The Dallas Hams of 1888

This article was written by Harry Jebsen

This article was published in 1979 Baseball Research Journal

Roger Kahn and Bob Ryan have highlighted both the excitement and the ulcers of minor league executives who live at best a hand to mouth existence. In Season in the Sun and Wait Till I Make the Show these writers found minor league baseball both fascinating and exasperating, a form of insanity chasing bankruptcy. Yet new owners are found quite easily when old owners decide that they have had it.

The age old problems experienced recently by Jack Quinn at Hawaii, Wally Moon in San Antonio, or Pat McKernan at Pittsfield began in the late 19th century when minor league baseball flooded the nation. As National League baseball along with its many competitors reached its adolescence in the 1880’s, minor leagues brought to cities in the west and towns elsewhere the opportunity to experience the thrills and joys which baseball gave to major league cities.

Though baseball players were still not held in the highest repute, newspapers in one aspiring minor league city constantly reported both the game and its team’s players in the most positive fashion. In the spring of 1888 when the Texas League took root, the Dallas News reported:

The organization of a Texas League has had the effect of attracting first-class players from various parts of the country . . . and if properly conducted, as it doubtless will be, the sport will prove healthful to the youth of the land. The game is wholesome and manly barring occasional disfiguration of faces and fingers, and even the patrons who attend must feel its effects. A good baseball player must need be a lusty, swarthy, sinewy specimen of manhood; agile, elastic, of well-knit frame and thorough physical development . . . The sport is exhilerating, if not always exciting, and the exercise resultant is a lesson in physical upbuilding.

Baseball enthusiasm swept the Lone Star State in the winter of 1887- 1888. Several cities sought entry into the newly formed Texas League which had its organizational meeting on December 15, 1887. Boastful exchanges between Dallas, Galveston, Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and Fort Worth led to successful campaigns in each city to organize a team. Several smaller cities, such as Waco and Denison, sought entry into the league but failed to raise sufficient capital or enough professional players.

Investors in Dallas found stock in the Dallas Athletic and Amusement Association attractive. By January 7, 1888, 2/3 of its stock had been subscribed. The association president, Leon Vendig, a Dallas merchant, spoke glowingly of a long and prosperous existence. Through the remainder of winter, the Association along with a cooperative press generated interest in the new team. The Dallas press used “quality” as the watchword in promoting baseball. Dallasites were told that Charles Levis, the team’s playing manager was among the finest and most knowledgeable gentlemen in the game. Vendig looked beyond “homegrown” talent and sought only the finest players available. The St. Louis Browns, who had won the American Association title in 1887 by 14 games, “guaranteed” the Dallas team six crack players. To stimulate further excitement, the Browns nearest rival, Cincinnati, played three games with the Dallas team in March. Though the major leaguers demolished the local nine, over 1500 persons showed up for the rain-delayed games.

Management sought to provide a genteel atmosphere for their patrons. The new ball park in suburban Oak Cliff was modeled on the field at Philadelphia “which is conceded to be the most attractive in the U.S.” The admission price of 25¢ was established by league rules. The late starting times, generally around 4 o’clock, sometimes as late as 5, provided an opportunity for a good part of Dallas citizenry to come to the games. Since the ball park was in a suburb rather than in the business district, J. T. Marsalis’s Oak Cliff Railroad ran special trains with a 5¢ fare to the games. Vendig reserved an area of the grandstand to attract female fans and every Wednesday was designated as “Ladies Day,” when all the fairer sex could enter the park free of charge.

Publicity stressed the idea that Dallas hired only gentlemen to play for them. Swearing and ungentlemanly behavior at the ball park would not be tolerated on the field or in the stands. An article in the newspaper in mid-March reported that the Dallas team was so serious about their work that “coffee is the strongest drink allowed to pass their lips.” Though stories appeared about the rowdy and licentious exploits of the other players in the league, no such publicity emanated from Dallas. Though gambling on baseball in the city’s many gaming parlors could not be stopped, Vendig maintained that such unseemly activity would not be condoned at the ball park. This lip service to the integrity of baseball lasted until opening day when the Dallas News writer concluded that there was “considerable betting, with one of over $1000 won.” Nearly all future reports on games included the odds on that day’s game.

In reality the owner did not have to sell his team as a group of gentlemen. As owners since time immemorial have noted, winners draw fans. Dallas won two league titles in 1888! Vendig’s early optimism about the quality of his club was well-founded since Dallas had the most stable franchise in the league in 1888. Though no official record of attendance exists, the journalist gave evidence of strong support for the Dallas Hams. Over 3000 attended opening day ceremonies, with an additional 500 fans standing around the outfield. Crowds rarely approached that level again, but only a poor foe or inclement weather drove attendance below 1000. Throughout the summer, crowds of 2000 became common. The rivalry with the Fort Worth Panthers attracted particularly large, vocal, and partisan crowds. As spring slipped into summer, it was apparent that the amount of support for baseball was not as evident in other cities. Sustained support proved to be the missing link throughout the Texas League in 1888. On June 13, only 150 attended a brilliant pitchers’ duel in Austin. Crowds of 300 became common even when league-leading Dallas came to town.

The league began to crack on June 8. The San Antonio team failed to show up for a series. Finally the Alamos withdrew from the league, leaving their players without back salaries. When the San Antonio team withdrew, the league president, Robert Adair, who also was the president of the Houston franchise, instructed Austin to travel to Fort Worth to make up some rainouts. Dallas strenuously objected since Austin was scheduled to play in Dallas those dates. Vendig’s indignation brought the Austin team to Dallas despite a vehement warning from the league office. Such bravery caused the Hams to call a third inning halt in a June 13 game so that Vendig could present a gold-headed ebony cane to the Austin manager, John J. McCloskey, for his honesty in following the original schedule. Shortly after the incident, Dallas’ chief rival, the Fort Worth team, folded. By July 1, Austin could not attract fans and Houston did not meet its payroll. By Independence Day, Austin had not paid its players and Houston had collapsed. Only Dallas and Galveston remained. The first Texas League season ended early with standings (provided by the SABR Minor League Committee) as follows:

  • Dallas: 35-18
  • Galveston: 30-24
  • Houston: 28-24
  • Austin: 27-24 (disbanded 7/1, moved to San Antonio 7/4)
  • Fort Worth: 20-28 (out 6/25)
  • San Antonio: 6-28 (out 6/3)

Fortunately for Dallas baseball fans, the Southern League had the same problems. Discussions began at once to consolidate franchises from both leagues into one solid association. By July 9 that merger had been accomplished. Dallas, New Orleans, Galveston, Houston, Birmingham, and of all places, San Antonio, fielded teams in the new Texas-Southern League. The Austin team had been moved intact to San Antonio where “solid” backing had been arranged. Master-minding this shift was the ever-present John J. McCloskey, who can accurately be described as the founding father of the Texas League. Houston then reorganized its association, paid 70% of its back salaries, and hired new talent. Galveston improved its business operation so that it remained in the league. But before the renewed season began, Birmingham, which had won the Southern League title, dropped out. In retrospect, it seems apparent that only Dallas and New Orleans had sufficient backing and support.

The new league featured a hot rivalry between the New Orleans Pelicans and the Dallas Hams. They dominated play with the other teams and by mid-August both Galveston and Houston had attendance problems and folded. The league floundered through the remainder of the month with only three teams. The problems of the collapsing franchises had damaged even the strong teams. Four players jumped the Pelicans because of uncertainty about continued pay. Dallas had to “place more stock” on the market to raise sufficient capital, and the San Antonio team threatened to shift to Fort Worth if attendance did not pick up. What had been an optimistic beginning in 1888 resulted in a limp finish with only three squads left. On September 3, these three-Dallas, New Orleans, and San Antonio-mutually agreed to end the season.

The Hams claimed the laurels for both campaigns. Having first led the Texas League almost the entire season, they then swept through the Texas-Southern seasons with a 21-8 record as well as demolishing New Orleans, their closest rivals, in six of eight games. The Hams in short had a solid baseball club. Of the 19 men who played all or substantial portions of the season, eight made it to the major leagues. None became stars or even journeymen, and most only experienced the proverbial “cup of coffee” before disappearing from baseball.

The early season hitting hero and team catcher was James “Tub” Welsh. The backstop was known for his paunchy stomach as well as being the “gum chewer” of the team. Welsh elicited the most favorable reactions from the fans. When the Texas League season ended, Welsh was sold to Buffalo. The popular catcher returned to Dallas for the 1889 and part of the 1890 seasons. He eventually played for Toledo (AA) in 1890 and Louisville (NL) in 1895. Coincidentally, he held a lifetime major league .261 average with 261 times at bat.

Joe Fogarty, right fielder and occasional first baseman, had a brief stay with St. Louis (NL) in 1885. Like Welsh, Fogarty had a weight problem. He was on his way down from the majors as was “Ducky” Hemp, the center fielder, who had played briefly at Louisville (AA) in 1887. Hemp appeared with Pittsburgh (NL) and Syracuse (AA) in 1890 leaving a lifetime .211 average. Art Sunday, the other outfielder, played one year at Brooklyn for Monte Ward in the Players League, hitting .265.

Manager and first baseman Charles Levis had both managed and played for the Baltimore team in the Union Association in 1884. He also appeared in the major leagues with Washington (UA) and Indianapolis (AA). After a brief stay at Baltimore (AA) in 1 885 he returned to the minor leagues where he played and managed for several years. Jack Wentz, the second sacker, played one game for Louisville (AA) in 1891 while Tim O’Rourke, third baseman, batted 332 times for Syracuse (AA) in 1890, ending the season and his major league career with a .283 average. The only pitcher to have made it to the majors was Doug Crothers who compiled an 8-13 record with Kansas City (UA) and New York (AA) in 1884 and 1885. Crothers achieved some notoriety in baseball in 1 887 when he refused to sit for the Syracuse team picture. He did this because the International League entry had a black pitcher who was not only on the team but challenging him for the team’s leadership. When his manager at Syracuse demanded he cooperate, Crothers attacked him. None of this appeared in the Dallas papers in 1888 and Crothers became a model citizen, even taking over the management in later years.

Despite these trials and tribulations, Dallas returned to organized baseball, if that is what the Texas League was in 1888, for the 1889 season only to have the league collapse again. Leon Vendig operated the team through 1890, Crothers managed the team in 1889, and several players returned to play for a few years. Dallas did not field a team in 1891, but did in 1892. The city did not have an entry in the league in either 1893 or 1894. In 1895, Dallas became a regular member of the Texas League until Bob Short moved the Senators to the Metroplex in 1972. Though Dallas twice had its park burn down, it is doubtful that the problems and bizarre events of 1888 were ever repeated.

In 1888 even the team’s name was in doubt. Though some claim the name was the Steers (which would be perfectly logical considering the economy of the region) they were always referred to as the Hams in the press. During the 1888 season, teams simply failed to show up to play the Hams three times. It was quite common for trains to break down and for teams to be delayed a few days before arriving in a rival town. Spring rains made fields muddy and the early schedule became haphazard. But when a good crowd was at the ball park the show went on in spite of weather. In early June, with a heavy crowd coming to the game, the Oak Cliff Railroad tipped over injuring several fans as well as manager Charles Levis. One day in Fort Worth as the teams readied to play, the umpire signed a contract with the Panthers and played right field that day.

In spite of all these circumstances, or perhaps because of them, a Dallas journalist who fancied himself a poet summed up the attitude of many Dallas baseball fans in late August of 1888 when he concluded his three stanza poem with:

Hurrah then for the Hams!
And if their courage doesn’t sag,
You can bet good even money
That they’ll carry home the rag.