The 1930-vintage bus rattles and wheezes to a stop, billowing dust in the hard-baked dirt-and-gravel parking lot. Your backside is sore from the 4-hour ride on the thinly-padded steel seat. The bus left Lubbock at dawn, bumping along the two-lane blacktop that brought you here: Abilene.
You take a last drag on your cigarette, and toss the butt out the half-open window. You grab your deck of cards and your dog-eared Sporting News, and make your way along the aisle with the other yawning, sweat-stained young men. You clamber down the steps onto the gravel, blinking and squinting in the bright sunlight. Then the heat really hits you — it was hot and stuffy inside that dingy crowded bus, but not hot like it is out here in the full measure of the sun. It’s brick-oven hot in Abilene in July. Although, it must be said, it was damn hot yesterday back in Lubbock, too.
The parking lot dust rises to your nostrils, and then a sudden gust of wind — hot, dry, and gritty — also bids you good morning. Heat, dust, and wind, in every imaginable combination, are your ever-present summertime companions in this region: flat, arid, and nearly treeless for hundreds of miles.
But there’s no time to savor the natural bounty. Your manager is barking at you to help with the trunks full of equipment, and get into the clubhouse to get dressed for batting and infield practice.
You’re in the West Texas-New Mexico League. If you’re a hitter, you’re in paradise. If you’re a pitcher, you’re in some deep lowest rung of sheer hell.
What It Was
The West Texas-New Mexico League (WTNML) began operating in 1937, rated as Class D by the National Association. It remained so through mid-1942, when it was forced to shut down due to World War II. In 1946, following the war, the league resumed play, now categorized as Class C. It remained so until 1955, when, in its last year of life, the league was Class B.
In most of its 16 seasons, the WTNML contained eight teams. Towns represented in most of those years were, from Texas: Abilene, Amarillo, Borger, Lamesa, Lubbock, and Pampa; and from New Mexico: Albuquerque and Clovis. Included on a less regular basis were Hobbs and Roswell, New Mexico, and the Texas towns of Big Spring, El Paso, Midland, Monahans, Odessa, Plainview, Wichita Falls, and Wink. Most of these places, it’s important to note, are over 3,000 feet in elevation, and Albuquerque is at 5,000 feet.
Like most minor leagues in that era, few of the teams in the WTNML were ever “farm” clubs, affiliated with or subsidized by major league organizations. The great majority of WTNML teams were independent, for-profit business ventures; they weren’t much concerned with developing talent for someone else’s benefit. They were focused on providing a competitive ballclub and a compelling game for the local fans.
In his Historical Baseball Abstract (p. 200 in the original, pp. 218-219 in the New HBA), Bill James devotes a few paragraphs to the WTNML, and the several other leagues like it in that time and place:
“There were five of those leagues down there, the West Texas-New Mexico League, the Big State League, the Arizona-Texas League, the Lone Star League, and the Longhorn League. They were all hitters’ leagues; they had lots of people who hit .380, hit 50 home runs.”
They were indeed hitters’ leagues. Some combination of altitude, heat, and outmoded bandbox ballparks worked together in wicked conspiracy to break pitchers’ hearts. Just what kind of a hitters’ league the West Texas-New Mexico League was may be illustrated by the following:
YEAR LEAGUE BA RUNS/GAME 1937 .292 7.91 1938 .273 7.08 1939 .288 6.66 1940 .294 7.09 1941 .270 5.53 1942 .282 6.72 1946 .288 6.75 1947 .304 7.58 1948 .310 8.16 1949 .296 6.76 1950 .306 7.22 1951 .292 6.36 1952 .300 6.22 1953 .299 7.23 1954 .292 6.48 1955 .294 6.53
To put these figures in perspective: only two major leagues in all of history batted .300 as a unit (the 1894 NL at .309, and the 1930 NL at .303). The highest-scoring major league since 1901 was the 1930 National League, which scored 5.68 runs per team/game; the highest-scoring major league ever was the 1894 National League, at 7.36. The WTNML was The Real McCoy when it comes to hitters’ leagues.
Let’s Do Some Lines
If you’re like me, a stat line like this one is a thing of beauty and wonder:
G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB AVG 138 570 123 216 52 4 34 183 71 55 3 .379
Isn’t it? Come on, you’re among friends, you can admit it. Doesn’t a line of figures like that just flood your imagination with sights and sounds: the flash of a smooth, powerful, confident stroke … the solid crack of yet another line drive, whistling between two outfielders and bouncing all the way to the wall … runners scampering home, catcher standing by, forlornly, mask in hand, no play at the plate … the home town crowd squealing and shouting …
Makes you just taste the peanuts and Cracker Jacks, doesn’t it?
By the way, those stats were put up by Joe Fortin of the Pampa Oilers in 1948. And, oh yeah, one another thing: he didn’t lead the league in any category. The WTNML was filled with lines like this, and lots better. This warn’t no league for no namby-pamby “low-scoring” games. This was a league for serious hitters playing hardball in the hot sun.
Wanna see a couple more? I got a ton of real beauties here. How about we check these out:
G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB AVG 133 529 137 *206 48 15 *40 *175 66 65 15 .389 139 553 160 210 45 8 52 178 75 87 9 .380 140 562 130 *228 46 4 39 138 52 53 9 *.406
Kind of a rush, huh.
Those lines were by Gordon Nell, Borger Gassers, 1940; Bob Crues, Amarillo Gold Sox, 1947; and Isaac Palmer, Plainview Ponies, 1955 (Palmer was a catcher, by the way). Yes, you guessed it: the asterisk means the guy led the league in that category. And, yes, that means that Crues didn’t lead the league in anything in 1947. Yes, that means there were even some more outrageous things going on in the WTNML in 1947.
All right, we’ll slow down here. This is great stuff, I know, but we need to be careful not to overdo. Don’t worry, I’ll show you everything before we’re done here, but we really need to pace ourselves.
And what better way to do it than this: let’s consider the WTNML from the pitcher’s point of view. Somebody was out there absorbing all that punishment. Which means that this league, while producing some stat lines that are almost painful in their sheer gorgeousness, produced other stat lines that are, well, just painful:
G GS CG IP W L H BB SO ERA 36 24 8 170 6 16 221 *160 94 9.05 36 -- 11 204 11 17 252 127 14 7.45 38 -- 13 211 15 13 313 132 154 9.21 28 16 4 116 5 7 186 103 59 9.70
That’s a buzzkiller, isn’t it. These guys weren’t having any fun at all — although we do have to keep in mind that the one dude, even though his ERA was 9.21 in over 200 innings, still had a 15-13 won-lost record.
The pitchers posting those lines were: someone named Hogan of the Hobbs Boosters in 1938; a Dobbs with Clovis in 1946; William Hair with Borger in 1947; and Robert Garrett with the Clovis Pioneers and Borger Gassers in 1953. For some reason the old Baseball Guides don’t always provide first names for pitchers in some of those years — perhaps the pitchers requested to remain as anonymous as possible? (And did Dobbs really only strike out 14 batters in 204 innings?!? That’s what the Baseball Guide says.)
Even the best pitchers in the WTNML took a pounding. Probably the league’s best pitcher over a period of several years was a righthander named Carroll Dial, who also played in the outfield for 50 games a year or so, and one year hit .366 with 11 homers. Here’s Dial’s pitching record in the WTNML in 1951-55:
YEAR TEAM G GS CG IP W L H BB SO ERA 1951 Pampa *49 31 22 257 22 15 292 123 *174 6.02 1952 Pampa 38 *33 *25 269 *27 10 322 111 170 5.09 1953 Clovis 48 *34 *29 *308 *28 11 320 135 243 4.27 1954 Clovis 44 30 23 258 *25 12 241 98 *234 4.42 1955 Pampa *50 *34 27 *296 20 15 301 114 171 *3.55
The guy could obviously pitch. But you want to talk about a workload (and remember that when he wasn’t pitching, he was often as not playing the outfield). How many throws do you suppose Dial made in those years? How many pitches from the stretch? The real men of the WTNML would tell us to take our effete modern notions such as “Pitcher Abuse Points” and — well, you know what.
Happy! Happy! Happy!
Hey, how about a few more happy numbers to get us in a good mood again:
G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB AVG 132 447 133 190 *61 6 18 128 153 42 5 *.425 109 389 103 157 22 1 *52 135 77 51 2 .404 145 588 151 *236 50 3 28 *171 72 45 7 .401 141 *587 125 *230 55 7 27 *197 63 41 6 *.392 142 549 156 225 43 4 38 169 98 31 28 .410
Oh, yeah, that’s the stuff … let’s see, these belong to: Hersh Martin (who was 38, and had played six years in the majors), Albuquerque Dukes, 1948; D.C. Miller, Lamesa Lobos, 1949; our old friend Joe Fortin (who had several spectacular seasons in the WTNML), Pampa Oilers, 1950; Glenn Burns, Lamesa, 1951; and Forrest “Frosty” Kennedy, Plainview Ponies, 1953.
Lest we think it was all so easy to hit in the WTNML, there were a couple of batters who struggled, and I mean, really struggled:
G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB AVG 117 446 66 75 17 6 12 52 54 *176 6 .164 112 433 30 76 13 2 0 41 36 *136 1 .176
The first line belongs to a first baseman by the name of Robert Bailey, for the Wink Spudders in 1937. The second was put up by a third baseman, William Buckel, for the Lamesa Lobos in 1941. Clearly the pitchers in the WTNML weren’t just lobbing it in there. Bear in mind that Bailey’s line was compiled in a league that scored 7.91 runs per game; Buckel’s in a league that scored 5.53.
Both Bailey and Buckel appear to have been very young players in these seasons, with some development ahead of them. Both came back to be productive regulars for several years in the WTNML: Buckel was a .240-.250-hitting shortstop for several years; Bailey hit .311 with 22 homers in 1939 (despite 145 strikeouts), and hit .316 as late as 1947.
All right, before we really get into the seriously great batting lines — yes, that’s right, we haven’t seen the best of them yet — it’s only fair that we give one more salute to those hardy souls who made it all possible: the WTNML pitchers. Here’s to some of the most awe-inspiring innings-eating iron-man performances of all time:
G GS CG IP W L H BB SO ERA 34 23 15 244 12 11 *350 50 131 6.67 49 -- *33 *351 *23 *18 *385 112 199 4.00 37 -- 17 234 11 16 *333 124 177 6.54 38 -- 20 238 13 *18 *379 111 109 7.64 41 31 16 220 11 17 *320 132 105 7.44 *49 33 25 287 16 18 327 *172 *295 5.71
Ten-gallon hats off to Elliott of the Clovis Pioneers, 1939; James Ramsdell, Big Spring Barons and Odessa Oilers, 1940; Harold Smith, Lamesa Lobos and Clovis Pioneers, 1947; Grzywacz of Lamesa, 1948; William Rosin, Clovis, 1950; and Jack Venable, Amarillo Gold Sox, 1953. Those worried about wimpy pitch counts need not apply to the WTNML.
Enough of This
Okay. I told you I’d save the best for last, and so here we go. Here are perhaps the four most amazing stat lines hitters produced in the 16 seasons of the West Texas-New Mexico League. (For your own safety, and for that of those around you, please read slowly. If you find yourself beginning to hyperventilate, or if you feel at all faint, then minimize the window — repeat, minimize the window — and focus your concentration on something else for at least five minutes.)
Don Stokes was a 31-year-old left-handed hitter who played center field for the Plainview Ponies in 1953. He teamed up with third baseman-first baseman Frosty Kennedy (whom we met earlier; Kennedy was the guy hitting .410 with 38 homers) to propel the Ponies’ offense to a .308 team batting average, 168 home runs, and 1109 runs scored — good for second, third, and third among the league’s offenses. Plainview finished 80-62, tied for third in the WTNML, and lost to Clovis, four games to two, in the league playoffs. Here were Stokes’ regular season stats:
G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB AVG OBP SLG 141 568 165 *242 64 6 27 *174 92 14 4 *.426 .503 .702
Gordon Nell had a great career as a right-handed-hitting outfielder-first baseman in the WTNML, leading the league in homers three times and driving in over 160 runs five times. We’ve seen him earlier: he was the one with the .389-40-175 season in 1940. Impressive as that performance was, it wasn’t Nell’s best year.
That occurred in 1939, when the 30-year-old Nell led the Pampa Oilers’ offense to league-leading totals of 113 home runs and 1005 runs scored. The Oilers finished the season at 78-59, beat the Midland Cowboys three games to two in the first round of the playoffs, and were defeated by the Lubbock Hubbers four games to one for the league championship. This was Nell’s regular season contribution:
G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB AVG OBP SLG 135 528 *152 *207 *60 8 *44 *189 61 83 15 *.392 *.453 *.786
Bill Serena was a 5-9 1/2, 175-pound right-handed-hitting infielder who played shortstop for the Lubbock Hubbers in 1947, and would go on to play a few years for the Chicago Cubs in the early 1950s. At the age of 22, he had the season of his life in ’47, powering Lubbock to league-best totals of 1247 runs scored, 210 homers, and 759 walks, along with a .315 team batting average:
G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB AVG OBP SLG 137 506 *183 189 43 9 *57 *190 140 108 26 .374 *.513 *.832
Lubbock blew the league away in the regular season with a 99-41 record, and then took the league championship by sweeping Lamesa in four straight, and defeating Amarillo four games to two. In his 10 playoff games, Serena hit 13 home runs, bringing his overall season total to 70 home runs — a new Organized Baseball record, topping the 69 that Joe Hauser had hit in 153 games for Minneapolis of the American Association in 1933.
The record wouldn’t last for long. Serena had beaten out Bob Crues of Amarillo for the home run mark in ’47; Crues was the guy with the .380-52-178 line we saw earlier. In 1948 Crues, a 29-year-old, 6-foot 2-inch, 185-pound right-handed-hitting outfielder, outdid Serena, leading the Gold Sox to a league-record (and in the WTNML, that’s saying something) 1267 runs scored, on the strength of a .323 team average, 214 homers, and 842 walks:
G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB AVG OBP SLG 140 565 *185 228 38 3 *69 *254 90 70 2 .404 .491 *.848
Yes, you read that right: 254 runs batted in, the all-time Organized Baseball record. Crues hit two homers in 11 playoff games, giving him 71 and eclipsing Serena’s mark, as Amarillo took the WTNML championship in 1948.
The 1949 Sporting News Baseball Guide — that party pooper — felt compelled to add this conclusion to its writeup of the Hauser-Serena-Crues story:
“Fences at Amarillo park, where the Gold Sox star hit a majority of his homers, measured 324 feet from the plate down both foul lines and 360 feet to center field.”
Details, details …
League attendance in each of the 1947, 1948, and 1949 seasons was over 600,000. The late ’40s were to be the high-water mark for the West Texas-New Mexico League, as for so many other minor leagues. In the following seasons attendance headed into a decline: the arrival of television, and of air conditioning, to West Texas and New Mexico towns in the 1950s helped make Class C or even Class B minor league baseball a less and less attractive outing, and a less and less viable business.
After 1955 the league folded, as so many others did in those years. The biggest towns — Amarillo, Albuquerque, El Paso — would hook on with other leagues, and survive as minor league outposts. But the days of really small towns — Clovis, Pampa, Plainview, Borger, Lamesa — to be able to support minor league ball were over.
But Then Again …
There are those who say that sometimes, out on the hot dusty plains of West Texas and New Mexico — out on the back roads, far away from the interstate, far away from the outlet malls and fast-food drive-thrus — sometimes, out there, when the wind is just right, and the sun hits the back of your neck like a blast furnace — sometimes out there, they say, on a lonely stretch of two-lane blacktop, you can hear it.
Sometimes, out there, on the long, hot, dry, windy summer days, when the sun hangs in the sky forever — with thunderheads way off in the distance, cooling someone far away — sometimes on those kind of days, they say, if you listen just right, you can hear it.
There — there it is. You hear it? Turn your head a little bit. There … right there. You hear it, don’t you. Coming this way. Right on time.
A beat-up old bus, rumbling down the highway. Big tires whining on the asphalt in the late afternoon sun. Headed for the next ballgame.
References & Resources
The primary source of research material for this article was the priceless collection of Spalding and Sporting News Baseball Guides recently donated to me by my Uncle Dan Finkle. Dan has the Uncle of the Year award pretty much sewed up.
I also made good use of a couple of great Society for American Baseball Research publications: Minor League Baseball Stars, Volume I (1978) and Volume II (1985).
A terrific article on the 1947 Lubbock Hubbers, by Bill Weiss and Marshall Wright, can be found here: http://web.minorleaguebaseball.com/milb/history/top100.jsp?idx=97
An excellent listing of all minor leagues, past and present, is Mike McCann’s Minor League Baseball Page: http://www.geocities.com/big_bunko/total.htm