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A Brief History of Baseball in Texas

By Bill McCurdy


The State of Texas is viewed nationally as a football territory that only recently discovered the great game of baseball with the coming of the major leagues to Houston in 1962. Nothing could be further from the historical truth. In spite of football's current popularity in the state, there was an ancient time in which baseball was king.

How far back to we have to go to find baseball germinating in Texas? Try the start of the Civil War. The Houston Base Ball Club was formed in 1861 to promote the playing of baseball locally in much the manner that Alexander Cartwright and others started the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club in Manhattan during the 1840's. The movement was interrupted briefly by a little event now remembered as The Civil War, but it soon picked up again upon that great struggle's end.

On April 21, 1868, the first account of a local base ball game was recorded by the Houston Post. At the San Jacinto Battlegrounds near Houston, where General Sam Houston led Texas to victory in the War for Independence from Mexico in 1836, a base ball game was played on the anniversary of the date now celebrated as Texas Independence Day. In another obvious rout that would rival the outcome of the original battle on that same site, the Houston Stonewalls blew away the Galveston Robert E. Lees by a score of 35-2.

Base ball spread throughout the state over the next two decades as a popular amateur game in other cities and small towns. The seed of that influence may have spread from the cradle of Houston's attention to organizing the sport, but it probably was influenced also by those who learned the game from their Civil War travels—and from new immigrants to Texas during the Reconstruction Era who already knew the game. If there's an explanation for Houston's earlier start, it may be linked to the fact that Houston was founded in the 1850s by the Allen Brothers of New York—the early hotbed of base ball infancy. That thought is conjectural, but one worthy of further research.

This much is fact. By the 1880s, the spread of professional "baseball" had brought the two words together and the popularity of baseball had taken off like a brushfire in Texas. Houston was a founding member of the Texas League in 1888—and they won their first league pennant the following year. For whatever reason, perhaps it was simply a misguided note of celebration for their new club's infancy, the first local professional baseball club started out as the Houston Babies. The nickname quickly went through several changes, but, by 1907, it became the Houston Buffalos or Houston Buffs and it remained so for the balance of this city's long and rich minor league baseball history (1888-1961).

Speaking of 1907, here's an interesting footnote. A talented young outfielder for the Houston Buffalos won the Texas League batting title that year with a batting average of .314. His name was Tris Speaker.

Through the first three decades of the 20th century, the passion for baseball in small Texas towns was starting to produce big league caliber, and sometimes, future Hall of Fame level players. Tris Speaker of Hubbard, Rogers Hornsby of Winters, and Ross Youngs of Shiner stand out as future Cooperstown members from the then all-white ranks of professional baseball, but they were not alone as significant early Texas stars. Forced into the shadows of segregated play by the racist zeitgeist of that period in American culture, native Texas blacks began to distinguish themselves also as true baseball pioneers. Andrew "Rube" Foster, a great black baseball pitcher who may well have taught Christy Mathewson how to throw his famous fadeaway ball, became even more important as the founder of the Negro National League in 1920. Smokey Joe Williams of Seguin became the legendary Negro League pitcher who may have been better than Satchel Paige. Shortstop Willie Wells of Austin, pitcher Hilton Smith of Giddings, and Rube's younger brother and pitcher Bill Foster of Calvert all followed and made their own marks. In justice over time, each of these five Texas Negro League stars eventually would be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

By the early 1920s, Houston and the Texas League were well established and drawing strong local support. This fact was not lost upon Branch Rickey, the boy genius general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, who was busy developing a minor league farm system that would propel his club to their first World Series victory in 1926—and launch the Cardinals on the road to becoming the most successful club in National League history.

At Rickey's urging, the Cardinals bought the Houston Buffalos franchise in 1924. By 1928, Rickey had built an 11,000 seat stadium in Houston to accommodate the larger crowds he expected for the talented players that the Cardinals were farming to Houston. Buff Stadium sort of resembled a junior version of Sportsman's Park in St. Louis—but without the outfield pavilion seating. Rickey attended the first game ever played in the shiny new Buff Stadium on April 11, 1928 and he was accompanied by Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. When asked for his opinion of Buff Stadium by the Houston Post, Commissioner Landis proclaimed it to be "The finest minor league baseball park in America."

It didn't take long for Rickey to fulfill his promise to Houston. 1931 stands out as the year of the arguably greatest club in Houston minor league history. The Buffs ran away with the Texas League title that year—and they were helped considerably by a roster which included pitcher Dizzy Dean, infielder Pepper Martin, and outfielder Joe Medwick. Rickey figured it right! Incubating in 1931 Houston was the heart of talent that would three years later surface in St. Louis as the 1934 World Series champions we remember best today as The Gashouse Gang.

Not to be outdone, other cities if the Texas League were also booming in their success on the field during the 1920s—and none more so than the Fort Worth Panthers. Under the leadership of manager Jake Atz, "The Cats" captured the Texas League regular season pennant going away in 1920, 1921, 1922, 1923, 1924, and 1925. Other lower level minor leagues were also forming in Texas during the 1920s and paving the way for the major expansion of leagues in Texas following the end of World War II.

The apex of support for minor league baseball in Texas came in 1951 when the Houston Buffs won the Texas League pennant and drew a season attendance of 333,201 under the creative leadership of Buffs President Allen Russell. That same year, the 1951 St. Louis Browns of the American League drew only 293,740 fans. Almost needless to add, Houston's success at the gate found the city moving onto the radar screen as a possible relocation site for troubled major league clubs looking for a new home. It almost happened sooner than most people realize.

In 1953, Cardinals owner Fred Saigh was in deep trouble with the IRS. He had been charged with income tax evasion and was thinking about selling or moving the Cardinals to either Milwaukee or Houston as a remedy for his financial woes. The result, of course, was that August Busch stepped up and bought the Cardinals, saving the franchise, and driving the Browns to Baltimore as the Orioles in 1954. Had the Cardinals moved to Houston in 1954, the effect upon baseball history is staggering to imagine.

As it turned out, Houston entered the National League later as the Colt .45's in 1962 under the early promotional leadership of Houston writer George Kirksey, the financial backing of Houstonians Craig Cullinan and R. E. "Bob" Smith, and the entrepreneurial genius of Judge Roy Hofheinz.

In 1965, Judge Hofheinz opened the publicly financed Harris County Domed Stadium, the first domed venue for a major league baseball club, but with a couple of marketing changes. He dubbed the place as The Astrodome and he renamed the team as The Houston Astros. He also modestly advertised the new one-of-a-kind venue as "The Eighth Wonder of The World."

On the heels of Houston's success, the Washington Senators relocated to the Dallas-Fort Worth area in 1972 under owner Bob Short and set up shop in Arlington as the Texas Rangers.

Until 2005, neither Texas major league team had won a pennant and advanced to the World Series. That is now changed. - The Houston Astros defeated the ancient parent of the Houston Buffs, the St. Louis Cardinals, in the National League Championship Series, four games to two, advancing to play the champions of the American League, the Chicago White Sox.

Texas baseball has come a long way since its earliest organizational start in Houston in 1861. The 2005 Houston Astros are now the National League champions. Whatever happens from here is simply the latest chapter of Texas baseball history in the making.

Stay tuned for further developments. In the meanwhile, GO ASTROS! and COME ON, RANGERS! The history of Texas baseball is ancient, but it has only just begun!


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