It had been a long time since former Atlanta Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone had thought about a particular Texas League baseball game from almost fifty years ago, when he took the mound for the visiting Amarillo Giants against the Midland Cubs.
Mazzone told me that when he heard I wanted to ask him about that night, he immediately broke into laughter. “For about half an hour.” That’s because on Sunday, August 6, 1972, Cubs Stadium in Midland became the site of one of the most bizarre reasons to postpone a game in pro baseball history.
Grasshoppers. Millions of them, according to eyewitnesses. When the swarm arrived, frazzled umpires suspended the contest, the nightcap of a doubleheader, in the bottom of the first inning. The events were relayed to the nation the following day during Paul Harvey’s ABC Radio newscast.
“It was like a great wizard said ‘Elevate,’ and they all started flying. Some of them were hitting the lights. It was like a bug zapper. They were dropping like big pieces of hail.”
Rob Frenzel, now a retired accountant living in Cleburne, sold beer at Cubs games for his summer job back then, and he described the plague of arthropods as “something like Alfred Hitchcock.” He added: “Women and children were running and screaming. The guys out in the field were swatting them with their gloves.”
“They were everywhere,” said Garth Wright, then a Midland Lee High School student who worked as an attendant for the visitors’ clubhouse. “They were the biggest grasshoppers I’d ever seen. Maybe two-and-a-half to three inches long.
“The umpire has got a towel over his head,” recalled Wright, now a bank executive who still calls Midland home. “They were on the ground while they were playing. But it was like a great wizard said ‘Elevate,’ and they all started flying. Some of them were hitting the lights. It was like a bug zapper. They were dropping like big pieces of hail.”
Mazzone, the starting pitcher that night, had a unique vantage point. “When I was warming up, you could see a few of them flying around,” he said. “No big deal. Then all of a sudden, you could see over the stadium roof where they were circling around behind home plate, down each foul line. You saw a lot of them flying around. ‘Damn, that’s odd.’ Didn’t think much of it.
“But by the time I took the mound, they were all over the place,” Mazzone added. “They’re hittin’ me in the face, in my uniform.”
Mazzone walked two of the first three batters he faced.
“And the umpire says, ‘Leo, can you pitch?’ ” Mazzone said. “I said, ‘Hell, no, I can’t pitch! I hit a ton of these things when the ball goes out of my hand!’ ”
Home plate umpire George Finnegan was soon on the phone to Texas League president Bobby Bragan in Fort Worth. Bragan recalled their brief exchange for Fort Worth Star-Telegram sports columnist Galyn Wilkins.
“I got a first for you,” the ump yelled into the receiver over a loud buzzing sound in the background. “I’m postponing the game because of grasshoppers.” Bragan replied, “Okay, men. Surrender. Play the game tomorrow night—if they’ve left any grass.”
The game was suspended and scheduled to be finished before a game the teams already had scheduled for the following night.
Another Lee High student, Karen Dunn, was working a concession stand that season and was seated close to the field while on break when the chaos began.
“They were landing on you, getting in your hair,” she said. “I grew up with a dad who was a biology teacher who took us out in the wild all the time, so I wasn’t scared of bugs. But these were big grasshoppers.”
Frenzel, the beer vendor, was a Southwestern University student home for the summer. He didn’t leave the stadium unscathed.
“Grasshoppers got down my shirt, down my back, my chest,” he said. “I literally had welts and scratches from the dadgum things going down my back. When I got home, my mother fixed me an oatmeal bath.”
Mike McCurdy, now a retired executive recruiter in Dallas, attended the game as a fan. He recalled the surreal experience of driving over hundreds of bugs when he pulled out of the stadium parking lot.
“Driving was just real crunchy,” he said. “Just kind of gross.”
That season was Midland’s first in the Texas League, and the Cubs were a point of pride. The city hadn’t hosted a minor league franchise since 1959, and its stadium had been renovated for the new team’s arrival. A story in the Midland Reporter–Telegram in advance of the home opener boasted: “The mercury-vapor lighting system is the pride and joy of the renovated ball park. The lighting system should be the best in the Class AA Texas League.”
That system—along with other bright lights shining in Midland that night, such as those at car dealerships—attracted the grasshoppers. Brad Easterling, an integrated pest management agent for Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, said the high beams would have done even more to attract the critters than did the food supplies.
Reports in the Reporter–Telegram cited a cold front that moved in on Sunday evening and an atypical north wind. Easterling reviewed weather data from fifty years ago and came away accepting only one of those two potential causes.
“In general, we have a southwest wind with an occasional shift out of the southeast where we generally get a little rain,” he said. “After looking at the data from NOAA, the temperature didn’t appear to drop until much later that evening, into the morning.”
Easterling also said the grasshoppers likely weren’t as large as the three-inch-long beasts some witnesses described. He said the only species of grasshopper of that size commonly found in that area, the Lubber, doesn’t have wings and couldn’t have been swarming around the stadium lights.
“It’s not uncommon for people to exaggerate a bit when describing the size of objects they see—the fish they caught,” he said.
Easterling guessed that the varmints could have been Trimerotropis pallidipennis, the pallid-winged grasshopper.
“They’re known to swarm occasionally, although not annually, and not quite like the biblical stories everyone is familiar with,” he said.
How rare are such episodes? They happen once every fifty to one hundred years, Easterling said.
“The weather conditions have to be right,” he explained. “Then you have to get into a dry spell afterwards to really kind of wipe out their food supply or the threat [of that] to be low enough that they in turn can wipe out what’s left of it and have to move in mass like that.”
Back in ’72, Don McBride, director of the Midland City Parks and Recreation Department, told the Reporter–Telegram the area around the stadium would be sprayed with pesticide before play resumed on Monday. The city crew would remain on-site, standing by to spray again if needed. Worst-case scenario, McBride said, there would be a delay of probably about ten minutes “for the [chemical] cloud to clear.”
“[The news reports] mentioned that the fans were ‘gasping and coughing, but most felt it was worth it,’” Easterling said. “What are the odds that would happen today?”
Thanks to Mother Nature—and McBride’s crew—Monday’s games went on without incident, and Mazzone took up where he left off the previous evening. Amarillo won the suspended game 4–3, and the Cubs took the second contest 2–0 on a two-run home run by future big-leaguer Pete LaCock (who also happens to be the son of Peter Marshall, original host of The Hollywood Squares).
It’s possible that no photos exist of the night grasshoppers canceled baseball in Midland; the lone related image that appeared in the local newspaper the following day showed a downtown merchant sweeping dozens of grasshoppers from his brick storefront.
Midland has been in the Texas League ever since. In 1999, the team became the RockHounds—a nickname for geologists that pays homage to the city’s ties to the fossil fuel industry—as the Double-A affiliate of the Oakland A’s.
RockHounds assistant general manager Ray Fieldhouse has been with the club for 26 years. He wasn’t around to witness 1972’s plague of grasshoppers, but he did recall an unwelcome visit by locusts in 1998—the insects created a distraction, but the game continued—and a game in the mid-2000s that was called because of a dust storm.
The RockHounds have never held a promotion in honor of the night the grasshoppers took over. Maybe next year?
The franchise could bring back old-timers like LaCock and Mazzone to commemorate the occasion, and if management is daring enough, concessions stands could even serve chocolate-covered grasshoppers.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Mazzone said. “Never before or since.”