LaGrave Field (Fort Worth, TX)

This article was written by Bruce Bumbalough

The second iteration of Fort Worth's ballpark, built in 2001 on the site of the original.LaGrave Field is the name of two baseball parks in Fort Worth, Texas. The first LaGrave Field was the home of the minor-league Fort Worth Panthers from 1926 to 1958 in the Texas League, 1959 in the American Association, a shared home of the Dallas-Fort Worth Rangers from 1960 to 1963 in the American Association and finally the Fort Worth Panthers in another Texas League franchise in 1964. That stadium was demolished in 1967. The second version of LaGrave Field was built in 2001 on the site of the original and was the home of the Fort Worth Cats, who played in several independent baseball leagues from 2002 to 2014.

The Fort Worth Panthers,1 often nicknamed Cats, were part of the Texas League from its inception in 1888 to 1964. The team played in several venues during its tenure in Fort Worth. An unnamed park near the Texas and Pacific Depot was home from 1888 to 1904. Haynes Park followed the first park and was home to the team from 1904 to 1910. The Panthers won three consecutive pennants beginning in 1904. Although the team had not won a pennant for several seasons, support for it was enough that owner J. Walter Morris built a new park north of the Trinity River and named it for himself. In 1917 W.K. Stripling and Paul LaGrave, among others, bought the team and renamed the field Panther Park.2 Stripling was the club president and LaGrave the secretary.3 They hired Jake Atz as the field manager. These three men combined to bring the Panthers their greatest success, winning six consecutive Texas League pennants and taking five of six Dixie Series4 crowns from 1920 to 1925. That dominance of the Texas League brought about the need for a larger stadium. The old Morris Field/Panther Park seated 8,000 fans. More seats were needed. Local media attention added to the need for a better field and stands. In 1922 the first radio broadcasts of a baseball game in the South took place when radio station WBAP broadcast a game between the Panthers and Wichita Falls live from the field. There had also been flood damage to Panther Park in 1916 and 1920.

Two attempts at forming a Negro Texas League took place between 1916 and 1932. In 1916 the Texas Colored League formed, with the Fort Worth Black Panthers playing at McGar Park, adjoining Morris Field. The league was short-lived and McGar Park was soon replaced by an automobile racing grounds. In 1920 Hiram McGar worked to form the Texas Negro League. That league also included the Fort Worth Black Panthers and lasted until 1927. In 1929 the league was reborn with the Black Panthers again included. The financial difficulties caused by the Great Depression caused the league to fold in 1932. In the latter two instances of Negro baseball in Fort Worth, the teams played their games in Panther Park/LaGrave Field when the Texas League Panthers were out of town.5

In 1925 Stripling and LaGrave built a larger and more secure ballpark for the Panthers, on a site closer to the levees on the Trinity River. The new ballpark was a concrete and steel structure that seated about 12,000, about 4,000 more than its predecessor. The park, also called Panther Park, was regarded as one of the best in the minor leagues. Like its predecessor, it was originally built with the majority of the seating down the first base line and behind the plate. Only a short grandstand stretched toward third base.6

The Panthers played in their new park from 1926 through 1929. The team was not as successful in the new field as it had been in the old, finishing third in 1926, fourth in 1927, and third in 1928. The team drew 140,000 to 160,000 fans in a city with about 100,000 residents. Paul LaGrave was a strong supporter of children attending baseball games and set aside parts of the right-field pavilion for lower-priced seats for youngsters carrying Knot Hole Gang membership cards.7

Paul LaGrave died of cancer in January of 1929, and Stripling honored him for his work by renaming the field for him. Shortly afterward, Stripling sold his interest in the Panthers. Ted Robinson, the buyer, promptly fired Jake Atz and hired Frank Snyder as manager. The triumvirate that had brought the team so much success and LaGrave Field to Fort Worth was no more.

Frank Snyder, the new manager of the Panthers, brought back memories of the glory days of Atz’s Cats when he led the team to another Texas League title in 1930. That team downed the Memphis Chicks four games to one in the Dixie Series.

Night games began in the Texas League in 1930 when the Waco Navigators installed lights. League and team officials felt playing at night would increase attendance as people who worked during the day could attend the night games. Lights were installed at LaGrave Field for the 1931 season.8

The Cats won the playoffs to claim the Texas League title in 1937 and again in 1939. The Texas League had begun the Shaughnessy playoff system in 1933. The top four teams in the regular season made the playoffs. In the first round, the first-place team played the fourth-place team and the second-place team played the third-place team, then the winners played in the final round. As with today’s wild-card teams, the intent was to increase fan attendance by keeping more teams in the picture for the playoffs. The Cats (by then the nickname had become the team name) faced Tulsa in the first round in 1937 and defeated them three games to two. They then won the title series over Oklahoma City four games to two, and faced Little Rock in the Dixie Series. Five games later the Cats had another Dixie Series title. In 1939 the Cats repeated the 1937 process. This time they downed Houston, Dallas, and Nashville to claim their last Dixie Series title. The Cats hosted the 1940 Texas League All-Star Game. Henry Oana of the Cats drove home the winning run for the North squad in a 7-6 win. The 1942 Cats made the playoffs but were eliminated y Shreveport in the first round.9

The Texas League suspended operations because of World War II from 1943 to 1945 and LaGrave Field sat quiet for the most part. Significant changes were in store for the Cats after the war. Branch Rickey and the Brooklyn Dodgers bought the team as part of their practice of building a farm system to develop players. With the coming of the Dodgers, came the second period of greatness for the Cats. They made the playoffs each year from 1946 to 1954 and won at least 92 games in the first four of those playoff years. Fans were very passionate about the team. In 1946 a close call at first in a game against the Houston Buffalos brought about a 25-minute shower of bottles.10

Despite the nine consecutive playoff appearances, the Cats won only one league championship in that span. In 1948 they finished first with a 92-61 record. They beat Shreveport four games to two and then Tulsa four games to three. Each of the four wins in that series was a shutout. Injuries slowed the Cats in the Dixie Series and they lost to the Birmingham Barons. LaGrave Field hosted the 1948 Texas League All-Star Game. The Cats played a team of all-stars from the rest of the league and lost 4-2in front of 12,636 fans.11

The most significant event in 1949 was the flood that began on May 17. It was perhaps the worst of many that the city endured since it was established in 1849. Nine people died, more than 13,000 were left homeless and damage exceeded $25 million. Among the flooded spots was LaGrave Field. The flood was the second disaster suffered by the Cats in a week. Two nights earlier, a fire broke out in the grandstand and more than 10,000 seats were destroyed. Damage from the fire was estimated at $3 million. The Cats were hosting San Antonio when the fire broke out. Notwithstanding the fire, the teams continued the series the next day. The right-field pavilion and bleachers down the third-base line had not been damaged. Portable seats, including some metal folding chairs, were set up down the first-base line. Some series in the rest of the season were moved to the other team’s site with the Cats acting as the home team. Others were played at the damaged LaGrave. The Cats also hosted the 1949 Texas League All-Star Game on July 12. This time the Cats downed the All-Stars, 2-1. Attendance was down to 8,442. Fort Worth TV station WBAP showed the first televised baseball game in the South during spring training as the Cats played host to the parent Dodgers.12

Branch Rickey and other Dodgers officials came to Fort Worth to evaluate fire-damaged LaGrave Field and determine whether they wanted to abandon the Cats as a farm team. They elected to rebuild the ballpark rather than abandon it. Construction began after the 1949 season, and the rebuilt field was dedicated on July 5, 1950. It was much improved; the new stands seated 13,005 fans and had fewer posts to obstruct their view. The seats were form-fitting bucket seats with arm rests. There were larger and better restrooms and better concessions stands. A 100-foot-long press box included facilities for TV broadcasts.13

The Cats declined slowly in the early 1950s. They made the playoffs each season, but lost in the first round or lost a playoff game for the fourth spot. In 1954 they got past the first round but lost in the finals. The right-field pavilion, much loved by Paul LaGrave and members of the Knot Hole Gang, deteriorated and was removed after the 1954 season. LaGrave Field stayed in that configuration for the remainder of its existence.

Integration came to Fort Worth in 1952, when the Texas League’s first black player, Dave Hoskins, pitched for the Dallas Eagles. Later that season the Cats had a Dave Hoskins Night to honor him.14 The first black Cats players were Maury Wills and Eddie Moore, who came as Dodger farmhands in 1955.15

As the Dodgers looked to move west in the mid-1950s, they worked a swap of minor-league franchises with the Chicago Cubs. The Dodgers, who were leaving Brooklyn for Los Angeles, traded their Fort Worth farm team to the Cubs for the latter’s Wrigley Field in Los Angeles. Under the aegis of the Cubs, the Cats regained the league championship in 1958 and again hosted the Texas League All-Star Game, winning a 5-3 decision over the best of the rest of the league. That was their last hurrah as a league champion. The Cubs moved the team from the Double-A Texas League to the Triple-A American Association in 1959. In that season they finished second in the American Association’s West Division and eliminated the East Division champion Louisville Redbirds in the first round of the playoffs, but lost to Minneapolis in the finals. In 1960 the Cats merged with the Dallas Rangers to become the Dallas-Fort Worth Rangers. They played at LaGrave Field and Burnett Park in Dallas until 1963. In 1964 the Cats resumed their old name and returned for one final season at LaGrave Field as members of the Texas League.16 They were part of the Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs from 1965 to 1972, but played their games in Turnpike Stadium in Arlington. Turnpike Stadium was renamed Arlington Stadium when the American League Texas Rangers arrived in 1972.

LaGrave Field sat empty for three years after 1964 and was finally demolished in 1967. Parts of the stadium were sold to communities and schools in Texas. Bleacher seats went to Marble Falls High School and the softball field at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. The light standards were installed at the baseball field of Pan American University in Edinburg.

The former site of LaGrave Field was an empty field for decades. In the late 1990s, an effort to bring the Cats and professional baseball back to Fort Worth emerged. Carl Bell, the owner of the new Fort Worth Cats, ordered a new LaGrave Field built on the same site as the original. The Cats began play in the new field in 2002. Home plate in the new LaGrave was located in the same spot as it had been in the old park. The old dugouts were resurrected for use as “super suites” on the new field. The park seated 4,100 people. The right-field pavilion was restored and the Knot Hole Gang re-instituted. The grandstands were down both the first- and third-base sides with bleachers beyond the grandstands. It was 325 feet down the left-field line, 400 feet to straightaway center and 335 feet down the right-field line.

The new Cats were never financially stable and bounced from independent league to league trying to keep afloat. They played in the American Association, North American League, Central Baseball League and the United Baseball League during the years they were active as an independent team. In 2011 Bell’s company, LaGrave Reconstruction Company, filed for bankruptcy protection. The team was sold to a group headed by John Bryant that year.17

In November of 2014, the owners of LaGrave Field terminated the lease of the Fort Worth Cats at the field. The ballpark’s owners approached the City of Fort Worth and the Trinity River Vision Authority about purchasing the property. Both declined. Then in January of 2015, the United Baseball League folded after seven years of operation, leaving the Cats without a home field or a league in which to play.18

The fate of the second LaGrave field remained unknown as of 2015. The land is in a prime development area and will likely be sold for redevelopment purposes. A rapidly expanding area of Fort Worth called Panther Island is nearby. The Trinity River Vision is active in developing the Trinity River waterfront. Whether or not a small baseball field fits into those plans was unknown. It would seem that the fate of the original LaGrave Field might well be the fate of its namesake.19

 

Notes

1 The name Panther Park came from Fort Worth’s use of the panther as an unofficial mascot. The city came to be associated with the panther after a Dallas attorney named Robert E. Cowart, after visiting Fort Worth in 1873, told a Dallas newspaper that activity in Fort Worth was so slow that he had seen a panther asleep on Main Street undisturbed by men or business. Intended to be a disparaging comment in the rivalry between Dallas and Fort Worth, the remark was soon turned to Fort Worth’s advantage when newspaper editor B.B. Paddock led an effort to make the panther a symbol of the city.

2 Bill O’Neal, The Texas League: 1888 to 1987: A Century of Baseball (Austin, Texas: Eakin Press, 1987), 244.

3 The duties of a team secretary were similar to those of a general manager of today.

4 The Dixie Series was played between the champions of the Texas League and the Southern Association from 1920 to 1958. It was revived for one year in 1967. The Southern League replaced the defunct Southern Association in the revival.

5 Mark Presswood, Black Professional Baseball in Texas, Texas Almanac. http://texasalmanac.com/topics/history/black-professional-baseball-texas, accessed July 24, 2015.

6 Mark Presswood and Chris Holaday, Baseball in Fort Worth (Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Press, 2004), 92; Fort Worth Star-Telegram, July 1, 1950.

7 Jeff Guinn with Bobby Bragan, When Panthers Roared: The Fort Worth Cats and Minor League Baseball (Fort Worth: TCU Press, 1999), 45; Baseball in Fort Worth, 96.

8 Baseball in Fort Worth, 37.

9 Guinn and Bragan, 50-51.

10 Dave King and Tom Kayser, Texas League Baseball Almanac (Charleston, South Carolina: History Press, 2014), 95.

11 The Texas League, 248-249; When Panthers Roared, 79; Texas League All-Star Game Results, Midland Reporter-Telegram, http://mrt.com/sports/article_4c388e2c-7942-568a-9c3e-4eb358299208.html, accessed July 24, 2015.

12 Fort Worth Star Telegram, May 17, 1989; Baseball in Fort Worth, 94; When Panthers Roared, 74, 77, 85; Texas League All-Star Game Results.

13 Baseball in Fort Worth, 95.

14 Texas League Baseball Almanac, 184.

15 When Panthers Roared, 107.

16 When Panthers Roared, 120-127.

17 Jeff Prince, “Stray Cats Doing Well After Rescue,” Fort Worth Weekly, http://fwweekly.com/2012/08/01/stray-cats-well-rescue/2/, Accessed July 30, 2015.

18 Anton Joe, “United Baseball League Folds After Seven Seasons,” Baseball Essential, http://baseballessential.com/news/2015/01/15/united-league-baseball-fold.... Accessed July 23, 2015.

19 Laura Zakalik, “After Cats Kicked Out, LaGrave Field Future in the Air,” WFAA, http://wfaa.com/story/news/local/tarrant-county/2014/11/06/fort-worth-la.... Accessed July 23, 2015.