Long History Of Minor-League Ball In Salem

SALEM, Ore. - A ticket was a quarter; scorecards and hot dogs were a nickel apiece.

For 35 cents, one could enjoy an evening at the ballpark.

Players were paid about $130 a month, and they traveled from game to game in a rickety old bus.

Those were the vital statistics of professional baseball in Salem, as it was in 1940.

George E. Waters, a man who made his money selling wholesale tobacco and candy, was the father.

He purchased a Class B minor league franchise from Bellingham, Wash., brought it to Salem, and built a $60,000 stadium for it to call home. It was his home, Waters Field.

He named his team the Senators, befitting the state capital.

Waters nurtured his team through its first season, often pampering his players on the road. There were times when he would move the team to a different hotel because accommodations weren't up to his standards.

The Senators were embraced by the community. Their home opener at Waters Field drew 4,865 fans, at that time the largest sports crowd in Salem history.

The two newspapers in town, the Capital Journal and the Oregon Statesman, referred to the team as "Our Senators" in stories and headlines.

Waters died before he could watch the Senators grow up. A heart attack took his life six months after he gave Salem the gift of pro baseball.

He left a legacy that would survive for almost 50 years, with a few breaks. World War II put a hold on Salem's minor league

development in 1943-45.

The team became affiliated with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1961, but folded five years later because of financial difficulties. A few months later, Waters Field went up in flames.

A decade went by before the Senators were resurrected. They became the Angels in 1981, then the Dodgers in 1988.

The teams through the years featured such players as Al Lightner, Lee Fallin, George Vico, Bill Beard, Bill Bevens, Bobby Cox, Jim Lefebvre, Chuck Finley, Dante Bichette and Mike Piazza.

Pro baseball died in Salem in 1989, when the Dodgers packed up and moved to Yakima, Wash.

Lagging attendance and poor facilities were cited as reasons for their departure, a far cry from a magical opening night in 1940.

It was May 1, 1940. The Senators christened Waters Field, a brand new 5,000-seat stadium built at 25th and Mission Streets, where Salem's main post office sits today.

The Senators faced the Yakima Pippins in a Class B Western International League game.

A near-capacity crowd was in the grandstands for pro baseball's debut in Salem.

Al Lightner, who still resides in Salem, played on that team and remembers the opener.

"Ernie Springer had dreamed he was going to pinch-hit a home run to win the game for Yakima," he said. "He came up in the ninth inning and hit a grand slam to put them four up. In the bottom of the ninth, we scored five to win the game, 11-10."

Waters died Oct. 18, 1940.

Lightner recalls his widow wanting to sell the team.

"She blamed baseball for his heart attack; she was very bitter," he said. "She didn't want to continue running the club."

Players and managers urged her to not sell the team, but she eventually did. In 1942, the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League bought the franchise and Waters Field, running the Salem Senators as their own farm team.

Lightner was the business manager for the club in '42, when he discovered it had become necessary to find new and interesting ways to lure fans to the stadium.

He had heard about a pitcher who was in the state penitentiary, serving a life sentence for his involvement in the murder of a state policeman.

He persuaded the prison warden to let him sign Luke Crosswhite for one game. He was sure fans would flock to see a convict take the mound.

But a letter from the czar of the minor leagues put the brakes on Lightner's scheme. Its message read something like this: "If you ever let him put on a professional uniform and pitch one ball, you will be barred from baseball for life."

"His career was over before it even started," Lightner said of Crosswhite. "It was a promotion. I thought it would pack the park."

The people of Salem stepped up to the plate in 1951, raising $50,000 to buy the Senators and Waters Field from the Portland Beavers.

Don Young, an attorney in Salem, was the pointman. He enlisted the help of Lightner and other baseball fans in the area, and put together a plan to sell corporate stock, at $25 a share.

The $50,000 was easily realized. Half went to Portland as a downpayment, and the other half was retained as operational money.

"We got the old Senators back," Lightner said. "We had a home-owned ballclub in Salem.

"I had $100 worth of stock. I've still got it in my safety deposit box."

The Senators became the Dodgers in 1961, when they signed a working agreement with the major league club from Los Angeles.

Stan Wasiak, the all-time leader in minor league history with more than 2,000 wins, was named the manager in Salem, with Lightner the general manager.

Before the 1961 season, the parent club sent for Lightner.

"I had to go down to L.A. to learn how the Dodgers operated the club," Lightner said. "Then I came back and ran it."

The lessons must have paid off, because the Salem Dodgers won the attendance title for all of Class B baseball. A 2 1/2-foot trophy that recognizes that fact sits prominently on a shelf in the corner of Lightner's living room.

"We averaged almost 1,400 per game," he said. "That was the only year, so help me God, we ever operated in the black."

Players on those Dodger teams included Bobby Cox, third baseman in 1962, and Jim Lefebvre, second baseman in 1963.

Cox, who went on to play in the majors in 1968-69, is now manager of the world champion Atlanta Braves.

Just four years after drawing more fans than any Class B team in the nation, the Salem Dodgers went broke and folded.

Waters Field was without a tenant. The power was shut off, and the weeds began to grow. The city of Salem condemned the dilapidated structure. The once sturdy, proud home of the Senators and Dodgers was considered worthless.

On the night of Nov. 11, 1966, the grandstands were destroyed by a spectacular fire that was seen for miles around.

The fire at Waters Field left pro baseball there in ashes. Salem was without the sport for a decade before Clint Holland, a local stockbroker, helped bring it back.

An independent team was put together for the 1977 season. It played that first year at what is now Holland Youth Park, then worked out an agreement to play its home games at Chemeketa Community College.

Holland was president and general manager of the club when it signed a working agree"ment with the California Angels in 1981. The Angels developed players such as Chuck Finley and Dante Bichette, both current major leaguers, in Salem. Bob Kipper and Mark McLemore also had stints here.

The highlight of the Angels' era was in 1982, when Salem won the Northwest League championship. It was Salem's first and only minor league pennant.

But success on the field didn't always translate to success off the field.

Like Lightner in the infant years of pro baseball in this city, Holland found he had to work hard at bringing fans to the ballpark. He had a promotion for almost every night the Angels played at home.

"Our attendance was steady all the way through," Holland said. "We operated just barely in the black. Our problem was, we kept putting money into the bathrooms, lights."

The Angels flew out of town in 1987, and in came the Dodgers. Young prospects like Henry Rodriguez and Mike Piazza graced the field at Chemeketa, but there were few spectators to witness the foundation of their future major league careers.

The Dodgers departed after two seasons in Salem, moving to Yakima, with their sights on a new stadium that eventually would be built there.

Nine years have gone by since the Salem area has had minor league baseball. The Bellingham Giants are planning to end the drought by moving to Keizer and building a new stadium.

This one will cost $2 million, more than 30 times what it cost to build Waters Field.