T.R.’s Memoirs: How Major League Baseball came to Arlington. Part I: Baseball goes west

Baseball started to grow in the late 1950s and early 1960s after two New York teams headed to Los Angeles. Arlington was on the outside looking in.

Los Angeles Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley was a key figure as baseball grew in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He didn’t let Gene Autry’s Angels come to town without ponying up (The Associated Press/Jack Hogan).

Editor’s note: T.R. Sullivan covered the Rangers for 32 years and is sharing his memoirs exclusively with readers of this newsletter. This week: a three-part history that examines the long road baseball took to get Major League Baseball to Arlington.

The Rangers might not ever have made it to Arlington if not for Emperor Hirohito, Walter O’Malley or James Earl Ray.

On the other side of this tug of war were Bob Hope, Bill Veeck and Judge Roy Hofheinz. The irascible Charlie Finley was right in the middle. Yes, Arlington Mayor Tom Vandergriff moved heaven and earth to get Major League baseball to North Texas.

But the Pacific Ocean proved to be a daunting obstacle as well.

Every Major League team has a fascinating story of how they arrived at where they are today. For example, bet you didn’t know the Yankees were actually the Baltimore Orioles before they moved in 1902 to New York. Don’t worry, President George W. Bush didn’t know that one either.

Did you know the Red Sox were ready to abandon beloved Fenway Park before the ballpark was saved by the Impossible Dream pennant-winning team of 1967? Or that the Phillies were far more likely to leave Philadelphia than the Athletics. Philadelphia was clearly an American League city until the Whiz Kids won the pennant in 1950 and the Phillies became the more popular team in the City of Brotherly Love.

The plight of Philadelphia baseball also had something to do with the Texas Rangers ending up in Arlington. Much of this is going to seem like ancient history, but it all had something to do with baseball finally coming to North Texas in 1971.

How the Rangers ended up in Arlington is a long and winding story, and easily could have turned out much differently depending on the intriguing plot twists that took place over a journey over three decades.

So, what does the Emperor of Japan have to do with the Rangers being in Arlington?

It is an amazing and fascinating story if you want to follow along … .

The search for El Dorado

On Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, the St. Louis Browns struck a deal with the Cardinals at the winter meetings in Jacksonville, Fla. The Browns would leave St. Louis to the Cardinals and move to Los Angeles. The Cubs owned Los Angeles and had another Wrigley Field located there. But the Browns worked everything out with the Cardinals and the Cubs. An official announcement was expected on Monday.

Then came the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Instead of the Browns moving to Los Angeles, America went to war with Japan. The deal was quickly tabled and never revived again.

After the war, baseball stayed with the same 16 teams – eight in each league - they had been using for five decades. There hadn’t been a franchise shift since the Orioles moved from Baltimore to New York in 1902.

But baseball was also going through severe financial trouble during the post-war years, something people don’t remember or conveniently forget. The simple fact was baseball was struggling in the 1950s and many clubs were losing money.

The explosive growth of television was a big part of it. Automobile travel and the rise of other sports – golf, football and basketball – were also big factors. Anybody who thinks the 1950’s were baseball’s Golden Age are either provincial New York fans or hopeless romantics.

Franchises started moving in looking for their own El Dorado – City of Gold - and the first to go were the Boston Braves. After drawing 281,278 fans in 1952, they moved to Milwaukee the next year. Playing in the architecturally uninspiring County Stadium, they drew some 1.8 million fans in 1953. Every other owner in baseball took note what was happening.

County Stadium was hardly the Taj Mahal of baseball stadiums. Built on a rock quarry several miles west of downtown, County Stadium did have one advantage every other owner wanted in the age of the automobile.

Parking. Lots of parking.

One year later, the Browns did move, but to Baltimore. The Athletics also moved when The Connie Mack family sold the ballclub to Chicago industrialist Arnold Johnson, who just happened to own the title to Yankee Stadium and was big pals with Yankees owners Dan Topping and Del Webb.

Johnson immediately moved the Athletics to Kansas City, which had been the home of the Yankees top minor-league team. Mickey Mantle had played there. Johnson was a bad owner, partly because he ended up trading his best players to the Yankees in a series of lopsided trades. Roger Maris was one of those players.

The Kansas City Athletics were the second worst team in the American League in the 1950s. The only team worse were the Washington Senators.

Over in the National League, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants weren’t happy with their situations either. Walter O’Malley was fighting a losing battle with the city of New York over a new stadium. Giants owner Horace Stoneham – while not the visionary like O’Malley – wanted out of the dilapidated Polo Grounds.

Stoneham wanted to go to Minneapolis. The Giants owned the minor-league team there and there was plenty of parking, far more than what the Polo Grounds had in their declining neighborhood of Harlem.

O’Malley wanted Los Angeles, still without a team since the Browns’ move was killed. He also wanted the Giants to go with him to have two teams on the West Coast. Stoneham was persuaded and abandoned the idea of moving to Minnesota. The Giants and Dodgers went to California in 1958, leaving Minneapolis behind. O’Malley gained the rights to Los Angeles by trading his successful Double-A Fort Worth franchise to the Cubs.

For those keeping score at home, the game had experienced five franchise shifts in six years after 50 years of stability. However, it should also be pointed out that all five franchise shifts involved cities with multiple teams. There were still many cities eager for a major-league team – Dallas-Fort Worth high on the list – and both leagues pondered expansion for the first time in modern baseball history.

Ford Frick, the commissioner during baseball’s 1950s upheaval, suggested expansion was a possibility but both leagues seemed to be moving slowly. It took the great Branch Rickey and a powerful New York lawyer to change everything.

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Continental threat

Attorney William Shea was among many New Yorkers who were unhappy about the departure of the Dodgers and Giants. He was eager to bring the National League back and shed New York’s image of being a one-horse town. He tried to lure the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates but had no luck.

Then he hooked up with Rickey, considered one of the greatest general managers in the history of the game, having built dynasties out of both the St. Louis Cardinals and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey is famous for developing the modern farm system in St. Louis and signing Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier in Brooklyn.

Now, as Rickey moved into the twilight of his Hall of Fame career, he was ready for another significant contribution to the game. He was pushing for a third major league and Shea was ready to join him.

On July 27, 1959, at a press conference in New York, Shea announced the Continental League would begin play in 1961 with teams in New York, Houston, Minneapolis, Denver and Toronto. Three other teams were expected to be added from the 10 cities that had applied, and Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth and Buffalo were eventually chosen.

Shea and Rickey lined up some well-heeled owners in every city. With Rickey as president, the Continental League was suddenly viewed as a formidable threat. The American and National Leagues were prodded into action.

The National League moved first in the summer of 1960. According to Eric Thompson and Andy McCue in their excellent article, the National League was willing to absorb as many as four Continental League franchises including New York. That was enough for Shea. He threw in with the National League and was rewarded with a stadium named after him.

The panicked American League immediately decided it would expand and started eyeing the lucrative Houston market. But O’Malley wasn’t about to let the inferior league get Houston. On Oct. 17, 1960, the National League announced it would expand to New York and Houston in time for the 1962 season.

Another development then shook up the American League. On Oct. 26, Washington Senators owner Calvin Griffith announced he was moving his team to Minneapolis, leaving the nation’s capital without a baseball team. That was a bad thing.

For one, powerful Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver and Brooklyn Rep. Emanuel Celler had been holding hearings to determine the status baseball’s precious antitrust exemption. Baseball did not want to antagonize Congress by leaving the nation’s capital without a team. Secondly, the federal government was building a new ballpark for both the Redskins and Senators.

D.C. (later RFK) Stadium would be the first major multi-sports facility, and the absence of baseball would be a major blow.

The American League decided to expand by two teams and wouldn’t t wait for the National League. The two teams would start play in 1961, and on Nov. 17, 1960, league president Joe Cronin announced the new Washington Senators would be one of those teams.

Vandergriff wanted the second city to be Arlington. A DFW Sports Commission made its pitch to build a $9.5 million ballpark with plenty of parking on the southern side of the DFW turnpike in Arlington.

Dallas-Fort Worth appeared to have the winning cards. But then politics took over. Yankees owner Dan Topping wasn’t happy about the National League invading his New York turf.

A price would be exacted from the hated Walter O’Malley. If New York was going to accept a second team, then Los Angeles would have too as well. The American League did not want the National League with sole ownership of the West Coast.

After much wrangling, which included a $350,000 payment to O’Malley for intruding on his territory, the Los Angeles Angels were selected as the second expansion team.

The final details weren’t worked out until Dec. 6. The expansion draft was set for Dec. 14.

The new Senators were woefully unprepared. The second version of the Senators would be a complete disaster. Baseball’s tumultuous geographic upheaval was just beginning, and North Texas – led by the mayor of Arlington – would be right in the middle every agonizing step of the way.