Rise of the Panthers, Fall of the Cats: A History of the Iconic Fort Worth Baseball Team
Baseball season is well underway in America. The sport has traditionally served as a unifier during a time of crisis, and since the pandemic first hit Texas a year ago, fans have been eager to see their favorite teams play again.
Although Fort Worth does not have a professional team, the city has its own baseball history – the history of a team spans almost 100 years.
Originally called The Fort Worth Panthers, The Fort Worth Cats was a minor league baseball team in the Texas League franchise that ran from 1888 to 1964 and 2002 to 2014. a town so sleepy it had seen a panther dozing in front of the courthouse. Much like Fort Worthian, the city adopted the nickname “Panther City” – hence the nickname of the Panthers team.
The Panthers represented the essence of baseball in America throughout the first half of the 20th century. With roots dating back to the Civil War, the pride of the South and West encouraged players to set incredible sporting records when they played against their rival baseball clubs in the Northeast. From 1919 to 1925, the Panthers won the regular season title for seven consecutive years – a record that has yet to be matched to this day. They were at the forefront of the sport and went on to become one of the most famous minor league baseball teams of the 1920s. The National Baseball Association recently selected the Fort Worth Panthers as one of the top 100 minor league teams. all time. In fact, this team has won so many victories that their name has appeared on the list five times. One thing was clear here – these Panthers weren’t sleeping in the canoe.
During the Panthers’ winning streak, thousands of baseball fans have gathered to support the team in nearby Panther Park. The original Panther Park opened in 1911 and was located just north of downtown on Main Street. Baseball fans flocked to Fort Worth once Amon Carter organized trains to specifically transport fans from nearby towns to the field. It soon became apparent that a larger park was needed to accommodate the games, and owner WK Stripling and team secretary Paul LaGrave chose to build a new park that could accommodate an additional 4,000 people.
LaGrave, a former Texas Leaguer, rose through the ranks at the Panthers front office to become commercial director in the team’s heyday. The stadium site they chose would be a few blocks east of the original field with a calming view of the Trinity River. In 1926, a concrete and steel baseball park was erected, accommodating up to 12,000 fans. After LaGrave’s death in 1929, the park was renamed LaGrave Field in his honor.
At first, the new lair did not bring much success to the Panthers; the team couldn’t bring home a championship for nearly five seasons. Still, a lot of fanfare surrounded LaGrave Field as the wide-eyed locals watched major league legends like Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson and Lou Gehrig play against the Panthers as their teams made their way to their field after practice. of spring. .
Much to Fort Worth’s relief, the losing spell was broken and the club won both the Texas League and the Dixie Series as they entered the next decade. This led to the team officially appearing on the field as the “Fort Worth Cats” in a triumphant return to the top of minor league baseball in 1932.
The Cats won another title in 1937 and won a second Texas League crown in 1939, but those victories did not restart their golden days of the 1920s.
The Cats returned to the playoffs with baseball legend Rogers Hornsby at the helm. Raised in Fort Worth, “The Rajah” played on the North Side High School baseball team until grade 10; he then dropped out of school to take a full-time job in the stockyards so that he could support his family. The humble Hornsby went on to have a big league career that brought him to the Hall of Fame.
In 1942, Hornsby returned to Fort Worth to officially take the reins of the Cats. Under his leadership, the club continued to rise through the ranks and had much to look forward to, but their ascent was abruptly halted when World War II put an end to most minor league baseball. The following season, the team was forced to take a four-year hiatus.
The Cats were ready to roar once peace allowed the Texas League to return in 1946. This time the team returned as a minor league franchise from the Brooklyn Dodgers and were supplied with the best young athletes in the world. baseball. The Cats took advantage of their famous affiliation and took the Championship Series by storm with a 101-53 record. This season also highlighted a 19-year-old US Navy sailor named Duke Snider. Snider would end up playing in the Big League and help the Dodgers make it to six World Series. In 1980, he was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
The Cats harnessed the post-war excitement and instilled a sense of pride in 1948 in Texas. The Dodgers sent World Series hitter Bobby Bragan to lead the team, and in his freshman year, the Cats again won the Texas League title. This victory will be the last of the cats for the Texas League. âAny man lucky enough to be a Fort Worth cat was as proud of it as he would have been playing for the New York Yankees,â said Bragan. Hearing these words from their Brooklyn Dodgers protÃ©gÃ© kept the cats’ heads held high.
Cats were unremarkable during the 1950s as the Dallas Eagles, Shreveport Sports, and Houston Buffaloes fought for dominance in the Texas League. Greatness was yet to emerge from the Fort Worth team. The Cats featured Sparky Anderson and Danny Ozark, who would enter the Hall of Fame as managers. In 1955, Maury Wills was the first African-American player to play for the team. Wills became a five-time All-Star and 1962 Los Angeles Dodgers MVP and became manager of the Mariners in 1980.
When the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1957, it forced a reshuffle in the minor league teams, and the Fort Worth franchise was traded to the Chicago Cubs, then the American Association, and eventually merged with the Rangers. of Dallas in 1960.
Fort Worth regained a Texas League franchise only in 1964. As minor league baseball declined in popularity in Fort Worth, ticket sales declined and the field was forced to close. LaGrave Field was demolished in 1967.
The Cats returned in 2001 with a new owner, Carl Bell, and a new Fort Worth Cats franchise was founded. The new cats played at Lon Goldstein Field in Fort Worth while waiting for the construction of the current LaGrave Field. In 2002, the Cats opened the season in their brand new home. The team mascot was Dodger, whose namesake is a tribute to the Dodgers’ historic affiliation with the Cats.
For a while the team thrived, but there was one glaring problem: the inability to attract fans after the recession. Ticket sales have declined and since the 2014 season the once bustling stadium has been abandoned, now little more than a graffiti shell, with weeds growing on the pitch.
It’s unclear what will happen to the deteriorating stadium and whether the Fort Worth Cats will ever return. While still against all odds, the Cats will forever be minor league baseball legends and, more than ever, a beacon of hope to the many Fort Worth residents who deeply anticipate their return.
Cats have nine lives after all.