Thinking big in Big D in 1950

Part of the fun of being a fan of minor league baseball is handicapping the talent on display. Who’s got the right stuff to make it to the big leagues? Who’s got what it takes to stay there any length of time? Is it possible I’m seeing one of tomorrow’s Hall of Famers today?

At the Texas League season opener for the Dallas Eagles on Tuesday, April 11, 1950, fans were guaranteed that some members of the team would be in Cooperstown. But how could team officials guarantee such a thing? Were they psychic? No, the reality was that several of the players in the starting lineup were already “immortals” enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

This unique minor league contest was the brainchild of Dick Burnett, a renowned promoter, and the owner of the Dallas Eagles. He desperately wanted to set a Texas League Opening Day attendance record (held by the Fort Worth Cats with 16,018 in 1930).

That was a reasonable target, but Burnett had a problem: His home field in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas had only 10,500 seats. After he purchased the Dallas Rebels (whose previous nicknames included Hams, Giants, Submarines and Steers) before the 1948 season, he spent $250,000 fixing up the ballpark (not given to false modesty, he renamed the park Burnett Field and renamed the team the Eagles), but there was no guarantee, even with standing room, that he could eclipse the Texas League record, at least not without inviting the ire of the local fire marshal.

But “Rampant Richard” Wesley Burnett, your basic Texas multimillionaire oil man, was not one to let details get in his way.

During the late 1940s, the Cotton Bowl, located in Dallas’ Fair Park, had been expanded to more than 75,000 seats, largely because of ticket demand for SMU football games during the Doak Walker era. Some Dallas people were boasting that the Cotton Bowl now held more people than Yankee Stadium. Perhaps that was what put the idea in Dick Burnett’s head to stage a baseball game there.

Thinking big was nothing new for Dick Burnett. After all, when he bought the Dallas Rebels, he paid $550,000 for them—the largest amount ever paid for a minor league franchise. The previous owner, Julius Schepps, had no interest in selling, but when a suitor escalates the price to historic proportions, the seller can’t help but have a change of heart.

Burnett also made Texas League history by bringing in the league’s first organist and first black player (pitcher Dave Hoskins, debuted in 1952 with a 22-10 record, a 2.12 ERA, and 26 complete games and was later inducted into the Texas League Hall of Fame). On the other hand, Burnett was also remembered for hurling a typewriter from the press box to the diamond after a tough loss. Minor league records are often sketchy, but Burnett just might hold the distance record for a Texas League typewriter toss.

Dick Burnett was once described as “the poor man’s Tom Yawkey.” It might be more accurate to describe him as an aspiring Tom Yawkey—or even more accurate, an aspiring Tom Yawkey/Bill Veeck. True, he once had dreams of being a big leaguer himself and was a lifelong fan of the game, but he wasn’t just a rich guy who woke up one day and thought, gee, it sure would be fun to own the local Texas League franchise. He had served an apprenticeship of sorts by owning teams at lower minor league classifications.

And he didn’t intend to stop at the Texas League. Several major league franchises were ripe for relocation, and Burnett was definitely interested in bringing big league ball to Dallas. A big crowd at the Cotton Bowl was certain to get the attention of the movers and shakers of major league baseball.

The sheer size of the Cotton Bowl also brought other minor league records into Burnett’s crosshairs. Then, as today, however, there was controversy as to whether the official attendance should reflect the number of tickets sold or the number of people who actually showed up for the game.

In 1940 and 1941, the Jersey City Giants undoubtedly had large Opening Day crowds, but just how big were they? Thanks to some Jersey City political machinations, 56,391 tickets were sold in 1941, but since the ballpark held around 25,000, a number of ticket-holders had to be turned away. The previous year’s Opening Day attendance was estimated at 40,000. So depending on your interpretation of attendance, the minor league attendance record for Opening Day was 40,000 or 56,391.

Another distant target was 52,833, the attendance at a 1944 Junior World Series game, Baltimore hosting Louisville at Memorial Stadium—duly noted as being 16,265 more than any of that year’s major league World Series games, played entirely at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis.

But those targets, ambitious but reachable, were all for minor league contests. Burnett had his eye on a bigger prize. Newspaper advertisements in Dallas invited fans to come out and establish a new Opening Day attendance record for “organized baseball.” So Burnett wasn’t just going after the Fort Worth Cats or the Jersey City Giants. He was gunning for the Yankees, the White Sox, the Indians and the other major league clubs who played in capacious stadiums.

If he could beat the big leagues at their own game, then it followed that Big D was big league. His quest appealed to local politicians, businessmen and civic leaders, many of whom were eager to get involved. J.G. Taylor Spink, editor of The Sporting News, understood what Burnett was striving for and came down from St. Louis to attend the game.

Ticket sales for the game were supervised by the Dallas Jaycees, but the event was kick-started by a First National Bank executive who purchased a block of 15,100 tickets and distributed them to local schools. Surpassing the Opening Day Texas League record was assured. The only question was how wide the margin would be. To induce fans to arrive early, the first fan to arrive in each section was to receive a ball autographed by the immortals in the starting lineup.

But that was not the only reason to get an early start. The schedule called for the Eagles to take batting practice at 5:50, the visiting Tulsa Oilers at 6:10, and the Immortals at 6:30. The pregame ceremonies were set for 7:15 and the game itself was to begin at 8.

Of course, playing a baseball game in a football-only facility presents challenges for the grounds crew as well as the players. Descriptions cite that there was no dirt on the infield, but the grass was cut shorter than the grass in the outfield. The only dirt portions of the field were the pitcher’s mound and the batter’s box. The left and right field fences were described as being barely more than 200 feet away, necessitating a ground rule of two bases for any fair ball hit into the stands. One sportswriter described doubles landing in the end zone and at the 50-yard-line, so it is hard to get an exact picture of the layout. The sportswriters in the football press box needed to field glasses to follow the action on the diamond, so home plate was likely in the far reaches of one of the end zones.

Playing a baseball game in the Cotton Bowl was one half of Dick Burnett’s big idea. The other half was fielding a starting lineup of living legends. Their participation, however, was not immediately assured. Charlie Grimm was all for it, but he was the Eagles manager and he had to be there anyway. Some of the old-timers were reluctant to commit, but once Ty Cobb agreed, they fell into line. After all, if the cantankerous Cobb said yes, then how could anybody else say no?

The starting line-up consisted of:

Home Run Baker        3B    (age 64)
Duffy Lewis           LF    (age 61)
Charlie Grimm         1B    (age 51)
Tris Speaker          CF    (age 62)
Charlie Gehringer     2B    (age 46)
Travis Jackson        SS    (age 46)
Ty Cobb               RF    (age 63)
Mickey Cochrane       C     (age 47)
Dizzy Dean            P     (age 40)

Tris Speaker and Dizzy Dean were no strangers to the Texas League. Speaker, a native Texan and a second cousin of Dick Burnett, had played with Cleburne in 1906 and Houston in 1907, while Dean had played with Houston in 1930 and 1931 (when he went 26-10 with 11 shutouts and 303 strikeouts) and Tulsa in 1940.

The Eagles’ regular starting lineup, however, had no candidates for Cooperstown, though one of the players was older than Dizzy Dean:

Billy Klaus            3B     (age 22)
Lew Morton             LF     (age 30)
Heinz Becker           1B     (age 34)
Vern Washington        RF     (age 42)
Bob Cullins            2B     (age 25)
Clyde Perry            SS   (age 23/24)
Jim Kirby              CF     (age 26)
Dick Aylward           C      (age 24)
Tom Finger             P    (age 31/32)

Obviously, the name recognition gap was enormous. But so was the statistical gap. The eight position players of the immortals had a combined lifetime major league batting average of .327 (19,617 for 59,987). At their careers’ end, the eight position players of the Eagles had a combined major league batting average of .250 (720 for 2,876). The bulk of that was Billy Klaus’ contribution of 626 hits. Heinz Becker had 94 hits, while Jim Kirby and Dick Aylward were hitless in their brief stays on major league rosters.

Of the immortals, four (Speaker, Charlie Gehringer, Cobb, and Cochrane) had already been elected to the Hall of Fame. Three more (Home Run Baker, Travis Jackson and Dean would follow. Duffy Lewis and Grimm were the only “slackers” in the bunch. I’m not familiar with the balloting procedures of the Veterans Committee at Cooperstown, but perhaps a clean sweep is still possible.

On the afternoon of the game, the immortals, the Eagles, and 200 invited guests, including Texas Gov. Alan Shivers, started the festivities with a 12:15 luncheon. Each of the old-timers expounded on his biggest thrill in baseball. All went smoothly except for Cobb’s turn at the microphone, when he let slip a “goddamn.” That utterance horrified the master of ceremonies, local media magnate Gordon McLendon, whose Liberty Radio Network was broadcasting the event.

McLendon was an appropriate choice for emcee, as his network had featured daily major league broadcasts, most of which were in-studio re-creations. McLendon himself, along with Lindsey Nelson and Jerry Doggett (who had two tours of duty as a Dallas Eagles broadcaster and was elected to the Texas League Hall of Fame), had announced a number of re-creations. McLendon was behind the mike at the Polo Grounds when his network broadcast the final 1951 Dodgers-Giants playoff game and Bobby Thomson’s home run heard ‘round the world.

Among his other media achievements, he served as producer for such movies as The Giant Gila Monster and The Killer Shrews (in which he also acted as Dr. Radford Baines) to provide product for his chain of drive-in movie theaters. McLendon probably had one of the most unusual resumes of any of the Bonesmen of Yale University’s legendary Skull and Bones Society.

After the luncheon, the next big event was a parade from downtown Dallas to Fair Park. The nearby town of Greenville, observing its centennial, contributed a high school marching band, as well as a parade of local men who had grown beards as part of the centennial celebration. Most intriguing was a troupe of young women clad in swimsuits with guns and holsters as accessories. I seem to recall a similar scene in Apocalypse Now, but I wouldn’t go so far as to accuse Francis Ford Coppola of plagiarism. He was only 11 years old at the time and reliable sources assert he was not in Dallas the day it all went down.

After arriving at the Cotton Bowl, the players and old-timers took batting practice (Cobb wowed the crowd with his bunting skills) and worked out. The final round of pregame entertainment was provided by the renowned Kilgore Rangerettes drill team, who performed a routine involving miniature white baseball bats. Then Gov. Shivers took the mound (with Burnett as his battery mate) to throw out the first ball.

Finally, it was game time. The Dallas Eagles, fresh off a 15-5 exhibition game victory against the Paris Panthers of the East Texas League, took the field to take on the Tulsa Oilers, the defending Texas League champions. The Oilers, at that time affiliated with Cincinnati, had a roster with a few familiar names. One was Eddie Knoblauch (uncle of major league All-Star Chuck Knoblauch), a minor league veteran who accrued 2,543 hits, mostly in the Texas League, which gained him admittance to the Texas League Hall of Fame. Another was slick-fielding shortstop Roy McMillan (born in Bonham), who debuted with the Reds in 1951 and remained in the National League until 1966.

Yet another was Bob Nieman, who broke into the big leagues with the St. Louis Browns in 1951 and enjoyed a 12-year career with a .295 average and more than 1,000 hits. Yet another was catcher Hobie Landrith, who also made history that evening when he broke his ankle sliding into home plate, thus becoming the only man to ever break a bone while playing baseball in the Cotton Bowl (it was, of course, an accepted occupational hazard for the regular denizens of the Cotton Bowl turf).

Landrith later went down in baseball history as the first man selected by the New York Mets in the expansion draft, so the “jinx” stigma might be appropriate. The Dallas papers duly noted that the unfortunate catcher wore number 13. Even so, he recovered sufficiently to make his big league debut with the Reds a few months later at the age of 20.

Dean, who had a farm in nearby Lancaster, was the starting pitcher for the Immortals. Dean, the youngest of the old-timers, had been working as a broadcaster for the St. Louis Browns. At that stage of his broadcast career, he was so thoroughly disgusted with the feeble Browns that he seriously considered Dick Burnett’s offer to broadcast Dallas Eagle games for $20,000 a year—and might have done so if the Yankees had not come along with an even better offer.

It was not unusual for Dick Burnett to bring in big league talent to a minor league market. Grimm, who took over as the Eagles manager in 1950, had skippered the Cubs for the previous 13 years. Managing the Texas League was undoubtedly a step down in class, but his $30,000 salary was definitely major league in 1950. Burnett doubtless realized that if Dallas was going to become a big league city, it wouldn’t hurt to put out the word that has was paying big league salaries.

In the first inning, Dean went to a full count before he walked Tulsa lead-off hitter Donabedian, then got into an “argument” with the home plate umpire, and was thrown out. His teammates, supposedly in a show of solidarity, followed and the regular starting lineup for the Dallas Eagles took over. Dean, suffering from bursitis, was doubtless glad to keep the pitch count from getting out of hand. “I’ll bet if I had curved the ball, my arm might have snapped off,” he cracked.

Donabedian’s “walk” was nullified and he returned to the batter’s box to begin the game anew (this time around, he got a base hit off Tom Finger, who came on in “relief”). This procedure had been well publicized beforehand so none of the fans could claim they had been victimized by a bait-and-switch maneuver.

The final tally showed that 53,378 people showed up for the game. Considering that 54,151 tickets were sold, the turnout was remarkable. Equally remarkable, the police estimated that only a few hundred people left the stadium before the game was over. Even casual fans must have realized that they were witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime event and wanted to see every bit of it. Since arch-rival Fort Worth opened the season on the same date and drew a mere 3,852, one would probably be justified in concluding that more than a few Fort Worth fans had made the trip to Dallas to see history in the making.

And there was the game itself. Oh, yes, they did play a real game—not an exhibition—after all the brouhaha. In that contest Tulsa was victorious by a 10-3 score. In essence, it was a battle of ground-rule doubles won by Tulsa.

Ironically, the Opening Day Texas League attendance record was broken during a year when league attendance plummeted by 350,000. It was a common enough tale in the minor leagues in those days. Thanks to televised major league baseball and other post-war leisure-time activities, minor league baseball attendance was taking a beating. Curiously, the Dallas Eagles were in the forefront of minor league televised ball. The next night’s game at Burnett field was scheduled to be televised.

As it turned out, the Cotton Bowl game attendance was roughly one-fifth of the Eagles’ season attendance. On the field, the rest of the season was lackluster for the Eagles, who finished at 74-78. The bright spot in the season was pitcher Wayne McLeland, who won 21 games and the league’s Most Valuable Pitcher award.

Other than the major league attendance record, Burnett achieved his other goals. He had the Texas League Opening Day attendance record and he also had the Dallas franchise’s attendance record. Curiously, the previous Dallas attendance record had also been set at Fair Park. On Aug. 3, 1924, 16,484 turned out for a Dallas-Fort Worth contest played at a horse racing arena because a July 19 fire had destroyed Gardner Park, the Eagles’ regular park in Oak Cliff. So both franchise attendance records had been set not at the team’s home park but at facilities in Fair Park. Ironically, Dallas had once played home games at Gaston Park located on the state fairgrounds.

The ideal attendance, of course, would have been 75,347, the capacity of the Cotton Bowl at that time, but a full house was not necessary for the night to be a success. “I’m very happy over this turnout,” said Burnett. “I think this proves that Dallas would support a major league team. I’d be willing to take that gamble if I could get a big league franchise.”

If you discount the Jersey City shenanigans, the Eagles also set a record for attendance at a minor league game. The Jersey City dispute became moot a few decades later when 65,666 people poured into Mile High Stadium for a July 4 Denver Bears (Triple-A) game and fireworks display. That crowd certainly helped Denver polish its resume when it went courting major league baseball. In fact, the Mile High Stadium total was surpassed on the first day of major league baseball in that facility when the Colorado Rockies hosted 80,227 people on April 9, 1993. The Rockies’ 1993 season attendance of 4,483,350 breaks down to an average of 55,350 per game—better than Burnett’s one-time-only record.

But if you were a baseball fan in Dallas in 1950, you had to love Dick Burnett. “Here’s a guy that is doing everything possible to give the Dallas fans a fine ball club, a fine ball park, and the very best in the way of entertainment,” noted Lewis, the Immortals’ left fielder. What more could a fan ask for? In 1950 or 2012? Since Burnett had 100 pdercent ownership of the Eagles and the team was then unaffiliated with any major league franchise, he had about as much independence as any owner in baseball at that time.

Had he not died at age 57 in 1955 (while watching his team play in Shreveport), he might have gotten the jump on Tom Vandergriff, et al. who snared the Washington Senators and brought them to Arlington in 1972. If you had told Burnett in 1950 that major league ball in North Texas was still more than two decades away, he probably would have scoffed. He must have been sorely disappointed to see the likes of Baltimore, Milwaukee and Kansas City get major league franchises while Dallas remained in the wings.

Burnett’s 1950 Cotton Bowl opener didn’t immediately result in a big league franchise, but it occupies a unique place in Dallas sports history. There is no reason to suppose that it must remain unique, however. In other words, baseball history could repeat itself!

Denver’s Mile High Stadium is no more but its minor league single-game attendance record of 65,666 still stands. The Cotton Bowl, on the other hand, is still alive and kicking… at least for football. In fact, in 2008 the capacity was expanded to 92,108. So it would be possible to overturn that Denver minor league record by a large margin.

Indeed, it would be possible to re-create the 1950 event. The Dallas Eagles flew the coop a long time ago, but there is a Texas League franchise located in the Dallas suburb of Frisco. Sure, there would be some logistical details involved—notably setting up a football-only facility for baseball—and the Frisco Rough Riders would have to agree… as would a visiting team (in fact, Tulsa is still in the Texas League, though now called the Drillers, not the Oilers)… as would the Texas League… as would the City of Dallas, which owns the Cotton Bowl… as would Dallas Area Rapid Transit, which would need to run extra trains to Fair Park… as would who knows how many other minor jurisdictional entities.

How many people would show up for such a contest? Well, bringing back the original slate of old-timers is out of the question (unless you want to stage the game at a cornfield in Iowa), but if a fresh supply of old-timers could be persuaded to “start” the game… if the ticket prices were reasonable… if the weather cooperated. A new minor league record could be set. It might make a good Opening Night stimulus, or it might be a great combo deal with a fireworks display, as was done at Denver. A pregame parade wouldn’t hurt either. The atmosphere could be enhanced by making the event one of those turn-back-the-clock nights and giving the players retro uniforms. And 1950 concession prices (beer excepted, of course) would certainly enhance attendance.

I, for one, would show up—as early as possible—and I know I’d have plenty of company. Would it be enough to break the Mile High Stadium record? Would the Cotton Bowl be filled to its current capacity of 92,100? Would it surpass the facility’s record attendance of 96,009 set during the 2009 Texas-Oklahoma football game? I don’t know, but I’d sure like to find out.

As an added attraction, how about bringing back the surviving players from the Eagles and Oilers? Baseball-Reference informs me that Harry Donabedian is still among the living at age 89.

Imagine the Cotton Bowl filled to the brim on a warm Texas evening. The fans are chanting “Har-ree! Har-ree! Har-ree!” The umpire cries, “Play ball,” and the PA announcer says, “Leading off for the Tulsa Oilers, second baseman Harry Donabedian.” And the crowd goes wild! Make that wilder!

Far-fetched, you say? It was far-fetched in 1950, yet it happened.

I think the only missing piece of the puzzle is Dick Burnett.

References & Resources
Alexander, Charles C., Spoke: A Biography of Tris Speaker. Southern Methodist University Press, Dallas, 2007

Baseball-Almanac.com

Baseball-Reference.com

Dallas Morning News, April 11 and 12, 1950

Dallas Times Herald, April 11 and 12, 1950

Gregory, Robert, Diz: The Story of Dizzy Dean and Baseball During the Great Depression, Penguin Books, New York, 1993

Guinn, Jeff with Bragan, Bobby. When Panthers Roared: The Fort Worth Cats and Minor League Baseball, Texas Christian University Press, Fort Worth, 1999

Holaday, Chris, and Presswood, Mark. Baseball in Dallas, Arcadia Press, Charleston, SC; Chicago; Portsmouth, NH; San Francisco, 2004

Kayser, Tom, and King, David, Baseball in the Lone Star State: The Texas League’s Greatest Hits, Trinity University Press, San Antonio, 2005

Legacies: a History Journal for Dallas and North Central Texas, Spring 1994, “Eagles in the Cotton Bowl: How a Team of Immortals Brought Baseball to a Football Stadium,” by Larry Bowman

O’Neal, Bill, The Texas League 1888-1987, Eakin Press, Austin, 1987

The Sporting News, April 19, 1950

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