Home of the Texas Rangers for the first twenty-two seasons of the baseball team’s existence, Arlington Stadium began life as Turnpike Stadium, constructed by the city of Arlington as the home of the minor league Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs.
In 1959 the Texas legislature approved the formation of a bi-county sports committee with the power to issue $9.5 million in bonds for the construction of a major league stadium, pending voter approval, which was forthcoming. Unfortunately, the joint effort between Dallas, Fort Worth, and Arlington was voided by a court ruling that two counties could not jointly fund a project. So the city of Arlington took on the challenge. Ground was broken on April 15, 1964. Since the site was in a natural bowl forty feet below the surrounding prairie, minimal excavation was needed. Theoretically, the lower elevation would help to moderate the heat.
Turnpike Stadium was so called because it was at roughly the midpoint of the Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike (now Interstate 30) that opened in 1957 and connected downtown Dallas and downtown Fort Worth. The 137-acre stadium site was just west of Six Flags Over Texas, which had opened in 1961, and just north of the old Arlington Downs race track site. Initially the stadium had parking for 2,500 cars (eventually the parking lot expanded fourfold). Opening day for the stadium occurred on April 23, 1965.
The 1965 capacity consisted of 10,500 seats wrapped around the infield with grass berms extending towards the foul poles. Attendance was so good, however, the seating capacity was expanded to 20,000 in 1970. From 1970 through 1976, the park was also used for football by the University of Texas at Arlington.
The 1971 Washington Senators finished the season at 63–96 and attracted only 655,156 fans. American League team owners were primed to approve a franchise move. An oft-mentioned location was the rapidly-expanding Dallas-Fort Worth area (2,424,131 population in 1970). On September 20, 1971, American League owners voted to approve moving the Senators to Arlington, Texas, for the 1972 season.
One of the key reasons American League owners approved the move was Turnpike Stadium. But while 20,000 was capacious for a minor league park, it was inadequate for a major league franchise in 1972. The approval of the franchise shift was contingent on an agreement to expand the ballpark yet again. When the 1972 season opened, the capacity of more than 35,000 was almost entirely the result of construction of the largest bleacher section in major league ball. The new seating area comprised rows of aluminum benches from the foul side of the left field foul pole to the foul side of the right field pole, forming almost a complete semi-circle.
At the time there was a groundswell of support for renaming the facility Vandergriff Stadium, after longtime Arlington mayor Tom Vandergriff, who had promoted major league baseball since 1958. Vandergriff, however, thought Arlington Stadium was a more appropriate name since the city owned the facility.
So by April 1972 Arlington had a major league capacity ballpark, even though it was sorely lacking in amenities, for players as well as fans. Perhaps the most egregious omission was shade. Other major league parks had upper decks or grandstand roofs to block the sun at least part of the time. Arlington Stadium, with the hottest game-time temperatures in major league ball, had neither. Consequently, day games were rare, even on Sundays.
The playing field was symmetrical, as was the case with other major league ballparks that had opened in previous seasons. It was sixty feet from home plate to the backstop; the foul poles were 330 feet from home plate; center field was 400 feet; and the power alleys were 380 feet (reduced to 370 feet in 1974, expanded to 383 in 1981, and returned to the original 380 feet in 1982). The outfield fence height was eleven feet all the way around.
If Arlington Stadium had any distinctive feature, it was the 200-foot wide scoreboard at the top of the left field bleacher seats. The highlight of the design was a sixty-by-sixty-foot section in the shape of the state of Texas on the center field side of the scoreboard.
Work crews rushed to get the park ready in the 1971–72 off-season but got a break of sorts when a players’ strike delayed the start of the home opener until April 21, 1972. Only 20,105 turned out for the first big league game played in North Texas. After Tom Vandergriff threw out the first ball, the Rangers defeated the California Angels by a 7–6 score. Unfortunately, it was all downhill after that, and the team finished last in the American League West division with a 54–100 record.
Despite the novelty of major league ball in North Texas, only 662,974 fans showed up during the inaugural season. Admittedly, a few games were lost to the strike, but the grand total was scant improvement over the total of 655,156 fans who had witnessed the Senators the previous season.
Arlington Stadium was expanded slightly (to 36,698) for 1973, but demand for seats was still slack. Attendance was just as disappointing that season (686,085), but the June 28 start of highly-touted Texas pitcher David Clyde, who had just led Houston’s Westchester High School to a state baseball championship, resulted in the first sellout in Ranger history. On the other hand, the lowest attendance ever at the stadium occurred the same season. Only 2,513 showed up for a September 21 game, a 6–1 loss to the California Angels. Ironically, the starting pitcher was David Clyde.
Notwithstanding the searing summer temperatures, the Rangers were hardly the hottest ticket in town. Texas was widely acknowledged as football country, and local sports fans were far more interested in the fortunes of the Dallas Cowboys, who had opened Texas Stadium in Irving in 1971. Considered state of the art at the time, Texas Stadium only underscored Arlington Stadium’s shortcomings among local sports fans. On the other hand, the cost to taxpayers was minimal, as the initial minor league park had been built for $1.9 million, and the upgrades added another $19 million.
Then there was the matter of intrastate competition. The Houston Astrodome had been in business since 1965. The ultimate in climate-controlled fan comfort, it was billed as the eighth wonder of the world. Dallas-Fort Worth fans who made road trips to Houston to see the Astros could hardly be expected to be enthusiastic about the new ballpark in their backyard.
After the first two seasons, American League owners must have wondered if they had made a mistake by placing a team in Dallas-Fort Worth, but the next season relieved their concerns. In 1974 the Rangers contended for most of the season and ultimately finished second in the American League West with a record of at 84–76. Attendance shot up to 1,193,902, fourth (of twelve) in the American League. It was also well above the league average of 1,097,275.
Unfortunately, while the Rangers featured a number of outstanding players in the ensuing years, they never had the right combination to result in a first-place finish. Through it all, attendance remained respectable. The biggest crowd in stadium history was 43,705 for a Saturday night contest, a 3–2 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays, on July 23, 1983. In 1986 a second-place finish boosted the per-game average to 20,889, the first time ever above 20,000.
The appearance of Arlington Stadium remained pretty much the same until the 1978 season when an upper deck was added behind home plate, expanding the capacity of the park to 41,284. A thirty-foot wall was installed at the top of the bleachers to temper the prevailing winds, which hampered potential home-run balls, particularly those hit to right field. The new wall also offered more space for advertisements and scoreboard information. Unfortunately, the old Texas-shaped scoreboard was a casualty of this progress.
The arrival of pitching legend Nolan Ryan in 1989 (when George W. Bush took over as managing partner) resulted in the first 2,000,000-plus attendance figure in franchise history. Fans knew that every time Ryan took the mound, there was a chance he would make baseball history. Ryan pitched his final career no-hitter in Arlington Stadium in 1991—thus making history as the oldest player (age forty-one) in Major League Baseball to pitch a no-hitter. Attendance remained above 2,000,000 every season of Ryan’s tenure (through 1993) with the franchise, which coincided with the last five years of the stadium. The Rangers played their last game there on October 3, 1993, when they lost 4–1 to the Kansas City Royals.
Arlington Stadium was razed in 1994 to provide parking for the new ballpark. During the twenty-two seasons the Rangers called Arlington Stadium home, they never played a post-season game there. No All-Star game was ever played there. Unlike subsequent stadiums, Arlington Stadium was never an influence on ballpark design. On the other hand, it was the first major league park to offer nachos at the concession stand when Frank Liberto of San Antonio introduced Rico’s nachos in 1976. Arlington Stadium also played a key role in spreading the popularity of “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” by playing the song during the seventh inning stretch. The Texas-based tune spread to such unlikely venues as Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium.
Arlington Stadium left a lot to be desired in the way of creature comforts and architectural distinction. On the other hand, it was sufficient to attract a big league franchise. As a no-frills starter stadium, it served its purpose.