Play ball! Baseball in Early Sandpoint, 1895-1930

The batter connected with a fast pitch, sending the ball high into the air toward the water. Cheers erupted from the enthusiastic crowd lining the makeshift field in the area now included in City Beach. This was the first game for the newly formed Sandpoint Base Ball Association, played on the Fourth of July in 1895 against the Hope team. That day the men batted their way to an 18-18 tie, but two weeks later Sandpoint lost to Hope, 29-20.

Baseball was very popular nationwide and it seemed that every town, no matter how small, fielded a team. Since travel in North Idaho was difficult then, with long distances and few good roads, communities with baseball teams needed to be accessible either by railroad or steamboat. The Northern Pacific connected Sandpoint with Hope and Clark Fork to the east and Sagle, Athol, and Rathdrum to the south. The Great Northern ran west to Priest River and north to Bonners Ferry. By 1906 the Spokane International offered even more possibilities. In addition, steamboats traveled to virtually any point on the lake or river.

In August 1895 the Sandpoint team and its fans, including a number of women, boarded the Hustler and headed downriver to play a game with Seneacquoteen. It was a lopsided match with Sandpoint winning 60-13, but the host team was gracious and everyone had a grand time. Later that summer, Bonners Ferry humiliated the local team twice in games to determine the Panhandle championship. One Sandpoint player quipped later, “We have met the enemy and we are theirs.”

By the early 1900s, most of the Sandpoint games were against towns of similar size, such as Priest River and Bonners Ferry. The smaller communities played amongst themselves, with such contests continuing well into the 1930s. There were teams in Sagle and Morton, Colburn and Grouse Creek, Wrencoe and Dover, Selle and Bronx, and many more. Such games in rural areas gave residents a chance to socialize while having a fun game. 

Businesses also sponsored teams, contributing funds for uniforms in exchange for favorable advertising, especially when the teams were successful. George Walker’s clothing store on First Avenue sponsored the Walker Colts from 1905-1908 while druggist Charles Foss backed the Pill Rollers. Probably the best known name locally was Humbird Lumber Company which sponsored a team as early as 1907. The mill owner’s son was still a teenager then, working summers in the lumber yard and playing baseball on the side. His summer job may have inspired the first team’s name, Slab Pilers. 

While the Sandpoint team was good, the playing field by the lake often was a challenge depending on how much of it flooded each year. Such floods were an annual occurrence until Albeni Falls dam began regulating the lake level in the early 1950s. 1903 was one of those bad years and the team manager warned in late May that the upcoming game had to be canceled because the lake was rising too fast. It wasn’t until late July that the water went down, leaving flood debris and soggy ground. The team worked to clear the area and pack the dirt to make it smooth.

Such an unreliable field prompted the Sandpoint team and its fans to start looking for a more permanent location. They wanted to be able to enclose the field so they could charge a nominal admission to help offset costs. After looking at several possible locations, the team settled on land in the block bounded by Church and Pine, Fifth and Sixth. They were busy clearing the ground of stumps by mid-June 1904 and planned to build a grandstand and fence. The new ball park opened on the Fourth of July with a double-header against Newport. Sandpoint took both games, aided by their star pitcher, G. H. “Mickey” Fleming, who struck out 11 of the Newport players. The crowd enjoyed the grandstand and the team was happy that the new fence was tall enough to keep out little boys— except those who could climb well.

With the new ball park enabling a full season of play, Sandpoint set out to build a topnotch team, sometimes recruiting players from within the region. George Andrews, “the best twirler in the northwest,” had pitched for the Missoula Giants so the local team was excited when he moved to town in November 1904 to work for the telephone company. The following spring the Sandpoint team opened negotiations with another player from Helena, hoping to entice him to join the team. The investment paid off and the Sandpoint team won 14 of their 20 games, securing the regional championship. One of the local newspapers bragged that Spokane had sent its best players, “but one and all have returned to the city with their pelts hanging on the fence.”

Inland Empire champions, 1905.
Photo and caption from the Pend d’Oreille Review, 15 September 1905, page 1.

After just two seasons in their new ball park, the team was forced to look for a new location since the Spokane International Railway had acquired right-of-way (now the bike path) through the playing field. The team shifted their games south to some vacant lots on Euclid Avenue. They disassembled the grandstand and fencing and rebuilt them in time to play two Spokane teams on the new field.

Occasional ball games were organized simply for fun. Businessman John Southmayd was a longtime baseball fan and supporter of the local team. He was also a sizable man, leading him to organize a fat men’s team in 1906 and challenging the leans “to mortal combat.” There were a number of fat men’s clubs in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries when male obesity was associated with wealth as well as good disposition. Members had to tip the scales at 200 pounds or more to qualify. Southmayd used the same weight standard and evidently had no difficulty finding enough men for a team. They planned to charge a ten-cent admission “to defray the expenses of the supper which will follow the awful slaughter.” 

The game in late June 1906 drew an enthusiastic crowd to the new ball grounds. There was humor and good-natured ribbing, including a burro enlisted as the ambulance after one player got dinged by a foul tip. The Leans were so chagrined by their 17-12 loss that they immediately asked for a rematch. They had no better luck the second time and lost again 26-23. The Fats claimed they would have gotten more runs but got tired of running the bases. The local newspaper reported that two of their players “showed lack of wind and had to be inflated during the game.” Occasional contests between the Fats and Leans continued into the 1920s.

Maintenance of the playing field became an issue in 1908 when the grass in the outfield went unmowed. After a rain the long wet grass made quick moves especially difficult for fielders.  When the city council and the school board played, fielder George Walker missed a ball and then spent so long trying to find it in the tall grass that the school board scored a home run. The Sandpoint ball team promised to cut the grass before the next game. 

As the area near the ball park began to fill with more houses, some nearby residents asked the city council to declare the park a nuisance in 1909. Because of the complaints, the owner was reluctant to renew the lease but relented and extended the agreement for one more season after the team promised to keep the grounds clean. 

As the Tigers once again began looking for new quarters, a win-win solution emerged. The newly formed Sandpoint & Interurban Railway saw a chance to help the ball team while generating reliable income for the streetcar line. The tracks ran from downtown Sandpoint to Boyer Avenue and then north to the present-day airport where they turned east to Ponderay and Kootenai. The interurban company built a new ball field at this bend in the tracks. Recreation Park was ready for the Tigers’ first game against the Kootenai White Sox in late June 1910. Four streetcars carried fans from both Sandpoint and Kootenai to watch the White Sox win 6-2.

It quickly became apparent that the new ball park was not an ideal location because of its distance from Sandpoint. With little practice time, the Tigers played poorly in 1910. “But how in thunder are they going to get [practice]?” asked one writer. “The grounds are too far away and most of the members of the team work until six o’clock each day.” In addition, streetcar fares added to the Tigers’ financial woes. By 1911 the interurban offered free rides for training, but the team continued to struggle and played few games for the next two summers.

Recreation Park on opening day, May 4, 1913. Photo courtesy of the Bonner County History Museum.

The community rallied to help the baseball team once again in 1913. At a meeting in February, supporters agreed that any town the size of Sandpoint that did not have a ball team was “slowly mortifying.” They set out to recruit baseball talent, supported by businessmen who recognized the advertising potential connected with a winning team. Various fundraisers brought in enough money to pay off debt and buy new uniforms. The 1913 season opened on May 4 at Recreation Park with a game against Bonners Ferry. The cold wind did not deter more than 800 enthusiastic fans who crowded the stadium and edges of the field. Both teams played well but the Tigers ended on top, 7-3. 

What looked like a revival of former baseball glory never materialized. The location of Recreation Park remained a problem as attendance and ticket sales dropped. Teams coming from a longer distance sometimes were reluctant to play Sandpoint since their share of the gate receipts did not make travel worthwhile. Nonetheless, the Tigers continued to play nearby towns as well as a variety of teams traveling through the region. A game with the Chicago American Giants in April 1914 brought a record crowd to Recreation Park where the Tigers were trounced 10-1. Later in the season, Sandpoint beat a Japanese ball team from Meiji University in Tokyo. 

That same summer the Sandpoint team went to Spokane to play the Gonzaga University men just as a circus was setting up next to the playing field. In the course of a conversation between the elephant trainer and one of the Gonzaga staff, the men placed a $2 wager on the game. It wasn’t about winning or losing; the circus man simply bet that Sandpoint would score at least one run. It was looking like a poor choice by the bottom of the ninth inning when the Tigers were still at 0. 

At that point, the trainer decided to take his elephants to get a drink of water, walking them along the edge of the playing field. A Sandpoint player hit a long fly deep into right field—and under the last elephant. The Gonzaga fielder had to wait to retrieve  the ball, allowing one batter to score and putting another on third base. “Elephant ground rules seldom come up for interpretation,” noted the sports writer. The umpire moved each man back a base, but the next batter knocked both of them home, giving a final score of 6-2, and leaving the $2 in the elephant trainer’s hands.

The closure of the streetcar company in 1917 brought an end to Recreation Park so Sandpoint baseball returned to the beach area. With so many young men drafted into the military during World War I, it was hard to put together a good ball team. By 1919, many of the Sandpoint players were just out of high school, but they hoped to get some of the former players once Company A of the Idaho National Guard returned home. 

The Tigers got a new lease on life in 1920. O.J. Bandelin, one of the former players, was selected to coach the team. The town rallied with some funding and the club began to get the beach playing field ready for the season. At the same time, the Humbird team was building a new ball park on Boyer Avenue, across from what is now Lake Pend Oreille High School. The two teams decided to cooperate and evidently merged their players to make a stronger team. The Humbird Tigers began to attract large crowds once again, bringing 600 fans to watch a double header against Clark Fork.

The Tigers continued to play nearby towns during the 1920s, along with a variety of teams sponsored by organizations or businesses, such as the Blackwell Lumber Company team from Coeur d’Alene. With the proliferation of automobiles and the popularity of driving, competition extended to towns in Montana and British Columbia. 

Meanwhile, back at the beach, another group of men organized an informal Twilight League with four teams: lumbermen, businessmen, professional men, and clerks. Games started at 5:30 and ended after five innings. By the end of July 1922, the professionals led the league while the businessmen were at the bottom. Similar informal games continued off and on for many years.

Two former Tiger players, Mickey Fleming and Charles Tiggelbeck, tried to rally businesses to support the team in 1924. They hoped to raise enough money to pay the players a modest salary to compensate them for giving up holidays and Sundays to entertain the fans. At a team meeting, the players agreed to accept $15 for infielders and $10 for outfielders per game. Fundraising didn’t go as well as hoped, but the team decided to play anyway even if their compensation was less than expected. 

By June young boys had compounded the team’s financial situation by grabbing fly balls that went over the fence. During one game, the Tigers lost 20 balls, which cost $2 each. The team’s management fumed that the police should “arrest every kid caught making off with a ball.” Despite the financial worries, the Tigers played well that season. Three years later, they won 12 of their 15 games.

House of David junior baseball team, ca. 1918.

Traveling teams continued to visit North Idaho and the Tigers jumped at the chance to play. One of the most famous teams, the House of David, came in late April 1928 for a game on Humbird field. This was an Adventist cult in Benton Harbor, Michigan, whose founder mandated celibacy, forbade consumption of alcohol and meat, and banned shaving and trimming hair. With an emphasis on exercise, the group formed a baseball team in 1914 and their outstanding playing soon attracted attention. They dazzled crowds nationwide with their plays as well as their antics, and their flowing locks fascinated everyone. Sandpoint residents were so excited about the game that many stores decided to close early. The “Bearded Beauties” did not disappoint but the Tigers held their own through the 8th inning when the score was tied 5-5. The visitors then poured it on in the 9th, winning the game 11-5. The Davids returned the next year and trounced the Tigers 8-0.

The deteriorating economic situation did not stop people from playing baseball. Teams from Sandpoint, Bonners Ferry, Troy, and Creston, BC, formed the International League in 1930. The opening game featured Troy and Sandpoint, both of whom claimed to have the best team in years. Women and children were admitted free on the first day, but there was a 25-cent charge for “extra ladies.” The lively game ended with Sandpoint beating Troy 6-0, and by the end of the season the local team led the International League.

Advertisement for opening game of the 1930 season with the newly formed International League. Northern Idaho News, 29 April 1930, page 5.

A version of the Tigers played sporadically for the next couple of years but never regained its former strength. The closure of local lumber mills during the Great Depression likely affected many of the team as high unemployment sent men elsewhere to look for work. Sandpoint did not give up on the game, however, and the amateur teams still played, as they do to this day. They’re following the footsteps of the legendary Tigers whose players and ball fields were once a major part of Sandpoint summers.

Sources:

Live Items From Sandpoint, Silver Blade, 29 June 1895, 1:1-2; Sandpoint Items, Silver Blade, 6 July 1895, 1:3; Sandpoint Pointers, Silver Blade, 20 July 1895, 4:3;Sandpoint Notes, Silver Blade, 10 August 1895, 1:4; The First of the Series, Silver Blade, 7 September 1895, 1:1-2; Sandpoint Notes, Silver Blade, 21 September 1895, 8:1; Local Paragraphs, Kootenai County Republican, 27 May 1903, 3:1; Local Paragraphs, Kootenai County Republican, 22 July 1903, 3:2; Base Ball Fans Hold Meeting To Effect An Organization, Northern Idaho News, 17 June 1904, 1:1-2; Base Ball Park Opened, Northern Idaho News, 8 July 1904, 1:3-4; Local Paragraphs, Northern Idaho News, 4 November 1904, 10:3; Sandpoint To Have A Strong Base Ball Team This Season, Northern Idaho News, 31 March 1905, 1:5-6; Champions Of Inland Empire, Pend d’Oreille Review, 15 September 1905, 1:2-5; Local Paragreaphs, Northern Idaho News, 16 March 1906, 5:2; First Ball Game Sunday, Pend d’Oreille Review, 19 April 1906, 1:2; Grounds For New Baseball Park, Pend d’Oreille Review, 26 April 1906, 1:2; Sandpoint Wins First Ball Game, Northern Idaho News, 27 April 1906, 1:1-2; Local Paragraphs, Northern Idaho News, 4 May 1906, 5:2; Items of Local Interest, Northern Idaho News, 11 May 1906, 3:2; Fats and Leans to Play Ball, Pend d’Oreille Review, 17 May 1906, 1:4; Fats & Leans To Play Again, Pend d’Oreille Review, 21 June 1906, 1:5; Barker’s Barkers Met Their Waterloo, Northern Idaho News, 22 June 1906, 1:1-2; Fats Again Win Out, Pend d’Oreille Review, 30 August 1906, 10:1-2; Fats Win Again, Northern Idaho News, 31 August 1906, 5:2; Slab Pilers Victorious, Northern Idaho News, 25 July 1907, 8:4; Fats And Leans Cross Bats On Local Diamond Next Sunday, Northern Idaho News, 1 August 1907, 1:5-6; Fats Everlastingly Wallop The Leans, Northern Idaho News, 8 August 1907, 1:1-2; Local Paragraphs, Northern Idaho News, 23 June 1908, 6:3; Council Fixes Boundry [sic] Lines, Northern Idaho News, 23 February 1909, 8:1-2; No Salaries This Season, Pend d’Oreille Review, 26 March 1909, 10:2; Organize New Base Ball Club, Northern Idaho News, 8 March 1910, 5:3; Provision For Base Ball Park, Pend d’Oreille Review, 29 April 1910, 6:2; Base Ball Park Is Now Assured, Northern Idaho News, 3 May 1910, 6:1-2; Baseball Game Sunday, Northern Idaho News, 21 June 1910, 1:6; Kootenai Beats Sandpoint Tigers, Northern Idaho News, 28 June 1910, 1:3-4; Coeur d’Alene Wins Game From Tigers, Northern Idaho News, 19 July 1910, 1:5-6; Baseball Fans Ready For Organization, Northern Idaho News, 18 April 1911, 1:5; Baseball Fans Want Club This Summer, Northern Idaho News, 25 February 1913, 1:4; Baseball Team Is Now Assured, Northern Idaho News, 11March 1913, 1:6; Baseball Fans Well Pleased, Northern Idaho News, 8 April 1913, 1:6; Baseball Benefit Was Success, Pend d’Oreille Review, 18 April 1913, 1:2; Tigers Win Opener, Pend d’Oreille Review, 9 May 1913, 3:1-2; Record Crowd At Ball Game, Northern Idaho News, 21 April 1914, 1:6; Elephant Helps Out, Pend d’Oreille Review, 15 May 1914, 3:1-2; Japanese Ball Team To Play The Tigers, Northern Idaho News, 21 July 1914, 1:4; Local Players Trim The Japs, Northern Idaho News, 28 July 1914, 1:4; Game Of Unusual Interest, Pend d’Oreille Review, 4 September 1914, 1:2; Spirit Lake Will Play Ball Game Here, Northern Idaho News, 27 May 1919, 1:4; Playing Ball “Down On Flat,” Pend d’Oreille Review, 30 May 1919, 1:6; Baseball Meeting, Northern Idaho News, 30 March 1920, 1:5; In The Field Of Sport, Northern Idaho News, 13 April 1920, 5:1-3; Sandpoint Fails To Connect With Star Twirler’s Curves, Pend d’Oreille Review, 14 May 1920, 1:6; The Humbird’s To Play Here, Pend d’Oreille Review, 11 June 1920, 1:2; Home Teams Winners In Both Sunday Games, Northern Idaho News, 22 June 1920, 1:2; Humbird Tigers Continue Winning Streak, Northern Idaho News, 10 May 1921, 1:5; Tigers Take Game From Bonners Ferry, Pend d’Oreille Review, 27 May 1921, 3:1-2; Old Timers Start Twilight League, Pend d’Oreille Review, 14 July 1922, 1:6; Twilight Leaguers Play Strenuous Ball, Pend d’Oreille Review, 21 July 1922, 1:3; Baseball Meeting Called Thursday, Northern Idaho News, 26 February 1924, 1:3; Start Effort For 1924 Baseball Team, Pend d’Oreille Review, 6 March 1924, 4:1-2; Sandpoint Will Have Baseball Again This Year, Pend d’Oreille Review, 17 April 1924, 1:2; No title, Pend d’Oreille Review, 19 June 1924, 2:2-3; Four Ls Defeat Hillyard 2 to 0, Pend d’Oreille Review, 18 August 1927, 1:3; Ryan Ferguson, The religious sect that became baseball’s answer to the Harlem Globetrotters, The Guardian, 21 September 2016; House Of David Team, Bearded Ball Stars, To Play Here Friday, Pend d’Oreille Review, 26 April 1928, 1:4-5; Bearded Beauties Defeat Four L’s In Last Inning Batting Orgy, Pend d’Oreille Review, 3 May 1928, 1:4-5; Davids Win From Sandpoint, 8-0, Pend d’Oreille Review, 11 July 1929, 2:5; International Baseball League Formed, Northern Idaho News, 22 April 1930, 1:3; International Ball Opens Next Sunday, Northern Idaho News, 29 April 1930, 1:5; Ad, Northern Idaho News, 29 April 1930, 5:4-5; New International League Is Opened, Northern Idaho News, 6 May 1930, 4:2; Drop Close Game, Pend d’Oreille Review, 14 August 1930, 3:4.

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2 Responses to Play ball! Baseball in Early Sandpoint, 1895-1930

  1. Mary Garrison says:

    Good Afternoon! Fantastic article but you always do an amazing job. I had a friend ask me some time ago about a baseball field near the Dufort Road in the 1930’s. Have you come across anything like that? I told him I imagined the Turnbulls played on it. 🙂

    Like

  2. Nancy Foster Renk says:

    Hi Mary! I’m glad that you enjoyed the article. I had fun with it, especially the Fats and the Leans. I don’t know anything about a field near Dufort Road but it’s not unlikely that there was one there. So many rural communities had baseball fields, even if it was little more than an unused pasture. There is a nice field at Sagle, next to the school, where the Turnbulls played with the Sagle team but they would have traveled to other communities, such as Dufort, in the course of a season.
    Cheers! Nancy

    Like

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