Top 100 Teams
By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
Collectively, Fort Worth's six champion teams from 1920-25 put up some impressive numbers. Over the six-year period, the team averaged 105 wins a season. In the annual post-season Dixie Series against the similarly ranked Southern Association, the Panthers won five of the six. Individually, one of the six could be ranked slightly better than the rest - the 1924 Texas League champions. Pacing this squad was an awesome longball performance from a veteran player in his last season as a pro.
The city of Fort Worth, Texas, was a charter member of the Texas League, which began play in 1888 as the region's first pro circuit. During the league's off and on existence in the 19th century, the Panthers fielded a pair of winners - a second half title in 1895 followed by a first half championship the next year. In the reorganized 20th century version of the league, Fort Worth won a pair of titles in 1905-06, then slipped into mediocrity for several seasons. After manager Jake Atz joined the team in 1914, the Panthers' fortune began to turn.
After finishing second in 1917, 1918 and in the first half of 1919, Atz's Panthers won the second half, but lost the playoff to Shreveport, four games to two. It would be a long time before Fort Worth again tasted Texas League defeat. The team won 108 games in 1920, 107 in 1921, 109 in 1922 and 96 in 1923. Every club but the 1923 version found a place on the list of the Top 100.
After their minor "slump" in 1923, the Panthers once again reached the pinnacle of success in 1924. The core of the '23 team was still there: Pitchers Joe Pate, Paul Wachtel and Gus Johns, catcher Possum Moore, first baseman Clarence (Big Boy) Kraft, shortstop Jackie Tavener and outfielders Ziggy Sears, Jack Calvo and Stump Edington. Gone were such familiar faces as outfielder Cecil Coombs, infielders Dutch Hoffman and Frank Haley, catcher Homer Haworth and pitcher Tiny Goodbred. Hoffman had been traded to New Orleans for second baseman Eddie Palmer, third baseman George (Deeby) Foss, who unfortunately missed several weeks at the start of the season because of a broken finger, and veteran outfielder Bob Bescher. Replacing Hoffman at second base, the slick-fielding Palmer, who played five years for Dallas (1917-21), became one of Fort Worth's most popular players.
The Panthers won the April 20 season opener from Dallas, but then lost three of the next four games. However, they won 16 of the next 19 to take over first place from San Antonio during the first week of May. Fort Worth kept pulling farther away from the pack and once again the Texas League directors voted to split the season with the first half ending July 3. The Panthers' record for the half was 51-23, .689, nine games better than second place Houston. Fort Worth got off to a good start in the second half, but Dallas was even better. The Steers won ten straight in the first two weeks of July and took the lead. Fort Worth countered with its own ten-game winning streak and by the end of the month the Panthers were in first place, never to be dislodged. In August, the Cats won 27 and lost only 6 as Dallas faded rapidly. When the season closed September 14, Fort Worth had a 58-18, .763 record, 18-˝ games ahead of Beaumont, the only other team in the league with a winning percentage! The second-place Exporters were 39-36, .520. From August 3 on, Dallas won 12 and lost 33, winding up in sixth place at 35-43, .449. The Steers' performance may have been affected when their ballpark was destroyed by fire after the game of July 19 and they were forced to play the remainder of their home games in the huge State Fairgrounds racing enclosure. Fort Worth was the Steers' first opponent in their temporary home, August 3, and the crowd of 16,484 paid set a Texas League record. Fans broke down part of the fence and poured through the gap with an estimated total of 20,000 viewing the game. Overall, Fort Worth won 109 and lost only 41 for a .727 percentage. After the regular season, Fort Worth defeated Southern Association champion Memphis, Top 100 team number 48, in the Dixie Series, 4 games to 3 with one tie. It was the Panthers' fourth win in the five years the series had been played and their second over the Chicks.
Although Fort Worth led the Texas league in runs (964), home runs (119), RBI (884) and walks (754), they were only sixth in batting average (.284). The Panthers were second in fielding (.969) and were strong up the middle, a hallmark of successful teams. Catcher George Bischoff (.985), second baseman Palmer (.977) and center fielder Jack Calvo (.990), led in fielding at their positions. Palmer also led in assists (443) and chances accepted (865). Calvo made only four errors in 395 chances. In addition, Jackie Tavener led shortstops in assists (552), chances accepted (844) and double plays (95), and was second in fielding (.951).
Writing in The Sporting News after the end of the season, William B. Ruggles, secretary-statistician of the Texas League and sports editor of the Dallas Morning News, said: "The Fort Worth victory, by a margin of 30-˝ games in the entire season, was made over a league apparently faster than ever in playing talent but weaker in team play. Fort Worth alone stood out as a consistent machine, possibly due to the fact that five men - pitchers Pate and Wachtel, catcher Moore, first baseman Kraft and outfielder Sears, have been members of the team from 1919 on, and (third baseman) Phelan has been with the team in five pennant years."
The legendary Jake Atz was in his 11th season as skipper of the Panthers, also known as Atz's Cats. His career was covered in detail in the report on the 1920 Panthers, Top 100 team No. 14.
In Fort Worth and throughout the Texas League, 1924 was the year of "Big Boy," Panthers first baseman Clarence Otto Kraft who batted .349-55-196 in 154 games. He set league records that still stand for most runs (150), extra-base hits (96, including 36 doubles and 5 triples), most total bases (414) and most RBI. He also led in strikeouts (107), was second in bases on balls (106) and had a .463 on-base percentage. His 55 home runs and .713 slugging percentage were league records that stood for 32 years. He hit two or more homers in a game nine times. The previous record for most home runs in a season had been 35 by Hack Eibel of Shreveport in 1920. Kraft broke that before the end of July. On August 25, he hit his 50th round-tripper, breaking the minor league record of 49 set by Moses Solomon of Hutchinson (Western Association) in 1923. The major league record at the time was 59, by Babe Ruth, set in 1921, and with three weeks remaining in the Texas League schedule, fans were pulling for Big Boy to eclipse that mark. He hit number 54 on September 4, but didn't connect for his 55th until the last game of the season, in the second game of the September 14 double-header at Beaumont off rookie hurler Oran O'Neal. The Panthers won 5-2 with lefty Joe Pate recording his 30th win of the season. As an indication of Kraft's popularity, in August, a Van Alstyne, TX, farmer named Kit Page had his baby son christened Clarence Kraft Page.
The 37-year-old Kraft was 6 feet tall, weighed 190 pounds and batted and threw right-handed. A native of Evansville, IN, he made his pro debut in 1910, playing one game for his hometown team in the Central League. He then joined McLeansboro, Ill., in the Class D Southern Illinois League. They were in first place when the league folded July 11. Two weeks later, the team became a member of the Class D Kitty League for the second half, which they won. Kraft, then a pitcher, was 6-0 in the Southern Illinois, then led the Kitty League with a 13-2 record. He also tied for the Kitty League lead in homers (4). Kraft moved up a notch to Flint in the Southern Michigan League in 1911, hit .316 and led the loop in home runs (19). He was with Flint again in 1912 and started 1913 with Clarksdale (Cotton States). Later that year he hit .381 for Class A New Orleans (Southern) and in September was drafted by Brooklyn. Under the existing rules, Nashville (Southern) entered a claim for Kraft in the event he was not retained by Brooklyn and was sent back to the minors. In April, 1914 he was claimed on waivers by the Boston Braves. He went 1-for-3, a single, in three games for Boston, his only major league service.
At this point, Kraft became part of baseball's labor relations history. In 1912, a group of major and minor league players organized the Base Ball Players' Fraternity and elected David Fultz, an attorney and former major league player, president. The organization was formed to address grievances with the major league owners and functioned much like a labor union. In the fall of 1913, they presented a list of seventeen requests to the National Commission, which governed baseball. In his 2001 Baseball Research Journal article, "The Players' Fraternity," Scott Longert writes: "Many of the seventeen requests were granted - a huge victory for the Fraternity. The result, known as ‘The Cincinnati Agreement,' was clearly an effort by the National Commission to appease the players in the face of the coming competition from the Federal League, but no movement would have been likely without the Fraternity... In July, 1914, Clarence Kraft sought the protection of the Fraternity." When he was returned by Boston to Brooklyn, the latter club decided to demote him to the minors. The Cincinnati Agreement had changed the rules that governed such a transaction. Section 18 stated that, "before a major league player shall be released outright or under an optional agreement to Class A or lower classification, his services shall be tendered to all Class AA clubs." Under the new rules, Class AA Newark (International) claimed Kraft and he began playing for them May 30. However, Nashville protested to the National Commission that their claim took precedence. As reported by Sporting Life, American League President Ban Johnson, a member of the National Commission, declared that Kraft had been drafted under the old rule and that the new Section 18 could not be made retroactive. Therefore, he belonged to Nashville. Aside from the desire to be playing for an AA rather than an A club, Kraft had a financial stake in the matter. Because of the salary limit, Nashville could pay him only two-thirds of what he was receiving from Newark. On June 23, Kraft was ordered to report to Nashville, but refused to do so. Instead, he remained in Newark and worked out every day with the Indians. Longert says "Fultz protested this action, claiming a clear violation of the Cincinnati Agreement. He sent a letter to Johnson, informing him that the Fraternity Board of Directors (which included Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Sam Crawford, Miler Huggins and Johnny Evers) and all members would cease to honor their contracts after July 22 if Kraft was not authorized to report to Newark. Johnson accused Fultz of being ‘a menace to the game,' but he also, according to The Sporting News, advised Brooklyn owner Charles Ebbets to take whatever steps were necessary to reacquire Kraft and return him to Newark. While both sides postured, Ebbets quietly sent $2,500 to Nashville in return for their withdrawal of the claim on Kraft." On July 22, exactly a month after he had last played, Kraft returned to the Newark lineup, and in his first time at bat hit a second inning home run at Providence. Newark went on to win 5-0 behind the four-hit pitching of Al Schacht, later famous as "The Clown Prince of Baseball."
Kraft finished 1914 with Newark, hitting .278 with 9 homers and 15 triples in 96 games. In 1914 the franchise was moved to Harrisburg because of the Federal League invasion of Newark and he hit .307, leading the International League in triples (24). He played for Louisville and Milwaukee in 1916 and Wilkes-Barre (New York State) in 1917. Kraft arrived in Fort Worth in 1918 and remained with the Panthers for the rest of his career.
He greatly benefited from the introduction of the lively ball in 1921, going from .258-6-86 in 1920 to .352-31-141 the next year, leading the Texas League in batting, runs (132), hits (212), total bases (376) and RBI. In 1922, despite missing two weeks because of a knee injury, Kraft hit .339 and led the league in home runs (32) and RBI (131). He batted .324-32-125 in 1923, repeating as home run champion. Kraft shocked Fort Worth fans at the end of the 1924 season by announcing his retirement from baseball to open an automobile sales agency. The Sporting News reported that the Panthers offered him a two-year contract at $10,000 a year, more than what most major league players were being paid, but he turned it down. His only connection with baseball after that, other than being a fan, came in 1932. The Panthers encountered financial problems during that Depression year and Kraft stepped in as club president on a temporary basis. Later, he served as a Tarrant County (Fort Worth) judge. He died in Fort Worth, March 26, 1958, by an odd coincidence, on the same day that his long-time Panther teammate, catcher Possum Moore, passed away.
Kraft's career batting average was .307 with 2,134 hits and 255 home runs in 1,907 games. Unlike many home run hitters, he had speed on the basepaths. He stole 283 bases, including 18 in his final season.
The player who edged out Kraft for the bases on balls lead was his teammate, veteran third baseman Art (Dugan) Phelan who walked 109 times in 123 games. Phelan posted an unusual statistic, scoring 110 runs although he had only 91 hits, thanks to the free passes. He batted just .219, but had a .393 on-base percentage. He missed the last two weeks of the season because of an unusual injury. On Aug. 29, during batting practice, a foul tip off his bat struck him in the face breaking his nose. Deeby Foss replaced Phelan at third base and went 0-for-13 before breaking out of the slump with 15 hits in his next 22 times at bat. On September 1-2, Foss had nine consecutive hits, two short of the league record. Phelan, who turned 37 in August, was in 18th year in pro ball and was considered Atz's unofficial "assistant manager." Following the 1924 season, he played for Havana in the Cuban Winter League. In the majors, Phelan was with Cincinnati in 1910 and 1912 and with the Chicago Cubs from 1913-15 with a career average of .236 in 402 games. He came to Fort Worth in 1920 after playing for Kansas City, Chattanooga, Bartow (Florida State) and Galveston.
Phelan remained with Fort Worth until 1926 when he left in mid-season to become manager at Shreveport. That was his last year as a player. He piloted the Sports through 1930. His best year was 1929 when he led Shreveport to second place in both halves of the split season. In the first half, the Sports finished just one game behind first-place Dallas. Phelan returned to Fort Worth as manager in 1931, leading the Cats to a third-place finish. He started 1932 as manager at Selma in the Southeastern League, but the circuit folded May 21. When the Fort Worth team was reorganized, Phelan once again became the Cats manager. In 1933 he managed Henderson in the new Class C Dixie League. In 1934 he became manager of Alexandria in another new league, the Class D Evangeline. Phelan bought the club in 1935 and managed the Aces through 1939, winning pennants in 1936 and in his final year in uniform. He continued to operate the Alexandria club until 1951.
The 1924 Panthers had another league leader in center fielder and leadoff batter Jack Calvo who was tops in doubles (52) and times at bat (662). He hit .281-8-91, playing in all 154 games, and struck out only 25 times in 750 plate appearances. He was born Jacinto del Calvo in Havana, Cuba in 1894 and was a slender, 5'10", 155-pound left-handed batter. A month before his 19th birthday he became the fifth Cuban to play in the majors in the 20th century when he made his debut with the Washington Senators. He batted .242-1-2 in 17 games. Calvo was with Los Angeles and Victoria (Northwestern) in 1914 and played for the independent Long Branch, NJ, Cubans in 1915. He was back on the West Coast in 1916 with Vancouver (Northwestern) and was purchased by San Francisco in August. He played for the Seals' pennant-winners in 1917, but refused to report in 1918 and was carried on the San Francisco Suspended List for two years. Calvo returned to Washington briefly in 1920, but batted only .043 in 17 games and was released to Little Rock. He played for Tampa (Florida State) in 1921, then was acquired by Fort Worth. His best season with the Panthers was 1923 when he hit .342-9-72 in 153 games. Calvo starred for many years in winter ball in the Cuban League for the Almendares and Havana clubs. While playing for Havana during the 1924-25 season he suffered an arm injury that kept him sidelined at Fort Worth almost all of 1925. He didn't play until late August and had only 24 times at bat the rest of the year, hitting .333. He retired from baseball after playing 59 games for Fort Worth (batting .286) and 20 games for Memphis (.235) in 1926. Like many other Cuban ball players, he moved to Miami, FL, after Fidel Castro came to power. Calvo was elected to the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame in 1978.
Second to Kraft in batting for the Panthers was right fielder Frank (Stump) Edington, who hit .335-10-86 in 135 games. Edington, a 33-year-old, 5'7 ˝ ", 170-pound left-handed hitter, had been obtained from Beaumont during the 1923 season and was in his 15th year in pro ball. His only major league experience came in 1912. He was purchased by Pittsburgh in June after hitting .373 in 35 games for Lexington, KY, in the Class D Blue Grass League. Although he batted .302 with 12 RBI in 15 games for the Pirates, he was sent down to Wheeling (Central) and never got back to the big leagues. The next five seasons he played for Toledo, Columbus, Indianapolis, Denver and Grand Rapids. After seeing military service in 1918, Edington played three years for Vernon, helping lead the Tigers to the Pacific Coast League championship in 1919-20. Stump remained with Fort Worth for the last pennant-winning year in 1925, batting .295-19-128 in 155 games. He retired after the 1928 season with a .306 career average in 2,030 games, collecting 2,107 hits in 6,877 times at bat.
The Fort Worth left fielder was veteran Ziggy Sears, whose career is detailed in the report on the 1922 Panthers, Top 100 team number 17.
Taking over as number one catcher for the Panthers in 1924 was 29-year-old George (Smiley) Bischoff, 5'8", 160-pound right-handed hitter from Granite City, IL. Bischoff was in his first year with Fort Worth. Al Weatherly, The Sporting News' Fort Worth correspondent, said in August that "Bischoff and (Possum) Moore are showing the rest of the Texas League what good catching really looks like. (Business manager) Paul LaGrave pulled a smart move when he disposed of (Homer) Haworth and purchased Bischoff. The latter is not only a good catcher, but is an exceptionally good batter and is a streak on the paths." He batted .305-13-62 in 97 games and in October was drafted by the Chicago White Sox. Bischoff did not play professional baseball until 1919 when he was 24 years old. He played two years with Memphis (Southern) and three with Wichita Falls before being acquired by the Panthers. He played for Havana in the Cuban Winter League in the 1923-24 season. Bischoff played two years in the American League, for Chicago and Boston in 1925 and Boston in 1926, with a .262-1-35 average in 107 games. He was back with Fort Worth in 1927-28, then caught for Dallas' pennant winners in 1929, Waco in 1930 and Topeka and Omaha (Western) in 1931 before retiring from the game. (Moore's career is detailed in the report on the 1922 Panthers, Top 100 team number 17.)
Throughout Fort Worth's record string of consecutive championships, the pitching staff was led by left-hander Joe Pate and right-hander Paul Wachtel. (Pate's career is covered in the report on the 1921 Panthers, Top 100 team number 46, and Wachtel's in the story of the 1925 Panthers, Top 100 team number 33.) In 1924, Pate went 30-8, 3.06, becoming the only pitcher in Texas League history to win 30 games in a season twice. Wachtel had a 22-10, 2.88 record. Wachtel was third in the league in ERA, Pate fifth. To go with this duo and holdover Gus Johns, LaGrave and Atz added three veteran pitchers, right-handers Ralph Head, Jim Middleton and Hank Hulvey. Head, a 30-year-old Georgian, went 15-3, 2.38, leading the league in winning percentage (.833) and finishing second in ERA. Head had been purchased from the Philadelphia Phillies for whom he went 2-9, 6.68 in 1923, his only major league season. In October, Ruggles wrote, "For half the year, the purchase of Head seemed a fizzle. Then the right-hander recovered his wing and took his turn in the box….Had he not been able to share the burden with Wachtel and Pate in the last half, the story of the year might have been different." Head remained with the Panthers through mid-1926, but had only a 14-13, 4.52 record in 1-˝ years. He had a 20-year career, finishing with Norfolk when the Eastern League folded in July, 1932.
Middleton, 35, from Argos, IN, went 14-7, 3.33, seventh in the league in ERA. On September 3, he pitched a seven-inning 3-0 no-hitter against Shreveport in the second game of a double-header. Middleton had started his 20-year pro career in 1910 and pitched for the New York Giants in 1917 (1-1, 2.75) and Detroit in 1921 (6-11, 5.02). "Rifle Jim" came to Fort Worth from Portland where he was 15-16, 4.03 in 1922 and 12-10, 3.52 in 1923. Middleton was appointed manager of the Beavers during the second half of the 1922 season and led Portland to third place in the PCL in 1923. After his only season with Fort Worth, he pitched for Minneapolis from 1925-27, managed Seattle in 1928 and finished his career pitching for Minneapolis in 1929. He had a 259-182, 3.32 career record.
Hulvey, 26, from Mount Sidney, VA, was on option from Salt Lake and went 8-4, 3.06 for Fort Worth. One of the minors' best hitting pitchers, he batted .396 in 26 games. He had pitched one major league game, a losing start for the Athletics in 1923. He had been turned over to Salt Lake in the deal that brought legendary minor league slugger Paul Strand to Philadelphia. Hulvey returned to Salt Lake in 1925, pitched six years for the Bees and Hollywood, then six seasons in the Southern Association. In his 19-year career he went 221-169, 4.24.
In 1925, Fort Worth added one more pennant to its skein, before losing to Dallas the following year. In its remaining years in the league, the team won only two more regular full season titles (1946, 1949), but did win its share of half-season and playoff titles. One of the more noteworthy came in 1939 when a fourth place Fort Worth team ran the table in the playoffs, later vanquishing the Memphis Chicks (Southern Association) in the Dixie Series. The 1946 regular season champions won 101 games but were bounced in the playoff finals by Dallas. A similar fate befell the 100-win 1949 first place team. After one last regular title in 1958, Fort Worth and two other Texas League stalwarts (Dallas and Houston) left the league to join the AAA American Association.
The difference between all the Fort Worth champions was small, but the '24 group was just a notch better for a couple of reasons. Although finishing with a league record 109 wins (same as the 1922 team), the 1924 version had a better winning percentage. The 1920 Panthers actually had a better winning percentage than the '24 champions (.730 to .727), but the Texas League was a lower ranked league then, slightly downgrading the team. For these reasons, the 1924 Panthers are considered the best Fort Worth club in the 1920s - the best of an impressive string of champions.
|1924 Texas League standings|
|FT. WORTH||109||41||.727||-||SAN ANTONIO||75||75||.500||34.0|
|1924 Fort Worth batting statistics|
|Big Boy Kraft||1B||154||581||150||203||196||36||5||55||105||107||18||.349|
|Earl Wolgamot (Galveston)||C||82||240||38||71||30||17||1||4||31||21||4||.296|
|1924 Fort Worth pitching statistics||PITCHER||W||L||PCT||G||GS||CG||SH||SV||IP||H||BB||SO||ERA|