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

The Texas League still exists as a double-A feeder into the major leagues--the Tulsa Drillers are part of the Rangers' farm system--but the league is just barely in Texas. Only three of the eight teams in the league are actually in the state: the El Paso Diablos, the Midland Angels, and the San Antonio Missions. But on May 7, Nolan Ryan and son Reid announced that they were buying the Jackson Generals, based in Mississippi, and moving them to Round Rock, just north of Austin. Ryan will pay almost $6 million to build the $13 million stadium, which will open at the beginning of the 2000 season. The Ryans will oversee the day-to-day operations of the team. Too bad it's not 1958: Back in those days, major-league heroes often played their farewell days in the minors, and no telling what kind of heat Nolan Ryan could still throw by those minor-league bats.

Baseball has been in Dallas ever since the birth of the Texas League 110 years ago: In 1888, the Dallas Hams, who played at Oak Cliff Park just on the other side of the Trinity River from downtown, won the first ever Texas League pennant. One of the most important men in the history of baseball, Branch Rickey, played some of his minor-league years for the Dallas Tigers (or the Dallas Giants--the history books can't agree on the name) in 1904; 41 years later, Rickey, who also created the minor-league farm system, made history by signing a young Negro League ballplayer named Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Grover Cleveland Alexander pitched the final five games of his Hall of Fame career with the Dallas Steers in 1930.

But no Dallas team landed more players in the big leagues than the Dallas Eagles, who began play 50 years ago this summer, when an East Texas oilman named Dick Burnett bought the Dallas Rebels and re-christened them the Eagles. One of those Eagles, McCovey, would become a legend of the game; others, including Bill White (who went on to become president of the National League) and Joey Amalfitano (now with the Los Angeles Dodgers organization) and dozens of lesser-known journeymen, would play for years in the big leagues.

Yet for every big-leaguer who spent a summer in Dallas, there were dozens of men who spent their whole lives in the minors, and without regret. They were legends for a few months, heroes in their hometowns, men who played minor-league baseball with major-league soul. And all of them, famous or forgotten, made a little history in the Oak Cliff sun.

During its earliest days, Texas League ball was a rowdy game: Fans during the 1920s were known to whip out pistols and shoot at fly balls whose trajectories they didn't much care for. During the league's inaugural season, in 1888, it was a player on the Austin team who first referred to a bloop single in the outfield as a "Texas Leaguer," and the name stuck. The league also produced some of the finest players who ever played the game in the majors: Chicago "Black" Sox outfielder Buck Weaver, Detroit Tigers Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg, St. Louis Cardinals legend Dizzy Dean.

Brooklyn Dodgers hero Duke Snider began his career as a 19-year-old on the Fort Worth Cats in 1946 before returning to the Texas League as a manager in 1967. It was Snider's '46 Cats, then a Dodgers farm club, who lost to the Dallas Rebels in the Texas League finals; those who recall the series say it was one of the most thrilling in the history of the Texas League, an upset of major-league proportions. Ironically, the owner of the Rebels at the time, George Schepps, tried to get the Detroit Tigers to steal Snider away from the Cats during the 1946 season, which thoroughly pissed off Branch Rickey.

George Schepps, along with brother Julius (who would become a prominent local liquor distributor), bought into the Dallas Steers in 1922. Their father, a wealthy local businessman, had purchased 10 percent of the club for his boys--George had been a Steers batboy in 1907. By 1938, George--known as the godfather of Texas baseball until his death on January 14 of this year at the still-vigorous age of 98--owned 84 percent of the club, buying out owner Sol Dreyfuss for $150,000, and renamed the team the Rebels. In 1948, he sold the team to Dick Burnett for $550,000, which was the largest sum of money ever handed over for a minor-league baseball team--and, Schepps said at the time, about three times more than the damned thing was worth.

Burnett, according to those who knew him well, was either the kindest, most progressive man alive or one cranky businessman who loved baseball but hated losing money on it; quite possibly, he was both. A frustrated ballplayer himself, Burnett had owned other teams, including one in his hometown of Gladewater, and according to Merle Heryford, who covered the Eagles for The Dallas Morning News beginning in 1949, Burnett was both liked and feared.

"He took care of his players, maybe more than he should have. He didn't mind spending his money and going out and getting them," recalls Heryford. "He was in the press box every night. One night, he got excited and threw someone's typewriter on the floor and then apologized the rest of the season. He learned a little more every year. When he first bought the team, he didn't know much about organized baseball, but he got less and less temperamental. By the time he died, he was a nice enough guy to get along with, and if any of his ballplayers needed anything, he'd see they didn't want for too much."

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