Fats versus Leans: A baseball story

The Fats vs. The Leans

In the years after the Civil War, baseball truly became American’s game and all across the country in small towns, summer was dominated by attending and playing in the games. Every town had at least one team, and Minden was no exception. The first record of local town teams in newspapers occurs in the Shreveport Times as early as 1876. The first record of a Minden team comes from the Homer Guardian-Journal of Wednesday, April 24, 1895 when a preview is given of a Friday night game scheduled at the Homer Fair Grounds between the Homer town team and the Minden Grays. In the New Orleans Picayune of Saturday, April 27, it is reported that the “invincible” Minden Grays had defeated Homer 12 to 7, despite Homer allegedly employing a battery composed of “ringers” who played last season in the professional Western League.

By 1902, there was a baseball team at the newly opened (first class 1900) Minden High School and in 1904, the Minden town team would actually go on a two-week barnstorming trip across Louisiana, with the town having a parade to send them off. Minden’s enthusiasm for baseball did not wane but other influences made it even stronger. At least two prominent local men who served the community as elected officials, came to Minden strictly to be baseball players. It was very common for many years for companies to field baseball teams and to hire the aforementioned “ringers” to work for the company strictly for their baseball fields. Benjamin F. Griffith, future Sheriff of Webster Parish and the man for whom Griffith Stadium is named, first came to Northwest Louisiana during the early 1890s to play as a bare-handed catcher for a team sponsored by the A. B. Clingman Nursery of Homer. Briscoe Nation, Minden city alderman and father of future state-championship Minden High baseball coach, Pat Nation, came to Minden in the 1920s to play baseball for the L & A Railroad team. The L & A sponsored two teams – one for whites and one for African-Americans – and a rarity in those days the teams played each other. During the late 1960s, my mother hired a man to work on her yards. He began to play catch with me and threw an amazing curveball. About that time my father came home and immediately said “Ulysses Frazier?” Mr. Frazier, who was then in his late 70s had been a pitcher for the African-American L & A team in the 1920s and 1930s and Daddy remembered him. Sadly, he didn’t teach me his curveball or how to hit one. The L & A games were played at what was for several years the town field, located at the base of Winchester Hill along the Shreveport Road, where in later years there would be a go-cart track located, behind today’s Circle K on the north side of the highway. It is a theory of mine that the interracial usage of that field influenced a somewhat unique decision later in our history. In 1954, during the heart of segregation, when Minden built its Municipal Stadium, it was specified that the field could be used by teams of either race.

By the early 1930s, town games were being played in the area of the old quarter horse racing track run by B. F. Griffith, that site today is Griffith Memorial Stadium and my father played American Legion baseball there – with no fences – in the mid-1930s. During that era, Minden’s Mr. Recreation, Larry Hunter, built a field on his property around the Coca Cola plant and began sponsoring a youth baseball program for Minden. He outfitted teams of all levels and took his teams on trips all across the country. In 1949, the Hunter’s Red Birds American Legion team defeated several national powers, including defending national champions Jacksonville, Florida, before losing in the state championship to a team based out of Jesuit High School of New Orleans.

In 1950, a Minden semi-pro team called the Red Birds and sponsored and managed by the Hunter family began play in the Big Eight League of North Louisiana. The field at Hunter’s was improved and came to be called Red Bird Park. The Red Birds became a power of the Big Eight League, winning at least two championships. Nationally prominent players such as Ralph Terry and Marv Throneberry would make brief appearance with Minden as they were being “hidden” by the New York Yankees, in those days before the Amateur Draft. A lot of well-known locals also played with the Red Birds (please excuse any folks you think I missed, a later column on the Red Birds will be more inclusive) including the late Jimmy Rogers, the late Jackie Moreland and one that touched my life as a young baseball player, the late Charlie Francis. On one opening night during the 1950s, the Red Birds drew a crowd of 5,000 to their game. After the City of Minden built Municipal Stadium, today Griffith Stadium, in 1954, the Red Birds and Minden High moved their games to the new field. Of course, Minden High School won its first state championship (despite coming close once, losing in the semifinals in 1926 after beating three-time defending champion Byrd High) in 1956 under Pat Nation. The Tide stunned undefeated Bossier for a state championship under Butch Williams in 1972 and then won three AAA state championships in a row under Marvin Jones in 1981-82-83. So, baseball has always been big in Minden.

I told you that story to tell you this one. Another event in Minden that demonstrates how enthusiastic the population was about the diamond game, is the “Fats v. Leans” games held for several years between 1904 and 1910. Each August, the men of the town would split up into two teams – the “larger” men joining the “Fats” and the more svelte gentleman playing for the “Leans.” The proceeds from the game were used for civic improvements, largely upkeep on the newly created City Park, which was managed by the Civic Club, the leading lady’s club in Minden for many years. The rest of today’s column will be the colorful account of editor, J. P. Kent of the “Fats v. Leans” game from the Webster Signal of August 12, 1904. Excuse Kent’s rather eccentric usage style, it seemed to be a trademark of his writing:

“The Fats Fried Out

“The Lanky Boys Win by a Nose in Tuesday’s Game

“Fats Had a Fighting Show for Victory but Dark Stopped the Performance

“A fat man will never commit suicide, he loves gravy too much for that.

“The game of baseball between the Fats and the Leans of the city has come and gone, and now occupies a front seat on the memories of those who have a hankering for the ludicrous. Nearly five hundred people saw the game, and twenty-seven artists took part in the massacre. A score or so of pitchers were worked in and out during the progress of the sport and did what they could to make the game so artistically bum as to be enjoyable and no flaming words of Demosthenes could more surely tell of how well they succeeded than did the actions of the crowd, who stood by and encored until the sun went down, and still yelled enthusiastically for more of the same brand.

“The game was called promptly at 4:30 Tuesday afternoon at the ball park in “Dirty Six.” The leans took the field with Robert Roberts (ed. note: grandfather of Gov. Mike Foster), who writes briefs between acts, doing the twirling and Banks McIntyre, the merchant, stopping them. The Fats scored twice by hard hitting, and the battery changed places, and changed so often thereafter that fourteen stenographers and a flashlight camera could keep no accurate record of their maneuvers.

“To steal a base was as easy with either side as for a “cullud generman” to call upon the President, (ed. note: imagine the shock in Minden just a couple of years later when Booker T. Washington dined at the White House with President Theodore Roosevelt) and errors were as plentiful as microbes. No one was rash enough to even attempt to keep any record of the errors. The man who invented the adding machine lost his mind in the transaction, yet he had an easy time, in comparison, to what might have happened to him had he attempted to classify the breaks in Tuesday’s battle.

“Mack Sandlin and Arthur Hough (ed. note: Sandlin was Mayor of Minden and 28 years Webster Parish Tax Assessor while Hough would be a future Webster Parish Sheriff) did the pitching, or the major portion of it, for the obese contingent. Sheriff Griffith was catcher the first time he was seen in the game and wound up by playing somewhere between the first and second bags, in a place where no one could cipher out his position.

“Les Berry and Shag Talton of Harbuck’s professional nine did some of the catching, but no one could see any difference in their playing and that of the amateurs.

“A sensation occurred in the fifth inning when Ed Fitzgerald (ed. note: General Manager of the Minden Lumber Mill of the Bodcau Lumber Company) made a dash for third and got hemmed in. He got excited and jumped straight up, throwing his entire weight on the ground head first.

“Billy Martin, who had just returned from a vacation around St. Louis where he gained so much flesh that he ran his weight up 100 pounds, lacking eleven, played shortstop, and would have made the most lovely catch of the afternoon, but, in an attempt to get under the ball, he stepped in a doodle bug hole and tripped himself.

“Pierce Rathbun tried to run over third baseman Will Burnett, and went in the air for a double somersault, and called for the antiseptic.

“From a technical standpoint, the score was 18 to 20 in the close, in favor of the Leans.

“The score ran up to 32 to 18, in favor of the Leans, but they had one inning the advantage when cruel dark interfered.

“Sympathy of the spectators seemed to be evenly divided.

“The fleshy ones who participated in the affair were A. M. Hough, A. D. Turner, B. F. Griffith, C. D. Gould, M. H. Sandlin, O. P. Clement, F. S. Machen, J. J. Holmes, G. A. Hightower, E. E. Fitzgerald, W. T. Burnett, Jasper Taylor and Alex Howell. Judge J. H. Tillman and C. P. Chaffe, while the scrawny victors were A. M. Leary, Robert Roberts, W. B. Martin, John S. Life, Clarence Taylor, J. N. Sandlin, Will Van Lear, P. L. Rathbun, Dr. S. F. Martin, J. E. Geren, Connell Fort, Charlton Fort and P. A. Jones. (ed. notes: Hough later Sheriff, Turner was later Mayor and Alderman, Griffith was Sheriff, Mack Sandlin, Mayor and Tax Assessor. Clement was Sheriff and Tax Assessor, Holmes was an Alderman, Tillman was Clerk of Court, Leary was Mayor, Roberts was Mayor, Life was an Alderman, John Sandlin was Alderman, Postmaster, District Attorney, District Judge and US Congressman, Connell Fort was Mayor and Alderman and Charlton Fort was Postmaster.)

“Beauford McKinney, armed to the teeth with a cap and ball life-sized pistol, did the umpiring and made an eternal enemy of the contentious J. J. Holmes by calling him out at first base on a fine point that Brer H didn’t know was in the rule book, and doesn’t yet believe it is.

“An aluminum medal was presented to the winning team, and trade on liniment was picking up Wednesday.

“The gross receipts were in the neighborhood of $90.

“The Minden Concert Band furnished music for the occasion.
“No fights.

“The weather was excellent, being cloudy without rain.”

So, this Echo of our Past is a light-hearted account of how baseball was integrated into our community more than a century ago.

Minden Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald.Special to the Press-Herald.

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