Commentary

Tom Vandergriff in a class by himself

Resolute former Arlington mayor, who died Thursday, paved way for Rangers, Cowboys

Updated: December 30, 2010, 11:26 PM ET
By Jim Reeves | ESPNDallas.com

I have been privileged to know a number of great men in my life, some famous, others whose names you wouldn't recognize. Among the former have been a couple of presidents, a governor or two and more than a handful of Hall of Famers.

None could measure up to Tom Vandergriff.

That's not meant as a slight to anyone, it's just how I felt about Vandergriff. He was simply in a league of his own.

[+] EnlargeRangers v Yankees
William Perlman/THE STAR-LEDGER/US PresswireThe Rangers and the city of Arlington would not be where they are without the determination of former mayor Tom Vandergriff, who died Thursday.
Vandergriff died Thursday at 84 and honestly, there shouldn't be a flag above half-mast in the city of Arlington, Texas, for the next 30 days, at least. Without Vandergriff, it's hard to conceive what Arlington would be today.

There would no General Motors or Six Flags. The Texas Rangers would never have left the nation's capital for a little-known "hyphen" between Dallas and Fort Worth. And without the Rangers, it's pretty safe to say that the Dallas Cowboys wouldn't have given the city a second glance.

Vandergriff made it all happen, sometimes seemingly almost single-handedly.

He lived long enough to see his beloved Rangers clinch a World Series berth against the hated New York Yankees and those who saw him there -- he watched every home game of the ALDS and American League Championship Series from the city of Arlington's suite at The Ballpark -- say the smile never left his face.

Ironically, about an hour after watching the Rangers celebrate their triumph over the Yankees, he and his family were out celebrating themselves when Vandergriff fell and broke his hip, forcing him to watch the World Series from a hospital bed.

"He loved being at the playoff games," grandson Parker Vandergriff said late Thursday. "He paid attention to everything. He did not take his eye off what was going on. He could tell you what the count was, what the score was, everything."

Not surprisingly, Vandergriff was a stayer.

"He would never, ever leave a Rangers game early," Parker said.

Which is why, on Opening Day this season, Vandergriff and a family member or two were the only ones left in the city's suite when the Rangers rallied to win the game against the Toronto Blue Jays. All the other city officials had bailed.

"My fondest memories of him are at Arlington Stadium," Parker recalled. "I remember sitting up in the second deck for the last game played there before they moved to The Ballpark. He was throwing the final ceremonial first pitch and threw it right into the dirt. He put his hands on his head and was so embarrassed.

"He made me fall in love with the sport. I could never thank him enough for that."

Tom Vandergriff
AP PhotoNot even Richard Nixon could keep Tom Vandergriff, left, from luring Senators owner Robert E. Short, right, to Arlington.
Parker has learned even more about his grandfather over the past year as he has researched reams and reams of Tom Vandergriff's correspondence for a film project about his 13-year quest to bring Major League Baseball to Arlington. You'll be hearing much more about this in a few months.

"Until I started this project, I never quite realized how immersed he was in his quest to bring baseball here, the massive amounts of correspondence he was involved in," Parker said. "This city had nothing to offer when he started. There was no infrastructure that would suggest Arlington could support a major league team. No General Motors, no Six Flags. Bringing the Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs in was part of his plan to bring a major league club here."

So many others gave up along the way. They just didn't think it could be done. Amon Carter and his family hated Dallas. Dallas felt the same about Fort Worth. And who was this "boy mayor" who was suddenly coining the word "Metroplex" as if everyone was in this together?

A president (Richard Nixon) tried to stop Vandergriff from convincing the Washington Senators to relocate. Judge Roy Hofeinz, owner of the Houston Astros, felt confident he'd nipped the idea of a competing major league club in Texas in the bud.

But Vandergriff just bowed his head and kept on coming.

"He once said that giving up is worse than failure, because that means there is no hope," Parker said. "It's something I live by. He always felt that to give up is far worse than trying and failing."

Frankly, Vandergriff never failed at much of anything.

I met him for the first time in 1965, in a press box where he was announcing an Arlington High School football game. I was the 19-year-old sports editor of a small daily Arlington paper and was amazed that the city's mayor was also the P.A. announcer for the town's two high schools. But then, he had a voice even God would have envied.

He loved doing that job, loved being around the games and the kids, loved seeing the fans enjoying themselves. He wouldn't give it up until Arlington began adding multiple high schools and he knew he couldn't spread himself thin enough to do all the games.

He had studied broadcast journalism at USC, so when the financially strapped Rangers arrived in Texas in 1972, he helped them out by becoming the Rangers' unpaid color analyst for their TV broadcasts. He even covered his own expenses on road trips. After all, the city was already paying him a whopping 10 bucks a month to be mayor.

For those of us growing up in Arlington in the '60s and '70s, Tom Vandergriff was the role model, right along with Tom Landry and Roger Staubach. Everything he did showed class, integrity and character. He loved his city and its people with a passion that came straight from the heart.

"He never really wanted praise," Parker said. "He didn't want recognition. He just did what he did for people.

"He didn't ask for glory. It just came."

For Tom Vandergriff, politics was simply the means to an end. It gave him an opportunity to serve his community, to help others, to reach for the stars, to accomplish the impossible.

Simply put, he may have been the greatest man I've ever known.

Jim Reeves, a former columnist with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is a regular contributor to ESPNDallas.com.

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