The Surprising History Of Baseball In Montana

Jul 20, 2015

When you hear the word “baseball,” Montana is not the first place that comes to mind. But there are stories here. And now, thanks to Skylar Browning and Jeremy Watterson, those stories have been exhumed from historical archives and published in a book titled Montana Baseball History.

Watterson’s research turned up ball games played in the early- to mid-1800s.

“Lewis and Clark played a version of baseball that they called 'Prison Base' in The Journals with the Nez Perce on their return trip east. And the first box score in a Montana newspaper was out of Virginia City in 1866. One fellow researcher told me that as these mining camps and timber towns popped up there was a saloon, a church, and a ball team—and maybe not in that order.”

By the late 1800s Montana had professional teams. But, says Skylar Browning, just because they were professionals, it didn’t mean they were well-behaved.

“Baseball was still a rough-and-tumble sport, and Montana represented that as well as any place. You had leagues that were not very big, as far as the number of teams, but ended up attracting—because there was enough money in Montana at the time—future Hall Of Fame players. But they were scattered in with brawlers and guys that were just hanging on. So, the professional leagues, in 1900, for instance, they couldn’t finish the championship series because the teams were not only fighting each other, but fighting the umpires. And games were getting called and having to be decided by forfeit because of the amount of fisticuffs that would end up ruling the field.”

Sometimes the weather didn’t behave, either.

“The Pioneer League had snow in August that cancelled, I believe, a weekend’s worth of games. There was also in some early games where major league teams would barnstorm, before or after their season.”

In October of 1924, Browning says, “The Brooklyn Dodgers played in Cascade County and there was snow on the field during the game, but they played it anyway. The Dodgers won that game, by the way, by one run over Cascade.”

So who, exactly, was on the Cascade Country team that the Brooklyn Dodgers defeated by one whole point?

“It was a collection of all-stars from the area. So, local town guys,” says Browning.

Of the hundreds of Montana baseball players who have made it onto major league teams, there’s only one woman in the book:  Donna Roberts from Billings. She was a member of a professional team during World War II. But, when Browning interviewed her last year, he found out that Roberts’ baseball training included much more than batting and throwing a ball.

“So she goes through the try-out process, and they had everything from baseball drills to etiquette classes to how the women should look and behave with fans. So it was an all-day, grueling process, by her own account. And she made the team, but never got to play. And she was cut the day before the Peoria Red Wings first game.“

Watterson’s research for the book turned up sixteen former major-league players who are either buried or were cremated in Montana, including one from Missoula.

“We had one fellow who moved here, played high school ball here. His name was Curt Barclay. And  he was a pitcher for both the New York and San Francisco Giants—team mates with Willie Mays. And he pitched the last game played at the Polo Grounds in New York, and then made the leap out to San Francisco with the team. He would be the one and only Missoula connection to major league baseball.”

These days, two men with Montana roots are working in the big leagues. But not as players, says Browning. “One is an umpire: Brian Knight; he actually worked the All-Star game last year, so he’s considered one of the best. And then John Gibbons is the manager of the Toronto Blue Jays and he was born in Great Falls.”

Montana Baseball History is filled with colorful characters and games fueled by fights, booze, cheating, and gambling.

Skylar Browning is the editor of the Missoula Independent, Montana's only alternative news weekly. His award-winning feature writing has involved everything from spending time at the state's only nudist colony to standing in the huddle with the local semi-pro football team. He's been honored by the Montana Newspaper Association and the Society of Professional Journalists and received an NEA Fellowship in 2009. He lives in Missoula with his wife, Nicole, and their three children, Annabella, Oliver and Penelope.

Jeremy Allan Watterson grew up on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation along the Hi-Line in Wolf Point. He has provided color for baseball games on KVCK radio, helped coach the Wolf Point Yellowjackets and as a young boy had a sports card shop with his best friend in his parents' shed. He is a member of the Society of American Baseball Research and earned a degree in sociology from the University of Montana in Missoula, where he lives with his wife and four children. He has had photography, poetry and other co-authored baseball writing published in weekly newspapers and western Montana journals. Montana Baseball History is his first book.