Charley Pride played professional baseball in Missoula in 1960.
It’s a fairly well-known story here, part of the lore of the Missoula Timberjacks who brought pro ball to Campbell Field at a corner of South and Higgins avenues from 1956 to 1960.
The Missoula Osprey honor the Timberjack story these summer days at Saturday home games by donning white Jacks uniforms with green piping.
The other part of the Pride-in-Missoula story is that the pitcher and outfielder from rural Mississippi didn’t play here long. He was released after three appearances.
He spent most of the rest of the decade in Helena and Great Falls, playing semipro ball while raising a family, working at the East Helena smelter and launching a singing career that landed him in the Country Music Hall of Fame. He's one of just three blacks to attain that honor.
“We spent seven and a half years in Helena, and then two and a half years in Great Falls,” Pride said in a 2014 interview from his home in Dallas with Missoulian freelancer Brian D’Ambrosio. “It was about a month short total of 10 years in Montana. I believe it was from April of 1960 to when we left in 1969. My two youngest were born up there.”
Pride was just another wanna-be ballplayer when he arrived here with the rest of the Timberjacks in April 1960. The Pioneer League was a full-season Class C circuit, five levels below the big leagues and one step above the bottom rung. Teams played a 130-game schedule from April to August, compared to the current short-season Rookie Advanced league that schedules 78 games from late June to September.
After being aligned with the Washington Senators, who in 1961 became the Minnesota Twins, the Timberjacks and general manager Nick Mariana cobbled together a partial agreement with the Cincinnati Reds in their final season.
Pride's name first appeared in the Missoulian on Tuesday, April 19, 1960. He was on a list of eight players who worked out at Campbell Field the day before. Local businesses Medo-Land Dairies, Daily's and Modern Meats provided the team with milk and sandwiches at noon all week long in preparation for the opener at Idaho Falls on Sunday.
"Training table has been set up at Happy Henry's Café in the Palace Hotel where players will be staying this week until all have been settled in private homes," the story informed.
We next read of Pride that Friday, April 22, in advance of the annual Welcome Back Timberjack party.
"Special entertainment numbers may include unknown talent on the club," Mariana told the Missoulian's Ray Rocene. "I heard Thursday we have a real good bongo drum player, also a comedy routine which is done by Charley Pride."
The next day's paper reported a different role.
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"Bob Bedard was master of ceremonies, Mayor Walter Cash spoke words of welcome after (state senator) Ed Dussault and Charley Pride had warbled the ancient baseball song, 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game,'" the report said. "Later Pride entertained with his guitar and story telling."
Manager/third baseman Rocky Tedesco discussed the season prospects and announced his starting lineup. Pride wasn't in it.
"Under the limited agreement with Cincinnati the Missoula Timberjacks had the right to sign several players on their own," the paper reported on Sunday, April 24. The Jacks owned Tedesco's contract as well as those of four others, including "Pitcher-Outfielder Charley Pride."
Pride's on-field performances for the Timberjacks were unspectacular.
He played just one game at Campbell Field, his Timberjack debut on May 1 against the Boise Braves. Pride pitched the last three innings of a 12-2 loss, surrendering five hits, a walk and two runs without a strikeout. He did drive in a run with a single in two plate appearances.
Boise manager Billy Smith was not impressed. In his Tuesday Sports Jabs column, Rocene wrote that Smith "would make Pitchers (Lopez) Clark and Pride, who opposed his club in the Sunday batting bee, pay admission to get into his ballpark."
Pride had one more three-inning stint on May 5 in Pocatello against, yep, the Russets. He again allowed two earned runs, this time walking three and striking out two.
On May 6, the Timberjacks spoiled Billings' home opener in front of 2,200 fans with a 6-4 victory. Pride pinch-hit in the seventh inning for pitcher John Ivory Smith of Florida and lined out.
Then the hammer fell.
Back from the Billings road trip on May 9, "General Manager Nick Mariana announced the outright release of Charles Pride and the acquisition of Ron Beamer, 1b-pitcher, a right-handed hitter who throws left and who played with Salem in the Northwest League last year. "
Years later, Pride told the Independent Record of Helena that after he was cut, Mariana graciously steered him toward Helena, where two semipro teams offered a chance to continue his baseball career.
The Smelterites of the Montana State League dibsed him first. Pride played for East Helena for the rest of that season and three more. He moved his family to Helena the following year and started working at the smelter. When the Smelterites came to Missoula in June 1961 to play the Highlanders, Pride went 5-for-6 in an 11-3 East romp. He had four singles and a home run over the right-field fence along South Higgins Avenue.
The Smelterites won four consecutive state league titles with Pride pitching and playing third base before he moved his family first to Great Falls and then Nashville as his music career took off. In 1971, Smelterite coach Kes Rigler reminisced with the Billings Gazette's Norm Clarke about Pride’s baseball prowess, and noted, “I paid him $10 a game to sing the National Anthem for us."