This article was written by Sam Zygner
This article was published in the Fall 2014 Baseball Research Journal
On the morning of May 11, 1953, the fair citizens of Waco, Texas woke up to a muggy day. Many prepared themselves for the beginning of the work week by downing their daily cup of coffee and reading the latest edition of the Waco Tribune–Herald. Sprawled across the front page were reports of intense tornadoes in Minnesota, and the possibility of strong winds and rain in their own area. Native American Indian legends, attributed to the local Huaco tribe, prophesied that the bend in the Brazos River where Waco resided would never be touched by a twister, and so few, if any, Wacoans showed concern about such calamities.[fn]John Young, “The ’53 tornado: When Indian legend proved a curse,” wacohistoryproject.org.[/fn]
Near the center of town stood Katy Park, home of the Waco Pirates, a Class-B affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates. General manager and team skipper Buster Chatham and business manager Jack Berger Jr. arrived at their offices on Eighth Street and Webster to prepare for that night’s Big State League game against the Greenville Majors. Directly opposite the ballpark’s front entrance rested a diesel locomotive that had long been a source of irritation to Chatham due to its proximity.[fn]Mark Presswood, “The Minor Leagues in Texas”, www.texasalmanac.com.[/fn]
As the day wore on, and the skies grew increasingly foreboding, thoughts of canceling the game grew in the minds of the Pirates brain trust. At 4:10 pm, southwest of Waco near the town of Lorena, an unexpected and terrible F-5 tornado, approximately one-third of a mile wide, touched down and began to cut a north-northeast path. By 4:25 the skies above Waco were so dark residents reported it was like night. Baseball-sized hail and steady rains began to pelt the downtown area. By 4:37 the funnel cloud was on course for the center of town, wreaking havoc as it passed through the business district, toppling buildings and tossing vehicles around like Tonka toys.
Inside Katy Park, Chatham and Berger realized the gravity of their situation and ran for their lives, taking cover under the very same train that had been a thorn in the side of Chatham. The locomotive would ultimately shield them both from the devilish whirlwind. Their beloved ballpark would not share the same fate.
In the wake of the terrible devastation, 114 were dead, 597 injured, and the monetary damages topped $41 million. Many of the survivors were buried under collapsed structures and waited up to 14 hours to be rescued. It was the deadliest twister in Texas since 1900 and one of the worst in US history. Among the casualties was Katy Park. All that remained of the almost 50-year-old ball yard was twisted metal and the splintered wood from the grandstands. Chatham, having played for a couple of bad Boston Braves squads in 1930 and 1931, was no stranger to adversity.[fn]Baseball-Reference.com.[/fn] But for all intents and purposes professional baseball in Waco was finished for the 1953 season.[fn]Srh.noaa.gov, “Remembering the May 11, 1953 Waco Tornado.”[/fn], [fn]Life.time.com/history, “Waco Tornado 1953: Photos From The Aftermath Of A Deadly Texas Twister.”[/fn]
RECONSTRUCTION AND REBIRTH
Though the leveled downtown area resembled a war zone, Waco began the reconstruction process almost immediately. Although homeless, team owner A.H. Kirksey, who purchased the Katy Park in 1944 from O.B. Perot, announced he would build a new concrete and steel grandstand in anticipation of the Pirates returning for the 1954 season.[fn]Earl Golding, “Baseball Future Bright—Kirksey,” Waco News-Tribune, April 16, 1954, 4.[/fn], [fn]Oscar Larnce, “Storm Orphaned Team Sought by Two Other Cities,” The Sporting News, May 20, 1953, 15.[/fn] In the meantime the Pirates would play out the rest of the 1953 schedule in Longview, Texas.[fn]“Waco Club Shifted To Longview,” The Sporting News, June 3, 1953, 36.[/fn] On June 20, following a conversation with Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Branch Rickey, Waco team president Jack Kultgen announced that the parent club would sign a three-year agreement to maintain their lease with Waco. On August 5 the deal was consummated when a three-year lease was signed guaranteeing the Pirates would return to the new Katy Park following its construction.[fn]“Pirates Sign Waco Park Lease,” The Sporting News, August 12, 1953, 34.[/fn] For a city suffering such trauma, the news gave Wacoans something to cheer about.
As the 1954 season dawned, Chatham focused his attentions on running the club as a full-time general manager. One of the first orders of business was addressed when 31-year old Jack Paepke took over the reins as manager.[fn]“Jack Paepke New Pirates Manager,” Waco Tribune-Herald, December 13, 1953, Sec. 2, 1.[/fn] Paepke broke into organized baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1941 at Class-C Santa Barbara of the California League and thereafter quickly rose up the ladder, reaching as high as Double-A Montreal (1946), and Triple-A St. Paul (1947–48) and Hollywood (1949–51). Paepke’s managerial career got off to a rousing start in 1953 with the Brunswick Pirates of the Class-D Georgia-Florida League, where he served as player-manager; as he would in Waco. He had led Brunswick to a second place finish and then won the league playoffs.[fn]Baseball-Reference.com. Chatham played shortstop and third base during his two-year major league career where he batted .263 in 129 games hitting six home runs and driving in 59 runs.[/fn] The Pirates officials were confident he would work the same magic in Waco.
On Sunday, April 4, the Waco Pirates christened the new Katy Park with a preseason win over their sister affiliate, the New Orleans Pelicans, 14–3.[fn]Baseball-Reference.com. New Orleans was a Pittsburgh Pirates Double-A affiliate in the Southern Association.[/fn] An enthusiastic crowd of 1,200 surveyed their new digs and were rewarded with a taste of things to come. Fans were greeted with several new amenities in their updated ballpark including an attractive front brick and concrete façade, new ramps separating the box seats from the grandstand seats, stainless steel and glassed-in concession stand countertops, sparkling new metal seats, and the league’s best lighting system.[fn]“New Home For The Pirates,” Waco Tribune-Herald, April 11, 1954, 15.[/fn] Stars of the evening for the hometown club were catcher Bill Phillips, who slammed a home run and drove in three runs, and third baseman George Matile who went 2-for-5, plating a couple runs.[fn]Dave Campbell, “Pirates Maul Pelicans, 14–3,” Waco News-Tribune, April 5, 1954, In Debut; Delight Waco Fans, 6.[/fn]
There was good reason for optimism. The displaced Pirates finished 1953 with a respectable 77–68 record, in fourth place—quite an improvement from the 1952 team that went down as the worst in BSL history. Under manager Ted Gullic they had tallied a 29–118 record, 56 games out of first place.[fn]Baseball-Reference.com.[/fn] According to the Associated Press, “Waco, a farm club of Pittsburgh and in the best position to meet the youth challenge, is generally being favored to win the pennant this campaign.”[fn]The Associated Press, “Waco, Galveston Race Favorites,” Waco Tribune-Herald, April 4, 1954, 27.[/fn] Indeed, the roster featured new faces, including a bevy of young pitchers who would make significant marks that season. Tops among the group out of camp were right-hander Myron “Dick” Hoffman (15–11, 2.64) at Hutchinson of the Western Association (C), left-hander Don Kildoo (9–5, 2.25) at Brunswick (D), lefty Roger Sawyer (22–5, 1.99) at Hutchinson, and right-sider Ron Sheetz (12–5, 3.89) at Bristol in the Appalachian League (D).[fn]Baseball-Reference.com.[/fn]
Besides catcher Paepke, two Cuban-born position players drew praise from local scribes: outfielder Ramon Mejias (117 G, 8 HR, 42 SB, .325), who would later play in the major leagues as Román Mejias, and slick-fielding shortstop Roberto Sanchez (104 G, 4 HR, .235), both coming from Batavia of the Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York League (D).[fn]“Waco Pirates Visit Corpus For Opener,” Waco News-Tribune, April 13, 1954, 9.[/fn]
Mejias in particular intrigued the parent Pirates. Born in Central Manuelita on August 9, 1930, he progressed to his third year of high school before going to work at his father’s side at 15 years old. Full of natural ability, he excelled in the Pedro Betancourt Amateur Baseball League in Cuba, and was later signed by Hall of Famer George Sisler who was scouting talent in the area. Mejias showed the propensity for hitting for average and power, had good speed on the basepaths, and played his outfield position ably, all tools which would serve him well on his climb to the big leagues.[fn]Ron Briley, Rory Costello, Bill Nowlin, Sweet 60: The Pittsburgh Pirates (The Society for American Baseball Research, 2013), 145–46.[/fn]
Both Mejias and Sanchez would have a significant impact on the team’s success, but Mejias’s accomplishment would be far-reaching. He would achieve a feat that few would ever approach and his deed would ultimately go down as one of the greatest in the annals of minor league baseball history.
A MAGICAL SEASON AND THE STREAK
Since its inception in 1947 the Big State League had gained the reputation as a hitters’ league. High batting averages and homer totals were not uncommon. Frank Saucier of the Wichita Falls Spudders led the league in 1949 with a .446 average and Buck Frierson slugged 58 taters for the 1947 Sherman-Denison Twins. The league was also famous for ex-major leaguers hanging on, many as player-managers. The 1954 season was no exception with the likes of 49-year old Earl Caldwell, Lon Goldstein (36), Sam Harshaney (44) George Hausmann (38), Al LaMacchia (32), and Fred Martin (39).[fn]Baseball-Reference.com. Caldwell (Philadelphia-NL 1928, St. Louis-AL 1935–37, Chicago-AL 1945–48, Boston-AL 1948), Goldstein (Cincinnati 1943, 1946), Harshaney (St. Louis-AL 1937–40), Hausmann (New York-NL 1944–45, 1949), Al LaMacchia (St.Louis-AL 1943, 1945–46, Washington 1946), Martin (St. Louis-NL 1946, 1949–50)[/fn]
On April 13 the Pirates opened their Big State League slate against the Corpus Christi Clippers at Schepps Palm Field in front of 3,567 enthusiastic paying customers.[fn]Baseball-Reference.com. Corpus Christi was an affiliate of the Milwaukee Braves.[/fn] The park was known for its rock-hard playing surface. The irregularly landscaped infield made every ground ball an adventure for the infielders and it lived up to its reputation. Many of the new faces on the Pirates received a baptism by fire, committing a total of seven errors, led by first baseman Sam Cooper who booted a couple during the 12–10 loss.[fn]“Bucs Drop Opener to Corpus, 12-10,” Waco News-Tribune, April 14, 1954, 13.[/fn]
On April 16, the Pirates returned to the new Katy Park and an estimated crowd of 2,500 rabid fans greeted them with ample cheers. It had been almost a year since the team had been forced to relocate to Longview and the locals were happy to have their home team back. The affable Jack Falls hit the first home run in the rebuilt park and led the Waco attack, driving in four runs. Ramon Salgado—in his second season with the club—and newcomer Ron Sheetz combined for the 7–0 shutout victory over the Harlingen Capitols.[fn]Dave Campbell, “Bucs Blank Harlingen In Home Opener, 7 to 0,” Waco News-Tribune, April 17, 1954, 12.[/fn]
The “Baby Bucs” started the season slowly, and after experiencing two rainouts in Corpus Christi, dropped four of their next seven games, including two losses against the Temple Eagles, a team who would finish the season with the BSL’s worst record. The poor early season play dropped the Pirates to 3–5 and into seventh place. Paepke regularly tinkered with his lineups and juggled the batting order, trying to find the right combination. He also incorporated a rotating system of four outfielders—Falls, Mejias, Oscar Rodriguez, and Raymundo Zonta—looking for whoever carried the most productive stick.
From April 24 through 28 the Pirates ran off their first five-game win streak of the season including back-to-back shutouts against the Tyler Tigers. Roger Sawyer earned his second win of the year with a 4–0 victory. Ron Sheetz followed by coasting in a 10–0 blanking, aided by a Falls five-RBI explosion.
The Pirates began picking up steam in May and kept pace with Tyler, closing within percentage points of first place. Although the offense took a blow when Paepke broke his thumb in a May 6, 7–1 win against Bryan, Oscar Rodriguez moved from the outfield to take his place until a suitable replacement arrived.[fn]Dave Campbell, “Pirates Win 7 to 1, But Paepke Lost For Month,” Waco News-Tribune, May 7, 1954, 15.[/fn] Matile recalled, “He broke it from a foul ball off the bat. It came back and hit the top of his finger and I was playing third base and I went down to see what was going on. And that thumb bone was sticking out the thumb. He really broke it bad. And some guy was hollering, ‘Pull on it.’… Jack was, ‘No you’ll pull it off.’”[fn]George Matile, phone interview, October 1, 2013.[/fn]
Several moves trimmed the Pirates roster down to 18 men, revamped the pitching staff, and bolstered an already strong club. Three pitchers were optioned early in May: Tom Smith to Hutchinson (C), Peter Furibondo and Art Burkle to Billings (C).[fn]Listed as John Burckle in Baseball-Reference.com.[/fn], [fn]Dave Campbell, “On Second Thought.” Waco News-Tribune, May 6, 1954, Sec. 11, 3.[/fn] In addition, pitchers Jess Leach and Robert Swanson were reassigned on May 17, the former to St. Jean of the Provincial League and the latter to Hutchinson (C). In their stead Waco received Pete Nicolis from New Orleans (AA), Fred Waters (a late arrival due to nursing a sore arm), and Al Grunwald from Toronto (AAA) of the International League.[fn]“Pirates Juggle Roster, Get Three New Players,” Waco News-Tribune, May 18, 1954, 12.[/fn] The Pirates also reacquired Bill Phillips from New Orleans to handle catching duties and fill the void left by Paepke. Grunwald, a first baseman by trade, was the most interesting case. The parent Pirates had sent him to the lower minors to begin his conversion into a pitcher.[fn]“Grunwald Turns to Pitching,” The Sporting News, May 26, 1954, 34.[/fn] Paepke would continue to utilize Grunwald’s potent bat between assignments on the mound.
Paepke also began to cement his batting order. After hitting eighth, “pepper pot” shortstop Sanchez was moved into the leadoff spot, where he would remain through the end of the season, and Mejias shook off his early season doldrums and was placed in the middle of the order. Both moves proved fortuitous and were a major factor in fueling the team’s future success.
On June 5, behind Don Kildoo’s five-hit shutout, the Pirates (33–18) upended Bryan, 3–0, and took first place to stay. It was Kildoo’s fourth blanking of the season; the defense turned four double plays.[fn]“Waco Hold Lead, Clips Bryan, 3–0,” Waco Tribune-Herald, June 6, 1954, Sec. 2, 2.[/fn] Although Mejias went 0-for-4 he was about to embark on a historic journey.
On June 6, a sparse crowd of 603 gathered at the Galveston ballpark to watch what seemed like another nondescript contest. One would be hard-pressed to find anyone who remembers attending the game. Mejias’s record-setting trek began innocently, with a single and triple during the 10–9 slugfest win. Mejias was not the evening’s star. Instead it was his two teammates, Falls and Grunwald, who were the hitting heroes with three base knocks apiece.[fn]“Pirates Survive Galveston Rally, Score 10-9 Victory,” Waco News-Tribune, June 7, 6.[/fn]
But Mejias built his streak. From June 6 through 26 he went on a tear, batting at a .488 (39-for-80) clip. Mejias missed one game on June 23 after spending the morning in the dentist’s chair.[fn]Dave Campbell, “Pirates Slaughter Harlingen For Sixth Straight Victory, 16-3,” Waco News-Tribune, June 24, 1954, 14.[/fn] The Pirates won 16 of the 21 games, improving their record to 49–23, three games ahead of Tyler. Interestingly, Mejias had a few close calls, gathering single base hits in 8 of the 20 contests.
In the June 27 edition of the Waco Tribune–Herald, sportswriter Dave Campbell took notice of the streak and Mejias’s effect on the “Baby Bucs” fortunes. In his column, On Second Thought, he noted, “Three weeks ago long-striding Ramon Mejias was hitting a spasmodic .237 and the Waco Pirates were struggling to stay out of fourth place in the Big State League. Today Mejias is hitting an explosive .331 and the Pirates are leading the pack with room to spare.” He added, “Rarely in Waco Pirates history has a player improved so much in so short a time.”[fn]Dave Campbell, “On Second Thought,” Waco Tribune-Herald, June 27, 1954, Sec. 2, 2.[/fn]
The Pirates made a few moves to solidify their batting order around Mejias. Regular first baseman Sam Cooper was released in mid-June (only to be later signed by Austin.)[fn]“Sam Cooper Stars In Debut,” The Sporting News, June 30, 1954, 40. Sam was the younger brother of Mort and Walker Cooper who both starred in the major leagues.[/fn] Jim Monahan, who had been with Waco in 1952 (.320, 13 HR), joined the club from New Orleans (AA), and Paepke returned to action on June 19, spelling a weary Bill Phillips.[fn]George Raborn, “Indian Southpaw Tames Waco, 4-3,” Waco News-Tribune, June 11, 10.[/fn], [fn]“Bucs In Top Condition To Face Corpus,” Waco News-Tribune, June 1, 9.[/fn]
Mejias began to receive national attention for his consecutive game hitting streak in July. The Sporting News first noted the streak at the 37-game mark in their July 21 issue. After missing a July 13 match against Bryan due to a viral infection, Mejias returned the next night and legged out two infield hits to help Waco get past the Indians, 8–3.[fn]“Mejias Hits in 37th Game; Believed Big State Record,” The Sporting News, 42.[/fn]
With Mejias’s torrid batting and the league’s best pitching, Waco was nearly unbeatable in July, going 27–5. On July 31, Waco fell to Austin, 9–4, but Mejias laced a single and a double, extending his hitting streak to 54 games. Mejias, who was smiling and amicable but spoke almost no English, was asked about the streak. Through an interpreter, his teammate Oscar Rodriguez, Mejias said, “No, I’m not too nervous. Every game is just another game. I’d like to hit every time I go up. But I can’t do that. I’m trying to hit in every game the rest of the season.” Although the language barrier was sometimes an obstacle to Mejias, sportswriter Dave Campbell believed the lack of communication served as a shield to divert pressure. As Mejias approached Joe Wilhoit’s record of 69 straight games with Wichita of the Western Association (A) in 1919, and Joe DiMaggio’s runner-up mark of 61 with the San Francisco Seals (AA) of the Pacific Coast League in 1933, he appeared to be handling all the attention well. By the conclusion of the month, the Pirates (79-29) had pulled 12½ games ahead of their closest challenger, Tyler (67–42).[fn]Dave Campbell,”On Second Thought,” Waco Tribune-Herald, August 1, 1954, Sec. 2, 2.[/fn], [fn]Baseball-Reference.com, “Longest Hitting Streaks Minor League Baseball.”[/fn]
August 1 found the Pirates in the second game of a three-game set with Austin. Facing off against left-hander Roger May, Mejias wasted no time and extended his hitting streak to 55 games, picking up a single and double during the Pirates 6–5 victory.[fn]“Don Kildoo Hurls Waco Past Austin,” Waco News-Tribune, August 2, 1954, 6.[/fn] Closing in on DiMaggio for second on the all-time minor league hit streak list, Mejias was increasingly feeling the pressure. The press reported he was then one game short of tying DiMaggio’s major league record of 56 games.
Fans expressed concern the streak could be halted if Mejias were walked in each at-bat in a game, or connected on a sacrifice fly. J.G. Taylor Spink, dean of The Sporting News, did little to ease their trepidations by stating, “Appearance in a game, and not official times at bat, is the deciding factor.”[fn]Dave Campbell, “On Second Thought,” Waco News-Tribune, August 3, 1954, 8.[/fn] However, soon these concerns would matter little.
Robert McNeal, the next day’s starter, was a solidly-built left-hander who had struggled all season. He did not appear to be a difficult obstacle. McNeal would finish the season 5–8 with a 4.06 ERA, but on August 3 he was up to the task.
It was the final game of a three-game set with the Pioneers in Disch Field. The 883 in attendance eagerly anticipated each at bat when Mejias approached the plate. In the second inning Mejias flied out. He came to bat again in the third and hit into a force play. In the fifth frame Mejias hit a sharp grounder to third baseman Hardie Nettles which was handled cleanly and the throw just nipped Mejias at first base. Mejias got his fourth opportunity in the eighth inning, facing new pitcher Richard Roberson, but for the second time on the evening Mejias hit into a force play. There was a slim chance to bat again going into the ninth inning with the Pirates leading, 4–2. If his teammates were able to string something together, Mejias would be the seventh batter up. With two runners on and two outs, Falls stepped to the plate in hopes of continuing the inning. Mejias crouched nervously in the on-deck circle, but luck wasn’t on his side this time. Falls grounded into a force play at second base. Austin failed to score in the bottom of the ninth inning and the streak was over at 55.[fn]“Mejias Hit Skein Stops; Waco Wins,” Waco News-Tribune, August 3, 1954, 8.[/fn]
A consecutive streak of any sort involves a great deal of ability and a measure of luck. Invariably, bad pitchers have good stuff some nights and stop the best batsmen, while the most skilled hitters make good contact yet make an out. Nevertheless, it takes mental toughness and skill to accomplish what Mejias achieved and his statistics were impressive. During his amazing skein, Mejias (96-for-229) batted .419, with 19 doubles, 5 triples, and 7 home runs, while driving in 67 runs and scoring 56 times. Of the 55 games he took part in, Mejias only once had four hits. (In nine games he had three hits, while 20 times he notched two, and 25 times only one.) Waco won 45 of the 55 games in which he appeared, including win streaks of 8, 12, and 13. Some credit goes to his position batting fourth behind Falls, who served as protection in the batting order due to his fecundity with the bat. During the aforementioned streak, Falls—who appeared in 46 games—batted .380 (71-for-187) and slugged 6 homers while driving in 42 runs.[fn]Both Mejias and Falls batting statistics accumulated from daily boxscores from the Waco News-Tribune and Waco Tribune-Herald.[/fn]
FINISHING THE SEASON STRONG
The Pirates kept up their torrid pace as they approached August. The success of the club had obviously drawn the attention of Pirates general manager Branch Rickey, who visited Waco and orchestrated two moves. On July 27, 19-year old lefty Roger Sawyer (14–6, 3.03) was optioned to Class-A Williamsport of the Eastern League. On the same day, Al Grunwald’s experiment to convert him to a full-time pitcher took a twist when he was re-assigned to Class-C Billings of the Pioneer League. The loss of the two hurlers not only thinned the starting rotation, but the loss of Grunwald (4–1, 4.03, and 61 games, .292, 12 HR, 44 RBIs) left a void at first base. The Pirates were assigned left-hander Larry Lasalle from Burlington-Graham of the Carolina League (B).[fn]Dave Campbell, “Paepke, Mejias, Falls Lead Waco To 7–6 Win,” Waco News-Tribune, July 26, 8.[/fn] Rickey was not done wheeling and dealing.
On August 3, the day after Mejias’s batting streak was halted, the Pirates offense exploded for their highest run total of the year, crushing the hapless Temple Eagles, 25–7. Mejias came back with a vengeance, tallying four hits in seven at-bats and driving in three runs. Jim Monahan led the visiting Pirates with 4 RBIs, while Hoffman hardly broke a sweat in the complete game win.
Despite a thin roster, the Pirates kept winning. Paepke continued to be creative, using himself as an occasional pitcher. Matile was moved to first base. Falls was used a few times as a backstop and utility man Ronnie Boone saw his playing time increase, filling a hole wherever needed.
A great example of the attitude of the Pirates was the August 8 matchup that pitted Waco against Tyler in Katy Park. The “Baby Bucs” had fallen behind 12–7. Going into the bottom of the ninth inning at 10:30 pm, the evening’s crowd—including a disgusted Paepke who retired to the showers—began to file out of the ballpark. The situation was so bleak that infielder Matile had been called on to perform mop-up duties. However, the Pirates rallied and with two outs, 35-year-old minor league veteran Joe Phipps found himself on the mound trying to do his best Houdini act and escape from a jam. With Rex Babcock in scoring position and Sanchez leading off first, Phipps hung his first pitch to Jack Falls. Falls, who at this point of the season led the league with a .364 average, launched the horsehide over the left field wall, giving Waco the 13–12 win. The remaining faithful in the stands went berserk.[fn]Dave Campbell. “Waco Scores Sixth In Ninth To Win,” Waco News-Tribune, August 9, 1954, 4.[/fn]
George Matile vividly remembers that game to this day and shared his account of that evening:
Well, I hate to tell you this, but there was one game (pause). I used to throw batting practice a lot and we were playing, I think it was Tyler, Texas. And we went into the ninth inning, and we scored about seven runs and we were behind twelve to six. [scored six runs in the 9th inning after falling behind 12 to 7].
Well, Jack got so disgusted with us, he left. He went into the dugout and then took a shower. He said, “Matile.” He said, “You go out and pitch the last inning.” So I went out and threw the inning and got three outs. We came back and scored seven runs [six runs] and beat them. I’ve got a one and oh record in organized baseball (laughing heartily). And that’s the only game I ever pitched—that one time.”[fn]George Matile, phone interview, October 1, 2013.[/fn]
On August 14, the Pirates filled their need at first base with a Waco native who had just been released by the Army, T.R. “Tex” Taylor. Taylor was called on short notice and made the long drive from his home to Galveston to start at first base that night. Taylor’s return was fortuitous as he was known as a slick fielding first baseman and a decent hitter. In 1952, “Tex” had hit .303 in the Class-C Provincial League with St. John’s, Quebec, and made the loop’s all-star squad.[fn]“Ex-Waco High Star Joins Waco Pirates,” Waco News-Tribune, August 17, 1954, 8.[/fn] Taylor said, “I got home from the service and the phone was ringing. ‘You gotta be in Galveston tonight. We don’t have a first baseman.’ That was about 250 miles.”[fn]T.R. Taylor, phone interview, September 23, 2013.[/fn]
The Pirates did receive one last blow to their pitching staff when Fred Waters (12–4, 3.18) had to leave the club for more scholarly pursuits.[fn]George Raborn, “Waters Wins Final Game For Bucs, 9–2,” Waco News-Tribune, August 21, 1954, 8.[/fn] Tex Taylor remembers Waters leaving the team after his last start, a 9–2 win over Galveston that upped Waco’s record to 92–37. “He left us because he had to teach school in Kansas City.”[fn]T.R. Taylor, phone interview. September 23, 2013.[/fn]
Waco reached the 100-win mark on August 29. A sparse crowd of 600 witnessed Monahan drive in the winning run in a come-from-behind win at Katy Park, edging Harlingen 9–8 in 11 innings.[fn]Dave Campbell, “Bucs Rally To Win 100th Victory, 9–8,” Waco News-Tribune, August 30, 1954, 6.[/fn] The next evening, Waco again eked out a one-run victory, 7–6. They tied the BSL record for wins in a season, matching the 1947 Texarkana Bears’ mark. Fittingly, Sanchez, as he had done so frequently all year, scored the winning run on a Mejias base hit. Paepke, getting used to his new role, earned the win in relief of Sheetz.[fn]Earl Golding, “Pirates Shade Harlingen, 7–6 To Tie Record,” Waco News-Tribune, August 31, 1954, 8.[/fn]
By season’s end Waco had amassed 105 wins and 42 losses. The closest competitor, Tyler (92–55), finished a distant 13 games behind. Although the Pirates did not lead the league in runs scored (939), they were a close second to Corpus Christi (998). Jack Falls (.349, 22, 113), Roman Mejias (.354, 15, 141, 23 SB), Jack Paepke (.314, 8, 48), and Roberto Sanchez (.301, 16, 130 runs, 26 SB) were the pacesetters in a balanced attack.
Pitching and fielding are the trademarks of many great teams and the “Baby Bucs” were no exception. Ron Sheetz (219 IP, 19–7, 2.67) led the team in wins, followed by Don Kildoo (183 IP, 15–4, 3.39), Dick Hoffman (212 IP, 15–7, 3.42), Roger Sawyer (181 IP, 14–6, 3.03) and Fred Waters (116 IP, 12–4, 3.18). The staff was so deep that the loss of Sawyer, Waters, and Salgado (87 IP, 7–4, 2.48) did not slow the club’s momentum.
The pitching staff was aided by the best fielding in the league. The defense was solid up the middle, with Rex Babcock at second base and Roberto Sanchez at shortstop anchoring the infield. The Pirates led the league in fielding average (.968) and committed only 184 errors, while turning the second most double plays in the BSL (175).[fn]Baseball-Reference.com.[/fn]
Tex Taylor assessed his teammates when he stated, “The only thing that I can tell you is, when we ran onto the field we expected to win. That was a lot of it, you know. We expected to win.” He added, “We knew we was going to win. We just didn’t know how. If the other team got ten runs, we got eleven. If they got one run, we got two. It was that kind of year for us. We had better pitching than the rest of the league did. If you check out those stats on our pitchers you will see all of them had winning records.”[fn]T.R. Taylor, phone interview, September 23, 2013.[/fn]
The Pirates opened the playoffs against a familiar enemy, the Austin Pioneers. Austin, like Waco, was a charter member of the BSL. They had finished the regular season with a 79–67 mark and were piloted by 38–year-old player-manager George Hausmann. The former New York Giants infielder showed he still had some “gas left in the tank” after batting .263, in 77 games.[fn]Baseball-Reference.com.[/fn]
The best-of-seven series opened in Katy Park. The Pirates got off to a good start, taking the first game. Sheetz aided his own cause in the September 8 contest by driving in a pair of runs and receiving assistance from Falls and Mejias, who each hit home runs in the 6–4 win.
The next evening, Don Kildoo held the Pioneers to five hits and earned the complete game victory, 5–2. Austin, the lowest scoring team during the regular season, continued to struggle at the plate.
Austin surprised the Pirates by winning the next two games, but Waco closed out the series, winning game five in Austin, 11–8, then finishing off the Pioneers back at Katy Field, 10–2, pounding four Austin hurlers for 17 base hits. Meanwhile, Corpus Christi, who finished the regular season in third place, easily dispatched Tyler in five games to advance to the championship.[fn]The Sporting News, “Playoffs Class B,” 33.[/fn]
The Big State League championship kicked off in Waco on September 15. Corpus Christi (87–60) featured the most potent offense in the league, led by left fielder Dean Stafford, purchased from Galveston on June 30,[fn]“Clippers Buy Dean Stafford; Sell Schroeder,” Corpus Christi Caller-Times, June 30, 1954, 7-B.[/fn] and shortstop John “Jack” Wilkinson acquired from Temple in April.[fn]“Sims Pitches Third Victory For Clippers,” Corpus-Christi Caller-Times, April 25, 1954, D-1. Wilkinson’s first appearance in a box score for Corpus Christi.[/fn] Stafford, who garnered the BSL’s Triple Crown, collected 212 hits as the league’s leading hitter with a .362 average, 38 homers and 171 RBIs. Wilkinson was the team’s table-setter having scored 151 runs during the regular season.[fn]Baseball-Reference.com.[/fn] The Clippers would soon prove up to the task, testing the league-leading Pirates pitching staff.
The Clippers came out of the gate fast, grabbing the first game from Waco, 6–2. Three Corpus Christi pitchers combined to hold the Pirates to five hits, while Stafford alone collected three singles and a triple. Thirty-six-year-old Elwood Moore—7–2 during the season—was the winning pitcher. Dick Hoffman took the loss.
Game two featured Sheetz taking on 23-game winner Jim Vitter. The Pirates touched Vitter early, tallying three runs in the second frame on doubles by Paepke and Babcock, a single by Matile, and an error. Rodriguez hit a solo home run in the third inning to extend the lead and Sheetz did the rest of work, limiting the Clippers to eight hits, one run. The Pirates had evened the series with the 4–1 win.
After a well-deserved day off for both clubs, the series transitioned to Schepps Palm Field in Corpus Christi for the next three games. Game three started out with an explosion as the Pirates scored seven runs in the top of the first inning. The Clippers clawed their way back, scoring four in the third frame and three more in the seventh, but fell short as Kildoo and Sheetz combined to stop them, 8–7.
Game four found the Clippers whipping the Pirates, 16–6. Stafford crushed two homers and drove in seven runs, putting a shock into the Waco pitchers.[fn]“Stafford of Corpus Christi Tabs Seven RBI’s In Inning,” The Sporting News, September 29, 1954, 60.[/fn] The Clippers then followed up the next night with another beating, topping Waco 10–1. Elwood Moore—the “Pirate killer”—won for the second time in the series—his ninth straight winning decision dating back to the regular season. All of a sudden the Pirates looked in dire straits. They were in need of otherworldly intervention and it was about to come in a rather unexpected form.[fn]The Sporting News, September 29, 1954, 60.[/fn]
So far during the playoffs the Pirates’ pitching bore little resemblance to the group that had dominated the BSL all season. But this team seemed to find ways to win in creative ways. In game six the pitching staff was bone-tired, but the overworked Pirates did have one secret weapon: Paepke. The players pleaded for Paepke to take the mound for the game, and although he initially resisted their pleas, he eventually agreed. “Tex” Taylor remembers the events coming up to the do-or-die contest:
Well, the sixth game was the standout game…We didn’t have any pitchers. The other guys on the staff didn’t do much, you know. They couldn’t trust them for a big ballgame. But we talked Jack into pitching…He said, “they’ll crucify me if I lose.” I said, “Jack we’re not going to lose if you pitch.” They all talked to him and he was tired. He’d been catching and driving 305 miles back at night, then the next morning. He had to pitch that night. And he did pitch and he stuck it up their butt.”[fn]T.R. Taylor, phone interview, September 23, 2013.[/fn]
Armed with his dazzling forkball, Paepke had the Clippers waving ineffectually at his offerings. He shut down Corpus Christi to even the series at three apiece. The only base knock was a pinch-hit single by Kermit “Luke” Luckenbach. The big blow of the evening came from the smallest guy on the field when Roberto Sanchez clubbed a grand slam in the eighth inning. The final score showed Waco 8, Visitors 0. The stage was set for a dramatic game seven.
In front of the largest crowd of the season—3,316—Don Kildoo got the call to face the Clippers’ big right-hander, Bill Tosheff. Both clubs traded zeroes until the fourth when Babcock and Taylor hit back-to-back doubles, putting the Pirates up, 1–0. Corpus Christi tied the game in the top of the eighth on a solo home run by Stafford. The Pirates answered in the bottom of the same inning when, with Boone and Falls on the bags, Paepke doubled, plating both. The Pirates had prevailed, 3–1. The 19-year-old Kildoo was masterful and pitched like a veteran, scattering three hits, walking four, striking out nine. The jubilant “Baby Bucs” rushed the field and the celebration was on. The Waco Pirates had completed a magic season and were the 1954 Big State League Champions.[fn]“Waco Cops Playoff Title Over Clippers,” Corpus Christi Times, September 23, 1954, 18.[/fn], [fn]The Sporting News, 60.[/fn]
In 2001, as part of minor league baseball’s one hundredth anniversary celebration, Bill Weiss and Marshall Wright researched the 100 greatest minor league teams of all time. Such legendary teams as the 1934 Los Angeles Angels, 1921 Baltimore Orioles, and 1937 Newark Bears topped the list. Coming in at No. 25 were Paepke’s Waco Pirates.[fn]Milb.com/milb/history/top100.[/fn]
Paepke’s leadership and adeptness at utilizing his players were part of the team’s success. “He was a good leader,” said “Tex” Taylor. “We were just a bunch of young kids and this was an old man’s league, and a hitters league. Some of them were salty, but he [Paepke] turned them around right fast. He just about bit your head off, but he was a great guy Paepke was.”[fn]T.R. Taylor, phone interview, September 23, 2013.[/fn] George Matile also remembers that his skipper had the adeptness to relate to his players, “Yeah, Jack was a good guy. Jack Paepke was a good person and he was fun to play with. He would joke with you, and tell you a lot of things, and help you out.”[fn]George Matile, phone interview, October 1, 2013.[/fn]
The Waco club was also a close-knit group. Although they were the youngest team in the league, averaging 23 years of age, they played cohesively. “But it was just a great bunch of guys. You never heard a cross word from any of them, you know. … Normally on a ball club there is a lot of squawking you know, but that year they didn’t have it. They were a great bunch of guys and there will never be a team like that again,” remembered Taylor.
There was probably not a player on the Pirates who better typified Taylor’s description of his teammates than Jack Falls. Always sporting a smile, and friendly with his teammates, he led the club by example both on and off the field. Danny Foyet played with Falls in Gastonia, South Carolina in 1960.[fn]Gastonia (D) of the Western Carolina League.[/fn] He described his teammate and coach: “He was like a big brother to us. He would do anything to help.” Foyet remembered that when his spikes wore out early in the season, and he didn’t have money to buy a new pair, Falls not only gave Foyet a pair of his own spikes but also his personal glove.[fn]Danny Foyet, phone interview, February 25, 2014.[/fn] Although he did not receive the national attention that his teammate Mejias did, Falls’s 1954 season ranks up there with his counterpart.
Propelled by the success of his consecutive game hitting streak, Ramon Mejias (soon to be Roman) made the jump to the big leagues the next season in 1955. Mejias was even named the Pittsburgh Pirates opening day starting right fielder in front of Roberto Clemente, although he would not hold his starting position long.[fn]Ron Briley, Rory Costello, Bill Nowlin, Sweet ’60: The 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates (The Society for American Baseball Research, 2013), 146.[/fn] Always well-liked by his teammates, Mejias went on to a nine-year major league career, including stops with Houston and Boston. His best season came in 1962 with the Colt .45s for whom he played in 146 games, hit .286, stroked 24 home runs, and drove in 76 runs.
Mejias was one of a trio of players from the “Baby Bucs” who made the climb to the majors. Both Al Grunwald and Freddie Waters also made the leap. The Grunwald experiment worked: he made it to the big leagues as a pitcher in 1955 although his stay was brief. Grunwald appeared in three games for Pittsburgh, hurling 7 2?3 innings with a 4.70 ERA. Grunwald returned to the minors, but came back in 1959 with the Kansas City Athletics for six more games. Fred Waters appeared in two games in 1955 and returned in 1956 to the Bucs, appearing in 23 games with an impressive 2.82 ERA.
Jack Falls, despite his extraordinary season, did not see his major league dream come to fruition. Falls had a brief look at Class-AA New Orleans in 1956 before being assigned to Class-A Lincoln, where he hit .262 in 131 games. He played through various towns in the minor leagues, including a stop in his hometown Gastonia in 1959 and 1960. He finally hung up his spikes in 1961.[fn]Baseball-Reference.com.[/fn]
Sixty years have passed since the glorious season championship of 1954. The Pirates played out their agreement with Waco through 1956. It would prove to be the last year that the city of Waco would host professional baseball. In 1957 the Big State League died, a victim of declining interest in minor league baseball. However, the feats of the 1954 Waco Pirates have not diminished. To this day locals recall that magical season and the Mejias batting streak. Paepke said it best when he wrote, “It was a great year with a bunch of young players. We all wanted to win, so we did … I was really proud of all my players.”[fn]Jack Paepke, personal correspondence, September 28, 2013.[/fn]
SAM ZYGNER, a SABR member since 1996 and Chairman of the South Florida Chapter, is the author of the book “The Forgotten Marlins: A Tribute to the 1956–1960 Original Miami Marlins.” He received his MBA from Saint Leo University and his writings have appeared in the “Baseball Research Journal,” “The National Pastime,” and the newspaper “La Prensa De Miami” (Miami, Florida). A lifelong Pittsburgh Pirates fan, he has shifted some of his focus to Miami baseball history.
Special thanks to Danny Foyet, George Matile, Jack Paepke and T.R. “Tex” Taylor for contributions to this article including sharing their personal experiences. Also, I am appreciative to the Falls family (Jeff and Jim; Jack’s sons) for sharing information on their dad’s career and photos from the glorious 1954 season. And last, but not least, I am grateful to my wife Barbra, who supports me in my love of baseball.
1954 Big State League
|Corpus Christi Clippers||87||60||18|
|Galveston White Caps||73||73||31.5|
|Bryan/Del Rio Indians||53||93||51.5|
Bryan moved to Del Rio on July 28. Final standings from Baseball-Reference.com.