In Oklahoma’s Centennial year of 2007, the concept of hosting big league ball was not as far-fetched as it might have seemed just a few years before. In February of 2006, the Florida Marlins looked into Oklahoma City, among other locales, as a possible relocation site. Obviously, it didn’t work out and it was a long shot at best. But it may have been the opening shot of a campaign to show the world that Oklahoma deserves a spot in the big leagues—with all the connotations appertaining thereto!
As is the case with most upgrades to major league status, a long, successful history of minor league ball is always a plus. Oklahoma has that. It also enjoys a unique place in baseball history as the only place in the USA that hosted professional teams before the establishment of statehood. (No, Washington, D.C. doesn’t count because it is a federal district, not a federal territory.)
The land we now call Oklahoma (Choctaw for “red people”), acquired as part of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, finally became a state in 1907. Of all the real estate acquired in that transaction, this was the final parcel to achieve statehood. This is not to say that nothing was happening during those 100+ years. There was the Indian removal policy, now better known as the Trail of Tears, that populated the area with Indian tribes from the southeastern United States; the Civil War and Reconstruction that divided the Indian tribes just as it did Americans in the states; the great cattle drives from Texas to Kansas and Missouri; the land rush of 1889 (which gave the state the nickname “sooner,” to denote settlers who stole into the territory before the official opening), the birth of the oil industry – and the arrival of professional baseball in 1904.
In the 19th century, baseball was certainly played in territories, but professional baseball was played only in the states; in the 20th century, the United States added five states (Oklahoma on Nov. 16, 1907; New Mexico on Jan. 6, 1912; Arizona on Feb. 14, 1912; Alaska on Jan. 3, 1959; and Hawaii on Aug. 21, 1959) to arrive at its current number of 50. Professional baseball existed in only one of those inchoate states. That was in the present-day state of Oklahoma, which formerly included Oklahoma Territory (the current-day panhandle and western Oklahoma) and Indian Territory, the eastern part of the state).
While minor league baseball is a fixture in the state’s two largest cities, Oklahoma City (currently in the Pacific Coast League) and Tulsa (currently in the Texas League), no other city in Oklahoma has had a full season of professional baseball since 1957, when the Sooner League folded. From 1904-1907, however, the Indian and Oklahoma Territories hosted teams in 11 cities in addition to Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Those towns included Ada, Altus, Anadarko, Blackwell, Bristow, Cushing, Drumright, Duncan, Durant, Eufaula, Henryetta, Holdenville, Hugo, Lawton, Maud, Miami, Okmulgee, Pauls Valley, Pawhuska, Ponca City, Sapulpa, Seminole, Wewoka, and Wilson.
Pro ball persisted during these early years despite teams and leagues coming and going—sometimes in midseason. Instability was a common enough problem in minor league ball a century ago, as it is with some of the independent leagues today, but the rapid development of the oil industry assured that Oklahoma was an up-and-coming place, and hence particularly attractive to teams and leagues trying to get a foothold. In particular, northeast Oklahoma (containing Tulsa, Bartlesville, and Muskogee) was in the center of the Mid-Continent oil and gas region, extending from Kansas to east Texas. Of the 36 years from 1900-1935, this region was ranked number one in the country in oil production 27 times. And Oklahoma’s earliest professional baseball teams fed off this prosperity.
Bartlesville can lay claim to Oklahoma’s first commercially successful oil well, the Nellie Johnston No. 1, named just a few months after the town was incorporated on Jan. 15, 1897, with just 200 residents. The railroad reached town two years later. In 1905, Phillips Petroleum’s first gusher arrived and the town swelled to 4,215 residents. A year later the Bartlesville Indians started play in the Kansas State League.
Muskogee was well established as a railroad town of 4,254 in 1900. Four year later, local gas and oil fields attracted three more railroads to town and the Arkansas River Navigation System facilitated Muskogee’s development as a port. In 1905 the Muskogee Reds started play in the Missouri Valley League.
Then there was the Creek Indian village known as Tulsey Town, a corruption of tallasi, the Creek word for town. Tulsa was a small cattle town when it was originally incorporated in 1898. Two years later the population was just 1,390. But the discovery of oil at Red Ford in 1901 and the Glenn Pool Field in1905 (when the Tulsa Gassers started play) caused the city’s population to mushroom to 6,500 in 1905, and 7,298 in 1907. In time, Tulsa grew to be the dominant city in northeastern Oklahoma outdistancing Bartlesville and Muskogee by a wide margin, and making it a bellwether city of minor league baseball.
Though leisure time was not abundant 100 years ago, the influx of people inspired by the growth of the oil industry created a modest demand for recreational activities. Radio and TV did not exist and movies were in their infancy. There were no pro sports teams to compete with baseball and college sports barely existed. So pro baseball, by default, was the first resort of rapidly growing cities in search of entertainment.
If wildcatters learned to live on the edge, much the same could be said of Oklahoma’s first crop of professional ballplayers. The financial situation of the players, the teams, and the leagues can best be described as precarious, but the mere presence of pro baseball did send a message to the rest of the country. It was a way of proclaiming that Oklahoma had arrived and was ready to join the Union.
Even before pro baseball, the game itself appeared in the Indian Territory within weeks of the famed land rush that began at high noon on April 22, 1889—and also provided a nickname (the ‘89ers) for the Oklahoma City franchise from 1962 through 1997. Three months after the land rush, two temporary ballparks were operating in Oklahoma City. The following year, a permanent park was constructed near N.E. 8th Street and Harrison Avenue, but pro ball would have to wait till the 20th century.
In 1902 civic leader Seymour C. Heyman spearheaded efforts to bring professional baseball to Delmar Garden, an amusement center near Western and Exchange Avenues. The result was Colcord Park, located west of Delmar Garden adjacent to the North Canadian River. While some cash might have changed hands in 1902 and 1903, the official birth of pro ball in Oklahoma City is usually traced to 1904 and the founding of the Class D Southwestern League, which included four teams in Oklahoma Territory: the Oklahoma City Metropolitans (or Mets), the Guthrie Blues (later the Senators, so-called because Guthrie was the territorial capital and the state capital for the first few years of statehood), the Shawnee Indians, and the Enid Evangelists. Shawnee and Enid were last-minute additions after franchises in Wichita and Hutchinson, Kansas failed to pan out.
The Metropolitans opened the new ballpark with an exhibition game against the St. Louis Browns, who were victorious by a score of 16-6. The match-up was an apt one, as the pre-TV era witnessed a longstanding relationship between St. Louis, the westernmost outpost of major league ball, and the State of Oklahoma. Even today, it is not unusual to encounter Cardinal fans in Oklahoma, long after the arrival of major league ball in the closer metropolitan areas of Kansas City and Dallas-Fort Worth.
Starting from a tent city of 10,000 just after the land rush, Oklahoma City was incorporated in 1890. By 1910, it was the largest city in the state, as well as the state capital, with a population of more than 64,000. Not only was it the center of government, it also contained an abundance of oil. Petroleum remained a visible presence in the city into the 20th Century. Between 1928 and 1979 some 1,810 wells were drilled in the city—including 18 on the capital grounds. More oil—local and statewide—meant more people; more people meant more government, local and statewide. Such double-barreled growth assured a continuing home for professional baseball in Oklahoma City.
Meanwhile south of the Red River, the Texas League franchise in Paris, Texas had run into trouble. The other three franchises in Dallas, Fort Worth, and Corsicana were doing fine, but Paris was mired in last place, finishing with a 13-40 record in the first half. A franchise shift was announced in late June. A temporary reprieve from local investors was too little too late, so team owner George S. Ralls turned the franchise back to the league on Aug. 4, 1904.
Texas League President Doak Roberts had heard about a crackerjack semi-pro team in Ardmore in the Indian Territory. Owner H.B. Bracy and manager William Hughes agreed to field a replacement team, using 10 players from the Ardmore team and five from the Paris team. The results were only marginally better: the Ardmore Territorials played 10 games, winning but three.
Though the franchise was replaced by Waco in 1905, Ardmore maintains its distinction as the first Oklahoma municipality to host Texas League baseball, five years before Oklahoma City joined the league, and 29 years before Tulsa followed suit. To date, Oklahoma City has had three stints (1909-1911, 1933-1942, and 1946-1957) in the Texas League, as has Tulsa (1933-1942, 1946-1965, and 1977 to the present day).
History repeated itself 57 years later, when Ardmore again came to the rescue of a troubled Texas League team, the Victoria Rosebuds. Once again, the move was merely a stop-gap measure and did not extend beyond the 1961 season. There is no pro ball in Ardmore today, but a few miles away there is a small town named Gene Autry (originally known as Berwyn). Autry once owned a ranch nearby and also explored the possibility of filming westerns in south central Oklahoma. To the best of my knowledge, Gene Autry, Okla. is the only town named after an owner of a major league baseball team (the Los Angeles/California Angels).
While Oklahoma City was enjoying rapid growth, Tulsa was following a similar developmental curve. The first town ball team dated back to 1893, when Tulsa townies took on intra-territorial counterparts from Bartlesville, Claremore, Sapulpa, and Muskogee. Despite the relative youth of such municipalities, the city fathers realized that sports teams were not an amenity to be taken lightly. For a town to be considered a “player,” it had to have ballplayers. According to Oklahoma baseball historian Wayne McCombs, “In the 1890s, a successful town baseball team was as important as a railroad depot for attracting new businesses.”
In 1905, one year after Oklahoma City joined the pros, the Tulsa Gassers, playing at Athletic Park near Second Street, joined the Missouri Valley League under the tutelage of manager Charley Shafft. The competition included teams in Webb City, Mo.; Fort Scott, Parsons, and Pittsburg Kan.; and Indian Territory rivals in Muskogee, Vinita, and South McAlester.
Tulsa’s early attempts at establishing pro baseball are a textbook example of the unsettled nature of pro ball in the territories. The Tulsa team changed leagues every year from 1905-1907. In 1906 the team ran out of money and abandoned the season. It is easy to see why Tulsa remained an attractive venue for pro ball, no matter how difficult it was to achieve stability. The city’s growth in the decade before statehood was meteoric. Clearly, placing a team there would have been a priority for any of the midwestern minor leagues during the first decade of the 20th century—and fans did not have long to wait to witness success on the playing field. Tulsa’s first professional championship came in 1908 (the year Tulsa was chartered as a city, which was also the first season under statehood) when the Oilers won the championship of the Oklahoma-Kansas League.
Though the Tulsa franchises were a bit shaky in the early going, they were pillars of stability compared to some unfortunate competitors. Perhaps the ultimate in insecurity was the odyssey of the Indians/Browns/Seminoles, who started in Shawnee with the Southwestern Association, moved to Chickasha, then back to Shawnee with the Oklahoma State League, then on to El Reno, and finally back to Shawnee. Small wonder that the Seminoles’ alternate name was the Orphans (a surprisingly popular nickname associated with 18 professional—albeit troubled—franchises dating back to 1895).
After Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Muskogee and Guthrie were the most active venues for pro ball during the early years of the 20th century. It must be noted that in those days it was not a given that Oklahoma City would dominate central Oklahoma and Tulsa would be the big kid on the block in northeastern Oklahoma. Guthrie was a presence in Central Oklahoma, as was Muskogee to the east. Today there is no doubt as to dominance. Tulsa is about ten times the size, population-wise, of Muskogee.
As for Guthrie, its loss of status as the state’s capital dealt the city a blow it never really recovered from, and the city fielded no pro baseball teams after the middle of the 1924 season, when the city’s Oklahoma State League franchise was transferred to McAlester. A consolation prize of sorts is that today Guthrie is the home of the Oklahoma Sports Museum, which honors the best left-handed pitcher in the majors every year with an award named after the winningest southpaw in MLB history: Warren Spahn, a resident of Broken Arrow, who is buried in Hartshorne.
McAlester’s history of pro ball was brief, but the city serves as a reminder that the territories’ mineral wealth was not limited to petroleum. Coal mines were also a big part of the economic mix in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Now primarily renowned as the home of the Oklahoma state prison, McAlester was a thriving coal mining town in the years before statehood. South McAlester had a population of 3,479 in 1900 and pro ball by 1905, when the Coal Miners started play in the Missouri Valley League. Also worth noting is that the Oklahoma coal mines of the 1930’s and 1940’s provided a livelihood for one Mutt Mantle, better known as the father of Mickey.
The arrival of professional baseball following economic—not just population—growth was obvious 100 years ago, and it is still evident today, as rumors of possible franchise shifts almost always favor towns and cities undergoing rapid expansion. Today, of course, the rules for franchise capitalization are much more stringent. Even so, we can safely assume that not all of the checks bounced in days of old in Oklahoma, and thus that pro baseball arrived in 13 territorial cities “sooner” than statehood. The regular visitors to this web site would doubtless agree that the denizens of the Indian and Oklahoma Territories had their priorities straight.
If Puerto Rico achieves statehood, however, Oklahoma will lose its unique status as the only state in the Union to host pro baseball during its territorial days. But I’m guessing real baseball fans in Oklahoma would be OK with that.
References & Resources
“The Encyclopedia of American Cities,” ed. by Ory Mazar Negral, E.P. Dutton (New York, 1980).
“Let’s Goooooo, Tulsa,” by Wayne McCombs (self-published, Claremore, Okla., 1990)
“Minor League Baseball Encyclopedia, Vol. 2,” ed. by Lloyd Johnson (Baseball America, Durham, N.C., 1997)
“Oklahoma,” by Jay J. Wagoner, Thunderbird Books (Oklahoma City, 1989).
“Oklahoma: a History,” by H. Wayne Morgan and Anne Hodges Morgan, W.W. Norton & Co. (New York, 1977)
Oklahoma Sports History Map, text by Dr. Kenny A. Franks, Oklahoma Heritage Association’s
Oklahoma Subject Map Series, Oklahoma Heritage Association (Oklahoma City, 1990).
“Oklahoma: the Land and Its People,” by Kenny A. Franks and Paul F. Lambert, Oklahoma Geographic Series No. 1, Unicorn Publishing (Helena, Mont., 1994).
“Professional Baseball Franchises From the Abbeville Athletics to the Zanesville Indians,” by Peter Filichia, Facts on File, Inc. (New York, 1993)
“Roadside History of Oklahoma,” by Francis L. and Roberta B. Fugate, Mountain Press Publishing (Missoula, Mont., 1991)
“The Texas League, 1888-1987, a Century of Baseball,” by Bill O’Neal, Eakin Press (Austin, 1987).
“Tulsa Drillers: Celebrating One Hundred Years of Tulsa Baseball,” Official Magazine of the 2005 Season (Tulsa, 2005)