It’s no surprise that Parker Vandergriff dreams big and isn’t afraid to take a long shot. Standing before a beer-guzzling crowd at Legal Draft brewery, former Star-Telegram publisher O.K. Carter describes Vandergriff as a major talent in production. As a creative producer with The Richards Group overseeing video, digital and social media content, Vandergriff has worked on projects like a Reunion Tower rebranding and a Salvation Army red kettle campaign. But last year, the 32-year-old doubled down on his mission to bring a baseball story to the big screen. According to Carter, it’s a tale that one sportswriter pegged “the greatest coup in sports.”
Parker says that although his grandfather, longtime Arlington Mayor Tom Vandergriff, had traveled to St. Louis as a kid to watch his baseball heroes, “It was never enough.” As a young mayor, he harnessed a dream to bring Major League Baseball to Arlington. Eventually, Tom Vandergriff caught the eye of Branch Rickey, the sports executive who with Jackie Robinson helped break the MLB color barrier, as well as Gene Autry, a singing cowboy and baseball team owner who would become his trusted confidant.
Parker says that his grandfather, who’s now deceased, had traveled to Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland and other places in search of a team and was met everywhere with a “hard no.” According to Parker, the 13-year quest, which began in 1958, took his grandfather on a dramatic collision course to the nation’s capital where the Washington Senators played ball.
“The rag-tag team of dysfunctional strangers, they were the last hope of Tom Vandergriff,” says Parker, adding that people, including members of Congress and then-President Richard Nixon, were angry about the idea that Washington might lose the Senators, especially to a midway town in Texas called Arlington.
According to Carter, the Star-Telegram had even branded Tom Vandergriff a misguided dreamer who was willing to stake his political future on a long shot. But he made it.
In 1971, the Washington Senators, who would become the Texas Rangers, played their last game in Washington, D.C. The story goes that Tom Vandergriff wasn’t there when fans stormed the field afterward, dismantling the scoreboard and hauling off first base. But Parker says he grew up hearing about how his grandfather had been kicked out of a cab when the driver learned who he was and his role in the whole debacle.
It took Parker five years, he says, to comb through half a million documents dating to the 1950s. The photos and ephemera, which have now been condensed, fill five warehouses. There’s a letter from Lyndon B. Johnson, as well as handwritten notes by Tom Vandergriff, saying that he was doing it all for his children and his grandchildren.
“It’s like digging up some treasure,” Parker says, adding that the film, which is technically untitled but working under the name Legends of the Game, has a projected $20 million budget and isn’t a documentary but a full-length, narrative feature.
“It’s a mystery to me at this point,” he says when imagining who will play Tom Vandergriff’s character.
Parker, who has a degree in radio,TV and film, had originally written a script for the film’s trailer, but he says it was remade last year.
“But I decided I wanted to pull it all back and hear Tom Vandergriff’s voice,” he says of the audio recordings used to add a degree of realism to the project. Parker plans to produce, but not direct the film, he says. He’s in the process of lining up a team of writers and hopes to complete the movie by 2023.
Parker was inspired, in part, by a quote that former Arlington Mayor Richard Greene shared with him from the movie The Monuments Men. He says it goes, “You can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground and somehow they'll still find their way back. But if you destroy their history, you destroy their achievements. And it's as if they never existed.”
Parker aims to preserve the history of those surrounding the story.
“If you go back 25 years, there might’ve been some more conversation about it,” he says. “But, you know, time is just moving on.”
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For Parker, saying goodbye recently to Globe Life Park, where the Texas Rangers have played since 1994, was bittersweet.
“There’s something about the ballpark that shaped me,” he says, adding that he hopes his children will experience the same thing at the team’s new stadium, which is currently under construction and expected to open in 2020.
Remembering his grandfather, Parker says he most admired the way that he connected with people and “made you feel, at that moment, that you were the most important person to him.”
“He was kind of an enigma,” he continues. “I was close to him from a grandson perspective, but there was still this layer that I don’t think anyone could get to."