Max Faulkner mfaulkner@star-telegram.com
Max Faulkner mfaulkner@star-telegram.com

Fort Worth

Last pitch for LaGrave Field? Fort Worth baseball park falls into disrepair

March 24, 2017 06:29 PM

LaGrave Field, once a proud north Fort Worth landmark and a tribute to the city’s sports history, today looks like something the cat dragged in.

The home of the Fort Worth Cats minor league baseball club was rebuilt in 2002, and flourished for more than a decade. But the financially strapped Cats have since folded, and the ballpark has been dormant for more than two years. And during that time, it has been beaten by Mother Nature and savagely vandalized by human trespassers.

I don’t think we’re anywhere close to seeing baseball again at LaGrave Field.

Dennis Shingleton, Fort Worth Sports Authority Inc. board president

The ballpark’s old-fashioned center-field scoreboard is covered with graffiti. Billboards shredded by wind and rain now dangle from their supports. Parts of the outfield wall have been kicked in. The once-pristine grass playing surface is now a patchwork of dirt and weeds. Electrical boxes have been pried open, and their copper wiring ripped out by thieves.

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As April nears and sports fans across America beam with the optimism that typically accompanies the arrival of the professional baseball season, the feeling is a bit gloomier among Cats loyalists in Fort Worth.

Area political leaders who have for years fought behind the scenes to preserve LaGrave Field — and perhaps even find a new owner for the ballpark and a team to play on its field — are now dealing with the reality that the ballpark may instead end up being demolished.

Baseball legends Hank Aaron, Yogi Berra, Bob Feller, Pee Wee Reese and Brooks Robinson are among those who played at the original LaGrave Field.

“I don’t think we’re anywhere close to seeing baseball again at LaGrave Field,” said Dennis Shingleton, a Fort Worth councilman. Shingleton also is board president of the Fort Worth Sports Authority, an arm of local government that owns the rights to the names LaGrave Field and Fort Worth Cats but doesn’t own the ballpark itself.

“It won’t be this summer, I’ll tell you that,” Shingleton said. “It may be next summer, but it will take an influx of several million dollars worth of money and time to get LaGrave Field back in playing order.”

Remarkable history

Even in a city with a rich sports history, LaGrave Field’s role is remarkable.

The team, originally called the Fort Worth Panthers (and eventually shortened to Cats in newspaper headlines) began play in 1888. Early in the 20th century, the ballpark hosted major league baseball exhibitions and for decades it was a distinguished stop in the Texas League. For many years, the Cats were a prominent minor league affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers — and, for a cup of coffee, the Chicago Cubs.

Baseball legends who played there included Hank Aaron, Yogi Berra, Bob Feller, Stan Musial, Pee Wee Reese and Brooks Robinson.

The original LaGrave Field was torn down in 1967, a few years after minor league baseball teams in Fort Worth and Dallas combined forces to play at Turnpike Stadium in Arlington — the eventual home of the Texas Rangers.

Second life

But the Cats returned to Fort Worth in 2001, when new owner Carl Bell relaunched the team at the Fort Worth school district’s Lon Goldstein Field while a new LaGrave Field was rebuilt at the site of the original ballpark, at Sixth and Calhoun streets.

The Cats returned to LaGrave in May 2002 and flourished. The club averaged more than 3,700 fans per game and won a Central League championship in 2005 and American Association crowns in 2006-07.

But Bell filed for bankruptcy in 2012. The club wound up in the hands of John Bryant, a former Dallas congressman, but LaGrave Field itself was bought by Fort Worth Stadium Group LLC, led by Houston developer Andrew Schatte.

Bryant said in late 2014 that the club had the finances to keep playing, but Schatte’s group notified the Cats they would not be allowed to play at LaGrave beginning with the 2015 season — as the developer had other plans for the property. The facility has been dormant ever since.

A handful of other tenants who called LaGrave Field home also were shown the door in 2014, including Texas Wesleyan University’s baseball team and the Fort Worth Vaqueros. The latter is a semi-pro soccer team with a strong fan base in the city’s North Side/Diamond Hill areas, which now plays its home games on the Texas Wesleyan campus in southeast Fort Worth.

No baseball for new owner

Fort Worth officials say Schatte’s aim all along was never to operate LaGrave Field as a sports facility. Rather, he wanted to convert it into some other type of development, or perhaps sell it for up to a reported $6 million, or swap it for nearby land.

Mark Presswood, founder of Panther Real Estate Solutions and Schatte’s agent in Fort Worth, declined to comment Friday on the status of negotiations, the potential dollar value of a sale or the location of any land that might be swapped for the ballpark.

But he did leave open the possibility that a deal could be reached to save LaGrave Field, possibly in a matter of weeks or months.

“So much is going on, but right now it can’t be shared,” Presswood said.

Shingleton and other Fort Worth leaders said there is a plan in the works to possibly swap land owned by the Tarrant Regional Water District, but he couldn’t provide details.

Whether the water district is willing to engage in such a swap isn’t clear. An arm of that agency known as the Trinity River Vision Authority is building an ambitious, $900 million-plus project known as Panther Island, which includes the re-channeling of the river and development of surrounding area into a high-end, mixed-use commercial and residential neighborhood.

LaGrave Field was built on land that would become part of Panther Island once the river is re-channeled. And the Trinity River Vision Authority has many acres of land that — theoretically, at least — could be swapped.

But if the deal requires cash, it’s doubtful whether the Fort Worth City Council will be willing to chip in, Shingleton said.

“It’s unfortunate because I’d like to see the Cats return. I’d like to see the ballpark come back to life,” he said. “But it requires money and, frankly, the city just budgetarily doesn’t have the money to infuse in there — nor should we.”

New team in Cleburne

Meanwhile, a new minor league baseball team, the Cleburne Railroaders, is set to begin play at a just-completed field on the southern end of Chisholm Trail Parkway, a toll road that conveniently connects rural but quickly-growing Johnson County to downtown Fort Worth.

Donnie Nelson, general manager of the Dallas Mavericks, is a partner in the Cleburne baseball project. A couple of years ago, Nelson reportedly had his eye on relaunching the Fort Worth Cats, but a deal couldn’t be reached.

North Texas is also home to the Frisco RoughRiders, the Class AA affiliate of the Texas Rangers, and the Texas AirHogs in Grand Prairie, who compete in the independent American Association.

With all that baseball spread across the Metroplex, it’s unclear if there is still room for a team in north Fort Worth.

But if cats really do have nine lives, maybe Fort Worth still has a chance.

Fort Worth lawyer Jim Lane, a member of the Tarrant Regional Water District, is among the believers. But he said the key is for the city, Tarrant County and the water district to work together and find a solution that puts the ballpark in public hands. That way, he said, the Cats can return to play without worrying as much about whether their lease will be renewed.

“Not a day has gone by since the Cats last played that I haven’t tried to figure out how to bring them back,” Lane said. “We’re working on a couple of things right now — the city, the county and the water district. The Cats are the oldest baseball team in Texas. They are part of Fort Worth’s heritage. Here we are spending all this money on the Stockyards and Panther Island and the ballpark is deteriorating. It shouldn’t happen. A lot of us are just not going to let it happen.”

This report includes information from the Star-Telegram archives.

Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796, @gdickson