“Journey to Baseball Town” documentary

In 1972, the struggling Washington Senators baseball club relocated to Arlington, Texas. They became known as the Texas Rangers and were the city’s first professional sports team. Tom Vandergriff, Arlington’s mayor from 1951 to 1977, was instrumental in bringing the team to Arlington.

“Journey to Baseball Town” documentary

Baseball. America’s pastime.

Stick-and-ball games, in one form or another, have existed for centuries worldwide. Major League Baseball, as we know it today, officially began in April 1876. It’s one of the oldest major professional sports leagues in the world, and it’s been around longer than Arlington, Texas, which was founded in July 1876.

Fast forward nearly 100 years. In 1972, the struggling Washington Senators baseball club relocated to Arlington. They became known as the Texas Rangers and were the city’s first professional sports team.

Tom Vandergriff, Arlington’s mayor from 1951 to 1977, was instrumental in bringing the baseball team to Arlington. It wasn’t an easy task. By 1970, Arlington’s population was over 90,000 people. Growth had been substantial, especially since the city’s population was just over 4,000 people in 1940. Even with the growth, a city of fewer than 100,000 people attracting a professional sports team seemed like a pipe dream at best. Yet, that’s precisely what happened.

In 2022, to celebrate the Texas Rangers’ 50th season, the City of Arlington, MyArlingtonTV, and the Texas Rangers partnered on a five-part, 50-minute documentary about how the team arrived in Arlington, and especially how Tom Vandergriff’s vision helped make it happen. “Journey to Baseball Town” is an American Dream story. It includes interviews with Vandergriff’s family, archival footage and photos, and social commentary about Arlington. While it centers on baseball, it’s an insightful look at part of Arlington’s history and a behind-the-scenes peek at one of our most respected and accomplished mayors.

Below are my recaps of each episode and additional information included for context.

Episode 1—Leading Off: The Boy Mayor

“Journey to Baseball Town” begins with a quote narrated by Chuck Morgan, the longtime announcer of the Texas Rangers. He states that the documentary is “the story of a boy-mayor and his quest for a Field of Dreams right here in Arlington.” The “boy-mayor” is Tom Vandergriff, who became Arlington’s mayor at age 25. He would serve as mayor until 1977, the longest tenure of any of our mayors, and oversaw some of the most substantial achievements in Arlington’s history. One of those achievements was bringing a Major League Baseball team to Arlington, a journey that took more than 13 years to accomplish. Today, Vandergriff is seen as the Father of Baseball in Arlington.

Vandergriff’s baseball crusade began in 1958 when he contacted Major League owners to get support for a team. His efforts were noticed, especially in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, but initially unsuccessful. Major League Baseball would arrive in Texas a few years later, with the Houston Colt .45s playing ball in 1962. They became the Houston Astros in 1965 and later became a longtime interstate rival to the Texas Rangers. Vandergriff and many others were disappointed with Houston getting a team instead of North Texas, but it wasn’t without merit. Arlington didn’t even have a stadium—not yet, at least—and Houston was a major city with a population of over 1.6 million people. Nonetheless, Vandergriff kept advocating for Arlington to get a baseball team.

Journey to Baseball Town – Episode 1

Episode 2—Scoring Position

Dallas and Fort Worth were, and maybe still are, bitter rivals. Arlington’s location between the two helped us benefit from the animosity, especially regarding sports. Minor League Baseball was popular in North Texas, with Dallas and Fort Worth each having teams. Their stadiums couldn’t accommodate the size of a Major League crowd, though, nor were they suited for expansion.

Turnpike Stadium was built in Arlington in 1965. While minor league teams played there—such as the Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs—from the beginning, it was intended to be a Major League stadium and attract a team. Initially able to seat 10,000 people, the stadium was designed and constructed to expand quickly if needed.

Even with Arlington’s Turnpike Stadium and the city’s continued growth, getting a baseball team was still far from a reality. Major League Baseball had many moves, expansions, and changes during the 1960s. Other cities were awarded teams, and many local proponents gave up the possibility of Arlington ever getting one. But Vandergriff was passionate and persistent.

Journey to Baseball Town – Episode 2

Episode 3—Home Run

“At first, it seemed like an impossible dream to transfer the nation’s pastime from the nation’s capital.”

Tom Vandergriff looking back in the opening scenes of Episode 3

The Washington Senators were a struggling team with a losing record, low attendance, dissatisfied ownership, and financial troubles. Despite that, there was opposition to moving the team away from Washington, notably from Major League Baseball’s Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and President Richard Nixon. “Save the Senators” became a rallying cry.

By the summer of 1971, Vandergriff was making frequent trips to Washington, D.C. to lobby and meet with folks. His efforts paid off. The American League owners approved the move to Arlington in a 10-2 vote in September 1971. While Vandergriff was proud of the outcome, he was humble and saw it as a city-wide accomplishment, not a personal one. He would later say, “it took a few years, but we finally hit a home run.”

Journey to Baseball Town – Episode 3

Notably, this video was the City of Arlington’s most watched video on social media in 2022!

Episode 4—It’s Baseball Time in Arlington

Senators baseball fans weren’t excited about the move and showed displeasure in their final game in Washington. Dozens stormed the field in a frustrated and angry protest, causing the game to end in a forfeit. Meanwhile, baseball fans in Texas were excited about the move, as well as most of the team’s players.

Preparations for the team’s arrival began immediately, as Arlington had to add 10,000 more seats to Turnpike Stadium—soon renamed Arlington Stadium—before the season started. Steel, concrete, and other construction materials were needed at the site, and time was of the essence. Moving a team more than 1,200 miles away and expanding a baseball stadium poses particular logistical challenges.

When players arrived in Arlington, they were surprised at the stadium’s size and the noticeably smaller city. It wasn’t exactly what they were used to back home. Since the stadium wasn’t ready yet, and the players needed to practice, many went to nearby Randol Mill Park—not a baseball stadium, but a city park with baseball diamonds. The park was typically used for Little League sluggers, not ones from the Major League.

The Texas Rangers played their first game in Arlington on April 21, 1972, against the California Angels. A first-inning home run by Frank Howard pushed the Rangers to a 7-6 win in front of more than 20,000 fans. It took 13 years, but Vandergriff had realized his vision, and Arlington finally had a Major League Baseball team.

The first couple of seasons were fairly predictable for a relocated team, with a 54-100 record in 1972 and a 57-105 record in 1973. Nonetheless, it was baseball time in Arlington.

Journey to Baseball Town – Episode 4

Episode 5—Hall of Fame

On July 31, 2004, Tom Vandergriff was inducted into the Texas Rangers Baseball Hall of Fame due to his tireless efforts to bring a baseball team to Arlington. His contributions to Arlington go far beyond baseball, and we still feel his impact today.

In October 2010, the Texas Rangers defeated the New York Yankees to win the American League Championship and stamp their ticket to their first World Series appearance. Vandergriff, now aged 84 and in failing health, attended the game and saw the Rangers advance. It was bittersweet, as later that evening, while in assisted living care, he fell and broke his hip. The injury made him unable to attend the upcoming World Series games, in which the Rangers lost 4-1 to the San Francisco Giants. Sadly, Vandergriff passed away soon after on December 30.

Upon Vandergriff’s death, he left behind a legacy that is still celebrated today. Arlington memorializes Vandergriff in statues—one at Globe Life Park and another at City Hall—along with street names, a park, buildings, plaques, and other tributes. Family and peers described him as a visionary, a leader, a hero, and a firm believer that “we can do it.” He was optimistic, driven, and served with a can-do spirit. He wanted Arlington to grow and have economic opportunities, which we did and still do.

The Texas Rangers made their only World Series appearances in 2010 and 2011. Having only made the postseason eight times in their 50-year history—and still yet to win a World Series title—the Rangers have had more failures than successes. Yet, their popularity endures, as the team remains a vital part of Arlington’s Entertainment District and our city’s identity. The sports adage comes to mind: “It’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game.”

Arlington Stadium is long gone, as it was demolished in 1994. The Rangers played at the Ballpark in Arlington from 1994 to 2019, in later years known as Globe Life Park. The Rangers moved to their new home, the $1.2 billion Globe Life Field, for the 2020 season. The continued growth is a testament to Tom Vandergriff’s vision and a dream that started back in 1958, and probably even earlier. Arlington would look much different today without a Major League Baseball team, as it paved the way for other achievements, undoubtedly helping bring the Dallas Cowboys football team here in 2009. And although Tom Vandergriff was too humble to take the credit, he was largely responsible for making it happen.

Journey to Baseball Town – Episode 5

“Journey to Baseball Town” documentary videos from City of Arlington, TX YouTube channel.

Blog post by Jason S. Sullivan, 01-18-23

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