Former Stark quarterback becomes sports historian
Last updated 4/4/2023 at 3:04pm
In Orange, like most small Texas towns, everyone knows the name of the starting high school quarterback. He's a celebrity in town. Fifty years ago, Joey Robins led the old Stark High Tigers as a sophomore.
Today, he goes by "Joel" and is more of a bearded history professor who has given his old hometown an invaluable gift. The retired chemical, who has long lived in Friendswood, worked seven years to compile a detail history of sports at the old Orange High, later Stark High. The mascot was the "Bengal Tigers," later shortened to "Tigers."
He has printed more than 500 typed full-size pages and compiled them into a three-ring binder he calls "Tiger Tales." Besides the detailed history, it includes photographs not seen by the general public for decades.
The history goes back to 1909, the first year Orange High formed a football team. He has included a bit of state football history, reporting the University of Texas had the first college team in the 1880s. He also reports the discrepancies in whether Galveston Ball, Sam Houston High in Houston had the first high school football team, though the legendary writer Roy Bedichek, the second director of the University Interscholastic League for Texas high schools, determined the first true high school football game in the state was with Dallas High in 1900.
Robins was in town Friday and left copies of the book with the Orange Public Library and Heritage House Museum. He sold a few copies at Art in the Park. The Record newspapers has a copy and will be using his research for future history stories, including the time more than 80 years ago when timber heir and philanthropist Lutcher Stark build a fancy new stadium and bought the team new uniforms. Stark, who was not employed by the school district or on the school board, fired the head football coach for practicing in the uniforms before the big opening game. Only one person in town complained.
Stark's legacy today lives with the local Stark Foundation. Robins learned the foundation has the only complete set of the old "Orange Peel" high school year books. He was able to use the Benckenstein Archives at the foundation's museum and see the old yearbooks to get more history and find photographs from the days when photography was too expensive for small-town papers.
Robins graduated in the Stark High Class of 1966. He played football, basketball, and baseball, plus a little track. After his class 50th reunion in 2016, he became more interested in all the sports and his heroes growing up. He discovered that many of the old Orange Leader daily newspapers are online through the Portal to Texas History maintained by the University of North Texas. That enabled him to do a lot of research upstairs in his home "man cave," as he calls it.
However, he came into a few snags and learned to overcome them. Though a lot of the local papers are online, a lot are not. More are scanned into the portal's system every month, but Robins needed to fill the holes.
The Orange Public Library has the most complete set of old papers on microfilm, however the library has not had a working microfilm reading in several years. The Lamar State College Orange Library had a couple of readers and the public library would let people check the microfilm out to take across the street. But the readers at LSCO broke.
Robins said the library personnel helped him learn a new way to do his research. A Port Arthur public library had a new microfilm reader. He could request the Orange papers on microfilm at the Port Arthur library and then Orange library would sent the microfilm tapes to Port Arthur through the state's interlibrary loan system.
For some of the Orange papers that are missing from all microfilm, he used other newspapers, including those from Houston, to help fill in more information. The old yearbooks also helped, though they were not printed every year, especially during the years of the Great Depression.
Robins started a newsletter with old classmates and shared his research as it was going. Sarah Boehme with the Orange County Historical Society, is in his class and asked to print his work in Las Sabinas quarterly historical journal. His work reached a bigger audience and others asked about other sports.
Those requests led him to expand his research to include other sports for boys and girls. His book includes information and photographs of stadiums, gymnasiums, and fields. The kids in Orange may have been the only ones growing up in Texas who played on a professional baseball field. It was West End Park, the field with wooden grandstands built to attract the St. Louis Cardinals to have spring training camp there in 1921 and 1922.
The first local high school team played at West End Park, which was in the area of 14th Street near Cypress Avenue about where the city's new Recreation Center was built. The field was simple with a couple of small bleachers.
Using the available information, he figured Orange played about 40 football games in the years between 1910 and 1918. Of those games, 17 were against Port Arthur, 11, against Beaumont High, and six against Beaumont South Park High.
The Tigers even played Rice Institute (later university) twice during that period. One of the games was in 1912 and the Rice freshmen beat the Orange High team 13-0.
Robins also found out that no games were played during 1918 because of the Great Influenza and World War I.
His book has photos of early Orange High stars like Ox Emerson, who went to the University of Texas and played professional ball. He is now given credit for beginning the "Wishbone-T" formation. Also, Taro Kishi, the son of the founder of the Kishi farming community west of Orangefield, played football at Orange High and became a star player at Texas A&M, where he was the first Asian player.
Robins, of course, loves sports and enjoyed going back reading his favorite Leader sports writers from the 1950s and 1960s.
Robins was typical of many of the Baby Boom generation of kids who grew up in Orange. His father was a World War II veteran who got a job after the war with the new DuPont Sabine River Works. His parents moved into the expansive Riverside housing complex along Simmons Drive. Joel and his younger sister, Becky, were born in Orange, grew up in Riverside and then the family moved to a house in one of the new subdivisions on the west side of town. Becky was a Tiger cheerleader and homecoming queen.
After graduating from Stark, Robins went to Texas A&M on a baseball scholarship and studied dentistry. He said that after a couple of years, he realized he would never play major league ball. He left A&M and went to Lamar for a year.
But he longed for somewhere else. He joined his old friend and center, Steve Bruce, who lived in Austin and went to the University of Texas. Robins enrolled at UT and first earned a degree in biology.
He taught high school in Austin for a couple of years and then figured he would need more income if he ever wanted to get married and have a family. So he went back to college and became a chemical engineer.
He later married and had a family. He and his wife live in Friendswood today.
The quarterback-turned-historian is now looking for a company to publish his sports history into a traditional book form. Heritage House Museum has promised to hold a book-signing reception for him when the book is published.