Houston's Babies Play Vintage Baseball

There's no gloves or batting helmets when Larry Joe Miggins and the rest of the Houston Babies regularly travel back in time to play the game by its 1860 rules.

In his book Honor and Slavery, Greenberg, a professor of history at Suffolk University, explored the ironclad code of honor that ruled slaveholders. To them, baseball was a "boys' game" not fit for men of honor, and more important to a Southern man of honor, Greenberg contended, the act of base running was inconceivable. Only slaves and cowards ran from things. Men of honor only pursued. What's more, only the most crass politicians "ran" for office. Real gentlemen "stood" for it.

The culture in Houston was always a little more receptive to the game. Though cotton was a principal export from the docks at Allen's Landing, Houston was not a town run by a planter elite, and as a railroad center and port, Houston was more connected to the outside world than most Texas cities — perhaps all save Galveston. By 1861, several powerful Yankees were atop Houston's power structure, and as Vance points out, some of those men, notably E.H. Cushing and Frederick Rice, loved baseball.

Cushing, a Dartmouth man and Vermont native, moved to Houston in search of adventure and wound up running the Texas Telegraph, then Houston's leading newspaper. Frederick Rice of Massachusetts was the brother of William Marsh Rice, who went on to found Rice University.

Under the auspices of Houston's chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research and alongside Dr. Bill McCurdy, Mike Vance is poring over the archives for ancient local baseball lore with a rigor never seen here before. In his endeavor to read every baseball article in all Houston papers from 1861 on, he is now up to 1904.
Daniel Kramer
Under the auspices of Houston's chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research and alongside Dr. Bill McCurdy, Mike Vance is poring over the archives for ancient local baseball lore with a rigor never seen here before. In his endeavor to read every baseball article in all Houston papers from 1861 on, he is now up to 1904.

In April of 1861, within a few months of the construction of the building that now houses La Carafe, Cushing and Frederick Rice met at J.H. Evans's store nearby on Market Square and helped found the first organized baseball team in Houston. Soon after the meeting, the team's birth was announced in an article Cushing presumably placed in his Telegraph. The "Houston Base Ball Club" solicited players willing to come to practice three times a week at five a.m., the article announced.

Vance says that these practices were held on the grounds of the Houston Academy, an institution that stood on a tract bounded by Caroline and Austin and Rusk and Capitol, a couple of blocks from where Minute Maid Park is now. He says that baseball likely had been here for some time by then. "You don't go form a club before you've been tossing a ball around," he says.

Unfortunately for that primordial Houston nine, their creation was announced within days of the outbreak of the Civil War, and mentions of the game in Houston and Galveston are scant until about 1867. That was the year of the first recorded and well-publicized game on Texas soil, in which the Houston Stonewall Jacksons crushed the Galveston Robert E. Lees by an astounding score of 35 to 2.

Within ten years, Houston had its first real baseball park, and Vance is excited to have rediscovered its long-forgotten location. Referred to by a variety of generic names like "Houston Base Ball Park," "League Park" and the "Ballpark at the Fairgrounds," the field stood from the late 1870s until 1904 where Travis (then) dead-ended at McGowen. Vance believes that Reef restaurant stands on what was once the field's third base line, and he has since commissioned an architect to draw up a full-color rendering, which he hopes to debut in the planned book. (A couple of years before it became a ballpark, in 1874, a large contingent of Native Americans camped on the site. They had to come to town as a sort of living exhibit at the Texas State Fair.)

This field was the site of Houston's first pro baseball game. On March 6, 1888, led by future Hall of Fame second baseman Bid McPhee, the mighty Cincinnati Red Stockings came to town and, on a puddle-sloshed field, crushed the Houston Babies by a score of 22-3. Houston's first baseball team was even worse than the 2011 Astros. Fourteen of the Red Stockings' runs were unearned, thanks in no small part to Babies pitcher Thomas Flood, who committed six of the team's 13 errors. Not to be outdone, catcher Joseph Lohbeck chipped in two more errors and added a whopping six passed balls.

The Babies' name comes from the fact that they were the last team to join the fledgling Texas League, which debuted in 1888 with teams in Galveston, Austin, San Antonio and Fort Worth. And to give the Babies a run for their money as the team with the silliest name, there was also the Dallas Hams.

McCurdy says the early Texas League was extremely unstable. Teams would change names immediately: The Babies also called themselves the Red Stockings in 1888, and the next year they were the Houston Mud Cats, and before they would settle on Buffs, Houston's teams were called the Lambs, the Magnolias and the Wanderers, among others. Then as now, fans soured on losing teams, but back then, many owners would simply fold a bad team mid-season, leaving holes in the schedules that not infrequently touched off death spirals for entire leagues.

In August of 1889, for example, with the Mud Cats on the eve of Houston's first-ever sports championship, the Texas League collapsed under the weight of the teams' collective debt. After the dust had settled, it was decided to award Houston the pennant, but only if and when the Mud Cats coughed up their long-overdue league membership fees.

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4 comments
Andy Marcel
Andy Marcel

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Andy Marcel
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mikefrombisbee
mikefrombisbee

Great story, Houston Press. Vintage base ball is now played all over the country. We will be commemorating the 1913 World Tour of the New York Giants and Chicago White Sox next March during the Fourth Annual Copper City Classic Vintage Base Ball Tournament at historic 103-year-old Warren Ballpark in beautiful and historic Bisbee, AZ. It's the only surviving ballpark from the venues where John McGraw's and Charlie Comiskey's all-star teams played during their tour by steamship and train around the world. For more info go to www.friendsofwarrenballpark.co... or check out the Friends of Warren Ballpark.Facebook page.

Huzzah!

 
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