Houston's Babies Play Vintage Baseball
It's a sweltering Cinco de Mayo in Katy's City Park, and on a dusty baseball diamond, Larry Joe "Long Ball" Miggins steps up to the plate with two men on and two outs and the score tied at six runs apiece.
The Babies need a big hit and Miggins is just the man manager Bob Dorrill would like to see at the plate. Perhaps the most feared slugger on the Houston Babies 1860-vintage baseball team, the bearded Long Ball adjusts his short-billed cap and, through tiny, circular 19th century shades, stares down the Katy Combine pitcher, who lobs the pill underhanded towards the plate.
Miggins takes the first pitch, and the umpire, dressed in a black top hat, white button-down shirt and black vest, makes no call. In this version of baseball, or "base ball," as its aficionados write it, balls don't exist and strikes are called only when the umpire believes a batter is trying to delay the game.
The catcher tosses the ball back to the pitcher. Like the rest of their teammates, neither of the battery-mates is wearing a glove, and the catcher, or "behind," as they were known, wears no helmet or chest protector either. Since that was the way they did it in 1860, that's the way the Katy Combine and the Houston Babies do it, too.
Miggins pulls up the sleeves of his billowy gray-and-red jersey, and with little delay, the pitcher tosses his next offering plateward. Long Ball takes a mighty cut, grunting like Nolan Ryan delivering a fastball as he does so. POCK! The bat connects with the ball — bigger than a modern baseball, smaller than a softball and spongier than both — and it flies high and deep towards the left-centerfield gap.
The two Babies runners trot listlessly toward home, and despite having hit what in modern baseball would likely be an extra-base hit, Miggins tosses the bat on the ground in disgust. The Katy outfielder lazily tracks down the fly, which falls to earth about six feet behind him and bounds high in the air. The outfielder snatches the ball on one bounce — and Miggins is out.
It's another quirk of the rules of this ancient form of baseball — all balls caught on a single bounce, no matter how far they travel, are outs, the same as a feeble dribbler to the pitcher or a weak pop-up to third base.
"I left two guys on base," Miggins is muttering under his breath as he trots toward the dugout. "That's a baseball mortal sin."
In this version of the game, it's not about power or speed, as lead-offs and steals are also forbidden. It's about hitting hard ground balls — "stingers" and "daisy-cutters" — where the fielders ain't, or line drives over the infield and between the outfielders. Though a Katy slugger would knock one out of the park, homers are rare, and swinging for the fences tends to result, as in Long Ball's case, mainly in what are called "loud outs."
There's also an entirely different lexicon and other weird rules. Batters are "strikers," pitchers are "hurlers" or "bowlers," and umpires are "Blind Toms." A ball that lands first in fair territory stays fair even if it rolls foul before it reaches third or first base, and fouls are not strikes. (Though if the catcher snags a foul tip or a once-bounced foul, the "striker" is "dead.") Over-running first base is a no-no, as you could be tagged out, steals and leading off are forbidden, and sliding is discouraged and regarded as ungentlemanly.
Runs are called "tallies," and when a player crosses the plate, he must ring an iron bell behind the plate and ask the Blind Tom for permission to register the score. If granted, the score will literally be chalked up on a blackboard near the backstop.
There's also a code of gentlemanly conduct. Blind Toms can ask players and the "cranks" (spectators) for assistance in making calls, and even opposing cranks and players are supposed to tell the truth. Players are forbidden to argue, gamble or swear, and none save the Blind Tom may carry a flask.
Today, the Babies play mainly at heritage festivals (the next game is slated for the Fourth of July weekend at the George Ranch in Fort Bend County), but General Manager Dr. Bill McCurdy and others involved hope to grow a four-team Houston-area league and host a postseason championship at Minute Maid Park, blocks away from the site of the birth of Houston baseball.
Babies Field Manager Bob Dorrill says that the team has been in existence for five years. Dorrill is also the chair of Houston's Larry Dierker Chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research, and he says that the Babies came into being after a fellow SABR member started a team at Lone Star College in Tomball. About six SABR members went to the first game and liked it, Dorrill remembers, so they started recruiting more players, and soon enough the Babies were born.
While the national Vintage Base Ball Association was formed in Columbus, Ohio, in 1996, and there are now at least 100 clubs playing nationwide, nobody is sure exactly when the old game returned to Texas. Kristy "Horseshoe" Watson, player-manager of the Boerne White Sox, says that there were early teams in Buffalo Gap, Abilene and scattered through the Dallas suburbs.
A statewide league was formed in 2007, and it included two Houston-area teams: the Montgomery College Saw Dogs from Conroe and Richmond's George Ranch Giants. Watson believes that social networking is enabling more and more teams to find each other, thus enabling more games, which bring more exposure and thus more teams.
Watson discovered the game before learning of the existence of the other Texas teams. The director of Boerne's Agricultural Heritage Museum, she saw her first contest at a national agriculture history convention in Michigan and brought the game home with her. Her team is now one of the liveliest and most storied in the state, and until last season included one of the most amazing father-son combos ever to grace a diamond.
In the infield, there was 72-year-old Kenneth Bergmann, who played for the Boerne White Sox town team in the 1950s, and on the mound, there was his dad Elmer Bergmann. That's right: his dad. Elmer Bergmann also played for the old White Sox, albeit in his case, in the Great Depression. Elmer retired this year at age 90, but his son still carries on the family tradition. Despite the fact that he lives in College Station and has to drive hundreds of miles to Boerne home games, and despite the fact that a knee injury bars him from legging out his hits, Bergmann still stars for a form of the team he and his father have collectively played for since FDR was in the White House.
The Babies have multigenerational players, but none so unusual as that. Bench coach and occasional player Mike McCroskey says their strangest player was of a bovine appearance. In a voice reminiscent of character actor Barry Corbin, he says that the Babies once were forced to impress a Chick-fil-A cow into outfield service.
Unfortunately, the steer did not get its turn at bat. "Naw, he just grazed in the outfield for an inning or two," McCroskey chuckled.
Many of the older folks on all the teams see it as something like a cool drink from the fountain of youth and a great way to forestall the reaper. "Objects in motion tend to stay in motion," one of the elder Houston Babies noted.
In a way, the Houston Babies are the living embodiment of the ongoing scholarship of Mike Vance and Bill McCurdy.
With McCurdy as top editor and Vance as the number two, and under the auspices of Houston's SABR chapter, Vance and McCurdy are tracing the history of Houston baseball from its first mention in 1861 to the advent of big-league ball 101 years later. What's more, they are doing so with a rigor and humor never before applied to the subject, and though Vance says they are not sure what form all those studies will finally take, a book seems likely. There's some old-school star power attached. They hope to get dean of Houston sportswriters Mickey Herskowitz to pen the preface and a chapter on the last years of the Houston Buffs, and Astros great Jimmy "the Toy Cannon" Wynn is a fan of both their efforts and those of the Babies.
McCurdy, a retired psychiatrist in his 70s, announces the Babies games and serves as the team's "general manager." He is also their chronicler — his enthusiastic, slangy game accounts vie for space on his Pecan Park Eagle blog with his historical findings and ruminations on the game he loves. (McCurdy's way with words is apparent at our first meeting, at a Katy Freeway IHOP. He characterized volatile 1970s Astros pitcher Don Wilson as "always a mere flicker of discomfort away from psychosis.")
In his book-lined, wood-paneled ranch house just north of Oak Forest, Mike Vance rides herd on a pack of jubilant rescue dogs and delves deep into the antediluvian era of baseball in Houston, the way-back time before steroids and free agency and 108-loss Astros teams, before the Astrodome, before the Colt 45s, before even the Houston Buffs.
Over the years, Vance has been a comedian, voice actor, local sports pundit and the lead singer of country novelty act The P.C. Cowboys, but if his office is anything to go by, the national pastime is his most abiding passion, perhaps even more of one than his fanatical love of the Texas Longhorns. (Is it a coincidence that all three of his dogs are burnt orange?)
In search of old-time baseball lore, Vance says he is reading every sports page of every Houston newspaper (and also many copies of the Galveston Daily News), day by countless day. "I'm almost done with 1904 now," he says.
Along the way he's made some big discoveries, or rediscoveries, of forgotten local baseball lore, such as the exact location of Houston's first real ballpark, an account of a night game played here in the 1890s, and the soap opera 1904 season that ushered out the prehistoric era of Houston baseball and ushered in the Bayou City's 57-year evolution towards the major leagues. (See "The Wanderers.")
Before that, there were fits and starts. While the New York Mercury was already hailing baseball as "the national pastime" in 1856, that designation failed to look much beyond the Mason-Dixon line. With a few exceptions such as Houston and even more so in New Orleans, baseball in the antebellum South was a flop. For one thing, there wasn't much of a middle class from which to draw players, and historian Kenneth S. Greenberg believes that the game was a poor cultural and psychological fit for the Old South's ruling slaveholder class.
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.
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.
Other memories from the era are less ignominious. Vance says that there was a somewhat surreal attempt at playing a night game at the old grounds in about 1892. He believes the rig consisted of numerous arc lights surrounded by reflectors placed on tripods ringing the field, and that it was more of a novelty than a real game. "Of course it was advertised as being 'As Bright as Daytime!' but then they would talk about how batters were encouraged to hit the ball slow and on the ground. So maybe it was not as bright as daytime after all." (Competitive night baseball did not come about until 1930.)
This gaudy Gilded Age technological feat was repeated in Galveston, which Vance says was the site of one of the quirkiest ballparks ever. On the grounds of Beach Park, it was adjacent to the gloriously ornate, Nicholas Clayton-designed Beach Hotel, mere yards from the Gulf surf in pre-Seawall Galveston. Galveston's field had a feature that makes even Tal's Hill at Minute Maid Park seem like a mere outfield divot.
"At high tide, the water would come in to either left or right field," Vance says. "It would roll up right under the fence."
In 1898, after the city ordered the Beach Hotel's owners to cease dumping raw sewage into the Gulf, the resort mysteriously burned down. The Great Hurricane of 1900 would have erased the ball field and splintered the hotel into matchsticks anyway, but Galveston baseball's days of saltwater and jellyfish delays were over in any case.
"It's for the love of the game that we all play," says the 52-year-old Miggins, and in talking to several of the team's stars, that love comes shining through like the gleam in Ernie Banks's eyes. That love trumps the Katy heat and, for Miggins especially, a good deal of physical pain. A game or two hauling in "stingers" (sharp ground balls) and catching infielders' throws at first base leaves his hands a black and blue mess.
Once they are on the field, the theatrical re-enactment aspects melt away as the baseball genes kick in, and many of these guys have the grand old game deeply embedded in their DNA. The game against the Katy Combine would be the Babies' first extra-inning contest in their five-year history, and they would pull it out in the eighth inning. (Seven innings was the standard in 1860.) And they would come from behind in the second game of the round-robin doubleheader and take down the Boerne White Sox, despite some shoddy base-running from both this writer and photographer Dan Kramer. (See "Covering all the Bases.")
Since it was a day of 90-degree heat with humidity to match, pulling off a doubleheader was no mean feat, as most of these Babies are no babies. Though the players' ages ranged from 16 to 73, the median was probably about 55. (Both Boerne and Katy had much younger squads; it says something about the democratic nature of vintage base ball that the Babies swept the Combine and the White Sox.)
Which is not to downplay the skills of some of the oldest players. Take Houston Babies elder statesman Phil Holland. The 73-year-old second baseman is perhaps the team's best all-around player. Holland has the physique and agility of a man 30 years younger, and in a thick Carolina brogue, he says he's been playing baseball and softball all his life, beginning in high school, continuing in an industrial adult hardball league and also as a key member of three national championship-winning senior softball teams. Over the course of the doubleheader, Holland rapped out no fewer than eight hits, and then was seen leaving the field behind the wheel of a red Corvette in the company of an attractive woman.
Sixtysomething third baseman Bill Hale has a similar background. An amazingly nimble and sure-handed third baseman despite his age and expansive gut, Hale grew up worshiping Stan Musial in his native St. Louis. He played all through high school and one year of college baseball and has since played on seven national championship senior softball teams.
This is his second year as a vintage player. "This is fun," he says. "A lot of fun. I really enjoy the camaraderie."
When asked if third base was especially difficult in this gloveless version of baseball, Hale laughed and said, "For me it is. But that's the position I play in softball, too. Well, third base and shortstop."
"He's so big he plays two positions," Miggins cracks, to the merriment of the rest of the Babies.
"That's not funny," Hale smiles. "Okay, it's a little funny."
"He used to have a six-pack and now he's got a keg," Miggins continues mercilessly.
For the voluble Miggins, these games are a convergence of pretty much everything he holds near and dear. An enthusiastic history buff, Miggins heartily participates in historical re-enactments of the battles of Goliad, San Jacinto and Dick Dowling's Civil War victory at Sabine Pass. He hasn't yet been able to crack the Alamo: "That one is hard to get picked for. Every Texan wants to die at the Alamo," he says.
But baseball trumps even history for Larry Joe. As one of eight sons and the namesake of former Houston Buff star and St. Louis Cardinal first baseman Larry "Irish" Miggins Sr., Larry Joe is from one of the town's most prominent baseball families, one that has almost always had at least one member playing on local diamonds since Irish's debut in 1949.
Two of the most prominent ballplayers of the younger generation of Migginses were Larry Joe and his older brother Rory, known to blues and nightlife lovers as the owner of fabled Telephone Road nightclub Local Charm. Not only was Rory a fellow historical re-enactor, but the two played in local Mexican-American hardball leagues after their high school and college days were over, and later competed in adult Anglo hardball leagues as well.
Larry Joe's eyes light up when he remembers those days, as they do whenever Rory's name comes up.
"I would always bat before Rory, and I would steal signs for him," he chuckles. "If I was on second and I would see the catcher wave one finger, I would say, 'C'mon, Rory!' If it was a curve, it'd be, 'C'mon, Miggins!' You don't have to put that in the article."
In 1994, during the baseball strike, all nine of the Miggins men banded together as a single team and lost a close game to a local 35-and-up hardball team that went on to win its league's national championships. Rory and Larry Joe continued as teammates and re-enactors after that, right up until near the time Rory passed away in December 2007 from skin cancer. "He taught me how to die, the same way he taught me how to live," Larry Joe says, and he believes that Rory would "absolutely" be at his side on the Houston Babies if he were alive today.
McCurdy believes vintage base ball can and will develop. It's a game for men and women, young and old. The ball is easy to hit, so the action moves along. And he believes there's something magic about it, something that takes you back to childhood.
"It's the closest thing there is to backyard, sandlot ball," he says. "Your soul just feels free out there."
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