The Waco Navigators, the New York Giants and the Greatest Weekend in Central Texas Baseball History

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During the heyday of minor league baseball, Waco was fortunate to have several fine teams and see the early careers of some of baseball’s finest players. Playing mostly at Katy Park (now in the Magnolia Market complex), the Navigators (1889-1900, 1906-1919), Cubs (1925-1930) and Pirates (1947-1956) played spirited baseball until the rise of television in the mid-1950s, and other factors finally contributed to the demise of local professional baseball.

Of the three, the Navigators were the most successful. Under manager Ellis Hardy, the club won three straight Texas League championships, from 1914-1918. The 1914 club finished with a record of 102-50, while pitcher Eddie Donalds won 30 games, losing only four.

At the same time, the New York Giants were the kings of the major leagues. Under feisty manager John McGraw, the Giants won the National League pennants in 1904, 1905, 1911, 1912, 1913, 1917, 1921 and 1922 as well as the World Series in 1905, 1921 and 1922.

The Giants were baseball’s most popular team, boasting the likes of Christy Mathewson and Rube Marquard. McGraw was an innovator, as well as a shrewd businessman, and an early adopter of “spring training” — which enabled baseball players to spend from mid-February to the end of March preparing for the upcoming 154-game season. The Giants originally held spring training in Los Angeles, but by 1908 switched to the small town of Marlin, Texas.

Why Marlin? The city boasted its famous “healing” mineral bath spas, three hotels (including Marx Levy’s popular Arlington Hotel), proximity to a host of Texas cities with their own minor league and college teams, with plenty of opportunities for lucrative exhibition games. McGraw also liked Marlin’s location in the middle of the (mostly dry) state of Texas because the club’s owners “thought that in a little town like that they could keep the fellows under control better.” (Like many baseball players at the time, the Giants featured a number of hard-drinking veterans.) As a result, Marlin became the first “permanent” Spring Training site in professional baseball history.

Baseball historian Gary Livacari writes that from the Arlington Hotel the team walked a mile (and back) down the railroad tracks to Emerson Field and adjoining Rimes Park field twice a day. The players and coaches worked on baseball basics, shagged fly balls, loosened their pitching arms, played inter-squad games and scrimmaged with just about any team who asked. The Giants played numerous benefit games in their adopted city and Marlin responded with regular fish fries for the players and even deeded Emerson Field to the club. Before the Giants returned to New York for the regular season at the end of March, Marlin hosted an annual “Thank You Ball” at the Arlington.

Marlin soon became a popular Spring Training destination. Over the next few years, the Chicago White Sox (1904), St. Louis Cardinals (1905) and Cincinnati Reds (1906-7) also called the city home, usually playing at the East Side Field (sometimes called the Fairgrounds Field).

The Giants’ adventures in Marlin were covered by the “New York Times” and the various Waco and Dallas newspapers. On February 17, 1912, the “Times” reported that McGraw and the Giants had departed New York’s Grand Central Station on the Southwestern Limited for St. Louis, and thence to Marlin. Headlined “McGraw Goes South with Young Giants”, the article breathlessly touted the team’s promising crop of rookies.

The Waco Navigators first appear in “The New York Times” in an article from March 23, 1914. The Giants’ second team “swamped” Waco behind 21 hits, including five from star Mike Donlin. The writer reported that the New York team appeared to enjoy itself throughout: “They ran bases with ardor, fielded neatly and whooped it up generally. They’d have scored still oftener if their base running hadn’t been a trifle careless at times.” Donlin, incidentally, was well-known for enjoying a second career in the off-season, performing on Broadway with his wife, actress Mabel Hite.

The Waco newspapers were not amused, and one featured the headline, “Donlin Stages a Vaude(ville) Show: His Baseball is Excellent But His Comedy is Poor.”

Waco businessman and baseball fan Joe Kemendo treated Mathewson to a tour of the town in his new automobile. The excursion included “Waco’s various permanently paved streets” enroute to see the Cotton Palace, the many artesian wells and springs, and other notable sites. According to the account, “The great pitcher expressed surprise at the up-to-datedness of the city.”

But two years later, in March of 1916, the tables were turned at Waco’s jam-packed Katy Park. The Navigators beat the Giants’ second team by the score of 7 to 3. The most intriguing name listed in the box score belonged to Olympic legend Jim Thorpe in left field for the Giants. In a separate article, Thorpe was called “without question, one of world’s greatest athletes.”

The following day, the Giants got a measure of revenge, winning 4 to 0. “They can now go back to Marlin,” the “Waco Morning News” confided. “Just what his nibs, John J. McGraw, would have said to his charges had they lost both games is a question, the answer to which would not look well in print.”

But the greatest weekend in Central Texas baseball history began on Friday March 17, 1916, when the Navigators traveled to Marlin to play the Giants on Friday, then came back to Waco’s Katy Park to face the touring Detroit Tigers on Saturday and Sunday. As the large local headlines trumpeted: “Three Big Games in As Many Days.”

The “Morning News” reported that “a large bunch of Waco fans” traveled to “Hot Wells” city for the Friday game. The Waco to Marlin railroad even offered “low excursion rates” for the weekend.

Part of the allure was a quote from Tiger manager Hughie Jennings that “he is looking for Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford every day and if they arrive in time they will be in the party.” Cobb and Crawford were two of the biggest attractions in the sport.

The weekend didn’t disappoint. The “Waco Morning News” reported that the streets of Marlin were filled by midday with “hundreds coming from distances over the country in autos, buggies, and wagons to enjoy the event.” The Giants game was not much of a contest as McGraw employed most of his regular line-up and won handily, 7 to 3.

Back in Waco, local hotels and boarding houses filled to capacity for the two weekend games. Despite the absence of both Crawford (who had made it as far as Waxahachie) and Cobb, the Tigers beat the Navigators 11 to 3.

Sunday’s game was somewhat closer, but the local team only mustered three singles off Tiger pitching and fell 7 to 1. Neither Crawford nor Cobb played, though the sold-out crowd, according to reports, enjoyed every minute.

Alas, the Giants’ last Spring Training in Marlin was in 1918 as the ballclub moved to San Antonio the following year. The New York/San Francisco Giants, however, kept possession of Emerson Field until the 1970s.

Mark Pelzel of “The Marlin Democrat” kindly took baseball historian John Wood and me to the city’s south side. The field, which was bounded by San Antonio Street, Bernard Avenue and Kennedy Street, is long gone, replaced by brush-covered lots and small homes.

Only a badly faded mural near the remaining hot springs downtown still celebrates Marlin’s deep history with one of the most storied teams in baseball history.

As for the Giants, the team clearly appreciated Marlin’s contributions during its finest stretch of seasons. According to baseball historian Livacari, manager McGraw made the following statement during Spring Training 1912: “If we do win the flag this year, much of the credit will go to Marlin, Texas.”

After the 1919 season, the Navigators were purchased by a group in Wichita Falls, where they relocated and became the unfortunately named “Spudders.” Professional baseball wouldn’t return to Waco until 1925 when Charles B. Turner, the Navigator’s president during their championship years, bought the Texas League team in Galveston and moved it to Katy Park as the Waco Cubs.

But that’s a story for another day.