This article was written by Will Osgood
Arlington Stadium has a history that deserves to be told. It is a bit unknown, but certainly worthy of telling.
The story started in 1959 when residents of the Dallas-Fort Worth area voted to approve a bond for a small minor-league ballpark to be built in the centrally located suburb of Arlington, Texas. It was eventually decided that the site would be a 137-acre open area sitting adjacent to Six Flags Over Texas, one of the original high-scale theme parks in the country.1 It would be 13 years from the time of the vote until the ballpark could gain anywhere near the traffic or revenue of its neighbor. But in 1972, after a long pursuit process led primarily by Arlington Mayor Tom Vandergriff, the Washington Senators made the move from D.C. to the up-and-coming Metroplex, changing their name in the process to the Texas Rangers.
The ballpark, though, built a few years after the vote passed, began as a 10,500-seat minor-league park called Turnpike Stadium. It hosted the Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs of the Double-A Texas League from 1965 to 1971.
Building the ballpark in its initial form cost $1.9 million. Through the years it would see many add-ons, which all told cost exactly 10 times that, $19 million.2 To fulfill the requirements of hosting a major-league team, the City of Arlington organized efforts to alter the ballpark significantly. The changes began in 1970 two years before the Texas Rangers became a reality. In 1970 the ballpark capacity was doubled, to 20,000 seats. In 1972, the first season of its major-league life, the stadium capacity expanded to 35,739.
The first game at Turnpike Stadium was played on April 23, 1965. Seven years later, on April 21, 1972, the rebuilt and renamed ballpark hosted its first major-league baseball game, the Texas Rangers playing the visiting California Angels. The ballpark had been set to debut as a major-league park earlier, but the start of the season was delayed slightly because of a players strike. The Rangers’ season began on April 15, when the team played the Angels in Anaheim. In the home opener on the 21st the Rangers enjoyed a fast start, when Frank Howard’s first-inning home run became the ballpark’s first major-league run and home run. The Rangers won the game, 7-6.3
The inaugural home game was one of the few bright spots in the team’s opening season in Arlington. The Rangers limped along to a 54-100 record, including 31-46 at home. (Four of the 31 victories came in that opening series, as the Rangers swept the Angels, and ended the set tied for first in the AL West division.)
The tie lasted only one game, and was not achieved again during the 1972 season. But for a long weekend in mid-April, the Texas Rangers looked as if they might be a contender.
The attendance at the first contest at Arlington Stadium was 20,105, making it a poorly attended inaugural major-league contest. A night later 5,517 paid to watch the Rangers’ second home game. Sunday’s attendance was 11,586. Over the course of the season, the Rangers never neared a sellout. Only twice did they top 20,000.
The Rangers finished 10th out of 12 American League franchises in attendance, attracting 662,974 to the renovated minor-league park for big-league action. The play on the field may have been one major reason. The sparse crowds saw few wins, and especially few of the most exciting kind. The Rangers had only three walk-off wins in 1972. Those were the most exciting moments in the ballpark during the 1972 season. It is almost impossible to have so few walk-off wins. It is almost as if the team planned to torture their new home fans.
Other factors prevented the average fan from coming out to the ballpark. Among them was the heat. The Dallas Metroplex is among the hottest regions in the United States. Because of that, the Rangers schedule all but a few home games for nighttime.
The ballpark’s construction did not help. The playing field was below ground level, with the stands ascending to the level of the parking lot. Warm air started at the playing level and rose to the top, creating an unfriendly atmosphere for players and fans alike. One writer called the outfield stands “the world’s largest open-air roaster.”4
When the upper deck was built in 1978, some fans would not walk down to their seats but would travel upward. But the rising heat remained and the ballpark never became a comfortable place to play in or watch a baseball game.
The evolution of the ballpark was extensive from its opening in 1965 to when it was replaced in 1994. The 1978 upper-deck expansion brought the seating capacity to 41,097. Further expansions after 1978 brought the capacity to 43,508 in 1985 and finally to 43,521 in the stadium’s final season hosting Rangers baseball. The 43,000-plus capacity made for quite a contrast to the original Turnpike Stadium. The left-field façade above the field featured a scoreboard shaped like the state of Texas. It was replaced in 1983 with a more standardized Diamond Vision scoreboard.5
Some factors remained the same throughout. One was the outfield wall dimensions. The down-the-line right-field and left-field distances remained 330 feet throughout the Rangers’ tenure in the park, and straightaway center field remained 400 feet. The only changes came in right-center and left-center, which began at 370 feet, became 383 for one season (1981), and then dropped three feet to 380 for the remainder of the ballpark’s lifetime, making it still a tough power alley to traverse, especially in a day when home runs were not aplenty.6 Turnpike Stadium, aka Arlington Stadium, was similar to other ballparks in another sense. As was common when it was built, the bullpens were crafted into the field of play, along the foul lines. The Rangers bullpen was down the right-field line, as their dugout sat on the first-base side.
Of all the games played in Arlington Stadium the one on Sunday, September 30, 1984, is by far the best-known. Mike Witt, lanky California Angels right-hander and four-year veteran, sliced through the Rangers’ lineup with a combination of wicked curves (55), fastballs (37), and changeups (just two), to retire all 27 Rangers in a row. The perfect game was the ninth in what is commonly referred to as the modern era of baseball, and 11th overall (including Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series). Witt’s 94 total pitches were the fifth fewest thrown among the 21 modern-era perfect games (in Cy Young’s perfect game the pitch total is not known, as is the case with the pre-modern-era games). Witt’s brilliance – and that of his opposing pitcher, Charlie Hough, who gave up one unearned run on seven hits – was evident by the rapid nature of the 1-0 final, which ended in one hour and 49 minutes. Unfortunately few people witnessed this season finale, as only 8,375 fans paid to watch the historic performance.
Some of the game’s most colorful personalities held a seat, and cast watchful eyes, in the first-base dugout over the years. Among the Rangers managers while the team played at Arlington Stadium were Ted Williams, one of the greatest hitters of all time (1972); Whitey Herzog, better known for leading the Kansas City Royals and St. Louis Cardinals to great success (1973); Billy Martin, who was hired and fired multiple times by the New York Yankees’ mercurial owner George Steinbrenner (1973-75); Don Zimmer, one of the all-time characters and best-respected men in baseball (1981-82); and the always colorful Bobby Valentine (1985-92). The Rangers’ manager in their final season in Arlington Stadium was Kevin Kennedy, who lasted two seasons (1993-94) and later became a broadcaster.
Some great broadcasters occupied the home broadcast booth at Arlington Stadium.7 In the Rangers’ inaugural season, Bill Mercer and Los Angeles Dodgers Hall of Famer Don Drysdale provided play-by-play and color commentary respectively for both radio and television. In 1978 Jon Miller began a short stint as play-by-play commentator for both television and radio. His tenure lasted just two years, but produced fruit beyond Miller’s ascension to national prominence. It also provided an opportunity for Eric Nadel to gain experience behind the mike. He began in Miller’s second season, as a television voice exclusively. The next year, 1980, he established himself as the pre-eminent radio voice of the Rangers. Thirty-five years after he began calling Rangers games from a creaky old broadcast booth in an unenthusiastic stadium, Nadel won the Ford C. Frick Award in 2014. The Frick honor is given annually to a baseball announcer who exudes excellence in his craft, courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.8
Tom Vandergriff, the mayor who was responsible for bringing the Rangers to Arlington, spent three seasons in the television booth next to Dick Risenhoover (1975-77). Vandergriff spent 26 years in the mayor’s seat in Arlington. The last three coincided with the time he was calling Rangers games. But it is not as quirky as one might expect. When he was just 16, Vandergriff took a job as a radio broadcaster with KFJZ Radio in Fort Worth. Because of his work as a broadcaster, but more importantly for bringing the Rangers to Arlington, getting a ballpark built and then another one in 1994, Vandergriff was inducted into the Texas Rangers Baseball Hall of Fame in 2004.9
Vandergriff was clearly a man of vision and results. Yet it is difficult to assess whether he could have foreseen some of the oddball innovations coming out of Arlington Stadium. For instance, Arlington Stadium was the birthplace of ballpark nachos. The heated, juicy cheese dip and tortilla chips are now the most common and inexpensive food item available at most sports and entertainment venues.
Another mainstay in American sporting events is the dot race. It has evolved to a point where it is generally a series of culturally relevant artifacts taking semi-lifelike form and racing around the city in video form. Whatever form it takes nowadays, its genesis ought to be understood as being an Arlington Stadium creation.
Yet none of those innovations are as uniquely Texas as this: Arlington Stadium became the birthplace of unique culturally relevant songs being played, sung, and danced to between the top and bottom halves of the seventh inning. While “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” is the iconic fans’ song, at some point the Rangers determined that replacing it with “Cotton Eye Joe” was a good idea. It turned out to be, as it was an almost instant hit, and of course uniquely Texas.
The ballpark was featured in the movie Bull Durham.10 In the film it is the ballpark where Tim Robbins’ character is interviewed after making it to the major leagues. But Arlington Stadium was not a hotbed for movie production or other kinds of attractions during its hosting the Rangers or after. Even the Six Flags next door could not bring people out to the yard. The 1991 season was the team’s best in attendance at 2,297,720 paying customers. It still did not compare to Yankee Stadium or Dodger Stadium, which seated more spectators than the Rangers’ eventual 43,000.
Then again, it is not incorrect to note how Arlington Stadium was not exactly the most aesthetically pleasing yard, even with its standard but beautiful Tifway 419 Bermuda sod11 spread across the 110,000 square feet of playing surface.12
The ballpark did hold two other distinctions while it was in use. The outfield bleachers took up more space and spanned more of the ballpark than at any other major-league ballpark. Also, the outfield fences and other façade areas surrounding the playing field held more advertisements than any other ballpark. In today’s world of marketing and commercialization it would not garner much attention, but in the 1980s the space given in the ballpark to advertising was quite noteworthy.
None of the advertising, seating capacity, or improved product on the field could keep Arlington Stadium from giving in to father time. It, like the “Ryan Express,” had an expiration date. The expiration of the two coincided as one. Future Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan finished his career with the Rangers, making just 13 starts in 1993. And just as Ryan’s career had an unsatisfactory ending, so too did the Rangers’ time at Arlington Stadium.
On October 3, 1993, the Rangers played their final home game in the rundown stadium and lost. Future All-Star Kevin Appier held the Rangers to one run on four hits in eight innings while striking out 10 batters. Greg Gagne provided all the offense needed when he hit a two-run homer. It was a rather fitting end to the ballpark’s existence. A game that began with much hope for victory had it swallowed away by the opponent. The Rangers needed a new ballpark if for no other reason than to turn the tide of their franchise. The remedy proved worthwhile, as the Rangers began an era of winning baseball almost immediately upon transitioning into their brand-new ballpark across the street.
While the new ballpark proved a welcome change for the franchise, it was not exactly good news for the old ballpark. Some ballparks survive years past their existence of hosting a professional team. Not Arlington Stadium. For a short time the Rangers’ old home and new home existed alongside each other, with merely a street between them. But for the opportunity to create a more modern environment around the new stadium, the ballpark was allowed to decay. Weeds and erosion made it look more like a jungle than a former baseball field.
Some of the seats were torn out after the final out of the 1993 season, making room for the grass to overgrow and overflow into the abandoned stands. Mounds of dirt hills came into being, so that the yard could hold a motocross race. Arlington Stadium became ghastly in appearance. It was finally demolished in 1994, and the site as of 2016 was the parking lot for the new ballpark, with nothing remaining to indicate there was a ballpark there, not even a home-plate marker. All that is left behind is the memory of a tortured stadium that was too hot for comfort. Beyond anything, the memory of Arlington Stadium was the heat. Rangers fans today are happy to have a more weather-friendly stadium to go to for watching their hometown team play baseball.
This biography was published in “1972 Texas Rangers: The Team that Couldn’t Hit” (SABR, 2019), edited by Steve West and Bill Nowlin.
Besides the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com and “Tifway Bermuda Sod,” supersod.com/sod/bermuda-sod/tifway-bermuda.html.
7 “All-Time Broadcasters,” texas.rangers.mlb.com/tex/history/broadcasters.jsp.
9 “Hall of Mayors: Tom Vandergriff,” arlington-tx.gov/history/hall-mayors/tom-j-vandergriff/.