Bernice Historical Society
People and Places
Bernice and Baseball
Through the years much has been written about the Big Eight Bernice Lions of the 1950’s but what you might not know is that baseball was alive and well in the rural areas of Union Parish long before the town of Bernice ever saw the light of day. Those were the days when players rode to the “ball yard” on a mule and played until darkness stopped play. Only one or two among the group actually played with a glove. A field was a pasture without too many rough places and there was a game every Saturday afternoon and often on Sunday afternoon as well.
The small town of Shiloh had a team made up of the town’s best athletes only if they had completed their chores and only after the crop’s were “laid by”. Games were well attended by the community and the opposing team as well. Newspaper accounts indicate games played for special occasions with spectators numbered around one thousand. Game days were important and the stores closed up as game time approached.
Shiloh was part of an informal league of teams made up of Homer, Hico, Farmerville, D’Arbonne, Sardis and Ward’s Chapel. Often end of year games would be played with teams as far away as Shreveport and the local teams would make up a team composed of the best players from each squad.
One trip of the Shiloh team to Shreveport was remembered in a 1931 article that appeared in the Ruston Daily Leader: “The invading party from Shiloh took at least a day of overland wagon or buggy travel to reach Ruston for a train ride to the city. There they dropped a questionably decision against the Shreveport team and some of the boys thought that a little bit of “city licking” won for the hosts. Some of the players in Shiloh at that time in addition to Pitcher Jack Wainwright were: Walker Elliott, now of Ruston; Tobe Grafton, of Bernice; Beasley Baker, Physician in Texas; Bob Buce of Winnfield: Jep Breed, a Mississippi banker; Dave Johnson of Epps; Miles Davis of Bastrop; Jack Buce, now deceased; and Frank Roberts, catcher.
With the fire of 1899 destroying the business section of Shiloh and the coming of the railroad signaling the start of Bernice many of these ball players moved from Shiloh to Bernice and began to play for the Bernice team. There is a recorded game played against Spearsville as early as 1904.
Newspaper accounts record the team from Bernice playing a game against Jonesboro in June of 1909. The game lasted only an only and 25 minutes and Bernice scored 5 runs and held Jonesboro to a scoreless game. The highlight of the game was the pitching of J. L. Caldwell and the work of the cathcer, Muse.
The next year Bernice defeated Farmerville in 3 games played on three consecutive days in late June. By 1911 Bernice’s ace pitcher J. L. Caldwell was playing in the Ardmore, Oklahoma league and the next year was purchased by the Dallas Giants. Caldwell was 21 years of age and stood 6 feet one inches tall and weighed 185 pounds. He was touted as “having a lot of smoke” on the mound and was also a good hitter.
Another early player who came from Shiloh to Bernice was Seaborn Jesse “Red” Booles who began his professional career with the Shreveport Pirates in 1908 winning 16 games and losing 16. He was sold to the Raleigh Red Birds in 1909 and sported a 9 and 7 record and a .243 batting average. He was sold back to Shreveport and then to the Cleveland Naps for $1,000. His career with the Naps consisted of only 4 games in 1909 and in 1910 he was sent to a farm club in Toledo. A local news article stated “the freckled chap has oodles of it in that big arm when he gets it working good” and another described him as “a sandy haired lad with the sun kissed complexion.” Unfortunately for Booles he tended to be “as wild as a March hare” and by 1915 had returned to Bernice and was playing for the local team.
In addition to Booles, Jack Wainwright from Shiloh also played in the Texas League as a pitcher.
By 1915 both Booles and Wainwright were playing for a strong Bernice team that played many a game against Monroe with wins being traded seemingly each time they met on the field. One game played in Monroe in 1916 saw the Bernice team made up of Caldwell, Muse, Barham, Miller, Miller, Porter, Riordan, Kendrick and Thompson lose to Monroe 17 to 13. In this game Bernice used 5 different players as pitches.
An August 1915 game against Monroe resulted in an almost automatic win against Bernice. On the way to Monroe the “Fliver” in which five of the players were riding broke down and only the four in the other vehicle were able to make it to the field. The Monroe team gave Bernice five of their players and the game began only to be ended in the second inning when a heavy rain flooded the field. After a thirty minute delay the game continued but both pitchers had trouble throwing the wet baseball.
In 1921 the Bernice baseball field was described as an old corn field. Farmerville brought their team to the corn field only to be defeated by a score of 14 to 13 and in their sorrow described the event as “not a ball game but a burlesque on baseball”. The next day the Farmerville Manager turned down a request from another team but had to decline stating his team “had been beaten to death the day before chasing balls down the corn rows of Bernice.”
This field may have been the one remembered by Lonnie Gray who said that the field was located on the site which now holds the school gymnasium. Baseball continued through the 1920’s with local names prominent in the line up: Thaxton, Hollis, Laurence, Mabry, Grafton and Ledbetter. It was in 1929 that a fan wrote a letter to the Shreveport Times and suggested that since baseball was so popular in the smaller towns that towns like “Haynesville, Minden, Arcadia, Ruston, Homer, and Bernice should have a semi-pro team made up of players of their respective towns and arrange games”. This same fan suggested teams of younger players should be formed to keep the game alive. The Sports Editor of the Times agreed to the idea and felt that Shreveport could send teams into these towns for week-end games. This suggestion would prove to be the start of the League that grew to become The Big Eight.
By the start of the 1930’s an informal league was operating across North Louisiana. Both Ruston and Bernice competed in the League along with teams from local towns in Union and Lincoln parish.
All the players took part in the program for the love of the game and no member was paid at any time. Lonnie Gray remembers playing with his brother Frank Gray, James and Fred Glover, Jim Hollis, John Caldwell, Jr., Stanford Tucker, Chick Burns, Sydney Pratt, Martin Porter, Rufus Smith, Curtis Green, John Porter, Barham Sterling and Max Akin.
Bernice sent several players into the starting lineup at Louisiana Tech. One of these outstanding players was Wick Laurence a star on the Bernice Team who in 1932 in his third season with the Bulldogs was chosen Captain of the team. Laurence was considered by Tech as “one of the classiest fielders for the hot corner (third) to serve on the Bulldog nine. The third baseman started as a regular in his first try for the Tech varsity and developed into quite a hitter.
In the summer months these Tech players would align themselves with these local semi-pro teams and Bernice players. Laurence and “Sport” Grafton were known to align themselves with their “first love” in their home town team of Bernice. They were joined in the early thirties by All State players Albritton and Still and won most of their games against strong teams.
In a May of 1933 the Louisiana Tech canines played a series of games against the Bernice town team which was said to be the “possessor of several excellent players, among them Laurence and Grafton, formerly of Tech and from their performances, they haven’t lost anything of their old flash and form. In the positions of short and third they cover lost s of territory and are expected to carry the local team this summer.” Playing with these two that summer were Gresham, Pratt, Tucker, Burns, Shackleford, Kelly, Glover and Miller.
Cathy Buckley is a native of Union Parish and lifelong citizen of Shiloh. She served as Principal of Spearsville High School for many years until her retirement. Cathy is now the director of the Bernice Depot Museum and a active member of the Bernice Historical Society.