Editor’s note: This column is one in an occasional series that former Mayor Greene calls “How our city was shaped by ten things that didn’t happen.” Today’s commentary is about the fifth of those ten things.
During my first campaign seeking to become Arlington’s mayor, I arrived one day at the office of Tom Vandergriff, where he had agreed to do a television ad endorsement for me.
As I looked around, I couldn’t help but notice that there was but one picture on his wall. It was that of Winston Churchill. Tom had photos of his family members on his desk and credenza but only Churchill hung on his wall.
I commented on it and his response was something like, “Yes, I greatly admire Churchill. He has always inspired me.” He didn’t explain anything more.
As time went on and I learned more and more about Tom’s 13-year quest to bring major league baseball to Arlington, I think I figured out more of the reason he so respected the iconic figure who was the lone European leader who refused to be conquered by Adolph Hitler.
Although securing a baseball team for a town is not quite the same task as defending a country being destroyed by an evil and overwhelming invading force, there’s lots to be learned about tenacity, determination, resolve and perseverance in the life of Winston Churchill.
Churchill described himself as being alone, “desperately alone,” he emphasized. There was no one to help, yet he was determined to keep fighting.
He explained how “When a thing has to be done and put through to the finish, even if it takes months – if it takes years – you do it.”
In one of his most famous speeches, he recalled how his country’s “account was closed, we were finished.” Then Churchill delivers the memorable refrain of “never give in… never yield to force, never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”
All of those Churchillian characteristics would be applicable in Tom’s long journey that would result in Arlington becoming the smallest city in the country hosting a major league baseball team.
Among the earliest of news reports about the possibilities of luring a major league team to the region was a big spread in the local paper describing how Dallas and Fort Worth leaders had organized themselves for the effort and formed something called the Dallas – Tarrant County Park Commission.
They revealed plans for a “fabulous” domed stadium that would be built in Arlington and promised to Major League Baseball should they award one of the 1961 expansion teams to the region. The pictured facility could have easily been mistaken for a grounded alien flying saucer.
Notably, Tom Vandergriff’s name doesn’t appear in the announcement. Dallas and Fort Worth somebodies were identified as leading the effort but Tom was not.
The news report did say the thing would be built near the old Arlington Downs racetrack site in
Arlington but there were no quotes to be found from Arlington’s still youthful mayor. Never mind that he had landed a General Motors plant, spearheaded the development of a new lake, and was supporting the development of a major industrial park – reporters apparently didn’t ask him about the plans for a baseball team.
No, the story was all about what Dallas and Fort Worth leaders were doing. There was even mention of the new Dallas Cowboys playing in the proposed stadium.
As it turned out in 1961-62 the major leagues added four new teams, including the new Washington Senators, to replace the original team in the nation’s capital that was relocated to Minnesota.
Unfortunately, Texas only received one of the new teams, and it was awarded to Houston. With that disappointing outcome, the collective Dallas-Fort Worth voices declared the quest was over and they just gave up.
But the Arlington guy did not. With his mentor’s words echoing in his head, and with no one to help, Tom and only Tom was determined to keep trying.
It would take a book to describe all of what he did during the course of the next 10 years. Or maybe a movie. Actually, his grandson is trying to make that dream come true. So maybe we will get to see the whole story played out on the big screen.
Tom made contact with every executive at the headquarters of Major League Baseball, with every owner, every key front office official of every team, every political figure who might help him, and everyone else connected in any way with baseball.
The worst that could happen is they would say “no” to his petition to put Arlington into consideration for a team. And, “no” is what every one of them said. In 1969 four more new franchises were added, but Arlington was again shut out.
With everything else that was going on in one of the fastest growing cities in the country, no one would have even noticed if Tom had just let it go. But, he couldn’t and he wouldn’t.
Then a breakthrough finally came. The Washington Senators were not doing well in the nation’s capital. Their owner was going broke with his team attracting the third fewest fans in all of baseball. They needed to move to a city that held the promise of bigger crowds and a better future.
Arlington, with its strategic location, was more than ready and looked like the answer. All that remained was to obtain the approval of the owners of the other teams to make the move to Texas. Baseball enjoys a special kind of place in the free enterprise system of our country – competing teams get to control where their rivals are allowed to play.
The big day came at the owners meeting in the nation’s capital just before the end of the 1971 season. Though they knew him well by then, they were all gathered to hear the final details of Vandergriff’s plans and cast their votes. Then came a knock at the door to the conference room and an attendant entered carrying a message from the White House.
President Richard Nixon implored the owners not to remove the national pastime from the nation’s capital. He argued that such a thing would be unthinkable. The commissioner of baseball and the president of the American League, both of whom opposed the relocation, gave a sigh of relief that this last minute appeal by the president would convince the owners to reject the move to Arlington.
But the owners, recognizing and perhaps sympathizing with their beleaguered colleague’s financial problems, didn’t heed the plea from the president. Vandergriff had won the day and the team. The Texas Rangers would open the 1972 season in Arlington Stadium.
I can only speculate, but I’ll always believe that among the thoughts on Tom’s mind as he made his way home had to be the words of the man whose picture hung on his wall that reminded him over and over to never give up.
Richard Greene is a former Arlington mayor, served as an appointee of Pres. George W. Bush as Regional Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and currently is an adjunct professor in UT Arlington’s Graduate School of Urban and Public Affairs.