Letter from Wild West – June 2011

The West and Baseball Go Gun Hand in Glove
And not just because the Texas Rangers met the San Francisco Giants

The two greatest passions of my youth, the West and baseball, remain my two greatest passions in my pre-doddering days. I was reminded of that fact when the last World Series featured two Western teams—the Texas Rangers (no, that was not Captain Jack Hays manning center field) and the San Francisco Giants (no, the golden-oldie double-play combination was not Marshall to Sutter to Brannan, though those three guys might have been linebackers for the 49ers). So naturally it thrills me to include in this issue “Baseball in the West,” which I wrote because I couldn’t imagine any living soul who cared as much about two 19th-century activities—ball games and gunplay. Since then, though, I’ve learned of others at least in the same tumbleweed-infested ballpark, including Wild West special contributor/Kansas City Royals fan Johnny Boggs and trailblazing artist/San Francisco Giants fan Thom Ross.

Among his many writing honors, Boggs received a Western Writers of America Spur Award for his 2005 novel Camp Ford, which is about baseball and the Old West (and the Civil War to boot). In his research Boggs found accounts of Union prisoners playing baseball at Camp Ford, Texas, the largest Confederate-run POW camp west of the Mississippi. “I’ve yet to find a contemporary account of an actual game between guards and prisoners, but the idea of such a game was too great to pass up, so that’s why I wrote the novel,” he said. A few years later Boggs wrote a nonfiction article in which he mentioned an 1887 game in Silver City, New Mexico Territory, “when the Fat Fellows, whose uniforms pictured beer mugs and whose players averaged better than 200 pounds, put their weight into a 20–6 victory over the slimmer Slim Jims.”

Ross has done impressive life-size cutout installations of everything from a 200-figure Custer’s Last Stand against the Plains Indians (placed in 2005 on the battlefield) to New York Giant Willie Mays making “the Catch” at the 1954 World Series against the Cleveland Indians (placed in 2004 at the site of the long-gone Polo Grounds). Ross once wrote about a Custer’s Last Stand as it might have appeared as a baseball box score: The final score was 16–1, Custer took the loss, and Sitting Bull got the win with relief from Crazy Horse, who struck out the last five batters. In this issue we present Ross’ paintings of Wild Bill Hickok umpiring a baseball game, an Apache acquaintance of Geronimo swinging a Louisville Slugger (both based on alleged true incidents) and the James-Younger Gang stopping to watch a baseball game on the way to rob the bank in Northfield, Minn. (probably not true).

“My best friends are all Wild West and baseball nuts, and when we get together, it is all about one of those subjects,” Ross says. “Baseball has all the ingredients to rival the Wild West—the stories, the heroes, the bad guys, the drunks, the Indians, the blacks, the bigots and on and on. History proves there is a connection between the two. Baseball, like the frontier, provided an avenue for men from all walks of life to make something of themselves, even if they weren’t always treated fairly. Blacks played pro ball until the 1900s, when they were shut out until 1947. Indians, the same people we had been fighting and killing for 400 years, got right into the game and took their licks (often taunted with war whoops and called ‘chief’) for the chance to play. Those who love the Wild West but care nothing about baseball are missing a major slice of the all-American pie in the building of the country.”

Indian baseball players are the subject of the June Top Ten list, and an “All–Wild West” team lineup appears in Roundup. Did you know that Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay is nicknamed “Doc” after Doc Holliday? The only pro baseball Earp I know of played from 1947 to 1950 in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Full name: Mildred Earp, of West Fork, Arkansas. Now you know.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.