The Waco Pirates
Waco and baseball went hand in glove for over five decades. The famous Katy Park (pinned on map below) was home to multiple minor league teams starting in 1899, one of the most famous being the Waco Pirates. The Pirates brought in two championship titles during their tenure at Katy Park, and they also made their mark on the minds and hearts of the Waco community.
The Waco Dons kicked off a new episode of Minor League Baseball in 1947. The team joined the Class B Big State League, similar to today’s Double-A minor league. The new team was most famous for its one-legged pitcher, Monty Stratton. Though Stratton had lost his leg in a hunting accident, he did not let that stop his baseball career. He famously threw a shutout in 1947 against the Paris Red Peppers. Stratton would even bat and run the bases, with the batboy keeping track of his wooden leg when he was not using it.
Stratton’s Dons were quickly picked up by the Pittsburgh Pirates franchise thanks to Katy Park owner A. H. Kirksey. The club struggled financially from the outset in 1947, so they joined the Pirates’ fold in 1948. The new name and patronage brought success, with the Pirates winning the Big State Championship that year. Though the team started strong, they would soon settle into a pattern of mixed records, not usually making the playoffs.
The years 1952 and 1953 were no kinder to the team. After a respectable but lacking season in 1951, the Pirates lost game after game. Their final record stood at 29-118. To make a dastardly record all the worse, the next year the Pirates lost everything. The May 1953 tornado that ripped through downtown destroyed Katy Park and almost took the lives of general manager C. L. “Buster” Chatham and business manager Jack Berger Jr. The two men were near the ballpark planning for the game that night against the Greenville Majors when the twister touched down, and they took refuge under a locomotive. Ironically, Chatham had always resented the trains for passing so closely to Katy Park and drowning out the announcers, but on that day a train saved his life. The club received invitations from Kilgore, Bryan, and Brenham, but the Pirates chose to move to Longview, Texas, to finish out their season. They played their first game May 28, 1953, against the Temple Eagles at Legion Field. Though they were rechristened the Longview Pirates and played sixty games in their new adopted city, they would soon be the Waco Pirates once again.
It was A. H. Kirksey who stepped up and pledged to rebuild Katy Park. Along with team President Jack Kultgen, a three-year lease was signed to bring the Pirates back to Waco. With the team’s return to Waco came new manager Jack Paepke and new players, ones who would prove to change the team’s fortune: Roman Mejias, Jack Falls, Ron Sheetz, Dick Hoffman, and Don Kildoo. The Pirates graced Katy Park in a Big State game once more against the Harlingen Capitols on April 16, 1954. Jack Falls started the game strong with a home run, the first in the rebuilt park, and the Pirates took the win 7-0. The season progressed well from there, with the Pirates almost sitting in first place in the league by May. Paepke, who would also play for the team when needed, then broke his thumb in a game on May 6 and the roster had to be reshuffled. Roster changes would continue throughout the season. By the beginning of June the Pirates were sitting at a comfortable 33-18 record.
June also brought the beginning of the most famous moment in Waco Pirates history. Outfielder Roman Mejias (batting average .237) hit a single and a triple in a June 6 game in Galveston, and this was the beginning of an incredible hitting streak. Over the next three weeks Mejias batted a .488, and his streak was just getting started. When the streak reached 37 games in July, Mejias gained national recognition and The Sporting News wrote an article about the Waco player. Even when the Pirates would lose, Mejias managed to get at least one hit during the game. Soon he was closing in on Joe DiMaggio’s record for the second-longest hitting streak in minor league history, Mejias at 55 and DiMaggio at 56. Unfortunately, that is where Mejias’s streak would end, and DiMaggio would keep his record. Mejias, though coming up to bat four times, failed to get an on-base hit against the Pioneers on August 2. His streak stats stood at .419, 19 doubles, 5 triples, and 7 home runs. The end of the streak did not spell the end of the 1954 Pirates’ success, however, and the team went on to win the Big State League Championship. It was an exhilarating and unexpected 105-42 season for the team and Waco was abuzz with baseball fever.
Despite the great success of the 1954 season, the Pirates would only play two more years in Waco. The reason was a surprisingly rapid decline in interest in Minor League Baseball. Waco residents have blamed the decline on various things, such as the rise of Little League and the explosion of television, but either way the Pirates came to the end of their tenure after the 1956 season. The Big State League itself folded the following year.
Though Minor League Baseball did not last forever in Waco, it had a tremendous impact on the town. Thousands of Waco residents hold fond memories of nights spent at Katy Park watching the games. As former Pirates batboy T. R. Taylor said “If the lights were on at Katy Park, my parents always knew where they could find me.” That was true of many Waco baseball fans in the mid-twentieth century.