Batter Up… Play Ball!

Polar League Baseball

by Morley G. Naylor

“Ladies and gentlemen, the batteries for this afternoon’s game are: for the Johnny’s Cardinals – Wheeler pitching and Sedgwick catching, and for The Pas TeePees – Marlowe pitching and….” the crowd noise drowns out the words of the umpire. Yankee Stadium… no. SkyDome in Toronto… no. It’s Foster Park in Flin Flon, Manitoba, and this is Polar League baseball at its best.

While much is written about the fame of the Flin Flon Junior Bombers and their exploits, little remains on record locally about a very good baseball league involving Flin Flon, Creighton, Cranberry Portage, and The Pas. Join us as we view the league, its players, and some not so tall tales about Polar League baseball as seen through the eyes of a youngster. So, with my tattered notebook of scores tracking my favourite team, the Cardinals, we’ll follow the trails wherever they may lead, or as Yogi Berra would say, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Hopefully we’ll stir some memories of northern Manitoba baseball days gone by.

The league itself existed in various forms over the years (circa 1956-66) and at one time included teams from Bowsman and Thompson. We’ll focus on approximately the 1960 era (give or take a year or so) when young eyes idolized the Junior Bombers by winter and our favourite Polar League baseball team by summer. By about this time, the Creighton Braves had folded and Flin Flon had two teams: the Ross’ Stylers and Johnny’s Cardinals. These guys played for fun – but were damn good players as well. Under different circumstances many could likely have made careers out of baseball. These were players dedicated to the game: good sportsmanship, no free agency, no draft picks, no wages, no steroids, just fun – how refreshing when one views the state of professional baseball today.

Foster Park

Let’s start at the epicenter of Flin Flon baseball at the time: Foster Park. This was no Fenway Park, but it did the job and had a history dating back to as early as 1935. A large muskeg area was drained to provide a recreational area that not only included baseball but skating, track and field, tennis and extravaganza events requiring space for large crowds. An official opening of the park, presumably in honour of Flin Flon’s fist mayor E.E. Foster, was scheduled for the 4th of September, 1939, but the event was pre-empted by the outbreak of World War II when Great Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany on the third day of September.

The big – I mean big – problem with the ball diamond was flooding during a downpour, as the playing area was lower than the surrounding terrain. You can understand the frustration of a team from The Pas traveling over the old dusty and bumpy #10 Highway only to be rained out. Nonetheless, the field was the best we had, and was probably an engineering marvel in the ‘City Built on Rock’. There were, however, a few wrinkles – if you hit the ball out of the park on the right side of a power pole you had a double; hit on the left side, a home run. Good left hand batters knew this and milked it to the hilt. Remember the collateral damage? People parked their cars along Boam Street and the north end of the park. Many became victims of broken windshields and dented cars due to flying balls (as did nearby houses).

How about the shaky bleachers complete with press gallery – manned by the likes of Harry Miles of the Daily Miner, Tom Dobson of The Reminder, and Bernie Pascal or Carl Edmonds of CFAR. Sue’s Lunch was literally swamped during and between doubleheader games, and other enterprising individuals operated a catering van to fulfill the requirement for soft drinks, french fries, and the like. A strange, but innovative policy was the ‘ball-in’ system. You see, this league ran a tight budget, so any ball hit or tipped foul out of the playing field had to be recovered. The league hired older kids called chasers to recover these expensive items and throw them back on to the field for reuse while shouting “Ball in” during lulls in play. My friend (who shall remain nameless) and I devised a plan to get our hands on one of these souvenirs. The plan failed miserably as we neglected to consider that big kids run faster than little kids. Then there were the hat men, the guys who brought the hats around for silver collection to defray costs. I believe that the rule was kids under 12 were free, and suddenly every kid at the game was under 12.

The Officials

No officials, no league; it was that simple. These guys were outstanding, taking abuse on a regular basis, yet still they stepped forward. I have vivid memories of four of them in Flin Flon. Let’s start with early league days home plate umpire Ken Huffman, no strager to Flin Flonners. Ken was well ahead of his time. Balls were “NO” and “YES” was a strike; the really good strike pitches were “STEE” (baseball fans – does this sound like today?).

Next is Alex Huston, a great guy who also refereed SJHL/Bomber hockey. I knew Alex well, but I could never figure out why you would want to be screamed at both summer and winter. On to Jack Clark. Jack was a late comer to Flin Flon who lived a black or so down from our place in the new Lakeside area. He certainly knew his stuff and was a fan of “BAHH” for balls out of the strike zone and “STEE-RIKE” for good pitches. He was a neighbour of Cardinal player Al Mealy, and I once remember him calling out loud on a bad pitch, “What the hell are you doing swinging at that, Al?” (He later confessed to thinking out loud.) He was a good guy who helped out our little league team in Lakeside, which was sponsored by Frank and Elsie Schneider’s Grocery Store (another story). And last, but not by any means least, Alex Kennedy. Mr. Kennedy was a base umpire – and was he fast. The crowd marveled how he could always beat the runner from first base to second to make the call on a base steal.

Teams – Players and Stories

The teams at the forefront of these little eyes were the Ross’ Stylers, Johnny’s Cadinals and the dreaded The Pas TeePees. I had watched a couple of games in Creighton featuring The Braves with my dad and recall Kenny Marchant as the catcher of note as well as the ‘Smith Battery’. Ken was the pitcher and Claude the catcher. (Ken later told me that they had previously filled the same role in The Pas, where they had grown up loving baseball.)

The name that I recall for the Cranberry Portage Radar Kings is pitcher Lorne Lalashnick. The Cranberry team was closely linked to the Mid-Canada Line radar site and ceased as a team as the activity at the military complex was scaled down.

Johnny’s Cardinals, sponsored by Johnny Boychuk of Johnny’s Confectionery, was my team of choice. Why? Well, nice bird on the uniform. (Strategy is all-important in selecting a team of choice.) This was a good ball club with players such as Al Wheeler (pitcher), Bob ‘Lefty’ Remington (pitcher), Gerry Curle (pitcher), Len Sedgwick (catcher), Bob Quinn, Al Mealy, Vic Poirer, Al Evason, Myles Gillard, Ted Hampson, Ron Hutchinson, and Wayne Berg. As testament to the quality of the Polar League, Cardinal player Al Evason (the team’s leading hitter from 1964-66) was inducted into the Manitoba Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006. He had a brilliant career with other teams as well, including Dauphin, Bowsman and Thompson.

Ross’ Styler (formerly the Centrals of Central Motors, or what is now the Northland Ford dealership) sponsored by Ross’ Style Shop and Men’s Wear. They were another good ball club, always at their best when they had to be, with players such as Lee Fisher (pitcher), George Konik (catcher), Don Donaldson, Al Longmore, Al Hamilton, Rich Billy, Richie Goulden, Paddy Hamilton, Ken Klause, and Lloyd Young.

The Pas TeePees were a truly great team and were even inducted into the Manitoba Baseball Hall of Fame in 2005. These guys came to play every time and are/were fully deserving of credit. Players on the 1959 Polar League Championship team included Lynn Marlowe (pitcher), Bernie Lanigan (pitcher), Orest Strocel, Claude Kozik, Bill Donaldson, Cliff “Ticky” King, Ron Ewing, Brian McTaggert, Harvey Beach, Barry Rowley, Irv Snyder, Jimmy Demetruk, Stan Reid, Ron Cox, Hugh Turnbull, and Doug White. Many years later it was always a pleasure to reminisce about the Polar League with Cliff King at Art Johnson Men’s Wear in The Pas. Ticky was truly a great player and good sport; a credit to the TeePees and The Pas.

From the outset these were good people playing for the love of the game, always with intensity. The ‘big showdown’ (our version of the World Series) seemed to always be a Flin Flon team against The Pas TeePees. Sunday double headers were the norm, with teams alternating weekends in Flin Flon or The Pas. Team buses? Not in this league; no, the players and fans jumped into their cars and made the trip. The road trip to The Pas was a great adventure for youngsters; a stop at Caribou Bill’s in Cranberry Portage before reaching The Pas with its flat land with no rock. The huge Saskatchewan River and crossing over the bridge were exciting things, and the lush green ball park just outside of town was indeed impressive. (Yes, real grass as opposed to Foster Park clay.) If you were fortunate, the outing included a trip to the A&W to meet the burger family (Flin Flon didn’t have an A&W at the time). The series were always close, it seemed, and the rivalry was intense, with some over exuberant fans on both sides taunting The Pas boys as ‘hayseeds’ (farmers) and Flin Flonners as ‘gophers’ (miners going underground).

One particular incident at Foster Park stands out. The Cardinals were hosting the TeePees, with Al Wheeler on the mound for the Cards. Al was a very find pitcher, right up there with Lee Fisher of Flin Flon and Lynn Marlowe from The Pas, but he was not having a good day. (Or as Yogi would say, “It gets late early in the game when you are losing.”) Fans along the first line bleachers were heckling Al terribly, referring to him as “Chickadee Arm.” Finally Al had enough – he threw the ball in the direction of the hecklers, but over their heads. All hell broke loose, Wheeler was ejected from the game, and the matter was referred to the league commissioner, Gordie Martin. As I recall, Al received a two game suspension but the Cards went on to win the series; Flin Flon’s version of the Rocket Richard riot.

Another highlight was when the great Satchel Paige and his team came to Flin Flon on their exhibition tour. The Polar League boys formed a team to take them on, with the full knowledge that they would lose. As per usual, old Satchel came in to pitch in the last inning or so. He wound up as if he would throw a 90 mile an hour pitch – but it was a fake, a real softy designed to fool the batter. The only problem was that you didn’t fool this batter – big Don Donaldson. “Whack!” and it was gone for an easy double. As I have been saying all along, these Polar League guys were good! Another safe bet was the hit and run by two Cardinal starts, George Chigol and Len Sedgwick; if either were on third and the other batting it was a sure hit and run that usually worked, probably without any sign from the manager.

Yes, this was northern baseball at its finest with an intense rivalry, especially between Flin Flon and The Pas. Foster Park was our “Yankee Stadium” and we dared anyone to beat our boys (which the TeePees often did). It was a different era, less complex, when the game itself was bigger than any individual. These were the times when you wanted to kick the pants off your opposition, but if they were a player short, you would lend them one of yours for the sake of the game. Dugouts for the teams? Not likely – a rickety old bench would do. Gatorade for the players; nah, a pail of water with a big block of ice was quite sufficient.

We close this trip back in northern Manitoba baseball history with a short chat with a Flin Flonner who actually played in the Polar League – Bob Quinn. Bob played a couple of years with the Creighton Braves before moving on to the Cardinals for three years and is best remembered playing shortstop or second base. As fast as he was in the infield, he was quick to recall other Cardinals such as Joe Bocklage, Duane Rupp, Mel Pearson, Bobby McDowell and Gordie Waldmo.

When asked about memories Bob’s reply was, “It was a great league – lots of fun – and I enjoyed it very much. Too bad it’s gone. There was great camaraderie, but tough competition as well, especially with The Pas TeePees. The great thing was that all was forgotten in the post game get togethers between the teams… fun and laughter, which even included the much despised umpires of a few minutes earlier.” Being the gentleman that he is, Bob epitomized the class of players that were predominant in the Polar League.

Sadly, the Polar League faded away with time (in the late 1960s) and the ball park and bleachers went silent, but it sure was a great league while we had it. Now only fond memories remain, or as Yogi would say, “Nobody goes there anymore – it’s too crowded.”