Relevant At Last
The circus-like 1973 debut of bonus-baby David Clyde made national news and finally got the Metroplex talking about Texas Rangers baseball, but attendance that season depended almost entirely on Clyde’s being on the mound, because the rest of the team was terrible.
The best players were pitcher Jim Bibby and slugging outfielder Jeff Burroughs, each with bWAR of 4.0. The talent fell sharply from there. Even Clyde was below replacement level. Fan interest ebbed and flowed as the team slogged to 105 losses, 7 games worse than the prior season.
In 1974, that all changed dramatically, to make the Rangers a legitimate part of the local sports conversation.
The transformation actually began in September 1973, when the team hired Billy Martin as manager. He had been fired at Detroit about a week earlier for ordering his pitchers to put Vaseline on the ball, in an effort to show up the Indians’ infamous spitballer, Gaylord Perry.
As a side note, Martin went through life with a chip on his shoulder, always pushing the boundaries, trying to prove himself. His drive made him successful as a player and a motivator of young players, but made it hard for owners, front-office types and veterans to tolerate him very long. He held eight managerial jobs – five of them with the Yankees – and the longest he lasted in any of them was 2 1/2 seasons. He once started a bar fight with a marshmallow salesman and once provoked a fight with a group from a bowling league who had been heckling Sammy Davis Jr. Martin didn’t have to look for trouble – it always found him to be a ready companion.
When Rangers owner Bob Short found out Martin was available, he told the Rangers’ current manager, Whitey Herzog, that he would “fire his grandmother to hire Billy Martin.” After Short made the change official, Herzog told reporters, “I’m out. I’m the grandmother.”
The next year, Martin set clear expectations for the front office – basically, to leave him alone – and for the players – basically, to play like professionals. He took the Rangers from what Herzog candidly called “the worst (expletive)-ing team in baseball” to contenders, one of the more amazing turnarounds I’ve witnessed in sports.
About a month and a half after Martin’s hiring, the Rangers traded future batting champion Bill Madlock and utility man Vic Harris to the Cubs for right-hander Ferguson Jenkins. It was a critical acquisition.
Another big event was the spring arrival of catcher Jim Sundberg, after only one season in the minors. He blossomed as a rookie, showing the best arm and playing the best defense the team had seen, or would see, until the arrival of Pudge Rodriguez, 17 years later. Sundberg posted 4.0 bWAR and was a fan favorite from day one, earning the nickname “Sunny” for his pleasant disposition.
Another rookie making big contributions was first baseman Mike Hargrove from Perryton, Texas. He went through a lengthy routine between every pitch – stepping one foot out of the box, fiddling with his gloves, twisting the thumb-ring on his top hand, shrugging his shoulders, plucking at his uniform and about a half-dozen other twitches that earned him the nickname “the Human Rain Delay.” He slashed .323/.395/.424/.819 with an OPS+ of 140 and bWAR of 3.3.
The Rangers also got a career year from their right-fielder, Burroughs.
In 1969 a scout for the Red Sox had written that Burroughs, then a California high-school senior, “has to be the #1 pick.” He wrote Burroughs handled the bat “like a man.” In 1974, his fifth season in the majors, he earned that praise.
Burroughs slashed .301/.397/.504/.901, led the league with 118 RBI, posted OPS+ of 162 and bWAR of 5.9 and made the All-Star Team. As a side note, in June Burroughs unwittingly, and unwillingly, became the focal point of the infamous 10-Cent Beer Night Riot in Cleveland, but that’s a story for another day.
These contributors – Martin, Sundberg, Hargrove and Burroughs – were helping to produce a caliber of baseball never before witnessed in Arlington Stadium. Others who added to the fun were shortstop Toby Harrah, steady outfielder Tom Grieve and mercurial (in every sense of the word) third baseman Lenny Randle, another key figure in the Beer Bash.
And let’s not forget second baseman Dave Nelson who tied a major-league record in a game with the Indians in August – he stole second, third and home in the first inning off former Rangers teammate Dick Bosman.
Add it all up and, for the first time, the Rangers had a real, bona fide major-league roster.
But for my money, the key piece was Fergie Jenkins. At spring training that year, he cordially acceded to a request for an interview about joining this new team after eight spectacular seasons with the Cubs.
When I got to his room, he was repairing the padding and re-lacing his own glove, a task players usually leave to the clubhouse manager. He acted like it was no big deal.
I had never met a professional athlete with such a calm, dignified, thoughtful manner, and his speaking voice should have been on the radio. He made me want to clean up my act. It was one of the best interviews of my career, and absolutely none of that was about me. I admit that I crossed the line from reporter to fan.
Jenkins’s opening-day start, April 6, was a 10-strikeout, one-hit shutout of the defending world champion Hated A’s. The game lasted less than 2 hours. Afterward, in his clubhouse office, manager Martin told reporters, with an expression of awe and disbelief, “Fergie threw 89 pitches.”
That set the tone for the year. Jenkins tied for the league lead in wins with 25. He led the league in complete games, K/9 and K/BB ratio. He pitched 328 innings in 41 starts, with six shutouts, 225 strikeouts, a 2.82 ERA and just 45 walks. He posted 7.8 bWAR, third-best total of his 19-year career. He wears a Cubs hat on his Hall of Fame plaque but, in my opinion, he meant much more to the Rangers.
The team went 84-76 (two rainouts were not made up) good for second in the division behind (who else?) the Hated A’s, who went on to win the World Series. Again.
Jenkins was Comeback Player of the Year. He also finished second to Catfish Hunter in the Cy Young voting (they had identical records, Hunter had the better ERA).
Burroughs was voted American League MVP, with twice as many first-place votes as the runner-up (Jenkins finished fifth).
Hargrove was Rookie of the Year.
Martin was Manager of the Year, which didn’t prevent ownership from firing him the very next season – a story for another day.
Attendance was 1.19 million, setting a franchise record, and since then fan turnout has never dipped below 1 million for a season. The Rangers were relevant for the first time in their existence. It was finally good to be a baseball fan in Arlington.