The Cleburne Railroaders were a minor league team that landed in the Texas League in 1906. In the previous season, the team played in Temple, but the financially strapped owner, Doak Roberts, was forced to move the team to Cleburne. The team had two future major leaguers in its ranks, of which one would end up with the Boston Red Sox and eventually become a Hall of Famer.
Doak Robert, the owner of the team, loved the game of baseball. He was a successful businessman in the coal and lumber business in Corsicana TX. He first owned a team in his hometown, later in Temple and finally in Cleburne. But despite his success as a businessman, his teams were not as successful financially. Despite his eye for talent, quite often, he had to invest money out of his own pockets because the teams could not stay afloat. After the Corsicana Oilers were moved to Temple for the 1905 season, the team still wasn’t financially healthy. Even though the team was in a close pennant race with the Forth Worth Panthers. Eventually, the Panthers won the 1905 Texas League pennant.
An old friend of Roberts, Charles Thacker from Cleburne, introduced Roberts to a group of businessmen that were willing to back Roberts in case he would lose money. In November 1905, the Texas League held a meeting in Dallas. Two new cities were added to the league: Greeneville and Cleburne, and thus the Cleburne Railroaders were born. Roberts would take most of his players with him from Temple to Cleburne.
But even before the season started, disaster struck. On April 12, the Railroaders played an exhibition game in preparation for the upcoming Texas League season. But Spring in Texas is also the time of severe tornados. During the game, the town was hit by one and the roof of the grandstand was blown off. First, it looked like nobody was seriously injured but when people looked for their blown off hats, a young was found, who was hit by a large board breaking his shoulder and collar bone and inflicting a severe blow to his head. One day later these injuries would prove to be fatal.
The first game of the season, on April 25, was preceded by a parade, which was usual in those days. The team played at quickly erected Gorman Park, a wooden ballpark, which was also a common thing in those days. Cleburne was one of the smallest towns in the Texas League. In the previous season, two small towns were pulled during the season because the population was too small to support the teams. Cleburne was a town like that with a population of less than 10,000 (even though the city itself gave up a number of 14,000), but still, the town received an invitation to participate in the Texas League.
The opening game vs the Dallas Giants was lost 4-0. Even though it was usual that the home team batted second in an inning (it wasn’t a rule back then), the Railroaders opted to bat first. The Railroaders were still a work in progress, as some players would be replaced during the season.
On May 20, Deak Roberts went to Corsicana to watch a game of the local semi-pro team.. He went there to scout for players. An 18-year old player that stood out especially, was able to pitch and to play shortstop. This player was Tris Speaker, future major leaguer and Hall of Famer. At that day, Speaker was on the mound and he pitched a fine game, painting the corners of the plate. But to the surprise of Roberts, Speaker was able to handle a bat too. With one of his starting pitchers, Dode Criss, injured, Robert could use another pitcher that could hit. If Criss would be healthy again, the Railroaders would have the advantage of two batters that could hit.
After the game, Roberts would offer Speaker a contract worth $50 per month. Eventually, Speaker wasn’t as valuable as a pitcher as he lost seven out of eleven starts and only won two. But as an outfielder, he proved his value with a fielding percentage of .991.
With the discovery of Tris Speaker, a spot in the history books was secured for Deak Roberts. Both Criss and Speaker would end up in the Major Leagues. Criss would end up playing for the St. Louis Browns for four seasons. Ty Cobb once stated “The St. Louis Browns used to have a fellow named Dode Criss, who I have often thought was one of the tragedies of baseball. A gold-plated case of a man, who was born 20 years before his time.
He rarely struck out and nearly always hit a long ball. But with the old baseball (the ball used in the dead ball era), his drives didn’t make enough difference and since he wasn’t a very good fielder, he spent most of the time on the bench. With the modern rabbit ball, Criss would have torn the league apart; he would have made today’s so-called sluggers look sick. Could the Browns use him today.”
Speaker, on the other hand, moved up through the minor league system and ended up with the Boston Red Sox. After a career of 21 years, Speaker was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1937.
One of the players that Roberts signed was Zena Clayton. He played for Roberts’ Temple team in the previous season but then signed with Houston of the Southern Texas League for the 1906 season. Not satisfied with his third basemen, Doak Roberts contacted Clayton to persuade him to return to his team, which Clayton did. But Houston started to protest and reclaimed Clayton. Roberts argued, but when Houston threatened with legal steps, Roberts decided to let his prized player return to Houston.
Eventually, the Railroaders finished on top of the highly favored Fort Worth Panthers and won the 1906 Texas League pennant. The Texas League wanted to grant a spot in the league to Cleburne for the next season but only if there was sufficient financial backup. But the team had not drawn that well, even if it was a championship caliber team. Because of this, the Cleburne businessmen that cooperated with Doak Roberts and Charles Thacker were not interested in investing money into the team anymore. This was the deathblow to the team and Doak Roberts took the team with him and moved it elsewhere. Likely he took the team
back to Corsicana where it played in the North Texas League as the Oilers.
Doak Roberts would become the president of the Texas League in 1920 and would keep that position until his death in 1929. Before he was elected president of the Texas League, Roberts would manage several teams.
For the 2017 season, the independent American Association will add a new team. This team will be located in Cleburne and will be called the Railroaders as well, referring to the one-time champion of 1906.