This article was written by Vern Luse
This article was published in the 1977 Baseball Research Journal
In the winter of 1916 – 1917, a stock company headed by W. K. Stripling and Paul LaGrave purchased the Fort Worth franchise of the Class B Texas League. Mr. Stripling was elected president of the club, while LaGrave was engaged as secretary and business manager. They immediately hired, as field manager, Jake Atz, a former marginal major leaguer and longtime minor leaguer in the Southern Association and various Texas and Oklahoma leagues. This combination developed one of the most consistently successful minor league teams in baseball history.
Beginning in 1920, and continuing through 1925, the Fort Worth Panthers won the Championship of the Texas League. During five of those seasons, the Fort Worth lead was so great that the season was split in mid – summer; this provided the Panthers with a chance to win ten half-season championships, during seasons in which they accumulated over 100 wins. In 1923, Fort Worth did not come to the fore until late in the season, yet won 96 times for a 13½ game margin over second place Dallas. Overall, during the six seasons, Fort Worth won 632 games, was defeated 282 times, for a percentage of .692.
This Panther team was not just “the best of the Texas League.” The Dixie Series was then a major attraction in southern baseball circles, a postseason series between the pennant winners of the Texas League and Southern Association. In 1920, the Class B Panthers defeated the Class A Little Rock Travelers in the first, but unofficial, Dixie Series. After the Texas League graduated to Class A in 1921, the Panthers won the series over Memphis (`21), New Orleans (`23), Memphis, again (`24), and Atlanta (`25), while losing only to Mobile in 1922.
This most successful of Texas League teams differed from any of the other “great” minor league teams. Only the Baltimore Orioles of the same time period exhibit the player stability of the Panthers – and the Orioles were protected by withdrawal from the major league draft between 1920 and 1923. Very few of the Panthers became long-term major leaguers, and none has ever been considered as a likely prospect for the Hall of Fame. In fact, on the major league level, the most familiar name is that of John “Ziggy” Sears, Panther outfielder during the entire victory string, who became a longtime National League umpire in 1935.
Six players, pitchers Joe Pate, Paul Wachtel, Gus Johns, catcher “Possum” Moore, infielder “Dugan” Phelan, and outfielder Sears, played throughout the six championship seasons. The outstanding star, and cleanup hitter, first-baseman Clarence “Big Boy” Kraft, retired at the peak of his career in 1924, so missed the final pennant-winning season. Four other players played four seasons with the Panthers.
Outstanding individual performances were plentiful. As a team, the Panthers led the league in hitting only once (1921, .286), and in home runs only twice (1921, 1924). However, led by Pate, the pitching staff was outstanding, leading in ERA, individual, in 1920, `22, and `23, won-lost percentage, individual, in 1920, `21, `22, and `25, and in individual wins all six years. Pate had six consecutive 20-win seasons (26, 30, 24, 23, 30, 26) and four successive over-300 inning years from 1922 through 1925.
Paul Wachtel, a spitballer doomed to a minor-league career by the outlawing of the pitch by the major leagues, won over 20 games five times (1920, `21, `22, `24, `25) and led in percentage in 1925 with a 23 – 7 record. Johns, the third 6-year pitcher, led in percentage and ERA in 1922. One of the few Panthers to go on to a substantial major league career, “Lil” Stoner, led in wins (27) and ERA in 1923.
The leader of the team was clearly “Big Boy” Kraft, closing out a long minor league career. Kraft had begun as a pitcher-outfielder in the short-lived Southern Illinois League of 1910, with McLeansboro. With a pennant-winning team, he led the league in both pitching won-lost percentage and in hitting. McLeansboro joined the KITTY League after the SIL disbanded, and won the second-half championship of that league. Although he played in the KITTY League only half the season, Kraft again was the pitching percentage leader, and batting champion. In 1914 Kraft had a “cuppa coffee” in the major leagues. He joined the Panthers in 1918.
Kraft was basically a long-ball hitter, but did not really become outstanding as a hitter until the arrival of the juiced-up ball in the early 1920s. He led the league with 32 home runs and 131 RBI in 1922 and repeated as homer champ in 1923. In 1924 he had one of the most productive seasons in history: 55 home runs (then the O.B. high), 196 RBI (a Texas League record), 150 runs scored, and 414 total bases. After this peak season, Kraft retired and went into business as an automobile dealer in Fort Worth.
One of the few “retread” major-leaguers to play with the Panthers replaced Kraft on first base – “Big Ed” Konetchy. In 1925, he led the league in home runs with 41, total bases with 385, and RBI’s with 166.
Atz was not a manager giving to revising his lineup from day to day. In 1922, in fact, he used the same lineup unchanged throughout the season, except for intermittent absences due to illness or injury. In those cases, the replacement occupied the same position in the lineup. The nine iron-men were Cecil Coombs, CF; Jack Calvo, RF; Sears, LF; Kraft, lB; “Dutch” Hoffman, 2B; Art Ewoldt, 3B; Jack Tavener, SS; and Moore and Homer Haworth sharing the catching duties. As Wachtel, Pate and Johns each won over 20 victories, and “Tiny” Goodbred was the premier relief pitcher, there were few pitching opportunities for rookies “Sad Sam” Gray and Wilcy Moore, both of whom had extensive and successful major league careers.
Other recognizable names on the Panthers were “Topper” Rigney (1921), Jay Kirke (1925), Earl Wolgamot (1924 – 25) a long-time minor league manager, and “Stormy” Davis, beginning his long, productive minor league career in 1925.
The Fort Worth team was not given to long winning streaks, nor to disastrous losing strings. In the first half of 1922, Wichita Falls won its last 21 games straight, yet Fort Worth was seven games in the lead when the half closed July 1. In the second half, Wichita Falls opened with four more victories, but the Panthers won that half by eight games, though Wichita Falls had the satisfactory winning percentage of .617.
The demise of the independently owned minor league team has eliminated any possibility of a modern minor league franchise attaining a record approximating that of the Fort Worth Panthers. In addition, the professional, but minor league, player has largely disappeared from the scene. Yet Fort Worth, in 1920 a city of just over 100,000 population, was a successful and money-making enterprise, with attendance figures in the 140,000 to 160,000 range. When part-owner Paul LaGrave died in 1929, a major portion of his estate was the stock interest he had accumulated in the Panthers, and the sale price of the franchise was estimated at in excess of $100,000, possibly equivalent to three to four hundred thousand, today.