When the Tacoma Rainiers won the 2010 Pacific Coast League championship on September 17 in Memphis, it was Tacoma’s first outright PCL title since 1969.
To clarify, Tacoma had teams that were named “Co-Champions” in 1978 and 2001, when the championship series was unable to be played due to rain (1978) and the 9/11 attacks (2001).
But Tacoma had not celebrated a championship on the field since the Tacoma Cubs defeated the Eugene Emeralds in a best-of-five PCL Championship Series in 1969. I decided to spend some time researching the 1969 team, and learn how they won the title. Little did I know how dramatic the series was, with accusations of cheating and a stunning Tacoma comeback after dropping the first two games.
First, a bit about Tacoma’s opponent, the Eugene Emeralds. Aren’t they a short-season team in the Class-A Northwest League? Yes, they are today – but from 1969 to 1973, Eugene played as a Triple-A team, and in 1969 they were a Philadelphia Phillies affiliate operating out of Civic Stadium.
The PCL was a league in transition in 1969, having just lost several teams (Denver, Indianapolis, Tulsa, and Oklahoma City) to the American Association. The league added Eugene and Tucson in 1969, for an eight-team circuit divided into two four-team divisions. The two division champions would play for the league title.
Tacoma and Eugene each ran away with its division:
The best-of-five series opened with the first two games to be played in Eugene. The series would move to Tacoma for Games 3 and 4, and then back to Eugene for Game 5.
It didn’t even take one inning for the series to get interesting.
After Tacoma did not score in the top of the first inning of Game One, Eugene came to the plate in the bottom of the first against T-Cubs starter Archie Reynolds. With two outs in the bottom of the first inning, Tacoma manager Whitey Lockman called time out, and pointed out to the umpires that the man working the hand-operated scoreboard in center field was using binoculars to steal the signals of Tacoma catcher Randy Bobb, and relay the pitch-type by sending his own signal to the batter.
Second base umpire Paul Runge went out to center field and confiscated the binoculars from the scoreboard operator.
“Did a ‘spy in the sky’ have something to do with the Emeralds’ amazing 52-21 home record this season?… Did Cal Emery get a little “extra” help in compiling that even .400 batting average? (ed: Emery hit .400 in 260 at-bats)… Discoveries of field glasses at certain vantage points in a couple of major league ballparks within the last 25 years have led to drastic action from the commissioner’s office.”
In the end, nothing came of the binoculars incident – and Eugene didn’t need them, anyway. The Emeralds won the first game of the series, 6-1. Emeralds top prospect Larry Bowa hit a leadoff home run on the second pitch in the first inning, and pitcher Gary Wagner went the distance, tossing a seven-hitter.
Reynolds was knocked out in the fifth inning, when Eugene took a 6-0 lead, and it was all over.
Game Two the next day (September 3) was a drama-filled contest – the first of four straight games to be decided by two runs or less.
Tacoma’s Jim Colborn won the regular-season ERA title, and he was tabbed for the start in Game Two against Eugene’s Jeff James. The T-Cubs played some shoddy defense and allowed a pair of unearned runs to score, with two more coming home on a misplayed fly ball that fell for a hit.
“We played bad baseball in this one,” Lockman told the News Tribune. “Such bad baseball that they shouldn’t have had any of their first four runs.”
Still, the T-Cubs tied the game 4-4 with a couple of runs in the top of the eighth. But Eugene’s Scott Reid ended the game with one swing – a leadoff home run to right field in the bottom of the ninth inning off Tacoma reliever Dick LeMay, giving Eugene a 5-4 win.
Eugene led the series, two games to none, and was just one win away from the PCL crown. After the game, the soothsayer Lockman asked the reporter Honeywell a question: “Won’t they be surprised to drop three in a row after taking the first two?”
The series came to Cheney Stadium for Game Three on September 4, 1969 – the first PCL Championship Series game ever held at Cheney. The Cubs needed a win, or else they were going home.
Tacoma starter Joe Decker got into a pitcher’s duel with Eugene’s Barry Lersch, and the score was 1-1 at the 7th inning stretch. T-Cubs right fielder Jim Dunegan - who had struck out in each of his two prior at-bats – led off the inning. After falling behind in the count one ball, two strikes, Dunegan launched a slider “far into the north parking lot” for a home run, giving Tacoma a 2-1 lead.
Eugene managed two base runners and had two out in the top of the eighth, but LeMay entered from the Tacoma bullpen and got Joe Lis to ground out to end the threat. LeMay then worked a scoreless ninth for his 15th consecutive save, and Tacoma had its first win of the series.
The win set off a bit of a stampede, according to the News Tribune:
“The exciting finish touched off a rush for the ticket office by fans anxious to reserve seats for (Game Four).”
Archie Reynolds got his revenge in Game Four. Working on two days rest after being roughed up in the opening game of the series, Reynolds pitched a complete-game, two-hit shutout as Tacoma evened the series with a 2-0 win.
Amazingly, not a single Emeralds runner reached second base against Reynolds. Reynolds walked one and struck out six, facing just three batters over the minimum.
Catcher Randy Bobb hit a bases-loaded, two-out, two-run single in the bottom of the first inning off Eugene starter Larry Colton – and that was all of the scoring in the game.
After the game, Tacoma first baseman Roe Skidmore was told he would report to the Chicago Cubs – but only after the completion of the series.
Game Five was played at Civic Stadium in Eugene, in front of a robust crowd of 6,135. Tacoma’s Jim Colborn started on two days rest against Eugene’s Gary Wagner – who had started and won Game One, and was working on a normal (for 1969) three days rest.
Tacoma took a 1-0 lead in the fourth when Skidmore reached on an infield single and took second on a throwing error, before eventually scoring on Bobb’s long sacrifice fly.
Colborn battled through five tough innings without allowing a run. He was lifted after giving up a leadoff single in the sixth – the seventh hit he had allowed, but he didn’t walk anyone and six of the hits were singles, so he escaped.
Tacoma relievers Dave Lemonds and Len Church teamed up to get out of the sixth inning with the Cubs unscathed.
Tacoma added an insurance run in the top of the seventh, when third baseman John Lung doubled to the left field corner and eventually scored on an error after Roger Metzger’s single. Tacoma led at the stretch, 2-0.
Lockman decided to go to ace reliever Dick LeMay for the good old-fashioned, championship-clinching three-inning save. LeMay went nine-up, nine-down over three perfect innings to secure the game – and the trophy – for Tacoma.
Apparently, the celebration was a bit wild:
“Some of the champagne was used in lieu of shampoo,” wrote Honeywell, who made sure to note “a tour of the shower room several players conducted for club president Bobby Adams, who wasn’t ideally attired for the occasion.”
Some things never change. Too bad newspaper headline writers have changed:
The championship was big news in Tacoma – how about the front page of the paper, at the top?
Some additional notes on the series:
- Eugene had only been shut out three times in the regular season – and Tacoma shut them out in Game Four and Game Five.
- The time of game in each of the 2-0 games was a brisk 1:50.
- Tacoma starting shortstop Roger Metzger had turned pro just two months earlier after the Cubs signed him out of St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas. Metzger had a solid major league career which was cut short by… wait for it… a chainsaw accident.
- Tacoma manager Whitey Lockman is most famous for having been on base when Bobby Thomson hit his “Shot Heard Round The World.” Lockman was Tacoma’s all-time winningest manager for 30 years until Dave Myers passed him in 1999.
- Jim Dunegan – who hit the game-winning home run in Game Three – converted to pitching in 1970 and briefly reached the big leagues with the Chicago Cubs.
- Joe Decker – the Game Three winner – pitched parts of nine seasons in the major leagues, including an end-of-career stint with the 1979 Seattle Mariners.
- Game Five winner Jim Colborn would enjoy a fine major league career, and then leave a lasting impact on Seattle baseball: he was one of the men instrumental in the Mariners acquisition of Ichiro Suzuki.
- Relief ace Dick LeMay was in his second go-around with Tacoma. He had pitched for the Tacoma Giants in 1960 and 1962, eventually earning three major league seasons, and then he pitched many Triple-A campaigns – including 1969 and 1970 for the Tacoma Cubs.
- Game Four hero Archie Reynolds would pitch in 37 major league games over parts of five seasons, but he never earned a big league win. His career was over by 1974.
- Eugene shortstop Larry Bowa broke into the majors the following season, finished third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting, went on to play 16 seasons in the majors, and eventually served as a Mariners coach.
- Eugene pitcher Larry Colton reached the majors for one game, and then went on to success in literary circles – I enjoyed his book Goat Brothers, which is an entertaining memoir of being a jock (read: outcast) at Berkeley in the turbulant 1960s.
- Ed Honeywell covered Tacoma baseball for decades for the News Tribune. Another regular Tacoma baseball writer at the time was Stan Farber - but he missed the 1969 T-Cubs season, because he was travelling with the Seattle Pilots during their only season of existance. Farber was covering a Pilots road trip to the east coast during the PCL series – the Pilots were mired in a stretch where they lost 16 out of 17 games, while on the homefront they were threatened with eviction from Sicks Stadium.
- At the end of the season in the 1960s and 1970s, in the year-end wrap-up, the News Tribune would list what the players were planning to do in the off-season. It was a different era – most players went and got jobs, such as at the post office, or in a warehouse. Others would work on college courses, and a few would play winter baseball in Latin American countries.
- The big non-sports story during this week was the death of North Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh. Political experts at the time predicted that his death would not mean the end of the war – or any real change in strategy.
Looking up the old stories was fun – I have to share this with you, from September of 1969:
Which part is better – the beer ad, or the fact that even in 1969, Channel 5 knew that an O.J. Simpson special would be a big ratings hit?