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Big names, big scores, big crowds

Texas League writes century of rich baseball history
March 15, 2006
In his 1951 book, The History of the Texas League, historian William Ruggles wrote, "If there was ever a true embodiment of the spirit of baseball, it walked in John McCloskey."

McCloskey, who is considered the father of the Texas League, fostered the spirit of one of Minor League Baseball's preeminent leagues.

In the fall of 1887, McCloskey led the Joplin Independents, a traveling Western League team that toured the southwest and played exhibitions against teams from Fort Worth, Waco and Austin. The Independents were successful at winning games and impressing local residents and businessmen, so much so that McCloskey remained in Texas. He met with businessmen from Austin, Houston, Dallas and New Orleans in the interest of organizing a professional baseball league.

The next spring, the Texas League of Base Ball Clubs was formed. Its first game was played on April 1, 1888, when the Houston Babies defeated the Galveston Giants. Since then, the circuit has grown into a celebrated professional league, a breeding ground for 32 Hall of Famers, including Tris Speaker, Dizzy Dean, Hank Greenberg, Al Simmons and Don Sutton.

There have been challenges along the way to keep the league viable. The oil business sustained many teams and the league survived a pair of world wars and the Great Depression. Bobby Bragan played a key role as league president in the 1960s and early '70s, when all of Minor League Baseball was mired in a slump. He helped boost interest in the game and shepherded San Antonio get back into the league.

"Few men in the history of this league have had such influence in so many different areas as has Bobby Bragan," Texas League president Tom Kayser said in 2004, when the circuit decided to name its championship trophy in Bragan's honor.

San Antonio has been a part of the Texas League for most of its history, and its team has been known as the Missions since 1988. The Arkansas Travelers have been in the league since 1966 and became the first pro team to be named for an entire state when it changed its name from the Little Rock Travelers in 1961.

While the league is comprised of eight teams, 42 different franchises have existed in various incarnations with names like the Beaumont Roughnecks, Temple Boil Weevils, Shreveport Swamp Dragons, Texarkana Casket Makers and El Paso Diablos. In the past, teams have been situated in Jackson, Miss., New Orleans and Oklahoma City, and there have been countless Major League affiliations on the Texas landscape.

The Fort Worth Panthers were the closest thing to a Texas League dynasty, winning seven of their 12 titles from 1920-30. They dominated the offensive categories during that span, while Panthers pitcher Joe Pate twice won 30 games in the '20s. That run also gave the Texas League bragging rights in the Dixie Series, the championship showdown between the Southern and Texas league pennant-winners that was played from 1920-58.

The Panthers beat the famed Memphis Chicks three times in the Dixie Series between 1921-30. Fort Worth played a historic game in 1896, posting a 19-run inning in a 31-4 trouncing of the Galveston Sand Crabs. According to Baseball in the Lone Star State: The Texas League's Greatest Hits, Fort Worth had eight singles, two doubles, a triple and a homer in the big inning as they sent 24 men to the plate.

The Texas League is a notorious hitters' league, with established terms like "Texas Leaguers" robbing pitchers of sure outs. Ike Boone probably had more than a few bloop singles when he hit .402 in 1923 for the San Antonio Bears.

The circuit has seen its share of astounding home run totals, topped by Ken Guettler's record of 62 for the Shreveport Sports in 1956. Guettler broke a 32-year-old mark set by the Texas League's version of Babe Ruth -- Clarence "Big Boy" Kraft, who slugged 55 home runs in 1924. Recently, the Arkansas Travelers' Tyrone Horne accomplished a rare feat, crushing a solo homer, two-run shot, three-run blast and grand slam on July 27, 1998 against the San Antonio Missions.

At times, Texas League scores looked more like results from Southwest Conference football clashes or Friday night football. In 1902, the Corsicana Oil City Oilers clobbered Texarkana, 51-3. In that game, Oilers catcher Jay Clarke reportedly hit eight homers and set a league record with 12 RBIs, although RBIs weren't official statistics at that time. The rout was part of a 28-game winning streak for Corsicana, which folded just three years later.

On April 30, 1983, the El Paso Diablos outscored the Beaumont Gators, 35-21, breaking league records for total runs, RBIs and hits. An extra-hard infield and 35-mph gusts out to right field contributed to the slugfest. Diablos manager Tony Muser later told Baseball America, "I was happy whenever someone made an out. Heck, I don't think Nolan Ryan would have gotten anybody out that night."

The Austin Senators posted one of the league's most lopsided shutout wins, blanking the San Antonio Broncos, 44-0, in the second game of a doubleheader on July 23, 1907. The Broncos lost the opener and had manager Sam LaRocque and first baseman Pat Newman ejected on a controversial call.

Marathon shutouts have figured into the Texas League's rich history. On July 14, 1988, the San Antonio Missions blanked the Jackson Mets, 1-0, in a 26-inning, seven-hour classic. Some 78 years earlier, during the deadball era, Harry Ables and Art Loudell tossed 23 innings apiece. In the modern era, Chuck Hartenstein showed a rubber arm, tossing 189 pitches over 18 innings for the Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs against the Austin Braves on June 17, 1965.

When pitchers enjoyed success in the Texas League, it usually turned out to be legendary. San Antonio's "Bullet" Bob Turley set the league record for strikeouts, whiffing 22 over 16 innings on Aug. 11, 1951 against the Tulsa Oilers. Tulsa's Dave Righetti holds the nine-inning record with 21 strikeouts against the Midland Cubs on July 16, 1978.

In 1931, Dean, who wore out his jaw almost as much as he did Texas League hitters, went 26-10 with 28 complete games, 11 shutouts and 303 strikeouts for the Houston Buffalos. His strikeout mark fell just short of the league record of 310, set by Ables for San Antonio in 1910.

On September 19, 1959, Austin's Charlie Gorin ended the inaugural Pan American Series, which pitted the Texas and Mexican League champs, by tossing a no-hitter against the Mexico City Red Devils in a 2-0 victory in the decisive Game 5. It remains the only Texas League playoff series decided by a no-hitter.

Tom Walker also tossed a Texas League no-hitter on Aug. 4, 1971, pitching 15 innings for Dallas-Fort Worth against the Albuquerque Dodgers. At the other end of the spectrum was a 49-minute contest between Galveston and San Antonio in 1913.

The Texas League also has proved innovative, playing its first night game at Waco's Katy Park on June 20, 1930 -- five years before the Cincinnati Reds hosted the first night game in Major League history.

With so many classic games and such a storied history, it's not surprising that the Texas League set an attendance record in 2005, when 2,834,335 fans strolled through the gates of its eight ballparks.

Opening Day in the Texas League has its own history. In 1950, 54,151 fans showed up for the opener at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. And in 1976, Roscoe Stidman, said to be shorter than Eddie Gaedel, batted leadoff for the Arkansas Travelers. He's due to repeat the feat in September, when the Travs play their final game at fabled Ray Winder Field -- proof that the spirit of the Texas League lives on.

Eric Justic is a contributor to