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Willie Mays, the DFW Rangers and 'Jabbo:' The story of a forgotten baseball stadium

Before the Rangers played in Arlington – and long before Globe Life Park and the plans for a new stadium across the street – professional baseball was played in Dallas at Burnett Field.

Dallas — There's an open field just southwest of downtown, on the edge of the Trinity River, with a view of the skyline and the Reunion Tower, and the two new bridges – Margaret Hunt Hill and Margaret McDermott –arching in the distance. There's even easy access to Interstate 35E and the DART.

If that sounds like a good spot for a ballpark, that's because it was.

Before the Rangers played in Arlington – and long before Globe Life Park and the plans for a new stadium across the street – professional baseball was played in Dallas at Burnett Field.

"I can look around here and I can see it," said Mike Rhyner, the longtime host of the Hardline on The Ticket, who grew up in Oak Cliff and went to dozens of games at Burnett Field as a kid in the early 1960s. "And I can think of what it was like. It's very easy for me to put myself in that place again."

Dallas' minor-league teams – which varied over the years from the Steers to the Rebels to the Eagles and Rangers – played at Burnett Field.

The stadium sat at the corner of Jefferson and Colorado boulevards, on the northeast edge of Oak Cliff.

A smaller downtown – no towering Bank of America Plaza, no Reunion Tower – served as the backdrop to centerfield, and a less-congested I-35 ran beyond the billboards of the rightfield wall.

The stadium – built in the 1940s after a fire destroyed a previous ballpark and named after the team's owner, Dick Burnett, according to the book "Baseball In Dallas" – was "functional," as Rhyner described it.

A single-level of stands wrapped around the field. There were no seats in the outfield, but the tall walls provided plenty of room for advertisements. There was a press box that hung from the rafters along the third-base line.

WFAA archive clips discovered by the SMU G. William Jones Film Collection shows the ad-covered walls during an exhibition game between the minor-league Rangers and SMU.

"Don't get the wrong idea here – as stadiums went, there was really nothing special about Burnett Field," Rhyner said last week, standing in the empty lot where . "It was a place where you came to watch baseball, but as far as having any unique feature about it, it really didn't, as far as I could tell. But for people of this certain age that I am now, that like baseball, it's special, man."

The ballpark was Rhyner's first taste of professional baseball.

"The main thing I remember is that it was on this ground where I fell in love for the first time," he said. "And I haven't been able to kick it since. That was with the great game of baseball."

Occasionally, major-league clubs would pass through to play exhibition games.

The New York Giants, featuring a young Willie Mays, played the Cleveland Indians at Burnett Field during spring training in 1955 and 1956.

Willie Mays at Burnett Field in Dallas.

Dallas Moore, who owns an estate liquidation company in East Texas, discovered 8-millimeter footage from those games a few years ago. He was searching through the home-movie collection of a man named B.A. Dinwiddie, who had no children and whose wife died several years before him.

Moore stumbled upon the in-color Kodachrome film, digitized the footage, and recently posted it to his YouTube page, Picking Live.

Rhyner never saw Mays or the big-league teams play at Burnett Field.

Most of the players he watched, back when the minor-league Rangers were a Triple-A club, were either on the verge of making the majors or had already been there.

There was the 19-year-old shortstop from California named Jim Fregosi, who would become a six-time All-Star for the Angels and later manage four big-league clubs.

And then there were journeymen like outfielder Ray Jablonski, a.k.a. "Jabbo," a squatty outfielder who had stints in the majors but always seemed to end up in Dallas.

"He was the team's biggest power hitter, and I don't know how he did it," Rhyner said. "He wasn't a big strapping, bulking guy or anything like that. He was just a short, stocky guy with a really big rear end."

There were other things about the Rangers and Burnett Field that were uniquely minor league.

One of the large outfield advertisements was for Good Ol' Dave's Pawn Shop and featured a shotgun. The catch: If a player hit the shotgun, they'd win one from Ol' Dave.

Changes were made on the fly.

In 1963, Rhyner remembered, the team debuted a new uniform, featuring the full "Dallas-Fort Worth" on the front and a pistol-wielding Ranger on the sleeve. But after a bad start, the club showed up one game a few weeks into the season with their old uniforms on.

"We were given no heads up about this or anything," Rhyner said. "Coincidentally enough, they started winning in those things and were the best team in the league for the better part of the year."

Names were also changed, if need be.

Tony Oliva, who later was the American League Rookie of the Year for the Twins, started out the same season in Dallas going by his middle name, Pedro.

Then, after a slow start himself and about the same time the team switched back to the old uniforms, Oliva was Tony again.

"And he started to hit!" Rhyner said. "Crazy."

By the 1960s, the club was splitting time between Burnett Field and Fort Worth's LaGrave Field, which is still standing but not in good shape.

After the 1964 season, the team's owners decided to move to Arlington to the new Turnpike Stadium, later renamed Arlington Stadium.

Burnett Field, for all its history, was torn down the next year, according to "Baseball in Dallas."

"I wasn't at the last [game], and I really wish I would've been now," Rhyner said. "But yeah, the whole thing just kind of faded away...it was no big deal to anybody."

Cienda Partners, a Dallas investment group, bought the property in 2014, along with the old Oak Farms Dairy.

Last fall, Cienda pitched the property as a possible site for Amazon's new headquarters, touting the location's proximity to downtown, the Trinity River and the DART.

For now, the lot sits empty.

Rhyner, who enjoys Globe Life Park in Arlington as much as anyone, pointed to the downtown view and the nearby Trinity River levees and couldn't help but wonder what another ballpark would look like where Burnett Field stood.

"This could've been something to really see," he said. But as far as I know, that was never considered. Seriously, anyway."