Our story begins in 1921. The St. Louis Cardinals’ Rogers Hornsby was in his first year of major home run hitting. Meanwhile, the New York Yankees’ Babe Ruth was in his third year of home run dominance; and that was on top of a four-year stint as a star pitcher who won 19 games a year. He was on the verge of becoming the best-known American of his time.
In 1921, the New York Yankees were doing their spring training in Shreveport. The Cardinals were doing their spring work in Orange, Texas.
On March 17, 1921, the Yankees and the Cards squared off for a game in Lake Charles. The city, appropriately enough, declared March 17 Ruth-Hornsby Day.
Some fans from Orange rode to Lake Charles on the same train as the Cardinals.
Hornsby did well enough in that game, stroking a single. But, true to form, it was Ruth who hit a homer. The Yankees took the spring game 14-5.
So, Lake Charles has the distinction of being the site of a Babe Ruth home run. And while there is a solid legend that Ruth also hit a home run at the West End Park ball park in Orange, it turns out to be an urban legend. However, both Hornsby and Philadelphia Athletics legend Connie Mack played at the park more than once.
All traces of West End Park were eliminated in one last demolition in 2009. The West End Park is commemorated by a marker at the corner of Green Avenue and 14th Street, which is also the site of a memorial for the old Lutcher Stark High School. The current West Orange-Stark Middle School is near this site.
Back in the early 1920s, Cardinals’ manager Rickey Branch said the team had located its spring operation in Orange because it needed “to move away from the border town of Brownsville, probably because he did not want the players unnecessarily tempted by nocturnal distractions,” wrote Branch biographer Lee Lowenfish.
The team arrived in Orange in February, 1921; it stayed at the Holland Hotel. In the Cards’ first game at Orange’s West End Park, on March 4, 1921, they took on the Philadelphia Athletics, whose manager was phenom Connie Mack.
And where were the Athletics holding their spring training at this time? That would be Lake Charles. A Lake Charles fan of the day could see Mack and the As for 75 cents admission.
In 1921, Rogers Hornsby made a big step in his ascent, logging the highest batting average in Major League Baseball with .397.
But the next spring training in Orange would turn out to be ominous for the Cardinals. When the team arrived on February 28, 1922, the weather was so cold the players couldn’t take the field, which was covered with ice.
What’s more, an oil drill had just come in 10 miles out of town. The crowd chose to go see the gusher, and the Cardinals were definitely the second fiddle in town.
Now remember that another thing that was happening around that time was that the Yankees were doing spring training in Shreveport.
One day in 1921, the local Shreveport team, which had the curious name of the Shreveport Gassers, was playing the New York Yankees at home in a spring training contest.
Writer Kenneth O’Brock, who saw the game as a child, recalls that most locals went because “we wanted to see the greatest team in baseball with the greatest player in the world.”
While Babe Ruth was taking batting practice, wrote O’Brock, “Gasser Park was already over capacity.” The crowd saw and heard Ruth hit nine home runs during practice. One ball went through the window of a streetcar running outside the field. Fans moved out into the streets beyond the center field fence in hopes of catching a ball.
The Gassers wound up losing to the Yankees by a score of 21 to something. The adult O’Brock couldn’t remember the exact score. But he did remember that Babe Ruth hit three home runs in the game, one of them a grand slam.
When spring play ended that year, Ruth went on to hit .378 with 59 homers in the 1921 season.
But The Yankees’ days in Shreveport were numbered. They would spend only one more spring there.
So how did it happen that the greatest sports superstars in the world were hanging around west Louisiana and east Texas in the early 1920s? My best guess is that it was just pure dumb chance. Things fell into place so that this could happen for a few years, and then it was over. But it is a fascinating — and very little known — slice of history.
A special thanks goes out to Mitch Bergeron for telling me about this story and hooking me up with some links that gave me the basic information for the story.
Pioneers Of the Past
A representative of Wise Publications was kind enough to drop by the office and give the Up Fronter a review copy of Pioneers of the Past, a history of Starks published by the Starks Historical Society.
After a brief historical introduction, the book kicks into a long series of short biographical sketches. Almost no one written about in the early portion of the book was born in Starks. They all moved there.
For some reason, each person described in the book early on does at least some teaching in the area. A surprising number are involved with the local educational system.
The biographical vignettes occupy the first 80 pages of the work. They follow the ancestors of each subject to 1994. There’s an extremely large number of black and white photos of the people whose life stories are briefly told.
The biographies are followed by a selection of articles — some historical; some reminiscent — on Starks. A long section on the Melungens of Louisiana includes several lists of Melungens who lived in the Starks area from 1820 to 1860. (The reader is told that familiar Melungeon surnames in Southwest Louisiana include “Gowen, Gowan, Goin, Goins.”)
A brief history of Starks carries the headline “Early Settlers Were Hardy Bunch.” The historical coverage of the book is up-to-date enough to include a chapter on the 2012 flood.
Pioneers of the Past wraps up with a series of newspaper stories from the Lake Charles American Press and the Starks News from 1899 to 1922.
As you may have surmised, the book doesn’t present a history that moves straight through from beginning to end. But the information provided probably hits most of the high points (and maybe all the high points) of the Starks story.
An introduction by Hazel G. Standley of the Starks Historical Society informs the reader that settlers began arriving in the area at least as early as 1807. (Another historian whose work appears in the book says that Starks — or whatever it was called at the time — was a kind of vanguard for a major westward movement of settlers.) At around that era, the place was known as Pinchburg, then later as Pine Hill. A few years later, a lumber baron named Stark gave his name to the city.
There are plenty of places in the volume where the reader gets a detailed sense of everyday life in the past. In a piece titled “How It Was When I Grew Up,” author Glen Morris Duggan recalls that his 1920s Florien house, which centered around the “dog-trot” — a “big open-ended hall that ran through the house from front to back” — was heated entirely by a “big iron cook stove.” There was no electricity or gas; but there was a telephone, a “hand-cranked phonograph” and a pump organ. Children enjoyed tops, yo-yos and homemade sugarcane syrup. On Sunday mornings, boys went to church in “blue overalls and white shirts.”
In “My Two Years In Starks,” Doug Fincher tells of challenging fishing trips to Bearhead Creek, not far from Sulphur. He said he couldn’t manage to carry a full stringer of fish for the full distance back from the creek, so he “staked [his] fish on small limbs and picked them up on [his] way back … It was not unusual to find several [had been] eaten by snakes and turtles …”
In a 1971 DeQuincy News column “Remembering With Ratliff,” T.J. Ratliff relates that he once had a long conversation with a man who had vivid memories of life in Starks in the 1870s. At that time, the population was sparse. The people were “squatters” who weren’t greatly concerned about who owned what land (or whether anyone owned it).
People were self-sufficient. They made many things from their own wood. “Wooden pegs were used for nails.” Fireplaces were made with mud and sticks.
Things made of metal “as well as ammunition, coffee and some medicines” had to be bought in stores. To raise money, men chopped down trees and floated the logs down the Sabine to Orange, Texas.
People wore moccasins for shoes.
Families kept hogs, which were allowed to run around as they chose. “Hunting dogs were a necessity.”
All of this changed when the lumber companies moved into the area. “Men who had been going a whole year without seeing $10” suddenly had steady jobs and got their goods at the company store. The days of self-sufficient living were over.
Well, those are the parts of the book that struck my fancy. But there’s plenty more to be had. Pioneers of the Past will be an enjoyable read for history buffs, genealogy enthusiasts, those who are curious about folklore and folkways and sentimentalists of all sorts.
This 185-page hardcover book retails for $30. Wise Publications offers many historical works about numerous locations in Southwest Louisiana.