Top 100 Teams
West Texas - New Mexico League
By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
One of the greatest teams in National Association history finished its regular season in the West Texas - New Mexico League with 97 wins. However, this team - the Abilene Blue Sox of 1946 - despite the backing of a energetic young owner, had its image tarnished during the post-season at the hands of a club that barely finished in the first division.
The city of Abilene, located in the western part of Texas, first entered the National Association by becoming a member of the six-team Class D West Texas League in 1920. Here, the Eagles, as the club was known, won the league’s first two flags by defeating the Ranger Nitros in 1920 and Sweetwater in 1921. Following a sixth place finish the subsequent season, Abilene left the National Association, as the West Texas League disbanded. Six years later, Abilene re-entered the revamped West Texas League. However, the revival was brief. Following third and fifth place finishes in 1928 and 1929, Abilene’s role in the National Association died with the demise of the West Texas League following the latter season.
In 1939, a team named the Abilene Apaches joined the established Class D West Texas - New Mexico League (WTNM). The league, formed in 1937, had members placed in many of the same towns as the ill-fated West Texas League of the previous decade. Thrown into the mix were franchises in several New Mexico towns such as Hobbs, Roswell and Albuquerque. Alas, only eight games into the second half of the season, the Apaches were forced to relocate to Borger.
Following World War II, the WTNM League, which, like most minor leagues, had shut down for the duration of the hostilities, was revived as a Class C circuit in the fall of 1945. The reborn league consisted of six teams in Texas and two in New Mexico. Among the half-dozen Texan entries, was a new team from Abilene, created when a trio of veterans put up $2,500 each to purchase a franchise.
The Abilene baseball team’s new owners were Howard Green, a 25-year-old sports writer for the Abilene Reporter-News, Dr. James Bridges and George Steakley. Green had been an official scorer for the old Apaches and was an Army Air Corps B-22 gunner during the war, Doc Bridges was a medical officer at Camp Barkeley near Abilene, and Steakley, a former classmate of Green’s at McMurry College, was one of the most decorated of West Texas’ Army pilots. Later, in 1946, The Sporting News stated that Abilene was probably the only professional baseball club owned entirely by World War II veterans.
Branch Rickey had acquired the Fort Worth franchise in the Class AA Texas League and had told that club’s president, John Reeves, to arrange an affiliation with a team in the WTNM. Milton Price, who was both WTNM president and Texas League secretary, suggested to Howard Green that he talk to Reeves. An immediate phone conversation resulted in Reeves’ invitation to meet him in Columbus, Ohio, at the upcoming National Association convention in December, 1945. There, after a conference with Brooklyn superscout Wid Matthews, Abilene became a member of the Dodgers’ farm system. The Blue Sox (for Dodger Blue) was the only team in the league with a major league working agreement.
Hal Sayles, Reporter-News sports editor and Green’s boss, persuaded a dozen local businessmen to contribute the money to buy a ball park site and used the newspaper’s Athletic Fund to build the park, which was named Blue Sox Stadium. The ball club furnished the lights. Several months later, the club purchased the property outright.
Not many people shared Howard Green’s optimism for the success of the franchise, but with a seating capacity of 3,500, attendance topped the 100,000 mark in 1946. Ex-major leaguer Bob Seeds, owner-manager of the WTNM rival Amarillo Gold Sox, looking at a full house one night said he never thought he would see this in Abilene. Green responded, “I did.” Seeds replied, “Well, you’re the only one.”
The Dodgers sent 26-year-old Hayden (Stubby) Greer, a West Texas native who had been a shortstop in the Brooklyn organization before the war, to manage the Blue Sox in 1946. With Greer at the helm, the team got off to a flying start, winning its first six games. During the season, the club was never below third at any time and occupied first place continously from June 17. They finished with a 97-40 record, 5.5 games ahead of Pampa and Amarillo. However, it was the fourth place team - the Lubbock Hubbers - that would give the Blue Sox the most trouble.
Finishing with a 71-70 record, the Hubbers faced the mighty Abilene club in the first round of the playoffs. Here, they stunned the vaunted Blue Sox four games to one to send the regular season champions packing. The Blue Sox’ only win came in game four, 7-5 in 13 innings. Sayles later declared that “dissension on the club was a contributing factor in the collapse of the Blue Sox.”
During the regular season, a brace of .300 hitters led the potent Abilene attack as the team finished with a league-high .310 average. Individually, Greer batted .358, fifth in the league, with 131 RBI in 135 games, led the league in hits (202) and SB (38), and was the circuit’s all-star shortstop and MVP. First baseman Danny Ozark (.325, 31 HR, 142 RBI) and third baseman Leo Thomas (.363, 16 HR, 99 RBI) also made the all-star team. Second baseman Pete Spatafore set a professional baseball record on August 22 when he was walked seven times in a nine-inning 22-2 win over Lamesa. On the mound, the Blue Sox had two 20-game winners, Bill Werbowski (20-7) and John Hall (20-9). In addition, Hall led the league in ERA (2.45), while Joe Tysko (13-2) had the league’s best won-lost percentage (.867).
The most notable alum of the 1946 Blue Sox was their first baseman, Danny Ozark. Although he never played baseball at the major league level, Ozark was a well-known big league skipper who managed the Phillies and Giants for eight seasons in the 1970s and 1980s. Other Abilene players who saw service in the majors included Leo Thomas who batted .212 in 95 games for the Browns and White Sox in the early 1950s and John Hall who pitched in three games for the Dodgers in 1948.
After the 1946 season, Howard Green drove throughout West Texas organizing the new six-team Class D Longhorn League. Before his 26th birthday, he was elected its president, becoming the youngest league president in baseball history. He sold his interest in the Blue Sox following the 1948 season to run the Dodgers’ Pueblo (Class A Western League) club. After a year there, he returned to Texas to organize the Class C Gulf Coast League and was president of that circuit and the Class B Big State League through the mid-1950s. Entering politics, he served ten years in the Texas legislature representing Tarrant County (Fort Worth), eight years as Tarrant County judge and four as Tarrant county treasurer. Green also engineered the sale of Turnpike Stadium, owned by Tarrant County, to the city of Arlington, which paved the way for the Washington Senators to become the Texas Rangers in 1972. He returned to minor league baseball briefly in 1976 to serve as president of the short-lived Class A Gulf States League. Currently, he is in business in Fort Worth and is the grandfather of movie and stage actor Ethan Hawke.
After 1946, Abilene played in the WTNM League for another 10 years before joining the Big State League for two seasons beginning in 1956. The highlight of the 12-year run was another championship in 1951.
Led by the dynamic Howard Green, the 1946 Abilene Blue Sox was arguably the best club in the 16 year history of the West Texas - New Mexico League as their .708 winning percentage was never topped. For this mark alone, despite their early playoff exit, this club earned its place on the National Association’s top 100 list.
|1946 West Texas - New Mexico League Standings|
|1946 Abilene Blue Sox batting statistics|
|Cal McPike (Lamesa)||P||38||68||7||7||4||1||0||0||6||27||0||.103|
|Irv Cumbie (Clovis)||OF||29||130||22||31||16||6||2||1||6||18||2||.238|
|1946 Abilene Blue Sox pitching statistics|
|Cal McPike (Lamesa)||8||8||.500||38||9||0||177||222||?||122||6.51|