Editor’s note: This month’s Finish Line is one in an occasional series that former Mayor Greene calls “How our community was shaped by 10 things that didn’t happen.” Today’s commentary is the fifth of those 10 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 Sir 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 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 overwhelming invading force, there’s lots to be learned about tenacity, determination, resolve and perseverance in the life of 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.”
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 a local newspaper 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. Notably, Tom Vandergriff’s name doesn’t appear in the announcement. Dallas and Fort Worth somebodies were identified leaders, but Tom was not. The news report did say the ballpark 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.
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 had been 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, 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. He 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 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 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.
His fellow owners, recognizing and perhaps sympathizing with their beleaguered colleague’s financial problems, finally approved the move that would transform our city.
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.
And Tom didn’t.
Richard Greene served as Arlington’s mayor from 1987-1997 and currently teaches in the University of Texas Arlington’s graduate program in the College of Architecture, Planning and Public Affairs.