Friday, June 23, 2017 This Week's Paper

A legacy of baseball

// Ballpark has undergone many changes in five decades

When the 52nd year of Pacific Coast League baseball begins in Tacoma on April 15, there will be much anticipation for another great season as fans enter the turnstiles. But something will be different, much different.

The new Cheney Stadium will open its doors to a generation of fans who will marvel at the three-story wooden structure and the eight-foot padded outfield walls. While all of this is being celebrated, memories will still linger for those of us old enough to store them.  Cheney Stadium originally was the “90 day wonder” that Ben Cheney built to lure the Phoenix Giants to Tacoma in 1960, which began a 51-year love affair with the city of destiny.  Ben Cheney, who made his money in the lumber business, was a very civic-minded man who also was a very big fan of baseball. And when the opportunity presented itself, Cheney struck a deal with the city of Tacoma and Phoenix Giant General Manager Rosey Ryan to build a ballpark on a parcel of land just off of 25th and Bantz Boulevard in time for the 1960 season.

Hall of Famers Willie McCovey, Gaylord Perry, and Juan Marichal would call Cheney Stadium their home while playing for the San Francisco Giants Triple A team. The Tacoma Giants would go on to win the 1961 Pacific Coast League Championship, winning 97 games in the process as many long time PCL observers called them one of the best teams that they ever saw.  Baseball was not the only major event ever held at Cheney Stadium.  In late September of 1963, President John F. Kennedy made a campaign stop here, speaking to a packed house, just two short months before he was assassinated in Dallas on November 22.

After many frustrating years with much early season rain, Rosey Ryan decided to move back to Phoenix and the Chicago Cubs began the prime tenant for the 1966 season. By this time, a heated rivalry had developed with the Seattle Rainiers, soon to become the Angels.

“There was a lot of enmity,” said veteran broadcaster Bob Robertson of the intense dislike when Seattle would thumb their nose at their “little stepsister” to the south. “And this continued right up until 1969 when the Seattle Pilots were born,” added Robertson, who has called Cougar football games for the last 40 years and is a member of the college football Hall of Fame.

The Cubs thrived in Tacoma under the leadership of President Bobby Adams and in 1969 defeated the Eugene Emeralds, three games to two, losing the first two in Oregon before coming back to win the last three.  Standout Cub players from that era include Burt Hooton, (who struck out 19 in a seven inning game in 1971), and future major league standouts Larry Gura and Jim Colborn, who would go on to win 20 games for the 1976 Milwaukee Brewers.

After pulling out late in 1971, the Cubs left Tacoma high-and-dry and in a desperate position.  Up stepped Stan Naccarato, as the native Tacoman assembled 19 investors (20 including himself) to put up $5,000 each in just 16 hours to secure the services of the Minnesota Twins Double A farm club in Orlando and move them to Tacoma to start the 1972 PCL season.

Stan became the T-Twins general manager and stayed in that position for 20 years through four different affiliates.  In 1975, Naccarato became the first minor league executive to win three prestigious awards: The Pacific Coast League’s G.M. of the year, The Charley McPhail Promotional Trophy, and the Sporting News Executive of the Year. In 1978, the Tacoma Yankees would share the PCL Championship with the Albuquerque Dukes, but due to bad weather, it would be their only year in Tacoma.

In the mid-1980s, Naccarato would strike a deal with the Oakland A’s, and the affiliation would last 15 years, with such stars as Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, and Dave Stewart calling Cheney Stadium home.

The Mariners came to town in 1995 and brought with them Alex Rodriguez, Felix Hernandez, and soon-to-be stars Michael Pineda and Dustin Ackley. This story would not be complete without mentioning the long time voice of both the Cubs, Giants, and Twins, Don Hill. His patented “How about that Giant/Cub fans” after a great play would thrill us all for the better part of 25 years. The man from Louisville who counted Pee Wee Reese as one of his best friends, kept us all entertained with his late night recreations via tape-delayed teletype from Honolulu.  

Many thanks to Ben Cheney and Stan Naccarato for all the great work they did to both bring and keep baseball here in Tacoma for over 50 years, may we have much more in the “New Cheney Stadium.”