A bush league of their own
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."
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."
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.
"Dick felt like he owed the black race. He said, 'I want to do something for the black race. They've helped me, and I want to bring one into our organization. He said, 'I want to get a good one, one who can compete.'"
On February 23, 1952, Burnett signed Ray Neil, a 26-year-old second baseman from the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League. Neil was considered one of the best double-play makers in the Negro Leagues, and he was a great hitter as well, batting .346 in 1951. Neil was thrilled at the chance to be the man chosen to integrate the Texas League--yet he never suited up for the Dallas Eagles. Dutch Meyer, tripping over his memory, says he never heard of Ray Neil: "Was I managing then?" Meyer wonders, and the answer is yes.
Instead, the man who would break the Texas League's color barrier was a 26-year-old right-handed pitcher named Dave Hoskins, whom Dallas acquired from the Cleveland Indians; at the time, the Eagles were part of the Indians' farm organization, breaking in Cleveland's up-and-comers while carrying guys the big club had no room for.
"Cleveland wanted to put Hoskins somewhere, and Dick liked the idea of breaking the color barrier," Merle Heryford recalls. "Dick was a go-getter. He never backed off from anything. Some people didn't like him for that reason."
Hoskins pitched in the second game of the 1952 season for the Eagles and recorded his first win against the Tulsa Oilers. That year, he led the league with a 22-10 record and a .328 batting average, which made him the Eagles' top pinch-hitter. With a pitching staff that also included Joe Kotrany, Hal Erickson (the only other 20-game winner in the league that year), and future Cleveland Indian Ray Narleski, the Eagles finished first in the league, something a Dallas team had not accomplished since 1936.
"Dave could throw a curve ball through a knothole," Meyer recalls. "He had a great curve and great control."
But Hoskins did not have an easy time here; his role as the league's "racial guinea pig," as one writer then referred to him, was met with much the same hateful response that greeted Jackie Robinson in Brooklyn. His teammates liked him just fine: "He was such a nice man, you couldn't not love the guy," says Joe Macko, then the Eagles' first baseman. "And he was a hell of an athlete." But the fans taunted him wherever he went outside of Dallas; he was, at first, not allowed to play in Shreveport.
"They cursed him: 'Hey, you black bastard,'" Meyer recalls. "Here I am, coaching on third base, and they would yell, 'Why are you paying that bastard?' I will never forget someone asking me why I played a black guy in baseball, and I told him, 'Every time I look at him, I don't see a black guy. I see someone who won me the Texas League.'"
In 1953, Hoskins was called up to join the Indians, and he appeared in 26 games that year, starting seven, three of which were complete games; his record was 9-3, and his ERA was 3.99. The following summer, he was plagued by a sore right arm and pitched in only 14 games, posting a 0-1 record. The Indians, however, voted to give Hoskins a share of their World Series money (the Indians were swept by the Giants).
Hoskins tried to pitch for four more years, but his career ended in anonymity in 1958. After that, he returned to his home in Flint, Michigan, and lost touch with his old Dallas Eagles teammates. On April 2, 1970, long after Hoskins had been forgotten as one of baseball's black pioneers, long after his promising career dried up and blew away, he put a gun to his head and killed himself. Hoskins was 44.
Dick Getter holds in his massive hand a photo of the 1957 Texas League Champion Dallas Eagles. The former outfielder--who looks nearly as sturdy and intense as he did during his playing days--reels off the names of his teammates as though he just stepped off the field with them: "That's Joey Amalfitano, he's third-base coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers now...That's Tony Taylor, he played in the major leagues till the 1970s...Nick Testa, he used to be the bullpen coach for the Giants...Joe Kotrany, he died last week.
But Getter, who recalls the finest details of his yesterdays, does not live in the past: There are only two framed pictures of him in his Eagles uniform scattered around his home, which sits on a quiet stretch of green on the Brookhaven Golf Course; such are the rewards of the scrap-paper recycling business, which Getter entered after he retired from baseball in 1960. He swings a golf club now, and the closest he's been to a diamond in decades was when his two sons were drafted to play major-league ball--one by the Texas Rangers, the other by the Cincinnati Reds.
But his boys decided the baseball life was not for them, so they, too, called it quits. Their father says he was never, not for a second, disappointed that they didn't live out their old man's major-league dream. The Getter men, it seems, are nothing if not practical: Both sons went into the family business, running plants in Austin and in Dallas.
Getter almost never touches the decaying scrapbook filled with yellowing newspaper clippings and faded photos that document his days as a minor-leaguer. He says that sometimes he thinks about putting the thing in some semblance of order...then figures, Why bother?
Dick Getter, who managed to get a hit off Satchel Paige during the legendary pitcher's final year on the grass, is one of those guys who spent his whole professional baseball career in the minors, playing for more teams than he cares to remember. There are dozens of men in the Dallas-Fort Worth area alone, baseball's elders who get together every so often at gatherings of ex-pros to remember the good old days. They sit around and talk about batting averages and hitting streaks and who hit the longest ball of a pitcher way back when; sometimes, they lie about their stats. "Like, a 10-game hitting streak is now a 22-game streak, because guys forget," says Joe Macko, who played in an Eagles uniform several times throughout the 1950s.
Getter and Macko, who is currently the visiting clubhouse manager at the Ballpark in Arlington, were two of the guys who didn't make it to the bigs; they spent all their playing days in the bush leagues, waiting for the call-up that never came. But they were pro ball players nonetheless, men who were paid to hit, catch, throw, and run in the sun for more than a decade. Back then, when there were only 16 teams in the major leagues, a man could make a living in the farm systems, and there was no shame in spending your whole pro-ball career in the minors. You weren't a failure if the bigs didn't call you up--you just hoped for better luck next time.
Getter, who was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, never played college ball, though he had the chance to go on an athletic scholarship playing basketball. But he did hit .600 in American Legion ball and was signed by a New York Giants scout in late 1940s. He played a little minor-league ball in Delaware, got injured, got recruited by the Brooklyn Dodgers, went back to Delaware for 48 hours, then refused to sign his Dodgers contract unless the team paid him the $500 bonus they owed him. They gave him a bus ticket back home instead. In 1949, he was signed by the Cleveland Indians and sent to Kansas, where he met his wife; he was married at home plate--"which they don't do anymore," Getter says. The next year, he was sent to Zanesville, Ohio, broke his ankle during spring training, and played on the injured foot the rest of the year.
In 1952, he was sold by the Indians to an independent team in Duluth, Minnesota, and had 121 RBIs in 140 games, batting .315. Team management asked if he was ready to go back to the Indians, but he refused, and instead they sold him to a New York Giants farm club in Sioux City, Iowa, where he played in 1953, batting ".280-something." In 1954, he went to Nashville and fought with his manager, who sent him back to Sioux City and, one more time, Minnesota.
The following year, he was sent to Dallas. The reason he ended up here, Getter says, was a practical one: "I had been in Minneapolis, but I got airsick there," he says, chuckling. "They flew in planes up there, and rode the trains down here, so I could play here. And when I got to Dallas, I made the All-Star team here in a short amount of time."
In 1955, the Eagles had become a farm team for the New York Giants, which meant that most of the players on the Eagles were under contract to the Giants. Burnett had joined a system he had long fought against, letting the mighty Giants--home to Willie Mays, Dusty Rhodes, Monte Irvin, and the other '54 world champs--take control of his team, deciding who came and who went.
To manage the Eagles, the Giants brought in John "Red" Davis, who had played 21 games at third base for the Giants in 1941 and then returned home from World War II only to find there was no more room for him on the big club. Had Davis played one more year in the major leagues, he would have received his pension, but instead, Giants management yanked him for an injured player. Still, in the end, Davis went on to become the winningest manager in the history of the Giants organization (including stints in Dallas, Phoenix, and Tacoma--all New York farm teams), posting more than 1,100 victories.
Davis had actually played in Dallas in 1946 for George Schepps' Dallas Steers and remained here until '48, when Burnett bought the team. He finished his playing days with San Antonio that year and then went on to manage in Greenville and Corpus Christi before coming back to Dallas. Carl Hubbell--the legendary Giants' pitcher from 1928 to 1943 and, at that time, the director of the Giants' farm organization--wanted Davis in Dallas, and Davis was happy to oblige, especially since he already owned a home here. When Davis returned, he told the Dallas Times Herald that he was "the happiest guy in the country."
But it turned out that Dick Burnett was no George Schepps. Davis found Burnett to be a meddling, cranky owner who didn't understand the game as well as he thought he did. "He was an owner who did what the hell he wanted to do," Davis remembers. "He was tough at times. Like, he called me up one night in Tulsa and said, 'How did you make out?' I said, 'Pete Burnside got beat 1-0 in 11 innings,' and he said, 'Is that all you got to say?' What the hell else was there to say? It was irritating. You're swearing yourself for a 1-0 game, and he's all over you about it. He wasn't like Schepps. When I played for him, he was the best man I ever played for--the best in the West. He took care of the ballplayers, the manager, everybody."
Davis' 1955 Eagles finished first in the Texas League by half a game: Dallas had a 93-67 record, while San Antonio ended the season at 93-68--the difference in the standings was three percentage points. Davis was named Texas League Manager of the Year.
Dick Getter was an All-Star on that team, but he shared the diamond with a number of players who went on to become major leaguers. There was third baseman Ozzie Virgil, a Dominican who joined the Giants in 1956 for three games and then got bounced around four other major league teams until 1969. Bahamian shortstop Andre Rodgers also played on the 1955 Eagles; he was called up to the Giants in 1957 and stayed with them till 1960 before going to the Cubs and the Pirates.
Pitcher Pete Burnside was also on the Eagles' roster; he joined the Giants in 1955 and played in the big leagues until 1963, ending his career with the Washington Senators (the team that, in 1972, became the Texas Rangers). And there were many more, including American League catcher Ray Murray, who still lives in Fort Worth, and Bill White, who spent 13 years in the National League before becoming the major leagues' first black president in 1988, replacing Bart Giamatti as NL chief.
Getter never got the call to join the Giants, but he was happy enough to land in Dallas. He was tired of moving around from small town to small town; the minor-league life had begun to take its toll. "It's not like today," Getter says. "Today, these guys have options in their contracts. Like, they can say, 'Well, I don't want to go over there and play, because I don't like that town.' Well, in our day, if you didn't play, you didn't get paid. They'd tell you to go here or there, and what could you say? But it was a good team then. We were a close enough team. We didn't go to bed with one another, but we were close. We drank beer together, raised hell together."
The season was marred by the death of Dick Burnett, who died in June 1955 in a hotel in Shreveport, where the team was playing at the time. Red Davis was sitting on Burnett's bed when the owner died: As Davis recalls it now, from his home in Laurel, Mississippi, Burnett was waiting for the doctor to arrive at around one in the afternoon when the phone rang. Burnett sat up to answer when, all of the sudden, he fell back into his pillow, struck dead by a massive heart attack. On June 5, 1955, Burnett's family took control of the team.
The Eagles of 1955 didn't make it to the Dixie Series; they were defeated by Houston, four games to two, in the first round of the playoffs. That was also the year Eddie Knoblauch, a pro baseball player since 1938, was the Texas League batting champ, hitting .327. Knoblauch, who was never under contract to any major-league team and never played in the majors, retired that same year, when the ball still looked as big as a melon and the bat still weighed as much as a twig.
Joe Macko holds the dubious distinction of having left the Eagles just as Willie McCovey came to town and helped the team win the Texas League championship.
Like most minor-leaguers, Macko bounded around from town to town; he first played for the Eagles in 1951, but only for a month. He brought his big bat back here in 1952, the year Dutch Meyer's team came in first, then left again until 1956; from 1954 to '55, he was property of the Dodgers and spent time with their San Diego Triple-A farm club. But the Dodgers had no room for Macko, and they released him back to the Eagles. Macko was thrilled at the prospect of coming back to Dallas, especially to play for Red Davis--the kind of manager, Macko says now, who would "come by and have a beer with you and talk about the game. He was more loosey-goosey than Dutch Meyer."
When he arrived in Dallas in '56, Macko had been signed to replace Bill White, who left for the Giants. By then, Macko had resigned himself to the fact he was becoming a minor-league lifer, and he didn't necessarily mind that. Better to play pro ball in the minors than to get a real job.
"Nowadays, if guys don't make it in three, four years, they're done," Macko says. "They don't stick around like we did. The biggest reason is money. Our hearts were in baseball. There's probably still that love in some of the guys out there today, but a lot love the game because the money's good. My first years, we got $150 a month and then $200 a month, and I played semi-pro basketball in the winter to play baseball in the summer."
Macko had a good year in 1956: He hit 36 home runs in 125 ball games, leading his team--which included future major-league pitchers Murray Wall and Freddie Rodriguez and third baseman Jim Davenport, who played with the Giants from '58 to '70--to the league finals against Houston, which beat Dallas four games to one.
Macko also holds a rather dubious Texas League record from 1956: During one game that season, he played his regular position at first base and did not record a single put-out; he didn't even get a chance or an assist--the ball avoided him all day long. Then, when he got to the plate, he went 0-for-4.
"I could have sat in the dugout and helped the team just as much," Macko recalls, laughing. "I was useless that day. And in the record book, they put 'Maco,' so when the record came out, my name wasn't spelled properly. That's what you call having a bad day."
Red Davis also left in '57, replaced by Francis "Salty" Parker, who played 11 games at shortstop for the Detroit Tigers in 1936 before becoming a manager. The Giants had big-league plans for the Eagles' 19-year-old first baseman Willie Lee "Stretch" McCovey, who could not only play defense, but was a tremendous left-handed power hitter, able to clear the Burnett Field scoreboard in left field despite the south wind that made it difficult to pull the ball. Those who played with him and watched him during his tenure with the Eagles insist they knew he was destined for major-league fame. Merle Heryford recalls that during one of the the New York Giants' annual exhibition trips through town, when former Giants manager Leo Durocher, then a TV commentator, and Willie Mays watched McCovey hit, and their jaws dropped.
After one year with the Eagles, McCovey went on to play in 1958 for the Phoenix team of the Pacific Coast League--managed by Red Davis--and landed with the Giants, who had then moved to San Francisco in 1959. McCovey played 22 seasons in the big leagues with three different teams, but when he retired in 1980, he was back with the Giants and No. 8 on the all-time home-run list with 521 dingers.
"McCovey was a good ball player," says his old Eagles teammate Getter. "I always thought he would make the big leagues, but with the humidity and temperature being what it was in Dallas, somebody once asked Willie if he was tired. And Salty Parker said, 'Willie gets tired breathing.' It was funny, because Willie was so loosey-goosey, you'd think guys could throw fastballs by him, but there was no way."
A few other players from that championship '57 team also made it to the bigs: Second baseman Tony Taylor ended up with the Chicago Cubs in 1958 and stayed in the majors until 1976 with a lifetime batting average of .261. Joey Amalfitano, who had been with the Giants from 1954 to '55, returned to the Giants in 1960 and stayed in the show until 1967. Now, he's coaching with the Los Angeles Dodgers, one of the few minor-league vets who stayed in the game.
Macko stayed in the game too, though not as a player. After Dallas, he spent time with the Fort Worth Cats and the Houston Buffs, where he ended his career in 1960; like Getter and so many others, playing in the minor-league circuit had worn him out. Macko approached the Chicago Cubs organization about managing one of their minor-league teams, and they agreed, but only if he signed an agreement that said he wouldn't allow himself to be drafted by another team as a player. He got his first managing job in 1961, and just one year later, the Houston Colt .45s and the New York Mets started up--in desperate need of players.
"I probably would have been drafted," Macko says now. "I don't know if I made a mistake. I probably would have been the old man of the ball club. I didn't regret it, though, because I enjoyed managing. I love baseball. Looking back, maybe I could have been drafted. When I come back the next time, maybe I will stay on the list."
Like Getter, Macko sent a son to the major leagues: Steve Macko played parts of the 1979 and '80 seasons for the Chicago Cubs at second base. He was injured while trying to complete a double play at Wrigley Field on August 5, 1980, and six weeks later, doctors discovered that some swelling they thought was caused by the injury was actually cancer. Steve died in November 1981, having fulfilled his father's dream of playing big-league baseball.
Old-timers like to say that had Dick Burnett not died in 1955, major-league baseball would have come to Dallas a whole lot sooner--and with a hell of a lot better team than the rickety Washington Senators. Burnett had apparently been in negotiations with at least one major-league franchise to move their operations here; all he needed was the money to buy the team and build a new ballpark, possibly somewhere near downtown. Likely, his old buddy, car dealer W.O. Bankston, would have helped him raise the scratch somehow, some way.
"I've always wondered what would have happened if Burnett had lived," Merle Heryford says. "He was trying to figure out how he could do something like that before he died. He may not have had the money, but he knew enough people that he could have swung it. I've always thought so."
The Dallas Eagles no longer existed by 1959. The Burnett family sold the team to local businessman J.W. Bateson in 1958, who moved the team from the Double-A Texas League to the Triple-A American Association--where, appropriately enough, the team was renamed the Dallas Rangers. In 1960, the Rangers merged with the Fort Worth Cats to become the Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs, which lasted in the American Association until 1962. The Spurs ended up in the Pacific Coast league until 1965, at which point they came back to the Texas League and their new home in Arlington, a 10,000-seat park known as Turnpike Stadium.
In 1971, Joe Macko was named general manager of the Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs.
The very next year, Turnpike Stadium was renovated and renamed in honor of its new occupants, the Texas Rangers.
Macko still works for those Rangers, 51 years after he got his first job playing pro ball. He was the team's business manager for one year, then became Rangers' equipment manager and home clubhouse manager. Four years ago, he was given the title of visiting clubhouse manager, which means that every night the Rangers are in town, Macko makes sure the out-of-town team's clubhouse is filled with everything they need, from food to tickets. He's the guy who makes millionaire ballplayers happy.
And every now and then, the New York Yankees will come to town, and sometimes, Macko will find slugging third baseman Chuck Knoblauch and talk with the kid about his Uncle Eddie and the good old days when they were teammates on the Dallas Eagles.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Dallas, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.