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Fort Worth Cats became legends of the game

Texas League franchise thrived throughout first half of 20th century
Rogers Hornsby managed Fort Worth the same year he was inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame as a player. (Texas League)
April 29, 2020

Some of the names you know. You can picture their faces: Rogers Hornsby. Duke Snider. Sparky Anderson. Maury Wills. Dick Williams. Others are perhaps less familiar, but they're also a part of baseball history: Bobby Bragan. Billy Hunter. Danny Ozark.The Fort Worth Cats were mainstays of the Texas League for

Some of the names you know. You can picture their faces: Rogers Hornsby. Duke Snider. Sparky Anderson. Maury Wills. Dick Williams. Others are perhaps less familiar, but they're also a part of baseball history: Bobby Bragan. Billy Hunter. Danny Ozark.
The Fort Worth Cats were mainstays of the Texas League for so long, their all-time roster and staff list includes numerous personalities who were on the margins -- or in some cases central to -- the story of baseball in the 20th century. The identity emerged from arguably the most dominant Minor League franchise of the 1920s, the Fort Worth Panthers, who supposedly got their name because a 19th century Dallas newspaperman made a joke that Fort Worth was such a sleepy town, he'd seen a panther snoozing in front of the courthouse.
Whatever the provenance of the moniker, the club officially took the field as the Cats in 1932.

But the name change didn't initially seem to do Fort Worth any favors. After winning seven titles [including six straight from 1920-25] over the Panthers' final 12 years, the Cats meowed around without a crown -- or so much as a Championship Series appearance -- for five seasons. They broke the spell with a title in 1937, getting a .370 average out of player-manager Homer Peel, who'd won a World Series four years earlier as a member of the New York Giants. Joe Greenberg, brother of Tigers great Hank, contributed 25 doubles and a .273 average.
Still, Peel's club limped into the '37 playoffs, finishing third in the regular-season standings before rolling past Tulsa in the semifinals and thumping Oklahoma City, 4-2, in the best-of-7 Championship Series. The clincher went 12 innings, with midseason acquisition Ed Selway scattering four hits over the distance in Fort Worth's 2-1 win.
The right-hander, who pitched for 10 pro seasons but never cracked the big leagues, also tossed two shutouts against the Southern Association's Little Rock Travelers to help the Cats claim the Dixie Series title in another best-of-7 set.

The 1937 Fort Worth team broke a dry spell to win the circuit crown. (Texas League)
Did the improbable triumphs of 1937 restart the Fort Worth dynasty of the '20s? Not quite, but the Cats did capture the TL crown again two years later. The '39 team had an almost entirely new core, with Clyde McDowell and Lee Stebbins the only players logging 100 games for Fort Worth both seasons. On the pitching side, Ed Greer won 18 games for the '37 team at age 36 but won 22 to go with a 2.28 ERA two years later.
The next time they returned to the postseason, it was with Hornsby at the helm. The Rajah had gone to high school in Fort Worth and, after a Hall of Fame big league career in which he sometimes served as manager both officially and unofficially, returned to the region as skipper of Oklahoma City for parts of the 1940 and '41 seasons. In '42, his homecoming was complete as he took the reins of the Cats. Under his guidance, the club rallied late in the season -- winning 10 in a row in late August -- to come in third and earn a playoff berth, leading the league in attendance along the way. They battled hard in the postseason, but Shreveport beat them in a semifinal series that went seven games.
Within a few days of the loss, Hornsby signed a contract to return for '43. A reunion wasn't to be, however, with the league shutting down as the demands of American involvement in World War II ratcheted up. When peace and the Texas League returned in 1946, the Cats made a return, too -- to the Championship Series. They did so after storming to a loop-best 101-53 record, benefiting from a new affiliation with the Brooklyn Dodgers. This Fort Worth team featured a 19-year-old outfielder named Duke Snider, who managed 19 extra-base knocks in 68 games in his first stint on the diamond after serving on a submarine in the U.S. Navy.
They won another title in '48, getting 15 wins and a 2.59 ERA out of future Boys of Summer legend Carl Erskine. "Oisk" also made 17 big league appearances that year, but he managed to turn in 167 innings for the Cats. He also split the next season between the Majors and Fort Worth, putting up a 2.07 ERA over 122 Minor League innings.
Lending Erskine support in '48 was Irv Noren, who won the Texas League Player of the Year award that season [and was named Pacific Coast League MVP with the Hollywood Stars the following year].

Bobby Bragan (catching) was an instrumental part of the Cats for five seasons. (Texas League)
The Cats followed the championship season of '48 by going 100-54 but lost the crown to Tulsa in a tense seven-game set. Both of those Fort Worth clubs benefited not just from Erskine but from a strong on-the-field leader in Bragan, whose name casual fans of baseball history may recognize for any of several reasons. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1917, Bragan was a son of the Jim Crow South who went from asking to be traded upon learning of the Dodgers' integration plans to becoming a bona fide friend of Jackie Robinson. He also set up a a quintessentially Brooklyn Dodgers "Wait 'Til Next Year" anecdote: he hit the go-ahead double in Game 6 of the 1947 World Series, widely remembered for the catch Al Gionfriddo [who'd play for the Cats in '53] made to rob Joe DiMaggio of extra bases and preserve the lead, only to have the Yankees break the hearts of Brooklyn rooters with a Game 7 win.
Perhaps most of all, though, Bragan is known as a baseball man who spent more than 70 years in the game, including as president of the Southern League and the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, governing body of the Minors.

Minor League Baseball's Hometown Collection features Fort Worth Cats-branded merchandise.
Five of those years, however, were spent at least in part as player-manager of the Fort Worth Cats. After helping the club to a title in his first year in the Texas League, Bragan and the Cats reached the Finals again the following season, and he amassed 404 hits for them from 1948-52.
Bragan's final year with the club was the second for Hunter, and the 24-year-old shortstop made it count. Reporting that he'd been named TL Player of the Year that September, The Sporting News reported, "His fielding, ground covering and throwing have been sensational throughout most of the campaign," and noted that he'd stolen 20 bases. It was Hunter's defense that made him an American League All-Star as a rookie in 1953, and during a six-year career in the bigs he was in the top five in defensive WAR twice. He also managed the Texas Rangers in 1977-78.

The excitement of the likes of Bragan and Hunter notwithstanding, the Cats were relatively quiet in the '50s as the Dallas Eagles, Shreveport Sports and Houston Buffaloes wrestled for TL dominance. On the other hand, the '55 Fort Worth team featured two men who'd go into the Hall of Fame as managers -- Anderson and Williams -- as well Ozark [a mainstay in Fort Worth from '53-55 who managed the Philadelphia Phillies from 1973-'79] and Wills [a five-time All-Star and the 1962 MVP for the Dodgers who became a big league manager for the Mariners from 1980-'81].
When they next finished atop the standings, they did it with a new parent club in 1958, having become a Cubs affiliate the previous season. Although southpaw Dick Ellsworth was on his way to 13 seasons in the Majors, he compiled a 5.47 ERA with the Cats. Their standout was Gabe Gabler, who belted 23 homers and drove in 94 runs but played only three games in the bigs.
The franchise left the Texas League after that, breaking even (81-81) in the American Association with a much-improved Ellsworth (2.60 ERA in 38 starts) in 1959 before being swallowed into a new team -- the Dallas-Fort Worth Rangers -- in 1960. The Cats reemerged in the TL in '64, but their glory years were behind them. They finished in the basement at 51-89, 34 games out of first place. It was the last of their nine lives.

Josh Jackson is an editor for Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @JoshJacksonMiLB.