Play ball! Yes, the baseball season is upon us once more. The Lone Star grudge match between Dallas and Houston was always a good one, and when the Fort Worth Cats took on the Dallas Eagles, after seven or so innings and as many beers, there were fist fights in the stands. For you youngsters and newcomers, Texas baseball in air-conditioned stadiums with huge scoreboards and suites with bars and toilets are a relative new way of seeing and playing America’s game. I am talking about the Texas League which, along with Southwest Conference football games, united and divided the state like nothing since the Civil War (or the War for Southern Independence as my grandmother called the Late Unpleasantness).
But whatever happened to the old Texas League? Actually, it is still going strong, packing in fans. Since its founding in 1888 as the Texas State Baseball League, this organization has become one of the most colorful and historic minor leagues in America. And the bat goes on. Today on summer evenings in their field of dreams, young men on their way up to the Bigs, play ball.
The players compete in 140 games, about 20 shy of what the major league teams play. Each Texas League team is affiliated with a major league team which pays the players’ salaries, about $1,800 a month during the season, along with the salaries of the coaches, managers and trainers, plus some costs for the equipment. In turn, the teams send part of their gate receipts to Major League Baseball. This financial arrangement allows for one of the great bargains in professional sports. Ticket prices in most of the league’s stadiums go for about $10 to $20 with general admission as low as $2, and parking is usually free.
The Texas League is Class AA, a level that many in player development consider the make or break level of the minor leagues. If a player performs well in the Texas League, he has a fair chance to play, some day, in the major leagues. Then there are the stadiums. Build it and they will score runs. In Class AA, there must be at least 6,000 seats in each stadium. (Corpus Christi’s Whataburger Field was named by USA Today among the top 10 minor league parks in the nation.) Many of the league’s parks also feature grassy knolls beyond the outfield where families can spread out a blanket and lie down to watch the games.
Over its 129 years, the host towns have changed with just the San Antonio Missions hanging in there from the beginning. Today the league is divided into North and South. The northern bunch is made up of the Springfield, Missouri, Cardinals, Northwest Arkansas Naturals (I guess they liked the movie), Arkansas Travelers and Tulsa Drillers. The south consists of the Corpus Christi Hooks, San Antonio Missions, Midland RockHounds and Frisco RoughRiders. (Last season the RoughRiders adopted a Teddy Roosevelt-style uniform – bully for them.) Through the first century of the circuit’s operation, 38 cities in eight states hosted Texas League teams. And including other leagues, in Texas alone, 101 cities — more than in any other state — have supported minor league franchises. (Incidentally, the Sugar Land Skeeters are in the independent Atlantic League. Those teams are concentrated on the East Coast, except for Sugar Land.) Towns and cities that have fielded Texas League teams range alphabetically from Albuquerque to Wichita Falls, geographically from Kansas to the Rio Grande Valley, but they have always kept the same league name, maybe because it is one of the oldest minor leagues in the nation. By 1994 only three Texas cities, San Antonio, El Paso, and Midland, were part of the eight-team league, and there have been only 15 years in which the Texas League has had an exclusively Texan makeup throughout the season.
I love some of their names: the Ardmore Territorians (this was in 1904 — Oklahoma didn’t become a state until 1907), Dallas Hams, Houston Babies. Longview Cannibals, Paris Parisians, Sherman Orphans, Temple Boll Weevils and Texarkana Casket Makers. A side note about a former member of the Texas League which moved up to AAA, the Round Rock Express. Nolan Ryan was pitching for the Houston Astros, and sport writers, always looking for a stale nickname (Little Miss Baby Cakes, Pinstripes, Hammer of Thor) fiddled with the name “Ryan.” Ryan’s Daughter didn’t work, but Houston novelist David Westheimer had written a thriller book, “Von Ryan’s Express,” so Nolan (Lynn) Ryan became Ryan’s Express or just the Express. When he got involved, businesswise, with the Round Rock minor league team, the name followed. Good thing Westheimer didn’t write “Ryan’s Casket Makers.”
In 1930 Katy Park in Waco became one of the first stadiums in organized baseball to install lights for night games. When Fort Worth’s LaGrave Field was rebuilt in 1950 following a fire, it was the first new baseball park to include a television booth. Over the years, fans witnessed players such as Tris Speaker, Hank Greenberg, “Dizzy” Dean, Duke Snider, Frank Robinson and Brooks Robinson. One player, Homer Rainey, became president of The University of Texas. John Alton “Al” Benton, later, in the majors, gave up home runs to both Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle. Johnny Berardino, San Antonio’s second-baseman in 1938, later starred as Dr. Hardy on General Hospital. Earlier, as a child actor, he appeared in several episodes of Our Gang. More recently there were stars like Fernando Valenzuela, Orel Hershiser, Joe Morgan and Darryl Strawberry. The Astros’ dugout was a Texas League reunion with Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt and Brad Lidge.
Finally, a hit ball that drops safely between the infield and the outfield for a single is called a “Texas Leaguer,” or used to be. We don’t hear that term much anymore. But maybe we will if Field of Dreams ever comes to town and the Cats and the Eagles go at it again.
Ashby plays ball at email@example.com