Six Decades of Minor League Baseball
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CAP TO THE NAT
Written by (L) Ken McIntosh. Edited by Rod Drown (R)
One of my life’s singular glory days unfolded during a lunch hour when I was about ten, back in Golden, BC. After hitting a fly ball in a school yard softball game, I became the afternoon’s hero. The adulation continued only for a few more days since my athletic feat had led to the unfortunate – and unrealizable -- expectation that I would continue to hit balls with such magnificent trajectories. However, being more of a scholar than a sports star in elementary school, I was not able to repeat my noon hour feat. But, for awhile, I was the right-handed batter among my classmates.
This is all by way of introducing the fact that, before I was hired by Ken McIntosh to edit his manuscript chronicling the history of professional baseball in Vancouver, I had not given more than an iota of thought to softball, let alone baseball, for years. Although I have published poems and been a freelance journalist, I am no George Bowering and so my knowledge of the game was entirely superficial. However, over the last few months of working closely with Ken on the intricacies of how this sport has evolved since 1951, baseball has not only grown on me, it has also grown within me. In fact I recently had my first baseball dream.
In the dream, I am playing baseball and, as it opens, I have just hit two singles and people have gathered around to congratulate me. As I had hit the singles, I had felt lean and athletic, and had walked with great ease to first base. Obviously, I had knocked the ball clear out of the park! Later in the game, after the teams had exchanged positions and my group had gone into the field, I caught two hit balls. Just before I caught the balls, I had borrowed a light brown leather glove, which had – perhaps for added padding – a black covered booklet, almost like one of my poetry collections, inside it. As the game had progressed, one of the opposing players had bunted the ball down the first baseline. A beautiful woman beside me had kept praising me for my playing. I remember now how the field had seemed rather crowded when I was catching the balls.
This dream either contains or infers the elements physical, mental, athletic or esthetic that are essential to baseball’s attractiveness. It has the batter with his bat, the audience with high regard for its star, the base-taker with his physical prowess, the catcher with his glove and the overall poetic elegance of a well-played inning. It has been said, fairly often, that baseball is a kind of very slow-moving and elegant ballet. The dream is also interesting because it mentions a special kind of batting called a bunt, which implies in turn something called a suicide play that is very well-explained in Ken’s text. The dream also draws, by inference, the distinction between the sport itself and the ordinary life that exists apart from it. Perhaps the dichotomy is this: In baseball the field might appear crowded in some areas and at some times but there can only be one ball in motion during the game, whereas in life outside the ballpark many balls are in motion.
Ken, the author of this book, has mentioned to me that he loves the game. I have found him to be a hard-working square-dealer who has spent nearly four years researching the story of professional baseball in Vancouver. His appetite for detail is remarkable; for example he has recorded the vital statistics of every player who ever played in Nat Bailey Stadium – back to even before it was called Nat Bailey Stadium! I figure that adds up to about 5000 games, so putting this book together has truly been a labour of love for him. I think he sees what is best about it: that it is a combination of athleticism, intelligence and strategy played in a temporarily existing world of near perfection. Therefore it strikes me as entirely fitting that Ken McIntosh, for a very important part of his life, was an umpire. He has been both of the game and in it but, in his official baseball function, also apart from it. He umpired full time from 1970 to 1990. After that he did it occasionally until 1998.
That he has worked as an umpire seems to speak directly to the probability of there residing within him the sense that the world should be a more fair place where the weak are protected and the strong constrained to act fairly. A place where people know the rules and there is someone who can enforce them. Ken used to be a policeman in New Westminster, British Columbia and so, judging from what that bit of his history may reflect about his character, his role as Umpire is also fitting. However, it is also an evolution of his role as a policeman. It suggests that maybe he wanted to be a judge. After all, an umpire is a kind of policeman and judge rolled into one – just in another venue, perhaps a simpler one, certainly a better organized one. As to the nuances of the game in terms of strategy and tactics, Ken has been a great teacher and I have learned a great deal from him about the game. I have come to understand why some people love it. It is a game of strategy and tactics – a kind of large chessboard disguised as a baseball diamond
I have learned some other things too – that home plate is a pentangle, the catcher is like a captain or a football quarterback, that most pitchers deliver the ball in excess of 90 MPH and that the batter has about half a second to decide what kind of a ball is being thrown at him. In terms of Vancouver, I have come to understand that there will almost always be a coterie of local businessmen eager to take on the responsibility of owning or, in bad times, financially supporting the home team. Sometimes over the years it has almost seemed they are willing to throw money at it – as if they were like some kind of temporarily deranged pitchers, standing on mounds of money.
The story that Ken has succeeded in telling is the erratic and often uncertain survival of professional baseball in Vancouver, British Columbia. Ken believes, and I agree, that telling the story was a job that needed to be done. In our wildest baseball dreams, we even see this book being influential enough to turn Vancouver sports fans away from hockey and into baseball fanatics. I wonder if he does not sometimes consider himself a sort of last soldier standing in the great baseball wars. In that respect it is interesting to consider that Vancouver is now the only place in Canada that has A-level professional baseball in which a team is affiliated to one of the Major League teams. This city is situated within the Pacific Northwest’s geographic area that has, on its American side, a collection of teams named for Indian tribes and tribal positions. Maybe that is why a small minority of sports fans have held on stubbornly to baseball for year after year in the face of overwhelming odds. It is interesting too that hockey, baseball’s great competitor in Canada, is equally unsuited climatically to Vancouver. If it was played in its natural element – i.e. on naturally frozen ice – it would not exist here. Same for baseball, many games have been rained out!
So what is it that has attracted people to the game in Vancouver? Since the very early 1950’s Vancouver baseball fans have cheered on four separate professional teams, organized within two leagues (the Western International League and the Pacific Coast League). The Capilanos (1951-1954), the Mounties (1957-1962 and 1965 – 1969), the Vancouver Canadians (1978-1999) and the short-season Canadians (2000-the present) have all made their home in the Nat. Three of them (the Capilanos, the Mounties and the PCL Canadians) have risen and fallen. The last, the NWL Canadians, the short season Canadians, have been around since 2000, attracting about 115,000 fans annually. Over the last 57 years these four teams have been affiliated to one or more of 12 Major League teams : the Baltimore Orioles, Milwaukee Braves, Minnesota Twins, Kansas City A’s, Oakland A’s, Seattle Pilots/Montreal Expos, Milwaukee Brewers, Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago White Sox, California Angels, Anaheim Angels and Oakland Athletics.
A glance at the graph above, which shows the total annual attendance during the four incarnations of the sport in Vancouver will show just how much of a roller-coaster the fan base has been. To briefly review: the Capilanos started off big and lost attendance – from 164,000 to 55,000 in the four years from 1951 to 1954. The next team and the first incarnation of the Vancouver Mounties (1956 to 1962) started off low, batted to a height in 1957 (under the irrepressible Charlie Metro) and, after two more years at approximately 250,000, fell to under 140,000, and then rose to about 200,000 before dying at just under 90,000. The next incarnation of the Mounties (1965-1969), managed by (among others) Mickey Vernon, had three relatively healthy years (1965, 1966 and 1967), followed by two years of significantly lower attendance (1968 and 1969). The next semi-professional team for Vancouver, the Vancouver Canadians (1978 to 1999) had a very interesting graph: from its inception, attendance rose steadily (except for the two exceptional years of 1981 and 1984) from 1978 to 1988. From 1989 to 1998, it never fell below 280,000. Managers when these numbers reached their peak were Marv Foley (1989-91) Rick Renick (1992), Max Oliveras (1993), Don Long (1994-96), Bruce Hines (1997) and Mitch Seoane (1998).
“A baseball team is where a boy can prove his courage on his own. A gang is where a coward goes to hide.” – Mickey Mantle.
What the majestic Mickey (who, incidentally, died from alcohol-related causes) seems to say here is that a baseball game, with its strictly organized roles and rules for its participants, is a coordinated world in which those possessing youthful hormones easily aroused can be detoured from potentially antisocial behavior. They can be tamed, so to speak, to spend their summer days under blue skies and the gaze of fans in the stands. (So far as blue skies go, well, of course we who live in Vancouver well know it rains here a lot. But that probably just goes to show that most baseball fans – or especially owners – are climate-denying dreamers.)
Baseball audiences are said to mirror the perspectives of society at large but, in the great scheme of things, only age matters. Here is a quote which applies to baseball and youth:
“The whole reason little boys always bring gloves to baseball games and old boys never do: Because through baseball, they have learned what they can reasonably expect from life.” – David Hinckley.
Another aphorism in praise of using baseball to save youth from itself is this one:
“I’m convinced that every boy, in his heart would rather steal second base than an automobile.” – Tom Clark.
I think that Charlie Metro would have agreed with Tom Clark. I say that because I am reminded of one of my favourite stories in Ken’s book. Remember how, in the late 1950’s, only punks and greasers had really long hair? In 1958 Mounties Manager Charlie Metro’s eyes, all the kids who had been stealing balls after they had been hit over the Nat Bailey fence had long hair and were probably well on the road to juvenile delinquency. So, inviting them in for saving, he made them all get crew cuts. Then the real fun started: one of the boys turned out to be a girl and now she had a crew cut!
There is a sense in many of the quotations about baseball that the sport takes place in a peaceful world, where all is harmony, graceful athletes and finely tuned plays. Just as elsewhere, this has not always been the case in Vancouver. For example, the most memorable event of May 1966 was when a hotheaded player named Santiago Rosario wound up in the halls of baseball infamy for bashing Merrit Ranew, from the opposing team, over the head with a baseball bat.
It is probably Humphrey Bogart who summed up the positive ambience of baseball best when he said:
“A hot dog at the ballpark is better than a steak at the Ritz”
And not only is the single game perfect, the game throughout the entire season has the potential for perfection, as when one wise man of baseball says:
“Don’t tell me about the world. Not today. Its springtime and they’re knocking baseballs around fields where the grass is damp and green in the morning and the kids are trying to hit the curve ball.” – Pete Hamill
As I worked through Ken’s book, I came to see that, amidst the dozens if not thousands of players, coaches, managers and owners who trod the baselines or surveyed the scenes from the dugouts from 1951 forward, there was one man who really lit the baseball flame here in Vancouver. Bob Brown, who had built Vancouver’s very first baseball stadium, Athletic Park, hit a lot of home runs in Vancouver. Brown was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, near the heartland of baseball, on July 5, 1876. During his early and middle years in the city he built a brand new baseball facility called Athletic Park. He cleared the land for it by placing sticks of dynamite in the numerous tree stumps, lighting the fuses, and running like hell.
Another event which should never be forgotten in Vancouver’s baseball history concerns one in which the Heavens or a small part of them at least, came to earth or passed over it very closely! This was The Great Meteor/UFO Flyby of May 28, 1962. The stellar spectacle occurred during a game when suddenly, from the heavens north of the Stadium, came a fiery ball that appeared over the North Shore Mountains and seemed headed directly towards the Stadium. Pandemonium ensued: both teams fled the field, heading to the dugouts and the sparse crowd of 660, the third lowest crowd of the season, scattered from the stands and scrambled for the parking lot – many choosing not to return for the game’s conclusion. This is an event that has taken on, in Vancouver baseball circles, the gravitas of Halley’s Comet.
Roles, if not characters, repeat themselves in Vancouver’s baseball history. That of the rich benefactor started with White Spot millionaire Nat Bailey. He was a natural for leading a baseball enterprise. After all, he had started out selling popcorn and peanuts at Bob Brown’s old Athletic Park after arriving in Vancouver from Seattle in 1911. From 1956 onwards Bailey would be the one to bankroll the Mounties. He has been replaced in modern times, so far as a role in the Vancouver baseball enterprise, by A&W magnate Jeff Mooney.
Just as men like Coley Hall, and others sometimes skirted the edges of legality, so did, it, seemed, George Norgan. Norgan was a successful businessman, prominent in the development of West Vancouver. He died late in 1964. Norgan had a somewhat curious past in business that seemed to have involved, at least during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s (1946 and 1951, to be exact), bootlegging into the United States via Cuba.
The Brooks Robinson Incident happened when this fine player, one of the best players Vancouver ever had, was seriously injured while chasing a foul fly hit by a Portland Beaver near the third base dugout. His arm got caught on a protruding and very sharp end of the wire mesh and he became impaled! However, whether Robinson was a fan favourite or not, his manager Charlie Metro had some guidelines when it came to his family – especially his daughter. Metro tells the story in his typically brisk, no nonsense style: Robinson might have become his son-in-law – if Metro had allowed his 16-year old daughter to go on a date with his young star. But he didn’t. And, if Metro had allowed the date and, if things had transpired as the daughter had hoped (including marriage), I wonder if would Metro have done what another famous Vancouver manager did – trade the son-in-law to another city. For that tale, you will have to read about Jack McKeon, starting on Page 126
One of the most lovable old devils I have met in this book is groundskeeper Gene Edlund, the great wily one. As Metro explains it, groundskeeper Edlund knew every inch and every mechanical oddity of the park by heart – including a big field clock that could be speeded up or slowed down! “So what?” Metro wondered on being told the news. Edlund’s response: “I can slow it up if we’re having a rally on Sunday or speed it up if the other team is about to score and tie or win,” he smirked. So, Gene Edlund – the great wily one, Read about him too in Ken McIntosh’s thorough presentation of Vancouver’s last six decades of professional baseball.
10.Tom Harrison- Trail- played 1965 (Jan 18, 1945)
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