“ROOM FOR ONE MORE? – As they say in baseball, “you can never have enough pitching.” But even if the Medicine Hat A’s wanted to, they couldn’t sign Ted Grimm. The lean righthander already has a pair of full-time jobs, one of which includes running things from city hall. Mayor Grimm fires the ceremonial first pitch to A’s catcher Bart Lally prior to Medicine Hat’s Pioneer League debut Saturday night, while the A’s brain trust looks on with interest. Even without the mayor’s services, the A’s defeated Billings Mustangs 3-1.” That’s the direct caption below the Medicine Hat News’ front page photo on June 27, 1977. (Photographer: Frank Webber) Courtesy: Medicine Hat News
By JOE McFARLAND
When you talk baseball in Medicine Hat, memories of having the Toronto Blue Jays Pioneer League affiliate come to mind. Images of Lloyd Moseby sprinting through the outfield, Jimmy Key delivering to home plate or Pat Borders signaling back to the mound bring a slight curl to the lips of locals of a certain age. The good ol’ days circle back.
Yet, the Blue Jays weren’t the first big league ball club to start sending youngsters to The Gas City.
In the mid-1970s, the Pioneer Baseball League, a rookie league dating back to 1939, was ready for expansion. Four teams were already in the fold – including Billings, Idaho Falls, Great Falls and Lethbridge – and a delegation led by Larry Plante and Bill Yuill was lobbying hard to have a team come to Medicine Hat.
The city had even built Athletic Park, a new 2,000-seat ballpark, in the hopes of impressing team officials looking for a place to put a minor league squad. In a September 1975 interview with the Medicine Hat News, Plante said a meeting in Great Falls went well and he was hopeful that a team would be in place for the 1976-1977 season. He said the Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers had all expressed interest.
Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Not yet. The expansion into southeastern Alberta fell through for a variety of reasons, including league concerns that an odd number of teams would complicate scheduling. So Medicine Hat would have to wait another year, and hope that another community would soon be seeking a Pioneer League franchise as well.
By May 1976, things were looking up for what had been described by News writer Scott Clark as “the on-again, off-again Medicine Hat baseball franchise.”
In September, league president Ralph Nelles declared a franchise in Medicine Hat was contingent on a team heading to Calgary. One potential parent club showing interest in both markets was the St. Louis Cardinals, who toured the parks in both cities in hopes of finding a new headquarters for their team in Sarasota, Florida.
Cardinals director of minor league operations Jim Bayens said he was impressed with Athletic Park, but had concerns about the scoreboard behind the centrefield fence, believing it would interfere with the hitters’ vision.
As teams continued to kick tires on Athletic Park, the city waited for the right fit.
On a chilly December day in Medicine Hat, that fit would be announced at a press conference – and the parent club came out of left field. It wasn’t the St. Louis Cardinals. They opted to move their team from Sarasota to Calgary. Nor was it the Cubs or Dodgers.
The Oakland Athletics, who had been quietly going about their business and scoping out the facilities in Medicine Hat, made it official and would begin sending their up-and-comers to town.
Athletic Park – which interestingly was given its name before it had any affiliation with the A’s – was a beehive of activity for the first six months of 1977, as it needed to be game-ready by the end of June. Plante and Yuill told John Short of the Canadian Press that more than $800,000 was spent on renovating the ballpark to make it league ready.
But on the day before the first game, concerns lingered – chief among them was no grass in the infield.
“There were still problems at Athletic Park during the A’s second evening practice last night at the new stadium,” wrote Tom Keyser in the Medicine Hat News. “After city crews worked yesterday to remove excess sand in an infield termed ‘too mushy’ by A’s manager Juan Gomez, the playing surface was still too damp last night.”
Gomez said the players liked the park, but it presented challenges.
“The kids are happy with it too but it may be tough on the players, working on an infield with no grass,” Gomez told Keyser. “Fans may have to get used to seeing some bad hops from the dirt infield.”
City officials said at that time that a grass infield would be installed at some point, but did not give a specific date.
No matter the sport, when you have an expansion team making its debut, the expectations are set fairly low. New players in a new environment usually result in some growing pains. Yet, the Medicine Hat A’s didn’t show it in their opening weekend.
Forty years ago this weekend (June 25, 1977), the club made an impressive debut in front of the baseball fans of Medicine Hat. Mayor Ted Grimm threw out the ceremonial first pitch in front of 1,800 excited fans, and then it was on to the A’s against the Billings Mustangs.
A combination of the A’s pitching and the Mustangs defense allowed Medicine Hat to walk away with a 3-1 win in the Saturday season-opener. Donald Schubert, Michael Yesenchak and Richard Cooper combined for a three-hitter in the contest, while the Mustangs committed a total of eight errors (dubbed “erroritis” by Keyser), including three by third baseman Bob Morrison.
Catcher Bart Lally drove in the first-ever run for the A’s, scoring Bruce Fournier in the fourth inning to tie the game 1-1. The A’s would get their final two runs in the eighth inning, while Cooper shut the door the rest of the way.
In the Sunday matchup, Fournier again played a major role, scoring twice including the winning run in the 6th inning in a 4-3 A’s victory. Fournier scored that run after he tripled to the opposite field.
After the weekend – and despite the team’s successful home opening – Keyser noted one other issue with the new ballpark.
“One more flaw in Athletic Park,” he wrote. “Nary a drinking fountain in the place. You notice it after your third Coke, when the sweetness palls and real thirst sets in. Even the washroom faucets run hot only.”
Unfortunately, the opening excitement didn’t paint the whole picture of what the 1977 season would hold for the Medicine Hat Athletics. They would finish the season 29-41. The only team they were better than that year was Billings, the team they played that opening weekend. Their performance would be upstaged by their Highway 3 rivals. The Lethbridge Dodgers, featuring future MLBers Ron Kittle, Mitch Webster and Mike Howard, went on to win the Pioneer League championship.
But A’s fans were treated to some standout performances. Outfielder Mike Davis batted .315 and stole 26 bases that season. Davis went on to play a decade of Major League Baseball and won a World Series with the Dodgers in 1988.
Shooty Babitt hit .300 for the Baby A’s in 1977 and would also make it to the majors. He played 54 games for Oakland in 1981 and earned scorn from manager Billy Martin. “If you ever see Shooty Babitt play second base for me again, I want you to Shooty me,” Martin quipped.
Pitchers Bobby Moore and Dave Beard would also make it to the show. Moore pitched just 17 innings for the Giants in 1985 but he would continue playing minor league ball for another decade after that. Beard, meanwhile, spent time with four MLB clubs, including the Athletics, Mariners, Cubs and Tigers. He won 19 games and earned 30 saves during his time in the majors.
Despite this cast of characters, and a moderately successful first year in the Pioneer League, the A’s wouldn’t stick around Medicine Hat. In October, Medicine Hat’s baseball officials announced they had severed ties with Oakland and had joined the Toronto Blue Jays organization. And it seemed the big club’s management was a major reason why.
“Basically, though, we just never knew what Oakland owner Charlie Finley would do from one day to another,” Plante told News reporter Rolland Bremner. “There were rumours that he wanted to sell his club and that bothered us here. Toronto is a lot more stable and more secure for us to work with.”
“It’s a bit of a let down,” Oakland director of minor league development Norm Koselke said in that same article. “We were happy in Medicine Hat. We had no complaints. Medicine Hat is a fine place to locate, and the Pioneer Baseball League is an excellent league.”
The entry into the Blue Jay family may have seemed like a bit of a gamble. Like Medicine Hat, Toronto was an expansion team in 1977, having just been granted an MLB franchise. But it was a marriage that would last 25 years, and one that would create many fond memories for baseball fans in Alberta.
As for that infield grass, it would take a little while longer to get that figured out. In January 1978, Alderman Ken Sauer recommended that the city “resist pressure from the Toronto Blue Jays” to sod the infield unless the club was willing to pay the cost. That obviously didn’t happen, because it wasn’t until April 1984 that city council agreed to fork over $25,000 for infield improvements.