BASEBALL IN POCATELLO - REQUIRED READING
[December 26th] -- For the past two years, I have been writing all about baseball in your town, Washington D.C. As most of you know, I spent most of my life inside the beltway before moving to the Intermountain West. So I was thinking that it's only fair that, at least for today, I tell you a little bit about baseball in my town, Pocatello Idaho.
Baseball in Pocatello began in earnest in 1939 with the advent of the old full-season Pioneer League [though there was a team in the late 1920's that was part of the old Idaho-Utah League, they didn't play a regular schedule and played at Alameda Park - it wasn't a stadium, it was a park]. The team was an affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals and played at the old Halliwell Field on the edge of town. Halliwell was fairly large for a 'Class "C"' league, featuring wooden bleachers that wrapped around the diamond into shallow left and right field. The dugouts were cinderblock boxes with no access to the clubhouse. When a player "had to go," he had to make his way to the side of the bleachers and open a barn-like door. The outfield fence featured ads that hawked the likes of Idaho Bank & Trust, The Paris clothing store and Union Pacific Railroad, by far the largest employer in town (Pocatello began as a railroad town in the late 19th century). Pocatello was at the time the largest city in Idaho though today Boise and its surrounding suburbs are ten times larger.
Tony Robello was the first manager for the Cardinals. Robello, a light-hitting second baseman in the Reds' organization, batted .219 in 32 at-bats in 1933-34. Nick Cullop took over in 1942. Cullop, winner of 57 games from 1913-21, played both in the American League as well as the failed Federal League. Over the years, Bill Brenzel, Jim Tyeck, Rollie LeBlanc, Walter Lowe, Larry Bruton and Robert Comisky managed the team.
From 1952 through 1963, Pocatello had a succession of affiliations and team names. The Bannocks (for Bannock County), begat the Athletics who begat the Giants who begat the A's and finally the Chiefs (Pocatello is named after Chief Pocatello of the Sho-Ban Tribe). One manager, Frank Lucchesi, went on to national prominance. Lucchesi managed the Phillies from 1970-1977.
The Pioneer League was reborn as a short-season rookie league in 1964. A year later, a failed Dodgers' pitcher, Tommy Lasorda, managed the Chiefs to a 33-33 record. Low attendance - a byproduct of television finally blanketing the region - caused Pocatello to lose it's franchise in 1965. In 1966, Pocatello had the Dick Van Dyke Show, Perry Mason and Batman, but they did't have professional baseball at Halliwell Field.
The old park was torn down in 1964 and replaced with a Buttrey's grocery store. A new Halliwell Park, not as large but far more modern, was built just a few miles away. In this case, when they "built it," the team obsconded with both the uniforms and the equipment.
It took nearly twenty years for baseball to return to Pocatello when the Lethbridge club was moved in time for the 1984 season. They were known as the Gems (as in Idaho, "The Gem State"). They were terrible, limping home with a 23-47 record. The next season brought an affiliation with the Athletics, and hope for some stability was restored to the team's fans. Under manager Dave Hudgens, however, the team won just one more game, and poor attendance forced the team to suspend operations. The lone bright spot was Walt Weiss, who went on to have an all-star career with the Athletics, Rockies and Braves.
In 1990, an independent team was brought to Pocatello, though most in the city didn't think it was a wise idea. Independent teams, at least at the rookie level, can be pretty bad, and "pretty bad" usually equates to "pretty bad attendance." The Gate City Pioneers (Pocatello is known as the "Gate City to the West") were terrible, and the owners gave the team one more chance to succeed. They changed the name to the "Pocatello Pioneers," and hired Rich Morales as their new manager. Their record was a dismal 21-46, but more importantly, drew only 25,000 fans to Halliwell Park, an average of only 714 per game. The Pioneers didn't come back in 1992, and no one believed that Pocatello would ever see another professional team at Halliwell.
Almost no one.
One of the most successful independent teams in recent history was the Salt Lake Trappers, who won 29 straight games in 1987, the all-time record for professional baseball. They played in Derks Field - built just after World War II - and regularly filled it's 10,000 seats during that season. By 1990, however, part of the Derks Field grandstand was condemned and eventually, the stadium became an impossible place to play baseball. When it was announced that the facility was to be demolished and a new park built for the incoming 'AAA' Portland Beavers, The Trappers had to find a new home quickly.
The Pocatello Posse played their first game in 1993. I was luckily enough to be their "official" photographer. That first game drew 5,000 fans to Halliwell Field, which seated less than 2,500. When the grandstand was full, the general manager filled the outfield with the overflow. It looked like one of those World Series' games from the turn of the century. Several times, outfielders had to run into the crowd to retrieve a ball in play. The Posse finished the season 37-38, and drew 46,000 fans to the stadium - an average of 1,216 fans per game - 3rd best in the league. The late Cory Lidle was the team's best pitcher. All of Pocatello assumed that was good enough to keep the team, but they left for Ogden Utah at the end of the season.
We've been without baseball ever since.
There's been a few players in Pocatello's modern history who made it to the major leagues. John Boccabella, Jim Strikland, Bill Sudakis, Walt Weiss and Cory Lide are the most well known. Over all, however, few players "make it" from the rookie-league level.
It's been a long time to go without baseball. Oh sure, we've got a team about 45 minutes away in Idaho Falls, but they're our arch-rival city. It would be like Washingtonians rooting for the ..... well .... you get the idea.
Baseball in Pocatello. It certainly doesn't have the history of baseball in Washington, but it's our history, and we're proud of it.
Nationals coverage returns tomorrow.
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