Twice the Fort Worth Cats thrilled baseball fans in Cowtown with great baseball – from 1926-64 and from 2002-14.
And it’s looking as though a third version of Fort Worth's beloved baseball team may be set to play home games at legendary LaGrave Field, located on North Main Street between the Stockyards and downtown.
On July 17, the Tarrant Regional Water District (TRWD) board of directors approved a pair of land transactions with the plan being to ultimately bring professional baseball back to LaGrave Field.
In one of the agreements, the board voted to exchange 15.3 acres it owns under the Trinity River levees for 8.1 acres owned by Panther Acquisition Partners Ltd, which includes the 5,200-seat stadium. Panther Acquisition will also pay TRWD an additional $1.3 million.
The TRWD board then immediately approved a 40-year market rate lease of the stadium and parking areas to the Save LaGrave Foundation, a local nonprofit.
“I’ve been working for 20 years to get (LaGrave) into the hands of a public entity,” said TRWD board member Jim Lane. “That’s the only way the funds would be there to sustain it. I’m very pleased we’ve been able to do that.
“I saw what Bruton Smith did with Texas Motor Speedway and thought we could do this with LaGrave,” Lane said.
As pre-paid rent, the foundation will make an immediate payment of $4 million, along with an additional $3 million over the next year and a half. The foundation also agreed to spend at least $2 million in capital improvements to the stadium.
LaGrave Field is located in the Panther Island project, so securing a plan for its future not only impacts area baseball fans, it is also key to determining the future development of that portion of the project.
The project, estimated to cost $909.9 million total, is a plan that will divert the Trinity River near downtown Fort Worth, create an urban lake, enable about 12 miles of new development along the waterfront and open up the area just north of downtown for redevelopment.
The city, the county and the state are also contributing funds for the project. Currently, three bridges are under construction for the project, though there have been delays because of construction issues with the bridges.
As part of the lease, Save LaGrave is required to secure a minor league baseball team that will play at least 45 regular-season games In addition, it will conduct at least 75 qualifying events at the stadium for other purposes, such as professional or amateur sporting events, civic and promotional activities.
"I think we made a significant first step toward bringing the Cats back," said Scott Berry, former minority owner during the team's second stint and part of the Save LaGrave group. "It's taken a bunch of ups and downs and all-arounds, but you've got to have that first step."
The bottom line is professional baseball is on the verge of returning to Fort Worth – and not just any baseball team. The Cats are one of the most historic programs ever to grace the minor leagues where the games are very affordable and extremely family friendly.
"Kids love it. They feel like a VIP," said Berry.
LaGrave Field was a place to see and be seen as the early Cats teams, an affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers, featured the likes of Duke Snider, Carl Erskine, Eddie Chandler, Danny Ozark, Irv Noren, Cal Abrams, Joe Landrum, Bob Milken, Karl Spooner, Don Hoak, Williard Ramdell and Ed Roebuck.
Even the legendary Jackie Robinson came through Fort Worth to play an exhibition game, as did other stars such as Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges and Roy Campanella.
One of the biggest draws each season came in the form of exhibition games when the Cats would play major league teams at LaGrave Field. Hall of Famers from the 1920s through the 1950s like Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Stan Musial and more played at LaGrave.
When the Cats returned as an independent minor league team, future major leaguers Max Scherzer, Luke Hochevar, Aaron Crow and Jermaine Van Buren all wore the Cats' uniform and took the mound while a new generation of baseball fans enjoyed beautiful summer events in the shadow of downtown Fort Worth.
"That view of downtown Fort Worth is one of the best views in baseball – period," Berry said. "I'm talking any team, majors or minors, there is not a prettier view."
The Cats were legendary for unique promotions like the Bob Schieffer bobblehead doll, and having fans sit on the warning track during Fourth of July games in the 2000s. During this period the Cats retired the jerseys of some of the legendary players from the ’40s and ’50s including Bobby Bragan, Duke Snider, Sparky Anderson, Maury Wills, and Dick Williams.
And they won, maintaining their winning legacy with three consecutive league championships from 2005-2007.
"Our goal is to restore the Cats and LaGrave to those glory days," Berry said.
David Hatchett was vice president of communications and marketing with the Cats from 2002-09 and played a major role in many of the promotions, including bringing in legendary former players. He’s very excited at the possibility of the team's return.
"I know Scott and I know he is serious about doing it the right way," Hatchett said. "Fort Worth is such a great city and LaGrave Field is such a historical ballpark. I hope they are able to get it going again.
"There is nothing better in the summer than watching a ballgame out there when the ballpark is packed and you can see downtown Fort Worth in the distance. The view is breathtaking,” said Hatchett.
Not only are Berry and his partners looking to bring the Cats back, they plan on being competitive right away.
"Even before this announcement I've been contacted by managers and players wanting to come back to Fort Worth," Berry said. "I think we'll be able to get talent to be competitive, and Fort Worth is going to embrace us."
Indeed they will, said Jason Sands, sports director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"LaGrave Field is a legend and landmark that deserves to be saved. Reviving it adds another premier sports venue to Fort Worth, which will only increase our opportunities to secure high-profile sporting events that will have a positive impact on the city," he said. "We are very excited to hear this news."
Berry said the Cats could return as soon as 2019, and every effort will be made to make that happen, but if it takes a little longer that's OK also, as long as everything is done right.
"I think the latest we will play is 2020," he said. "We want it to be a first-class operation. We are extremely optimistic we'll get this done.
"I want to play tomorrow, but we have to take a hard look at the best way to bring back the Cats," he said. – Additional reporting by Marice Richter