A bush league of their own

Long before the Texas Rangers, major-league baseball was played in Dallas by a minor-league team called the Dallas Eagles

It takes Lambert Dalton Meyer a while to remember things--he is like a cold car in the dead of winter that needs to warm for a while in the driveway before it can get going. At first, he does not even remember when he played in baseball's major leagues, as though a man could forget such things! "It's a damned mess," he says, spitting out the last word in exasperation.

But then, just a few minutes later, he gets going, and suddenly, you cannot stop the torrent of memories. They come rushing at such a clip that perhaps he fears that if he stops talking for a moment, they will all vanish again, and so he doesn't let up; he begins reciting batting averages, trades, the names of players long since dead or forgotten. In an instant, the blank slate becomes a book filled with characters named Buzz and Sweet Willie and Dutch.

Dutch--that was Meyer's nickname way back, when he played for the Detroit Tigers, the Cleveland Indians, then the Chicago White Sox...or was it the White Sox, then the Indians...or was it the Chicago Cubs? OK, so the memory isn't exactly letter-perfect. (For the record, he played for the Cubs in 1937, the Tigers from '40 to '42, and the Indians from '45 to '46.) Meyer blames his memory loss on Alzheimer's disease, which only recently landed him in an assisted-living home in Fort Worth. He decided it was time to move into a home when he discovered it wasn't just the other people on the road who couldn't drive. Now, says the 82-year-old Waco native, "I live a life of leisure."

Dutch Meyer, who played baseball, basketball, and football at TCU in the mid-1930s, came to Dallas in 1951 to manage what was then the top team in the Texas League, the Dallas Eagles. For two years, he had the best pitching in the league, the best hitters, the best defense, and in '53, his Eagles won the Dixie Series--the World Series of the South--beating the Nashville team of the Southern Association for the title. They did it with batting, boasting a Holy Trinity of heavy hitters, all with averages above .300.

There was James Buster Clarkson, who a year before had played 14 games in a Boston Braves uniform and managed to get only five hits in 25 at-bats in the bigs. "Buzz" Clarkson was in the major leagues only a split second--long enough to get a cup of coffee, as the saying goes--and when he came back to the minors, to Dallas, he hit .330. He was 38 years old.

Willard Brown hit .310 for the 1953 Dallas Eagles; he, too, was a power hitter who was in the big leagues long enough to be forgotten. In 1947, the outfielder played in 21 games for the old St. Louis Browns of the American League and put up a dreadful batting average of .179. But Brown's place in history extends beyond his batting average: He and Hank Thompson, both Negro League veterans, were the first black teammates in the history of the major leagues. Thompson went on to have a decent career with the New York Giants, playing alongside Willie Mays, while Willard Brown came, for one glorious year, to Dallas, where, at the age of 38, he smashed 23 homers and drove in 108 runs.

The trio was rounded out by Eddie Knoblauch, who, his former teammates like to say, could hit .300 whenever the hell he wanted to. The uncle of current New York Yankees second baseman Chuck Knoblauch hit .304 for Dallas in 1953. Two years later, Knoblauch was the Texas League batting champ, posting a .327 average. Knoblauch could have played in the majors, he just didn't want to--the money, one old friend says, wasn't good enough for Eddie to make the leap.

"That 1953 team was the best," says Meyer, who, even in an Alzheimer's haze, remembers those men and their accomplishments while they played for him, right down to their batting averages. "I had a bunch of damned good players. Eddie Knoblauch, well, he was kind of an unusual fellow. He'd never say anything, and he could play just as good as he wanted to. I'm not trying to say he didn't play his best all the time, but he was a funny guy, real quiet. When we got Willie Brown and Buzz Clarkson--they were with the old Kansas City Monarchs [of the Negro League]--we put it together just in time."

But that championship season is lost to history. The great days of the Texas League and the Eagles--which was around for only a decade, from 1948 to 1958--exist only in short chapters in seldom-read baseball books. The most tangible proof that the Texas League and, especially, the Dallas Eagles ever existed stands in a small part of the Legends of the Game museum at the Ballpark in Arlington, where borrowed memories are encased behind plastic. There are a handful of pictures and old uniforms and programs, with a few sentences scrawled beneath each explaining the who, what, and when of the league; but, in the end, they offer more questions than answers.

There are, however, a few survivors of those battles between the Dallas Eagles, the Fort Worth Cats, the Shreveport Sports, the Tulsa Oilers, and the four other teams that made up the league in the 1950s. Some who are still around have long forgotten about those days--like Meyer, because of old age; and others, because they choose to. One, 1958 Texas League MVP Joe Kotrany, who pitched for the Eagles throughout the 1950s, died just a few weeks ago. Hall of Famer Willie McCovey, who played for the Eagles in 1957 before becoming a superstar with the San Francisco Giants in '59, refused to be interviewed about his days playing here. "Nothing personal," came McCovey's response through a Giants public-relations woman. "That was just a very long time ago."

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