Dear Old Nat: When Baseball Was King

By Marla Hyder and Donald Johnson, an abridged excerpt from Dear Old Nat: Spokane’s Playground

Above, the professional Spokane Baseball Club incorporated and joined Seattle, Tacoma, and Portland to form the Pacific Northwest League. Though the “Spokanes” lost their first game in eleven innings to Portland, they went on to win the league pennant. They celebrated by buying flashy new uniforms for the last two weeks of the season. The fashion sensation – wide navy blue and white vertical stripes – likely became the talk of the town. Photo courtesy of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.

An aura surrounds the game of baseball that is shared by no other sport. Perhaps it is baseball’s long history of its legendary status as “America’s Pastime.” Perhaps it’s the crack of the bat splitting the night air, the familiar earthy diamond in a sea of green, or the hum of the ballpark crowd.

Whatever it is, it took Spokane Falls by storm in the late 1800s.

By then, baseball had established itself as a national craze. in the early nineteenth century, the English game of rounders began catching on in North America, where variations with names like town hall, one o’ cat, and base ball developed. In 1845, a group of young men in New York City formed the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club and drew up a set of rules that became the foundation of modern baseball.

The Knickerbocker style of play, which became known as the New York Game, spread rapidly during the Civil War as Union soldiers carried it with them around the country. After the war, its popularity as an amateur sport grew, causing players to demand payment in return for their entertainment value. In 1869, the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first professional baseball team.

Along with other Eastern and Midwestern customs, westward travelers brought baseball to the fledgling town of Spokane Falls. On May 11, 1885, the Spokane Evening Review reported, “No sporting event ever took place in this city that created so much excitement as the game of baseball Saturday afternoon between the Coeur d’Alene and Spokane clubs.” So it was none too soon that the Twickenham Baseball Park opened on July 18, 1889, near the present-day corner of Boone Avenue and “A” Street. Despite a warning from the Spokane Falls Review that “a strong suspicion lurks in the minds of some of the baseball enthusiasts that a surprise is in store for the Spokane team,” the local boys won out over the team from Fort Spokane in their Twickenham debut.

A Nat Park Pennant, courtesy of Chuck King.

In March 1890, the professional Spokane Baseball Club incorporated and joined with teams from Seattle, Tacoma, and Portland to form the Pacific Northwest League. Though the “Spokanes” lost their first game in eleven innings to Portland, they went on to win the league pennant. “Spokane turned out to be extraordinarily good,” says Spokane baseball historian Jim Price. The club’s manager, John S. Barnes from St. Paul, Minnesota, celebrated by buying his team flashy new uniforms for the last two weeks of the season. The fashion sensation – wide navy blue and white vertical stripes – likely became the talk of the town.

Unfortunately, by 1892, attendance fell off, and the league folded. A second attempt at semi-pro baseball kicked off in the spring of 1893, with Spokane’s re-organized team playing in the Eastern Washington League. According to one account, the players were paid streetcar fare to and from the park on game days, and salaries ranged from $35 to $90 a season, and bonuses of up to $119.90, provided that receipts exceed expenses.” This attempt lasted a bit longer than the first, but a Fourth of July fire in 1898 hastened the death of an already doomed franchise. The Spokane Daily Chronicle bemoned the fiery destruction of the baseball park, a casualty of “small boys and fire crackers.”

Boys in knickers. Men in suits. Women in dresses. Hats for everyone. Baseball at Nat Park in the early 1900s was a festive affair for all. Photo courtesy of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.

Baseball grew in popularity over the next two decades, and it even weathered the draft of WWI fairly well while also providing charity fundraising opportunities for the Red Cross.

In 1924, Nat Park offered “Twilight League” affairs. A Spokesman-Review article on August 11, 1924, bore the headline, “Four Twilight Games This Week to Furnish Toothsome Dish for Ball Bugs.” The story began, “Gentleman who prefer the thrill of twilight baseball to warm dinners, or who prepare in advance for a baseball feast by eating their dinners early, are due for a series of treats during the week.”

Arguably the most “toothsome dish” ever served up at the Nat Park field featured as its main course barnstorming major leaguers, Babe Ruth and Bob Meusel, the latter of which had once played for the Spokane Indians. The exhibition game on October 17, 1924, provided almost more excitement than the 1,700 fans could handle.

“High on the banks of the Spokane River, where it curves around Natatorium Park, were scattered soldiers in olive drab. All around the high baseball park fence kids of the ragged variety clung with fingernails and toenails and watched for cops. In the stands, bank presidents, lawyers, hodcarriers and other kids ate peanuts and cheered hoarsely. Babe Ruth and Bob Meusel were in town yesterday, and circus day, Christmas, and Thanksgiving paled into significance,” reported the Spokesman-Review on October 18.

Babe Ruth (left) and Bob Meusel (right), circa 1920s. Public Domain photos.

Worried fans watched five innings go by without a home run. Then Meusel knocked one out in the sixth, and finally, in the eighth.

“After about six balls had been called, swinging with his easy grace, so surprising in a man of his elephantine proportions, [Ruth] knocked a long high one over the centerfield sign.

“The crowd stood and cheered. A fat man spilled his bag of peanuts and waved his hat. A woman who graces social affairs stood and shouted at the top of her voice. A boy in an expensive fur-trimmed overcoat grinned. A kid with a torn sweater and a dust-smudged face danced and grinned. All kids grinned. There was the light of heaven in their faces. They had seen Babe Ruth hit a homer.

“That broke up the game. The crowd surged out as somebody came to bat, and the field was too full of boys, anyhow. The ultimate thrill had been delivered. Babe Ruth had hit a home run.”

Midget racers tear up the baseball field following Louis Vogel’s decision in 1939 to end Natatorium Park’s association with baseball. Photo courtesy of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.

Not only would Christmas and Thanksgiving pale in comparison, but so would every other game at Natatorium Park. The field’s popularity did continue, however, especially with such novelties as an appearance by Joe DiMaggio and round-by-round announcements during baseball games of high profile boxing matches. Other enticements included visits from teams barred by mainstream leagues. The religious “House of David” team played superb ball and presented quite a sight with their long hair and flowing beards. African American teams such as the Kansas City Monarchs and Detroit Tigers also graced Nat’s field, playing exciting games and proving that African-Americans should not be barred from the majors because of their race.

One to five thousand fans showed up for these games, even during the Great Depression. “When the history of this dip, depression or soggy spot of finance is written,” asserted Grantland Rice in the Spokesman-Review in 1933, “one of the most unusual features will be the manner in which sporting crowds continued to gather through the moody stretch.”

Despite the optimism, Louis Vogel decided in 1939 to end Natatorium Park’s long and illustrious association with baseball. The delicate sod was torn out and replaced with a racetrack, midget cars roared where lanky players had run, and the memory of Babe Ruth’s home run faded into legend.

 


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