Posts Tagged ‘Houston Buffs’

Jerry Witte: Remembering a Best Friend

April 28, 2011

Jerry Witte and the Scouts, Buff Stadium, 1951.

Not that I ever forget him. He was my great childhood baseball hero with the Houston Buffs, my late-in-life best adult friend, my palling around the old Houston East End buddy, my best company in late summer afternoon baseball conversations on Oak Vista Street, the booming loud and smiling patriarch of the seven daughtered Witte family, the sometimes cantankerous partner to Mary Witte in a marriage that stretched  this one man’s  affection over a half century of loving dedication to God, marriage, family and the simplest most powerful connections to life, the biggest hunter  I ever met, but an even bigger collector of raw or slightly used building materials, a gardener with a Kelly green thumb, and a Telephone Road area driveway fly swatting champion of unparalleled success.

All these things were simply the veneer of the deeper soul that was Jerry Witte, one of the best men that God ever put down here to walk the earth as an honest-to-goodness everyday hero. In baseball and in life, Jerry Witte was tough, honest, and dedicated to the goal of giving everything he did his best shot. Whether it was playing the game of baseball, landscaping an entire property as the head of his own post-playing career company, or simply chewing the fat with friends, you could always count on Jerry Witte to give it his most earnest effort.

Today marks the ninth anniversary of Jerry’s departure from the Earth. Depending upon what we know is true (He actually passed away on April 27, 2002, which is how all the Internet baseball stat sites show it.) or when it was recorded (The death record lists his final date of life as April 28, 2002 and that’s how it is marked on both his grave marker and in his autobiography.), Jerry Witte passed away on either April 27th or 28th of 2002.

We will be thinking especially hard of you today, Jerry, and all in the name of our love for the influence you still are in our lives. Years ago, I wrote these feelings in the following way on page 324 of your post-mortem published autobiography. I could not improve today upon anything I said then:

OUR FAREWELL TO JERRY WITTE, on The Day of His Funeral, May 1, 2002.

I’ll never see a summer sky,

And fail to think of you.

For all the love you brought to life,

Each day came shining through.

 Your wife and seven daughters,

Were the center of your world,

But your spirit spread beyond the nest,

To others – it unfurled.

And we are all the richer now,

For the luck of meeting you.

You gave to every life you touched,

A friendship – blood-red true.

You rose from salt that made this world,

A place that honored labor.

You worked for everything you had,

With integrity – as your saber.

You never wasted precious time,

On the stuff that doesn’t matter.

You saw through fame and fortune,

As the path of growing sadder.

Instead, you gave your giving heart,

To those who needed love.

And we were captured on the spot,

Like pop flies in your glove.

And on this day we say farewell,

Our hearts hold this much true,

We’ll always have that special gift,

– The gift of knowing you!

Godspeed

Bill McCurdy, May 1, 2002

A Kid From St. Louis, Pecan Park Eagle Press, 2003.

Jerry Witte was born on July 30, 1915 in St. Louis Missouri. He played professional baseball from 1937 to 1952, finishing his career as the Houston Buff first baseman from June 1950 through the end of the 1952 season. Jerry had two brief exposures to the big leagues with the St, Louis Browns in 1946-47, but mainly played out his game over the years as one the great home run hitters in minor league history, including a 50 homer season for the 1949 Dallas Eagles.

Beautiful 317-page hard-cover copies of Jerry Witte’s autobiography are still available for $25.00, which includes shipping within the USA. If you are interested, please endorse your check to me, “Bill McCurdy,” and send it, along with a clearly typed mailing address, plus any personal signing instructions for me as Jerry’s co-author to: Bill McCurdy, PO BOX 940871, Houston, TX 77094-7871.

If you have any further questions, I am easily reachable through my e-mail address:

houston.buff37@gmail.com

My Favorite Buffs Logo Year: 1947

April 25, 2011

Heart Buff Logo of the 1947 Houston Buffs.

At age nine, the 1947 Houston Buffs were my first team of hometown heroes, with second baseman Solly Hemus standing out as my first baseball hero. We used to call him by the nickname the sportswriters tagged him – “The Little Pepper Pot” fit both the man and his game. Even us brand new cutting-our-teeth on baseball fans could see it – and feel it.  Hemus was the driving spirit of a club that included several fine ball players in Hal Epps, Eddie Knoblauch, Al Papai, Johnny Hernandez, and Jack Creel, just to name a few of the stars that flew across the sky of manager Johnny Keane’s universe.

The 1947 Buffs took a narrow starightway first place finish away from the Fort Worth Cats before going on to capture the Texas League Shaughnessy Playoffs and also the prized Dixie Series championship over the Mobile Bears of the Southern Association.

As old Blues yes, Frank Sinatra used to sing, “it was a very good year!” Naturally, when you start off baseball as a kid following a team that wins everything there is to win, and you are old enough to understand that is exactly just what happened, it spoils you with all those great expectations. I thought the Buffs were supposed to win it all every year. Seasons 1948 through 1950 quickly, if painfully, corrected that wrong idea as the Buffs went into the kind of struggle and fall patterns that came from the parent St. Louis Cardinals sending all their better prospects to play for their AAA clubs in Columbus, Ohio and Rochester, New York.

No doubt about it, however, at least, not in my mind, that the 1947 season also produced the finest Buffalo jersey logo in the local Texas League AA club’s history. The simple circle with the detailed buffalo silhouette inside was always both my first glimpse and forever fetish symbol of Buff celebration. In fact, I never understood why the club did not simply stick with something that worked so well over the years that followed. They also used a deep burgundy red for the color accent on caps and uniform piping and sox that season. The whole look was great, but, like many of the players from year to year, everything in minor league ball, including uniform styles and colors,  has always been about constant annual mass turnover,  makeover, and sometimes, a roll into a disheartening downgrade in local talent. Because the Buffs were a Cardinals farm club, the only predictable carryover feature was the ongoing presence of red as the team’s primary color and, most of the time, the Buff uniforms from 1948 through 1958, the last Cardinal season here, would look pretty much like the parent club St. Louis outfits, without the birds on the bat. (Two buffs on a bat would have bent the stick past its breaking point, I think.)

Speaking of buffaloes, we’ve always assumed that the Buffalos/Buffs nickname tag stuck in Houston because it naturally derived its identity from our our downtown Houston waterway, Buffalo Bayou. That’s probably true, although I’ve never read anything from a deceased primary source that explained it exactly in those terms, or gave anyone credit for the naming. As we get into our SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) project here this summer on the first one hundred years of Houston Baseball: 1861-1961, we will have to look into this naming question even further. We my never learn who came up with “Buffaloes,” but there’s no reason not to dig a little deeper into it anyway to see what turns up.

Ben Steiner models the more Cardinal-like uniform of the 1951 Buffs.

Wish we knew better today what has survived from these earlier times as artifacts of Houston’s sartorial minor league past. The 1947 and 1951 Buff jerseys would have a special place for display at the Houston Sports Museum at Finger Furniture on the Gulf Freeway, if they still existed and could be loaned out to this fine place in the name of public service. Both of those seasons saw the Buffs through to Texas League championships, although the ’51 Buffs lost the Dixie Series to the Birmingham Barons.

Have a great week everybody – and let’s hope we get something wet in Houston today from our 20% rain forecast possibility. The drought is having an awful impact on all living things in our area. When April already feels like a Houston August, and you have lived trough that condition already in a previous year, you have to wonder what this August is going to be like.

Union Station Revisited

April 15, 2011

Opening in 1911 with additional floors added in 1912.

Entering Minute Maid Park from the Union Station “Great Hall” door on Opening Day of the 2011 baseball season, an old friend of deep orange attachment to the ball club’s early history stopped to ask me which way the tracks ran when this historic place lived its life as a train station. He didn’t ask it quite that way, but that is the way I heard his question. I told him the answer, but in so doing, it also told me that it was time again to do a little Pecan Park Eagle spotlight on the history of this hallowed ground.

First, let me say this much. There are numerous article sites on the history of Union Station available over the Internet. Just do a search with the words “Union Station Houston” and watch what happens. The output from there is absolutely delicious.

Union Stationed opened in 1911. A year later, a 1912 continuation of the work added several stories to the structure. The building was designed by architects Warren & Wetmore at a cost of five million dollars. Upon completion, Union Station became the largest passenger rail terminal in the Southwest. In addition to rail connection to all parts of the country, Union Station served for years as Houston’s base for electric interurban rail service to various mass transit points in Houston and to Galveston. In 1928, with the opening of Buff Stadium four miles  east of downtown, Union Station was a primary departure pint for baseball fans heading for games after work from downtown on the Galveston Interurban line that ran by the new venue.

Tracks ran east-west from the Great Hall of Union Station.

From a point of view that basically corresponds to looking at the ballpark today from across the street on Texas Avenue from the Home Plate restaurant of 2011, the street-side tracks coming into Union Station are quite obvious. I can neither remember exactly how many there were, nor can I find the information online quickly, but I think there were about four to six parallel track sets, stretching parallel on the entire north-south width of the building as you see it here, and extending about as deep as the current third base line for the deepest interior set of incoming rails.

All I recall as a little kid was going there to pick up “Papa” (my grandfather) on his trips to Houston for visits from San Antonio – and looking around at what then seemed like an endless run of railroad tracks and trains coming and going from the station. It was a loud, bell-clanging place too.

For those who have never seen it, this 1999 article by Tom Marsh on the rediscovery of Union Station’s Great Hall is worth the read and photo review.

http://www.kingswayrc.com/gcst/union/union.htm

The thought that never leaves me is the juxtaposition of time and space effect generated by the conversion of Union Station from its grave as Houston’s once early 20th century center of transportation into the city’s hub of 21st century major league baseball. Think about it for a moment or two or more. – Forget the time differential for now:

Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Dizzy Dean, Ducky Medwick, Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman, and Roy Oswalt, at first one time and then another, now and then, all traveled this same ground with fairly identical goals in mind – to play baseball in the City of Houston – and that’s to say nothing of the fact that FDR, Judy Garland, and Ronald Reagan also all could have been there too – just to watch the game – were it not for the fact that most were not traveling by the same ticks on the clock.

Enough said. Union Station is hallowed ground in a Houston history that has now been both preserved and extended by the ongoing presence of Minute Maid Park and the Houston Astros. Think about that one the next time you go downtown to see a game. It makes the trip even more fun and worthwhile.

Early Houston Buffs and Browns Connection?

March 28, 2011

West End Park, Home of the Houston Buffs, 1907-1927. Published by permission of the City of Houston Public Library, Houston, TX.

Thanks to another little article from the Houstorian, some new/old/recycled questions and answers about the Houston Buffs and West End Park are again recycled and now come at us hard as researchers, loudly begging for further exploration. As we move further into our new SABR Chapter major research project, “Houston Baseball, 1861-1961, The First One Hundred Years,” this is the sort of thing that our team will need to explore with effort that goes way beyond quick and easy, incomplete conclusions.

The Houstorian article, for example, concludes that in 1909,  “the (Houston) Buffaloes were part of the St. Louis Browns farm system,” and it seems to be a conclusion based largely on the fact that, by 1910, “the following Buffaloes were playing for the St. Louis Browns: Roy Mitchell (P), Jim Stephens (C), Frank Truesdale (2B), Patrick Newnam (1B), Hub Northen, Joe McDonald, Art Griggs, Dode Criss, Alex Malloy, and Bill Killefer.” From what I was able to confirm through the minor league data files at Baseball Reference.Com, the Houstorian’s conclusion are correct as to the joint participation of most of these players as both Buffs and Browns.

Houston may have had some kind of working agreement with the Browns in 1909. That factor needs further research. It is rash, however, to conclude that the Buffs were part of the Browns “farm system” in 1909. Back then, major league clubs did not own minor league clubs. That kind of ownerships was viewed as sinister to the idea of a level playing field among all big league clubs. Further study of the Browns-Buffs arrangement in 1909 is needed. That’s the only true and safe end we may now touch based on what we know, so far.

Here’s a link to the Houstorian article that stirs up historical information like a first scratch in the ground of artifacts:

http://houstorian.wordpress.com/2009/02/14/100-years-ago-february-14-1909/

If you are a member of SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research, or if you think you might be interested in joining us in the biggest research challenge in Houston Area Baseball History as a new member of SABR, please get in touch with me, Bill McCurdy, @ houston_buff@hotmail.com

We are in the early stages of organizing our research work plan for scouring all available resources that will provide us with the best information we can find on the growth and evolution of baseball in the Houston area from the time of its first organization in 1861 as the “Houston Base Ball Club” through its last season as the minor league Houston Buffs in 1961.” If you have a passion for baseball, time for research, the patience and eyes for studying old newspaper and other public records on microfilm at the library, please consider joining our team. The final product will be a scholarly published historical work on the full history of baseball in Houston prior to the coming of the major leagues in 1962. Profits from this book will be dedicated to the support of SABR and its other programs in the Houston area – and everyone who does the research and writing that makes it possible will get their names credited to this legacy work on a major aspect of Houston and Harris County history.

If you have the time, the passion, and the patience for it, we need your help now.

The Houston Baseball History Project Wants You!

Rain, Rain, Go Away!

March 23, 2011

 

Busch Stadium III, St. Louis, Summer of 2007.

 

My first road trip to Busch Stadium III in the summer of 2007 corresponded with my visit with friends and a journey to St. Louis for the annual convention of SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research. It was a wonderful time, one which also gave me a little first hand exposure to vintage base ball down on the banks of the Mississippi River beneath the imposing Memorial Arch that frames downtown St. Louis.

It was a trip too wonderful in so many ways. Next to my Houston home town, I am more at home in the baseball-crazy city of St. Louis than anywhere else. Maybe that has its roots in the fact that all my friends there are deep red Cardinal or dark earth-toned and orange-hearted Brown fans from ancient days, but so what? When you like the company of the people you meet anywhere, you generally like the place too.

The part of the trip that stands out in my mind this morning is what I found missing in the newest St. Louis ballpark. Unlike our Minute Maid Park, the place has no roof to keep away the threat of rain. That lead picture is for real. Before the first game I watched there even got underway, those clouds rolled in and dumped enough rain to put the playing of the game briefly in doubt, adding about forty minute delay to the first pitch.

I’m not going to argue aesthetics here. There’s no question in mind that ballpark panorama is far more impressive without the presence of a high bulky retractable roof in either closed or open position, but, hey, I’m a Houstonian. I’m spoiled. Thirty-five years of the Astrodome spoiled most of us into expecting that a game scheduled shall always survive as a game played.

No rain checks here. Who needs rain checks in Houston?

 

Allen Russell, Houston Buffs President, 1946-53.

 

Well, there was a time we needed them in Houston too. In fact, some of my earliest experience as a nine-year old first time Buffs fan in 1947 centers on watching Houston Buffs President Allen Russell (the guy I first remembered as “the man in the white shirt”) going out there and pouring gasoline all over the soaked-with-water infield from a similar-to-St.-Louis pre-game rain and then lighting a match and blowing up the whole thing for the sake of recovering the dryness we needed for a game of baseball.

KA-BOOM!!! And the rainwater went away in a quick-rising puff of billowing black smoke.

No such remedial tactics were deployed sixty years later during that still recent summer in St. Louis. Such an approach in recent times would be written off as both inappropriate and too dangerous to fans and employees alike. Although I must add in Allen Russell’s behalf, he never allowed his grounds crew to take the risk of actually starting these ballpark fires. They would help do the ground-soaking with gasoline. Then Russell himself would go out to actually light, throw, and run from the match of ignition. That sight itself was worth the price of admission because he never got far in his escape from the explosion that ensued behind him and the blast itself too always seemed to first shake then stir him to an even quicker pace.

 

 

Houston Papers Loved Russell's War on Rain Checks.

 

As a kid, I thought Allen Russell fought rain-outs because he loved baseball so much that it broke his heart, as it did mine, to hear that a game had been cancelled due to rain. I was too young to understand the role that lost income dollars played in Russell’s war on the weather and just about anything else that hurt the gate.

Years ago, my good friend Jerry Witte, the late slugger of Houston’s 1951 Texas League champions, told me this supportive story of how fine-tuned Allen Russell’s pulse was to factors effecting game attendance. This is not my point, but we already know that Russell installed the first air-conditioned ladies room in baseball because he recognized that “comfort” was big as a factor in attracting more women to Buffs games. No need to cool the men’s room. The guys will come to the ballpark, regardless. Always have. “But we have to make it nicer for the ladies,” Russell boasted.

At any rate, it was early August of 1951 and the Buffs were starting to pull away from the rest of the pack in the Texas League. “We were out there starting our pre-game warm-ups on the field at Buff Stadium when Allen Russell then did something he never did prior to games. He came out on the field as though he wanted to tell us something. Finally, a few of us got tired of just watching him pace and went over to ask what he wanted.”

Russell must have been slightly taken aback by the players’ solicitous turn in his direction, but he chose his words carefully. As Jerry Witte remembers it, Russell answered in these terms: “You guys know how proud I am of your team success, so please take what I’m about to say in the right away. I will never ask you to give anything less than your best, but try to remember too: If the fans start taking it for granted that the Buffs are going to win, some of them may stop coming to see us play. – OK, that being said, – go get ’em.”

Enough said. Nothing stopped the Buffs in 1951 until they reached the Dixie Series. Then they lost to the Birmingham Barons in six games.

 

 

 

Night Baseball Came to Houston in 1930

March 19, 2011

July 22, 1930: The lights went on for the first time at Buff Stadium in Houston.

Buff Stadium opened in Houston for the first time on April 11, 1928 at a cost of $400,000. it would be another two years, three months, one week, four days, and $250,000 before the club played its first night game on July 22, 1930. For a little more than half the cost of its original construction tab, Buff Stadium was finally empowered with the potential for doubling its annual attendance through night games.

Attendance history tells the story. In 1927, the last year of play in old West End Park on Andrews Street near downtown, a thrid-place Buffs club drew 141, 857 fans for the entire season. In 1928, their first year in the sparkling new jewel of the minors known as Buff Stadium, the first place Buffs pulled in 186, 459 fans on the season to their new site some four miles east of downtown.

It was an improvement, but hardly enough to justify the cost of change. Houston was still a workingman’s town. Given the limitations imposed by daytime baseball on fans, no new ballpark or championship team was going to be big enough to get people off work for frequent attendance at games during the work week.

After 1928, it didn’t take long for the Cardinals ownership and City of Houston officials to start hammering out a plan for adding the lights that had not been included in the original construction of the 11,000 plus seats venue. It wasn’t going to be cheap by the price on electrical work of this kind in the late 1920s and first year into the 1930s. That $250,000 construction tab represented a little more than 50% of the original cost of the entire unlighted ballpark and land. The Buffs and their supporters argued successfully that the cost would be worthwhile. With lights, the Buffs would be free to schedule games in the evening, away from the times that most people worked and smack dab in the zone  of a brand new territory of leisure time that offered little competition from other summertime entertainment options. With no television and limited radio, the movies were and eating out were the only serious competitors for the Houston leisure dollar and time investment going into the era of the Great Depression.

By 1951, winning night baseball in Houston was helping the Buffs draw more fans than the major league St. Louis Browns.

By 1931, the year of Dizzy Dean, Joe Medwick, and the great Texas League champion (108-51) Houston Buffs, the team drew 229,540 fans in their first full year of night game options, but attendance fell significantly in 1932 with the growing impact of the Depression and a third place club replacing Dean and Company. Only 112,341 showed up for all 77 homes games played that season. That’s a dismal average of 1,459 fans a game.

Things did not improve at the gate during the 1930s. Night baseball proved to be no magical elixir that could erase the deeper root touches of the economy upon Houston’s purse strings. Fortunately for baseball, the costs of running a club was low enough to make survival for most teams possible through the lean Depression years.

The Texas League shut down during the major World War II years (1942-1945). It was only after the war that night baseball began to take off in Houston as folks hoped it might some fifteen years sooner. With the dynamic Allen Russell now running the club as President for the St. Louis Cardinal parent organization, Houston used night baseball as a a ticket for playing themselves into the picture as a future expansion city site for a new 1962 ball club to be known as the Colt .45s.

The eight years of Allen Russell’s leadership proved to be the hint of all that could be in store for Houston’s baseball future. When Houston burst past the 400,000 fans mark in 1948, outdrawing the season fan base of the St. Louis Browns, it appeared that the city was well on its way as a prospective site for either a franchise shift or new club award in the majors. Things don’t work out that easy.

Houston got played a little in 1953 as the potential new home of the Cardinals during the period of the Fred Saigh meltdown, but that’s when August Busch stepped up to rescue the Redbirds by purchasing the franchise with his beer baron money. Houston would have to wait another seven years before it finally got the nod from the National League in 1960 as a 1962 expansion club.

Houston’s home attendance during the 1946-1953 Allen Russell Era showed these major facts: (1) Houston will support winning baseball, but will not tolerate losing for long: (2) the 1948 high water mark was offset the following season by the introduction of television into the Houston market for the first time. Once television arrived, baseball and all other forms of payment-for-leisure activities would have a competitor that would never go away.

Here are the Russ Era attendance figures:

1946: 7th place, 161,421;

1947: 1st place, 382,275;

1948: 3rd place, 401,383;

1949: 7th place, 263,965;

1950: 8th place, 255, 809;

1951: 1st place, 331,201;

1952:  8th placee, 195,246;

1953: 6th place, 203,543

Like most things so advertised, night baseball was never the silver bullet that cured all things that ailed the game, but it is hard today to see how the game could have survived into the year 2011 without it. Given the cost of player salaries and other overhead factors today, it’s impossible to see how baseball could have survived anywhere for long in the 21st century with an all day game schedule.

Lou Novikoff: The Mad Russian

December 13, 2010

"When you gotta go, you gotta go!"

Lou Novikoff. Spontaneous singer in the pre-karioke days. Journeyman professional baseball player. Off-season oil field roughneck. Harmonica player. Russian-American. The Mad Russian. Left fielder Novikoff saw action in ONLY  59 games for the 1949 Houston Buffs. That was the extent of Lou’s Buffs career, but he sure made an impression on us Knothole Gang kids while he was here.

I’ve written earlier about this spunky little short-term outfielder for the 1949 Houston Buffs. To those of us who were Buff Stadium Knothole Gang members, he was one of the friendliest, funniest guys on the team. He seemed to like us kids. That kid-friendly quality always made a difference with us. And hey! Lou Novikoff was one of the few Buff players who would flick an occasional practice ball into our  little campy  cheap-seat section down the far left field line near the home team clubhouse.

Teams didn’t give usable baseballs away quite so freely back in the post World War II era. Club owners back then viewed baseballs that ended up in the hands of fans as lost operational materials – and not as marketing investments in future fan interest.The old St. Louis Browns even hired people to retrieve foul balls and home runs from fans at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis for future use by the club.

Lou Novikoff was just one of those guys who made us kids feel we mattered. He did it with smiles, nods of the head in our direction, a few baseballs, and an occasional song by voice or harmonica tune from the field. As the left fielder, and like Larry Miggins before and after him, Novikoff was the guy we “Gang” members came closest to during each Buff home game.

Novikoff batted only .230 in 59 games for the '49 Buffs before getting shipped off to Newark, but he hit .337 over 11 seasons as a minor leaguer between 1937-1950.

A right hander all the way, Lou Novikoff stood only 5’10” at a weight of 185 pounds. He was a dubious fielder with a great batting record over eleven seasons in the minors (1937-41, 1945-50). He also hit for a .282 major league average over five years in the big time (1941-44, 1946). Only in 1949, Lou’s next to last seasons with three clubs, including Houston, did his average for the entire season fall overall below .300 for the entire year.

Like a handful of other Houstonians, I will always remember Lou Novikoff most for a bizarre thing that happened to Lou and the Buffs in a close  game against Beaumont, I believe, in the late innings. With the game tied in the top of the eighth (I believe), Beaumont rallied, getting the go-ahead run to third base. It was time for a pitching change and Buffs manager Del Wilber had called a time out to make that move.

At the same time, out in left field, we all see Lou Novikoff running to the side gate near the Knothole Gang that also leads to the Buff clubhouse behind us. It’s obvious that Lou is using the time out for an urgently needed potty run.

Trouble is – Manager Wilber and the umpires don’t seem to realize that Novikoff is now missing in action.  In the Knothole Gang, we can all see that the game i about to resume, but there’s still no sign of Lou coming back from the clubhouse.

“He must have really had to go,” flickered through my mind as some other kid yells at the small open ventilation window in the Buffs clubhouse: “Hurry up, Lou! They’re about to start without you!”

And they were too..

All of  sudden, Lou Novikoff came falling, stumble-running out of the clubhouse, trying to pull up and fasten his pants back on at the same time. He got about as far as the gate when we all heard the crack of the bat and turned to witness a fly ball dropping safely in left field.

The game had resumed without Novikoff in place. What should have been an out turned into a double fielded way late in left by the center fielder. Beaumont got the run that would win them the game. Novikoff got chewed out and replaced by Wilber. This night most likely provided the Buffs with the last straw they needed to ship Novikoff out of town for the rest of the year.

Only one of Houston’s three newspapers covered the story accurately. I think that paper was the Houston Press. The other two must have simply been too embarrassed to write about such a happening in 1949. One simply overlooked the incident; the other wrote it off as in issue resulting from sudden illness to Lou Novikoff.

My own eyes on what I saw and Lou Novikoff’s words in the one paper that covered the full story were good enough for me. When asked why he had left the field during the game, Lou replied, simply: “When you gotta go, you gotta go!”

Lou's .300 mark for '42 Cubs was his best MLB full season. Lou Novikoff died in 1970 at the age of 54.

Three Great Future Managers from the 1937 Houston Buffs Roster

November 26, 2010

Over the years of their total existence in the 20th century as the Houston Buffaloes, or Buffs, our minor league baseball club produced some pretty fine baseball players, Tris Speaker and Dizzy Dean, most notably. come to mind. In 1920, Mr. Speaker also went on to become the first former Buff to win a World Series as a major league manage . He was followed by four other ex-Buff players who managed at least one big league club to a World Series crown. This total list of five former Buff World Series Winning Managers includes Tris Speaker, Eddie Dyer, Danny Murtaugh, Walt Alston and Johnny Keane – a quietly spoken testimony to Houston as baseball’s version of football’s “Cradle of Coaches,” or, more accurately in this case, a baseball “Cradle of Managers.”

Numerous other former Buffs, including men like Solly Hemus, have also done some quality time as big league field generals, but probably no year ever equalled what happened in the tough off-production year of 1937. That was the season that two future World Series winning managers and another pretty good one stumbled through a low finishing time as players for the low-performing 1937 Buffs.

John Watkins also returns to The Pecan Park Eagle as a guest columnist this morning to bring us that story. – Bill McCurdy:

 

Houston Buffs: A Cradle of World Series Winning Managers.

Three Great Future Managers from the 1937 Houston Buffs

By John Watkins, Guest Columnist          jnowat@gmail.com

The 1937 season was not a memorable one for the Houston Buffs, who finished seventh in the Texas League with a 67-91 record, 33.5 game behind first-place Oklahoma City. Attendance dropped along with the Buffs’ winning percentage, avraging fewer than 1,000 fans per home game. One highlight of the dreary season was the league’s second all star game, played July 17 at Buff Stadium before a crows of more than 8.000.

The fans also caught a glimpse of three Houston players who would become major league managers: Johnny Keane (Cardinals, 1961-1964; Yankees, 1965-1966), Walter Alston (Dodgers, 1954-1976), and Herman Franks (Giants, 1965-1968; Cubs, 1977-1979).

Johnny Keane

Johnny Keane was in his third season with the Buffs in 1937. At age 25, he was a veteran ballplayer with seven professional seasons under his belt. In 1935 and 1936, he was the Buffs’ regular shortstop, but in 1937 he played primarily at third base and hit .267 in 158 games. Thereafter, the Cardinals made him a player-manager in their organization, and that proved to be his path to the major leagues, where he was a coach and manager. The 1935 season was pivotal in this change in direction. That year, Keane was hit by a pitch and suffered a skull fracture that left him near death for two weeks.

After managing in the low minors, Keane returned to the Buffs in 1946 for what became a three-year stint as manager. In 1947, the team finished first with a 96-58 record, nosing out the Fort Worth Cats by a half-game. While the Buffs swept Tulsa in the first round of playoffs, however, the Cats lost to Dallas in seven games. Houston then dispatched Dallas, four games to two, to win the championship and went on to defeat Mobile in the Dixie Series. Keane moved up to Rochester, the Cardinals’ farm team in the Class AAA International League in 1949 and led the Red Wings to a first-place finish the next season. After another year in Rochester, he served seven seasons in the Triple A American Association before joining the Cardinals in 1959 as a coach under manager Solly Hemus, his second baseman on the 1947 Buffs.

When the Cardinals dismissed Hemus in July 1961, Keane was given the top job. In the tumultuous 1964 season, his Redbirds overtook the faltering Philadelphia Phillies to win the pennant by one game and then defeated the New York Yankees in the World Series. St. Louis owner Gussie Busch had fired general manager Bing Devine when it appeared that the Cardinals had no chance to catch the Phillies, and at that time he was reportedly planning to fire Keane at the end of the season. After the World Series, however, Busch was prepared to offer Keane a multi-year contract. In a stunning development, Keane resigned to take over the Yankees from Yogi Berra, who had just lost his job.

In New York, Keane inherited a team in decline. With several players benched by injuries in 1965, the Yankees fell to sixth place with a 77-85 record. The next season was worse. Through the first ten 10 games, New York’s record stood at 1-9; through 20, it was 4-16. At that point, the Yankees fired Keane and replaced him with Ralph Houk. The team was then last in the American League, and that is where it finished the season. On January 6, 1967, Keane died of a heart attack at age 55 in Houston, where he had made his home since 1935. He is buried at Memorial Oaks Cemetery.

Walt Alston

Walter Alston was 25 years old in 1937 but only in his third year as a professional player, having graduated from Miami University in his native Ohio before joining the St. Louis “chain gang.” A first baseman, he split the season almost equally between Houston and Rochester, the Cardinals’ Class AA farm club in the International League. For the Buffs, Alston hit only .212 in 65 games. He fared better in Rochester, batting .246 in 66 games.

The year before,  he was called up to St. Louis at the end of the 1936 season and got into the final game, against the Cubs at Sportsman’s Park. It turned out to be his only appearance in the major leagues, and it came about when Cardinals first baseman Johnny Mize was ejected arguing with the umpire over a called strike. Alston made one error in two chances and struck out in his sole at-bat.

The Cardinals made Alston a player-manager in 1940 when he took over their farm team in the Class C Middle Atlantic League. He was there for three seasons and then had back to Triple A as a player for Rochester in 1943, but the Cardinals released him before the season ended. By that time, former St. Louis executive Branch Rickey had moved to the Dodgers, and he hired Alston as a minor-league manager. Starting in the Class B Interstate League in 1944, Alston steadily moved up in the Dodgers’ organization, reaching Triple A Montreal of the International League in 1950.

After four seasons in Montreal, Alston took over the Brooklyn club in 1954. He managed the Dodgers for 23 years, leading them to four World Series titles (the first in Brooklyn in 1955, the others in Los Angeles) and seven National League pennants. He was known for his studious approach to the game and for signing only one-year contracts with the Dodgers even as multi-year contracts became common. His 2,040 wins as a manager rank ninth on the all-time list. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1983 and died at age 72 on October 1, 1984, in Oxford, Ohio.

Herman Franks

Herman Franks appeared in only 10 games for the Buffs in 1937 and hit just .130 in 23 at-bats. A 23-year-old catcher, he had begun his pro career five years earlier. Franks spent most of the 1937 season at Sacramento, the St. Louis affiliate in the Class AA Pacific Coast League, where he hit .265. He eventually made it to the Cardinals for 17 games and 21 plate appearances in 1939, but the club sold his contract to Brooklyn in early 1940. Franks was the Dodgers backup catcher in 1940 and 1941 under manager Leo Durocher, who became a mentor. After Franks was discharged from the Navy after World War II, he played alongside Jackie Robinson on the Dodgers’ Montreal farm team that won the 1946 International League pennant.

In 1947, Branch Rickey named Franks as player-manager of the St. Paul Saints, the Dodgers’ Double A affiliate in the American Association. In August, however, Connie Mack told Rickey that the A’s needed a backup catcher, and Franks was sent to Philadelphia. He also played for the A’s in 1948. The next season, Durocher, by then the Giants’ manager, hired Franks as bullpen coach. Franks also made his final appearance as a player that season, going 2-for-3 in one game.

According to Joshua Prager’s book, The Echoing Green (Pantheon 2006), Franks played a crucial role in Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round The World,” the home run off Brooklyn’s Ralph Branca in the 1951 National League playoffs that won the pennant for the Giants. On Durocher’s orders, Prager says, Franks was stationed in the team’s center-field clubhouse at the Polo Grounds, where he used a telescope to steal the Brooklyn catcher’s signs and relay them to the Giants’ coaches and hitters.

As a manager, Franks had very good teams in San Francisco but finished second four consecutive seasons despite winning more than 90 games three times. (In 1965 and 1966, the arch-rival Dodgers won the National League, and in 1967 and 1968, the Cardinals captured the pennant.) Franks was not as successful in his three years with the Cubs, who finished no higher than third and never won more than 81 games. Franks died at age 95 on March 30, 2009, in Salt Lake City.

Watkins On Houston Kid Baseball: 1950.

November 21, 2010

Back in 1950, when organized kid baseball was just getting started in Houston, former Houston Buff and 1931 World Series hero Watty Watkins stepped up to the plate as one of the first really qualified adults to work with this new wrinkle in local baseball.

Friday’s very-much-alive guest columnist, John Watkins, sent me these materials on Watty Watkins and the Town House Buffs. They are materials from a story sent to him by Mike Mulvihill, a former Houston kid baseball star and old high school classmate and friend of mine. In fact, Mike sent me these same materials awhile back. It’s just taken me this long to realize what a great column they would make for TPPE.

The headline, pictures, and article that are the work of today’s posthumous guest columnist, former Houston Press and Post writer John Hollis, now deceased, but alive forever as a hard-punching wordsmith on the local sports scene of yesteryear. I don’t have the date on this piece, but it was sometime in the late summer of 1950, the club’s first year of existence, and it was written for the long moribund Houston Press. Another old friend, classmate, and Pecan Park Eagle reader, Jack Murphy, also played for the Town House Buffs, but during a later season.

TEXAS CHAMPIONS - The eyes of Texas shone directly on the young baseball heroes pictured herein, Houston's Town House Buffs, as they captured the Texas Teen Age baseball title at Galveston last week. Front row, in the usual order, Ken Stevens, Paul Nabors, Anthony Falcone, Leighton Young, Eddie Gore, Paul Fahrenthold, Luke Cash. Back row, John Given, Ora Massey, Father Wilson (head coach), Mike Mulvihill, Joe Landy, Dick Grant, Angelo Vasos, Jim Exley, Jim Daigle, Fred Morgan, Watty Watkins & John Schuler.

WATTY WATKINS, WORLD SERIES HERO OF 1931,

HUSTLES HARD TEACHING TOWN HOUSE BUFFS

By John Hollis, Houston Press Sports Staff (1950)

It looked like a crucial World Series game, the way the big man in the gray sweatshirt and Brooklyn Dodger baseball cap was “sweatin’ it out” in the third-base coaches’ box.

Watty Watkins: Sold on kid baseball.

 

“C’mon, get me some runs,” the big guy yelled. “Be a hitter up there.” He clapped his hands together encouragingly, shifted from one end of the box to the other, then stood with hands on hips as the third Town House Buff on the inning tapped an easy grounder to the shortstop.

“One of those days”

Walking over to the fence that encloses the Houston Teenage League’s Cougar Field, George (Watty) Watkins, always the aggressor who loves to win, grimaced painfully:

“This is just one of those days where nothing goes right. This Town House club hasn’t lost a game all season.”

“You been working with ’em long, Watty?” we asked.

“Yeah. I’ve sorta been helping Father Wilson. The Pro ball association assigned me to the club.” Watty grinned. “This Teen-Age League is just what the kids needed. And we’ve got plans for enlarging our operations for next year. Here’s what I’ve suggested…”

“Ought to Be More”

The big red-faced gent’s enthusiasm was contagious. He was a study in enthusiasm as he outlined his pet plan for helping kid baseball next year. We couldn’t help but think, “This baseball is great. Here’s a guy who spent his years in the ‘Big Show,’ won a World Series with a home run, a real good old pro who’s known all the big thrills and who’s getting probably a bigger one now out of helping kids.”

Watty finished his outline …

“… there oughta be 13 leagues like this around town. There oughta be enough so’s every kid who wanted to could have a chance to play. It’s not only good for kids, it’s good for baseball.”

That 1931 Homer

We nodded … then asked, “Say Watty … that George Watkins who hit the homer to win the 1931 World Series for the Cardinals … was that you?”

Watty grinned.  “”Yes sir! It was me all right. We beat the (Philadelphia) Athletics in that one. They’d beaten us the year before. I remember that hit. … It was the deciding game and tied up, 2-2. We went into the third inning and Andy High got on base (for us). Gabby Street, the (Cardinals) manager, told me to go go up there and hit the first pitch, if it looked good, and if it didn’t, to move up a step for the second pitch. Well, that first pitch came in there about letter-high. I hit it … a line drive to right. … i hit is so hard on a line that I didn’t think it was going to be a homer. I ran as fast as I could until I reached second base. Then I realized I’d put it outa the park.”

“That home run meant a difference of $3,230 to us each in the players’ share of the World Series gate. Gues you could call it a real ‘money hit’ at that, huh?”

“Who’d you hit it off of, Watty/”

“George Earnshaw. He threw me me a fast ball. Hit one off him in the 1930 series, too. It was my first World Series and my first time at bat. He threw me a fast one then, too.”

“”Then I had to room with the guy when we both were sold to Brooklyn a few years later,” Wally chuckled.

“Those 1931 Cardinals were the greatest there’s ever been,” Watkins recollected. “They had everything. Who’s the greatest pitcher I’ve ever seen? … Carl Hubbell … the greatest pitcher who ever picked up a baseball. He had all the stuff in the world, the good curve, screwball, fast ball, the change, and lots of control. I was in the stands that day he fanned the six batters in a row in the 934 All-Star game. I remember Charlie Gehringer doubled, then Heinie Manush walked. That brought up Babe Ruth.”

“Hubbell looked at Ruth, then backed off and loosened his belt, hitched up his pants and threw three straight pitches past him. Ruth never touched a one. Then he fanned Gehrig and Foxx. And I think Foxx was the only one to even get a piece of the ball. He fouled one back into the screen.”

“Hubbell, you’ll remember, went on to fan Al Simmons, Joe Cronin, Bill Dickey, and Lefty Gomez to record what is acknowledged (as) the greatest pitching performance in the history f the All-Star game. Still, the American Leaguers won that one, 9-7.”

Watty, who outfielded for the Dodgers after service with the Cards, was a Houston Buff in 1928 when the Buffs beat Wichita Falls for the Texas League title. A member of the Houston Professional Baseball layers Assn., with the pro baller’s immense interest in kids, Watty’s teaching ’em what he knows now.



Anatomy of a Buffs Scorecard

November 12, 2010

Official Scorecard of the 1951 Houston Buffs

The Norman Rockwell-like scene selected for the cover of the four-page 1951 Houston Buffs scorecard came courtesy of the ELks magazine. As the program also notes, the original piece of this work was then hanging in the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown.

What else can we learn from this small artifact from local baseball history? The items we are about to see pretty much speak for themselves about who advertised, the availability and cost of baseball food and other mild altering products, plus lineups, rosters, and the Buffs 1951 game schedule. For the most part from here, I just want to get out of the wy and let the pictures speak for themselves. These all came from the four pages of the one-piece folding scorecard that once sold golden memories for ten cents a copy.

As a Buffs supporter, Finger Furniture came early and stayed late. The memory of the Buffs is now immortalized, we hope, at the Houston Sports Museum inside the Finger Furniture Store that still operates on the site of Buff Stadium on the Gulf Freeway in Houston.

I stand corrected by own better memory this morning. Aubrey, Orval, & Mac NEVER said "less overhead in LaPorte." That one belonged to the bald-headed Les Felzer (sp) and his dealership.

Taking in a burlesque show after a Buffs baseball game was never part of my early baseball memories, but I guess old Bozo St. Clair must have pulled in a few fans along the way.

Wild Man Rex Barney, outfielder Gino Cimoli, and manager Bobby Bragan stand out as famous names on the '51 Fort Worth Cats roster.

Check out the # 5 and # 6 holes for Larry Miggins & Jerry Witte, the power of the '51 Buffs. Miggins had 28 HR on the season; Witte had 38.

Hope you can read the prices. Fans did not have to mortgage the ranch to buy good ballpark food and drink at old Buff Stadium, but also note the absence of souvenirs for sale. Baseball had yet to catch on to replica jerseys and caps as an important revenue stream - and maybe we didn't have the excess spending cash in those days, anyway.

Buff Stadium Concession Stand Prices: "Oh, say! Can you see?" Burgers were 25 cents; hot dogs were 20 cents; a fried chicken dinner with fries hung as the big spender food item at 75 cents; soft drinks cost 10 cents; Grand Prize and Southern Select beers were 25 cents; Schlitz Beer set you back 35 cents and, WHOA!, a pack of cigarettes could be yours for a mere 25 cents. Ice cream stopped on a dime, as did peanuts pop corn, and snow cones. They did have a souvenir bat for a whopping 75 cents.

A Buff homer won some "lucky" fan a ten dollar account credit at Grant's for holding the right number in the instant drawing that then occurred at Buff Stadium.

It was also a "given" at Grant's that you could fill in this little coupon, cut it out of your beautiful historical game program, and drop it in the slot at Gran;s in person to have a chance at their next drawing for a "free" Motorola TV. The catch is - you had to go all the way downtown to Grant's to enter. Mail entries were thrown away.

I was a kid in 1951 so this ad did nothing for me, but I don't recall my hardworking dad running out to buy life insurance as result of this George P. Montgomery softball pitch.

Rupley fixed brakes. Gimme a "break," - what do you suppose he gave away during those drawings that got his name mentioned over the PA system at Buff Stadium?

Venetian windows and blinds were really big in the early 1950s, but I could not have told you that this company ever existed had I not read of it closely doing this dissection of the scorecard..

How To Order Tickets By Mail & Another Drawing: This time fans had a chance to win a "gold-filled" watch band from Levit's Jewelry any time a player for either team hit a triple.

W.T. Grant also pushed work clothes and portable radios. "Take one everywhere ... enjoy extra pleasure. See them at Grant's Department Store."

Gaidos. Good then. Good now. (In Galveston only these days.)

At 25 cents a local beer at Buff Stadium, some Buff fans with ten bucks, a thirst, and not much appetite could probably experience a not so sober end to their evening at the Baseball Bar on Cullen and then try driving home drunk. Some things are better today. The drunk driving numbers were much higher in the old days. They just don't show up in the arrest stats because drunk drivers once got away with it unless they caused a wreck or fatality.

I don't recall this pretty girl ever taking my order at the Buff Stadium Concession Stand. Most of the attendants who waited on me were old guys with a two-day beard growth and a Camel cigarette dangling from their lips as they dipped the mustard for the hot dogs.

Some Final Advertisers: These nine additional local sponsors once supported the Buffs with their advertising dollars. For that contribution, those of us who care about the preservation of local baseball history need to express our gratitude.

Well, that’s it. Four pages of the printed word with pictures and cartoons have survived in this fold-over piece of light cardboard paper like a little time capsule on the way things were in Houston during the middle of the twentieth century. I hope you’ve enjoyed this operation as much as I have enjoyed looking with you for all the little specific messages it contains from back in the day.

Most of these little scorecards never made it out of the ballpark back in 1951. When the game was over, they ended up as trash in the stands to be collected and burned. This one just happened to end up in the hands of a thirteen year old kid who rarely threw anything away, especially if it had something to do with baseball and the Houston Buffs.

Have a nice weekend, everybody!