Editor's note: Charley Pride, the country music superstar who died from COVID-19 complications Saturday, Dec. 12 at age 86, played baseball with the East Helena Smelterites in the early 1960s. Curt Synness of the Helena Independent Record met him as a 10-year-old when Pride was a customer of his father's auto wrecking business. Synness interviewed Pride in 2005 and said he'll never forget Pride's enthusiasm while relaying the memories of his baseball career when he found out he was a sports writer. Synness wrote this piece about Pride in 2019.
HELENA — Before becoming a major country western singing icon, Charley Pride’s first goal was to be a major league baseball star. Among Pride’s stops pursuing his dream was Montana – a long way from his birthplace in Sledge, Mississippi – when he played for the East Helena Smelterites’ semi-pro baseball team.
During his five years in the Capital City area, Charley became a well-liked member of the community, and there are literally hundreds of “Charley Pride stories” from folks who were around back then.
Including a few from yours truly.
“When I was a kid, the guy who hired my dad heard me singing in the cotton fields and gave me the nickname ‘Oh, Mockingbird,’” Charley related in our 2005 conversation at the Wingate Hotel, just a ½ block from my Dad’s garage on Poplar Street. “He would always tell me, ‘You were put on this planet to sing.’”
Born in 1934, Pride recalled that he bought his first guitar at the age of 14. But when he learned that I was also a sports writer, he wanted to talk more about his baseball. And his power of recall for detail, and overall memory, was amazing.
He spent most of the 1950s playing ball — interrupted by a hitch in the U.S. Army — for minor league teams like the Memphis Red Sox, Boise Braves and El Paso Diablos. He also played for the Negro League’s Louisville Clippers and Birmingham Black Barons.
“My intention was to be the greatest baseball player that ever lived,” said Pride, telling me that he possessed a 90-mph fastball on the mound, and was once clocked rounding the bases in 14-seconds. “Anytime somebody said that I should be a singer, I’d always tell them, ‘Well, that’ll come later – first I need to get to the big leagues and break some records.’”
In 1960, Pride and his wife Rozene mortgaged their furniture to pay for the drive with their infant son, from Memphis to Montana, and a stint with the Missoula Timberjacks of the Pioneer League.
“After three games with the Timberjacks I was released, but manager Nick Mariana told me about a couple semi-pro teams in Helena and gave me two names to contact — Bud Sautter and Kes Rigler,” Pride said.
Rigler gained national fame in the 1930s, appearing in “Ripley’s Believe it or Not,” as a one-armed minor league baseball player. Sautter also played in the minors, with the Great Falls Electrics in the early 1950s.
“When I got off the bus here, I called Bud Sautter, who was managing the Helena (Cardinals) team,” Pride said. “We spoke in his (M.L. Brown) sporting goods store and Bud said that he didn’t really have a job for me, but that maybe something could be worked out, and he put me up in a room at the YMCA.”
He added that he “clearly remembered” Sautter telling him not to get ahold of Kes Rigler, the East Helena Smelterites’ manager, until he figured something out.
But the next morning, there was a knock on the door, and there stood Rigler.
“When Kes said he had a job for me at the Smelter, that decided right there who I’d play for,” Pride recounted.
The Smelterites were comprised of several guys who worked at Asarco, and Pride said their work hours were designed not to interfere with the team’s schedule.
Known as the Copper League until Butte’s three teams dropped out the year before, the 1960 Montana State League was comprised of four teams; the Smelterites, Cardinals, and Anaconda’s Copper Kings and Anodes.
A couple of the earliest mentions of “Charlie” Pride in the Independent Record, appeared in late June. First, when he pitched a 5-hit win over the Anodes, 5-4, with seven strikeouts; and then playing third base, in 2 for 4 effort at the plate, with a double, in a win over the Copper Kings.
In the July 31 IR, the headline read “Singin’ Charlie Pride to Appear at Game in East Helena Monday.”
“Fans attending Monday’s game between the Helena Cardinals and East Helena Smelterites at Smelterite Park will have a special treat in store for them,” the paper reported. “In answer to a host of requests, Charlie Pride, East Helena second sacker, will give his vocal rendition of several current hit tunes accompanying himself on guitar, Kes Rigler, general manager, announced today.
“Pride performed this past week at one of the games, and many of the fans have asked to have him back. He will begin at about 7:45 p.m.”
Among his better games that season was a 4 for 4 performance (double, home run, 3 runs, 6 RBIs, stolen base) in an 18-10 win over the Anodes; 3 for 4 (RBI) in a 9-0 win over Helena; and a single and a homer in a 3-2 win over the Cardinals.
When the Smelterites swept Helena in four straight contests during the State League playoffs – to end the season on a 21-game winning streak – Pride stole three bases in the finals’ 11-2 victory.
Charley won the League’s batting crown with a lofty .424 average, while leading the state with 42 hits (in 26 games) and nine doubles, and was No. 2 with 29 RBIs.
In 1962, East Helena won another state crown by defeating Butte’s South Side 3-1 in a best-of-five series. Pride finished second in the batting race with a .372 average, led the league with 20 runs scored and tied for the most stolen bases, with seven.
“Charley was a great curveball hitter,” remembered former Smelterite teammate Terry Screnar. “If he got a curve in his wheelhouse, he could hit it a mile.”
Pride played with the Smelterites through 1964, before moving to Great Falls. During his off-time, he entertained at East Helena’s Hughy’s — later called the Korner Bar — the U&I Club, Helena’s Main Tavern and the White Mill Bar.
His first live stage performance came in 1964 at the Helena Civic Center, when he sang “Heartaches by the Number” and “Lovesick Blues.” He also made his return to Helena in 2005 at the Civic Center.
Pride’s last two gasps at professional baseball came in about 1965. First he petitioned California Angels’ owner Gene Autry for a tryout. “I said hey, we’re both country western singers…” he told me in 2005, to no avail.
Then, after an unsuccessful tryout with the New York Mets, Pride stopped by Nashville on his way back to Montana, and that’s where he met Jack Johnson, who introduced him to Jack Clement. Clement recorded Pride singing “The Snakes Crawl at Night,” which led to a contract for RCA Records label with Chet Atkins.
And the rest is history, as Charley Pride went on the achieve 33 No. 1 hit singles, and was the first African American inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, in 2000.