In the 1870s and 1880s Fort Worth found a use for wood and leather besides making hitching posts and saddles: baseball bats and gloves!
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.
One of the city’s first ball parks was laid out in 1877 . The park was not named in this newspaper article, but that park may have been the park on the Texas & Pacific reservation south of town that was named “T&P Park.”
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.
These clips show that baseball has been remarkably consistent: Even back then no one liked the ump, tempers flared on the field (“a Pistol Drawn”), and players made outrageous salary demands.
In the early 1880s teams were informal: The players came from fraternal lodges and workplaces, as the top clip from 1883 shows. The bottom clip, from 1884, shows more formal organization as amateur teams such as the City Nine formed and played teams from other cities. In this case, the local boys were bested by the Paris Quicksteps. Drat those cursed Quicksteps!
Fort Worth was an original member of the Texas League in 1888. The Fort Worth team was named the “Panthers” because Fort Worth was nicknamed “Panther City.” But the team came to be called the “Cats” because local newspapers used that synonym, probably because the shorter word “Cats” is more headline friendly. By whatever name, the feline nine won Texas League championships in 1895, 1905, and 1906.
T&P Park was the first home of the Panthers. It 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.
Fort Worth fans also could watch the Black Panthers, an African-American team. Clip is from the April 29, 1896 Gazette.
The Panthers had won their first pennant in 1895 with a 77-39 record. Among the team’s rivals in those 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. (Photo from Texas State Historical Association.)
In 1902 the Panthers moved from T&P Park to Haines Park. Clip is from the July 12 Telegram.
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 T 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.
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 Northeast 6th and Northeast 7th streets. (Map detail from Pete Charlton’s “1000+ Lost Antique Maps of Texas & the Southwest on DVD-ROM.”)
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.