The first pitcher inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1936 once played on an oil town baseball team. Photo from 2002 movie The Rookie, set in the Permian Basin.
Oilfields of Dreams
As baseball became America’s favorite pastime in the early 20th century, many new oil patch boom towns fielded their own teams – with names that reflected their communities’ enthusiasm and often, their livelihood.
In Texas, the Corsicana Oil Citys made baseball history in 1902 with a 51 to 3 drubbing of the Texarkana Casketmakers. Oil Citys catcher Jay Justin Clarke hit eight home runs in eight at bats during the game – still an unbroken baseball record.
In 1922, the Wichita Falls minor league lost its opportunity for a 25th consecutive victory when the league determined the team had “doctored the baseball.” The Wichita Falls ballpark caught fire in June – during a game – and burned to the ground. It was a memorable season.
In Oklahoma oilfields, the Okmulgee Drillers for the first time in baseball history had two players who combined to hit 100 home runs in a single season of 160 games. First baseman Wilbur “Country” Davis and center fielder Cecil “Stormy” Davis accomplished their home run record in 1924, although their team faded away by 1927.
The Tulsa Oilers were the strongest team in the Western League for a decade, winning the pennant in 1920, ‘22, ‘27, ‘28 and ‘29. The name continues in the Central Hockey League’s Tulsa Oilers. The Tulsa Drillers, a AA affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, a Major League club, play in downtown Tulsa.
In baseball’s first official night game, the Independence, Kansas, Producers lost to Muskogee Chiefs 13 to 3 on April 28, 1930. The game was played under portable lights supplied by the Negro National League’s famed Kansas City Monarchs.
The Independence Producers were one of the 96 teams in the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, now known as Minor League Baseball.
Iola Gasbags and Borger Gassers
Thanks to natural gas discoveries, in just nine years beginning in 1895, Iola, Kansas, grew from a town of 1,567 to a city of more than 11,000. But the Iola Gasbags reportedly adopted their team name after becoming known as braggers in the Missouri State League.
“They traveled to these other cities, and they’d be bragging that they were the champions, so people started giving them the nickname Gasbags,” says baseball historian Tim Hagerty in a July 2012 National Public Radio interview.
In 1903, the players renamed themselves the Iola Gaslighters – but had a change of heart and reverted to the original name the following season.
“They said, ‘You know what? Yeah, we are, We’re the Gasbags.'” adds Hagerty, author of Root for the Home Team: Minor League Baseball’s Most Off-the-Wall Names and the Stories Behind Them.
“I think the state of Kansas may take the prize for the most terrific names – the Wichita Wingnuts, the Wichita Izzies, the Hutchinson Salt Packers…and the Iola Gasbags.”
In the Texas Panhandle, the Borger Gassers disappeared after the 1955 season, despite Gordon Nell hitting a record-setting 49 homers in 1947. Team owners blamed television and air-conditioning for reducing minor league baseball attendance and profitability.
In Beaumont, Texas, site of the great Spindletop oil discovery of 1901, minor league baseball lasted for decades under several names. The first team, the Beaumont Oil Gushers of the South Texas League, was fielded in 1903. By the 1904 season the team was known as the Millionaires and then the Oilers before becoming the Beaumont Exporters in 1920.
Although many thought the name should be changed to the Refiners, reflecting the city’s industry, for the 1950 season the team was briefly known as the Roughnecks.
Beaumont’s last AA Texas League team was the Golden Gators, which folded in 1986.
Another team in the Texas League, the Shreveport Gassers, on May 8, 1918, played 20 innings against the Fort Worth Panthers before the game was finally declared a tie at one to one.
“Big Train” and Olinda Oil Wells
Perhaps baseball’s greatest product from the oilfield was a young man who was a roustabout in the small oil town of Olinda, California. Walter “Big Train” Johnson will earn national renown as the greatest pitcher of his time.
In 1894, the Union Oil Company of Santa Paula purchased 1,200 acres in northern Orange County for oil development. Four years later the first oil well, Olinda No. 1, came in and created the oil boom town.
Around the turn of the century, Olinda Oil Wells baseball players began making a name for themselves among the semi-pro teams of the Los Angeles area.
By 1903 the Orange County team was sharing newly built Athletic Park in Anaheim, “two hours south of Olinda by horse and buggy,” notes one historian. Youngster Walter Johnson rooted for the Oil Wells.
Johnson, originally from Humboldt, Kansas, moved to the thriving oil town east of Brea with his family when he was 14. He attended Fullerton Union High School and played baseball there while working in the nearby oilfields.
His high-school pitching began making headlines, including a 1905 15-inning game against rival Santa Ana High School where he struck out 27.
By 17, Johnson was playing for his oil town baseball team, the Olinda Oil Wells, as its ace pitcher. He shared in each game’s income of $25, according to Henry Thomas in Walter Johnson: Baseball’s Big Train.
“Not a bad split for nine players considering that a roustabout in the oilfields started at $1.50 a day,” Thomas notes in his book. Johnson finished with a winning season and soon moved on to the minor leagues.
Johnson’s major league career began in 1907 in Washington, D.C., where he played his entire 21-year baseball career for the Washington Senators.
The former oil patch roustabout remains major league baseball’s all-time career leader in shutouts with 110, second in wins (417) and fourth in complete games (531).
In 1936, “Big Train” Johnson was inducted into baseball’s newly created Hall of Fame with four others: Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, and Christy Mathewson.
In 1924, Johnson returned to his California oil patch roots. On October 31, he and his former baseball teammates played an exhibition game in Brea against Babe Ruth and the Ruth All-Stars.
Texon Oilers of the Permian Basin
On May 28, 1923, a loud roar was heard when the Santa Rita No. 1 well erupted in West Texas. People as far away as Fort Worth traveled to see the well. Near Big Lake, Texas, on arid land leased from the University of Texas, Texon Oil and Land Company made the discovery. The oilfield, about 4.5 square miles, revealed vast oil reserves in West Texas. Exploration spread into other areas of the Permian Basin, still one of the largest oil-producing regions in the United States.
Early Permian Basin discoveries created many boom towns, including Midland, which some will refer to as “Little Dallas.”
By 1924, Michael L. Benedum, a successful independent oilman from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and other successful independent producers – wildcatters – formed the Big Lake Oil Company.
The new company established Texon, the first oil company town in the Permian Basin.
Today a ghost town, Texon was considered a model oil community. It had a school, church, hospital, theater, golf course, swimming pool – and a semi-pro company baseball team.
According to the Texas State Historical Association, the Texon Oilers baseball team was the centerpiece of the employee recreation plan of Levi Smith, vice president and general manager of the Big Lake Oil Company. Smith, an avid baseball fan, organized the club soon after he founded the Reagan County town (a few miles west of today’s town of Big Lake).
By the summer of 1925 a baseball field was ready for use. In 1926 a 500-seat grandstand completed the facility.
“In 1929 the Big Lake Oil Company began a tradition of hosting a Labor Day barbecue for employees and friends, highlighted by a baseball game,” notes historian Jane Spraggins Wilson.
“Management consistently attempted to schedule well-known clubs, such as the Fort Worth Cats and the Halliburton Oilers of Oklahoma,” adds Wilson, who explains that during the Great Depression, “before good highways, television, and other diversions, the team was a source of community cohesiveness, entertainment, and pride.”
After the World War II, with its famous the oilfield diminishing and the town losing population, aging Oilers left the game for good, Wilson reports. By the mid-1950s the Texon Oilers were but a memory.
Hollywood visits West Texas
The 2002 movie “The Rookie” – filmed almost entirely in the Permian Basin of West Texas – featured a Big Lake high-school teacher.
Based on the “true life” of baseball pitcher Jimmy Morris, it tells the story of a Big Lake’s baseball coach, Morris (played by Dennis Quaid), who despite being in his mid-30s briefly makes it to the major leagues.
The movie – promoted with the phrase, “It’s never too late to believe in your dreams” – opens with a flashback scene near Big Lake, the Santa Rita No. 1 drilling site.
As the well is being drilled, Catholic nuns are shown carrying a basket of rose pedals to christen it for the patron Saint of the Impossible – Santa Rita.
“Much is made of the almost mythic importance of oil in Big Lake, with talk of the Santa Rita oil well,” explains ESPN in the The Rookie in Reel Life.
Whiting, Indiana, fields Oilmen in 2012
In 1889, the Standard Oil Company began construction on a 235-acre refinery complex in Whiting, Indiana. Today owned by BP, the Whiting refinery is the largest in the United States.
Whiting fielded a baseball team in 2012. On June 3, the North-west Indiana Oilmen crushed the Southland Vikings 14-3 at Oil City Stadium in Standard Diamonds Park for the first win in franchise history. The team is one of eight in the Midwest Collegiate League, a pre-minor league.
“The name Oil City Stadium celebrates Whiting’s history as a refinery town tucked away in the Northwest corner of Indiana for over 120 years,” says team owner Don Popravak. “The BP Refinery, located just beyond they outfield fence is a constant reminder of the blue collar attitude Whiting was built on,” he adds.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.org energy education website with a contribution today. For membership information, contact email@example.com. © 2019 Bruce A. Wells.