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Tom Kayser, Former Texas League President, Baseball Historian, and Author
Episode 1022nd April 2020 • The Alamo Hour • Justin Hill
00:00:00 01:13:42

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Tom Kayser was the president of the Texas League for 25 years. The San Antonio Missions were members of the Texas League during that time. He has authored books on the Texas League and baseball's Texas history. He is revered for his success as the president and his love of the game. Listen to him share his stories and thoughts on the game that defined his life.


Justin Hill: Hello and Bienvenidos, San Antonio. Welcome to The Alamo Hour discussing the people, places and passion that make our city. My name is Justin Hill, a local attorney, a proud San Antonian, and keeper of chickens and bees. On The Alamo Hour, you'll get to hear from the people that make San Antonio great and unique and the best kept secret in Texas. We're glad that you're here. All right, welcome to episode 10 of The Alamo Hour. Today's guest is Tom Kayser. Tom is a baseball man. He was the president of the Texas League for 25 years. It's one of three double-A minor leagues. That's a yes, I got a head nod.

Tom Kayser: Sorry.


Justin: He wrote Baseball in The Lone Star State, the Texas Leagues greatest hits. He wrote The Texas League Almanac. In 2016, he was inducted into the Texas League Hall of Fame. We've asked him on here today to talk about Texas, Texas baseball, the Missions. The Missions were part of the Texas League and I think, Tom's got a lot to add on. Anybody who's interested in baseball, anybody who's followed the city's quest to get a baseball team and sort of the considerations there. Tom, thank you for being here.

Tom: I'm happy to do it.

Justin: I always start these with kind of a top 10 list. Get to know a little bit more about you, get to know sort of your connection to our city. You do live in San Antonio, right?

Tom: Absolutely.

Justin: How long have you lived here and sort of what part of town have you lived in?

Tom: Bought a house inside of 1604, in the East of 281 back in October of '93 and I still live in that house.

Justin: Is that right?

Tom: Yes.

Justin: A lot's changed there.

Tom: Yes. There wasn't anything on the other side of 1604. As a matter of fact, Gold Canyon wasn't even there back then. You could go across 281 on a bridge, on the Henderson Pass, it used to cross over there and can't do that anymore, but too many people.

Justin: You've been here a long time.

Tom: I have.

Justin: Straight the whole time, '93 on.

Tom: Absolutely.

Justin: We're in COVID shutdown. This is kind of a strange question, but I think it works. Any favorite place to eat right now? We're doing a bunch of takeout. We're trying to support our old favorites, but is there any spot you're going to or are you shut down?

Tom: I'm a pretty good cook, HEB basically. I buy my supplies, but we're coming out of the soup season. I'm just finishing a barley mushroom soup which is fabulous. Having had my office in my house, it's really what I tended to do is eat at home a lot. I wish I could come up with a top.

Justin: I need to learn.

Tom: Pericos on Saturday morning on 1604 because we've had a group, go on a breakfast on Saturday for tacos forever.

Justin: That's great.

Tom: It's down to a very slimmed-down group of four.

Justin: Right now?

Tom: No. We really miss it too, boy.

Justin: We'll be there again soon. I had Commissioner [unintelligible 00:03:13] here and I said, we'll get back to normal soon and he was not very encouraging to my optimism. I'm hoping he's wrong because I think we all need to. You've lived here long enough and you have been involved in baseball on the side of town that I really haven't spent much time where the Missions play in that part of town. Are there any things in San Antonio that you think are hidden gems, is what I call them? You've got somebody coming into town and you go, ''Yes, but this isn't in the guidebook, you really need to go see this or do this thing.''

Tom: I tend to take people to the Pearl for sure, but there are so many things that are on the top 10 that it's like, if you don't do those things, you really haven't seen San Antonio.

Justin: That's right.

Tom: Walking around downtown to going to the cathedral. I don't think enough people go to the cathedral downtown.

Justin: The Missions to me like the other missions. Those are beautiful.

Tom: Absolutely. I have done that where I put people on a car and we'll just do mission, drive from mission to mission. Things that are Hill country kind of stuff that you take people up and I drive up to 81.

Justin: Day trips.

Tom: I go see place like comfort or certainly, Blanco and see the courthouse there.

Justin: Blanco has gotten a lot better. It's now become kind of shi-shi. It's not spread Hertzberg but it's a lot more attractive to go visit.

Tom: As far as San Antonio, again, when you've got people coming in for a short period of time, it's tough for little jam.

Justin: That's right.

Tom: Now you go to the [unintelligible 00:04:50], you walk around the riverwalk. I think that when you take them to The Alamo and their first response is, ''I didn't realize it was so small.''

Justin: That's right.


Tom: Back then it was lots more stuff here. It's sort of been whittled down over here.

Justin: It's not the grand size of it. It's the import of what happened. What are you doing with your time? You're retired?

Tom: I am.

Justin: What do you do? You cook, obviously. What else do you do to stay busy?

Tom: Right now, it's a challenge. Lots of more reading, my garden is in good a shape as it's ever been. It's almost daily go out and prune and pluck, and get the dead stuff out of there.

Justin: What are you reading?

Tom: Oh boy, I'm an eclectic reader. I love history. I just got done with a Walter Mosley book. He's one of the great writers, one of the great wordsmiths. People don't know Walter Mosley.

Justin: I don't know him.

Tom: He's just magical.

Justin: Nonfiction, fiction?

Tom: It's fiction. Easy Rawlins was his detective, Devil in a Blue Dress. He did a whole series of that. He writes from the black perspective and his protagonists and genres are almost entirely African American, but he's use of the language is spectacular.

Justin: It's a lost art.

Tom: My guilty pleasure is a British Naval Swashbucklers and I just heard a guy read one of a series by an author named Michael Aye, A-Y-E. Smart and Stable Genius. I just read that and I think my hair is starting going to curl.


Justin: We'll leave that there because this could go in many directions.

Tom: Now I'm reading Longitude.

Justin: What's that one?

Tom: That's the discovery of- see where the chronometer is that would help mariners establish exactly where they're located. The story of how, who it was and how it happened. I'm just starting that.

Justin: It seems very dense.

Tom: No, it's very thin, but it's recommended. I've read-- Somebody recommended it and said, it's a great read.

Justin: We got more questions for your episode than anybody so far, which I didn't realize. People that are baseball fans. I have a fair-weather group, the people that are into it.

One of the questions I've incorporated into this is, who are the highest-profile players that came through the Texas League while you were there? They specifically said, not the ones coming through injury or out of retirement.

Tom: Very first year, Mike Piazza was here in San Antonio.

Justin: I didn't know that.

Tom: He was only in the Texas League for something like 30 some days because he just tore it up. I never saw him play in the Texas League. Back in 1992, my offices were still in Illinois. I ran the Texas League from Rockford, Illinois for two seasons until I sold my condo and eventually buy my house here. Mike Trout, I can remember, what a nice young kid.

Justin: Mike Trout came through the Texas League?

Tom: He was at Arkansas for an entire season. I can remember Adrian Bell Trey was 18-year-old [unintelligible 00:08:34] coming up through the Dodgers System. Dodgers have a tendency or did then to over-promote, not over-promote in terms of what league they were going to go to, but build somebody up as a trade value kind of thing. It's like I've heard this before.

He stepped into the box for his first double-A at [unintelligible 00:09:02]. He didn't even see a pitch and my eyes are bulging because of the way he approached the plate and got ready for that first at [unintelligible 00:09:11]. He looked like a 10-year veteran. He was like 18. Oh, golly, there's so many. Bobby Abreu came through this league, Berkman, Korea.

Justin: Full seasons for a lot of these guys.

Tom: There were so many Houston guys or St. Louis. J.D Drew came through here and the list is almost endless. Those are guys that come to mind immediately.

Justin: Was Mike Trout just knocking the skin [crosstalk]?

Tom: He was like a Mickey Mantle.

Justin: He's a freak.

Tom: You couldn't hit a ball over his head. He just looked so good. I don't think he was 20. He was 19, 20 years old when he came through the Texas League.

Justin: I watch videos of him playing in high school.

Tom: Yes. You see these guys, it's like how did he last until late first round? Which I think he was 24, 28 somewhere--

Justin: I didn't know that.

Tom: Yes. It's because he was from New Jersey and who comes out of New Jersey and they have a short season in terms of the period of when high schools can play where you're not dodging snowstorms in April and just good scouting. Every year it seemed like there was somebody. Felix Hernandez, King Felix who came through here later traded or he was with Seattle. He was a great starting pitcher for so long.

Justin: Trout signed the biggest contract in history and he came through so it's hard to talk that.

Tom: Yes. He was here almost the entire season, if not the entire season.

Justin: Did he come through and play in San Antonio at any point?

Tom: Absolutely. He did it only twice because of the way the Texas League schedule you'd have seen maybe five games and each half, but he was here.

Justin: Wow. Being able to see him at a double-A would be a cool thing to say you've seen and he did.

Tom: It was, It was cool.

Justin: You're a historian. You're obviously a fan of sport. Do you have a team that you follow? Like your go-to Cowboys fan or whatever it is?

Tom: Yes, Pirates.

Justin: All right.

Tom: I wasn't a Pirate fan. I was a Dodger fan growing up, then a Cub fan later because my first game I ever saw was in the Coliseum in LA and then we moved back to Chicago and that was the Ernie Banks, Ron Santo bunch, and that was fun to be able to just hop on a train and go to Wrigley Field. When I went to school, I was in a small school in downtown Pittsburgh and, boy, did I take a ribbing because the pirates own the Cubs. The Willie Stargell bunch. Then it was ironic then I went from owning a minor league baseball team to going to Pittsburgh as the assistant minor league director. I still bleed black and gold. It's a long-suffering.


Justin: It's great to say you got to work for him too. Who gets to do that?

Tom: Yes, exactly.

Justin: Are the balls juiced?

Tom: I think they must have had something going on because I just read an article-- You had all these home runs last season and then in the playoffs, it seemed like the long balls took a drop. Just recently, it was discovered that they used some baseballs from 2018 in the playoffs.

Justin: Is that right?

Tom: Yes.

Justin: I didn't know that.

Tom: That explains the difference in productivity, apparently. People were saying, "There it is. The homeboy--" Nobody said, ''[unintelligible 00:13:30] during the season. What's going on?" It's like, "Where did you find?" It's not like the Texas League where they call Tom up and say, ''Tom, do you have any spare baseballs?'' I always had about 10 or 20 dozen in my garage because the companies-- Rawlings would send each league 10 dozen balls at the start of the season for special events. I just kept them there for emergencies. There were times when it's like a shipment didn't arrive and we need balls and it's like, "I'll get them." I will tend to suffice often, it'd be beautiful.

Justin: All of you have been using the same balls in the Texas League this past season as major leagues?

Tom: It's a different quality. I can't tell you what the difference is, whether it's the yarn, whether the way it's sewn or, whatever it is. The major league ball had a different quality now. Beginning I think in 19, triple-A and double-A were using the same ball as Major League Baseball, but it wasn't happening when I was president.

Justin: Did you ever look or do you know whether their home-run numbers went up like major leagues?

Tom: I don't. Once I retired, I wasn't following it quite so strictly. I would see things. Having said that, Tulsa during the playoffs, set an all-time Texas League record by hitting nine home-runs in a playoff game. One might surmise that- [laughs]

Justin: That something was going on.

Tom: Yes, exactly.

Justin: What's the biggest changes you've seen to the city since you moved here in '93?

Tom: Well, certainly population density when I moved here was below 800,000. Now we're almost two million if not over to two million. Where I live is 23.4 miles from Wolff Stadium and it used to take me maybe 20 minutes. [laughs]

Justin: [unintelligible 00:15:32]

Tom: Yes. Toward the end, it was like there were days when it could be 45. 281 was all hung up or whatever.

Justin: When you were the president was Wolff Stadium where your office was or was it at your house?

Tom: No, no, I had my office in my house. Which was good practice we're going through now.

Justin: Did you convince the league to let you move-- What brought you to San Antonio?

Tom: They gave me the option to choose any city in the territory justified. I could have moved to Dallas if I could have justified it. I wanted to be in a city where there was a team. Why wouldn't you want to be somewhere where you could easily go to a ballgame when they're home? I looked at Little Rock, I looked at Tulsa, I looked to San Antonio and then I was like, "There really isn't a choice." If I were married, I might have gone to Tulsa and had kids but I didn't.

Arkansas, Little Rock was a surprising possibility. My very best friend lived there. He was the operator of the Arkansas Travelers, the legendary Bill Valentine. I told somebody if I moved a Little Rock, I will weigh 300 pounds within two years because we'll go out eating and drinking after every doggone ballgame, and he's an epicure and a wine guy. I wouldn't be sitting here. I'd be dead.

Justin: We've got to know our limitations.

Tom: San Antonio was it, and it was a great choice.

Justin: You loved it?

Tom: Yes.

Justin: Let's just get started. I had no real understanding as to what the Texas League was, the history of it. If somebody said, "What's the Texas League?" What do you tell them?

Tom: One of the longest, most-- Maybe the second most storied minor league in the entire system behind the international league, which I think came into being in the late 1870s. The Texas League was first formed in 1888. While it wasn't continuous until the early part of the 20th century. It was a big deal in Texas from the very beginning. It had its ups and downs and seasons when it started and didn't complete. Great players have been playing in the Texas League since the very beginning. I was looking at a year to remind myself, Tris Speaker, one of the greatest ballplayers in the early part of the 20th century, won a batting title at Houston in 1907, hall of famer, right up to guys like Ron Santo, Willie McCovey, Joe Morgan, all played in the Texas League.

Justin: Roberto Alomar.

Tom: Yes. Brooks Robinson. It is in both legend and fact. It's a well-known league for developing players and the legend comes in with, of course, everybody knows the term Texas leaguer.

Justin: That was one of the questions I had been told to ask you. What is the origin and what is a Texas leaguer?

Tom: I'll give you what I think it is and I'll give you what is probably the neatest answer. What I think it is, is back in those days in the early part of baseball, it was not uncommon for players to go from any level to the big leagues. Back then, the Texas League was in A-Level, it might even have been a B classification. Because there were no farm systems, you had scouts for every major league team or networks of people that they would talk to and they would-- It's like see this hill guy down in Fort Worth, if you need somebody, he deserves a shot.

What I think happened is you'd get somebody going up to the big leagues and he shoot a flare just over second base out of the reach of the infielder and that was derisively called a Texas League hit. The dying quail, the flare, and that probably has the best provenance too. It makes sense. Now the one that I liked the best was the story of a couple of Cowboys were at a Fort Worth ballgame and one says to the other, "I bet you can't shoot that ball out of the air." And the other old boys said, "I'll bet you I can," and here comes a fly ball and Cowboy shoots the ball right out of the air. Ball drops dead as a doorknob behind second base and that was a Texas League. I think that that's rather unlikely but who knows, it might've happened.

Justin: The person who asked me said that they had heard that it was because the lines used to be so long in Texas League games and the fence was so far back that the outfielders played further back, but he said," I don't even know where I heard that. I just heard that once."

Tom: Probably that is true but I think it's much more to do with, we kit just out of the reach of the infielders.

Justin: Okay. The Texas League, when I looked it up and I was trying to do some research, there's zero chance I'll be able to get through even a small amount, but it looks like almost every team of any population in Texas at some point had a team. Now it's all double-A teams and it seems to be much more, I'm not going to say corporate, but it looks like back in the olden days or the older days, it was a local Texas League and everybody had teams, is that true?

Tom: Yes. It even amazed me when I was writing those teams down because it's like, "I'll never remember them all." It's hard to imagine today that a place like Temple or Greenville or Cleburne or Corsicana or Paris, Texacano, Sherman, all of these teams were regularly appearing from 1888 until about 1910.

Again, it really isn't a whole lot different than today. It's like follow the money. These were big cotton towns or oil towns or railheads, where people were passing through or there was money banking, whatever. That's what happened back then. A banker's son would be enamored with baseball and he'd convince his father to buy the team in [unintelligible 00:22:42] and take it to Greenville or wherever.

Those kinds of things happened, or they were failing, the team wasn't doing well. They were not drawing any people and they up stakes and move to the next town over and get some fresh cash. Those things were not uncommon even into the early '60s when baseball was in a trough where you had Rio Grande Valley or Victoria moving and going to somewhere in Oklahoma and then Rio Grande Valley two weeks later going into...