The Pioneers: Calgary Cardinals

By JOE McFARLAND

Little did he know, but Tom Petty could have been writing “The Waiting” about Calgary’s Russ Parker.

Waiting may have been the hardest part for Parker, as he patiently sat by and watched the Pioneer League expand to Lethbridge in 1975, despite his attempts to see two Alberta franchises start that season.

In fact, Calgary’s baseball builder had been trying for years to convince the league it was time to move north of the border.

“I’ve met with Pioneer officials several times over the last six years,” Parker told the Calgary Herald in May 1974. “But all meetings have been strictly exploratory.”

In a story about the rumours of pro baseball coming to Calgary, he said Lethbridge and Calgary seemed to be garnering the most interest.

But that’s all they were — rumours.

“There are so many ifs, ands or buts concerning a connection with this league that I would say the odds of a Calgary franchise as early as next year are less than 50/50,” Parker said. “At best, any positive statement now would be a case of wishing and hoping.”

Parker, the former commissioner of the Alberta Major Baseball League (AMBL), had seen the success of baseball in the province first-hand and while he seemed cautious, he was still hopeful for bigger things on the horizon.

“We worked hard to promote that league and develop into what we thought was a reasonably good calibre of baseball,” Parker reminisced on Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast. “You try to put on a good show there in that league and attract some fans and it just wasn’t happening.”

He needed to find the right deal and the right team to partner with.

PATIENCE

As it turned out, Parker’s reluctance to get his hopes too high heading into 1975 was well-advised.

The four-team Pioneer League wanted to expand in even numbers. The Ogden Spikers were moved to Lethbridge to become the Expos, meaning they needed to find two teams.

READ MORE: The Pioneers – Lethbridge Expos

At the time, three cities were expected to be in the running for expansion: Calgary, Medicine Hat and Butte, Montana. But all were at different phases of readiness for a team, so they would have to wait until at least 1976 to make it happen.

But by the fall of 1975, it seemed expansion wasn’t going to be in the cards for a little while longer.

“The league president (Ralph Nelles) called me this week,” Parker told the Herald. “He was, of course, in attendance at the Major League farm directors’ meetings in Chicago last week. He said most big teams are just not considering expansion, some are actually cutting back on minor-league operations.”

Parker told the newspaper he was surprised and disappointed by the latest revelation, adding he wasn’t optimistic unless something changed during the MLB winter meetings in Florida.

A challenging time, to say the least, for the man who had stepped down from his role with the AMBL in hopes of bringing professional baseball to Calgary.

But “Persistence” might as well be Parker’s middle name, and the fruits of his labours were about to be realized in the fall of 1976.

In an article penned by Larry Wood, Parker said he dropped into the headquarters of the Los Angeles Dodgers “to say hello” while on a family vacation.

He had been knocking on many doors across North America in the hopes of finding someone who would have the welcome mat out front, and he found that in the Dodgers’ minor league development head, Bill Schweppe.

“I just let it drop that there’s direct non-stop air service from ‘Frisco to Calgary these days, a matter of two-and-a-half hours,” Parker laughed. “Just in case they didn’t know.”

As Wood wrote in his story: “This time, it may be for real.”

CARDINALS IN

To the surprise of many, it wasn’t the Dodgers who would first call Calgary home in the Pioneer League. In October 1976, Parker announced the St. Louis Cardinals would be sending their rookies north.

“This was a special moment in Russ Parker’s life,” Wood wrote. “The announcement culminated a half-decade of scheming, cajoling and other forms of persuasion on the part of Parker.”

While it was the Dodgers who first showed interest, Nelles and St. Louis farm director Jim Bayens visited Calgary and Foothills Stadium.

“It was a matter of the Cardinals being faster on the draw than the Dodgers,” Wood continued.

The Dodgers ended up moving a team into Lethbridge for the 1977 season after the Expos left town, while the Oakland Athletics would add a second expansion team to the Pioneer League in Medicine Hat.

READ MORE: The Pioneers – Medicine Hat A’s

So began the work for all teams involved in finding 20 to 25 prospects, a manager, coach, trainer and the money to field a summer-league ball club in Alberta.

A couple of months later, the Cardinals said they were happy with the lease they were getting from the city for Foothills Stadium, including a $40,000 upgrade. That deal also included a new lighting system, re-sodding of the infield and 400 box-type seats. The final move would be the dugouts, which would need to be rebuilt and relocated.

“Mayor Rod Sykes gave us his full support of this project and we certainly respect and appreciate his responsibility to the city,” Parker told the Herald. “He recognizes the benefits that this baseball team will have to the city.”

FIRST PITCH

Parker and his colleagues wasted no time in getting a staff together, anchored by new manager Johnny Lewis.

The former Cardinals and New York Mets outfielder had spent the previous four seasons as an assistant coach under Red Schoendienst in St. Louis.

“I look for a most enjoyable season and I hope the Calgary people will be able to identify with the St. Louis Cardinals in two or three years, fellows who started their professional careers in Calgary,” Lewis told reporters in January 1977. “I hope to have players who are enthusiastic, have a lot of hustle and desire, and are going to work hard to get the job done.”

The Calgary squad then waited for their Major League Baseball (MLB) squad to determine who would make their way across the 49th Parallel.

Several draft picks would obviously fill some of the gaps, including third-round selection Joe DeSa, fourth-round pick Jim Gott and fifth-rounder Andy Rincon, all of whom would later end up making it to the big leagues.

The team’s first two selections, outfielder Terry Kennedy and pitcher Ricky Wright, didn’t make it to Calgary. Kennedy started his pro career in Johnson City and moved his way up to St. Petersburg, while Wright stayed in college and re-entered the draft in 1980, where he was taken with the second-overall pick by the Dodgers.

On June 25, 1977, the Calgary Cardinals finally made their debut against the Idaho Falls Angels in front of 2,722 fans.

It didn’t start well for the home team. The Angels were able to chase Gott after a little more than two innings worth of work. He walked five and allowed five runs in that time and by the end of the inning, the home team was down 6-0.

That might have been the wakeup call the club needed though, as in the bottom of the third, the Cardinals scored ten runs to erase the deficit and hold the first lead in their existence.

Much like what plagued the Cards’ pitchers, the Angels’ staff also wrestled with the strike zone, walking in a handful of those runs.

Things calmed down after that wild third inning, with only the Cardinals able to push another run across the plate as they came away with an 11-6 victory.

CalgaryCardinals1stGame
Russ Parker addresses the crowd at Foothills Stadium on Opening Day 1977. (Photo found in Calgary Herald archives)

“If we were getting beaten by hits, I could understand it, but not by walks,” Lewis told the Herald after the weekend.

Part of his frustration: the same kind of thing happened the next night, as the Angels walked away with a 10-6 win to split the weekend set.

“I don’t know where I’m going to get them, but I’ve got to get Johnny three more pitchers,” St. Louis field coordinator George Kissel told the Herald after the early outings.

 

For Parker, his dreams had finally become a reality.

“I felt pretty proud that we had a team back in professional baseball,” the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame member told Alberta Dugout Stories, looking back on opening night. “There we were, outfitted in St. Louis Cardinal uniforms and the whole scene was pretty impressive.”

It also set the tone for the next few years of baseball at Foothills Stadium.

REDBIRDS FLY

The opening weekend encapsulated what the first season of Calgary Cardinals baseball would be all about.

The team would claw its way to a 34-36 record, which was good enough for fourth place in the Pioneer League. No playoffs were held that year, but the Lethbridge Dodgers captured the pennant.

Cardinals’ third baseman Tye Waller and shortstop Leroy Grossini were named all-stars that first season, helping set a tone for what Lewis would expect out of his club going into 1978. They would fare a little better, going 37-32 to finish third in the league. The Billings Mustangs won the league title that year, sweeping Idaho Falls in the championship series.

Then, without warning, the Cardinals flew the coop and left the city’s affiliated future in limbo. Parker started kicking some tires and had some interest from teams like the New York Mets.

In November 1978, Parker was smiling again as he announced the Montreal Expos were returning to Alberta after a two-season hiatus following their departure from Lethbridge.

ParkerCalgaryExpos
Russ Parker speaks with reporters after announcing Calgary’s new affiliation with the Montreal Expos. (Calgary Herald photo from November 1978)

“We contacted Montreal two days after we received word from St. Louis (that the Cards were relocating),” Parker told the Calgary Herald. “Their initial reaction was that they weren’t going to change their system for 1979.”

In that news conference, Montreal director of player development Jim Fanning told reporters that he had no second thoughts about returning to the league, but admitted he needed to cool off a bit after Lethbridge ended the partnership ahead of the 1977 campaign.

“I had a strained relationship with the league president (Ralph Nelles) for a while,” Fanning said. “They expanded to two cities that year and we were left in the cold. I was ready to beef up a club with vets and stomp over everybody!”

The Expos would remain in Calgary for six years, finishing first during the regular season twice but losing in the league championship series to Butte in 1981 and Billings in 1983.

The team also saw a few future MLB players make their way through town, including Andres Galarraga and Randy St. Claire.

Looking back on the Expos’ exit from Calgary in 1984 to usher in the Pacific Coast League’s Cannons the following spring, Parker counts his lucky stars.

“Montreal said all along that Calgary was too big of a city for that calibre of ball,” Parker told Alberta Dugout Stories. “It all happened so fast that we were very fortunate.”

As for the Pioneer League’s days in Calgary and Alberta, in general, he will continue to look back fondly both on and off the field.

“There were some wonderful times,” Parker said. “It was a big step forward for us and paved the way for us for the next level of baseball.”

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One thought on “The Pioneers: Calgary Cardinals

  1. Great story!!! I remember my Dad taking me down to Foothills Stadium to see the Cardinals and Expos. It was especially great that we were affiliated with Montreal as the Expos were my Dad’s favorite team, and still are to this day.

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