Harmon’s histories: Missoula’s rich baseball past

baseball

By Jim Harmon/for MISSOULA CURRENT

It’s hard to believe.

The Osprey, Missoula’s “boys of summer,” are playing their 18th season this year.

Seems like only yesterday Play Ball Missoula reps were standing in a vacant riverside lot, pitching the idea of professional baseball returning to Missoula. It was a controversial proposal, but then Missoula has always had a rocky romance with baseball.

Back in the 1800s, it seemed everyone in the town had caught baseball fever.nclgefcocpnllnno

One newspaper columnist reported, “Almost any object that has the slightest claim to spherical shape is pressed into service in the absence of a regulation baseball; old and tired potatoes, last year’s rutabagas, Herculean onions and many other similar objects may, at times, be seen flying through the air and chased by some one of the many ball fiends.”

The Missoula nine played their games at Union Park on East Main street, and while they would engage just about any team willing to ride the rails to Missoula, many, if not most of their games, were against “post” teams from Fort Missoula.

The sports writers of the day were brilliant but, unfortunately, must go without credit since by-lines weren’t yet the fashion.

Here’s a description of an umpire (a soldier by the name of Crupper), whose “calls” were….well…questionable, “This individual appeared on the field resplendent in a white linen suit, having for a background a lavender shirt, cut very much on the decollete order, a cute little black and white striped traveling hat adorning his very dark head. As an acrobat and jumping jack the gentleman is simply ‘out of sight,’ but as an umpire he is a trifle the worst that has ever been perpetrated on suffering humanity. Mr. Crupper has umpired his last game in the city of Missoula.”

Just before the turn of the century, one comic fundraiser drew a crowd of 200, “Two misfit nines, one professing to represent the enterprising little town of Bonner and one equally nervy in respect to the Garden City, inflicted their audience, yesterday afternoon, with a game of alleged of baseball that was remarkable only for its rankness. The new diamond at the ballpark was covered with dust, sand and pebbles to a depth of 6 inches, which fact coupled with a job lot of miserable batting, an aggregation of errors that would be inexcusable even in a “kid” game, and an exhibition of all around head-achey playing caused the little band of spectators to regret even the charitable purpose which had brought about its presence.”

Over the years, fan interest and financial support ebbed and flowed.

In 1914, the directors of the Missoula franchise were forced to “regretfully recommend the berth occupied by the Missoula baseball club in the Union Association be relinquished.”

By contrast, the same year, the Garden City’s “Indoor Baseball League” was flourishing. The opening game featured the pennant winners from the league’s first two seasons, the Marathons and the Athletics. The Federals and the University rounded out the four-team league.

Jim Harmon is a retired journalist whose 50-year career included nearly three decades at KECI-TV, Missoula in roles ranging from news anchor to weather forecaster. In retirement, Jim is a landscape gardener and history buff who’s spent years reading historical micro-film newspapers. You can read his weekly history column at the Missoula Current.