Coast’s love affair with baseball has a long, storied history

Gary Higginbotham
Gary Higginbotham Special to the Sun Herald

Minor league baseball has a long and important history on the Gulf Coast.

Local baseball historian Gary Higginbotham, who spoke at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art’s “Our Love Affair with Baseball” luncheon series Friday, said minor league baseball first came to Gulfport in 1906 with the Crabs. However, the Crabs only had a three-year run on the Coast, changing their name to the Sandcrabs for their final season in 1908, when they also played a few games in Biloxi.

Baseball’s return

Two decades later, minor league baseball returned to the Coast when a group of Gulfport businessmen bought the Cotton States League Brookhaven team and moved it to Gulfport as the Tarpons. Like the Crabs, that team also lasted only three years.

Both the Crabs and the Tarpons played at the Class D level, which was the lower level of baseball. In the early 1900s, Higginbotham said Class D teams were limited to 14 players, including pitchers, forcing many players to play both ways. In the 1920s, Higginbotham said baseball analysts figured it took a population of 50,000 to support a Class D team. However, Harrison County’s population never reached much above 45,000 before World War II.

Without baseball

When the Tarpons ceased operations on the Gulf Coast in 1928, it would be more than 80 years before minor league baseball returned to the area in the form of the Biloxi Shuckers, who started play in 2015 after moving from Huntsville, Alabama. The Shuckers trace their origins to the Nashville Sounds in 1978.

Despite the long period between the Tarpons and the Shuckers, baseball flirted with the Gulf Coast in the late ’20s and early ’30s with Cleveland checking the area as a possibility for spring training and the Washington Senators conducting spring training along the Coast in the early 1930s.

The Crabs and Sandcrabs finished fourth in the Class D Cotton State League in all three years of their existence. In 1906, John Bolin led the team in batting with a .314 average in 64 games. Joe Holland batted .246 in 73 games and Red Murch batted .242 in 106 games.

A long roster

But 1907 was more of the same, with Holland leading the team with a .248 average in 139 games. It also saw the arrival of Bob Gilks. Gilks started playing baseball in 1884 in Hamilton, Ohio. He played for 27 years, including five in the majors, and closed his career in 1918 at the age of 53.

In 1908, lifelong minor leaguer Tom Gettinger joined. Gettinger started playing in 1888 in Pennsylvania. He played 21 seasons and Gulfport was the final stop in his career. Jack Lively, who played all three years for Gulfport, led the team in batting in 1908 with a .298 average in 68 games. Holland, who was also on the Crabs all three years of their existence, hit .253 in 118 games.

The 1920s Tarpons would see the start of Spud Davis and Dixie Walker’s careers and the end of Joe “Doc” Evans and Cotton Knaupp’s careers.

Evans, who was part of the 1920 Cleveland Indians World Series championship team, getting four hits in the Series, came out of retirement to manage and play for the Tarpons in 1926. He was a doctor and as part of the agreement to manage the Tarpons, demanded to be allowed to practice medicine. He was with the Tarpons for one year, but stayed in Gulfport as a doctor until he died at 58.

Knaupp played two years in Gulfport, skipping the 1927 season. He played two years in the majors and 18 seasons in the minors. In 1928, his final season, he hit .262.

Davis played sparingly with Gulfport in 1926, hitting .308 in 27 games as a 21-year-old. Two years later, he made his first appearance with the St. Louis Cardinals and spent 16 seasons in the majors. His .308 lifetime batting average is fourth among all major league catchers.

Walker may be the most famous of the former Gulfport stars. After starting his major league career with the New York Yankees as the heir apparent to Babe Ruth in left field, he spent his most productive days playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers.