Lynn Ashby

Play ball! After suspending play in the 2020 season due to the Covid-19 virus, Minor League Baseball is back in Texas. Sort of. Sure, there are minor league teams across the Lone Star State, but there is one important part missing. After 133 years, the Texas League that gave fans sweaty, mosquito-filled nights watching Don Sutton, Rogers Hornsby, Duke Snider and Maury Wills was killed off. Fans saw Tris Speaker, Hank Greenberg, "Dizzy" Dean, Frank Robinson and Brooks Robinson. In more recent times, the Astros’ dugout was a Texas League reunion with Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt and Brad Lidge.

Now the newspapers list the organization as “Double-A Central.” Catchy title, eh? If you grew up in Texas, you grew up with the Texas League. The Houston Buffs, the Dallas Eagles, the Longview Cannibals and who can forget the Texarkana Casket Makers? OK, some of the teams didn’t last long. What happened was that Major League Baseball took advantage of the 2020 virus to suspend Minor League Baseball, then consolidated leagues and eliminated some 42 minor league teams. Those that were left became farm teams for the majors. The Texas League teams survived in the Double-A Central, divided into the north and the south, but every team plays all the others. Only half the teams in the Texas League were actually in Texas.

A little background music, please, maybe “Take Me Out to 1888,” when the immortal Dallas Hams won the first league championship. The admission price was 25 cents. Over the years franchises were scattered alphabetically from Albuquerque to Wichita Falls, geographically from Kansas to the Rio Grande Valley, but they always kept the same league name, maybe because it was one of the oldest minor leagues in the nation.

Some interesting items about the league: On April 30, 1983, the El Paso Diablos (as they were called then) and the Beaumont Golden Gators ended up: El Paso 35, Beaumont 21. Back then, if a Diablo hit a home run, his helmet would be passed around in the stands and the fans would put money in it. The players did well that night. A hit that drops between the infielders and outfielders has been called a Texas Leaguer since the 1890s, despite no evidence that it originated in the Texas League, or was any more common there than elsewhere. 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, it was the first new baseball park to include a television booth. Homer Rainey pitched for several league teams and eventually became president of The University of Texas. (He was fired.) John Alton "Al" Benton, later, in the majors, gave up home runs to both Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle. The Dallas Eagles played in the Oak Cliff part of town, which voted dry. Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks, but no beer.

Today’s Alphabet and Geographical Meaningless Title for a League retains some great history and stories, gathered mostly by Benjamin Hill, who writes about Minor League Baseball. Let’s start with:

Northwest Arkansas Naturals -- Arkansas is known as the Natural State, and the team is owned by the Rich family, which also owns the Buffalo Bisons. In 1983, significant portions of Robert Redford's The Natural were filmed at the Bisons' stadium. The Natural’s popularity raised the profile of the Bisons so much they soon moved up a level and then to a new ballpark.

Arkansas Travelers -- The first professional baseball team bearing the Travelers moniker debuted in 1901. As such, it is one of the oldest unique team names in all of Minor League Baseball. In 1957, the Travelers changed their geographical signifier from Little Rock to Arkansas. In doing so, they became the first team in professional sports to name itself after a state.

Springfield Cardinals – In 1941, a player batted .379 -- Stan Musial.

Tulsa Drillers -- When a team relocates to a new city and keeps its name, some strange combinations can result (see: Jazz, Utah and Los Angeles, Lakers). But this franchise was established in 1975 as the Lafayette (Louisiana) Drillers, before moving to equally oil-dependent Tulsa in 1977. So they kept the name.

The Sod Poodles – That’s Amarillo’s team. I have no idea what the name means, but it marked the return of Minor League Baseball to Amarillo after a 36-season absence.

Corpus Christi Hooks – When the Houston Astros bought the Corpus franchise, Hooks, line and sinker, they pumped millions to upgrade the facilities, Whataburger Field, which had already been named by USA Today among the top 10 minor league parks in the nation. Prior to the 2019 season, the ballpark's roof was painted in Whataburger's orange-and-white colors. The Hooks, along with the Sugar Land Skeeters, is where Astros go to get well.

Frisco RoughRiders -- The first Minor League team in the history of Frisco. (Frisco is a suburb of Dallas, which is always behind the curve ball.) In 2005, Frisco began its 15-season run of Texas League attendance dominance. In 2016 the RoughRiders adopted a Teddy Roosevelt-style uniform – bully for them.

San Antonio Missions -- One of the charter members of the Texas League back in 1888. At one point the Missions were a farm team for the worst team ever in the majors: the St. Louis Browns. Still, nearly 250 Missionaries reached the major leagues.

Wichita Wind Surge-- A reluctant member of the league. The team was all set to join the Triple-A Eastern League and play in its new $75-million Riverfront Stadium. And it’s a long bus trip from Wichita to San Antonio.

Midland RockHounds – We can only assume the players moonlight as Exxon geologists.

So there we have it. There is still a website for the league, but when I called its headquarters, I heard: “The phone number you called is not valid.” Strike three.

Ashby bats at ashby2@comcast.net

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