Boy Mayor, First Hero

tom

In an earlier post, we looked at the end of the Washington Senators – which was also, of course, the beginning of the Texas Rangers – from the Washington fans’ point of view. So today, I thought it might be fun to look at things from the Arlington point of view.

Full disclosure: This piece is not, strictly, about the Rangers – it’s about the guy who made the Rangers possible.

Tommy and Hooker

Hooker Vandergriff, seated, discusses Arlington car sales with son Tom.

To get there, you really have to go back to 1937 when Carrollton car dealer Hooker Vandergriff moved his family to Arlington, to open a new Chevy dealership.

His son, Tommy Joe Vandergriff, was 11 years old. By the time he was 16, he was known as “Tom” and was working as an announcer at radio station KFJZ, while also being voted “most likely to succeed” in his class at Arlington High. He went to Southern Cal for a speech degree, then came home to stay.

His biggest desire was to help build his hometown, then a sleepy burg of about 7,500 people. He wanted to position it as “the hyphen in Dallas-Fort Worth.”

In 1951 he was elected mayor. He was 25, became known as “the Boy Mayor,” and held the office for 26 years. My grandmother worshiped him, largely for his vision of what her city could be.

Vandergriff-GM-first-car

“Boy Mayor” Vandergriff congratulates GM officials as the first car rolls off the line.

One of his early achievements was persuading General Motors to put its first middle-America auto assembly plant in Arlington. It opened in 1953, he was there when the first Pontiac rolled off the line.

Then he convinced the highway department to build a road so workers could get to the plant. It’s now Texas Highway 360.

He encouraged a developer to consider building a recreational park for the plant’s employees. It’s now Six Flags Over Texas.

It would take forever to list all the things that he had his fingers on, in those early days. A short list would include Lake Arlington. And Greater Southwest industrial district. Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike (now I-30). Arlington State College becoming UT Arlington. Turnpike Stadium. Arlington Memorial Hospital.

There are many more, but I think even Vandergriff would agree that his crowning achievement, and the one with the greatest long-term positive impact on Arlington, was bringing major-league baseball to town.

He worked on this project for 13 years, forming a committee with the mayors of Dallas and Fort Worth to lobby major league baseball for a D-FW presence.

First, they supported Charlie Finley’s bid to move his Kansas City A’s to the region, but were rebuffed.

In 1968, Houston Astros owner Judge Roy Hofheinz spiked Vandergriff’s bid for a National League expansion team. Hofheinz wanted Texas for himself. The two NL expansion franchises went to Montreal and San Diego.

But Vandergriff was persistent. He continued to build strong personal relationships with several of the owners, including Senators owner Bob Short and the powerful Angels owner, Gene Autry.

Finally, in 1971, the Vandergriff group was invited to present to an unpublicized meeting with American League owners, league president Joe Cronin and commissioner Bowie Kuhn. The subject was moving the Senators to Arlington.

Short, of course, was strongly in favor, his Washington team had been bleeding money for years. But Autry was sick and could not attend, while commissioner Kuhn was openly opposed. Vandergriff, undaunted, made what others in the meeting described as a passionate, eloquent argument.

Then came a dramatic surprise. There was a knock on the meeting room door and a messenger entered with an envelope.  Cronin opened it and read the message aloud:

“I implore you. Repeat: I implore you: Do not move the nation’s national pastime from the nation’s capital.” It was signed, “Richard M. Nixon, President of the United States.”

Vandergriff took the president’s note calmly and made one final plea. His group was excused so the league could put the matter to a vote. An hour and a half later, he was called back in to learn that – despite Nixon’s opposition – the move was approved with only one dissenting vote.

“That was one of the most exciting experiences in my life,” he said.

Owner short cheers Vandergriff's four-seamer

Owner short cheers Vandergriff’s four-seamer

It’s fitting, then, that Vandergriff threw out the first pitch on April 21, 1972, at the Rangers’ home opener. As you can see in the photo, his joy was obvious.

He went on to become a real presence in the civic and political life of the region. He served a term in Congress, four terms as Tarrant County Judge and was a founder of the North Texas Commission. But through it all, he remained an Arlington boy at heart.

He worked as public address announcer for Arlington High and UT Arlington, without pay. He also worked for the Rangers TV broadcast crew, accepting no pay and covering his own expenses on road trips.

He said, “The thing I prize the most is that I think I helped, at least in part, to develop a confidence, a spirit in Arlington that we could dream the big dream.”

He had been ill for some months before his last public appearance, the Rangers’ Oct. 22, 2010 ALCS-clinching win over the Yankees. Not long afterward, he fell and broke his hip. A little over a month later, he died. His son, Victor, said “he just wore out.” He had earned it. He was 84.

Dallas attorney Ray Hutchison was part of the Vandergriff pitch team in 1971 and wrote a column that appeared the morning of the first World Series game ever played in Arlington. Hutchison said it was fitting that the opening ceremonies should honor the team’s heroes, but the one Rangers’ hero not being honored was “the first hero,” Tom Vandergriff.

If I’ve piqued your interest in the achievements of this extraordinary regional leader, here’s a link to his page at the Arlington Hall of Mayors. And to his son’s video tribute.

Here’s a link to the December 2010 obituary in The New York Times.

Here is the link to the Hutchison column.

And here’s one final entry, from the witty, wise UT Arlington professor Alan Saxe, in his review of a book called, Politics of Arlington:

“A book whose subject is the politics of Arlington, Texas, could essentially begin with the words Tom Vandergriff. It could end with the words Tom Vandergriff. And sandwiched between all that could be a page with the words Tom Vandergriff. Nothing else.”

Joe Stroop
I was a sports reporter in DFW throughout the 70s and 80s. I'm a former member of BBWAA and shared the Arlington Stadium press box with all the big boys. I'm here to remind you of the past. I own a Nokona.

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