The Jazzman and the Iron Horse: Home, Home (Run) on the Range

What connection does a small tombstone in south Fort Worth have with one of the best-known baseball players of all time?

ballew-1910-censusTo connect the dots, we begin in Palestine, Texas, where on January 21, 1902 Smith Ballew is born. By high school he is in Sherman, where he studies art. But by college, at the University of Texas at Austin, he turns to music. Jazz quickly becomes his passion; he plays banjo and guitar.

ballew-ut-22“S. Bellow” is top row, second from the right, in the 1922 University of Texas yearbook.

By the early 1920s Ballew is tall and lanky, already a smooth southern jazzman when Harry Connick senior is still just a glissando in his father’s eye.

smith ballew 1923In 1923 Ballew plays banjo with Jimmie’s Joys of the University of Texas Orchestra on WBAP radio. With this orchestra in the early 1920s Smith Ballew begins to also perform vocals.

Later in 1923 Ballew forms his own band, the Texajazzers, and performs around the state (newspaper ad from Breckenridge).

In 1926 Smith Ballew’s orchestra is the house band of the Fort Worth Club, broadcast on WBAP. But Ballew soon moves on, first to California and then to New York, where in 1928 he is discovered by Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. In 1929 he forms the Smith Ballew Orchestra, which features the vocals of Ballew and the trombone of Glenn Miller. During the 1930s Ballew is much in demand as a jazz crooner and bandleader.

By 1936 Ballew has gone to Hollywood. He replaces another singer, Al Jolson, as host of the Shell Chateau radio program. Ballew’s agent is Zeppo Marx (right).

ballew-palm-springs-36In Hollywood Ballew begins to make movies. He will appear in twenty-four movies, usually westerns in which he . . . wait for it . . . sings. His first movie is Palm Springs with Frances Langford (also a singer). The movie also features David Niven, Spring Byington, and Sterling Holloway. Note that the New Liberty Theater is showing Oh, Susanna with Gene Autry and the Light Crust Doughboys of Fort Worth.

Meanwhile back in New York, in 1938, just three years before amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) will cut short first the career and then the life of Lou Gehrig, the Yankees first baseman trades his cleats for spurs, his pinstripes for chaps, and the horsehide for the Rawhide. That’s the title of the 20th Century-Fox movie that Gehrig co-stars in with . . .

Smith Ballew. (Bat, meet baton.)

In Rawhide Ballew plays Lou Gehrig’s attorney—a gunslingin’, song-singin’ attorney, of course. In the movie Gehrig plays himself: See, in the plot the Iron Horse retires from baseball, says goodbye at Grand Central Station to the boys on the sports beat, and moves out west, where seldom is heard a discouraging word from an umpire. Predictably, the movie features more rootin’ ’n’ tootin’ than batting ’n’ fielding, although in one scene Gehrig bats a baseball through a window pane to get the attention of his sister. And in another scene in a saloon (see still frame), Ballew watches as Gehrig fends off a gang of ornery hombres by beaning them with billiard balls pitched high and inside.

ballew-movies-1938Rawhide is shown at Fort Worth’s New Liberty Theater in April 1938 but has a lot of competition for the entertainment dollar, including roller derby at Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the Palace, and Mickey Rooney at the Hollywood and the Tivoli.

ballew 5-27-38 dmnThis photo is from the May 27, 1938 Dallas Morning News.

Rawhide was Lou Gehrig’s only feature film. At Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939 Gehrig delivered his “luckiest man on the face of the Earth” speech. He died in 1941.

By the early 1950s Smith Ballew’s career in music and movies had faded. In 1952 he moved to Fort Worth, where he did public relations work for Convair and then General Dynamics until his retirement in 1967. (His friendship with Howard Hughes in the 1940s had gotten Ballew a job in aviation.) (Dallas Morning News clip from 1974.)

ballew 3225 sodBallew lived in this house in Tanglewood.

ballew obitSmith Ballew died May 2, 1984. He is buried in Laurel Land Cemetery in south Fort Worth.

Listen to Smith Ballew and his orchestra in 1935:

Watch a clip of Rawhide:

Posts About Cinema in Cowtown


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5 Responses to The Jazzman and the Iron Horse: Home, Home (Run) on the Range

  1. C. Ferguson says:

    I still listen to Smith Ballew recordings, many available from Internet Archive. What a talented musician!

    Thank you for this biographical piece. I too was almost angry to think that so few people know this story.

  2. nancy brownlee says:

    We felt that way, too- and I’m a grade-AAA music freak. But meeting him- he was going into an assisted living situation because, I believe , he had Parkinson’s- was a real pleasure. And we have loved his house!

  3. Stephen Brown says:

    Smith Ballew’s actual first name is Sykes. Smith was from his mother. He is my 1st cousin 2X removed.

  4. nancy brownlee says:

    My mom still lives in the house in Tanglewood that she and my stepfather bought from Smith Ballew, a few years after his second wife (I think) died. Handsome, gentlemanly, talented Smith Ballew.

    • hometown says:

      What a great part of (too-little-known) Fort Worth history. I bike close to that address often. I still remember when I stumbled upon the Smith Ballew story. It was so interesting that I was almost MAD, indignant that I had lived in Fort Worth all my life but that no one had told me his story.

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