Top 100 Teams
By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
Led by a quartet of hurlers who would all see action for the parent club, the St. Louis Cardinals’ Texas League affiliate raced to the title in 1941, following in the footsteps of another great champion from ten years earlier.
The city of Houston, located in southeastern Texas, has placed teams in Organized Baseball since the 19th century. In 1888, a team called the Red Stockings was one of the founding members of the Texas League. In the inaugural season, the club lasted only until August 7, dropping out with a 35-45 record. After Houston won the pennant in 1889 and had a 23-23 record in June, 1890, the league folded.
The Texas League played sporadically during the 1890s. There was no season in 1891, 1893 or 1894. Houston won pennants in 1892 and 1896. In 1897, the team folded on August 13. The Spanish -American War killed the 1898 season in mid-May and the 1899 campaign lasted only until July 5. Baseball returned to Houston in 1903 with the formation of the four-team South Texas League. In 1907, those four cities were absorbed by the Texas League. Two years later, the team, now called the Buffaloes or Buffs, won their next flag with an 86-57, .601 record.
During the 1910s, the Buffs won three pennants in a row. The first two, in 1912 and 1913, the team won outright with 87-52 and 93-57 records. The next year, although finishing with a much better record (102-50), the Buffs had to share the bunting with Waco, which finished with an identical mark.
The St. Louis Cardinals purchased controlling interest in the Houston franchise in 1923, making the Buffs one of the first teams in Branch Rickey’s fledgling farm system. Their first championship as a Cardinal farm club came in 1928, under the leadership of ex-major league catcher Frank (Pancho) Snyder. Three years later, the ’31 Buffs rode the arm of future Cardinal Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean to a place in the top 100. In 1933, Houston won again, followed by wins in 1939 and 1940. The next year, the team would add a third to the string.
The 1941 Buffs won the Texas League pennant with ease, finishing with a 103-50, .673 record, 16- ½ games ahead of Tulsa. In a shocking upset, Houston was bounced by fourth place Dallas in the first round of the playoffs, three games to one.
The team was managed by 41-year-old Eddie Dyer, a former pitcher for the Cardinals. From 1922 to 1927, Dyer went 15-15 primarily as a relief pitcher, although he shut out the Cubs on three hits in his first major league start in 1923. He injured his arm in a game while with the Cards’ Syracuse (International) club in 1927 and never pitched in another game. In 1928 he became a manager-outfielder in the St. Louis organization and, in the six years before he quit playing, Dyer compiled a .319 batting average. He became manager and vice-president of Houston in 1939. In his three years with the Buffs, Dyer finished first each season, winning the playoffs in 1940. In 1942 he moved up to Columbus in the American Association and was named The Sporting News’ Minor League Manager of the Year. He was a supervisor in the Cardinals’ organization in 1943-44 and was out of the game in 1945. In November, 1945, he was named manager of St. Louis. In his first year, 1946, he led the Cardinals to the World Series championship and was named The Sporting News’ Major League Manager of the Year. The Cards finished second in 1947-48-49, but when they dropped to fifth in 1950, Dyer was fired. In his five years at St. Louis, his clubs had a 446-325, .578 record.
The best batting numbers were posted by outfielder Walt Sessi (.301) and by part-time second baseman Danny Murtaugh, who batted .316 in 69 games before joining the Philadelphia Phillies on June 28. Sessi played a handful of games for the Cards, batting .074 in 20 games in 1941 and 1946. Murtaugh, after a nine-year major league career, gained fame as a big league skipper for the Pirates. In 15 seasons between 1957 and 1976, his Pittsburgh teams had a 1,115-950, .540 record. Murtaugh led the Pirates to World Series championships in 1960 and 1971 and to Eastern Division titles in 1970, 1974 and 1975. He was The Sporting News’ Major League Manager of the Year in 1960 and 1970.
The Buffs’ other two outfielders in 1941, Bill Norman and Hal Epps also posted fine seasons. Norman led the league in RBI (107) while Epps crossed the plate a circuit-best 106 times. Norman had played 37 games for the White Sox in 1931 and 1932, while Epps played for the Cardinals, Browns and A’s in parts of four years from 1938-44, batting .253. In addition, Norman was member of another of the top 100 teams, the 1944 Milwaukee Brewers and managed Detroit parts of 1958-59.
Sam Narron, the Buffs’ first-string catcher, played briefly for St. Louis in 1935, 1942-43, and was a major league coach for Pittsburgh, 1952-64. Sam’s son, Jerry Narron, was an American League catcher for nine years and was recently named as manager of the Texas Rangers, after serving as third base coach.
The strength of Houston in 1941 came from its pitching staff. The Buffs were blessed with a trio of 20-game winners, none better than Fred Martin (23-6, 1.54). Martin finished first in the league in wins and second in ERA. Howie Pollet (20-3, 1.16) and Ted Wilks (20-10) also had fine seasons. Pollet pitched a no-hitter against Shreveport, April 25, 1941. His 1.16 ERA is the second lowest in Texas League history, surpassed only by the 1.06 registered by Houston’s Walt Dickson in 1916.
Each member of the trio went on to play in the big leagues. Martin was 2-1 for St. Louis in 1946 when he joined teammates Lou Klein and Max Lanier in jumping to Jorge Pasquel’s Mexican League. He was reinstated in 1949 and went 10-3 the next two seasons. Martin was an interim manager for Houston in the American Association for six days in 1961 between the departure of Grady Hatton and the arrival of Lou Klein, his Mexican League teammate. He was major league pitching coach for the Chicago Cubs from 1961-65 and a pitching instructor for the Cubs organization, 1965-75 and 1977-78. Martin is sometimes called the “father of the split-fingered fastball” with Bruce Sutter probably his most famous pupil. Ted Wilks pitched for the Cardinals, Pirates and Indians from 1944 to 1953 as a relief pitcher, going 59-30, while Al Brazle (11-5) also starred for the Cardinals, winning 97 games in a solid 10-year career.
Other ’41 Buffs seeing service in the big leagues included 3B John Antonelli (.267), who played for the Cardinals and Phillies, 1944-45, SS Jeff Cross (.236), who was with the Cardinals and Cubs for four years, and Erv Dusak, who played in the National League for eight years with St. Louis and Pittsburgh.
After 1941, the Buffaloes won regular season titles in 1947 and 1951 as well as playoff championships in 1954 and 1957. Following the 1958 campaign, the team left the league, moving to the American Association. After three years, the city left minor league baseball to pave the way for the Houston Colt 45s in 1962.
Although not as powerful as the Dizzy Dean-led ’31 team, the 1941 Houston Buffs could hold their own in the long history of the Texas League. As a matter of fact, since they played, no other Texas League team has won as many games or finished with as high a percentage as the Buffs of ’41.
|1941 Texas League Standings|
|1941 Houston Buffaloes batting statistics|
|1941 Houston Buffaloes pitching statistics|