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12/30/10 9:20 PM EST

Vandergriff, who brought Rangers to Texas, dies

ARLINGTON -- Tom Vandergriff, who spent 13 years trying to bring Major League Baseball to North Texas before finally succeeding with the Rangers, passed away Thursday afternoon in Fort Worth. He was 84.

Vandergriff was mayor of Arlington from 1951-77 and a former United States Congressman and Tarrant County judge whose major achievements include persuading General Motors to build an assembly plant in Arlington and bringing the Six Flags over Texas amusement park to what was once a small town located midway between Dallas and Fort Worth.

But his crowning achievement and most lasting legacy came in October of 1971, when he convinced Washington Senators owner Bob Short to move his franchise to Texas. The Rangers began play in Arlington Stadium in 1972, and Vandergriff threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the home opener.

In a joint statement, Nolan Ryan and Rangers CEO Chuck Greenberg said in part: "It is with great sadness that we learn of the passing of Tom Vandergriff. He served Arlington and Tarrant County as a distinguished public servant for over 50 years. There is no individual that had a greater impact on the Texas Rangers franchise in its 40 years of existence.

"His tireless efforts to make the Texas Rangers a reality will never be forgotten. There was no one more deserving for induction into the Texas Rangers Baseball Hall of Fame, an honor received by Mr. Vandergriff in 2004. Mr. Vandergriff leaves an enduring legacy that lives on. On behalf of our ownership group and the entire Texas Rangers organization, we extend our thoughts and prayers to his family at this difficult time."

"Everyone in Texas owes Tom Vandergriff a debt of gratitude, not only for what he did for the game and the sport, but for the whole community," former Rangers president Tom Schieffer said. "He had a real sense of feeling that every citizen had a duty to make their community better, and he did that in a hundred different ways. He was an inspiration to all of us.

"I don't think anybody loved the game more than Tom Vandergriff, and he was the one who put his heart and soul into bringing baseball to North Texas."

Vandergriff's second dream came true when the Rangers finally reached the World Series this past season. Vandergriff had been dealing with Alzheimer's Disease in recent months, but was able to attend the playoffs this past October at the Ballpark in Arlington and was standing and cheering with former Arlington mayor Richard Greene when the Rangers defeated the Yankees in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series.

"That was the last promise that he and I finally fulfilled, to bring a World Series to Arlington," Greene said. "Without Tom, we still might be trying to bring baseball to Texas. People say it was inevitable, but it happened when it happened because of Tom Vandergriff. That set in motion all of the great things that came after.

"Everything that happened in Arlington in the past 60 years is connected to Tom Vandergriff. The reason we're having the Super Bowl in Arlington is because of Tom Vandergriff. His persistence, his perseverance, the journey that he set out on was incredible."

Vandergriff was inducted into the Rangers Hall of Fame in 2004. The area beyond center field behind the "batter's eye" at the Ballpark in Arlington is also known as Vandergriff Plaza. There is a statue of both Vandergriff and Ryan in the plaza.

"Obviously, he was the key person in bringing the team to Texas, so everyone who has ever worked for the Rangers owes a debt of gratitude to Mr. Vandergriff for making that happen," said Tom Grieve, a Rangers broadcaster who has been with the organization almost continuously since 1966.

"He remained one of the most loyal people to the organization over the years, but the thing that impressed me was how dignified he was, how well-spoken he was of the English language and how honorable he was as a person. He was very loyal to the Rangers to the end and he loved them."

In addition, Vandergriff was one of the Rangers' original broadcasters when they first came to Texas.

"Tom was a wonderful man, caring, giving and open-minded," Rangers broadcaster Eric Nadel said. "He was one of two people responsible for hiring me to join the Rangers broadcast team at the end of the 1978 season, giving me the chance to transition from hockey to baseball while on the job. As a former broadcaster, he had faith in my ability to be able to do it, and the patience to see it through. Obviously, I am forever grateful to him for that.

"He loved the Rangers as much as he loved the city of Arlington, and I'm really glad he got to experience the joy of the 2010 season. Tom was always modest about his accomplishments, but you could write a long, fascinating book about what he was able to achieve in his lifetime ... a legacy that has improved the lives of millions of people."

Vandergriff was born in nearby Carrollton on Jan. 29, 1926. After graduating from USC in 1947, he returned to Texas and began working in his father's Chevrolet dealership in downtown Arlington. In 1951 he was elected mayor of Arlington, and three years later he convinced General Motors to build a planned Southwest assembly plant in the city. The plant is still in operation today, less than a mile southeast of the Ballpark.

Vandergriff accomplished the goal with his persistent sales pitch to General Motors. He took that same approach in trying to get Major League Baseball to Arlington. It just wasn't easy. Vandergriff tried to have North Texas included in the 1960 expansion but lost out.

He did get a stadium built in 1965. It was first used by a Minor League team and was known as Turnpike Stadium. Eventually it became Arlington Stadium, and Vandergriff kept hoping that a Major League team would call it home.

He tried to court the Kansas City Athletics, but Charlie Finley moved his franchise to Oakland in 1968. Arlington had the inside track when the National League expanded in 1969, but Astros owner Roy Hofheinz wanted Texas all to himself and blocked the move. Instead the NL expanded to San Diego.

"A number of people trying to get baseball to Texas gave up at that point, but Tom never quit," Greene said.

Finally, in 1970, Vandergriff saw a glimmer of hope. The Senators had been an expansion team in 1961 after the original franchise had moved to Minnesota. The second coming of the Senators was an economic and baseball failure, and by the end of the 1970 season, Short was desperate to move.

Vandergriff seized the opportunity, and despite the strenuous objections of President Richard Nixon and Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, he was able to lure the Senators to Texas. On Sept. 20, 1971, the AL granted permission for the move.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.