Generations ago, back when brothels and bars were more common in North Texas than boutiques and bodegas, there was a brief inning of history when professional baseball reigned in Grayson County. Nearly seven decades before the Texas Rangers smelted local baseball loyalty into a homogeneous clump of red, white and blue, local allegiances aligned with the likes of the Sherman Orphans and the Denison Indians. And as for the colorful cast of characters who made-up the rosters, well, they made Josh Hamilton look like a choir boy.

Generations ago, back when brothels and bars were more common in North Texas than boutiques and bodegas, there was a brief inning of history when professional baseball reigned in Grayson County. Nearly seven decades before the Texas Rangers smelted local baseball loyalty into a homogeneous clump of red, white and blue, local allegiances aligned with the likes of the Sherman Orphans and the Denison Indians. And as for the colorful cast of characters who made-up the rosters, well, they made Josh Hamilton look like a choir boy.


"Back when the League began, they had several small town teams to compliment the large town teams," said Kris Rutherford, a baseball historian who researched local contributions to the Texas League for his book, "Baseball on the Prairie."


"The key to baseball back in that day was rail travel; baseball and the railroad came along together."


The Texas League started in 1888, with teams in large cities including Dallas, Houston, Galveston and Waco. But poor attendance in towns with less-talented teams forced the League to close four years later. When it was resurrected in 1895, team owners were keen on cutting costs to ensure financial viability.


"The big, important thing to owners back then was what they called ‘The Jump,’" said Rutherford. " If you’re in Dallas and Ft. Worth, and you have to go to another city to play, it’s going to cost you a lot more money to go to San Antonio or Houston or Galveston than it is to Sherman or Denison."


A native Texan named "Big Mike" O’Connor devised an eight-team league split into North and South divisions, in order to minimize travel. Dallas and Ft. Worth were the anchors of the North Division, with Shreveport chosen as the third team due to an easy rail connection. Sherman and Denison joined forces to apply to host the fourth team, though the alliance didn’t last for long.


"As you know, the cities didn’t exactly like each other," said Rutherford. "So when the word got out that Sherman and Denison were going to get a team, Sherman kind of dropped Denison."


On April 5, 1895, the Sherman Orphans — so named, Rutherford said, from a prominent orphanage in the city — took the field for the first time at Batsell’s Park, located on what was then the south edge of the city. After a three-game exhibition against a squad from Alexandria, La., Denison came to town looking for payback.


Fresh off their sleight at the hand of their neighbor city, Denison brought down a team of railroad workers, calling themselves the Katys, to face-off with the Orphans. The ragtag band of blue collars was promptly throttled by the pros from Sherman 18-3, though more than 1,000 people travelled to the game in the middle of a dust storm to watch the rivalry, according to Rutherford’s book.


When the Orphans began the 1895 regular season a few weeks later, the man on the pitcher’s mound was a rangy fellow named Virgil Lee Garvin. That Garvin threw the first pitch that day was fitting, as he was the first in a long line of scamps, outlaws and seedy characters who called themselves professional ballplayers in the area.


"It wasn’t a high-paying job and not a particularly highly looked-upon job, at the time," explained Rutherford. "Not many baseball players were considered particularly good guys; they didn’t have a very good reputation in the country. But Virgil was especially bad."


Garvin was known as a drunk, fighter and much worse, once killing a shoeshine man for what he considered sub-par work. But owed in large part to his legitimate talent as a pitcher — baseball pied piper Bill James once said he could have been a superstar with a better supporting cast — Garvin proved to be a fixture in the area. The Navosta Tarantula, as he was called, stayed with the Orphans through 1895, when the team went a disappointing 53-64, and into 1896, when they were re-nicknamed the Students in order to publicize Sherman’s three colleges.


The second season of the Texas League under its renewed charter saw Denison join the mix, as the Denison Indians replaced Shreveport as the North Division’s fourth team. City leaders constructed a 2,000-seat stadium at the corner of Morton and Fairbanks Street, though a larger ballpark and nicer uniforms didn’t translate into early success on the field: Sherman swept the the Indians in the first six games of the new rivalry.


Less than a month into the season, tragedy struck. On May 15, 1896, with Sherman set to host the San Antonio Branchos and Denison preparing for a home match against the Galveston Sand Crabs, an F5 tornado originating near Pilot Point destroyed much of Sherman, leaving 73 dead. In the aftermath, Shermanites were devastated and focused on rebuilding, and attendance at Batsell’s Park understandably plummeted. The Sherman Students were disbanded on June 9, and the franchise was moved to Paris shortly thereafter.


"Denison, which up to that point, had great sympathy for Sherman and was helping out so much — the day after (the Students) disbanded, Denison ran an article in the paper and took great glee in their demise," relayed Rutherford. "They said, ‘(Sherman) said we wouldn’t make it, but look who’s the team that didn’t survive!’"


But the animosity was short-lived. By the start of the next season, Denison realized they were fighting an uphill financial battle to remain relevant. The Sherman-Denison Tigers were formed in 1897, retaining Denison’s star pitcher, a man named Frank Quigg.


"He was the ace of the staff, and nobody held a candle to Frank Quigg’s troublemaking," said Rutherford, who listed Quigg’s highlight transgressions as bribing players, fixing games as an umpire, and eventually dying in a botched bank robbery in Oklahoma.


The Tigers, not surprisingly, didn’t last long. When Sherman refused to pay its portion of the team manager’s salary, Pete Weckbecker ordered his squad to "rip the ‘S’s from your jerseys, we’re a Denison team now."


The team moved to Waco shortly thereafter.


Baseball was absent from Grayson County for the next three years, until Irishman Ted Sullivan — a man who claimed credit for coining the term "fan" — created the modern-day Texas League, which still functions today as a AA major league feeder organization. Sullivan recruited Kentuckytown native Alvin Lee "Cy" Mulkey to manage and play for a new club, now called the Sherman-Denison Students.


The Students, in turn, proceeded to write the most forgettable chapter in Grayson County’s professional baseball history. After a 1-10 start to the 1902 season, Mulkey moved the team to Texarkana, changing the name to an appropriate epithet.


"The Texas League never came back to Grayson County," said Rutherford. "Their name was the Texarkana Casketmakers."


"Baseball on the Prairie" by Kris Rutherford is available in paperback or electronic form through Amazon. More information can be found on the author’s website, www.KrisRutherford.com.