The Obit For Hal Epps

Epps basked in love affair with baseball

Houston Chronicle

August 26, 2004

The news was the kind that made you melancholy, rather than ultra-sad or weepy, news of another vintage.

You related to it as you did the headlines that announced the death of "the oldest living Confederate veteran."

Not that Hal Epps was even close to being a relic of history so far removed. But he was 90 when he died in the hours before dawn Thursday, after a full and good and fortunate life.

In many ways, he was to be envied because he led the life he chose. Epps was a professional baseball player for 18 seasons, almost all of them in the minor leagues. He served in the South Pacific at the end of World War II, which made him a member of what has been labeled The Greatest Generation.

Will always be a Buff

But he is remembered in Houston, by a dwindling circle of fans who cherish that era, as the center fielder on the 1947 Houston Buffs, who won the Texas League championship on the season's final day and then beat Mobile in the Dixie Series. That was the last time a pro baseball team gave the city a world title, having conquered the world in which it played.

In a race that went down to the final day, Epps singled home Billy Costa from second base in the bottom of the ninth, and the Buffs beat the Fort Worth Cats and won the pennant by a half-game.

Over the years, when Houston teams won a championship they usually did so without running up the score. In sports, the city's credo was waste not, want not.

It wasn't unusual for Epps to drive in the winning run. He had a reputation for delivering in the clutch. He rarely hit for power, but he compiled a lifetime .300 average in the minors, and his speed enabled him to make graceful and even dazzling catches. He rarely made a mistake and was a fine baserunner.

Epps became a fan favorite because he never gave less than his best, and he looked like Hollywood's idea of an athlete. He was slender at 6-1 and 175, with light brown, almost blond hair and true blue eyes.

But it also mattered that he came along when the minor leagues had a culture all their own. Cities in the outback such as Houston and Atlanta and Miami adored their teams and showered the players with gifts — to supplement the puny salaries they earned.

A major attraction

Buff Stadium attracted crowds larger than some major-league teams, and it was easily the best-smelling park in America, located across the railroad tracks from a bakery. The aroma of Mrs. Baird's bread, fresh out of the oven, perfumed the stands.

When a player hit a home run, he was rewarded with a case of Wheaties breakfast cereal. The cases piled up under the stands and Allen Russell, who owned and ran the team, finally had to toss them out because they attracted rats.

Epps would have been a big-leaguer if he had belonged to a lesser organization than the St. Louis Cardinals. The outfield had Enos Slaughter in left, Terry Moore in center and Joe Medwick in right.

When Medwick finally grew old, Stan Musial replaced him.

Epps played parts of four seasons in the majors; two with the Cardinals and winding up with the Browns and the Philadelphia A's. He might have been among a handful of players who could say they wore the uniforms of both St. Louis teams, although the Browns were a joke for most of their existence.

Epps went to bat 50 times as a rookie in 1938, hit .300 on the nose and homered in his first turn at-bat. No stranger to irony, he never hit another.

Such stars as Slaughter, Johnny Mize and Musial overshadowed the durable and reliable Moore. But Epps admired the center fielder greatly, and they became such close friends that Hal named his son after the fellow who kept him in the minor leagues.

You don't live to 90 without a few blessings, not without making an enemy or two. But everyone who knew him described Epps as a gentleman and a sportsman. He was so popular that long after he retired he received an average of three letters a week.

Two weeks before his death, his daughter Connie read one out loud from a fan who wanted to know what he considered his biggest thrill.

"Just playing ball," he said.

In a month when fans and non-fans were riveted on the television pictures out of Greece, it seems so fitting to note that Harold Franklin Epps was born in Athens — Georgia. He was the first pro ballplayer to be inducted into the city's Hall of Fame.

He managed in a semipro league for a year or two, then spent a quarter of a century working in security for Armco Steel. Eventually, he suffered from a bone disease the doctors blamed on Epps' habit of crashing into fences while catching fly balls. In his day, they weren't padded and there were no warning tracks.

Epps was the next-to-last survivor of the 1947 team. Now Solly Hemus, the second baseman, is the last one standing.

Hemus, who later played for and managed the Cardinals, was out of the country this week. His office faxed him the details of the funeral, which will be at the Veterans' Cemetery at 11:30 a.m. Monday.

All of Hal's teammates will be there.