In the 1870s and 1880s Fort Worth found a use for wood and leather besides making hitching posts and saddles: baseball bats and baseball gloves!
In 1877 the sport of baseball was new enough to Fort Worth that the Democrat referred to “the base ball club.” The clip does not name or locate the club’s “new grounds” beyond “in the southern portion of the city” but indicates that the new grounds were better than the old grounds. The new grounds might have been T&P Park (see below), which was located on the reservation of the Texas & Pacific railroad, which had arrived the previous year.
This clip from the 1877 Daily Fort Worth Standard about “our boys” mentions a “Mr. Swasey.” That was Charles James Swasey (1847-1939), who in the 1860s was an infielder for two early baseball teams before today’s major leagues existed: the Chicago Excelsiors (1865) and the Forest City Club (1869) of Rockford, Illinois.
In 1873 Swasey moved to Fort Worth, where he went into the wholesale liquor business. He lived on Chase Court.
These Fort Worth Gazette clips from the 1880s and 1890s hint at how Fort Worth quickly embraced the sport, even though early on there was debate even about the morality of playing baseball on Sunday.
Note that in 1883 the attendance of a few women at a game was considered newsworthy. And note that the winning team was rewarded with cigarettes.
The next three clips show that as much as baseball has changed since the early days, some things remain the same:
No one likes the ump.
And players make outrageous salary demands.
Baseball was wildly popular on the amateur level. Schools, churches, and businesses organized teams and competed in leagues all over town. They played at fields such as Glenwood Park, Butz Park, Haines Park, Douglas Park, McGar Park, Worth/Wortham Field, and the ball fields of Bryant School for Boys.
In 1888 professional baseball came to Cowtown: the Panthers. Let the record show that Cowtown’s most storied sports team was organized in January 1888 in the gambling rooms over the White Elephant Saloon. Those rooms in 1888 were still run by Luke Short one year after he had walked down the stairs from those rooms and into wild West lore.
The moving force behind the new baseball team was William H. Ward, owner of the White Elephant. Other organizers were B. L. Waggoman, who has a street named after him; A. J. Anderson, who played a key role in Jim Courtright’s great escape in 1884; and C. J. Swasey, who had been a pioneer baseball player twenty years earlier.
The civic-boosting Daily Gazette predictably predicted that the new Fort Worth team would be the best in the state.
And it would be. But not right off the bat.
The next month Ward attended a meeting in San Antonio to organize the Texas League, of which the Fort Worth team would be a charter member.
The Gazette wrote: “A St. Louis sporting paper, which appears to get its Texas news straight from the headquarters of the Dallas base ball club, said recently that the fight in the Texas league would be between Galveston, Austin and Dallas for first place, while Fort Worth and San Antonio would scramble for the rear.”
The new team played its opening game in Houston on April 7, 1888. President Ward was in attendance.
On April 8 the Gazette published sketches of the players.
(“Young Giant” was one of the Gazette’s nicknames for Fort Worth.)
The Gazette referred to the team one week into its first season as the “Fort Worth hospital nine” because of injuries and illness.
To this point the Gazette had referred to the team variously as the “Fort Worth nine,” “Fort Worth team,” “Fort Worth players,” “Fort Worths,” “Panther City team,” “Fort Worth City Panthers,” etc.
By April 14, 1888 the team finally was the “Panthers,” taking its name from the legend.
The first home of the Panthers was T&P Park, located on the Texas & Pacific reservation south of downtown. The park was modest by today’s standards but had a grandstand. Women were welcome and assured of gentlemanly escort to their own seating area in the grandstand. Also the players would soon have a dressing room and showers.
The Panthers won their first pennant in 1895 with a 77-39 record. (Photo from Texas State Historical Association.)
Among the team’s rivals in the early years were the Galveston Sandcrabs, San Antonio Missionaries, Paris Parasites, Houston Mudcats, Dallas Hams, Temple Boll Weevils, Corsicana Oil Citys, and Texarkana Casketmakers (the Texarkana Casket Company’s slogan was “the factory making Texarkana famous”). They just don’t name teams like they used to.
The Fort Worth Panthers were not the only Panthers to play at T&P Park. In 1895 the Black Panthers, Fort Worth’s “crack colored ball team,” also played there. (These Black Panthers were not the Black Panthers who would play at McGar Park twenty years later.)
In 1902, before Northern Texas Traction Company even began interurban service to Dallas, NTTC general manager Frank M. Haines gave the Panthers $1,000 to build a new ballpark. Then NTTC went further: It offered the Panthers land for that new ballpark off East Lancaster Avenue at Pine Street near the NTTC car barns and workshops. NTTC and the Panthers organization had a business relationship, and the new park was served by a NTTC line. Thus, Haines Park was like the other trolley parks (Rosedale, Lake Como, White City, Lake Erie) built on streetcar or interurban lines to provide passengers with a destination.
Haines Park was located in the southeast corner of Pacific and Pine streets, just south of the NTTC car barns (where the Trinity Metro bus headquarters is located today). The interurban line ran along Front Street (Lancaster Avenue today).
The Panthers did not have a winning season in 1902. But they fared better than the Texarkana Casketmakers. In an exhibition game the Corsicana Oil Citys beat the Casketmakers 51-3 with twenty home runs—eight of them by catcher Nig Clarke. The Casketmakers curled up their toes and disbanded soon after.
In 1905 the Panthers again won the Texas League pennant. (W. H. Ward for many years was owner of the White Elephant.)
In 1911 the Panthers moved to Morris Park, named after the owner of the club.
In 1914 the name of the park was changed to “Panther Park.” Note that the secretary/business manager of the team was Paul LaGrave. LaGrave had joined the club in 1910 as secretary. He would become principal owner of the club. Clip is from the November 1 Star-Telegram.
Panther Park in the 1920s. (Photo from Jack White Photograph Collection, University of Texas at Arlington Libraries.)
A pass to Panther Park for 1920. Club president W. K. Stripling was the son of department store owner W. C. Stripling. (Photo from Pete Charlton’s “1000+ Lost Antique Maps of Texas & the Southwest on DVD-ROM.”)
Panther Park was located on the west side of North Main Street between Northwest 6th and Northwest 7th streets.
Full-page feature on the Panthers in 1920 included photos of Stripling, Paul LaGrave, and manager Jake Atz. That year the Panthers won not only the Texas League championship but also the first Dixie Series.
The Cats, as a prominent minor league club, often hosted major league teams. In a single week in 1922, Panther fans saw two legends. First in town were the New York Yankees with Babe Ruth. Sure, the Panthers lost the game, but the Star-Telegram sportswriter crowed that Ruth was held to a single. That season Ruth would hit .376 with an outlandish fifty-four nonsteroid homers (more than the aggregate hit by fifteen of sixteen teams in the majors). Then to town came the Detroit Tigers with Ty Cobb, who would have an off-year, hitting only .344 (lifetime average: .366).
The Panthers/Cats moved across Main Street to their fourth home in 1926.
In January 1929 Paul LaGrave died.
A week later the new park was named in honor of LaGrave.
Among future major leaguers who honed their skills as Panthers was Ed Snider, who played for the Panthers in 1946 after military service in the war. The next year Edwin Donald Snider would move up to the Brooklyn Dodgers as future Hall of Famer “Duke” Snider.
The Panthers/Cats gave Fort Worth excellent baseball for decades. They won the Texas League pennant from 1919 to 1925 and the Dixie Series, a championship series between the winners of the Southern Association and the Texas League, in 1920, 1921, 1923, 1924, 1925, 1930, 1937, and 1939.
After the 1964 season the Cats moved to Turnpike Stadium in Arlington and became the Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs, ending professional baseball in Fort Worth. In 2001 the Cats were back in Cowtown with a new life and a new LaGrave Field. But sadly in 2014 the Cats lost their home at LaGrave Field and did not take the field again. After more than a century, the Panthers joined the Casketmakers in the boneyard of baseball history.