Mar 29

1969 Senators Spring Training — Bob Short Meets Texas Tom Vandergriff

1969 Washington Senators Spring Training: Bob Short Suddenly Books Two Games in Texas
5th of a 5 part series

Once Frank Howard signed his contract and joined his teammates in Pompano Beach, the Washington Senators felt whole again. The club won their first game with Hondo in the line-up as the “designated pinch hitter.”

Washington won seven of their last 16 games in Florida to finish that portion of their schedule with an 8-17 record. Needless to say, they did not retain their 1968 Grapefruit League crown, though that dubious honor mattered little once the real games began.

The Senators looked forward to the end of the long and uncharacteristically cold and windy spring, with the Presidential Opener a mere three days away. They would return home to D.C. after an already planned side trip to New Orleans for two exhibition games against Roberto Clemente and the Pittsburgh Pirates. While tired, New Orleans seemed not a bad place for a bunch of bored young men to spend a spring evening and play some baseball.

Except new owner Bob Short threw his employees a curveball. After some Spring rains in the New Orleans area, Short dispatched his Head Groundskeeper, Joe Mooney, to inspect the site of the games scheduled for April 5 and 6, the Louisiana State Fairgrounds. While the locals disagreed, Mooney declared the field unfit for use, whether under instruction from Short or not has never been determined.

Short then claimed he had tried in vain to reschedule the contests in Milwaukee or Richmond, but neither city had their baseball stadiums ready to host major league visitors. All of a sudden, Short claimed, he found a venue thanks to the good graces of Tom Vandergriff, Mayor of the tiny city of Arlington, Texas, situated between Dallas and Fort Worth. Apparently, Vandergriff, who had been attempting to lure a major league team to his little town of 20,000 people since 1958, guaranteed Short two sellouts in tiny 15,000 seat Turnpike Stadium.

Even in April, Turnpike was hot, dusty, and far below major league standards. With travel plans changing on Short’s whim, the team arrived in Texas worn out and unmotivated. The Pirates, a similarly weary but much more talented club, crushed the listless Senators in both games.

Vandergriff severely oversold his city’s ability to turn out for the games. While he promised Short 30,000 fans, only 9,000 attended, barely enough to cover the teams’ plane fare.

To boot, Ted Williams had an exhausted team on his hands that had to fly from Arlington, Texas to Friendship Airport in Baltimore the evening before a day full of Opening Day festivities, including President Richard M. Nixon throwing three “first pitches” into the waiting arms of Senators and New York Yankees.

It is difficult to determine when Short and Vandergriff made their deal to play the two games in Arlington, Texas, but it strains credibility to think plans came together at the last minute. Perhaps Short arranged these exhibitions shortly after or even before purchasing the Senators.

This much is known — Bob Short knew Vandergriff coveted a major league baseball team. He also knew the Senators’ lease for use of RFK Stadium expired on September 29, 1971. He knew baseball had named a rookie commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, who was widely viewed as weak and unable to impose his will on the owners. It is entirely plausible that Short and Vandergriff made, or added details to, their plans to move the Senators to Texas after the 1971 season.

The Senators returned to Arlington for exhibition games in 1971. By then, most folks knew Short and Vandergriff intended to move the national pastime from the nation’s capital to a small suburb in the shadow of Dallas. Less than six months later, the deal was done.

But in 1969, the two Texas exhibition games merely delayed the start of a magical, unforgettable season that saw the Senators win 86 games. No Washington baseball team since has come anywhere close to that win total.

Two short seasons later, baseball in Washington was gone and fans endured 33 years of silence and waiting.

To add insult to injury, Vandergriff’s grandson, Parker, is hard at work lining up actors (including Mark Nutter who appeared in the first season of Friday Night Lights) for a movie version of his grandfather and Bob Short’s hijacking of the nation’s capital’s baseball team. The working title, an unintentionally ironic “Legends of the Game.”

Here is a link to a photo of Vandergriff and Short at the first game in Arlington, Texas in 1972:

On a happier note, another Opening Day, April 12 against the Cincinnati Reds, is only two weeks away. As Washington baseball fans, we know what it is like to lose this joyous occasion, so we, perhaps, savor it’s return more than any other major league city.