the Big State League in ERA and third in wins.
Two other pitchers did reach the majors. 26-year-old left-hander Fred Waters (12-4, 3.18) had begun his career in the Dodgers organization in 1949 and came down to Waco early in 1954 from Denver (Western). He pitched for Pittsburgh in 1956 (2-2, 2.82 in 13 games) and subsequently for Hollywood (PCL). After his playing career ended in 1962, Waters managed in the Minnesota Twins organization for 23 years (1964-86) and later scouted for the Twins. 24-year-old lefty Al Grunwald had been a first baseman in the Pittsburgh organization since 1947. In 1954 he had been with San Francisco (PCL) and Toronto (International) briefly before arriving in Waco where he began his conversion to a pitcher. He pitched three games for Pittsburgh in 1955 and six games for Kansas City in 1959.
Mejias, Falls, Sanchez, Kildoo and second baseman Rex Babcock all were named to the Big State League All-Star team at the end of the season.
Waco lasted only two more years in the Big State League, leaving the circuit after the 1956 season, one year before the league itself folded. As of this date, the city has not yet returned to Organized Baseball.
The 1954 Waco Pirates were a remarkable champion who engineered a singular turnaround. Although the club set league records for wins and winning percentage, it was the Pirates’ 77-game reversal over the course of two seasons that gained them attention and placed them among baseball’s elite.
|1954 Big State League Standings|
|1954 Waco Pirates batting statistics|
|Sam Cooper (Austin)||1B,P||55||194||18||42||12||4||2||4||21||29||1||.216|
|1954 Waco Pirates pitching statistics|
|Sam Cooper (Austin)||0||0||----||2|