Posts Tagged ‘Houston Buffs’

The 1933 Houston Buffs

October 25, 2010

TOP ROW: Fred Ankenman, President; Stan Keyes; Oscar Fuhr; Ed Greer; Bob Kalbitz; Al Fisher; Andy French, Secretary. MIDDLE ROW: George Payne; Jimmy O’Dea; Carey Selph, Manager; Ival Goodman; George Binder; Eddie Hock. FRONT ROW: Mike Cvengros; Bill Beckman; Gene Moore; Ernie Parker; Tommy West.

The 1933 Houston Buffs were an interesting bunch. They are often forgotten for having played only a couple of years beyond the far more famous 1931 Texas League Champion Buffs of Dizzy Dean and Joe Medwick, but their 94-57 record was good enough for a 6.5 game finish in first place ahead of the Galveston Buccaneers.

Unfortunately, the ’33 Buffs quickly buried good memories with a three-game sweeping loss to fourth place San Antonio in the first round of the Shaughnessy Playoffs. The Missions would go on to defeat Galveston, four games to two, for the Texas League title as the ’33 Buffs basically faded into oblivion.

As a style note, the ’33 Buffs ditched the eye-catching buffalo logo that adorned the forehead crown of their 1932 uniform caps and subbed it with one that looks more like the plain “stripes only” cap we presently use for our  19th century vintage base ball team, the Houston Babies.  Although I cannot swear for certain, I’m reasonably sure the cap was dark blue in color with white stripes. “Houston” isn’t totally relegated anonymity here. That  big “H” on the heart-side plate of the jersey is unmistakably there for the only “BIG H” city in the Texas League back then – the one and only Houston Buffaloes.

Fred Ankenman is the featured “suit” in the team photo. Fred served as a Buffs employee from the late teens decade of the 20th century. Fred served as team president of the club from 1925 to 1942.

Playing manager Carey Selph also made the Texas League All Star team as second baseman and shortstop partner George Binder also got picked for the same team honor, as did pitcher Ed “Bear Tracks” Greer. Jimmy O’Dea of the Buffs also made the all star club as one of two catchers selected.

Ed Greer tied with George Darrow of Galveston for most 1933 Texas League season wins at 22. Buff pitcher Mike Cvengros was right behind those guys with 21 wins, also leading the Texas League for the lowest ERA with a 2.43 mark.

Mike Cvengros put in a lot of time as a major leaguer in 1920s, performing for the Pittsburgh Pirates who lost a swept-away World Series to the 1927 New York Yankees. Buffs outfielder Ival Goodman later played for the Cincinnati Reds that lost a World Series to the 1939 New York Yankees, Interestingly, the ’27 and ’39 Yankees are each considered by many as the arguably greatest Yankee teams of all time.

Meanwhile, as we get ready for the 2010 World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Texas Rangers in a couple of days, it’s simply fun to again look back on baseball history in the hope that what gains on us is a clearer memory of the players who made the game special for us a very long time ago.

Have a nice start to the new week, everybody!

Great Article on 1954 Dixie Series

October 1, 2010

The 1954 Texas League Champion Houston Buffs

If you belong to SABR, you’ve probably seen “The 1954 Dixie Series,” a fine article on that contest between the champions of the Texas League, the Houston Buffs, and the champions of the Southern Association, the Atlanta Crackers.

Kenneth R. Fenster researched and wrote the article for the 2010 edition of  “The National Pastime” as one of the featured stories for the collection entitled, “Baseball in the Peach State.” Fenster’s work and all the others beutifully shone the spotlight on the history of baseball in Georgia as part of SABR’s 40th anniversary convention and celebration in Atlanta this past summer.

For those of you who don’t know, SABR is an acronym for an organization that a number of his support as members because of its commitment to the accurate recording and preservation of baseball history. The letters stand for The Society for American Baseball Research. If you think you might like to join us, check out the website at

I won’t attempt to summarize Fenster’s fine work here. You need to read it for yourselves to fully appreciate the full rush of Atlanta’s great comeback and the gravity of Houston’s great fall in that Series.

All I will say is that the ’54 Buffs took my heart with them in that collapse. My three favorite players that year were an earlier version of the “Killer B’s” – 1st Baseman Bob Boyd (.321 BA, 7 HR, 63 RBI), 3rd Baseman Ken Boyer (.319 BA, 21 HR, 116 RBI), shortstop Don Blasingame (.315 BA, 5 HR, 53 RBI) and right fielder Willard Brown (.314 BA, 35 HR, 120 RBI). Brown got a lot of numbers with Dallas before coming over to Houston, but he proved to be the big difference-maker for Houston in the stretch. The best pitchers for the ’54 Buffs included WIllard Schmidt (18-5, 3.69 ERA), Hisel Patrick (10-3, 3.77 ERA), Luis Arroyo (8-3, 2.35 ERA), and Hugh Sooter (14-13, 3.28 ERA).

The Buffs had everything they need to go all the way. They just didn’t get there. Up 3 games to 1 over Atlanta in the 1954 Dixie Series, the Buffs crumbled. They lost three games in a row, allowing the Crackers to take the rush and the glory of the unbelievable comeback into their own treasure chest of great historical memories.

Have you figured out by now why I haven’t written about the 1954 Dixie Series through today? If not, then anything else I’ve written, am writing, or will write on Houston baseball isn’t likely to make any sense either.

Papai Was a Rollin’ Stone

August 26, 2010

Al Papai Won 20+ For Both the '47 & '51 Champion Buffs!

Al Papai was a rolling stone. Wherever he worked his knuckleball magic was his home.

In ten of his fourteen-season minor league career (1940-58) years, the wobble-ball expert worked in different cities beneath the major league level, building a career mark of 178 wins, 128 losses, and an ERA of 3.29.

On four occasions, Papai won 20 plus games in minors. His first two big years found him going 21-10 for the 1947 Texas League and Dixie Series Champion Houston Buffs, returning to post a 23-9 mark with the 1951 Texas League Champion Buffs. Papai also pitched for the Buffs in 1952 and 1953, but failed to come close to 20 wins. His other two 20 plus win seasons came about for Al with the 1955 Oklahoma City Indians (23-7) and once more in 1956 with the Memphis Chicks (20-10).

In four seasons at the major league level (1948-50, 1955) with the Cardinals, Browns, Red Sox, and White Sox, Al Papai also chipped in another 9 wins and 14 losses with a 5.37 ERA. Papai’s control and the character of his wobbler pitches were a little too hittable at the major league level, but he was hell on wheels in his four seasons as a minor league big-time winner. Papai definitely had the stuff against the much tougher high minor league competition of that era to have become a big time winner in the big leagues of that time. It just didn’t happen.

At 6’3″ and 185 pounds, Al Papai was a popular Buff during his Houston days – and a guy with a droll sense of humor that everyone seemed to appreciate. Example: Al Papai escorted a beautiful young lady in a bathing suit named Kathryn Grandstaff to home plate at Buff Stadium in 1951 to be honored as “Miss Houston Buff.” The club had asked teammate Larry Miggins to do these honors originally, but the very modest and bashful Mr. Miggins was too embarrassed to escort what he considered a “nearly naked” young woman into a public appearance under these circumstances. The absence of much clothing did not bother Papai in the least.

Later, when Kathryn Grandstaff changed her name to Kathryn Grant and went on to Hollywood as the new wife of singer Bing Crosby, Papai called up the memory of that time he escorted the beautiful young actress at Buff Stadium. “Hope she remembers who made her what she’s become today,” Papai offered.

Al Papai passed away at his home in Springfield, Illinois on September 7, 1995 at the age of 78. That was the around the same time we were preparing in Houston for “The Last Round Up of the Houston Buffs” and I was helping former Buffs President Allen Russell with putting together his mailing list to all the former Buffs we could locate.

Sadly, we learned from Al Papai’s widow that his invitation had arrived on the day of his funeral. Allen Russell was so touched by the irony of this near miss that he brought Al’s widow to Houston to represent him among all the former teammates who were left behind to grieve his loss.

In addition to Papai, we’ve lost most of the former Buffs who were alive and able to attend that 1995 great reception at the Westin Galleria in late September 1995. including Allen Russell himself. Among the players who made it there that day, only Solly Hemus, Larry Miggins, and Russell Rac, plus program emcee, Milo Hamilton. After the Sunday lunch and reception, the last of the old Buffs went together to watch the Astros take on the Cardinals at the Astrodome. The spirit of Al Papai was very much present with all of us that afternoon.

As a kid, I really woke up to baseball in 1947. Al Papai, the original old knuckleballer, is the first pitcher I ever saw. He had a lot of influence upon my later interest in the careers of Joe and Phil Niekro.

Chalk that one up to the “small wonders” category of explanations. And have a memorable Thursday, as long as the memories are worth keeping.

Eddie Dyer: A Man for All Seasons

August 10, 2010

Eddie Dyer: The Man Who Could Do It All

Eddie Dyer. He could pitch, hit, manage, balance the books, make out payroll checks, and then go into business after baseball and became wildly successful in oil, real estate, and insurance. Oh yeah. One more thing. He knew how to win a World Series too, as he and his 1946 St. Louis Cardinals proved to all against Ted Williams and the Boston Red Sox in the seven-game thriller that was the 1946 title contest that will always be remembered for Enos Slaughter’s “mad dash” from first to home.

Born in the heart of Cajun Country in Morgan City, Louisiana on October 11, 1899, the Irishman Dyer made his way to Rice Institute (now University) as both a bright student and highly touted ballplayer. He signed with the St. louis Cardinals in 1922 as a (BL/TL) pitcher-outfielder. The future looked as bright as dawn upon the dark swamps of his birthplace.

Over parts of six seasons, 1922-27, Dyer then appeared in 129 games for the Cardinals. As a big league pitcher, he split 30 decisions and posted an ERA of 4.78. Dyer also marked a 3 win-5 loss record in a  partial season with the 1923 Houston Buffs during this same period. It was his only season as an actual player for the Buffs, but his impact as a manager was coming down the line. In 157 times at bat as a major league outfielder in the 1920s, Eddie batted only .223 and seemed well on his way to mediocrity or total oblivion.

1927 proved to be Eddie Dyer’s pivotal year. Optioned by the parent Cardinals to the Syracuse Stars of the then AA International League as a pitcher, Dyer won his first six games before an arm injury ended his pitching career for all time. His now proven intellect and leadership qualities next led the Cardinals to shift Dyer into gear as a playing manager-outfielder in their minor league system.

From 1928 through 1933, Dyer continued as a playing manager, also establishing himself along the way as a superb minor league hitter. Upon retirement from active play, Dyer hung up a career minor league BA of .311 for ten seasons. He also began to compile a list of great players who came up through the Cardinal system under his tutelage. The first of these was future Hall of Famer Joe Medwick, who played for Eddie as an outfielder for the Scottdale Scotties of the Class C Western Association in 1930. All Joe  Medwick did that year was hit .419 to lead the league.

Dyer was a triple duty money-saver for the Cardinals while he still played and then fell only to a double duty bargain after his active playing retirement in the lower minors. In each of those early stops, the Cardinals also installed Dyer as either the general manager or club president too. He may have even driven the team road-trip bus under this Branch Rickey-inspired, money-saving  mindset. I’m not sure about that bus driving extra job, but it wouldn’t surprise.

If we look closely here at the order of these next few facts, we may be able to see one of the big reasons that Eddie Dyer was headed toward dynastic minor league success in the later 1930s and early 1940s. In 1938, the Cardinals placed Dyer in charge of supervising all of their minor league operations in the southern and southwestern parts of the United States. The following season, the Cardinals made Eddie Dyer their choice for service as manager of the Houston Buffs.

Uh Oh! Going into the 1939 season, guess who has a major say and the most performance information at his fingertips and under his control for assigning players to the Houston Buffs roster?  I’m not saying we can know it worked out this way, but so what, if it did? Eddie Dyer would have been foolish not to load up at Houston, if he had the inside chance.

The results speak pretty loudly for the talent, leadership, and performance of the Buffs during Eddie Dyer’s three seasons at the helm from 1939 through 1941. The Buffs finished in first place all three of those seasons, averaging 102 wins per year and winning the playoffs for the league championship in 1940. Sadly, the 1940 Buffs then lost the Dixie Series title to the Nashville Vols in five games.

The Texas League then shut down from 1942 through 1945 due to World War II, but Eddie Dyer stayed connected to the Cardinals as he also pursued his business interests in Houston. He became manager of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1946 and then quickly led the club that contained many of his former Houston players, pitchers like Howie Pollet, Red Munger, and Ted Wilks, to a playoff pennant victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers and a seven-game World series title over the Boston Red Sox.

The Cardinals remained fiercely competitive for the last four years of Eddie Dyer’s managerial service to the Cardinals (1947-50), but the Dodgers, Braves, Dodgers again, and Phillies got in the way of any further Dyer-Cardinal pennants.

After a fall to fifth place in 1950, Eddie Dyer resigned as manager of the Cardinals and returned to his business interests in Houston. He left a major league managerial record on the books that spoke well for his accomplishments. 446 wins. 325 losses, and a .578 winning percentage is plenty to write home about.

Eddie Dyer passed away in Houston at age 64 on April 11, 1964. His death was both a big loss to baseball and to our community because he was one of those people with the ability to infect others with his plans for success and happiness. You never want to run out of the Eddie Dyer types in this world. The loss is always felt hard and sharp.

I’ve written about Eddie Dyer in the past. I’ll no doubt write about him again in the future. I only wish his players were still around to write his whole story. I’ll bet you that most of them would also say they were helped to becoming better performers because of Eddie Dyer. All I know is – the more you read about the guy and study his record – and the more you examine the names of the players he managed – the more you may find yourself pulled to the same conclusion I also reached.

Eddie Dyer was a builder of better worlds – in baseball, in business, in life.

Buff Stuff in Short Supply

July 27, 2010

Ebbets Field Flannels Credits This Logo & Color Scheme to the 1959 Buffs.

I get a number of questions about the availability of replica caps and jerseys for the old minor league Houston Buffs that are available for sale to fans who want to help keep the flame of their memory alive. Sad to say, the retail access to these items has never been worse than it is now. I’m hopeful things won’t stay this way, but the prolonged damage to the economy from the recession seems to have cut deeply into certain manufactured collectible items.

Back on the first of the year, the wonderful Cooperstown Cap Company went out of business for all kinds of financial reasons, but that hit removed our source for Houston Buff caps from 1912, 1951, and 1954. The other big source, Ebbets Field Flannels, still offers a road game jersey from 1932, but they apparently have discontinued making the 1932 cap that goes with that fine replica of the wool flannel uniform shirt.

1932 Houston Buffs Jersey by Ebbets Field Flannels is Available for $185.

I’m not sure what happened to the cap that was available through “EFF” at about $28, but I no longer find it and numerous others among the choices listed on their website. My guess is that they would probably make one for you, if you really wanted one. They do a lot of custom work.

For a better look at the 1932 jersey logo, here it is. The colors differ, but this logo follows the sunburst orange and brown buffalo silhouette figures on the eighty 36″ medallions that once rimmed the exterior walls of the ballpark. The logo featured here for 1932 came out only four years after Buff Stadium opened on April 11, 1928:

1932 Houston Buffs Logo; it appears on the heart side of the Ebbets Field jersey.

For further information, here’s the Ebbets Field Flannels link to their two “Buff” for sale items:

From the T shirt link, you will be able move easily to an enlargement of the 1959 Buff T Shirt they are now selling (sizes S to XXL) for $18 and also click over to order details on the 1932 jersey. Speaking of such, here’s how that advertised T Shirt looks in full view:

Nice T Shirt, but the '59 Buffs never dressed out in the colors of the old St. Louis Browns.

Well, technically speaking, the old St. Louis Browns wore combos of the brown depicted in the T Shirt with orange trim, but this rendition comes close enough to invite the comparison. It’s still a nice shirt, but the ’59 Buffs dressed out exactly in the colors and uniform style of their new parent club by working agreement, the Chicago Cubs, in 1959. That put the Buffs into blue pin strips, blue trim, and bright blue caps – not brown with yellow trim.

One interesting feature of the ’59 logo that Ebbets Field used here is the little optical joke that it plays on you by the way two features come together, unintentionally, I feel sure. First we have the bat, lancing the circle as the arrow pierces the heart of most Valentines.  Then we have the script-tail of the word “Buffs” coming off the stylized point where the business end of the bat departs the circle. Look at these features together, carefully, at the bat exit point. Do you also see the feature of the apparent broken bat?

This would have been a great boken-bat logo for the 1949, 1950, or 1952 Houston Buffs clubs, just to name a few our more disappointing seasons from back then. That being said, I most probably will still order one of these “new” T Shirts. I love the buffalo.

Heck. I love the Houston Buffs. I just look forward to the day we have more choices again, but that’s the status of things for now. You may find something out there in broken size lots on caps and jerseys at Internet stores like “Dugout Memories” and the like. Just Google and you shall find the Buff gear sellers.

Have a great Tuesday and keep your heads above the frogs today, if you live in Houston. There’s a 70% chance of heavy rain in our area.

1951: New York Yankees 15 – Houston Buffs 9.

July 15, 2010

Sorry to be getting this story to you so late. It’s actually my third attempt. The first time I wrote it up back in 2003, it became part of the book I did with the late Buff slugging star Jerry Witte, “A Kid rom St. Louis” in slightly different form. Today’s version is pretty much of a reprint on the column I wrote over at ChronCom, the Houston Chronicle website, on July 7, 2008.

What stirred to repeat it here was the news that longtime Yankee Stadium public address announcer Bob Sheppard has died at age 99. Sheppard had worked the Yankee Stadium games from 1951 through 2006, becoming the franchise’s iconic voice over the process of time.

Thanks to my dad, I got to see the Yankee club that started Sheppard’s career in New York – and that 1951 team included Joe DiMaggio in his last season and Mickey Mantle in his first. And I got to see them both together in the same outfield at Buff Stadium, even getting to stand there on that field with them behind the spillover spectator ropes as a kid fan on the first standing room row.

How blessed can a lucky kid from the East End have been, so, in honor of Sheppard, my father, and the memory of a lifetime, here it is again, one more time.

The Houston Post, April 9, 1951

The date was April 8, 1951. It was a typically hot and humid 3:00 PM Sunday afternoon baseball game at Buff Stadium. Because of the very special circumstances, my dad had driven 13 year old me, my 9 year old little brother John, and my 13 year old Pecan Park best friend Billy Sanders to a pre-season exhibition game at the old ballpark.

The New York Yankees were coming through town to play the Houston Buffs in a single game. The great Joe DiMaggio was set to play center field for the Yankees, with 18-year old rookie spring training phenom Mickey Mantle playing right fieldI. Everybody in Houston wanted to see this game. And it would turn out to be a game and afternoon that all of us would remember forever.

Oh my! I only wish that I had been able to take my Kodak Brownie camera with me to that special game on that particular day, but I learned too late that I had no more film and, with Dad springing for the tickets, I knew better than to ask him for extra money as an advance on my allowance – just for film. Dad had his own ideas about what was important and he didn’t suffer well from requests that seemed extravagant. As a result, 57 years later, you will just have to settle here for pictures that still exist vividly in my mind as best I am to develop them for you in words.

We left for the game only about forty-five minutes prior to its scheduled start. That fact alone bothered me. Since we didn’t have tickets, I worried that we might not be able to get into the ballpark due to an almost certain sellout. Anxiety didn’t matter. Dad already had settled into his “don’t worry about it” mode and there was nothing left for me to do but keep my fingers crossed and pray. Yes, I prayed about stuff like this when I was 13.

When we reached the Cullen Boulevard exit going north up the Gulf Freeway from the southeast, our red 1950 Studebaker immediately oozed into bumper-to-bumper traffic and slowed to an inch-by-inch pace over the last 500 feet of street-trekking into the Buff Stadium parking lot.

“Oh, My God!” I muttered from the back seat.

“Don’t get the Lord involved in this one!” Dad affirmed, as he lit another Camel and began to bongo the steering wheel with his right hand.

I didn’t say it, but I thought it: “If we had gotten the Lord involved earlier, we wouldn’t be going through this and left the house earlier, and with my Kodak Brownie camera already loaded with film!”

By the time we reached the ticket gate, we already knew that we would be lucky if the SRO tickets were still available. Buff Stadium held 11,000-seated tickets, but club president Allen Russell was already roping off about twenty feet from the outfield in left and right field. By taking that measure and just making every ball that flew or rolled into the outfield SRO section a ground rule double, Russell would be able to get an extra 2,500 to 3,000 fans into the ballpark for the big game.

Once Dad bought our tickets for the left field crowd, I didn’t mind at all. I knew that we now had a chance to fight for a front-of-the-rope position deep as possible toward center field – and very near the great Joe DiMaggio.

It happened. We did it. We battled for four spots in left center on the front rope line and won. To our left during the game, the great Joe D. was often no more than fifty feet away. Once he even came over and, running toward us, he caught a fly ball directly in front of us. In my mind I whispered, “Nice catch, Joe!”, but the actual words could not escape my lips. I can still hear the sound of his footsteps as his charge came closer and closer. For whatever reason, I wasn’t worried about him crashing into us. And he didn’t.

I could squint into the further distance and see the young Mickey Mantle in right field. He looked so very young because he was. He was only five years older than my friend Billy and me. I remember thinking, “Wow! In five years, I could be either playing pro baseball too or else, serving with the army in Korea.”

Neither happened. I never had the talent of a Mickey Mantle. And they settled the Korean War before I could get there.

Once in a while during the game, when the Yankees were in the field, I would close my right eye to block out the sight of Yankee left fielder Gene Woodling. As I did, it was to help my fantasy that it was I, not Woodling, playing left field for the Yankees. What an outfield that was on April 8, 1951: Mantle in right; DiMaggio in center; and McCurdy in left!

In my dreams, small things never occurred to me.

The game itself did not disappoint, except for the fact that none of my Yankee adulation had removed my first loyalty to the Buffs. The Buffs jumped on the Yankees early, but couldn’t hold them for the full nine innings.

Going into the 9th, the Yankees led, 13-6, paced by Mickey Mantle’s 5th inning, 3-run homer over our heads and over the double-deck fence in left center that rose behind us. 2-run homers earlier by both Russell Rac and Frank Shofner had not been enough to keep the Buffs in contention.

Then something happened in the 9th that may have never occurred before or since. I know the facts of this story from my interviews with former Buffs slugger Jerry Witte, when we were working on his biography “A Kid From St. Louis” a few years ago.

Jerry Witte had been asking Joe DiMaggio all day for a souvenir bat. Nothing happened until the top of the 9th, when Joltin’ Joe crashed a homer of his own to left with one man on base. As the game moved to the bottom of the 9th with the Yankees now leading 15-6, DiMaggio sent his home run bat over by way of a bat boy as his gift to Jerry Witte.

When Jerry Witte came to bat against veteran hurler Max Peterson with two Buffs on base in the bottom of the 9th, he decided on impulse to use the DiMaggio bat for his last time up against the Yankees.

Lo and behold! Deploying the same bat that Joe D. had used to crank a homer in the top half of the 9th, Jerry Witte unloaded a “Fair Maid Bakery” blast to center field in the bottom of the 9th to make the final score in the game New York Yankees 15 – Houston Buffs 9!

As Witte trotted home at the end of his home run pace, he says he stole a look for DiMaggio in the Yankees first base dugout. He said that DiMaggio was falling all over himself with laughter for having supplied Witte with his weapon of last productive resort.

After the game. Jerry Witte got Joe DiMaggio to sign the bat for him. He still owned the bat at the time of his death in 2002. If there was ever another instance in organized baseball of two players from opposite teams both homering in the 9th, or any other inning, of the same game, using the same bat, I’ve never heard of it.

I will always be grateful to my Dad for taking us to the biggest game in my childhood memory. I’m also glad that he didn’t buy our tickets in advance. Had he done so, we would have missed out on our up close and personal experience in the outfield with the great Joe DiMaggio on a hot April day in Houston back in 1951.

Things do have a way of working out for the best. Sometimes.

The Houston Buffs’ Cubs Years, 1959-61

July 8, 2010

Future Hall of Famer Billy Williams played LF and batted .323 with 26 HR for the 1960 Houston Buffs.

By the time the Houston Buffs settled into their last three years of minor league baseball from 1959 to 1961, the dye had been cast that the city’s real future now rested in the major leagues as one of the new expansion clubs. When former St. Louis baseball great Marty Marion and his group of independent investors then purchased the minor league franchise and ballpark of the Houston Buffs from the St. Louis Cardinals after the 1958 season, it most likely took place with a view toward a future that far surpassed their immediate plans to move the ball club up to the next level with the AAA American Association from the AA Texas League.

The Marion group worked out a minor league player supply group with the Chicago Cubs and agreed to start playing in the American Association in 1959 as the AAA affiliate of the Chicago North Siders. For all the Cardinal fans of the Houston area, the change resulted in quite a culture jolt. No longer would the Buffs be wearing the Cardinal red and deep Navy blue trim of the vaunted and cherished St. Louis NL club.

When the 1959 Buffs took the field on Opening Day 1959, they did so in the Powder blue caps, lettering, and trim on the Cloud white uniforms that were the style of the Chicago Cubs. Even though we Buff  fans were told that these guys on the field were our Buffs, and we knew they were, part of our fan souls kept waiting for the “real Buffs” to show up in their Cardinal red gear. It took us a while to adjust. After all, the Buffs had been a Cardinal farm club from the early 1920s. That nearly four decades of Cardinal influence was extremely powerful.

Those three final years of the Houston Buffs were mostly forgettable on the field. Playing first under Rube Walker and then again under former Buffs manager Del Wilber, the 1959 Buffs finished dead last in the five-team American Association West Division with a horrendous record of 58-104. Houston fans seized upon an obvious conclusion: “Buffs, you say? I don’t think so! These guys not only dress like the Cubs! They play like them too!”

The 1959 roster did contain some notables. Future Houston Colt .45 Pidge Browne broke in at first base with a .261 batting average and 12 homers. Former Browns outfielder Jim Delsing played regularly at a low performance level (.233 BA, 4 HR). Delsing is best remembered as the guy who pinch ran for Eddie Gaedel after the little vertically challenged batter (midget) walked in his only plate appearance for the St. Louis Browns on August 19, 1951. – Dave Hoskins, the black pitcher who broke the color line in the Texas League with Dallas back in 1952, also spent a little time pitching for the Buffs as part of his twilight song in baseball.

1960 was the season for memorable names during the Buffs’ Cubs years. Billy Williams played left field for the club, batting .323 with 26 homers on his last minor league stop on the way to his Hall of Fame major league career with the Cubs. Ron Santo played third base in 1960, hitting .268 with 7 homers. The ’60 club also included outfielder Sweet Lou Johnson (.289, 12 HR), outfielder-manager Enos Slaughter (.289, 1 HR in 58 times at bat), plus pitchers Mo Drabowsky (5-0, 0.90) and Dick Ellsworth (2-0, 0.86). The 1960 club did much better, finishing 3rd in  now eight-club circuit, but they lost in the first round of the playoffs for the league championship.

Ron Santo and Billy Williams were the best of the Buffs-Cubs years.

The 1961 last edition of the Houston Buffs went through four managers: Grady Hatton, Fred Martin, Lou Klein. and Harry Craft. Interesting! The Buffs’ last manager, Harry Craft, would also become the first manager of the new major league Houston Colt .45s in 1962.

First baseman Pidge Browne (.250, 9 HR in 62 games) and shortstop J.C. Hartman (.259, 6 HR) both played well enough to join manager Craft on the first voyage of 1962 Colt .45s. The club also included another future Houston major leaguer. Dave Giusti (2-0, 3.00 in 3 games) also pitched a few innings for the last Buffs.

In spite of their 73-77 fourth place record, the 1961 Buffs celebrated their last season by advancing to the finals of the American Association playoffs before losing the crown in six games to second place Louisville.

The big story of the Cubs years, however, was not what happened on the field, but how the Marion group ownership may have affected the future identity of Houston’s major league club. Here’s how I understand it as one who was not intimately involved in the process of the franchise award. I do invite Mickey Herskowitz to weigh in here on this matter as a comment on this column. I would love to see us get it right as we can for history:

The competition between the groups of Roy Hofheinz and Marty Marion for the new major league franchise was heated and unfriendly. When Hofheinz and the Houston Sports Association got the bid from the National League (and I’ve always surmised that HSA was the only group that a serious chance), the Marion group mde HSA pay through the nose for Buff Stadium and the club’s AAA territorial rights.

It’s my understanding from several sources that Hofheinz was so embittered by the Marion group “hold up” that this experience was all he needed to settle a decision that he probably would have made anyway: (1) the new Houston NL club wold not use Buff Stadium while they were awaiting the completion of the new domed stadium off OST and Main. They would build a temporary field there that would allow fans to watch the domed stadium as it progressed under construction. (2) The major league club would not be known as the Houston Buffs, even though there was strong popular sentiment in town for keeping the revered name of the club that had meant Houston baseball from the early years of the 20th century.

Had Marion’s group been awarded, the new NL franchise, I think they would have kept the “Houston Buffs” identity at the major league level, but I have no idea what their stadium plans might have included. I have always thought that the domed stadium plan was always anchored only to the HSA group. More light on all these details is needed.

At any rate, the three years of the Buff’s Cubs era are fairly forgettable on the field. I still can’t believe those guys in the Cubs-look-a-like uniforms really were real Buffs.

Any comments or questions on what really happened between the Hofheinz and Marion groups are most welcome, but please leave them here as public replies – not as private e-mails to me. Everybody needs a chance to get involved in this quagmire.

Watty Watkins: Houston Sandlotter Made It Big

July 1, 2010

George "Watty" Watkins, OF, BL/TR HT: 6'1" WT: 175 Lbs

Born in Freestone County, Texas on June 4, 1900, but mostly raised on the sandlots of Houston, George “Watty” Watkins turned out to be one of our local boys who really made good.

Breaking in with Marshall and Houston in 1925, Watty played for Austin, Houston, and Beaumont over the next couple of years before earning the starting job as center fielder for the 1928 Houston Buffs in that very special year. The Buffs took the Texas League pennant and Dixie Series championship in 1928 and, even more importantly, it all took place in the first season of their splendid new home in the East End – in the place we Houstonians all came to know and love as Buff Stadium.

Watkins hit .306 with 177 hits, 32 doubles, 21 triples, and 14 homers for the 1928 Buffs, as he also established himself as a killer defensive player in the large central pasture of old Buff Stadium. An even more powerful year with Rochester in 1929 (,337 BA, 20 HR) earned Watty a promotion to the 1930 parent St. Louis Cardinals.

Watkins went “lights on bright” in 1930, hitting .373 and playing  a big role in the St. Louis pennant victory. The Cards went on to a 4-2 loss to the Philadelphia A’s in the 1930 World Series, but talent would rematch the clubs in the 1931 Classic. It would be the bat of Watty Watkins, including a home run, that fired a Game Seven victory for all the marbles this time. Watty Watkins was King of the World when he came home to Houston that winter.

After hitting .312 with the 1932 Cardinals, Watty dropped to .278 in 1933 and was dealt to the New York Giants prior t the 1934 season, thus, sadly missing the cardinal emergence as the Gashouse Gang.

Faltering offensive production for  the Giants in 1934, the Phillies in 1935, and the Phillies-Dodgers in 1936 ended the big league career of Watty Watkins. In spite of the fact that his last four big league seasons played out like the post-midnight segment of Cinderella’s big evening, questions about Watty’s playing health over that period of time may possibly explain his sudden offensive drop off the cliff. It was an era of poor diagnostics and few good choices on medical corrections. Combine that state of medical science in what passed back then for sports medicine – and mix that again with a “shut-up-and-play” personality like George “Watty” Watkins – and we have a formula for an unexplained flat tire on the highway to baseball greatness.

Watty wasn’t quite ready to hang ’em up after the 1936 season. He came back to play 100 games for his hometown Houston Buffs. He batted a most respectable .273, but here’s the more telling story of his lost power ability. Of his 105 Buff hits in 1937, Watkins collected only 21 double doubles and 4 triples with 0 (nada) homers. By the time I was born on December 31, 1937, Watty Watkins was about three months past the date of his last trip to the plate as a professional baseball player.

As a kid growing up in Houston, the echo of his name from the writings and words of the men who witnessed his play as fans or covered his play as reporters reached my ears long before I ever had the presence of mind to look into this background on my own.

George Watkins stayed active in the Houston baseball community until his death in Houston on June 1, 1970, just three days short of his 70th birthday. He was buried at the Broyles Chapel Cemetery in Palestine, Texas.

The rest of the story goes on from here. The other day, I received a wonderful e-mail message from a fellow named John Watkins, who introduced himself to me as the great-nephew of George “Watty” Watkins. John also sent me a scanned copy of the original program from the opening of the initial Houston Sports Museum back in the 1960s. Watkins had learned about me from one of my Pecan Park Eagle articles on the reopening of the museum at Finger’s.

I would especially like to invite John Watkins to comment further here on his great-uncle. Watty Watkins was one of the best all-time Buffs and he had one of the hottest starts in major league history. I’m sure we could all benefit from John’s family view on this great former Buff and Cardinal.

Houston Sports Museum: A Few Notes

June 23, 2010

80 36" steel buffalo medallions rimmed Buff/Busch Stadium from 1928 to 1961.

The Houston Sports Museum enjoyed a nice open house crowd last Saturday at their location on the site of Buff Stadium last Saturday, June 19th. According to Curator Tom Kennedy, a good time was had by all during the 12:30 PM – 1:30 PM meet and greet autograph session with baseball figures from all segments of Houston’s baseball history. Jack Schultea was there representing Houstonians who went on to play pro ball. Larry Miggins attended as a former Buff from the 1940s and 1950s, but he also played a short while with the parent St. Louis Cardinals club – and he is now a member in good standing of SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research. J.C. Hartman was on hand as a transitional figure. Hartman was one of the few last Buffs who also then played for the new major league Houston Colt .45s. – Carl Warwick, a pinch-hitting hero with the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1964 World Series, also came as a former Colt .45. And all these guys were accompanied by former Houston Astro Jose Cruz, current Houston Astro Michael Bourn, and former Buff/Colt .45/ Astro Hall of Fame announcer Gene Elston. – What a lineup!  – What a crowd! – What a day! – And what an opportunity for Houston to keep its history honored and growing.

Support Fingers: Here’s the catch, folks – and hopefully all of us who love baseball history can do our part to support the program. For the museum to succeed over time, the Finger Furniture store that preserves and protects it on this most special site of our minor league heritage must succeed in the retail sales market in this singular store location on the Gulf Freeway at Cullen. I probably don’t have to tell you how competitive the furniture business is in Houston. – For now, all we can do is think first of Finger’s when we need a furniture purchase – and spread the word to our friends as well. Store owner Rodney Finger has earned at least a “first look” Mulligan from all Houston baseball fans when it comes to that next furniture purchase. Please keep Finger’s in mind.

Museum Donations: As a result of the little publicity I’ve given to the Houston Sports Museum, a woman up in Livingston has contacted me about donating her father’s scrapbook to the museum. Her dad was an outfielder named D.L. “Country” Smith and he played with the Houston Buffs for a short while back in the late 1930s. He also took the time along the way to put together a scrapbook with photos and letters from Branch Rickey and former Buffs President Fred Ankenman. I’ve put the family in touch with Tom Kennedy for further exploration.

Those Buffalo Medallions:

This profile was my earliest and most lasting image of Buff Stadium.

The buffalo medallions that once rimmed the exterior walls at Buff Stadium came up again as part of HSM Curator Tom Kennedy’s talk to our Houston Chapter of SABR earlier this month. The eighty (80) thirty-six (36) inches in diameter medallions were the jewels in the royal crown of Houston baseball’s beautiful ballpark in the East End. A couple of these beauties now reside at the Houston Sports Museum as steely strong reminders of Houston’s thick and lasting baseball heritage.

Check the top photo here and you will see the configuration of how these medallions outlined the ballpark. Imagine the impression they made on the nine-year old kid that was me when I saw them for the first time in 1947. They were like magnets to me. Once in their presence, I couldn’t wait to get back. I was addicted to baseball from before I even heard the first crack of the bat.

It was an addiction from which I’ve never even tried to recover.

One Photo / Many Questions.

May 28, 2010

Right Field in Buff Stadium is a place of mystery and curiosity in this photo, starting with the fact that I'm not sure of the exact year it was taken.

Sometimes a photo makes everything obvious. Just as often, a photo may raise more questions than it really answers. The photo shown above is of the latter type. I acquired it some time ago from the very special Texana Collection at the julia Ideson wing of the Houston Public Library. We knew that it was taken in old Buff Stadium in the Houston East End, but that was about the only fact that was clear.

I’m not sure who #15, the pitcher, is but he is a Buff, as best I can see from the old English H that is visible on the left jersey breastplate in another close up of the  unidentified Buffs first baseman. The year of this uniform could have been anywhere from 1938 to 1942 or 1946-47. The ’47 Buffs club preferred the Buff logo on the jersey, but they also used the old English H. I simply cannot find another photo of the 46-47 team wearing the light colored caps with stripes – and a photo I have of the ’41 Buffs shows them wearing dark caps. More research is needed.

The HR-resistant Gulf winds came roaring in over these walls in the Houston summertime.

If you look closely above at the first crop-shot from the main photo, you may be able to see that the distance down the right field line was 325 feet, the same as I remember it from my Buff Stadium kid days (1947-54) and the same as it is now in Minute Maid Park. The major differences between these two ballpark right field lines would be the roof option at MMP and the no choice prevalent winds that blew in and over to left field from right field at Buff Stadium. – Also, you may have trouble seeing it here, but the right field foul pole is barely taller than the “325” distance sign.

I’m not sure about the outfield box area with two windows in this photo. There was no scoreboard function in right field during my Buff Stadium days and the main Press Box are was located on the roof behind home plate. I’m not even sure what those lined stands in right were about. We certainly had no outfield bleachers during my time there either.

"Don't Let Wash Day Buffalo You!"

That top sign is from Burkhart’s and it’s promoting the idea in words and pictures that you (meaning “you housewives”) should not let wash day make you fear dirty clothes. With Burkhart’s help, they are offering protection from being buffaloed by the challenge.

Left to right above, the signs are also advertising Dr. Pepper, Leopold & Price Men’s Store, A Special Giveaway at Mading’s Drugs, Save Time, Money, and Worry by Riding Street Cars and Buses, and enjoy the comfort of the Texas State Hotel, including their first class modern grill.

Who could ask for anything more?

The sad days of segregated stands existed into the mid-1950s at Buff Stadium. The empty stands at left above were the designated "colored section.".

Segregated seating for black fans at Buff Stadium existed through the 1954 season, the year that first baseman Bob Boyd broke the color line by becoming the first black player to integrate any Houston sports team, amateur or professional, in the City of Houston. Why the so-called “colored section” at the left above is empty in this photo I could not begin to explain. It’s just shameful that even baseball wasn’t big enough to rise up sooner against the formal practice of racial discrimination, but that’s not the way history played out.

As for today, the empty “colored section” is simply one of the curiosities and mysteries that float forward in this single photo of an active past game day in right field at old Buff Stadium.

There are numerous lessons on the loose here in this picture, but not the least of these for all those photographers of history is this one: If you want your photos to capture history, do not expect the picture alone to tell the story. Write down when and where it was taken and leave a few words about who is in it and why it may be important to remember. Otherwise, by taking and leaving the photo alone, you will have over time simply left another visual egg of mystery to scramble the brains of viewers in the future.

Pass the salt and pepper, Mammy! Let’s close with a good clear closeup of that wash day buffalo ad:

"Buffalo Gal, Won't You Come Out Tonight - And Dance by the Light of the Moon?"

Thanks to a post-publication contribution suggestion from Larry Hajduk, the following photo, compliments of the Story Sloane Gallery, is added to show how Burkhart’s Laundry appeared in 1928. It appears that Burkhart’s had a long ago thriving business helping Houston do its laundry.

Burkhart's Laundry, Houston, compliments of Story Sloane Gallery,

Also, local history sleuth Mike Vance checked in with an important observation that he somehow could not register below as a comment. Mike says the last streetcar in Houston ran in 1940. So, if we are to believe the outfield sign advocating public use 0f Houston’s “street cars,” that does narrow down the year possibilities for this photo considerably. Thanks, Mike Vance. That’s a major help.