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Pioneering history: Minor league parks provide windows to Montana's past

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Pioneering history: Minor league parks provide windows to Montana's past

HELENA — There was baseball to be watched, but that didn’t stop the moon from vying for attention last week over Montana’s four Pioneer League baseball parks.

As a smoky-red sun went down, Mr. Moon waxed toward full in Helena and in Missoula. It got there for games in Billings and Great Falls on the final weekend of August.

Come next year, there’ll be just three stadiums in the state from which to watch both professional baseball and the late summer sky show. The ownership group of the Helena Brewers is moving its Rookie League affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers to Colorado Springs.

Montana Ballparks Helena

The sun sets over Helena and Kindrick Legion Field during a late August game matching the Brewers, who are moving to Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 2019, and the Orem Owlz. Smoke socked the valley in but the silhouettes of Mt. Ascension, left, and Mt. Helena, center, are still visible on the skyline.

Left behind will be a knot of especially loyal Capital City followers, an active if disappointed booster club, a healthy dose of families enjoying nights out at the ballpark, and Wally the Woolly Mammoth, the Brewers' mascot since 2015.

The Brewers’ last scheduled game at Kindrick Legion Field is Monday, Labor Day night, when they host the Missoula Osprey. They’ll be missed in the Treasure State, but as sure as the moon returns, baseball will continue here.

There’s talk of a summer college league team starting up in 2019, and the field remains the venue for Helena American Legion ball, as it’s been since Post No. 2 financed nearly half the cost of construction in 1932. Its contribution? $650.

“Which during the Great Depression was a sizable sum,” Helena sports historian Curt Synness pointed out in a 2015 article.

Kindrick Legion has been home to pro baseball since 1978, with a two-year hiatus in 2001 and 2002. It’s the oldest and ricketiest ballpark in the Pioneer League, and it draws the smallest crowds. But it has represented the shortest road trip for each of the other Montana teams. And as Helenans watched, it was the first step to the baseball Hall of Fame for Ryne Sandberg, and to major league stardom for the likes of George Bell, Gary Sheffield, Ryan Braun and Lorenzo Cain.

Montana Ballparks Helena

The orange stadium seats at Kindrick Legion Field in Helena originally came from the Oakland Coliseum. Some still bear the logo of the Oakland Athletics on the back. They were installed among other improvements when the Pioneer League Brewers came back to town in 2003 after a two-year hiatus.

As with the other three ballparks, the view from Kindrick is also a gold mine for romanticists. It takes only a bit of imagination on game nights to watch history play out just outside the fences before the sun goes down.

Some examples: 

Helena, Kindrick Legion Field

From the grandstands you’re looking up the mouth of Last Chance Gulch. At the top, across the street from the Lewis and Clark Library, the so-called Four Georgians struck gold in July 1864. The resulting rush established seven-week-old Montana Territory as a candidate for statehood, though it wasn’t achieved for another quarter-century.

Where there’s a gulch of gold, there’s a creek, or used to be. Dr. Richard Buswell got to wondering what happened to it.

“I’ve been chasing Last Chance Creek for quite a while,” the retired Helena allergist said.

He's found that all but a short section of the famous stream is beneath parks, streets, sidewalks and subdivisions as it flows past the ballpark to Tenmile Creek, three miles to the north.

“If you find the right manhole covers, you can hear it and see it with a flashlight,” Buswell said. “The creek is very much alive and running.”

Montana Ballparks Helena

Jane Shaff holds up her Helena Brewers seat pad following an extra-innings game against the Orem Owlz in Helena recently. Shaff, a season ticket holder at Kindrick Legion Field since 1994, got the pad in one of her first seasons watching the team.

Barely visible beyond the third-base dugout and Brewers' bullpen, the state Capitol a mile to the southeast seems closer when darkness falls and its face and dome take on a luminous glow. 

It’s much the opposite for the Cathedral of St. Helena. Completed in 1914, the cathedral’s 230-foot twin spires rule the view over the left field fence until night falls. On these late summer evenings, that happens in the middle innings rather than late, when the silhouette of Mount Helena fades into black over right field.

It was well past baseball season on an October afternoon in 1875 when a picnic party started climbing the landmark mile-high hill. 

“After dark the summit of the mountain was illuminated by numerous fires, and a fine spectacle of fireworks, followed by the party descending carrying torches, presented a very pretty appearance," the Independent-Record noted. "The sight was generally observed and greatly admired.”

Centene Stadium, Great Falls 

Lewis and Clark referred to Black Eagle Falls simply as “upper falls.” But Meriwether Lewis’ description on June 14, 1805, of a bald eagle’s nest on an island below the cascade led to its familiar name.

He even inadvertently dropped in a baseball term when, from his vantage point on the north bank of the Missouri River, he wrote, “a beautifull level plain on the S. side only a few feet above the level of the pitch.” Pitches began flying on that plain in the 1800s, first at Black Eagle Park, then in Legion Park, which since 2007 has been known as Centene Stadium.

Montana Ballparks Great Falls

The Missouri River flows unseen below Black Eagle Dam beyond the left field fence of Legion Park in this photo of a Great Falls Dodgers game, circa 1992. Giant Springs, one of the world's largest natural springs, and the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center are just downstream. The ballpark, a WPA project in 1940, was renamed Centene Stadium in 2005 for the health insurance corporation that helped fund a $2.2 million renovation.

It was built in 1940 as a Works Progress Administration and community project. According to the Voyagers’ website, the park has stood the test of time as “a quintessential example of a minor league ‘Jewel Box’ ballpark — the same style as such famous parks as Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field, and Fenway Park … .”

Among the future stars who honed their skills here were Hall of Famers Pedro Martinez and Bobby Cox as well as John Roseboro, Larry Sherry, Jack Clark, Bob Brenley, Eric Karros, Raul Mondesi, Shane Victorino and James Loney.

In 1950, a pair of flying saucers flew past Legion Park.

Yeah, right.

Except Nick Mariana saw them from the grandstands of the ballpark. It was the late morning of Aug. 15, 1950, and Mariana, general manager and president of the Great Falls Electrics, was making his routine check of the wind for that afternoon’s game. His gauge was the smoke coming from the landmark Anaconda Copper Co. smelter stack across the river.

Mariana ran to his car in the parking lot, grabbed his 16 mm camera from the glove box and turned it on. What he filmed excited the Great Falls civic clubs Mariana showed it to and confounded the U.S. Air Force.

The UFOs flew slowly, in uniform precision, from the northwest, over the smokestack and past the General Mills grain elevator to the south and east. The video is all over YouTube.

“That’s what started the national UFO thing. I think it was the first movie camera (recording) of those objects, rather than just a still picture,” said Jim Eakland, club historian for the Great Falls Voyagers.

Mariana, a 1937 graduate of the University of Montana club, pitched and played for the UM club. He returned to Missoula to run the Missoula Timberjacks during their Class C Pioneer League years (1956-1960). 

Dehler Park, Billings 

Flights of fancy are easy to come by here at the corner of 27th Street and Ninth Avenue, where baseball has been played since 1920.

Mere blocks to the south loom the “skyscrapers” of Montana’s largest city. Billings’ iconic Rimrocks shoulder up to the northern horizon.

Atop the Rims, airplanes can be seen and heard taking off and landing at Billings Logan International Airport. It brings to mind a monoplane of yesteryear. The Spirit of St. Louis predated the airport but probably spurred its construction in 1927.

Charles Lindbergh circled the city that Sept. 7 and buzzed a primitive landing field on the Rims that was lined by automobiles. Lucky Lindy was on a cross-country goodwill tour promoting air travel, months after his transatlantic solo flight that catapulted him to international fame.

In July the city of Billings had approved a plan to build a 1,820-foot runway atop the Rims. It was constructed with horse-drawn equipment and opened the following May.

As he swooped around the Magic City, Lindbergh was above familiar turf. He’d dropped out of the University of Wisconsin in 1922 to go barnstorming, and spent four months in Billings after H.A. Rogers’ traveling troupe went bust. Lindbergh didn’t fly airplanes there but jumped out of them. His “thrilling parachute jumps from a flying plane at 90 miles an hour” were sponsored by Westover’s garage on First Avenue North, where he worked for a brief time as night attendant.

Montana Ballparks Billings

Mustangs pitcher Dane Mason blows a kiss to heaven before a 2006 game at Cobb Field in Billings. Before Cobb Field was replaced by Dehler Park in 2008, it was minor league home to the likes of George Brett, Gary Redus, Gorman Thomas and Billings Legion standout Dave McNally.

In a review of Lindbergh’s local connections for the Billings Gazette in 2007, Charles T. Thornsvard wrote: “At the conclusion of the barnstorming season of 1922, Lindbergh paid $2 for a small rowboat, intending to float down the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers to Lincoln, Neb. He lasted only two days. The boat sprang many leaks, requiring constant bailing. Lindbergh exchanged the boat for a wagon ride to Huntley, where he caught a train.”

The spirit of St. Louis was alive again in Billings in 1961. The Mustangs, nowadays affiliates of the Cincinnati Reds, were a Pioneer League farm club for the Cardinals then. It was a one-of-a-kind moment on Aug. 11 when the parent club stopped off on a trip to the West Coast for an exhibition game.

Some 4,800 fans filled what was then Cobb Field. Darrell Ehrlich, editor of his hometown Billings Gazette and a Magic City baseball fan since boyhood, estimates the line drive home run Stan Musial hit that day in Cobb would have bounced in right field in Dehler Park. It replaced Cobb in 2008 with a different footprint that moved home plate closer to 27th Street.

For 98 years the square block that occupies has been a downtown baseball venue. It’s still in the well-treed hospital district and MSU-Billings neighborhood. Here the likes of Hall of Famer George Brett, Paul O’Neill, Aaron Boone, Joey Votto and Trevor Hoffman played minor league ball and future big league pitchers Dave McNally and Jeff Ballard started at the American Legion level.

Dehler Park was voted the top rookie-level baseball park in America in 2015, based on a Best of the Ballparks contest conducted by Ballpark Digest magazine.

“I think people when they’ve played here remember the ballpark,” Ehrlich said. “The sun setting over the Rims … it’s just as pretty a ballpark as you can get.”

Ogren Park at Allegiant Field, Missoula 

A river, two railroads and an old lumber mill site. Mountains leading to wilderness, the maw of Hellgate Canyon. The "L" hill (Mount Jumbo) and "M" mountain (Mount Sentinel). A 140-year-old hospital across the river and a 125-year old university off in the distance under the "M."

Much of what made Missoula Missoula is in the air when you take a seat in Ogren Park, which opened in 2004 and has been the rookie league home to the likes of major league all-stars Paul Goldschmidt and Jake Lamb.

There’s no wrecked steam locomotive in centerfield, though there would be if it were January 9, 1911.

In their book “The Northern Pacific’s Rails to Gold and Silver,” Bill and Jan Taylor include a photo of locomotive No. 380 on its side in the yard of the new Polleys Lumber Co. mill. It was taken by R.H. McKay, who captioned it: “The Bitter Root Special Takes a Header.”

Passengers and crew escaped injury when engineer Jim Holder, working his water gauge as the southbound train built up steam, didn’t see the open switch into the mill. Down the steep siding it went, crashing through a steel bumper and burying its nose deep in the mill pond. 

Montana Ballparks Missoula

Framed by Missoula's Clark Fork River, McCormick Park, the remnants of a retired lumber mill and the setting sun over the Bitterroots, Ogren Park at Allegiant Field was called Play Ball Park when it opened in 2004. 

We’ll never know if the only man you ever knew named Meriwether saw an osprey on his ride through Missoula.

Up West Broadway they came on the afternoon of July 4, 1806, past Fresh Market, Taco John’s and St. Patrick Hospital, Capt. Lewis and nine other mounted men with names like Reuben, Silas and George and one hardy Newfoundland, Seaman.

Lewis and Clark knew osprey.

“The fishing hawk with the crown of the head White and back of a mealy white … (is) found on every part of the Columbia and its waters and are the same with those of the U. States,” Lewis wrote on the Pacific Coast that March.

The expedition recorded sightings on the Missouri River south of Fraser and on the Beaverhead south of Dillon going west, and below Twin Bridges coming back.

These days, the fishing hawk nest on a platform in center field at Ogren Park has become a unique attraction at ballgames. Unlike celebrity osprey pairs in the area, these have not been named, but they’re “quite an old pair, an old married couple,” University of Montana raptor expert Erick Greene said.

“They get back the earliest of just about any osprey in the valley, and there’s not a lot of drama,” he said. “They just get down to business.”

This season that meant arriving within hours of each other on March 28, weeks or more before Osprey baseball players knew they were going to be playing baseball for the Osprey. Greene said three chicks hatched in May, but just one survived. Fans watched for the first month of the season as one or the other of its attentive parents took to the evening sky, often returning triumphantly with fish clutched in talons. It’s a sideshow like no other ballpark offers.

Little O took wing at 8:30 p. m. on July 25, an off day for the Osprey after a seven-game home stand. The Birds went on the road, and fans missed the bird's experiments with flight until the team returned home Aug. 1.  

The nest hasn’t been so busy this month, though Greene suspects all the osprey are still around. Soon they’ll be flying far south, but if history holds true, they’ll be back next spring.

The sun sets by the middle innings these nights, over the Bitterroots in Missoula, the Rocky Mountain Front in Great Falls and the Rims in Billings.

Helena’s final scheduled game at Kindrick Legion Field is Monday against Missoula. It has a 4 p.m. start, so when the sun goes down over the Continental Divide four hours later, Brewers baseball will be history.

But then it always has been.

Montana Ballparks Helena

A park employee leaves the third base picnic area on her way back to the kitchen. Kindrick Legion Field was built in 1932. When the Brewers moved back to the stadium in 2004, the city of Helena made improvements to the park such as adding party decks along each base line.

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