The Pioneers: Medicine Hat A’s

By JOE McFARLAND

His name is synonymous with the Medicine Hat Tigers.

There from the very beginning in 1970, Bob Ridley has called all but one game for the Western Hockey League (WHL) club.

The list of Ridley’s accolades is incredible, including being inducted into the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame and the Alberta Hockey Hall of Fame and was recently named to the Western Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

A footnote in many of the stories written about him is his involvement in baseball. As it turns out, he was the first play-by-play voice of the Pioneer League’s Medicine Hat teams for about eight years.

It was nothing new to Ridley, who had called some games in Swift Current with the Indians before moving to Medicine Hat.

Calling a baseball game wasn’t something he would need for his first few years back in Alberta though.

THE WAITING GAME

When the Pioneer League arrived in this province with the Lethbridge Expos in 1975, it also came with a lot of optimism for possible expansion.

READ MORE: The Pioneers – Lethbridge Expos

Even before the first pitch was thrown, the president of the rookie circuit was thinking about where they could go next. Ralph Nelles was looking at Butte, Montana as well as Calgary and Medicine Hat.

By August 1975, talks were heating up which led to a “fact-finding mission” by Nelles to the southeastern Alberta city. After the visit, the city’s recreation director John Bokstein seemed to be downplaying the possibilities.

“I think it would take a good selling job to promote it, but I think it would make it,” Bokstein told the Medicine Hat News.

Nelles wanted two, or maybe four, teams to join the four-team Pioneer League to keep the numbers even and it seemed like the three cities in the hunt were at different points in readiness.

He heaped praise on Athletic Park, where thousands of dollars of renovations were being done, saying it was the best he had seen and better than anything in his league at the time.

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When asked about the possibility of moving a team to the city, he remained vague, only hinting the Los Angeles Dodgers, Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners had shown interest to that point.

Before long, Nelles decided expansion was off the plate for the 1976 season and everyone moved on to preparations for the 1977 campaign.

“It all depends on the interest of a major league club,” Nelles told the News. “If they are willing to sponsor a club then we’ll expand.”

ON-AGAIN, OFF-AGAIN

For nearly a year, questions lingered over the possibility of the Pioneer League expanding to Medicine Hat.

Then in September 1976, a morsel of information grabbed locals’ attention.

“An executive of the Boise A’s Northwest League baseball team said he has talked to municipal officials and businessmen in Medicine Hat about the possibility of moving the club into the city and into the Pioneer League,” read an article in the Medicine Hat News.

They were still a few weeks from a formal announcement, but Boise general manager Mike Manning didn’t seem optimistic his club would be staying put after the season.

A month later, the city received the news it had been waiting for: the A’s were coming to town.

Unfortunately, there was one hurdle still left to get over and that was the ongoing renovations at Athletic Park.

While Nelles had dubbed it one of the “best in the west,” a few problems still lingered. The park’s infield and outfield had to be reworked because of poor drainage and soil conditions and city council was forced to pay right away or pay in losing opportunities like the Pioneer League.

The initial price tag for the field was $480,000 but skyrocketed to $726,000 when all was said and done.

Then there was the spring of 1977. While the city had plans to seed the playing surface, heavy rains forced officials into using sod a month before the June 9 deadline to have the field ready.

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A couple of weeks before the Oakland-imposed deadline, crews erected the new scoreboard in the outfield and officials breathed a sigh of relief when the manager and players started arriving in mid-June.

GAME TIME

With the drama of the last few months finally behind them, the Medicine Hat A’s were finally able to make their debut.

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On June 25, 1977, the club welcomed 1,800 fans to Athletic Park as they opened up the Pioneer League season against the Billings Mustangs.

Thanks to a solid pitching performance from Donald Schubert, Michael Yesenchak and Richard Cooper, the home club came away with a 3-1 victory.

READ MORE: A’s For Effort

Catcher Bart Lally drove in the first-ever run for the A’s, scoring Bruce Fournier in the fourth inning. They would add a couple more runs in the eighth inning to seal the win.

According to Ridley, the atmosphere at the ball park was almost always positive.

“It depended on how the team was doing and, of course, unless the weather was terrible,” Ridley told Alberta Dugout Stories.

The A’s would only last the one year in Medicine Hat, going 29-41 on the season.

The following year, the Toronto Blue Jays set up shop at Athletic Park where they would stay until 2002.

THE BABY JAYS

Just like with junior hockey, many of the young baseball players coming to Medicine Hat during the Pioneer League days were away from home for the first time.

Ridley, who has become known as a confidante to so many on the ice for the Tigers, found himself in a similar situation with the A’s and then the Blue Jays. Not only was he calling the games on the radio, but he was also driving the team’s bus.

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“Nowadays, these kids have their cellphones and have a good feel for what it’s all about,” Ridley laughed. “Back then, there was no such thing so it was a big learning curve, that’s for sure.”

It wasn’t just the day-to-day grind of playing baseball every day for the players, either.

“You know something, they were actually scared as soon as they got off the bus in Medicine Hat,” Ridley recalled. “You could see it in their eyes.”

Many of the players had never experienced Canada before and were coming from all corners of North and South America. So not only did they have to deal with the climate and other external factors, but he remembers some other lively conversations on the bus in the early days.

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“Not only are you trying to teach them the Indy League game or the North American game,” Ridley said. “But also English as most of them had no idea what it (the language) was all about.”

He believes the Blue Jays later had international players stopping in Florida and other leagues before coming to Alberta to get them working with translators to introduce them to their new languages.

THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES

A lot of players and coaches made their way through Athletic Park during the 25 year relationship between Medicine Hat and the Pioneer League.

READ MORE: Blue Jays Fly Away From Medicine Hat

From Shooty Babitt and Lloyd Moseby in the early years to World Series champions like Jimmy Key and Pat Borders to players like Erik Kratz and Orlando Hudson, the city was fortunate to see some quality players.

But unlike the operations in Lethbridge and Calgary, what didn’t happen was a high turnover of teams, with just the one transition ahead of the 1978 season.

“I know the people in Toronto were very, very pleased with the fact that Medicine Hat had a real strong connection with them,” Ridley reminisced.

He credits owner Bill Yuill as well as Larry Plante for making it all happen, along with everyone from the fan base to billets right up to the Major League Baseball Blue Jays.

He also has kind words for former Blue Jays executive Pat Gillick, who came through town regularly and gave locals the feeling that they were connected to the big club.

“I think it was just the idea that you were involved with big league baseball,” Ridley continued. “They looked at the Medicine Hat Blue Jays as an integral part of what their organization was all about.”

As for his involvement with the club, Ridley admits it was tough going from baseball season to hockey season year after year. Despite the change of pace that baseball brought, he quickly realized he would need to pick one or the other.

All of the awards and acknowledgments are proof he made the right choice, but he will always have a soft spot for his time calling baseball games.

“It was a great time and I’ll always remember my time with the Medicine Hat Blue Jays,” Ridley smiled.

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