By IAN WILSON
His pitches offered enough venom to rattle the most seasoned of hitters.
And he did it all with a grin that was as warm in welcoming opponents to the batter’s box as it was in sending them back to the dugout after another futile at bat.
Jimmy “Smilin’ Rattler” Rattlesnake, an exceptional left-handed pitcher in the 1930s and 1940s, has earned a place in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, adding to his lengthy list of achievements.
Rattlesnake was born on the Ermineskin Cree Nation, located 100 kilometres south of Edmonton, in 1909. He played a lot of different sports, including soccer and curling, but it was baseball that matched his skill set and his interest.
He made headlines in his first start for the Royals of the Edmonton Senior Amateur Baseball League in 1932. Rattlesnake – who was often referred to as “Chief” in newspaper reports – struck out 10 batters, while allowing seven hits and three walks in an 8-4 complete-game win at Diamond Park.
“Despite his youth and playing before a big crowd for the first time, the Chief worked like a veteran on the mound. He possesses nigh-perfect poise, fields his position well, and, more important still, showed an effective curve ball, combined with some ‘fast’ to make him extremely effective,” wrote reporter Bill Lewis in the June 13th edition of the Edmonton Bulletin newspaper.
The southpaw looked even better during an early July victory over the Oilers. In that 5-3 triumph for the Royals, Rattlesnake recorded 11 strikeouts, and gave up just six hits. It was a matchup that “was keenly enjoyed by the thousands of rabid fans who taxed the seating capacity of the stands to the limit,” according to the Bulletin.
Word soon got out about Rattlesnake’s abilities, making him a ballpark draw for sports fans in Alberta.
The lanky hurler returned to the Edmonton Royals the following summer “popular as ever” and “much improved,” as stated in the Bulletin. In addition to pitching for the Royals, Rattlesnake also suited up in a number of games with the Wetaskiwin club. With Wetaskiwin, he made some brilliant appearances as a reliever and a starting pitcher. On two occasions – a 15-4 trouncing of Bawlf in June and a July exhibition against his usual teammates with the Royals – he struck out 12 batters in front of large crowds.
The “Rattler” had continued success in 1934, which ended up being a true showcase season for the lefty, who was also a capable hitter.
He tossed a no-hitter against Fredricksheim in leading Wetaskiwin to a 9-0 Central Alberta Baseball League victory on July 9th, collecting seven Ks and allowing two walks in the process.
At an exhibition tournament in Camrose at the end of that month, Rattlesnake logged a pair of complete-game wins to ensure Wetaskiwin collected the first-place prize money.
Provincial playoffs put Wetaskiwin on a collision course with the Shastas, who claimed the Edmonton championship.
“Not a great deal was expected from the country boys in this series to determine the northern Alberta senior baseball champions. It was expected, and probably with some justification, that the Shastas, one of the most powerful clubs every organized in this city, would go on to a crushing victory,” read the Aug. 25th front page of the Edmonton Journal sports section.
Rattlesnake, of course, had other ideas. He pitched masterfully in the opening tilt of the best-of-five series, throwing a four-hitter and striking out seven during Wetaskiwin’s 7-4 victory at Renfrew Park.
The Shastas evened the series at one win apiece in front of 5,000 onlookers in Edmonton, and even though Rattlesnake was not on the mound for the second game, he was still making plays.
“Probably the best catch of the day was made by Chief Jimmy Rattlesnake, who was playing in left field,” said the Aug. 27th Journal article.
“The Chief had a bad leg – he was injured in Friday’s game – but no one would have guessed it the way he tore after a hard hit fly ball by Ike Davis. The Chief ran over 50 feet before he pulled it down. It was a marvelous catch.”
Game 3 of the series took both teams to Wetaskiwin for a low-scoring and controversial result. Rattlesnake found himself atop the bump yet again, but instead of going the full nine innings, he pitched eight frames of three-hit baseball. Both teams, and a full house of fans, were denied a ninth inning of play when the game was called due to darkness.
“It was one of the finest ball games witnessed in this central Alberta city in years, but the game, closely fought all the way, and witnessed by a record crowd, almost broke up in a riot,” reported the Edmonton Journal.
Wetaskiwin scored the go-ahead run in the eighth inning to claim a narrow 2-1 victory.
“When the umpire made his announcement, there were immediate protests from the Shastas management, along with spectators, who milled about the baseball grounds, demanding an explanation,” said the Journal report.
When the dust settled, Rattlesnake had “figured prominently in the home team’s triumph.”
In addition to striking out eight batters and limiting the offence of the Shastas to three singles, he went two-for-three at the plate and stole a pair of bases.
“Nonchalantly and with clock-like regularity Chief Jimmy Rattlesnake mowed them down,” read the account of the game in the Journal.
The paper’s sports editor, George Mackintosh, also described a pitcher who was clearly in the zone.
“As the game had progressed, there was no evidence of the Shastas suddenly coming to life and collecting any worthwhile hits off Chief Jimmy Rattlesnake,” observed Mackintosh.
The Shastas bounced back with a 6-1 win in Game 4 to send the series to a winner-take-all confrontation that pressed the “smoke-ball artist from Hobbema” back into action.
The third time was a charm for the Shastas, who finally broke through against Rattlesnake. Both teams allowed eight hits and one earned run in the 5-2 loss for Wetaskiwin that featured a handful of errors on both sides, five double plays for the Shastas, and some uncharacteristically wild pitching by Rattlesnake.
More than 6,000 fans filed into Renfrew Park to take in the game.
Despite the series defeat, Rattlesnake had emerged as a star on Alberta’s baseball scene.
He matched up against his playoff rivals again in early September for an exhibition game to benefit a hospitalized Shastas player, this time donning an Edmonton Royals uniform. Rattlesnake returned to form with a 9 K performance that saw him permit just four hits and one earned run in a hard-luck 2-1 loss. He also went two-for-four with a triple on the day and drove in the Royals only run.
“If ever a man tried to win a ball game, Jimmy was that person,” stated the Journal story about the event.
Rattlesnake’s phenomenal outings that year granted him the privilege to show what he could do against some of the world’s best baseball players.
When a contingent of Major League Baseball (MLB) stars announced plans to play a series of barnstorming games across Canada in October, Rattlesnake was chosen to represent the locals at Renfrew Park.
In preparation, Rattlesnake strengthened his arm by throwing hay bundles into a threshing machine back home and playing catch regularly.
Rattlesnake started the first of two games against the American League squad on Oct. 11th in Alberta’s capital city.
“The starting pitcher of the Edmonton ball club had enjoyed considerable success. He had nice control and was throwing everything he had at the big leaguers. But it just could not last,” wrote Edmonton Journal reporter Ken McConnell of the performance, which was umpired at home plate by John Ducey at Renfrew Park.
The pro batters struck for eight hits, including a home run by Hall of Famer Heinie Manush, en route to a 9-2 victory. It was a better result than the rematch, which saw the All-Stars cruise to a 20-2 win.
Rattlesnake returned to Alberta’s senior circuit with Wetaskiwin for the 1935 season and when playoffs rolled around, he met up against some familiar faces on the Shasta-Royals roster. He let his bat do the talking in eliminating Edmonton from the postseason, going three-for-four at the dish with a homer to centre field.
“Rattlesnake was instrumental in the scoring of four Wetaskiwin runs and that’s not a bad day’s work,” noted McConnell of the 5-0 win in the Journal.
Unfortunately, he was denied a provincial title due to a dispute that arose when Wetaskiwin squared off against the Ponoka Panthers. The Panthers issued a protest over Wetaskiwin’s inclusion of outfielder Harry Levinson, who up until that point had played for the Shasta-Royals, in their lineup.
During the best-of-seven series, Rattlesnake tossed a complete-game 4-0 victory to put his team within one win of the title, but the Alberta Baseball Association ultimately awarded the championship to Ponoka and disqualified Wetaskiwin when Levinson was deemed an ineligible player.
INTEREST FROM THE UNITED STATES
Word of Rattlesnake joining Seattle’s Pacific Coast League (PCL) club for the 1936 campaign resulted in articles being published in newspapers across Canada.
While he considered the offer to play professionally, Rattlesnake returned to action with Wetaskiwin. He faced Ponoka in early June and whiffed 12 Panthers while yielding only four hits in a 3-1 loss.
He decided to stay north of the Canada-U.S. border and proved to be a reliable and consistent player, both on the mound and with a bat.
And so it went. The Rattler kept on rattling. His legend continued to grow and reports emerged that he was scouted by a New York team, invited to spring training, and earned a professional contract in the big leagues.
Rattlesnake was a dependable presence on Western Canadian mounds through the 1940s, often opting to stay close to home in the Central Alberta Baseball League and play for Wetaskiwin, Ponoka or Red Deer.
He also pitched for the Dodgers in the Edmonton Senior Baseball League, where thousands of fans would gather at Renfrew Park to watch him befuddle batters.
In the summer of 1942, Rattlesnake traveled west to play for the Victoria Machinery Depot (V.M.D.) Shipbuilders, a team he played for briefly in the regular season before returning for postseason action. His arrival coaxed large crowds to Athletic Park, and the 6-foot-2 hurler helped V.M.D. capture the city championship
He’d show up for Saskatchewan tournaments on occasion, as well.
There was no doubt that Rattlesnake was an elite pitcher in his day, one who was sought after across Canada and capable of filling up the stands of the diamonds he played in.
When he passed away in 1972, efforts were made to honour one of the game’s best competitors.
RECOGNIZING THE RATTLER
Ron Hayter, a past president of the Alberta Baseball Association, pushed to have Rattlesnake added to the group’s honour roll. That happened in December of 1974.
In 1985, Baseball Canada created the Jimmy Rattlesnake Memorial Award, which honoured Canadian players of outstanding ability and sportsmanship. MLB players who went on to have their nameplates added to that award include Stubby Clapp, Ryan Radmanovich, Rob Ducey, Pierre-Luc LaForest, Shawn Hill and Scott Thorman.
A building was named after him – the Ermineskin Jim Rattlesnake Building in Maskwacis – in 1987, and a chapter of the book To Run With Longboat by Brenda Zeman focused on Rattlesnake’s story.
Rattlesnake was inducted into the Wetaskiwin and County Sports Hall of Fame in 2011, an event that was attended by several of his children and relatives.
“On behalf of the Rattlesnake family, it’s a great honor to be here representing our father’s legendary life and to reflect on his acknowledgments and awards,” said Jimmy’s daughter, Phyllis Rattlesnake, at the Wetaskiwin induction banquet.
“Our father was a kind and humble man filled with laughter. Being the down to earth person he was, he spoke very little of his professional baseball career.”
Added Phyllis: “Jimmy Rattlesnake, who was fondly known as the Smilin’ Rattler, will always be remembered as a man of outstanding athletic ability combined with great sportsmanship. We lost our father in 1972 when we were all still very young, but as adults, my brothers and sisters, we all still run into elderly people who speak very highly of him.”
Phyllis also discussed her father on Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast.
“Jimmy loved baseball. He respected the people he played with and against,” she told show host Joe McFarland.
“My dad was one of the first Canadian and aboriginal Cree athletes to achieve success through his natural athletic ability as a southpaw baseball pitcher.”
She shared information about his signature pitch, which was known as a sawdust ball.
“He was most famous for what we call the sawdust ball. He would pitch the ball straight for home plate and just before it got there the ball would do a drop and a curve,” explained Phyllis.
“And, of course, the batters would miss it and he would have a big laugh and hit his knee and go down and laugh because he struck them out. He thought that was hilarious.”
Rattlesnake also left a legacy of emerging baseball players, who were inspired by what he achieved. Ralph Vold, who pitched in the minor leagues in the 1950s, was enthralled by Rattlesnake’s curveball. As a teenager, Vold trekked from Ponoka to Hobbema, where Rattlesnake taught him a number of different ways to grip the baseball.
Harold Northcott was a boy when his dad took him to games to watch the Rattler pitch. Northcott’s father considered Rattlesnake the best lefty pitcher he’d ever seen and encouraged young Harold to emulate the techniques of the slender Ermineskin Cree Nation southpaw. One of Rattlesnake’s skills the elder Northcott was thoroughly impressed with was his pickoff move to first base.
CANADIAN BASEBALL HALL OF FAME
The decision to add Rattlesnake to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum’s Class of 2021 was undertaken by a six-person committee of baseball experts, who started with more than 100 possible candidates before reducing that number to 29. Of those selections, 17 were voted in, including Rattlesnake.
Baseball historian William Humber told Alberta Dugout Stories he was a logical choice for the honour.
“There’s enough factual commentary, later backed up by my own review of Edmonton and other newspapers, to confirm Rattlesnake’s talent, ballplaying prominence and the demand for his services. One has to, of course, read through the lines in the depiction of his prowess, which is often surrounded by the murky and outright racist categorizations of the day. His significant place in baseball in Western Canada between the wars, and then beyond this period seemed undeniable,” wrote Humber in an email.
“In the case of Rattlesnake, I was struck by the comments of two notable eye-witnesses to his career. One was Ron Hayter, later inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame for his baseball leadership in Alberta. In 1972, he argued forcefully for Rattlesnake’s recognition in some form by baseball authorities in Alberta shortly after Rattlesnake’s death. The other was Jim Coleman, the noted sports writer, who at the time of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame’s founding in the early 1980s argued for Rattlesnake’s induction.”
The Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame’s virtual induction ceremony takes place on Nov. 16th.