Before the flare, gork or dying quail, there was always the Texas Leaguer
History sleuthing turns up origin of one of baseball’s oldest terms
“You know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is? It’s 25 hits. Twenty-five hits in 500 at-bats is 50 points, OK? There’s six months in a season. That’s about 25 weeks. That means if you get just one extra flare a week, just one, a gork, a ground ball — a ground ball with eyes! — you get a dying quail, just one more dying quail a week and you’re in Yankee Stadium.” – Crash Davis, Bull Durham
On May 21, 1892, in a season-opening Texas League game that pitted the visiting Fort Worth Panthers against the Houston Mudcats, a 22-year-old Northerner, newly arrived that morning — bleary-eyed, rumpled and unshaven after a multi-day boxcar trip from Illinois — made baseball history.
That’s when Oliver “Ollie” Daniel Pickering went 7-for-7, still a Texas League record for most singles in a game, dazzling the crowd and teammates with consecutive flares — dying quails — that looped just over the infield and short of the outfield to fall for base hit singles.
News of Pickering’s remarkable Texas League debut spread, first throughout the state and then the nation. The performance became so entrenched in baseball lore that the term Texas Leaguer — likely said with pride in Texas, but pejoratively elsewhere — was coined to describe a well-placed but weakly hit ball that was shamefully accorded the same weight and respect in the scorebook as a sizzling line-drive single.
For well over a century, the origin of this term was vague. Baseball historians and statisticians, who dutifully maintain meticulous mountains of data about sport, were puzzled. Most assumed the term had started in the North as a knock against the style of play in the Texas League. A few pointed to vague references to Ollie Pickering, who’d only spent a couple seasons in the Texas Leagues. None could identify the event that had sparked the term, forever embedding it in baseball’s colorful lexicon.
Eric Nadel, who has been calling Texas Rangers games for over 40 years, is certainly familiar with the term, but not with its provenance.
“I just always assumed it meant a ‘cheap hit,’ not very well stuck, worthy of a minor leaguer,” he said.
I first heard the label in the ’70s, when as a teen, I tuned in religiously to Dodgers baseball on KIBS in the Eastern Sierra town of Bishop, CA. Dodgers announcer Vin Scully would sometimes toss out the phrase in a call that went something like this:
“And Pete Rose sends a looper over the outstretched glove of Davey Lopes. A diving Dusty Baker can’t reach it, and Rose is safe at first with a Texas Leaguer.”
My journey toward the term’s provenance began by happenstance three years ago with a 127-year-old family photo and ended this past January with the discovery of the 1892 Panthers-Mudcats boxscore in the Galveston Daily News that details Pickering’s 7-for-7 performance. In the 1893 sepia-tone team photo of the Olney, IL, baseball team, my great-grandfather Edwin “Pop” Boyatt, sits in the lower left, my grandmother long ago having penned an “X” over his cap. In the center — magisterial with cummerbund and mustache — sits manager Marv Fletcher. Standing, in the back row, right, is Pickering, appearing clean-shaven and bemused.
My great-grandfather, who was 19 in the photo, was renowned for his lifelong love of baseball. He’d had brushes with the big leagues, playing catcher for farm teams of the St. Louis Browns (now Cardinals), and competing throughout the Ohio River Valley. But his six-year baseball career was cut short by his 1898 enlistment to fight in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Afterward, he settled in Southeastern Idaho, where he had a hand in the founding of the Pioneer League, periodically scouting and coaching for the Pocatello Bannocks.
Pop’s teammate Pickering, however, had a more storied career, developing a Forrest Gumpian knack for showing up several times at the doorstep of baseball history. His eight-year major league career featured stops in Louisville, Cleveland, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Washington. That was bookended by another 22 years of playing and managing for minor league teams from Redfield, SD, to Paducah, KY.
Pickering’s arrival in Houston came thanks to Mudcats player/manager “Honest John” McCloskey, a Louisville native, who was in need of a catcher, and surely knew of Pickering’s prowess through his connections with Ohio River Valley baseball. A 1906 piece in Sporting Life magazine described Pickering’s first meeting with McCloskey, who’d founded the Texas League in 1888 and later went on to manage the big league Louisville Colonels and St. Louis Cardinals. McCloskey had been taken aback by Pickering’s appearance after having made his way south by hopping a series of freight trains. The manager issued his new catcher a Mudcats uniform, advanced his pay, and ordered him to go out for a shave and a haircut prior to that afternoon’s game.
The freshly trimmed, left-hand-hitting Pickering didn’t disappoint. The game got off to a rollicking start, the Mudcats scoring 17 runs in the first two innings on their way to a 20–10 shellacking of their Fort Worth foes. Pickering’s line was 7 hits in 7 at bats. He drove in 3 and scored 3.
The game was, indeed, an auspicious start for both Pickering and the Houston nine. The Mudcats, which later became the Buffaloes and then major league Astros, rolled to a 65–31 record on their way to the 1892 title in the six-team Texas League, which, in addition to Houston, had fielded teams that year from Fort Worth, Dallas, Galveston, Waco and San Antonio.
After the championship season, Pickering returned to Illinois and his Olney team for two seasons before coming back to Houston in 1895, first as a player and then player/manager after McCloskey was tapped to take the helm of the National League Louisville Colonels. Pickering broke into the majors the following year, batting .303 and playing centerfield for McCloskey’s Colonels.
Another unique statistic Pickering laid claim to happened on opening day of the 1901 season. Pickering was the leadoff batter for the Cleveland Blues (now Indians), which were visiting the Chicago White Sox on April 24 for the newly formed American League. Three other games scheduled that day had been rained out. Thus, Pickering became the American League’s first batter. His subsequent fly ball to the Chicago centerfielder William Hoy, however, was no Texas Leaguer.
Three years later, on May 5, 1904, Pickering, now with the Philadelphia Athletics, nearly spoiled Cy Young’s perfect game for the Boston Americans, the first ever thrown in the American League. Michael Coffey, author of a book on baseball’s perfect games wrote: “In the fourth … Ollie Pickering looped one into the no-man’s land beyond the second-base bag — in a bid for the kind of hit he made famous — only to have center fielder Chick Stahl make a fine running catch. Pickering was almost the spoiler again, with one down in the top of the sixth, when he tapped a slow roller to short, but Freddy Parent charged the ball and nipped Pickering by half a step.”
Pickering would end his playing days with a career batting average of .279. And while that’s certainly respectable, any baseball purist will tell you it’s a couple Texas Leaguers per month shy of .300.
Craig K. Collins is the San Diego-based author of Midair (Lyons Press, 2016) and Thunder in the Mountains (Lyons Press, 2014). His first novel is due out in 2021, followed by a book of literary non-fiction in 2022.