He has been called one of the greatest historians of the 20th Century, a no-nonsense, even crusty, man of original ideas. Presidents knew him on a first-name basis and three of his many books are considered classics.
Born in 1888 in Panola County in East Texas, Walter Prescott Webb grew up on the drier side of the state in Eastland County. The way Texas and the rest of the nation changes from meridian to meridian (particularly from wetter to drier) became the focus of his first and arguably most important book, “The Great Plains.” In 1931, Webb received Columbia University’s Loubat Prize for the book. Two decades later came publication of “The Great Frontier,” a book offering a new theory on the effects of frontiers on the history of the world. In between he wrote the first scholarly history of the Texas Rangers, and counted many rangers as his friend.
All of this has been said about Webb by his biographers, but none have bothered to dwell on one of Webb’s greatest loves: poker playing.
To the late University of Texas history professor, five-card draw or seven-card stud was more than a game of cards. According to the late Joe Small, a man who played many a hand with Webb, poker for the historian was an escape from loneliness that only sickness or a death in the family could interrupt.
Webb belonged to a weekly poker group, with membership in the circle considered a privilege. The “board” had to approve a new member, and a place at the table only became possible when a vacancy existed.
Until his death in 1955, famed Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, the man who killed outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, attended regularly. Other poker circle members included UT professors, local businessmen and Small, then publisher of the Austin-based Western magazines Frontier Times and True West.
In a 1977 interview, Small said Webb was as good at playing poker as he was at writing books, something he did a lot less frequently than play cards.
“He always got the cards,” Small recalled. For non-poker players, that means the professor had luck on top of skill.
If you were sure he didn’t have that flush and bet all you had to prove it, Webb had the flush. If you were convinced he did have that flush or full house and dropped out to keep from losing more money, he’d let a little smile escape that said: “You were wrong. I didn’t have it.”
Only once, Small says, did Webb lose a lot.
“He just kept losing and losing,” Small remembered. “Finally, he grabbed that old hat of his, shoved it down on his head and without saying a thing, stood up to leave in disgust.
“Before he walked out, though, he walked behind me to see what I had, which was three-of-a-kind and two other cards. He watched as I bet big, then threw one card out.
“Well, I paired up, which gave me a full house. I bet big again and the pot was full of chips and dollar bills. I won.
“I started racking that big, beautiful pile in and Webb sat down, took off his hat and counted out a handful of my dollar bills.
“’Deal me in, boys,”’ he said.
Small says Webb turned his luck around and won $20 by game’s end. Small got his “loan” back and Webb still had a profit on the night.
The night Small remembers best came in June 1960. The game was at Webb’s house at 906 W. 9th St. He and his cronies played around a big antique oak table, sweltering in the unairconditioned old house.
“I was just starting a somewhat dirty joke,” Small said. “Dr. Webb raised his finger to his lips, said, `sssh,’ and pointed to his wife sitting on the couch. She was being so quiet, we didn’t know she was there.”
The game broke up about midnight, followed by another round of drinks and some snacks. Jane Webb still sat on the couch, strangely quiet. Finally, according to Small, after everyone left Mrs. Webb told her husband she felt as if she was having a heart attack and had been for several hours.
Small said Webb later told him he asked his wife why she hadn’t said anything earlier. “I didn’t want to interrupt your poker game,” she told her husband of 43 years.
Mrs. Webb was rushed to the hospital. She died about a week later.
A contemporary of the noted Texas tale-teller and fellow UT faculty member J. Frank Dobie and noted naturalist writer Roy Bedicek, Webb spent 45 years teaching history at UT. He died in a car crash on I-35 between San Marcos and Austin in 1963 and is buried in the State Cemetery. Nearby lie Dobie, “Old Yeller” author Fred Gipson and enough old rangers for a friendly poker game.