By JOE McFARLAND
“If you don’t like the weather in Alberta, wait five minutes and it will change.”
The oft-used refrain couldn’t hold more true during the summer of 1975, as baseball fans in Lethbridge prepared for the introduction of affiliated baseball to our province.
The Pioneer League season was about to get underway, but Mother Nature seemed to have a few curveballs in her arsenal. Just one day before the Lethbridge Expos were set to make their debut at Henderson Lake Stadium, the sky opened up with plenty of rain and thunderstorms that left officials wondering if they would have to push back Opening Night.
The sun managed to make a comeback just in time and on June 25, 1975, Lethbridge played host to its first minor league baseball game. As it turns out, that week of weather along with the outcome of the game actually ended up foreshadowing the Pioneer League’s on-again, off-again relationship with the Windy City.
BASEBALL BY THE LAKE
Baseball has a rich history in Alberta which goes as far back as the early days of the province. The Western Canada League was the first high-profile circuit to feature teams from here, including the Edmonton Grays, Calgary Bronchos, Medicine Hat Hatters and Lethbridge Miners.
Major League Baseball (MLB) players even came up for short stints with those clubs. For example, former Boston Braves and Chicago Cubs third baseman Art Bues made his professional debut with the Miners in their inaugural season in 1907, while future Cincinnati Red Ed Kippert also played here.
Whether it was the first stop on the path towards the pros or a final kick at the can, many players stopped through this province over the years, from amateur to semi-pro. In 1967, the Alberta Major Baseball League was founded with teams from Calgary and Edmonton (three teams each) taking part. The league featured several players who had either played in the MLB or were hoping to recapture the spark.
In 1972, the Lethbridge Lakers made their debut, finishing the season with a 14-18 record. After seeing what some of the other teams were bringing to the plate, president Reno Lizzi wanted more.
“I was sworn to secrecy by Lizzi,” Lethbridge Herald writer Pat Sullivan wrote on March 24. “But I don’t think he will be too upset if I let you in on a little of the planning for the 1973 season.”
According to Sullivan, Lizzi was looking stateside to find a player-coach and potentially a partnership with an MLB club. Less than a month later, the club announced Ron Taylor would be taking the reigns while a working agreement had been signed with the San Diego Padres.
Before long, word started to spread about the potential for baseball in Alberta.
The 1960’s and 1970’s saw a major boom in baseball. The MLB Draft made its debut in 1965 while several teams took to the field for the first time during the expansion era, including the first Canadian club.
In 1969, the Montreal Expos emerged and so began the process of developing its minor league system. At the same time, the rookie-level Pioneer League was also looking at the potential of expanding and word had spread that both the Expos and St. Louis Cardinals were interested in sponsoring a couple of clubs.
The league held its annual general meeting a couple of months later with Billings Mustangs president Ralph Nelles presiding over a conversation which also featured contingents from Lethbridge and Calgary. In a Lethbridge Herald article, he admitted the Expos were interested in bringing their rookies to Lethbridge.
The move was confirmed in November with a splashy headline of “This is Expo country, pro baseball returns to Lethbridge.”
“We are very, very proud to be associated with the Montreal Expos,” Lizzi said in the November 21, 1974 article. “This is a very proud moment for me and an exciting time for baseball in Lethbridge and southern Alberta.”
And while he was a long-time Dodgers fan, Lizzi wanted it to be known that he was all-in with the Expos. He also told Sullivan that he hoped it wasn’t viewed as a slight on the talent brought in during the years of the Lakers.
“We enjoyed playing in the AMBL very much,” he said. “But you can’t turn down an opportunity like this.”
At the official announcement was Expos’ director of scouting and player development Mel Didier, who was impressed with what the city had to offer. He also wanted to make sure that nothing was blown out of proportion with minor league baseball’s return to Alberta.
“But I can assure you, that you will see the slam-hangiest, hustling baseball club you have ever seen,” he proclaimed.
Over the next few months, officials in Montreal and Lethbridge set the wheels in motion to get the club ready for a June 1975 first pitch. They hired their first general manager, Allan Simpson and their new manager, Van Kelly.
Simpson, who later founded Baseball America, recalls hearing about the Expos thinking of coordinating a team in Lethbridge while he was on his honeymoon in Florida. A few days later, he “conveniently” found his way to Montreal and talked to the MLB club’s general manager, Jim Fanning.
“He didn’t necessarily have a say in terms of who the general manager was going to be,” Simpson told Alberta Dugout Stories. “But I got to know him pretty well on that trip and he certainly put in a good word for me.”
When he returned home to B.C., Simpson called up Lizzi then came to the city to visit the board of directors.
“Quite to my surprise, I got hired on the spot,” the future Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee remembered.
When it came to players, Simpson and his team had to wait for the parent club to decide where each player would go, especially after the 1975 MLB Draft. The Expos owned the 10th overall selection and went with shortstop Art Miles from Crockatt High School in Texas. The 18-year-old was pegged to head north to Lethbridge, along with several other draft picks, including second round selection Dale McMullen and third rounder Mitchell Copola.
In fact, most of the Expos’ selections in that draft would eventually see playing time in Lethbridge, including 11th round selection Andre Dawson.
“He had signed for a bonus of $2,000 so the expectations were not great,” Simpson laughed. “But it was pretty apparent right off the bat that he was a player.”
As mentioned, heading into the first game of the season, officials were concerned with the thunderstorms that had been rolling through the area. But they soldiered on and Kelly landed on Mike Grabowski as his opening day starter, despite the fact the right-hander had only arrived in Alberta the night before.
Heading into the match, it was the first round pick Miles who garnered a little attention for some frustrations he was having with the alignment of Henderson Stadium, particularly a “long right field line.”
“A 350′ blast was a routine out in a workout earlier in the week as the line is 360′,” wrote Sullivan in the game-day edition of the Herald.
Miles told Sullivan it would be something that would “take some getting used to.”
The outfielders, featuring the future Baseball Hall of Famer Dawson as well as Andrew Dyes and Joe Gonzalez, were also getting a ton of attention for being equipped with “cannon-like arms and great range.”
Kelly concluded he liked the Expos’ chances, but also admitted he hadn’t seen the scouting reports on the other teams. They would soon find out what they were up against.
The home debut of the Lethbridge Expos came with all the expected pageantry ahead of first pitch.
After the sky opened up following the early-week storms, Mayor Andy Anderson and Lethbridge MLA Dick Johnson took part in a pre-game show, according to the Herald’s Sullivan.
The festive atmosphere didn’t last long though, as the visiting Great Falls Giants hit Grabowski hard in his four innings of work, scoring seven runs. But it wasn’t all the hurler’s fault as his defense did him no favours with several errors, particularly in the fourth inning, where the Giants scored five runs.
Miles was tagged for one error when he hurried a throw and it got past second baseman Larry Goldetsky, scoring two runs. Another two-run error came at the hands – rather, between the legs – of Dawson, who allowed a routine single to go through his legs in centre field.
Trailing 8-0 after the fifth inning, the Expos offense finally got going, as they scored two in the sixth, two in the seventh and made it interesting in the ninth with another three runs, but ended up falling short 8-7.
After the game, the skipper wasn’t totally dismayed.
“Winning is the key but I have to be happy the way our guys never quit,” Kelly concluded in his office after the game. “We turned that ball game around in the last four innings and we almost pulled it out.”
Dawson was best at the plate, going 2-for-4 with a run scored while first baseman Ray Crowley had three RBIs and third baseman Randy Eickenhorst drove in two.
On the mound, Grabowski took the loss while Mike Uebbing, Dave Fredrickson and future MLBer Steve Ratzer also saw action. Ratzer allowed one hit in the ninth inning but it amounted to nothing on the scoreboard.
“We made mistakes tonight, but that was to be expected,” Kelly looked back. “The jitters are gone now and we plan to start winning, beginning tomorrow night.”
BUT THEY DIDN’T
The road to the win column for the Lethbridge Expos was a little longer than their dugout leader had hoped.
They continued their four-game set with the Giants, falling 13-2 and 7-4, before finally getting their first win in the series finale on June 28.
They would open up their series with the Billings Mustangs that same weekend with a thrilling 5-4 win.
“We’re starting to click now,” Kelly stated in the Herald.
The club went on to a 33-39 record in their inaugural season, good enough for third in the league. Their first opponents, the Great Falls Giants, would go on to win the Pioneer League champs.
The Expos remained in Lethbridge for one more season before a change of affiliation turned them into the Lethbridge Dodgers from 1977-1983. They went on to win league titles in 1977, 1979 and 1980.
Things in Lethbridge came to a screeching halt thanks to a number of factors and things came full circle when the Dodgers moved their affiliation to Great Falls.
The Pioneer League didn’t return to Lethbridge until 1992 when the Lethbridge Mounties surfaced. The team kept that name until 1995, when they became the Black Diamonds following an affiliation announcement with the new Arizona Diamondbacks.
Interestingly, the Black Diamonds took the field a full two years before their parent club, as the Diamondbacks didn’t debut until 1998.
That turned out to be the final season for the Pioneer League Black Diamonds, as they moved to Missoula for the 1999 season.
Just as sure as the westerly wind itself, the winds of change also always seemed to follow affiliated baseball in Lethbridge.