By Sarah Gambell
At the time of original publication in 2012, Sarah was a Whitworth University Junior, double majoring in French and Cross Cultural Studies, minoring in Public History.
Above, The Whitworth baseball team sits in the Pirate dugout, eager to get out on the field and show their skills. Photo courtesy of the Whitworth University Archives.
Willie Stargell of the Pittsburg Pirates once said, “When you start the game, they don’t say ‘Work ball!’ They say ‘Play ball!’” And for the 1960 Whitworth College baseball team, play ball they did! The baseball team won against all odds in the NAIA conference in Sioux City, Iowa after a stunning season at home to become the first four year college in Spokane to compete in the tournament and win the title.
Baseball had always been very popular at Whitworth College and many students actively participated, if not competitively, in the intramural tournaments that were organized each semester. In 1960, the achievements of the baseball team reached its highest point in forty years; its last major achievement having been its win at the Spokane Intercollegiate Conference Championship in 1922. The team of 1960 would go on to play one of the best scoring seasons in Whitworth’s history and would also bring much recognition to the school’s athletic talent. Pitcher Walter “Spike” Grosvenor remembered, “We were supposed to go to the World Series the year before (1959) after we beat Western Washington, but the school didn’t have enough money to send us.” This made the team “hungrier” to win, and they “would not put up” with losing the following year.
The Whitworth Pirate’s season started pretty slowly; they knocked out the Seattle Pacific Falcons 10 to 5 in a 6-inning game, but continued by losing their next five games—two with the University of Washington, by scores of 15-1 and 14-12. As the Pirates started their league play they really showed their stuff and pushed the early setbacks out of their minds. The Pirates began the league with a sweeping double header of the Central Wildcats, winning 5-0 and 7-2. The star pitcher Ray Washburn, later inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979, had a brilliant 5-hit shutout and struck out eight in the first game. In the second game, Tom Ingram struck out 11 with ease, and walked none. It would prove to be a spectacular season for Whitworth pitchers, regularly overpowering batters with inescapable strikes.
The Pirates played magnificently in their next two games, with Washburn and Ingram both pitching shutouts. The first game Washburn pitched a four-hitter and hit a three-run homer, and in the second game Ingram pitched his second shutout in a row.
In their next four games, all against Gonzaga, it seemed perhaps the Pirate’s luck had faded when they lost their first game, but they quickly recovered, winning their next three, making the winning runs early in the games. By this time Ingram’s consecutive string of scoreless innings was up to 21. It seemed like he was unstoppable.
Whitworth won the eastern division title for the second straight year when they earned a split with the Central Wildcats in their last league games. Washburn, who would later play in the major leagues, lost his only league game, in late innings, when the Whitworth defense couldn’t quite hold on to their 4-3 lead in the very last minutes of the game. He was later redeemed in the last pre-tournament game, which they won 19-16, in spite of bad weather that caused a delay and a muddy field. Ray Washburn, the right-handed pitcher from Burbank, Washington would later go on to pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1961 to 1969, after his graduation in 1961.
The baseball team was a mash up of football and basketball players that happened to end up together, according to Grosvenor. “The team was very diverse, but the team got along amazingly well.” There were the conservative and the religious folks, but there were some that were the “trouble makers.” Admitting to being a rebel, famous for having to run laps around the dirt road that went around the field at the time, and missing all extra batting and infield practice, Grosvenor showed the “goofy” side of the team. But everybody liked each other and supported each other just the same.
The Pirates qualified for the NAIA, or the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletes, tournament once again, and this time they were determined to make the trip, funds or no funds. Four players gratefully gave up their cars to drive the team all the way to Sioux City, Iowa. Once they arrived, the team—very tired after the long journey—quickly had to make it to a banquet held to introduce all of the teams. The banquet master of ceremonies forgot to introduce the Whitworth squad, and he was quickly put in the right and apologized fervently. Without a single smile, upset at being overlooked so soon, the team listened as the announcer joked that the team would have to go on to win the tournament now. How right he would be!
The Pirates went 20-8, sweeping Pacific Lutheran in the NAIA District playoffs. And during the double-elimination, Whitworth defeated host-school Morningside College (10-4), Georgia Southern College (1-0) and Southern University (7-0) to reach the championship round. The sentiment of the team was that they simply didn’t want to lose, and “nobody was nervous about losing, we just knew that we were going to win.”
If the Pirates could win the Championship, it would be the first time any four-year school in Spokane won a national title. The Pirates played strong against the best teams of the tournament, winning the first two games against the western division title winners. In the first game Washburn blasted them with his fast balls, gaining a one-hitter, striking out nine, and walking only one. The second game, the Pirates had scored the winning runs in the first inning and Ingram had a one run, five-hit game, almost another shutout.
Spike Grosvenor remembered that the players, happy after each victory, with backslapping and words of praise, still adopted the ideas of Vince Lombardi, the coach of the Green Bay Packers. Lombardi hated the idea that a team would celebrate after each win. Rather, the players should “act like you’ve been here before.” Concerned for the first couple of games, simply because they were unsure as to how they would match up, there was still no nervousness from the dedicated players. “I was probably the most nervous!” Grosvenor remembered, with a chuckle.
And then it was down to the last game. The only thing standing in the way of the title was the Georgia Southern Eagles. The team from Statesboro Georgia, with a record of 21-10, would be a difficult challenge to overcome, but the Pirates were certainly up to the task!
The game started with a gloomy threat of rain on June 11, 1960, but Washburn wowed the team with three innings of hitless ball. Then the skies quickly turned sour and the game was delayed for a half an hour, forcing the teams to return to play on a muddy field. Coach Merkle kept the star pitcher in the line-up in right field, according to the local newspaper on June 12, 1960, subbing in sophomore Tom Ingram to avoid injury to Washburn. “When the game was stopped, Ray’s arm got cold, and I didn’t want to risk him hurting it,” explained Merkle. Ingram was in a bit of a pickle in the fourth inning when he gave up a single and a walk, giving the Eagles some confidence. But after a Whitworth double play, the Pirates had nothing to worry about.
In the fifth inning, Georgia Southern loaded the bases, but once again Ingram expertly struck out the next two batters and earned the third out on a pop-fly to the infield. The only other threat to the Pirates came in the sixth inning when a runner reached third base, but Ingram stopped that with a pop-fly to Norm Harding at shortstop. The Pirates had scored all of the runs they would need by the second inning, but Catcher Dennis Rieger scored again in the eighth, just for good measure. The Pirates’ pitchers tossed another shut-out for a 4-0 win for the Championship and NAIA title! Only three shutouts were recorded in the tournament that year, and the Pirates earned all of them, an honor well-deserved.
Washburn was then selected as the outstanding player in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the choice made by major league scouts, sports writers and sportscasters, as well as the tournament committee. Outfielder Farrel Romig and Catcher Dennis Reiger won honorable mentions on the all-tournament team as well.
They also had one of the best coaches in Whitworth history to thank for their success. Coach Paul J. Merkle, who was later inducted into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame, led his team to triumph. “This championship was the highlight of Merkle’s career,” writes Dale Soden, professor of History at Whitworth University. “[He] was inducted into three separate sports halls of fame, and had a positive influence on student athletes for more than thirty years.”
As the Pirates returned to campus Monday, June 13, arms heavy with trophies and plaques, the tired champions met their loved ones after eight grueling days of competition in Iowa. On their way to the national title, the Pirates had also won the Evergreen Conference Playoffs in Seattle, and they also placed five men on the All-Conference Team. “Pitchers Ray Washburn (5-3), Tom Ingram (6-2) were named to the squad along with shortstop Norm Harding, Left Fielder Farrel Romig and Catcher Jim Glennon.”
The team had a happy homecoming and they were welcomed as hometown heroes. “A police escort met the team on its return to Spokane for a celebration parade downtown among throngs of students and loyal supporters,” writes Soden. Despite a rocky start to the season, the Pirates finished with a 16-7 record, and the Evergreen Conference and NAIA district titles under their belts. They had a lot to be proud of, and everybody was proud of them.