In batting terms, Tom Vandergriff, long-time mayor of Arlington, Texas, had a .300 average when it came to establishing an MLB team.
He struck out in 1962 in luring the Kansas City A’s to Arlington.
He struck out again in 1968 in a bid to both Leagues to add an expansion franchise.
Then, in 1971, he got his pitch and connected on a deal that brought the Washington Senators to Arlington to become the 1972 Texas Rangers.
Opening Day 1972 represented the culmination of a long struggle to bring Vandergriff’s vision to life. And it would make Arlington more than just a midpoint between Dallas and Fort Worth.
Sports betting in Texas is not legal, but it’s not without want for its residents. Any hope for MLB gambling will have to wait until 2023 when new legislation may appear.
Tom Vandergriff, visionary
The Vandergriff family moved from Carrollton, a small suburb of Dallas, to Arlington, itself a small rural area of about 7,500 people, in the 1930s when Tom Vandergriff was just a boy.
His interest in speech and communication propelled him into politics and he became mayor of Arlington in 1951 at the age of 25.
In 1953 he brought a General Motors assembly plant to Arlington, creating thousands of jobs. And he went on, in his 27-year tenure as mayor, to take Arlington from a rural area to a thriving city of more than 150,000. As he put it, Arlington would be the hyphen in D-FW.
A visit to Disneyland just after its opening in 1955 shaped Vandergriff’s vision for Arlington: to make it a tourist destination. He even petitioned Walt Disney to build his next park in Arlington.
Though Disney declined, Vandergriff prevailed over local developer Angus G. Wynne Jr. to build Arlington a rival park, and in 1961 Six Flags Over Texas opened its doors.
A keen eye for opportunity in Washington
At the time, Vandergriff had already been in talks to bring pro baseball to Arlington. And he made the move to develop the area surrounding Six Flags by building Turnpike Stadium, a county-owned minor league ballpark for the Double AA Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs.
While a major theme park and a minor league baseball team redefined Arlington, Vandergriff wasn’t going to settle until Major League Baseball had a home in his backyard.
Unable to make an in-road through the expansion process, Vandergriff decided that his best bet was to work with a struggling franchise, and Bob Short, the owner of the Washington Senators, turned out to be just the guy for Vandergriff.
Short had been threatening to leave town if the rent at RFK Stadium in Washington DC wasn’t lowered, and when Vandergriff came calling, he was happy to relocate to Texas.
So it was that after 20 years of civic development and negotiation, Vandergriff placed the final piece in his puzzle.
Texas Rangers, Opening Day 1972
The Texas Rangers’ first game in their new home didn’t go according to plans.
Originally, they were scheduled to open the season a week earlier than they did, but, in a first at the time, the MLBPA went on strike over pension benefits, resulting in a work stoppage of 14 days and a cancellation of 86 games.
The Rangers’ scheduled Opening Day of April 15 got pushed back by the work stoppage, and they were forced to start the season on the road, where they went 1-3.
They then came home on Apr. 21, 1972 to host the California Angels.
The ceremonial first pitch for any new team is usually a privilege bestowed on the team’s trailblazer, and, for the Rangers, Tom Vandergriff, undoubtedly, had that honor. As he threw it out, he told the crowd of 20,105:
“Let’s make our cheers heard all the way to Houston tonight.”
The crowd roared; they got the allusion. Houston Astros owner Judge Roy Hofheinz voted against relocating the Senators to Arlington. And, in a way, Vandergriff’s first pitch established the rivalry between the two teams. There’s no better way to boost fan engagement in TX than with a good old rivalry.
The cheers continued as Ted Williams, Red Sox legend and new manager of the Rangers, stepped on the field and accepted an honorary gift steeped in Texas bravado: a cowboy hat, boots, and gold cleats. (For the record, he was never seen again with those items on or about his person).
And, with that, the game began.
The Rangers fans cheered as first baseman Frank Howard, a giant of a man and owner of at least three of the greatest baseball nicknames of all time (Hondo, The Washington Monument, and The Capitol Punisher), drove a first-inning slider off Angels starter Clyde Wright 480 feet out of the deepest part of the park.
He got an immediate standing ovation.
The Angels tied the game in the second on a couple singles and an error. But the Rangers went on to score two in the third and fourth and single runs in the fifth and sixth en route to a 7-6 win.
After the game, the Angels manager, Del Rice, echoing many player sentiments about the great baseball feel of the new stadium, said, “it’s a lot like Fenway Park in Boston.”
Overall, the stadium received rave reviews from all in attendance, including American League President Joe Cronin, who said:
“This is the best-lit park in the major leagues[…]It is remarkable that they put together such a complete product in so short a time. I was here several weeks ago and it didn’t look anything like this.”
Tom Vandergriff, MVP
The 1972 season didn’t turn out to be a winner for the Rangers, as they finished 54-100, but it didn’t matter. The people who had bet against them or looked elsewhere to expand baseball couldn’t deny that the Rangers delivered a great baseball experience.
The ballpark featured loads of Texas charm with a Texas-shaped scoreboard. This, combined with a team helmed by the greatest hitter in the game, was a solid product.
In that first season though, more than any player, the hard work put in by mayor Tom Vandergriff in making good on his promise to bring pro baseball to Arlington was the MVP performance.