Photo of Lethbridge Dodgers dugout for Aug. 31, 1982 edition of Lethbridge Herald, for article “Dugout scene gives different view of game.”
By JOE McFARLAND
The hot summer sun shines down on Spitz Stadium in Lethbridge. The smell of freshly-cut grass wafts through the stands, combining with the smell of popcorn and hot dogs to create a uniquely beautiful odour that might not make sense to some people, but does to baseball fans.
They come by the hundreds to watch their Bulls battle their Western Major Baseball League foes. The atmosphere has been made better thanks to a massive renovation project after the 2016 season. The love affair with baseball in the Windy City is undeniable.
Forty years ago, the city was on top of the baseball world thanks to their Dodgers winning the Pioneer League championship. Just a few years later, the relationship came to a bitter end over a spectator’s staple of the sport: beer.
While it might be in the hands of many spectators on any given afternoon at the ballpark, in Lethbridge, a squabble over suds quickly led to the demise of affiliated baseball for nearly a decade.
It’s Time For Dodger Baseball
Forty years ago, though, no one in Lethbridge was thinking about brew in the stands.
Baseball fans in the city had a new team and a new leader in 1977 – their own version of the L.A. (Lethbridge, Alberta) Dodgers.
With the Expos leaving Lethbridge the previous October, fans had a new team to cheer for, as the Dodgers moved into town with their Rookie League affiliate. Little did they know, they would embark on a performance the present-day Los Angeles Dodgers are hoping to duplicate.
Gail Henley was a well-travelled baseball man. He made his way through the systems of the New York Giants, Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburgh Pirates and Detroit Tigers over 14 seasons, but only played a total of 14 games in the majors with the Pirates in 1954.
At the age of 48, he was being brought in as an experienced voice for a Lethbridge team that had a couple of younger bucks running the show for the Expos the previous two years (Van Kelly, 24 in 1975 and Walt Hriniak, 28, in 1976). Described in the Lethbridge Herald in February of 1977 as a “straight from the shoulders speaker,” Henley was expecting to turn the tide and turn it early.
“I feel we will provide Lethbridge and area fans with a good baseball club,” Henley told the Herald. “We have a good nucleus of players who were at Bellingham, Washington last season who are still one step away from promotion.”
Key among them were Timothy Jones, Billy Swoope, Donald LeJohn and future MLBer Mike Howard. They would also get an infusion of youth with a couple of other future big leaguers in Mitch Webster and Ron Kittle (who also played with the Edmonton Trappers in 1982).
“Another season of maturing in the Pioneer League will help these fellows immensely. And not only that, they play pretty good baseball,” Henley said. “I don’t believe in over-teaching. But I do plan to help the fellows mature and learn the basics of the game.”
He also insisted on discipline and a dress code.
“I want the fellows looking like baseball players, not guiltar players. If you see some nearly bald young men on the streets, don’t worry, they’re ball players,” Henley continued.
“We’re going to be an organized club. I want to win ball games.”
And win they did.
Down to the Wire
Despite being in the middle of the pack in many offensive and pitching categories, the Dodgers found themselves in a dogfight for the championship pennant with the Great Falls Giants. The battle came down to the final few days of the season. They played their final game of the season in Billings against the Mustangs.
After a back-and-forth few innings on Sept. 1, 1977, the Dodgers broke things open with a five-run fourth inning and didn’t look back in a 13-6 win.
“It’s a great feeling,” club president Reno Lizzi told the Lethbridge Herald after the game. “This entire season has been a success for us.”
A bit of an understatement when you look at a couple of individual performances. Mike Zouras hit a three-run home run in the ninth inning to set the Pioneer League home run record with 21 (later broken by Greg Morrison of the Medicine Hat Blue Jays in 1997).
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“I wasn’t swinging with everything I had, being down 0-2,” Zouras told Alberta Dugout Stories about the slider that he drilled over the fence.
“That whole ending was just magical. The home runs & RBIs from that season gave me visibility within the organization that most 21st-round picks don’t get.”
Speedster Donald LeJohn was also a force as he swiped 45 bases during the season, also setting a record at the time (later broken by Great Falls’ Thomas Goodwin in 1989, who stole 60 bases).
“We were a group of young men from around the United States flew into Lethbridge, Alberta, and began a dream journey,” Zouras recalled about his fond memories of Alberta.
“After a period of adjustment with a new life in a new city and country, we started to see our competition and realized we are a pretty good team with a chance to win the pennant.”
Meanwhile, Henley’s relationship with Lethbridge could be described as “on-again, off-again.” He would depart in 1978, making way for Jim Lefebvre, then he came back for the 1979 and 1980 seasons. He left again for Gary LaRocque for the following two seasons, before taking the reigns one more time in 1983, the last season the Dodgers were in Lethbridge.
That last season seemingly came as a surprise to many that it was the last. After the season, the Dodgers announced they were moving their affiliation to Great Falls, while Lizzi announced he and the directors were pulling out of the operation.
New father-and-son owners David and Doug Elmore bought the franchise with the intention of operating as a co-op team for the 1984 season. The group was also negotiating for concession rights at Henderson Stadium and seeking permission to sell beer at the ball park.
That last part was the death knell for professional baseball’s return to Lethbridge. In January 1984, council voted to not allow the team to sell beer at Henderson Stadium, seen as a vital source of revenue for the team. As a result, vice-president Pete Bock announced the franchise was moving to Pocatello, Idaho.
“I fully expect professional baseball to return to Lethbridge in the near future, if the city will take a strong stand and support the incoming operators,” Bock told reporter Dave Sulz in the Jan. 26, 1984 edition of the Lethbridge Herald.
It would be nearly a decade before that happened, as the Lethbridge Mounties debuted in 1992.
For Zouras, he went on to play higher-level ball in San Antonio, Lodi and Albuquerque, but couldn’t crack the MLB Dodgers’ lineup, thanks to a steady stream of all-stars like Ron Cey and Steve Garvey, whose home run record Zouras broke on that Sept. 1977 day. He feels fortune to have been part of championship-calibre teams, like the Dodgers had in Lethbridge.
“Good group of guys who got along well and had fun in Lethbridge and traveling within the Pioneer League.”