By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
There was no doubt Burnett wanted to be a permanent part of the game: Almost immediately after he bought the team, he changed the name of Steers Field, a 10,500-seat stadium in Oak Cliff near the Houston Street Viaduct, to Burnett Field. The man had no small ego and long insisted that the major leagues should keep their grubby mitts off minor-league teams. Though his Eagles had a working agreement with the Cleveland Indians and a couple of other big-league teams, Burnett didn't want the big clubs calling the shots in the bush leagues. The cross-town rivals, the Fort Worth Cats, were owned and operated by the Brooklyn Dodgers, who shuffled players back and forth at will. Burnett, who wanted absolute power, swore he'd never let the big clubs control his team.
"He felt the major leagues were taking advantage of the minors," says Howard Green, former president of the Gulf Coast League and currently the president of the local chapter of the American Society of Baseball Research. "They controlled most of the ballplayers. He felt that all the rules were made in the interest of a system he didn't like."
Burnett was willing to spend whatever it took to get top-notch players. He hired Bobby Goff, who had managed several farm teams for the St. Louis Browns, as his general manager, and let Goff load the team with Browns has-beens and never-weres. As a result, the Eagles were Texas League bottom-dwellers until 1952, when Dutch Meyer led his boys to first place for the first time in years. But that didn't stop people from coming: From 1948 until 1958, the Eagles drew thousands of people to Burnett Field for each game; even when they were losing, they were the best show in town. Major-league baseball was still years away from coming to Texas, and the closest thing Dallas had to pro football back then was SMU's Doak Walker running for miles at the Cotton Bowl.
"At that time, the Eagles were to Dallas what the Cowboys are to Dallas now," says Nancy Goff Cheney, Bobby's daughter. "That was really the heyday of Texas League baseball, after the war. People were just so hungry for sports and baseball. It was amazing the crowds we had. It was standing-room only. They'd be standing in the field."
But no crowd was bigger than the one the Eagles drew to the Cotton Bowl to begin the 1950 season: Goff had managed to convince Dizzy Dean, who lived in Dallas for a while, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Charlie Grimm, Mickey Cochrane, and a host of other former big-league legends to dress up in Eagles uniforms and take the field as the home team for one inning. A crowd of 53,578, including Governor Alan Shivers, turned out to watch the old men take a little batting practice and play one out's worth of baseball. It was a brilliant stunt, but nothing more. Grimm was paid $30,000 to manage the team in 1950, and still the Eagles did no better than sixth place, though the Cotton Bowl crowd still stands as the largest ever to see a baseball game in Texas.
Dick Burnett never met a publicity stunt he didn't like, and for his efforts, in 1952, Burnett was named by The Sporting News as the minor-league executive of the year, having "demonstrated that independent operation can compete successfully with the largest farm system, both on the field and in the front office." The newspaper also cited the Eagles' attendance--207,676--as tops in the minors.
In the early 1950s, Burnett pulled off the biggest stunt of his tenure as the Eagles owner by integrating the Texas League. But history has yet to decide whether Burnett did it because he was a good-hearted progressive, as the Morning News once referred to him, or because he knew it was good for business.
By 1952, there were dozens of black players in the majors and some in other minor-league systems, but not a single one in the Texas League...and no one seemed to be in much of a rush to do anything about it. Despite the good attendance, Burnett had been losing money for years; in 1951, he even considered selling the team, demanding a million dollars for the franchise, though it was only worth half as much.
Instead in '52, he decided that to help bolster ticket sales, he'd sign a black ballplayer before the season began. Repeatedly, he denied he was doing it for the publicity, but did tell Bill Rives of the Morning News in January of that year that his baseball team had to compete with the new Dallas Texans football team, which had several black players. "We've both got the same kind of attraction--a sporting event--and we're competing," he said.
Neither Burnett nor Dutch Meyer wanted to sign an African-American just because he was black. They both insisted he be talented enough to help the team win the pennant.
"See, Dick wanted to sign a black player because he had a black fella in Gladewater that stayed with him all the years that he was trying to find oil," Meyer says now. "He drove Dick's car all over the country while Dick was trying to find himself an oil well, and this black guy took care of Dick. Dick was a pretty good drinker, and this black guy took care of him. After Dick got Dallas, I presumed he made some money and [the Eagles] drew well, and he built that black guy one of the nicest houses in Gladewater. [Burnett] was a tough enemy, but he was a good friend.