Most Major League Baseball fans don’t remember when top players weren’t multi-millionaires, but former Gainesville Owls first baseman Lon Goldstein, 92, recalls a time when just a few dollars could make a hometown player’s day.
“When we hit a home run, the fans would put $1 bills through the chicken wire fence,” Goldstein told a group of baseball fans during a reception in his honor at the First State Bank Conference Center Thursday afternoon.
Resident Doug Robinson also remembered the ballpark tradition and handed Goldstein, who was seated in a wheelchair surrounded by friends and family, a $1 bill.
Robinson, the son of a former Cooke County Commissioner and Owls fan, told Goldstein that his father had a box seat behind home plate.
Goldstein said he was touched by the gesture.
“We really liked to hit home runs. We liked the money,” he joked.
The Goldstein reception included refreshments, Owls memorabilia and plenty of handshaking and reminiscing.
For his part, Goldstein was a genial host, greeting guests and swapping memories with dozens of people who stopped to exchange a handshake with the former first baseman.
Playing and watching baseball were favorite activities during his childhood, Goldstein said.
“There wasn’t much else to do, so we played baseball,” he said. “If we had to, we’d take an old baseball and tape it up and play with it.”
The baseball games of the 1930s and 1940s weren’t much like the games of today, according to information on the Morton Museum of Cooke County’s website.
For one thing, fans dressed up to go to ball parks.
Women arrived decked out in hats, gloves and dresses.
Men wore suits and hats.
Americans were beginning to prosper once again after the difficult years of the Great Depression and didn’t mind paying $1 for a ticket.
Gainesville got its pro baseball franchise in 1947. The team was part of the Class B Big State professional baseball league.
Other Texas cities also had teams. Texarkana, Sherman-Denison, Wichita Falls, Austin, Waco, Paris, Temple and Greenville were all Big State teams.
George Frizzell, Cecil Farr and Harvey Shanks were the Owls’ original owners.
But times were tough for both owners and athletes. The players provided their own shoes and gloves while owners reportedly furnished nothing more than simple uniforms for the players.
After just a year, the Gainesville Owls franchise was in financial trouble. It looked like the organization might fold, but Gainesville residents came to the rescue, voting to purchase the Owls after that inaugural season.
They’ve been gone for half a century, but the Owls left a lasting legacy in Gainesville. The city’s Locke Field on South Weaver Street was named for W. Herbert Locke, the organization’s first president.
Under new ownership, the team continued playing for several years before folding for good.
Goldstein eventually left the Owls and went on to play for teams in Temple, Columbia, S.C.; Birmingham, Ala.; Syracuse, N.Y. and Cincinnati, Ohio.
A leg injury put an end to Goldstein’s professional career, but he returned to Fort Worth where he played amateur ball for Jim Hill Produce.
He retired at 55.
His son, Lon M. Goldstein — a Dallas physician — remembers baseball always had a special significance for his family.
“I played football and baseball in school. My dad was my baseball coach,” Lon Goldstein said.
For some Goldstein fans, attending the reception was a chance to relive some Gainesville history.
Bob Stansbury met Goldstein for the first time Thursday but in some ways, feels as if he’s known him for years.
“I didn’t know him personally, but I was 12 when he played baseball here. I told Lon the only baseball glove that had ever been given to me was a first base glove,” he said.
Stansbury suspects he wanted a first base glove because Goldstein played first base.
He said he was a devoted baseball fan and that at one time, he could name all the members of the team and their positions.
“He (Goldstein) was something special,” he said, glancing at a large framed photo of the former Owl in his uniform. “It was pro baseball.”
Baseball fan and professional photographer Gene Brown was also on hand for the event. He wanted to meet Goldstein.
Like others at the reception, he is too young to remember the Big State League but said he, too, has a tie to professional baseball.
“My father played for a baseball team in Waco,” he said.
Goldstein lives in McKinney, but said he was thrilled to come back to Gainesville. He said he has nothing but good memories of the city and the Owls baseball team.
“The Depression was over and everybody had a little money again,” he said. “We weren’t rich. There wasn’t much to do, but we had baseball.”