Missoula's last pro baseball team boasts a rich history
When the legendary composer and songwriter Hoagy Carmichael and collaborator Victor Young penned the riveting … er, functional lyrics and melodies for the movie "Timberjack" in 1954, little did they know the theme song - not necessarily the movie - would become etched in Missoula's professional baseball fabric.
All together now: Uh one, uh two …
"When you're all done choppin' down the poplar and pine, hurry back, hurry back, timberjack.
"There's a black-haired gal whose lips are sweeter than wine, hurry back, hurry back, timberjack.
"She's got a ring, she's got a gown, she owns an acre.
"And it would break her little heart if you'd forsake her …"
When Missoula began its five-year run in the Class C Pioneer League in 1956, the franchise snatched the name Timberjacks and was escorted into the league by a ready-made theme song and a flick, described in Leonard Maltin's "1999 Movie & Video Guide" as a two-star "harmless potboiler."
OK, wise movie sage, cursory treatment's fine. But in those days it was a big deal around these parts; probably worth four stars. And the director, Joseph Kane, used several locals as extras. Much of "Timberjack" was filmed on location around Missoula and Polson in 1954, with lots of outdoor scenes shot along the Blackfoot River, relying on the Anaconda Co.'s spur railroad that was used to haul timber from its lands to the Bonner mill. The movie, billed by Republic Pictures as a "lusty … rousing … robust adventure," even had its world premiere here in February 1955, amid much local fanfare.
Based on a novel by Great Falls writer Dan Cushman of "Stay Away Joe" fame, the basic theme of the movie, according to Maltin, focused on a young man, who had to "fight crooks taking over a lumber mill" and dispatch the nasty ne'er-do-wells who also had killed his father.
The cast featured Sterling Hayden (as the lead), Republic Pictures' top star Vera Ralston (his love interest), David Brian (chief villain), well-known character actors Adolphe Menjou and Chill Wills, along with the folksy Carmichael, who also wrote the ditty, "He's Dead But He Won't Lie Down," for the film.
We're not sure how often the recording of "Timberjack" (sung for the movie by a group called the Lancers) was played when the baseball Timberjacks performed at old Campbell Park, but we've got a hunch Hoagy maybe missed out on a slew of royalties. Besides occasional radio airplay, variations of "Timberjack" also were warbled loosely and off-key countless times in the locker room, in the dugouts, on the playing field, and at preseason, postseason and off-season baseball functions during the team's five-year stay.
Relegated to general obscurity for 45 years, somehow the song gets resurrected from time to time at different venues - in a shower, in the woods, at a bar or ballpark - by people with disparate talent levels.
Rumors had circulated for years that soprano Judith Blegen, a Missoula product and acclaimed Metropolitan Opera performer, reportedly had warbled a few stanzas during an appearance on the "Tonight Show" several years ago and had performed "Timberjack" at a Montana Arts Council Governor's Awards for the Arts ceremony.
However, contacted at her home in New York City on Friday, Blegen said she hadn't done the song publicly and asked for a hasty refresher over the phone. A reporter provided a brief - extremely brief - version. But she did recall the melody. Blegen remembered singing the national anthem at a Grizzly basketball game as a teen-ager and admitted that she once had a crush on a Timberjacks first baseman. But, no she hadn't sung "Timberjack" publicly. If she had, though, it would have been one classy rendition.
Then there's Bob Uecker. The longtime radio voice of the Milwaukee Brewers major-league team has been known to burst forth with "Timberjack," according to Jim Kaat, a commentator on New York Yankees' telecasts. Kaat got an earful of the song when he was a star pitcher for the 1958 Timberjacks, but the tune had diminished during Kaat's 25-year career in the majors
when he was preoccupied with winning 283 games and collecting an astounding 16 Gold Gloves for his fielding prowess.
However, Kaat said Uecker became familiar with the song when he was a catcher with the Boise Braves' Pioneer League club during the 1956 and '58 seasons and apparently had memorized it. Before the Brewers switched to the National League last year, Kaat said Uecker made it a point to regularly serenade him with "Timberjack" when he'd arrive at County Stadium in Milwaukee to do the Yankees' telecasts.
"Oh, he knows the words," Kaat said. "When we'd get there (to a nearby broadcast booth), he couldn't resist doing it. He'd have fun with it." However, the jury's still out on Uecker's singing voice.
Kaat said Bob Rodgers, a catcher with the Idaho Falls club in 1958 and former major-league player and manager, also would recall the song when they'd run into each other.
Country music legend Charley Pride, whose pro baseball career as a pitcher-outfielder with the Timberjacks lasted just over three weeks at the beginning of the 1960 season, could do a fine job with "Timberjack." He played the guitar and sang at a preseason banquet that April, but it was his rendition of the Hank Williams' classic, "Kaw-Liga," that knocked your socks off.
A few other players also displayed some musical talent during the team's five seasons in Missoula, notably Bennie Sinquefield, a splendid defensive outfielder, and pitcher Aaron Jones. Sinquefield, an Alabaman who spent three seasons with Missoula (1956-58) and two with Billings before then, frequently performed his specialty, the ukulele. Jones, a crooner, played parts of four seasons in Missoula.
Sandy Valdespino, a diminutive, good-natured outfielder from Cuba who was with the Timberjacks in 1958 and later played and coached in the majors, wonders to this day how he was talked into performing a hybrid hula dance at the team's public farewell celebration that season. At least it wasn't done to the "Timberjack" song.
Although the team's song and movie remain a part of Missoula's lore, the Timberjacks' baseball moniker dwells elsewhere on the eve of pro baseball's return here after 39 years. The Southern Oregon Timberjacks, based in Medford, currently hold the rights to the name. And there's a possibility the name could head north next year if the Northwest League franchise shifts to Vancouver, Wash.
Missoula's second fling with professional baseball occurred rather abruptly in 1956. (The community's first foray came in 1911 when the Missoula Highlanders played the first of three seasons in what was known as the Union Association league.)
After the 1955 season, Odgen, Utah, bowed out of the eight-team Pioneer League and the parent Cincinnati Reds said they would move the franchise to Butte, if the town provided a suitable field, adequate financing and community support. Butte officials assured the Reds and league directors that they could.
However, at a league meeting in early February, Butte supporters said they could not meet their commitments and were forced to drop their option for the franchise. Four towns in the Rocky Mountain region, including Missoula, were hurriedly considered as possible sites. A group of Missoula baseball supporters, under the leadership of Nick Mariana, a former president and general manager of the Great Falls club, already had been working on a plan to join the Class B Northwest League in 1957.
Because Missoula had a foundation in place, Pioneer League directors at a special meeting on Feb. 18 gave Mariana and the Missoula Baseball Club Inc. until Feb. 26 to raise $25,000 as security and find a suitable playing field. With some money already in the bank and lots of fans eager to become stockholders, the club surpassed the financial goal and signed a five-year lease with the university to play games at Campbell Park. Mariana quickly negotiated a full working agreement with the Washington Senators to furnish players and also got additional financial support from them, plus other major-league clubs and executives.
After 44 y
ears, Missoula finally had another pro baseball team, this time in the Class C Pioneer League, five rungs below the majors. Problem was the season opened in less than two months.
Campbell Park, a drab, green wooden structure at the corner of South Avenue and east side of Higgins, immediately underwent renovations in the form of additional bleachers and concession stands, along with making room for extra parking.
The facility and its operation carried some inherent liabilities. The major one, in terms of money, was a university policy that banned alcohol from its property. That meant no beer and a glaring void in revenue. Because there was no dressing room for visiting teams, players had to change into their uniforms at the hotel. And the umpires' quarters resembled a big closet.
But the shape of the playing field was pleasantly symmetrical - 340 feet down the left and right-field foul lines, 380 to straightaway center, with a 12-foot-high fence around the outfield. The lighting was adequate, the field was well-manicured and extra fill was hauled in to spruce up the basepaths.
The park's most unusual feature, though, was a hole and trapdoor located behind home plate and just in front of the covered wooden grandstand. The most direct route for players to get to the field from the home team clubhouse was to walk under the grandstand, climb a small wooden ladder and pop out of the hole like a mole. Naturally, that led to all kinds of derisive remarks. And it was imperative that the trapdoor be closed when the ball was in play.
Other factors that influenced the success of Missoula and other Pioneer League clubs in those days were the vagaries of spring weather, schedules that typically called for 130 or so games and rosters restricted to 16 or17 players for most of the season. Makeup games, usually in the form of doubleheaders, could take a toll later, along with injuries. Key players also could be promoted to higher classifications in the minors. All had an impact in the success and ultimate demise of the franchise during its five years in Missoula.
For the record, Missoula's Pioneer League debut in 1956 was anything but auspicious. The Timberjacks opened on the road April 25, losing a 3-2 decision to Magic Valley (Twin Falls, Idaho). It wasn't until May 6 that the team posted its first regular-season victory, 11-4 over Pocatello. That home win before 867 chilled fans came after seven losses and a couple of rainouts. A crowd of 1,956 had watched the Timberjacks get thumped 10-4 by Magic Valley in their home opener on May 1.
The Timberjacks won their last regular-season Pioneer League game at Campbell Park on Aug. 31, 1960, defeating Boise, 3-1, in front of 571 fans. On Monday, Sept. 5, they quietly bowed out on the road, losing both ends of a doubleheader to the Billings Mustangs, 8-7 and 6-5. The final game in franchise history was an exhibition with the Bonner Lumberjacks the next day.
An estimated 140-150 players were on Timberjack teams, some for just a few days or weeks, that compiled a 307-338 record during the five years in Missoula. The only winning season came in 1958 when the club had a 70-59 overall record. The season was split into two halves and the Timberjacks led the entire second half before fading because of injuries. The Timberjacks had a 33-16 record on Aug. 19. After losing second baseman Addie Hintze for the rest of the season earlier in the month with a broken wrist, slugger Chuck Weatherspoon was sidelined for two weeks with a separated shoulder and they won only three more games to finish in third place at 36-30.
Along with player-manager Jack McKeon, current skipper of the Cincinnati Reds who has compiled a long and distinguished career as a field manager and executive in the majors, five players from that 1958 club later made it to the big leagues: pitcher Jim Kaat, a potential Hall of Famer; Cuban outfielder Sandy Valdespino; third baseman Jay Ward; and two other Cubans, pitcher Dagoberto Cueto and infielder Rigoberto "Minnie" Mendoza, who was signed late that season and a
lso played here in 1959. Two Venezuelans on the 1960 team, second baseman Cesar Tovar and shortstop Gus Gil, also played in the majors.
McKeon, who also was the player-manager of the 1956 and '57 clubs, had the dubious distinction of performing one of the all-time pratfalls at Campbell Park. A catcher by trade, he believes he was the only player who actually fell into the hole behind home plate during a game.
"One night somebody left the door open and I was concentrating on a foul pop near the screen," recalled McKeon, now 68. "I caught it and disappeared right down the steps."
But he emerged unscathed. "I was too tough to get hurt," McKeon joked.
Dubbed the "Little Bulldog" in 1956 by local radio play-by-play announcer Bob Bedard, the tenacious and personable McKeon developed his baseball reputation through his astute handling of pitchers and defensive skills, not his bat. He hit a puny .170 in more than 300 at-bats in '56, improved to .217 the next season and hit a career-high .263 in 1958.
Despite Campbell Park's physical warts, McKeon and others said the field's picturesque setting and surrounding scenery formed some their most indelible memories of Missoula.
"The beauty of the place stands out," McKeon said. "Looking out at the views of the mountains from left field (southwestern flank of Mount Sentinel) and center field (toward Pattee Canyon)."
"The backdrop was special," Kaat said. "Although you don't necessarily think of those things at the time … looking out and seeing that mountain on a Sunday afternoon. It was a panoramic picture."
"There were times when the national anthem was playing when you could look out and see deer and other animals on that mountain," Ward recalled.
Although Bennie Sinquefield died in 1990 when he was 56, a younger brother, Larry, spent the summer of 1958 in Missoula with Bennie and his wife, Barbara, and fondly recalls the experience.
"They just loved the area up there," Larry said. "And that mountain by the park - it was just like you could reach out and touch it."
A few former players from the 1958 team are still in touch with western Montana and the Missoula area. Jerry Palma, the shortstop, is married to Mary Lou Keefer, who grew up in Missoula, and they visit from California. Ward, a Florida resident, said his wife's sister lives in Libby and they spend time there in the fall.
Don Orwiler, a left-handed pitcher on that club and native of Washington, has friends in Superior. His wife is from Kamiah, Idaho. Ron Dibelius, a third baseman who also played here in '59, recently retired from Boise State University, where he was an assistant athletic director and tennis coach.
Dallas Womack, a first baseman on the 1956 team, is a longtime Hamilton resident. Gene Carlson, a former University of Montana football coach and Hellgate High administrator, was a Yankees' farmhand and pitched for a while on the '57 club. And Chuck Bennett, a catcher on the 1960 team, was raised in St. Regis and attended the university in Missoula.