Dallas-Fort Worth Minor League Baseball


By: Larry G. Bowman

Revised by: Frank Jackson

Type: General Entry

Published: December 1, 1994

Updated: October 12, 2021


Dallas entered a professional team named the Hams in the Texas League when it was formed in 1888. The team won the pennant that year, and minor-league baseball was tentatively established in Dallas. As was the case with many minor-leagues in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Texas League's early years were chaotic.

Professional baseball in Fort Worth dates back to 1888, when the Fort Worth Panthers joined the Texas League. Not surprisingly, given Fort Worth’s proximity to Dallas, a longstanding rivalry ensued. The Panthers nickname derived from a Dallas newspaper article asserting that Fort Worth was such a sleepy town that a panther could be seen sound asleep in the heart of downtown. The team was often referred to locally as the Cats. By the 1930s this name had replaced the official nickname in popular usage, but it was not until after World War II that the team’s jerseys bore the name “Cats.” In 1895 Fort Worth won the league championship, and Dallas was the runner-up.

In 1898 the Texas League suspended play at the outset of the Spanish-American War. Dallas and Fort Worth did not join the poorly-reorganized Texas League when it resumed play the following year. The league again faltered and did not reappear until 1902, when Dallas and Fort Worth joined it and struggled to survive as the league warred with the newly-formed South Texas League. Finally, in 1907, the stronger franchises of the Texas League and the South Texas League cooperated in forming a reorganized Texas League.

Throughout these years of difficulty, the Dallas franchise underwent a series of name changes. Fans cheered the Griffins, the Giants, the Submarines, the Rebels, and the Steers. Then, as the Texas League matured in the years immediately after World War I, the Dallas franchise became a bulwark in one of the stronger minor leagues in the United States. In 1922 a group of Dallas businessmen purchased the team. The 1920s were the golden age of baseball, and the Steers enjoyed enthusiastic fan support in a highly competitive league. In 1926 the Dallas Steers won the Texas League Championship and also defeated the New Orleans Pelicans in the Dixie Series, a post-season match-up between the Texas League champions and the Southern Association champions.

Even more successful were the Panthers, a minor league dynasty in the 1920s. Under manager Jake Atz, the Panthers won six straight Texas League Championships from 1920 to 1926 and chalked up more than 100 victories every year except in 1923, when they finished with ninety-six. In 1920 the Panthers defeated the Little Rock Travelers in what came to be known as the Dixie Series. The Panthers were victorious five times from 1920 to 1926 and lost only in 1922 to the Mobile Bears. The team’s glory years featured many outstanding players, but two were especially noteworthy. The ace of the pitching staff was Joe Pate, who won 153 games during the Panthers’ six-year championship run. He notched thirty victories in both 1921 and 1924. Offensively, the Panthers were led by Clarence “Big Boy” Kraft, who won league home run titles from 1922 through 1924. His total of fifty-five home runs in 1924 was a longstanding Texas League record. His record of 196 RBIs (runs batted in) that same season was never broken. The Cats also made history off the field. On August 30, 1922, the Fort Worth radio station WBAP broadcast a game against the Wichita Falls Spudders. The contest was not only the first radio broadcast of a Texas League game, it was also the first live baseball broadcast in the Southwest. 

In 1938, during the depths of the Great Depression, George Schepps bought controlling interest in the Dallas Steers for $150,000 and renamed them the Rebels. The Rebels did poorly at the ticket window but moderately well in the standings during Schepps's ownership, and in 1948 he sold the team to Richard Wesley “Dick” Burnett for $550,000. At the time, it was the largest amount ever paid for a minor league team. Burnett, who also purchased the Steers' ballpark in Oak Cliff for an additional $265,000, promptly renamed the team the Eagles and the park Burnett Field. Under his brief leadership (he died in 1955), the Eagles flourished. They won three pennants and the Dixie Series, defeating the Nashville Vols in 1953. 

A number of notable names were on the roster during the Burnett era. Willard Brown, a Negro League veteran who was subsequently named to the Baseball Hall of Fame, played for the Eagles in 1953 towards the end of his career. Another future Hall-of-Famer was Willie McCovey, who played for the Eagles in 1957. Bill White, who played for the Eagles in 1955, went on to a thirteen-year career as a major league player, later moved on to broadcasting for the Yankees, and eventually served as president of the National League. Eddie Knoblauch, a sixteen-year minor league veteran, who amassed 2,543 hits on his way to a career batting average of .313, played for the Eagles from 1951 to 1955. Lambert Dalton "Little Dutch" Meyer, nephew of Texas Christian University coach Dutch Meyer, managed the Eagles from 1951 to 1954.

Burnett also integrated the Texas League in 1952, when he brought Dave Hoskins to the team. Inviting an assortment of retired major league all-stars and using the Cotton Bowl as a baseball park, he engineered an all-time attendance record of 53,578 for a Texas League game in 1950. Burnett upgraded Burnett Field into one of the best minor league ballparks in the United States as he sought to bring major league baseball to Dallas. After his death, his wife and daughters operated the team until 1959, when they sold it to J. W. Bateson and Amon G. Carter, Jr. The new owners transferred the team to the AAA American Association.

As for the Fort Worth Cats, 1946 marked the beginning of another memorable era as the Cats became an affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers for ten seasons. Numerous Dodger stalwarts, including Duke Snider, Carl Erskine, and Maury Wills, played for the Cats, and five former players became major league managers: Sparky Anderson, Bobby Bragan, Norm Sherry, Dick Williams, and Maury Wills. Especially notable were Anderson and Williams, who were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1949 the Cats again made broadcast history when a Cats-Dodgers exhibition game was the first televised baseball game in the Southwest.

In 1960 the Dallas Eagles and the Fort Worth Cats were combined into one team as the Dallas-Fort Worth Rangers and competed in the American Association. During its years in the association, the team split its home games between Burnett Field and LaGrave Field. When the American Association disbanded in 1962, the Rangers joined the Pacific Coast League. The Dallas-Fort Worth team competed in the Pacific Coast League in 1963. Fort Worth businessman Tommy Mercer bought the franchise and returned Fort Worth to the Texas League in 1964; Dallas remained in the Pacific Coast League.

During this time when the Dallas and Fort Worth clubs were switching from one league to another, major league teams were moving to nearly all sections of the country, and expansion franchises were becoming an alternative to a third major league, the Continental League. Throughout this period, minor league baseball remained in the Dallas area, but it was apparent that it was stricken, as local leaders constantly maneuvered to bring major league ball to the area. In 1965 the Dallas and Fort Worth teams were reunited into the Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs and competed in the Texas League. The Spurs played their games at the newly-completed Turnpike Stadium in Arlington (see ARLINGTON STADIUM), with only mixed success but with good fan support. In 1971 the Spurs joined the AA Dixie Association, and when the Washington Senators moved to Arlington in 1972 to become the Texas Rangers, the Spurs were disbanded.

Affiliated minor league baseball thus began for Dallas and Fort Worth in 1888 and ended in 1972. The Dallas team won or shared twelve Texas League pennants, competed in the Dixie Series five times, and won it three times. Fort Worth won thirteen Texas League pennants and prevailed in the Dixie Series eight times (the most of any franchise) in ten appearances.

In 2001 the Fort Worth Cats were reborn as an independent minor league team. Playing in various independent leagues, the reincarnated Cats franchise lasted through the 2014 season.

Mark Armour, “Willie McCovey,” Society for American Baseball Research (https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/willie-mccovey/), accessed April 26, 2021. Baseball-Reference.com: Dixie Series (https://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Dixie_Series), accessed April 26, 2021. Warren Corbett, “Bill White,” Society for American Baseball Research (https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/bill-white-3/), accessed April 26, 2021. Rory Costello, “Willard Brown,” Society for American Baseball Research (https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/willard-brown/), accessed April 26, 2021. Peter Filichia, Professional Baseball Franchises, From the Abbeville Athletics to the Zanesville Indians (New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1993). Jeff Guinn and Bobby Bragan, When Panthers Roared: The Fort Worth Cats and Minor League Baseball (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1999). Chris Holaday and Mark Presswood, Baseball in Dallas (Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2004). Tom Kayser and David King, Baseball in the Lone Star State: The Texas League’s Greatest Hits (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2005). Robert Obojski, Bush League: A History of Minor League Baseball (New York: Macmillan, 1975). Bill O'Neal, The Texas League, 1888–1987: A Century of Baseball (Austin: Eakin Press, 1987). Mark Presswood and Chris Holaday, Baseball in Fort Worth (Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2004). William B. Ruggles, The History of the Texas League of Professional Baseball Clubs (Dallas: Texas Baseball League, 1932). Robert Wilonsky, “A bush league of their own,” Dallas Observer, May 21, 1998 (https://www.dallasobserver.com/news/a-bush-league-of-their-own-6401884), accessed April 26, 2021.

Categories:
  • Sports and Recreation
  • Sports (Baseball)
Time Periods:
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
  • Progressive Era
  • Great Depression
  • Texas in the 1920s
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Texas in the 21st Century
Places:
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • North Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Larry G. Bowman Revised by Frank Jackson, “Dallas-Fort Worth Minor League Baseball,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 14, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/dallas-fort-worth-minor-league-baseball.

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December 1, 1994
October 12, 2021

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