McAlester baseball dominated Texoma in 1950s; what happened?
McALESTER, Okla. (KTEN) – The Sooner State League was a low-level baseball league in the 1940s and 50s that gave some Texoma cities a team to root for after World War II.
The league formed with the help of Paul Crowl Sr., who was also named president of the McAlester Rockets.
In the inaugural season, following a modest 73-67 season, the third-place Rockets faced the Ada Herefords in the first round. The McAlester group found themselves in a 2-1 hole in this 3-out-of-5 series with just one inning left to play.
Thomas Crowl, Paul's nephew, was just a teenager at the time, but was incredibly involved in the team. He said the visiting Herefords smacked in a handful of runs to take a 17-12 lead in the slugfest that was Game 4. Backs against the wall, the Rockets swung away, notching run after run.
“We were basically out of it, it sounds like,” Crowl said. “Doggone it if we didn’t keep scoring and keep scoring and ended up winning 18-17.”
That win set them up for a winner-take-all Game 5.
“McAlester faced a big left-handed pitcher,” Crowl said. “He had one eye and he was named [William] Donaghey.”
The 200-pound lefty finished the year with a 22-7 record and a 2.61 ERA. Ada hoped he would be their guy to close out the series — especially after forfeiting 18 runs in the earlier contest. He pitched well in Game 5, but his performance wasn’t good enough to make up for Ada’s quiet bats, as the Rockets advanced with a 2-1 win.
The upset of the second-seed Ada team earned the Rockets a spot in the championship, where they faced an Ardmore Indians squad that just pulled off an unlikely win of their own over top-seeded Lawton in a best-of-7 series.
In only five games, the Rockets emerged the victors of the Sooner State League’s first championship.
“That gave us a great sendoff into the rest of the time we were in the league,” Crowl said.
The Rockets followed up with a 91-47 record the next year, which earned them the lead spot in the standings. But this time, they suffered an upset loss like the one they dished to Ada one year earlier, this time falling 4-2 to Seminole in the championship round.
But success for the Rockets would soon come again as they won four consecutive championships from 1950 to 1953.
Baseball in McAlester
McAlester was no stranger to baseball. The city had hosted teams stretching all they way back to 1905. And once the weight of World War II was over, it was time for a return. They could have gone back to the names they once knew, like the Giants or Miners, but the front office elected to get the fans involved.
“The Board of Directors for the McAlester team thought it would be a good plan to have people send in prospective names to rev up interest in the baseball team.”
Crowl said the first mention of the name "Rockets" came from Tom Brecheen, a worker at the naval rocket manufacturing plant just south of the city. His son Harry would actually go on to play Major League ball, and was inducted into the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame in 2018.
The original Rockets jersey spelled the team’s name in cursive across the chest with red piping around the collar, and a red outline of a rocket on one sleeve.
Later on, the team received hand-me-down jerseys from the Yankees, which changed their color scheme to blue and white, with those classic pinstripes.
Crowl joked, saying he wished they thought of the idea sooner to sell those jerseys to make a quick buck.
Similar to the Yankees, the Rockets displayed an interlocking ‘McA’ logo over the chest, similar to the major league team’s ‘NY’ logo.
The players’ caps only underwent one small change, trading a red hat with a white ‘M’ for a blue one.
Crowl’s uncle was the team president, which came with perks a teenager could only dream about.
“'Color analyst,' I guess, would be a big name for it,” he said.
But that was only for away games. His uncle believed if they broadcast the home games, fans would be less likely to come to the ballpark and buy a ticket.
He followed Bill Skeith to the booth and offered some commentary about the Rockets' play. Skeith was also responsible for the nickname given to an eventual Hall-of-Famer who played for McAlester in 1949 and 1950.
During his time on the Rockets, Dorrell Herzog became tired of opposing media assuming his name was misspelled, resulting in his name being written as “Darrell.” So he asked Skeith for a nickname to clear any of that confusion.
Crowl said thanks to Herzog’s blinding white buzz cut, Skeith settled on "Whitey." That nickname stuck all the way to the majors, where he played before managing the St. Louis Cardinals.
Herzog was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010 and his number 24 was retired by the Cardinals.
Crowl also learned that the Rockets missed out on a prospect that would end up becoming one of baseball’s best.
The Rockets and the Independence Yankees, a Kansas minor league team, were both Class D affiliates of the Yanks. Bill McPhail, son of Yankees co-owner Larry McPhail, handled some of the relationships with lower-level teams. He alternated picks between the Rockets and Independence, so if he had a prospect, he would ask McAlester if they wanted him before asking the Kansas team. Then he would flip the order the next time a prospect came around.
This time, it was McAlester’s pick at a player. Crowl said McPhail offered them a young shortstop who, admittedly made a few errors, but had a lot of promise.
The Rockets’ season was already underway, and there really wasn’t room for this youngster.
“My uncle said, 'I believe we will just let him go to Independence,'” Crowl said. “And so we missed out on Mickey... Mickey Mantle.”
He said the Rockets did get Mantle's younger twin brothers a few years later. Crowl said they both hit over .300 for them, but noted they didn't have the same talent as Mickey.
What remains today
Before the Rockets, Jeff Lee Stadium was home to the McAlester High School football team. But when the baseball team came to town, the city decided both could play there.
Crowl said that changed his junior and senior year in high school in a football uniform.
“The whole football games were based on trying to stay away from the mud pit,” Crowl said.
The dual use caused issues for both sports.
“It was a great place for football, but it sure was a mess for playing combination sports,” Crowl said.
Most of Jeff Lee Stadium has been destroyed, but one sign of its old life still exists.
“They cast the whole stadium someplace else and then brought it in on trucks and all they had to do was just have these cranes put it together like LEGO,” Crowl said. “The first 12 rows now of the current stadium are precast concrete.”
What happened to the Rockets?
Minor league baseball, especially the lowest levels, couldn’t last forever.
“We had more attendance than anybody else through the years," Crowl said. "But even with that, we could not compete toward the end of the league, with television and air conditioning.”
Why go watch a bunch of high-school graduates sling the ball around when you could watch the pros on TV? And why leave your cold house to watch the sport and sit in the hot Oklahoma summer sun?
Those factors, Crowl said, were the death of most minor leagues. The entire Sooner State League folded in 1957, and professional baseball never returned to McAlester.