VANCOUVER BASEBALL

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A SHORT HISTORY OF VANCOUVER BASEBALL

BOB BROWN

NORTHWESTERN LEAGUE
1905 Veterans Preview
1907 Canucks Opener
1908 First No Hitter
1913 Athletic Park Opens
1915 Player Mutiny

FIRST NIGHT BASEBALL GAME IN CANADA

WESTERN INTERNATIONAL LEAGUE
Stories and scores on:
1937 Maple Leafs Opener
1946 CAPILANOS
1947 CAPILANOS
1948 CAPILANOS
1949 CAPILANOS
1950 CAPILANOS
1951 CAPILANOS
1952 CAPILANOS
1953 CAPILANOS
1954 CAPILANOS

PACIFIC COAST LEAGUE
A NOTE FROM 1956

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A SHORT HISTORY OF VANCOUVER PRO BASEBALL

by Jim Bennie

 

The year was 1905. Vancouver had been blessed with semi-pro baseball, as visiting nines from American cities and colleges as far south as California would come to the Powell Street Grounds for contests – contests that inspired a couple of local baseball backers to believe the city could support a professional team. A.E. Tulk and W.D. Haywood convinced the Northwestern League to grant them a franchise. They hired long-time baseball man John McCloskey, later known as the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, to put together a team. And because McCloskey was a veteran, the team was called the Vancouver Veterans. One newspaper shortened it to Vets. Another took that name and using the esoteric rhetoric peculiar to baseball sportswriters, called them the Horse Doctors.

The team’s first game was in
Bellingham on May 9 (a loss) and the first home game was May 11 (a win) against Victoria in the brand-new Recreation Park at the southeast corner of Homer and Smithe (recently turned into a condo development with narry an indication a ball park ever existed there). The season was divided into halves and Vancouver lost the first half by a bit of chicanery by Everett Smokestackers manager Billy Hulen. Unbeknownst to McCloskey or the Vets, Hulen played an unscheduled make-up game at 5 in the morning in Bellingham to ensure his team at least tied Vancouver for first. The Veterans finished with a 45 and 52 record (Everett
won the championship), and Haywood and Tulk decided against a second season.

However, a baseball club was resurrected for the 1907 season. The Vancouver Canucks (not to be confused with a current hockey team) went through five managers and finished a painful 34 and 106 year, a mere 53 games behind the first place Aberdeen Black Cats, managed by one Robert Paul Brown, whose name would soon become familiar to several generations of Vancouver baseball fans.

Stunningly,
Vancouver
went from worst to first. It topped the Northwestern League in 1908 with a new moniker – the Beavers, which it would keep through 1922. The team’s “manager” was by A. Richard Dickson, a businessman who had no baseball experience, though likely many of the on-field decisions through a succession of Captains. George Engel led all league pitchers with a 22-7 record, Ham Hyatt has a league-best 15 home runs and Jim Flanagan led in batting average with .352.

Bob Brown arrived in 1910 to manage the club after time at the helm of the Spokane Indians. With players over the years like Pug Bennett, Lou Nordyke, Kitty Brashear, Dode Brinker, pitcher Dutch Ruether and sluggers Charles Swain and Emil Frisk, the Beavers were contenders throughout most of their life, hoisting the pennant in 1911 and 1914.

The other highlight for the Beavers was the opening of
Athletic Park on April 17, 1913 at Fifth and Hemlock. 6,000 took in the first game, a Vancouver win over Tacoma. A lowlight was a player mutiny on June 18, 1915
to protest Bob Brown’s suspension of a player.

The Northwestern League was reconstituted in 1918 as the Pacific Coast International League and
Vancouver placed first in a shortened season in 1919. It was renamed the Western International League in 1922 and died suddenly on June 18, mainly because Tacoma was tied in with W.H. Klepper, the Portland P.C.L. owner, who had been suspended by Commissioner Landis in a baseball ethics scandal and withdrew his financial assistance to the Tigers. However, venerable Athletic Park hosted amateur ball through the rest of the roaring 20s and the Depression, and players like Coley Hall, Johnny Nestman, Norm Trasolini and Ernie Paepke became household names in Vancouver
.

Athletic Park suffered a fire in 1926 and survived to host two memorable events – the first night baseball game in Canada (actually a double-header) on July 3, 1931, broadcast live on CKWX by Charlie Defieux, and a major league all-star exhibition game on a very rainy October 19, 1934 (Babe Ruth was 0-for-2), with Charlie again on the mike on 'WX.

The Depression was lifting, and a successful attempt was made at reviving the Western International League. Lacrosse mogul and cigar store owner Con Jones built a park (now
Callister Park), named it after himself and put the Vancouver Maple Leafs there. The first home game was April 27, 1937 (Tacoma won it in the ninth inning). The Leafs finished in third place, and in fourth in 1938. Jones, unexpectedly losing money due to low attendance, gave up the franchise to brewer Emil Sick, the owner of the Seattle Rainiers (named for one of his beers). Sick redubbed the team the Capilanos (named for his brewery) and moved it back to Athletic Park. Tommy Lloyd won the home run championship that year with 25, the team acquired veteran minor league slugger Smead Jolley from Spokane
in 1941, but the Caps didn’t win the pennant until 1942 under the guidance of Don Osborn, who led the league in earned run average in both ’41 and ’42.

The league shut down in 1942 due to the war, and
Athletic Park suffered a disaster. It been renamed Capilano Stadium in 1943 when the land was purchased by the team from the C.P.R. for $35,000.  Brown went shopping for a Pacific Coast League team for Vancouver and had almost purchased the Sacramento Solons, but a citisens group came forward in February 1944 to buy the club and stop the move. Ironically, decades later, the Vancouver P.C.L. team would be purchased by someone from Sacramento and moved there.

 

On February 28, 1945, a $50,000 fire roared through the ball park and left it a soak shambles of charred lumber and twisted iron. But it was quickly rebuilt, as there was already talk about reviving the Western International League – which happened at a meeting of the board of directors months later. And so, the Capilanos were back in business for 1946. They rose from sixth place to take the pennant the following year over Spokane by .001 percentage points with 25-year-old war veteran Bill Brenner as manager and catcher.

For years, there had been talk of building a bigger stadium, and after a bit of dickering with the city of Vancouver, the new Capilano Stadium opened (late) on June 15, 1951. It built using the blueprints of the parent club’s ball park – Sick’s Stadium, and the infield sod of the old yard. The $550,000 gleaming white stadium was compared by many at the grand opening to a major league park (precient, as Sick’s housed the Seattle Pilots in 1969). And the opening was grand in more ways than one, as the Capilanos thrashed the Salem Senators and former New York Yankees pitcher Floyd (Bill) Bevens, 10-3. Alas, the Caps finished the season in second place, a half game behind
Spokane
, despite Bob Snyder’s 27 wins, including one over Bevens at the new stadium’s debut.

But minor league baseball was in a deep decline. Teams were losing money. Leagues that had existed for decades were shutting down for good. The Western International League tried to add to its attendance numbers by expanding into
Alberta in 1953, but it was to no avail. The Calgary and Victoria
franchises folded in 1954, then the league was voted out of existence on December 15. The Caps won the pennant in the W.I.L’s final year, with Marv Williams leading the league in batting with .360, Bob Wellman tied for homers with 21 and Bill Brenner back with the club – as a knuckleballing pitcher, with a 2.53 E.R.A. and a 21-9 record.

Some owners wanted to form a smaller circuit with less travel expense between cities, and thus the Northwest League was born. But
Vancouver adopted the attitude “P.C.L. or nothing” – there had been talk years earlier of an “All Pacific” League with Vancouver and the Coast League clubs – and rejected the idea of joining the small-time N.W.L. And the P.C.L. wasn’t far away. Brick Laws got fed up with poor attendance numbers and a decrepit stadium in Oakland and moved the Oakland Oaks (a.k.a. Acorns) to Vancouver for 1956. The team’s new name was the Mounties, and they made their debut in a 6-3 loss at Seals Stadium on April 10. The P.C.L. had been to Vancouver before – the Seattle Rainiers had played several games at Athletic Park in the late 30s – but it arrived on what was hoped would be a permanent basis on April 27. San Francisco was the opponent again, and 8,146 paid to see the Seals score a pair in the ninth to defeat Vancouver
2-1. Losses were not all that unusual in 1956 – the Mounties finished dead last with a 67 and 98 record.

The Mounties never did have a first-place club, but came close in 1957, finishing 3½ games back as the team benefitted from excellent pitching by George Bamberger, Morrie Martin, Erv Palica and Art Houtteman, all ex-big leaguers.

On
May 4, 1959, the Mounties got a Hall of Famer, though no one knew it then. At the time, they were getting an infielder who had been struggling with Baltimore
and was been sent down to see if he was the real thing. He made an auspicious debut, breaking up a no-hitter in the seventh inning with a single. His name was Brooks Robinson. Less than two weeks later, on May 17, Robinson tore his forearm in the fifth inning when he ran into a metal hook projecting from the Mounties’ dugout guard rail. 2,011 witnessed it at Cap Stadium, though Jim Robson’s play-by-play description on CKWX was so vivid, many more claim they were at the ballpark that day and saw it with their eyes instead of their ears. Robinson came back within three weeks, and finally was called up on July 6, homering in his last game. The Caps finished in second, 1½ games behind Salt Lake City, and second again in 1961, ten games behind the Tacoma Giants, as Canadian-born Mountie Ron Piché led the P.C.L. with an earned run average of 2.26.

1962 saw lowlights and skylights. José Valdivielso led off the 12th inning of the May 28 game at Cap Stadium when he looked in the sky, screamed and ran back to the dugout, with other players quickly following. He thought a burning plane was sending debris onto the field. There was a three-minute game delay due to what was said to be a meteorite high in the galaxy. It was also the year George Bamberger communicated with the dugout via a hand-held radio receiver inside his uniform (Bamby won the July 18 contest with
Tacoma). But the team estimated its losses at $90,000 and the franchise packed up and moved to Dallas
.

However, the Mounties made a comeback. The Kansas City A’s put a farm team at Cap Stadium from 1965 to 1968, sending players like Sal Bando, Tony LaRussa and Rene Lachemann, shortstop Ossie Chavarria, who stayed in Vancouver and became a respected umpire, and local boys Wayne Norton and Gerry Reimer (Kevin’s dad).


The most infamous incident in
Vancouver baseball history happened on May 11, 1966 against Seattle. Vancouver outfielder Ric Joseph was hit on the shoulder in the fourth inning by a fastball from Jim Coates, who had a reputation as a head-hunter. Joseph headed to the mound, but was stopped by Seattle catcher Merritt Ranew, who landed one of Joseph’s chin. Players poured onto the field and umpire Jerry Dale restored order. Or so he thought. Tommy Reynolds was up next and bunted, went part the way up the line, then turned for the mound to get at Coates. Ranew tried to rescue his pitcher, but Mounties’ first baseman Santiago Rosario, waiting in the on-deck circle, raced to the mound and cracked Ranew on the head with a bat. The dugouts emptied again, and an ambulance came to take Ranew to Vancouver General Hospital. Lost in all this was the fact Coates was throwing a no-hitter at the time, which is the reason he denied throwing at Joseph. Santiago was banned from baseball the rest of the year. A post-script is that Joseph got his revenge, waiting for Coates at the Sylvia Hotel and pummelling him there, cutting his nose and chipping a tooth.

Ranew’s career carried on eventually. He ended up with the Mounties in 1969, when the club was a joint farm team of the expansion Seattle Pilots and Montreal Expos. That year’s team is famous for being the April home of Jim Bouton when he wrote Ball Four (though, as he writes, he was called up before ever pitching at Cap Stadium). Manager Bob Lemon’s team drew only 62,666 fans, last in the league, the season ending with the club dropping a pair of games in
Portland on September 1. Mounties management urged fans not to give up hope there would be a team in 1970, but that was quashed in a statement on September 9 by P.C.L. president Bill McKechnie. The team would move to Salt Lake City. The following day, the sports landscape of Vancouver
changed forever with the announcement the city that an N.H.L. expansion franchise for 1970 had been purchased.

Capilano Stadium was left to fallow, featuring soccer games and concerts. But the idea of professional baseball in
Vancouver
was still alive. Harry Ornest ignored all the nay-sayers, including Province baseball writer Clancy Loranger, who told him of all the cash Nat Bailey lost running the Mounties, and managed to convince the P.C.L. to grant Vancouver an expansion franchise for the 1978 season. Harry looked at history and re-named Capilano Stadium ‘Nat Bailey Stadium’ (Bailey died about a month before seeing a game in “his” stadium). Perhaps looking at the historical connection with breweries, Harry named the team the Canadians, with the same typeface and colour as the Molson Canadian beer label, though Harry always brushed it off as mere coincidence. Ironically, the Park Board would not permit him to sell beer in the first year. And as an added historical bonus, the scoreboard used at Sick’s Stadium, torn down several years earlier, were transported to Nat Bailey.

The Canadians began life on April 14, 1978 in Honolulu as the guests of the Hawaii Islanders (winning 4-0) and the first home game at the renovated Nat Bailey Stadium was April 26 (beating San Jose 9-4). Endless call-ups to
Oakland didn’t help manager Jim Marshall, a former slugging Mountie first baseman, as the team finished third in its division. It won a first-half championship in 1979, as Mark Bomback had an outstanding 22-7 season, leading the league with a 2.56 E.R.A., but the team lost to Hawaii in the divisional playoffs. The Canadians finally won a P.C.L. championship in 1985, defeating Phoenix, but lost to Las Vegas in the finals in 1986 and 1988. Pennant number two came against Albuquerque in 1989, as lefthander Tom Drees threw three no-hitters at home, two of them back-to-back, with Jerry Willard as the catcher and Pat Karl the official scorer for all of them. (Drees drew 13,258 in Albuquerque’s Sports Stadium on June 2 as he went for back-to-back-to-back no-hitters. He lost it in the first inning when he hung a fast ball to future Canadian Tracy Woodson for a two-run homer). The low-light of the P.C.L. Canadians came that year as well, as the team staged a 1915-style mutiny on July 6 and forfeited a game in Albuquerque
because they had not been paid. The cheques arrived the next day.

The Canadians changed ownership a number of times over the ensuing years, with the last owner, Art Savage, candidly admitting he would prefer a ball team closer to his
California home. Sacramento had been talking about building a Triple-A ballpark ever since leaving the P.C.L. in 1977. The Sacto area finally got its act together and was waving the sweet carrot of a state-of-the-art stadium with all the amenities, a far cry from a luxury-boxless Vancouver stadium designed in the 1930s for Seattle. Savage convinced the P.C.L. that extra attendance and revenue would be assured in the California state capital, and the league cavalierly disregarded the Vancouver fan base and agreed to move the Canadians after the 1999 season. How bittersweet it was that the Canadians went all the way, winning the P.C.L. championship at home on September 17 against Oklahoma City before a full house, then travelling to Las Vegas to beat Charlotte in the Triple-A World Series. The P.C.L. had come to Vancouver from California and to California
it would return.

But even as smoke from fireworks masked ‘Field of Dreams’ cornstalks on the field in a special goodbye after the final game (the left field fence was accidentally lit on fire), rumours circulated that a team would be coming to Vancouver from the Northwest League – the very league rejected by Bob Brown and fellow local baseball owners in 1955. Fred Hermann, the owner of the Southern Oregon Timberjacks, was doing what Art Savage was doing – thinking he’d make more money by moving his franchise. The Timberjacks were based in
Medford, Oregon, and Hermann quickly got approval to move the team to Vancouver. The first game of the Class A Canadians was played at Nat Bailey on June 25, 2000
.

The major leagues are a long ride from Class A, but the new Canadians have sent over a dozen players to the big leagues, notably
Victoria’s Rich Harden. Hermann sold the team after the 2006 season to local owners who spruced up the old park. So baseball remains, and fans can continue to await Vancouvers
11th baseball championship, and endless memories in between.