Category Archives: Sports

100 Years Ago – February 14, 1909

Houston, Tex., Feb. 14, 1909: Improvements had made to the Houston Buffaloes park, in preparation for the 1909 season. These included “[s]idewalks and pavements, an enlarged grandrstand and a grass diamond.”

In 1909, the Buffaloes were part of the St. Louis Browns farm system. By 1910, the following Buffaloes were playing for the St. Louis Browns: Roy Mitchell (P), Jim Stephens (C), Frank Truesdale (2B), Patrick Newnam (1B), Hub Northen, Joe McDonald, Art Griggs, Dode Criss, Alex Malloy, and Bill Killefer.

Houston, Tex., Feb. 14, 1909: Preparations were underway to welcome Charles William Eliot to the city on March 2nd. Eliot was then in the last of his 40-year term (1869-1909) as president of Harvard University. A.H. Jayne, a local graduate, was organizing a “genuine college welcome, with yells, snake dances and night shirt parade.” Houston had no university in 1909, and this was given as the reason why Houston “has more real enthusiasm for such things than any other town in the South.” The Pan Hellenic Association of Houston and the “‘Barbarians'” were planning to participate in the welcome.

Houston, Tex., Feb. 14, 1909: Houstonians were also preparing for a March 8 week-long conference of Woodmen of the World representatives from Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The 3500 Woodmen “camps” in those three states comprised some 150,000 members, the 1000 Woodmen “groves” in those three states represented another 50,000. The program of special events included an opening banquet at Sauter’s Cafe, competitions, speeches, a March 9 parade with 16 “elaborately decorated” floats, a memorial service, and a closing “smoker” [barbecue?].

At the time, Houston had nine Woodmen camps: Red Oak (700 members), Black Jack (135), Post Oak (140), Poplar (172), Laurel (70), Willow Tree (75), Pine Tree (135), Old Hickory (70), and Magnolia Camp No. 13 (the oldest Houston camp) (400). It also had six groves: Hollywood, Post Oak, Willow Tree, Ellen D. Patterson, Poplar, and Magnolia.

http://texashistory.unt.edu/permalink/meta-pth-25083:1
[1911 Woodmen of the World Convention in Mineral Wells, Texas – Portal to Texas History]

Epsom Downs and Arrowhead Park


[Epsom Downs]


[Epsom Downs newspaper advertisement]


[A.J. Foyt at Arrowhead Park – foytracing.com]


[Monorail prototype at Arrowhead Park – Monorails.org]

Pari-mutuel wagering was first legal in Texas from 1933 to 1937, during which time the two top horse racing tracks in the state were Arlington Downs, between Dallas and Fort Worth, and Epsom Downs in Houston. Arlington Downs was constructed and opened in 1929 by William T. Waggoner, at a cost of $3 million. Between 1929 and 1933, Waggoner used the park for prize races and civic events, and participated in the lobbying efforts that helped bring about the Texas state legislature’s legalization of pari-mutuel betting. Waggoner lived to see Arlington Downs’ early success, but died in 1934.

Epsom Downs was built at a location off Jensen Drive, then known as the Humble road, about six miles outside what were then the city limits. It was named after the famous Epsom Downs in England, site of the English Derby – the San Antonio paper did not think much of the name, opining that “Houstonians could have picked better.” The park was built by Montreal turfman Lou Smith, who had built the Rockingham Park track in Salem, New Hampshire. Epsom Downs was a replica of Rockingham Park (though papers often reported it as being a replica of the English park), and was built – in a hurry – for somewhere in the range of $400,000 to $600,000 (reports vary). The grandstand seated 4,000, and a terrace in front of it provided standing room for 25,000.

The inaugural race at Epsom Downs occurred on Thanksgiving Day, November 30, 1933, just after the end of a successful meet at Arlington Downs. The feature race was the six-furlong Thanksgiving Day Handicap. Governor Miriam A. “Ma” Ferguson attended with her husband, former governor Jim Ferguson, skipping the annual U.T./A&M football game. Approximately 30,000 other spectators were also in attendance to see Gift of Roses win the handicap.

The Epsom Downs meet lasted 27 days and featured a “Galveston Day”, a “Port Arthur Day”, a “Beaumont Day”, a “Fort Worth Day”, a “Dallas Day”, a “Waco Day”, a “Temple Day”, an “Austin Day”, a “San Antonio Day”, and a “Corpus Christi Day”. More than 1,000 throroughbreds pariticipated.

Opponents of pari-mutuel wagering were successful in having the betting laws repealed in 1937, but the pari-mutuel wagering lobby did not abandon its cause. In the 1940’s, Houston oil man George H. Echols joined the fight. By 1947, a bill was introduced in the Texas legislature that would again make betting on horses legal in Texas.

Like Waggoner before him, Echols began building his horse track while pari mutuel wagering was still illegal. A February 9, 1947 newspaper article reported: “A racing plant estimated to cost $1,250,000 will open [in Houston] late in May, George H. Echols, Houston oil man, announced today. He said he expected to offer a year-round sports program with quarter horse races, rodeos, trotting races, horse shows, and cattle shows.”

An article published the next day suggested that Echols’ plans were unrelated to the bill pending in the Texas legislature, saying that Echols planned to build the race track regardless of the bill’s outcome. “Echols isn’t concerned over whether the bill passes or not; he’s going to conduct his racing strip for the sport that’s in it.” Echols was quoted as saying: “For a long time, it has been my ambition to build a race track for quarter horses. Those are the horses that had so much to do with building Texas. Quarter horses, sometimes called range horses or cowponies, are dear to the heart of all true Texans.”

The park would be called Arrowhead Park. It would encompass 121 acres, and the track would be a half mile oval with three-eighths of a mile straightaways. The grandstand would seat 3,450, the bleachers 1,500, and the clubhouse 300. Echols was installing a $68,000 light system so that events could be held at night.

A March 7, 1947 newspaper article reporting that the pari mutuel wagering bill was having a difficult time getting out of committee put a rest to any notion that Echols was building Arrowhead Park purely for the love of the sport. The article noted that Echols “already is building Arrowhead Park, a $1,250,000 racing plant on Old Spanish Trail six miles from downtown Houston.” If the Texas legislature did not pass the bill, said Echols, he would go forward with a plan to build a horse track just across the Louisiana border: “Then the Texas money can continue to flow out of Texas and the Baptist preachers can continue to stick their noses into politics, instead of staying in their pulpits.”

Arrowhead Park was built, but the pari-mutuel wagering bill did not pass. The park hosted quarter horse racing starting in June 1947. However, without betting, the venture was apparently not successful. By September, it was reported that Echols had leased the park to “miniature auto racing interests”. In 1954, ran for state representative, campaigning “on a platform of liquor by the shot and local option for horse racing,” but did not win.

Arrowhead Park would become known for auto racing and not horse racing. Indeed, Heights-born A.J. Foyt raced (and crashed) his father’s midget car at Arrowhead Park in 1955.

In that same year, a monorail prototype created by a Houston company, Monorail, Inc., was exhibited at Arrowhead Park.

The Texas state legislature did not authorize pari-mutuel betting again until 1986.

Coombs Park and Heights Natatorium

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[1919 – Heights Natatorium – Houston Heights Association – Photo taken by Hawthorn Ramage, in about 1913, and donated to the Heights Museum Collection by Ms. Verna Topkins]

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[1909 – Ad from The Jewish Herald]

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[1895 map, showing Heights Blvd. on west of park, and Harvard, Cortlandt, Arlington, Columbia, and Oxford Streets intersecting with park from north]

Coombs Park (sometimes called Forest Park) was an amusement park that the Coombs family built around the turn of the last century on land they owned in the Houston Heights, just north of White Oak Bayou. The Coombs house itself was a sprawling mansion on the southern side of the bayou, in an elevated area that became known as “Coombs Terrace”. On the east side of the intersection of Heights Boulevard and 3rd Street (approximately where Heights Boulevard now intersects with the eastbound feeder road for Interstate 10), north of the bayou, E.L. Coombs dug a lake that featured live alligators and trick high-diving. Describing other features of the park, Sister M. Agatha’s History of the Heights states:

Sunday afternoon was the park’s big day. At three o’clock every Sunday, a Mrs. Roaming (significant name) went up in a balloon, with a monkey for a companion. Sometimes the monkey went up alone. The balloon had a basket and when the lady got ready to come down, she pulled a valve and gradually as the gas escaped, the balloon descended. When the monkey went up alone, the valve was fixed so that the gas was gradually leaking before the ascension. There was a track in the park for goat racing, and the children brought their pets, harnessed to various little wagons or traps, and took part in the race for prizes. Mr. Coombs also provided a zoo with all kinds of animals for the special delight of the children. Between his home and the bayou, extending back to Yale Street, he had an ostrich farm and children of the Heights loved to go near the fence to see the birds. These, too, were for the park.

In 1895, on the banks of the bayou at the southern end of Harvard Street, Coombs built a natatorium. Describing an early photograph of the natatorium, Sister Agatha reported: “Coombs built in the flamboyant style of Coney Island’s heyday. The picture shows a pleasure pier, two and a half stories, with dressing rooms for each floor, like galleries around the pool. The impressive building was topped off with one large round tower and two smaller turrets, each waving a flag.” The Galveston Daily News reported on April 12, 1895 that: “Houston’s new natatorium at Coombs park was thrown open to the public today, and in two hours after the opening every bathing suit in the house was out, and the jolly bathers were enjoying the fresh water. The tank has a capacity of 200,000 gallons of water and is 80×40 feet square, having a depth when full of from 4 to 9 feet of water.” The opening coincided with a Knights of Pythias convention at Coombs Park, and the same edition of the Daily News reported that “[t]he large pavilion is handsomely decorated with bunting, flags, and monograms, bidding the Knights of Pythias welcome,” and that many of the Knights had an opportunity to enjoy the “refreshing waters” of the natatorium.

When the original natatorium building burned, a smaller structure (pictured above) was built in its place. After E.L. Coombs died, the property on which the natatorium was located changed hands a number of times. The natatorium survived Coombs Park, and was still operating as late as 1942. The natatorium was filled in at some point thereafter, however, and there is now a self-storage facility located on the spot.

Early Houston Baseball Teams

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[1888 Houston Babies – baseballasamerica.org]

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[1889 Houston Babies – lsjunction.com]

Houston had a baseball team as early as 1861. That first team was known as the Houston Base Ball Club. There were many name changes to follow.

The Houston Post reported that, on San Jacinto Day (April 21) in 1868, the Houston Stonewalls played a game at the San Jacinto Battleground against the Galveston Robert E. Lees, and beat the Galveston team 35-2, before a crowd of about 1,000. The game was billed as the “state championship game.” The Galveston paper’s Houston correspondent reported the score as 33-6, stating:

In the meantime, the Houston Stonewalls and Galveston Lees were contending for the championship of the State. The game lasted over four hours, and resulted in an easy victory for the Houston Stonewalls over the Galveston Lees. In seven matches the former were scored thirty-three, the latter only six. Try it again boys; but our Houston athletes are hard to beat.

When the venerable Texas League was founded in 1884, Houston’s club was supposedly called the Red Stockings or Lambs – a newspaper article from that year refers to the Houston team As the Nationals. In 1887, after some period of dormancy, the Texas League featured a Houston team named the Crescents. There was also apparently a Houston Heralds club at the same time, as the Crescents played a game against the Heralds in July 1887 at “the Herald Base-ball park at the head of Travis street.” (An 1896 article refers to a Houston-Chicago game being played at the “new baseball park at the end of Travis street.”)

By 1888, the team was called the Houston Babies. The Babies were the Texas League champions in 1889. In 1903, the team was renamed the Houston Wanderers.

More information:
Lone Star Junction article on early Texas baseball
Astrosdaily.com article on early Houston baseball
Aulbach, L.F., “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” Buffalo Bayou – An Echo of Houston’s Wilderness Beginnings (2006).

Buffalo Stadium

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[1928 – Front gate of Buff Stadium – Astrosdaily.com]

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[U.T. Center for American History]

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[U.T. Center for American History]

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[U.T. Center for American History]

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[U.T. Center for American History]

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[U.T. Center for American History]

The Houston Buffaloes (often called the Buffs) were a minor league baseball team that played in the Texas League from 1907 to 1958, and in the American Association from 1959 to 1961. Most of that time, the Buffaloes were a farm team for the St. Louis Cardinals. They played their first 20 years in West End Park, which one source says was located at the end of the San Felipe streetcar line, near what is now the downtown YMCA, and which is likely the “ball park” shown on the 1913 Houston map. (The location of the “ball park” is also discussed here.) The Buffs played their later years at Buffalo Stadium (1928-1963) (known in its last few years as “Busch Stadium”). Buffalo Stadium was located on the site of the Finger Furniture building on the Gulf Freeway, which has a plaque in its floor marking where home base used to be and a sports memorabilia display dubbed the Houston Sports Museum.

More information:
Minor League Baseball article on 1931 Houston Buffaloes