Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Draft: Midsummer curse and Olympia minor league baseball

John P. Fink, a newspaper man and promoter, had an idea for a baseball league.

Fink seems to a jack of all trades sort of promoter in the era. Mostly mentioned in that gray area between public relations and newspapering. He covered sports, worked for newspapers, but also ran teams and leagues. In 1903 he is also noted in the first ever mention of the Southwest Washington League as "the manager of the Tacoma druggists" baseball team.

This is the same era that saw the consolidation of the Pacific Coast League between California and Pacific Northwest teams. The highest level of baseball on the west coast to that point had been split between Pacific Northwest and California. In 1903 the two warring baseball regions joined together, in an outlaw league. Was it because of the attention being paid to the Portland Browns, Tacoma Tigers and Seattle Siwashes in the press that Fink saw opportunity in a baseball circuit throughout timber towns in bottom left hand corner of Washington?

The Pacific Coast League was no small undertaking. Baseball had been growing along the west coast since after the civil war, with Portland teams playing since the late 1860s. It slowly expanded from a game played between clubs and soldiers to a game of semi-pros and pros, business patrons and fans paying gate. The new regional league from Los Angeles to Seattle was outside the bounds of baseball law, but Fink sought to toe the line.

1903 was also the first year of the National Association, the agreement major league baseball on the East and midwest and minor leagues throughout the country. This agreement gave certainty to players and owners (mostly owners) that contracts would be recognized across professional leagues and that poached players could not re-enter organized baseball without outlaw teams paying. This was also the agreement that Pacific Coast League ignored, if only for a year or so. But, the smaller (class D) Southwest Washington League was inside the law from the beginning.
This was even fact trumpeted by the the league in “The Reach Official American League Base Ball Guide.” The Southwest Washington League, under the protection of the National Association, enjoyed a most successful season, financially and artistically, under the able administration of President John P. Fink, of Olympia. The season opened May 10, 1903, and closed September 6, with Aberdeen and Hoquiam tied for the pennant. Hoquiam refused to play a post-season series to decide the tie, and the league directors awarded the pennant to Aberdeen.
Fink first reached out to organizers of local teams in the timber towns early in 1903, asking them if their communities had it in them to step up to professional baseball. First on his list were Olympia, Chehalis, Centralia, Montesano, Aberdeen and Hoquiam. These six cities were at the time very similar.

Today, they stand apart culturally and demographically, Olympia in particular. In more than a century, Olympia has gone from a timber town in the same classification as Aberdeen and Chehalis (with a state capitol) to a city on the southern edge of the Puget Sound metroplex. Olympia grew from just under 4,000 to more than 10 times that size. Today, you can put together neighboring Lacey and Tumwater and more than 100,000 people live in and around Olympia. This is more people in either of the individual county's that also made up the Southwest Washington League.

The cities of the old league almost seems like ghosts to me now. Olympia has grown outside its 1903 version, practically leaving nothing behind of its former self. The other cities have grown, seeing high times after World War II. Through the 1930s and World War II Olympia lagged behind cities like Aberdeen and Hoquiam. It wasn’t until 1960 that Olympia was the largest. It was the 1980s that Olympia started putting real distance between itself and its former league-mates.

While state government grew and Olympia took advantage of its connection to the urban centers of Washington, the other cities in the old Southwest League suffered from the decline of the timber and other resource industries. Olympia became even more distant as it got more liberal relative to its neighbors. Being the home of state government and the politically and culturally liberal Evergreen State College, the old Southwest League towns turn their ire at Olympia. The infamous "Uncle Sam" highway billboard in Chehalis has included many anti-Olympia messages over the years, including "Evergreen State College - Home of Environmental Terrorists and Homos?"

But, as Fink sent out his inquiries in early 1903, these really were cities of the same league.

The $250 that Fink and other organizers wanted in 1903 to enter the league is about $6,000 today.  By February 1903 almost 20 Olympia businessmen had lined up behind the team, putting up the nearly the entire sum needed to enter the league. Gathering investors, officially forming the league, putting together a board of directors were early steps for the Olympia team in the Southwest League. By mid-February the local electric utility -- Olympia Light and Power -- promised to rip down a defunct veladrome -- a bike track -- on the bluff above their powerhouse. The plan was to use the timbers to build a grandstand and bleachers on the stadium site, which also coincidentally was along the OLP's streetcar line.

In April, Olympia baseball me were calling the home field "Electric Park" but it was not yet fit to practice on. Process on the park is going slow, despite the effort of the OP&L company.

When the Olympia Maroons opened in a exhibition on April 19, 1903 against the Tacoma Athletes, an amateur team, Olympia won 4-1. Six hundred Olympians support the Maroons with "lusty yells."

The board of directors meetings for the Olympia Maroons are public in 1903 and covered like local government meetings. For example, a decision to charge admission is discussed in a regular news column. It’ll cost 25 cents to get into the park, and additional 25 cents to get into the grandstands. Ladies get into the grandstands for free.

 And, by May 10 the Southwest Washington League was in action. The first really big event of the baseball schedule is on May 22 when President Roosevelt comes to town and Aberdeen plays a "President Day" special the same afternoon. A train full of Harborites come into town with their ball team to see the bull moose. Their team loses to the Maroons.

Turns out, Olympia was a pretty bad team.

By August, the Morning Olympian was advising against betting on the Maroons. Or, at least during league games, during which the Maroons were apparently snake bit:
Any man will tell you, provided he has money on the game, that he is willing to back the Maroons against any team in the Pacific National or the Outlaw leagues, on exhibition, but when it comes to Southwest Washington league games he will hereafter save his money to buy bread... 
 That's a difference between today and then. While teams like Olympia would play throughout the week against teams in and out of their league, only weekend games played against other SWWL teams counted towards the standings. Apparently Olympia was a weekday team.

By August things are getting worse for the league on a much larger scale. Hoquiam was threatening to leave the league. They seemed to have sarcasm back then as the Hoquiam Perfect Gentlemen were apparently not perfect or gentlemen. Well, if you assumed that amateur ball players who worked mill jobs during the week and in the SWWL on the weekend, aren't Gentlemen. The amateur team from Hoquiam was leading the league in August against teams made up of a mix of professional and amateurs.

This apparently led to a decision by the owners of the other teams to expand the number of league games, which ate into Hoquiam's small league lead. Hoquiam stayed in the league, but not without dragging arguments through organizational meetings and letters.

At the end of the first season, half the league had 11 wins, the other 7.

Aberdeen Pippins 11-7 .611
Hoquiam Perfect Gentlemen 11-7 .611
Centralia Midgets 7-11 .389
Olympia Maroons 7-11 .389

In September the Maroons needed financial help. The Elks and Foresters clubs held a charity baseball game to support the town's professional ball team, the Maroons. This is an auspicious end to Olympia pro-baseball in 1903. Two amateur ball teams were raising funds for the pro team.

The league would play three years before breaking apart. In 1904 the Maroons became the Senators and in 1905 Centralia is replaced by Montesano Farmers.

In early May 1905, the Morning Olympian introduces the players as if they're elected officials: Senator Cook, Senator Christian, Senator Almost Stubavor Dye. "A newly elected member who represents the Solid South is Senator Autray."

I know why the Olympian was practically begging Olympians to come out to support the Senators in 1905. Its the same reason Mayor P.H. Carlyon was deciding whether to declare a half civic holiday for their home opener. Just like in the 1903 season, the hope of a warm Olympia May was smashed by the the heat of August and the league was in trouble.

In 1903, August featured a dust up between Hoquiam and the league, in 1905 it was the very fate of the league. In early August the owners came together in an Aberdeen hotel. At the urging of Montesano and Aberdeen, they decided to press on, despite very real financial concerns for the rest of the league.

Then two days later, the Olympian carries this passage in a otherwise typical homestand preview:
The Kids (the team's nickname in the paper is not the Panama Kids for some dumb reason) have played good ball all season, and have been a good advertisement for Olympia all the way. They have not received the support at home that they deserved. The league this year has been faster than ever before and a team that at this time is in second position with a chance still left for the pennant is worth of support of any city in this state. Turn out today, and tardy though you are, be there with the big boost and help the team out, not only with your presence, but encourage them with your two-bit piece. That's where they need your help most. It costs money to run a team and every citizen should help defray this expense. Olympia needs a team and should be glad to pay for it when she has a team like the present one. 
They need your two-bit the most, your fandom second. The team is an advertisement for the city. Costs money to run a team, Olympia needs a team, every citizen should pitch in. Seems more like a road or a school.

By the way, Olympia at this point did not have a high school building. That came a year later. But, Olympia, is in inferior headspace after statehood in 1889. An economic depression was brought on in part by national recession and local over-extension to retain the capitol after statehood. It would be decades before finally a permanent capitol was built and Olympia felt comfortably away from fears of losing the capitol.

With the SWWL collapsing in late summer 1905, Olympia needed baseball to be a real city. And, unfortunately, the Senators and what they mean for Olympia are in deep trouble as 1905 ends and the baseball men look to 1906. 

1905 SW Washington League Standings
Montesano 25-10 (.705)
Olympia 20-16 (.555)
Aberdeen 17-17 (.500)
Hoquiam 9-27 (.250)

Senators finish well behind the Farmers and in late winter in 1906 the ground is being laid for a pro-baseball free Southwest Washington. A league may not come around, but the possibility of an independent team in Olympia is brought up. The increased interest in baseball from amateur clubs is also mentioned as a bright spot.

A local league between Hoquiam and Aberdeen clubs (with the support of the streetcar company between the towns) is promised, but no one knows if they want to start a league between other cities. While parlaying Olympia interest in reviving the D-level SWWL, the Grays Harbor towns (Cosmopolis, in addition to Hoquiam and Aberdeen) jump up into the B level Northwestern League.

The class A Pacific Coast League (by now not an outlaw, but a law-abiding member of Organized Baseball) includes Seattle and Portland along with California cities. The combined Harbor cities join other also-ran cities in the region, such as Spokane, Tacoma and Butte, Montana.

Surviving as the Grays Harbor Lumberman and Grays, and the Aberdeen Black Cats, the Harbor super team survives in the Northwestern League until 1910 when the league drops them. The Northwestern League exists in those years somewhere in the historic backwash of the legendary (and sometimes considered major league) Pacific Coast League. Cities like Seattle, Portland and Spokane would fall out of the PCL and into the Northwest League and then back up again. The Grays Harbor consolidated cities tried to play in that league, but were eventually bounced out by their bigger siblings.

In 1910 they tried to put back the old SWWL relationship to salvage organized baseball on the Harbor. Olympia had fielded an independent team in 1909 and felt up to the task. But, only if things would be different in 1910.

Olympia only wanted games on the weekend. No expanding the league schedule (like what happened under-handily to Hoquiam in 1903) to shoo out smaller clubs. Between 1903 and 1905 the number of league games had expanded, stretching the baseball resources of Olympia. A strict salary cap. "What we are planning on is a league run in such a manner that there will be no danger of it getting along nicely until the Fourth of July and then going to pieces."

While Olympia wanted a ball team in 1910, they wanted it under more humble standards.

In addition to the old SWWL towns (Olympia, Centralia, Chehalis, Hoquiam and Aberdeen), Elma, South Bend and two Tacoma teams are also considered. But, the 1910 Class D Washington State League did not end up including Olympia. The cost of travel, keeping players and drawing fans drove Olympia's interest away from the league.

Olympia ended up fielding semi-pro, unaffiliated with Organized Baseball teams through the 1920s. Eventually even interest in that level of baseball lagged in the capital city. Gordon Newell describes the final death of semi-pro Olympia Senators in Rogues, Buffoons and Statesmen. The midsummer curse did the baseball Senators in again:
The coming of electronic home entertainment media may have provided the final straw which, added to the summer mobility of the family motor car, broke the back of paid admission baseball in the capital city. The sport itself was popular enough. The local merchants organized a twilight league and the sawmills fielded amateur teams in the sawdust league. The Olympia Senators even began the season bravely under the leadership of ex-major leaguer Ham Hyatt, but by the end of July the lakc of patronage caused the semi-pro players to give up in disgust and turn the new Stevens Field over to high school and amateur teams.

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