More than 50,000 Texans filled two-thirds of the mammoth Cotton Bowl on April 11, 1950, not to watch football but the season opener of Dallas’ minor league baseball team.
Had the so-called “national pastime” suddenly replaced pigskin combat as Dallasites’ favorite athletic contest? No, the new owner of the Dallas Eagles had turned a humdrum occasion into a red-letter day on the local sports calendar.
Wealthy Dick Burnett made his fortune in the East Texas oil boom during the Depression. A rabid baseball fan in a football-crazy state, Burnett bought the Rebels, Big D’s Texas League ballclub previously called the Steers, Submarines and Hams during its half-century history.
Burnett purchased the Rebels from businessman Julius Schepps for $550,000 — the highest price ever paid for a minor-league franchise — and changed their name to the Eagles. He spent an additional $250,000 renovating the club’s ballpark in Oak Cliff, which he christened Burnett Field in his own honor.
After two seasons of disappointing ticket sales, Burnett decided to kick off the 1950 campaign with a grand publicity stunt. He would move the Eagles’ season opener from their tiny 10,000-seat home park to the recently enlarged Cotton Bowl with a capacity of 75,000 and shatter the Texas League single-game attendance record of 16,018.
Burnett understood that simply switching sites would not generate fan interest in the numbers needed to keep from ending up with an empty stadium. That was when he had his second big brainstorm: a who’s-who of famous old-timers.
At first, the aging all-stars Burnett contacted were decidedly cool to the idea. But after Ty Cobb accepted the invitation, everyone else got onboard.
In short order, Burnett had this dream lineup: first base — Charlie Grimm (Cubs) and the Eagles’ manager; second base — Charlie Gehringer (Tigers); shortstop — Travis Jackson (Giants); third base — Home Run Baker (A’s); left field — Duffy Lewis (three different clubs); center field — Tris Speaker (Indians); right field — Cobb (Tigers); catcher — Mickey Cochrane (A’s); and on the mound was Dizzy Dean of the Cardinals.
Speaker was the lone Lone Star native and one of only two with Texas League ties. He played for Cleburne in 1906 and Houston in 1907, and Dean pitched for two seasons with Houston (winning 26 games in 1931) and with Tulsa in 1940 at the end of his career.
Cobb, Speaker, Gehringer and Cochrane already were members of the Baseball Hall of Fame with Baker, Jackson and Dean soon to follow. The combined lifetime batting average of the eight position players was .327 and the average age of the nine was 54.
An executive with one of the Big D banks got ticket sales off to a fast start with the purchase of a block of 15,000 that he donated to Dallas area schools. From there, the Jaycees took over and did a bang-up job selling an amazing 54,151 seats.
Game day began with a noon luncheon for 200 invited guests and Gov. Alan Shivers. One by one, the stars of yesteryear gave a brief talk about the “biggest thrill” of their storied careers. The only hitch in the program was when foul-mouthed Cobb dropped an expletive in the punch bowl that left master of ceremonies Gordon McLendon, the radio magnate, red-faced and at a loss for words.
Next on the agenda was a parade from downtown up main street to Fair Park and the Cotton Bowl. At the head of the procession was the high school marching band from Greenville trailed by a company of young women in bathing suits wearing holsters and pistols, presumably unloaded. Bringing up the rear were the Kilgore Rangerettes (who else?) performing a special routine with miniature white bats.
The old-timers were the first to take batting practice followed by the home team and the visiting Tulsa Oilers. Cobb stole the show by showing to the cheers of early arrivals that even at the age of 63 he could still lay down perfect bunts.
With all the preliminaries finally finished, the governor walked to the pitcher’s mound for the ceremonial first pitch. There’s no record of how close Shivers came to the strike zone, but acting catcher Dick Burnet managed to catch the ball.
The old-timers were actually on the field for less than five minutes. Dizzy Dean “walked” Tulsa’s lead-off batter and was thrown out of the game by the home plate umpire for disputing the call. His teammates joined him in the dugout, and the Eagles took their place to play the real game.
Dick Burnett could not have been more pleased. The official paid attendance was more than three times the Texas League record set way back in 1924.
“I am very happy over this turnout,” rejoiced the Eagles owner. “I think this proves that Dallas would support a major league team (and) I’d be willing to take that gamble if I could get a big league franchise.”
But Burnett never got the chance. Five years later, he died in the stands during an Eagles’ game at Shreveport. And it would be another 17 years before the Washington Senators moved to Arlington and became the Texas Rangers.