Monday, October 29, 2007

Vern Kohout

Names of ball players get butchered in newspapers all the time. I must admit, I carried on this tradition by misspelling the occasional name of a Vancouver Canadians player on the web site at work this past season. In going through 1949 stories, one of the most commonly misspelled named was that of Bremerton lefthander Vern Kohout. Apparently, newspaper writers were thinking of some conspiracies and that he was in ka-houts with someone.

He pitched in 1947 and 1948 with the Salt Lake Bees of the Pioneer League and started 1949 with the Visalia Cubs of the California League before moving up to Bremerton. The Bremerton club moved to Wenatchee in 1950 and Bob went along, but was during spring training, he ended up with Spokane. The Indians released him (his last game was July 6th) with a 2-3 record and was signed in mid-August by the Lamesa Lobos of the West Texas-New Mexico League (the team noted for firing its official scorer because it didn't like his calls) and pitched in the playoffs. Here's Vern and a teammate with one of those nose-cone Ford station wagons (Studebakers had the ultimate in nose cones).

It appears Vern wasn't the only Kohout playing pro ball. His brother Bob Kohout made his pro debut in 1941 for Big Spring in West Texas-New Mexico League after a fine season for San Francisco State College the year before (he was with Santa Barbara in the California League in 1942, Danville of the Three-I League in 1946 and Pueblo of the Western League in 1948).

And what did he do after baseball? Let the Salt Lake Tribune of Nov. 6, 1968 reveal all:

Sports Mirror by
John Mooney
Tribune Sports Editor
Disa and Data About People
On the Sports Scenes

Vern Kohout, a southpaw pitcher for the Bees in 1947-48, was a Salt Lake visitor last week.
Only now he's sporting a Ph.D. as program coordinator of vocational guidance for the Appalachia Educational Laboratory in Charleston, W. Va.
Vern spent four years “in Europe, trying to teach natives how to improve their conditions and he's lectured and studied all over the United States.
“It's quite a change from the days at Berks Field when I'd be standing on the mound, with the bases full, wondering how I could insure my future,” he added.
After kicking around baseball for two or three years after leaving the Bees, Vern decided to forget baseball and concentrate on his studies.

Vern is in the Tacoma-Pierce County Old Timers Baseball-Softball Hall of Fame with a pile of other WIL players, like Dick Greco, Gordy Brunswick, Cy Greenlaw, Morry Abbott, Ray Spurgeon and, well, the list is a long one.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Edo Vanni

There's talk about naming the Northwest SABR Chapter after Edo Vanni, who died in May this year. When you think about it, that's probably about as good a name as any for it, though I'm partial to long-forgotten cross-border slugger Charlie Swain.

Most fans in these here parts who have heard of Edo will likely associate him with the Seattle Rainiers (the photo to the right is from 1946), but he spent time in a bunch of cities in the Western International League, including Vancouver and Victoria.

You know the story. Edo was a college football star who signed with the Rainiers in 1938. The signing had some controversy, as L.H. Gregory's story in The Sporting News of Feb. 24 that year reveals:

When the Seattle Rainiers reached into the freshman class at the University of Washington to sign young Edo Vanni, field goal kicking specialist and baseball outfielder, they stirred up a terrific outcry through the Pacific Northwest over "raiding" by professional leagues of varsity ball players, already quite a sore point with the colleges.
Vanni was signed, oddly enough, by Torchy Torrance, vice-president of the Rainiers, who formerly was assistant graduate manager at Washington, and the pressure from his old college chums became so hot that Torrance agreed to tear up the contract if Vanni said the word. The youngster, however, who had previously given an option on his services to Dutch Ruether, ex-Seattle manager, after first saying he would stick to college and football, later changed his mind and stood pat on his baseball contract.

TSN talks a bit more about Edo on July 14th.

Leading the talent parade [for the Rainiers] are two home-town youngsters, both of them only a year out of high school [mention is made of Freddie Hutchinson].
The other youngster who is earning the plaudits of the critics and fans is Edo Vanni, a speedy Italian boy who patrols right field and who swings from the left side. Vanni gave up a promising football career at the University of Washington this spring to make his bid in pro ball. During a spring training tussle, he suffered a torn muscle in his left thigh while trying to beat out a bunt. For nearly two months, he was on the shelf. Then on May 28, Jack Lelivelt pulled out Al Marchand and inserted Vanni. The former football drop-kick artist came through with three lusty base hits. The following night, he blasted three more, and after that he kept up a steady tattoo of blows to win a regular berth. A short, compact swing and an eagle batting eye are reasons for young Vanni's steady stickwork.

That's all I can find about him in TSN for that year. There was an interesting Canadian connection mentioned in an AP national sports column, dated August 22, 1938:

Edo Vanni, a sophomore back who learned the game playing Rugby up Vancouver way, is one of the biggest reasons they're tabbing Washington as the dark hoss of the coast conference.

Sounds to me he was still playing football.

I first saw Edo's name going through some Vancouver Mounties game stories. He was taking part in a cow-milking contest before the game at Cap Stadium. I couldn't figure out why they'd have a visiting coach do that, but it's obviously because Edo had a reputation. The Seattle P.I. mentioned in his obit:

He'd often pull a red handkerchief out of his back pocket and wave it in the outfield in ways to incite fans on the road and inspire home supporters.
He once wrestled a black bear before a game in Wenatchee to draw fans to the ballpark.
In Seattle, he got tossed before a game for bringing a friend's St. Bernard, supposedly the biggest "seeing-eye" dog he could find, to home plate while delivering the lineup card, a comment on the previous night's disagreements with the umpiring crew.
Faced with an empty ballpark for a doubleheader in Wenatchee, he instructed his players to start a huge brawl in the opener and, with word spreading fast because of the radio description of the slugfest, fans filled the place for the second game.
While managing the 1964 Rainiers ... Vanni caught Rainiers pitcher Jim Lonborg, another eventual Red Sox standout, breaking curfew. Lonborg's punishment was to run until he vomited under the manager's watchful eye and sarcastic tone.
"I see you had Chinese food last night," Vanni quipped while the pitcher was doubled over.
As Angels general manager, Vanni observed that his manager, Bob Lemon, the Hall of Fame pitcher, repeatedly smelled of alcohol when he came to the ballpark. Others might have looked the other way, considering the baseball pedigree involved. Vanni firmly told him to quit drinking before games or lose his job, and Lemon complied.

Why wouldn't you name a SABR chapter after a guy like that?

We Get Letters!

Let's face it. I wonder if anyone really reads all the stuff I put up here. After all, this blog is about a low minor league that's been dead since for 53 years. It's mostly linescores and a line or two on each game. Search engines don't seem to know about it. But I've gotten a few e-mails, which is really cool.

The latest one is from Angelo Venturelli, Jr. That's his dad on the right. His father pitched in Tacoma in 1948 then was called up to the San Diego Padres, where he spent some time. He had a stop with the Twin Falls Cowboys in the Pioneer League in 1942, from which the Padres bought his contract in 1943, then with the Modesto Reds of the California League in 1947. After his career ended, he went into the banking business in southern California.

Speaking of Modesto, John Holmquist wrote asking about the Sept. 22nd game that gave the Reds the 1954 California League championship versus the San José Red Sox. Now, Modesto wasn't in the WIL, but I did a little digging. It was a great game, the one baseball fans love to see (OK, the kind I'd like to see). It was scoreless until the top of the ninth and the Reds hadn't even put a runner past second base until Red outfielder Russ Derry, who had played for the Yankees, smashed a solo home run over the right field fence. Then came the bottom of the ninth. The Red Sox had the bases loaded on a hit and two walks. Two were out. Up stepped Gary Killingsworth. He hit a slow roller to Jack Holmquist, who "while bent over and still running, threw to first for the final out" to give Modesto the Governor's Cup.
The heroic Holmquist in question was the late father of my correspondent.
Incidentally, Derry celebrated by rushing back to St. Louis where his daughter was showing her prize calf in the 4-H show at the fair. Now, that's old-time baseball! Could Barry Bonds say the same thing today?

A relative of Morry Abbott fired off a short note. Abbott swatted 37 homers for Tacoma in 1939 and spent the next couple of seasons there. I haven't done any pre-war stuff on the WIL so I really don't know much about him, other than Bremerton's Bill Barisoff broke his record in 1946. And his middle initial is "H."

But the best part, so far, is getting a brief e-letter from former Victoria lefthander Jim Propst, who had several good seasons for the Athletics and Tyees. Jim is 80 now and, if the internet is correct, a former steelworker and antique and stamp collector.

Feel free, dear readers, to click on "comments" to leave a note on the site re. the WIL, especially if you're a former player or related to one. Nancy Shapley left a squib about her dad, Carl. I'd even be happy to hear from anyone who went to a WIL game that stuck in their memory.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Doc Younker

I mentioned a couple of months ago about former Vancouver Mounties trainer Doc Younker, a member of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, who attended the SABR meeting in Vancouver. Little did I realise he had been a Western International League umpire. Or a grocery guy.

Here's a piece on him from the Tri-City Herald, May 20, 1952, by sports editor Don Becker.

Harold Younker who gave up calling out grocery lists to sing out on balls and strikes may not know how lucky he is to break into the umpiring business in Class A league. The former Pasco groceryman really got a big break when League President Bob Abel plucked him to work the WIL circuit. Most umpires, like ball players, have to come up the hard way by starting out in the low minors and then proving their ability.
Younker got his big chance when George Behringer quit. Right, now he will be on probation for perhaps a month or so until he has proved his ability. That will depend on the reports from the umpires working with him and to some extent what the club managers have to say, providing Abel asks them.
It's quite a process this getting to be an umpire. The most single important thing about umpiring, at least in our opinion, is a thick skin. They have to take some pretty rough treatment from managers and players when a disagreement arises and you can't just thumb them out of the game. At least not in this class of baseball where a team only carries 17 players. Boot out a couple of key players and you might just as well hand the other team the ball game. Consequently the umps, must of necessity, allow a much wider latitude than they would, say in the Coast or Major Leagues.
Younker's case history is a good example of how umpires happen and is probably applicable to most in the business. First of all it was his hobby. . .he liked calling games. So after beating ground a few semi-pro games he decided to take a few lessons and attended the school in Portland operated by “Doc” Regele, a former WIL umpire. But Younker found that wasn't enough so this past winter he enrolled in Bill McGowan's two-month course at Daytona Beach, Fla. And here's how that looked.
“There were about 130 of us I guess,” said Younker, “who were taking the course. The first in the morning we had calisthenics, then breakfast. After the morning meal we'd take a long workout practicing calling balls and strikes, safes and outs. For that we'd form up in a long line, then one at a time go forward beatable and call “safe,” “out” or whatever it was. And when you made the call you had to be in the proper position with your legs well spread and the gesture well-defined. The rest of the morning we'd choose up teams and take turns in calling the game.”
If you noticed Younker working behind the plate Saturday night or Sunday it was quite apparent that even not knowing who McGowan was, that he was from the American League. Younker was calling the game directly over the catcher's head as contrasted with the National League style in which the umpire calls the pitches from inside the catcher, that is he looks over the shoulder of the catcher nearest the batter.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

More on Gus Hallbourg

The last survivor of the Spokane Indians bus crash in 1946 who died last week was signed to a pro contract in February 1939. He was in the West Texas-New Mexico League and started with Lubbock but ended up with Pampa against Lubbock in the playoffs.
Here's a contemporary sports column about him.

[The Lowell Sun, Lowell, Massachusetts, March 17, 1939]
OUT OF A CLEAR SKY BEAMS A NEW SUBURBAN star, for whom two major league clubs ran a merry race this winter with a contract as the prize.
The whole story can be told, now that Darwin Hallbourg of East Pepperell is finally and officially listed with the Chicago White Sox rookie camp at Longview, Texas.
Two years ago, rangy, strong-armed, right-handed Hallbourg was tossing 'em up for the North Chelmsford American Legion team, and then he pitched for the St. Joseph's church team of Pepperell in the Catholic Junior league. When that circuit failed to reorganize, Hallbourg applied his trusty arm to the fortunes of a crack semi-pro team in Nashua, N. H. He never hurled in Lowell, but he's the pride of Pepperell and the joy of the suburban towns, who always claim to have baseball talent as plentiful and able as Lowell proper.
The story of Hallbourg has its dramatic points. Six weeks ago, one of the scouts of the New York Yankees "got ahold" of this writer and sought the kind of information that scouts are wont to seek. For the present, the scout's identity must be held in confidence. It doesn't matter particularly anyway, but the contacts were opened for the Yankee ambassador in Pepperell by the writer, and he proceeded to the town. In no time at all, he was talking with an older relative of the prospect.
"Your boy plays quite a lot of baseball, doesn't he?" politely inquired the Yankee talent hunter.
"Oh my, yes," was the reply. "Darwin just yesterday signed an agreement to play for Chicago of the American league. Isn't that grand?"
"Swell," mumbled the scout, as he reached for his hat.
If Hallbourg had known that the Yankees were after him, it's a cinch this would be another story.
Of Hallbourg's prospects, Sec. John P. McEnaney of the Middlesex County league is more than mildly optimistic.
"He has everything," said Mac. "He's young, has a sweet variety of shoots and is big, strong and heady."
Where Hallbourg's stuff was first discerned by Chicago and New York scouts is unknown. The Yankee scout refused to impart that enticing piece of information. But down in Longview, Texas, there's a kid who was chucking for North Chelmsford's little Legion Junior team a few years ago and he is good enough to have created a contract race between two of the best operated teams in major league baseball.

Spokane's Last Survivor

No doubt you've heard about the passing of former Spokane Indian Gus Hallbourg. Here are some news stories dealing with his death, including a fine piece by SABR's Jim Price, who was radio's voice of the Indians when I met him in 1979.
You can read contemporary stories about the bus crash on this site. Click on the label 'bus crash' at the end of this post.

Pitcher from ill-fated 1946 Spokane Indians team dies
The Associated Press
SPOKANE, Wash., Oct. 17 — Darwin "Gus" Hallbourg, a survivor of a fatal bus crash that devastated the 1946 Spokane Indians baseball team, died Saturday of a heart attack at a California care center, according to his brother Don. He was 87.
Nine of the Western International League team's 15 players died when their Bremerton-bound bus tumbled off the Snoqualmie Pass highway and burst into flames on June 24, 1946.
Hallbourg, who played professionally for six years as a pitcher and outfielder, crawled through a window frame. After helping others to safety, he was treated for burns on his arms and hands. He returned to action later in the season.
In 1940, his second season, the right-hander won 21 games for Pampa, Texas, of the West Texas-New Mexico League. After being sold to San Diego, Hallbourg won 15 games for Anaheim of the California League in 1941 and appeared in four games for the Padres.
After service in the U.S. Navy in World War II, Hallbourg played for Spokane, finishing with a 7-6 record. He played two more seasons with Lancaster of the Inter-State League.
He settled in Manteca, Calif., and was employed for 32 years by Pacific Telephone Co.
Hallbourg is survived by Roberta, his wife of 61 years; a brother; two sisters; three sons and a daughter. There are five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Survivor of ill-fated bus crash dies at 87
Staff reports of the Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin [Oct. 18]
The last survivor of what is considered to be the worst accident in American professional sports passed away Saturday.
Darwin "Gus" Hallbourg, a longtime Manteca resident, died of a heart attack at the age of 87. He was set to turn 88 on Halloween.
Hallbourg was stricken with pneumonia after suffering a stroke in September.
Hallbourg was a part of a tragic bus crash June 24, 1946 while he and his Spokane Indians minor league baseball team, of the Western International League, were traveling across Washington state to Bremerton.
The bus tumbled off the Snoqualmie Pass highway and was engulfed in flames.
Nine of the 15 players, including player-manager Mel Cole, died as a result. Hallbourg helped get his surviving teammates to safety and was later treated for burns on his arms and hands.
"I was able to get out of there without serious injuries, and I've been lucky to live a wonderful life," Hallbourg once told the Spokesman Review. "I am one of the great lucky guys alive."
Hallbourg was a Minor League pitcher and outfielder for six years and served four years in World War II with the U.S. Navy.
After his final two professional seasons with Lancaster of the Inner-State League, he settled in Manteca and went on to work for Pacific Telephone Company for 32 years.
Hallbourg was a member of Spring Creek Golf Club in Ripon and was considered an excellent amateur golfer.
He is survived by Roberta, his wife of 61 years; two sisters and a brother; three sons and a daughter; five grand children and one great grandchild.
Information from: The Spokesman-Review

Darwin F. (Gus) Hallbourg
Darwin F. (Gus) Hallbourg, 87, died Saturday, Oct. 13, in Hughson, after a long, happy life. He was born on Oct. 31, 1919 in Huntington, Mass.
Gus grew up in Pepperill, Mass. where he lived until high school graduation in 1939. He played professional baseball from 1939 until 1948, with time out to serve as a Chief Boatswain's Mate in the Navy during World War II. During this time he married Roberta Harney on Jan. 5, 1946 in Newport, Rhode Island. In 1948 they moved to Stockton, where he began a 33 year career with Pacific Telephone. He moved to Manteca with his family in 1959 where he lived until his death at 87 years old. He enjoyed many happy years playing golf and was well known for his beautiful tomato garden.
Gus is survived by and will so be missed by his wife of 61 years, Roberta; brother, Donald Hallbourg and wife Jean of Stockton; sisters, Alice Duce of Middletown, Rhode Island, and Shirley Jones of Oakville, Ontario, Canada; daughter, Marsha Beever and husband Dan of Atwater; sons, Robert Hallbourg and wife Flora, and Peter Hallbourg of Manteca, Mark Hallbourg of Auburn; grandchildren, Dan and Crystal Beever, Tony and Jessica Hallbourg, Laura Beever, Matthew and Melissa Hallbourg, Kendall Hallbourg; and great-grandchildren, Janessa and Isaac Hallbourg.
Please join the family in a celebration of Gus's life at Spring Creek Golf & Country Club, (1580 Spring Creek Dr., Ripon, CA 95366), on Sunday, Oct. 21, at 2 p.m.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Community Hospice, Inc., 2201 Euclid Ave., Hughson, CA 95326.
Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin - Thursday, Oct. 18, 2007

Last survivor of bus crash dies at 87
Heart attack claims Hallbourg

Jim Price
Spokane Spokesman-Review, October 16, 2007

The passage of time has concluded the living history of the ill-fated 1946 Spokane Indians baseball team.
Former pitcher Darwin "Gus" Hallbourg died of a heart attack Saturday night in a care center near Modesto, Calif. Hallbourg, 87, developed pneumonia after a minor stroke in late September. A resident of nearby Manteca, he was the last survivor of the worst accident in American professional sports history.
On June 24, 1946, a bus carrying the Spokane Indians across the state to Bremerton, tumbled off the Snoqualmie Pass highway and plunged into the canyon, where it exploded in flames. Nine of the Western International League team's 15 players died as a result.
Hallbourg escaped by squirming through a window frame. After helping other survivors reach safety, he was treated for burns on his arms and hands. He returned to action later in the season, playing in the outfield when he wasn't pitching.
Moments before the accident, Hallbourg turned to star pitcher Bob Kinnaman, who shared his love of fishing, and said "Wouldn't this be one helluva place to go over the edge?"
Hallbourg had begun the trip sharing a seat with third baseman Jack Lohrke. However, Lohrke, Spokane's best major-league prospect, left his teammates after dinner in Ellensburg, where he learned he had been recalled by the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League.
A native of Huntington, Mass., Hallbourg played professionally for six seasons, half before his four years of World War II service with the U.S. Navy.
In 1940, his second season, the gregarious right-hander won 21 games for Pampa (Texas) of the West Texas-New Mexico League. After being sold to San Diego, Hallbourg won 15 games for Anaheim of the California League in 1941 and appeared in four late- season games for the Padres.
Spokane was his first stop following the war. He finished with a 7-6 record. After two seasons with Lancaster of the Inter-State League, he accepted a full-time job in Central California with Pacific Telephone Company. He settled in Manteca and retired from the phone company 32 years later.
Hallbourg was admired for his cheerful outlook.
In a 1986 interview, Spokane teammate Milt Cadinha remembered him as "a very, very, very nice person." Monday, Hallbourg's brother, Don, a Stockton, Calif., resident, agreed. "He always had a nice attitude. Nothing ever bothered him too much."
Indeed, last June, asked about his health, Hallbourg chirped, "I'm bright-eyed and bushy-tailed."
More than once, he told The Spokesman-Review how fortunate he felt to have been spared in the bus wreck.
"I was able to get out of there without serious injuries, and I've been lucky to live a wonderful life," he said. "I am one of the great lucky guys alive."
For years, Hallbourg was among the Modesto area's best amateur golfers, and he was an avid gardener who raised tomatoes. He and wife Roberta had been married 61 years. The 1946 baseball season in Spokane served as their honeymoon.
Hallbourg would have turned 88 on the last day of this month.
His remains will be cremated, according to family members. In lieu of services, there will be a family gathering later this month. In addition to his wife and brother, he is survived by two sisters, three sons and a daughter. There are five grandchildren and one great grandchild.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Hey, Now, What's That Sound?

Here's a piece from Jim Coleman's column (reprinted in the Lethbridge Herald) of May 17, 1951. It deals with rabid rooters and starts with Hilda Chester in Brooklyn. Then, it mentions the Western International League.

Take the case of Joe North, a veteran baseball devotee in Victoria, B.C. A couple of years ago, Joseph sued the Victoria Baseball Club because the management refused to admit him to the game. The management contended that North's vocal manifestations of approval and disapproval disturbed other spectators in the grandstand. Specifically, Joseph was charged with uttering a hideous sound described as “The Bronx Cheer.”
The case was tried before a dignified jurist of the British Supreme Court, who, puzzled by the nature of the evidence, requested Mr. North to give a demonstration of his art. Beaming proudly, Mr. North arose In the witness box, took a deep breath, pursed his lips and obliged with the grand-daddy of all Bronx Cheers.
His Lordship reeled backward in his chair. Visibly shaken, he adjourned the court and fled to his chambers, looking back fearfully at Mr. North who was taking bows from the witness box. Mr. North's suit was dismissed when His Lordship had regained his composure.
• • • •
The evidence revealed that Mr. North had another little pecularity. He took large quantities of home-made sandwiches to each game. He would pass through the stands pressing these sandwiches.
One of the witnesses who testified against him was a waiter from the Empress Hotel. Witness contended that North's offers of sandwichs were annoying and offensive.
“Did you ever accept one of these sandwiches?” counsel asked.
“Certainly not,” sniffed the witness. “I work at the Empress and I eat only the very best food.”
Personally, we find it hard to understand why Mr. North was discriminated against for distributing home-made sandwiches unless, of course, he was cutting into the profits of the concessionaires who sell, the frankfurters and coffee. We remember a prominent Vancouver gentleman who arrived at all baseball games, carrying a large wicker picnic-basket packed with sandwiches and hard boiled eggs. Perhaps they have barred him, too.