Backstory: How Oak Cliff’s minor-league team gave the greatest pull-hitter a run for his money

Ted Williams was one of the greatest hitters of all time. His pull swing was so deadly that it inspired a revolution in defense tactics during the 1946 season. (Photos courtesy of The National Baseball Hall of Fame and the University of Texas at Arlington Libraries)
Ted Williams was one of the greatest hitters of all time. His pull swing was so deadly that it inspired a revolution in defense tactics during the 1946 season. (Photos courtesy of The National Baseball Hall of Fame and the University of Texas at Arlington Libraries)

The bleacher defense

Story by Frank Jackson

Ted Williams managed the Texas Rangers when they moved to Arlington in 1972, and he was the face of the franchise. Williams’ playing career had ended in 1960. But he already was a hall-of-famer, and there were no big stars on the Rangers’ original playing roster.

The ’72 home opener at Arlington Stadium was not Ted Williams’s first appearance on a baseball field in Texas. That event took place 25 years previously.

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The minor league Dallas Rebels, who played at 1500 E. Jefferson, was one of the charter members of the Texas League, and iterations of the team played in Oak Cliff from 1888-1965. On April 2, 1947, the Rebels played one exhibition game against the American League champion Boston Red Sox, led by left-fielder Williams, then the league MVP and still the last major leaguer to hit .400 in a single season.

Williams was the highest-paid player in baseball and a notorious pull hitter, whose dominance had inspired a revolution in defense tactics during the 1946 season. Cleveland Indians manager Lou Boudreau had put six men on the right side of the field when Williams came to bat in the second game of a double header that July.

Prior to Williams’ appearance in Dallas, Rebels team owner Julius Schepps and manager Al Vincent hinted to local newspapers that they had devised their own defense to neutralize Williams.

How could the minor league Rebels succeed where seven American League teams had failed?

Williams, second from right, chats with former Arlington mayor Tom Vandergriff during opening night at Arlington Stadium, 1972.
Williams, second from right, chats with former Arlington mayor Tom Vandergriff during opening night at Arlington Stadium, 1972.

When Williams stepped up to the plate in the first inning, he must have thought the Rebels were playing a belated April Fools Day prank. Aside from pitcher Quentin Alitzer and catcher Bob Finley, the other starting Rebels took up positions in the right-field bleachers.

The 6,303 fans in attendance loved the joke. Williams got a kick out of it too. The umpires probably laughed, but of course, they had to call the players back onto the field. One of the umpires, by the way, was Art Passarella, later an MLB umpire who would become an actor and serve as umpire on the “Home Run Derby” TV series.

After the fielders decamped from the bleachers, the real strategy was revealed. It was similar to the Cleveland shift but less extreme. The left fielder (Bill Serena) was still playing shallow but he was not the only fielder on the left side. Shortstop Johnny Lipon played just to the left of the second base bag. Second baseman Gene Markland was closer to first base than second base, while center fielder Johnny Creel and right fielder Al Carr played Williams as they would any dead-pull hitter.

The strategy worked. The Rebels won 7-4, and Williams was held to one single in four at-bats. It was an exhibition game of little consequence, but it was a memorable footnote in Williams’ career.

It’s unlikely Ted Williams saw it, but he might’ve enjoyed the cartoon that appeared in the April 4 issue of the Dallas Times-Herald. The cartoon featured Williams at the plate with six fielders lined up along the right-field foul line and one in the bleachers. The caption read, “What, if anything, will Ted Williams do to scatter those birds off the rightfield line?”

Once the 1947 season started, he responded with one of his greatest seasons: 32 home runs, 114 runs batted in and a .343 batting average, while leading the league in on-base percentage (.499) and slugging (.634).

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The Dallas Rebels’ bleacher defense might have been the one strategy that would’ve motivated Williams to change his swing. Unfortunately, even in exhibition games, there are limits to the hijinks permissible, so we’ll never know how Williams would have responded.

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But we do know that the only time such a defense was attempted – albeit in jest – was in Oak Cliff on April 2, 1947.

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