WAXAHACHIE — Long before Waxahachie High School’s baseball team went on an improbable winning streak that landed it in the baseball hall of fame or Paul Rapier Richards helped change the face of America’s national pastime in Ellis County forever, the fates of baseball and Waxahachie were linked.
Since 1885, Waxahachie High School’s Indians have won 29 district championships, nine Texas state championships, seven North Texas championships, three Texas-Oklahoma championships, one Central Texas championship and one Louisiana State championship.
Paul Richards Park — formerly and best known as Jungle Park before 1946 and, for a short time Woodmen Park in the 1930s — has been the site of all but three.
When the Indians open the gates of Richards Park at noon on Saturday, it won't only be a celebration 100 years of America’s pastime in Waxahachie, it will praise the thousands of players who sweat, cried and bled on the city’s most distinguishable athletics landmark.
“It doesn’t take you long to know it’s special. We’re going to have a couple of gentleman around 85 years old throwing baseballs out there on Saturday,” said Tracy Wood, the current Indians head baseball coach and Little Rock, Arkansas native. “That’s a lot of rich tradition that’s going to be there. There’s a difference between reading history in a book and having somebody tell you the history face-to-face.”
Wood is the 20th WHS coach in a proud line that has found success in the park’s dugout. He follows men like J.W. Williams, L.T. Felty, A.A. Scott and Bill Borgers — coaches who either brought Waxahachie to the brink of baseball glory or pushed them past it.
Names like Richards, Scott, Borgers, Charles Rabe, Logan “Stolly” Stollenwerck, Oliver Clift, Tom Borders, Bill Midkiff, Mike Turner and John Rodgers are synonymous with the tall tales of Waxahachie baseball.
But it’s not only Waxahachie legends who graced the hallowed ground of Richards Park.
The likes of MLB Hall of Famers Nolan Ryan, who’s 1965 Alvin High School team fell to the Indians in the state championship, Ty Cobb and Jay Hanna “Dizzy” Dean, among others, have called the dirt and the base paths of the field overlooking Waxahachie Creek home.
Ray Schalk’s Chicago White Sox, Ty Cobb’s Detroit Tigers and the Kansas City Blues all used Richards Park for spring training during the 1920s, but the Cincinnati Reds were first.
The Reds trained in Waxahachie the year they won the 1919 World Series. The Indians found success that year, too, winning their fifth North Texas title and first state championship.
Despite the fame major league attention brings, Richards was the architect of the Waxahachie baseball juggernaut the fans see in present day, both as a player and as a community leader.
It was Richards’ teams that won the 1925 and 1926 state championships and Richards who rallied local fans Brown Chiles, Henry Curry, Bill Howard and Homer Robnett and big leaguers Dizzy and Paul Dean, Gene Moore and Kal Segrist to donate to the restoration effort of a severely depleted Jungle Park in 1946.
“I knew the man well. He was my Sunday School teacher in his offseason,” said Billy Ray Hancock, author of “A Story of Paul Richards Park and Waxahachie High School Baseball” and a pitcher, shortstop and outfielder for the Indians in 1947 and 1948. “There was a movement to bring the park back to its former glory, with Richards’ World Series win and Henry Curry’s influence as catalysts.”
Hancock said there may be no more important place to the history of the restoration of the park than the Bedford Cafe, which burned down in 2011.
According to his book, Richards, Curry, Robnett, Chiles, Howard, Jimmy O’Neal, Odell Whitesell and Bruce Allen, a local district judge, held a Baseball Jamboree on Feb. 14, 1946, at the cafe for the price of $1. A $100 donation from Richards turned into $1,000 by the end of the night.
The money raised in February— comparable to $25,991.76 in 2016 with current inflation rates, according to www.savings.org — was enough to repair and reopen the park by early April.
Though the history of Richards Park reaches back further than two different centuries, the men who helped rebuild its glory and the one for which it is aptly named represent the modern history baseball fanatics cling to like a raft in a surging flood.
“We became a very famous baseball team back then,” Richards said in a recorded interview on display at the Ellis County Museum. “We won 65 consecutive high school games. That’s now enshrined in Cooperstown — with quite a bit of politicking on my part — as an all-time record.”
Whether it’s the legendary but true tale of Richards tossing double header wins as both a right and a left-handed pitcher, Ty Cobb’s visit to Jungle Park or the Indians’ 1988 run to the state baseball championships, baseball will always be synonymous with Waxahachie.
For those, like Wood, Richards Park is more than a mere ballpark.
For some, it’s a destination on a bucket list.
For others, the beginning of wedded bliss.
And for Waxahachie residents, it’s a second home.
“There aren’t many baseball fields that are historical landmarks in the state of Texas,” Wood said. “I’ll be sitting in my office and see people walk by taking pictures. A lot of them aren’t from Waxahachie. People have gotten married on that field. Since I’ve got here, I’ve never felt like an outsider. I’m proud of the tradition and bleed green for you if you’re Waxahachie.”
Marcus is the sports editor for both the Waxahachie Daily light and Midlothian Mirror. Follow him on Twitter at @MarcusMarionWNI. Contact the sports desk at 469-517-1456 and on Twitter by using #WDLsports and #MirrorSportsNB in tweets!