Baseball is the story of us
Joshua Whitfield: Texas’ first game marked a hallowed beginning
As far as official games go, baseball began in our state 150 years ago this week. On April 21, 1867, the Houston Stonewalls beat the Galveston Robert E. Lees by the embarrassing score of 35-2.
Not much of a game, but it was the beginning. And for lovers of baseball like me, it was a hallowed beginning, and the inauguration of something beautiful.
Read about it in fun histories like Clay Coppedge’s Texas Baseball and Kris Rutherford’s Baseball on the Prairie; get lost in sabr.org, the wonderful website of the Society for American Baseball Research; do some Googling. Look into it and you’ll discover a remarkable history that’s more than just Ernie Banks and Nolan Ryan. You’ll discover something of the essence of Texas, and of us.
An odd gift of the Civil War, baseball in Texas grew with the railroad, like just about everything else in this state. Small towns and large cities fielded their own teams, symbols of community pride and at times shame, teams like the Dallas Giants, the Sherman Orphans, the Denison Indians, the Fort Worth Cats and the Cleburne Railroaders.
For each, the game measured civic and economic progress or decline, the rough evolution of modern Texas.
Proud businessmen, who thankfully had more money than sense and more love for the game than was probably healthy, drove Texas baseball with entrepreneurial grit.
For example, there’s Dick Burnett, who rented out the Cotton Bowl in 1950 just so he could steal the single-game attendance record from Fort Worth, drawing more than 54,000 spectators to a gimmicky game he’d packed with old-time greats like Ty Cobb and Dizzy Dean.
No sane man would’ve done that, only a lover of the game.
Texas baseball is a story of mythically ridiculous extremes, as when the Corsicana Oil Citys beat the living daylights out of the Texarkana Casketmakers 51-3 in the worst drubbing in professional baseball history.
Texarkana’s pitcher was a young man named Jerome, entitled son of the team’s owner, Charles Dewitt, who insisted his boy take the mound. Chagrined, but an obedient employee, the team manager, Cy Mulkey, kept the poor kid in the entire game, even after things quickly got out of hand. Corsicana’s Justin Clarke hit eight home runs.
“His daddy said he’s going to pitch,” Mulkey said, watching the carnage stoically, “and he’s sure pitching, ain’t he?”
Again, no sanity there, just stubborn love for the pure democratic meritocracy of the game.
Baseball in our state is a story of proud firsts, too, like the story of Dave Hoskins, who signed with the Dallas Eagles in 1952. He was the first African-American to play in the Texas League. White pitchers used to throw at his head, yet he stayed in the game. Because he knew it was about more than just baseball.
Then there’s Bessie Largent from McKinney, the first female major league scout. A poet and a quiet sort of person, she had an eye for talent and was (along with her husband, Roy) a scout for the Chicago White Sox for decades.
She was an unlikely baseball genius, this literary, conservative woman. But again, baseball’s like that, welcoming all who simply love the game.
Now this is history every lover of baseball should know, but others, too. Because the game’s a parable, a reflection and an ongoing lesson about ourselves. I believe the beauties of the game reflect the beauties of heaven, but its history tells the story of us.
A pastime born out of conflict and sustained by a relentless and even capitalist spirit, it’s a game that has helped us learn what it means to be Americans. Allowing us, literally, to play out our conflicts upon an oddly shaped but even field, baseball has helped us find what we couldn’t have so easily otherwise. And that’s the strength of our diversity and difference, and that we’re better when we play together.
Walt Whitman said it was “our game — the American game.” And for 150 years, this game has shaped us, too, Texas and its people.
Which is why we should keep watching, playing and teaching this game that is so much part of our history. It’s why we should all love baseball, whether we like it or not. Because there’s something healing about it, something that stirs up in us the best of ourselves.
Joshua J. Whitfield is pastoral administrator for St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas and a frequent columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The 1902 Corsicana Oil Citys defeated Texarkana, 51-3, in the worst beating in professional baseball history. Justin Clarke (back row, second from left) hit eight home runs in that game.