Before the Colt .45s
A brief history of Houston baseball 1861-1961
by Darrell Pittman
Updated: June 2011
After Appomattox, the popularity of baseball grew as Civil War veterans of both sides returned home, having played the game, or seen it played, in their various wartime encampments. There, it served as a diversion from the alternating drill, boredom, and terror that typifies Army life. Baseball was even played in many prisoner-of-war camps, sometimes in inmates-versus-guards games. When they got home, many wanted either to play the game or, at least, to watch it. And, they taught it to their kids.
The above notwithstanding, Houston's first baseball organization formed on April 11, 1861 (one day before Fort Sumter was attacked) at a meeting held above J.H. Evans' dry goods store in the Palmer Building at what would now be 315 Main Street. 1942's Houston: A History and Guide describes the meeting as follows:
On April 11, 1861, the Weekly Telegraph announced the creation of a baseball club:
The first reported baseball game in the Houston area was played on April 21, 1868, when the Houston Stonewalls shellacked the Galveston Robert E. Lees 34-5 on the San Jacinto Battleground before a crowd of more than 1,000 people. While no formal leagues existed at the time, the game was billed as a "state championship game."
Earlier games may well have taken place; this was merely the first one reported in the newspaper.
The 1942 book adds later:
The Daily Telegraph published a column on a baseball game between the Houston Stonewalls and the Robert E. Lees of Galveston at the San Jacinto Battleground on April 21, 1868. The heavily laden steamboat Whitelaw left the Houston landing to the music of a German band. Aboard heroes of the day were the Houston baseball players in their showy uniforms consisting of red caps, white flannel shirts, and black pants. Several veterans of the Battle of San Jacinto were also aboard and they fought the battle over with no more personal modesty than was absolutely necessary. A barge equipped for dancing was attached to the Whitelaw. The St. Clair of Galveston beat the Houston boat to the San Jacinto landing by a half hour. †
Amateur clubs came and went in Houston throughout the late 1800s, until Samuel L. Hain put together the first "Texas League" in 1884, with clubs in Houston, Galveston, Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Waco. The Houston club was originally called the "Lambs" or "Red Stockings." The league sat dormant from 1885-87, when Austinites Sam French and Ed Byrne reorganized the league for 1888.
John J. McCloskey, a former catcher for Hain's 1884 Austin Senators, took over the Houston club in 1889, renaming it the "Babies." Houston won the league championship in 1889, 1892, and 1896, with a few seasons of non-play interspersed in between.
The league was again reorganized in 1903, and the Houston club was renamed the "Wanderers," under the day-to-day control of Sam Taub. In 1905, Wade Moore took over the reigns of the club, which was renamed yet again to the "Buffaloes," the name that finally stuck. The team won the league championship that year.
In 1905, the team moved into newly built West End Park, near the end of the San Felipe streetcar line, at 601 Andrews St. (at Heiner St.) in what would become midtown. It seated about 2,500 fans. Before that, they played at a facility known as "League Park," a ballpark located on the old State Fairgrounds at the southwest corner of Travis and McGowan.
In 1909, Otto Sens and Doak Roberts purchased the Buffs for $11,000. The Buffs won Texas League pennants in 1909, 1912, 1913, and 1914. Sens and Roberts sold the club for $200,000 in 1920 to a group of local businessmen headed by John H. Crooker.
After the Texas League attained Class A status in 1921, Crooker sold his majority interest in the Buffaloes to the St. Louis Cardinals and their General Manager, Branch Rickey, who was beginning to build his legendary farm system, a major innovation in baseball. Even so, this was against League rules, which prohibited ownership by Major League teams. The sale was kept mum until 1925 when the Cardinals took complete control, at which time Rickey bribed the Texas League with the promise of a new ballpark in Houston. This marked the beginning of Houston's 33 years as an acknowledged St. Louis farm club.
This was but the first time that Branch Rickey altered Houston's baseball future. The second would come in 1960 with the announcement of Rickey's abortive Continental League, which forced the Major Leagues to expand, Houston being awarded one of the new National League franchises for 1962.
In 1928, 8,000-seat Buff Stadium was completed at a cost of $400,000. It was located on St. Bernard Street (now Cullen Boulevard) next to the Galveston Interurban tracks, a stone's throw from the present-day University of Houston. At the time, with its Spanish-style tiled-roof entryway, it was hailed as the state-of-the-art in minor-league ballparks.
Later, in the 1950s, it would innovate yet again with air-conditioned ladies' rooms.
With dimensions of 344 feet to left, 434 to center, 323 to right, with 12-foot walls, oriented the same direction as later Colt Stadium, combined with the high humidity and southeast winds that blew in from right field, the new crib quickly established a reputation as a pitcher's park; a harbinger of things to come for Colt Stadium, hastily erected on the site of its eventual successor, the Houston Astrodome.
The Houston Buffaloes saw many future stars man its roster over the years. The 1907 Texas League batting champion was Tris Speaker, with a .314 average. In 1927, Pepper Martin led the league in stolen bases. The Buffaloes roster would see many future Cardinal greats over the years: Dizzy and Daffy Dean, Martin, Ducky Medwick, Enos "Country" Slaughter, and many others.
One player, Pete Mazar, would often sing the National Anthem before games in the 1950s. When he and his wife were expecting their first child, the Buffs held "Diaper Night" where fans brought more than 1,000 diapers to the ballpark for the young couple.
Harry Craft was the last manager for the Buffaloes in 1961, and the first for the Houston Colt .45s the following year. Only one Buffalo player, Pidge Browne, would see service as a Colt .45 in major league play, and even then, only for one short season.
League Park, at the southwest corner of Travis and McGowen, is now a vacant lot.
West End Park now lies beneath the Pierce Elevated, next to modern-day Downtown Houston.
In 1963, Buff Stadium was sold to Sammy Finger for $1 million. Damaged by Hurricane Carla in 1961, it was sold at auction for $19,750, and was promptly demolished.
The Interurban line has long since been replaced by the Gulf Freeway, and the massive Finger Furniture Center was built on the site. The store now contains a museum dedicated to Houston sports history in its basement, and the position of Buff Stadium's home plate is marked on the floor of the museum.
The minor-league era of baseball in Houston closed in 1961. Bought out by the Houston Sports Association to settle territorial rights, the Houston Buffaloes moved to Oklahoma City to become the 89ers, the Colt .45s' and Astros' AAA affiliate for several years. The .45s and Astros would for several decades be patterned on the old parent club, the St. Louis Cardinals. Pitchers' parks, defense, speed, and "small ball" would prevail in Houston into the 1990s.
The Texas League thrives to this day as a Class AA circuit. As of this writing, Houston's representative in the league is the Corpus Christi Hooks.
Season Log, Houston, 1888-1958
|1928||104-54||.658||1st||won playoff and Dixie Series|
|1931||108-51||.679||1st||won playoff and Dixie Series|
|1940||105-56||.652||1st||won opener and finals, lost Dixie Series|
|1947||96-58||.623||1st||won opener, finals, and Dixie Series|
|1951||99-61||.619||1st||won opener and finals, lost Dixie Series|
|1954||89-72||.553||2nd||won opener and finals, lost Dixie Series|
|1955||86-75||.534||4th||won opener, lost finals|
|1956||96-58||.623||1st||won opener, finals, and Dixie Series|
|1957||97-57||.630||1st||won opener, finals, and Dixie Series|
Houston in the Texas League Playoffs, 1896-1958
Houston in the Dixie Series, 1928-1957
Texas League Leaders and Awards, Houston, 1896-1958
|1896||Henry Cote||Stolen Bases||64||.|
|.||Harry Stewart||Win Pct.||.742||23-8|
|1910||John Eubank||Win Pct.||.714||10-4|
|1912||George Foster||Wins||24||Tied with Poll Perritt, Fort Worth|
|.||George Foster||Win Pct.||.774||24-7|
|.||Dode Criss||Win Pct.||.800||16-4|
|1914||Gerald Davis||Stolen Bases||65||.|
|1916||Walt Dickson||Win Pct.||.692||18-8|
|1919||Roy Leslie||Homers||16||Tied with Jewel Ens, Dallas|
|.||Bryan Harris||ERA||1.56||Tied with John Verbout, Shreveport|
|1927||Pepper Martin||Stolen Bases||36||.|
|1929||Pepper Martin||Stolen Bases||43||.|
|1930||Joel Hunt||Stolen Bases||55||.|
|.||Dizzy Dean||Win Pct.||.800||8-2|
|.||Dizzy Dean||ERA||1.53||Tied with Whitlow Wyatt, Beaumont|
|.||Dizzy Dean||Most Valuable Player||.||.|
|1933||Ed Greer||Wins||22||Tied with George Darrow, Galveston|
|1935||Lynn King||Stolen Bases||55||.|
|.||Nick Cullop||RBIs||112||Tied with John Stoneham, Fort Worth|
|.||Nick Cullop||Most Valuable Player||.||.|
|.||Murray Dickson||Wins||22||Tied with Ed Greer, Fort Worth|
|.||Howie Pollet||Win Pct.||.780||20-3|
|.||Clarence Beers||Most Valuable Pitcher||.||.|
|.||Octavio Rubert||Win Pct.||.792||19-5|
|1954||Willard Schmidt||Win Pct.||.783||18-5|
|1955||Sherman Dixon||Stolen Bases||40||.|
|.||Tom Hughes||Win Pct.||.778||14-4|
|1958||Charles James||Rookie of the Year||.||.|
|.||Harry Walker||Manager of the Year||.||.|
The idyllic graphic at the top of this article, in which Civil War prisoners play baseball at Salisbury, North Carolina, is rebutted by the following excerpt from Patricia Millen's article entitled "Baseball and the Civil War" from the seventh edition of Total Baseball:
A print "drawn from nature" by Otto Boetticher, an artist from New York City, depicts a bucolic scene with a baseball game taking place on the grounds of the Confederate prison camp in Salisbury, North Carolina. This popular image, published in 1863, is often used by modern day historians to underscore how baseball was frequently played in prison camps during the Civil War. Otto was a prisoner at Salisbury; he was Captain of Company G of the 68th New York Volunteers and was captured and sent to the camp during the summer of 1862. But the diaries and letters of several Union prisoners and writings of a Confederate chaplain who resided in the city of Salisbury give us a more accurate picture of the conditions of the camp and the games played there.
Before the great influx of prisoners who were shipped to Salisbury in October of 1864, the prison population remained relatively low. The Confederate government renovated an old cotton factory and intended the prison to house about 2,500 men. Salisbury's buildings and grounds were relatively spacious and prisoners were allowed "liberty of the yard," according to a 1989 article by Jim Summer. Some of the men enjoyed afternoon and evening games of baseball.
"Took a little walk in the evening and watched some of the officers play ball," wrote 23-year-old Charles Gray, who was captured and sent to the prison in May of 1862. Gray was a Union doctor who remained a spectator of the games at Salisbury and mentioned them frequently in his diary. "A good state of cheerfulness (sic), thanks to the open space is fairly prevailing," he wrote in a journal entry. "Ball play for those who like it and are able, walking, card playing as keep us in employment, but reading matter is about used up."
Josephus Clarkson, a ship chandler's apprentice from Boston before the war, recalled baseball games played at Salisbury with the prison guards. "Since many of the men were in a weakened condition, it was agreed," wrote Clarkson in his diary, "to play the faster but less harsh New York rules... The game of baseball had been played much in the South, but many of them (the guards) had never seen the sport devised by Mr. Cartwright." (This statement also adds further proof that Alexander Cartwright, not Union General Abner Doubleday, was credited as the inventor of baseball during the mid-1800s.)
One pitcher, a Confederate from Texas, was expelled from playing the game by widespread agreement for "badly laming" too many of the prisoner players. The Southerners kept forgetting that "plugging" the runner, or hitting the runner with the ball, was not allowed under the New York rules. Such fond memories of baseball games, for the majority of men imprisoned at Salisbury, are very few. As the population of prisoners soared in the fall of 1864, the conditions became unbearable. Baseball games would have been impossible as survival became paramount in a soldier's mind.
"For months Salisbury was the most endurable prison I had seen; there were 600 inmates," former prisoner Willard W. Glazier recalled in 1866. "They were exercised in open air, comparatively well fed, and kindly treated. Early in October, 10,000 regular prisoners of war arrived. It immediately changed into a scene of cruelty and horror; it was densely crowded, rations were cut down and issued very irregularly." The prison, Glazier remembered, "became so notorious during the War as one of the most loathsome dungeons in rebeldom."
Rations at Salisbury prison, toward the end of its existence, were intolerable and meager. They were not substantial enough to support most soldiers very long, especially when the lack of food was compounded by the scarcity of shelter, heat and medical attention. In Louis Brown's The Salisbury Prison: A Case Study of Confederate Military Prisons, one soldier described the not always daily fare at the prison in 1864 as consisting of "coarse meal, cob, and all ground together, and so musty that a decent hog would not eat it." Starving soldiers ate anything they could get their hands on to stay alive, including roaming dogs, cats, and rats. The Confederate Army hadn't the means to feed its own men, let alone its prisoners of war.
When the Union Army marched into Salisbury on April 12, 1865, three days after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, Union General George Stoneman ordered the prison burned to the ground. The best estimate of the dead at Salisbury would tally almost 4,000 men, most of whom died during the last year of the prison's life.
It is easy for historians to surmise that the game of baseball spread as a result of the Civil War due to the many references to the game being played in the army, and because of its growth in popularity in America during the decades following the war. But, as research proves, the popularity of the game was well on its way before the start of the Civil War, when all leisure time activities were blossoming in the developing urbanized American society.
As author Harold Seymour confirmed, "by the time of the Civil War the rapid spread of the Knickerbockers style of baseball manifested itself in both the Union and Confederate armies." These rules, devised by the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club in 1845, were no doubt taught to many soldiers of the war, but whether it was townball, baseball, or rounders, men from the North and South had already learned to play ball before they became soldiers. Regardless of the Civil War, baseball was already on its way to becoming the "National Game."
by J.R. Gonzales
October 24, 2007
|Buff Stadium, opening day, April 11, 1928. St. Bernard Street (now Cullen Boulevard) can be seen behind right field. (Houston Post)|
Let's kick off the sports category with a look at Buff (later Busch) Stadium, home of the Houston Buffaloes.
The stadium opened on April 11, 1928, with a 7-5 victory over the Waco Cubs. Up to 15,000 turned out for that game, the largest single gathering for a baseball game in Houston at that time. The previous record was 8,300, set in 1925, according to the Houston Chronicle.
HISD released students 50 minutes early to allow them to attend that game. Texas Gov. Dan Moody tossed the first pitch while Houston Mayor Oscar Holcombe acted as catcher and Jesse H. Jones served as umpire.
But a few things didn't quite go as planned:
* Members of the Army recruiting service marched toward center field to hoist the American flag on a flagpole, the Houston Press reported.
As the men marched, one of two bands in the stands was supposed to play.
The gentleman directing the squad -- identified only as Public Service Commissioner Kirk -- became agitated.
I'll let the Press pick it up from here:
"Hey," bellowed Kirk, his Foghorn Kelly-like voice rocking the rafters. "Hey, can't you play?"
And the band struck up with a jazz bit.
From his expression spectators felt Mr. Kirk was muttering swear words, but, gentleman always, he kept them so low they couldn't be heard.
"Whatinhell," it sounded like, "are you guys playing? Play a march. ..."
* "Andy's Sidelights," a Houston Press sports column, took some fans to task over a pillow fight that occurred in the stands.
"For the benefit of the folks who were not there, fans indulged -- at least a lot of them did -- in a free for all cushion fight from the 8th inning on. I don't know nor do I care who cast that first cushion. However this is certain -- there were some 3,000 ladies at the park. And -- if we are to invite our lady folks to see ball games it's sort of up to all of us to see that they are protected.
"One cushion hurled by someone way up in the top row hit an elderly lady on the head, disarrayed her hat and she left the park saying, 'Never again.' Yes -- lots of folks laughed and hurled cushions back -- that's their idea of being a good sport and not growling -- but there were those there who did not like it and the practice should be stopped right now."
* The columnist noted problems with traffic as well:
"It took this writer more than half an hour to drive some six squares and then only to find a traffic jam equally as bad on Polk avenue."
The Fingers Furniture Center on the Gulf Freeway at Cullen now sits at the former site of the stadium. Next time you're there, check out the Houston sports museum inside for more information about the Buffaloes and other local teams and figures.
(SIDE NOTE: Before Buff Stadium, Texas League games were played at West End Park, built in 1905. When Buff Stadium replaced it, the Houston Press estimated that 1,850 baseball games had been played there.
The field was also very accommodating to reporters.
"There was a time, years ago, before the days of the Volstead Act, when a convenient rope raised and lowered a tin pail," the Press reported. "The pail was empty when lowered but when raised it contained froth liquids which were quickly absorbed by thirsty scribes."
Where was West End Park? Well, it was pretty much across Howe Street from where the headquarters to Continental Airlines is today.)
I've mostly heard secondhand stories about Buff Stadium. Anyone out there have memories about this long-gone structure?
|Busch Stadium, May 28, 1956 (Houston Post)|
|Busch Stadium, September 8, 1959. (Houston Post)|
|Attendance was 312 for this Sept. 6, 1959, ball game. (Houston Post)|
|Buff Stadium, a shell of its former self, March 15, 1963. (Houston Post)|