A shared history: Nat Bailey Stadium, the Canadians, and Vancouver baseball’s mythic past

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      We’re in baseball’s sweet spot right now.

      Fall is long-off, and all things are still possible: It’s one week into Vancouver Canadians’ 2019 season and a .500 record, post-season play, and even (here’s hoping!) a league championship are still on the table.

      And then there’s Nat Bailey Stadium. Parts sports facility and part time machine, the gorgeous 68-year-old ballpark is force of its own, and an integral part of the Vancouver baseball experience, transporting baseball fans back to the sport's mythic past.

      It’s a fact that Canadians’ president Andy Dunn knows very well.

      “We have great pride in what’s happened in this building, in this park,” he says. “I think ballparks have stories to tell, and we've done a really nice job here of maintaining that original feel in everything we do, we want it to all tie back to that original Nat Bailey feeling.”

      As it happens, the stadium has a diffuse DNA, and its interconnected story with the Canadians starts not on the languid slopes of Little Mountain, but across town, at the corner of 5th and Hemlock.

      Athletic Park in 1924.
      Stuart Thomson, courtesy of City of Vancouver Archives, CVA 99-3511

      It was there, in 1913, where Bob Brown, owner of the Class-B Vancouver Beavers (and the inspiration for the current Canadians mascot, Bob Brown Bear) built the 5,000-seat Athletic Park. A baseball innovator and inveterate showman, Brown introduced a number of promotions, like the first night baseball game in Canada, as well as all-star exhibitions with barnstorming major-leaguers like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Lefty Gomez.

      Bob Brown, founder of both the Vancouver Beavers and Athletic Park.
      Stuart Thomson, courtesy of the City of Vancouver Archives, CVA 99-722

      Athletic Park was a haven for all sorts of baseball beginnings. A young Nat Bailey got his start there selling peanuts; in 1928 he would be off to start the White Spot restaurant chain, and later become a central figure in Vancouver’s baseball history.

      In 1939, Seattle beer magnate Emil Sick, owner of both the Rainer brewery and the Triple-A Seattle Rainers baseball team, bought the existing Class-B Vancouver Maple Leafs. He moved them from Con Jones Park on Renfrew Street to Athletic Park, and re-named them the Vancouver Capilanos, after his locally-based brand, Capilano Beer (Sick also created that most ubiquitous of Western Canadian beers, Old Style Pilsner, which is now brewed by Molson). Sick would go on to buy Athletic Park in 1944; he already owned the biggest ballpark in Seattle, Sick’s Stadium, which had been built in 1938.

      Seattle beer baron and owner of the Vancouver Capilanos, Emil Sick.
      Courtesy of David Eskenazi

      While Vancouver’s all-wood Athletic field would survive major fires, in 1926 and 1945, the aging stadium would eventually prove no match for progress—or City Hall.

      In 1946, the city planning Commission announced they needed Athletic Park’s land for the new Granville Street bridge’s cloverleaf ramp. Sick sold it to the city for $25,000, along with a promise of land for a new stadium. The land Sick received in exchange turned out to be a 15 acre-swamp in Riley Park.

      Capilano Stadium—to later be re-named Nat Bailey Stadium—was built on the dredged-out spot in 1951. Based on the blueprints of Sick’s Stadium in Seattle—the resemblance is obvious in photos—the ballpark’s $302,000 budget swelled to almost $600,000 before work was finished. Upon completion, the turf from Athletic Park was transplanted into Capilano’s playing field, giving a real sense of history to the new stadium. This was turf that had been trod upon by no less than Babe Ruth, after all.

      The newly-built Capilano Stadium (shown in 1951/52) compared to Sick's Stadium in Seattle.
      Capilano photo courtesy the City of Vancouver Archives CVA 72-31, Sick's photo courtesy of PEMCO Webster & Stevens Collection, Museum of History & Industry, Seattle.

      The Capilanos clearly loved their new 7,500-seat stadium, with its fresh air and woodland views of Little Mountain. They would play better than .500 ball for their next four seasons, including a Western International League championship in 1954.

      Shortstop Bill Schuster helps Launch the Vancouver Capilanos, 1951.
      Courtesy of David Eskenazi

      While the team was at the top of its game, the league, unfortunately, was not. After a bad financial year—as well as the loss of some teams—the WIL was formerly dissolved at the end of the 1954 season, leaving Vancouver baseball-less. Emil Sick then got out of the baseball business in Vancouver, and, in 1958, would sell his Capilano Brewery to Molson.

      Which brings us back to Nat Bailey, the former peanut seller at Athletic Park. He’d spent the past thirty years building an empire with his White Spot restaurant chain, and now had deep enough pockets to front a team of his own.

      White Spot founder and Vancouver Mounties owner Nat Bailey.
      Courtesy of CNW Group/White Spot

      In 1956, Bailey headed up a group which bought the Pacific Coast League’s Triple-A Oakland Oaks, moved them to Vancouver, and re-named them the Vancouver Mounties. Over the next six years, the Mounties’ major league affiliation would switch from the Orioles to the Braves to the Twins, all with varying levels of success. During this time, one of the team’s workhorses was George Bamberger, who would later go on to a career as a major-league manager with the Brewers and the Mets. Future Hall-of-Famer third baseman Brooks Robinson would also join the team in 1959, batting .331.

      “There have been so many guys here who have gone on to big-league careers,” says Dunn, “but also think about how many guys on visiting rosters played here, it's part of Cooperstown.”

      The Vancouver Mounties arrive in Honolulu to play the Hawaii Islanders, 1961.
      Courtesy of David Eskenazi

      Sadly, Vancouver baseball would once again fall victim to league politics, after dismal 1962 records both on the field and in attendance. The team’s players and Twins affiliation were transferred to Texas, where they became the Dallas-Fort Worth Rangers. The city would once again be baseball-less for two years.

      During this time, Bailey and his group worked to return baseball to Vancouver, eventually luring the team back from Dallas in 1965. Over the next few years, the Mounties’ lineup would include future Hall-of Famer Tony LaRussa, Sal Bando, and Ball Four author Jim Bouton, who spent a whole chapter of his notorious book on his time in Vancouver (although his Mounties memories mostly revolve around a team road trip to Hawaii, where he winds up suffering from continuous “mai tai poisoning”).

      It's clear that Bouton was enamored with our city, writing that “I’m thinking of how much the family will enjoy Vancouver. It’s a beautiful town, with the mountains coming right down to the edge of it. We’ve taken a place near the beach and it should be lovely.”

      Unfortunately, the Mounties’ poor 1968 and ’69 seasons saw a disastrous drop-off in attendance, and the team pulled up stakes for Utah, becoming the Salt Lake City Angels in 1970.

      For most of the 1970s, Capilano Stadium lay vacant, suffering the elements and only seeing occasional use for amateur baseball games. Counterculture baseball took to the field during this era with the Kozmik League, featuring future poet laureate George Bowering of the Granville Grange Zephyrs. There were also varied and decidedly non-baseball events: The Vancouver Art Gallery set up “Stadium Gallery” which saw an ambitious series of workshops and events in the concourse and on the playing field, and there were concerts with musical acts such as Country Joe McDonald, Delaney & Bonnie and the Youngbloods.

      The Granville Grange Zephyrs of the Kozmik League take the field at Nat Bailey in 1971 (George Bowering in middle, facing right).
      Courtesy of George Bowering

      Then, with the expansion of major league baseball in 1977, new minor-league teams were needed and Triple-A baseball came roaring back to Vancouver in 1978.

      1978 Canadians team photo. This Triple-A version of the team, as well as sponsor Simpsons-Sears, have both left the Canadian market.

      New owner Harry Ornest , with partial financing by Molson Breweries, called the new team the Canadians, with a logo and uniform colours based on the label of Molson Canadian beer. Capilano stadium would get a new name, as well, becoming Nat Bailey Stadium after Bailey’s death in March of that year, a fitting honour of the man who had done so much for baseball in Vancouver.

      Nat Bailey in its late-'70s to mid-'80s paint scheme.
      Courtesy of the City of Vancouver Archives, 2011-010.1637.

      Ornest also spent $60,000 for the salvage rights to Sick’s Stadium in Seattle (home of the ill-fated MLB Seattle Pilots, who only lasted one season before becoming the Milwaukee Brewers). Sick’s grandstand seats and manual scoreboard were then transported up to Vancouver and installed at Nat Bailey. The scoreboard would remain in place for another 29 years, until its aging wood was replaced with an exact replica in 2007.

      Nat Bailey's old manual scoreboard—seen here in Sick's Stadium in Seattle with the hapless 1969 Pilots—before Harry Ornest Brought it to Vancouver.

       “A lot of people don't realize this,” says Dunn, “but the Rockies’ 2007 World Series ace, Jeff Francis, who had pitched at UBC, used to work our manual scoreboard. You talk about coming full circle—you go from Nat Bailey hanging numbers to pitching in the World Series. It's a pretty good story.”

      During the ‘80s, ownership of the team would change hands a number of times, with Ornest selling to Nelson Skalbania in 1980, Skalbania selling to Jimmy Pattison in 1982, and Pattison selling the team outright to Molson in 1984. Likewise, the team’s major-league affiliation would switch a number of times, too, from the A’s to the Brewers to the Pirates to the White Sox to the Angels and then back to the A’s again.

      Nat Bailey as it appeared in the late-1980s/'90s.
      Courtesy of Bob Busser/www.ballparks.smugmug.com

      There were promotions, too. The San Diego Chicken was a regular vistor, baseball's clown prince Max Patkin brought his routine to the ballpark, and there were even some celebrity first-pitch throwers, including Vancouver born-and-bred Playboy Playmate and actress Dorothy Stratten, whose story would later end in tragedy.

      Hometown star Dorothy Stratten on the cover of the Canadians' program.

      Despite all the changes in the front office, the C’s won the Pacific Coast League championship three times during this period, in 1985, 1989, and 1999, and saw a number of future stars trod the field at Nat Bailey, including Glenn Braggs, Sammy Sosa, and Cy Young winner Jack McDowell.

      One of the Triple-A Canadians’ most exciting times came during the 1989 season, when southpaw Tom Drees threw a phenomenal three no-hitters, two of which were back-to-back starts. In the major leagues, only five pitchers—Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax, Cy Young, Bob Feller, and Larry Corcoran—have thrown three or more no-hitters, and none of them did it in one season.  After Drees’ accomplishments, the Baseball Hall of Fame prominently displayed his uniform in its Cooperstown, NY museum.

      The author with Tom Drees at Nat Bailey, 1989.
      Marilyn Sarti

      In 1999, the Triple-A Canadians were sold to a group in California. After a bittersweet home-field league championship victory over the Oklahoma RedHawks (and a subsequent AAA World Series championship in Las Vegas), the team packed up and relocated to Sacramento, where they became the River Cats.

      Happily, there was no gap in professional baseball at Nat Bailey, as former minor-league pitcher Fred Hermann brought his Single-A Southern Oregon Timberjacks to town for the 2000 season.

      The new team wasn’t a hit right out of the gate, however. After 22 years of Triple-A ball, Vancouverites were hesitant at first to embrace the short season, lower-echelon Oakland A’s farm team. Nat Bailey was badly in need of upgrades. Talk even began to circulate about tearing down the stadium to make room for venues for the upcoming 2010 Olympics.

      Attendance did grow over the next few years, though, setting the stage for a renaissance in 2007. Under new owners Jake Kerr and Jeff Mooney, millions were spent re-invigorating both the team and the ballpark. Dunn was hired as president, the concourse and seats were renovated, the field was improved, a new video scoreboard was installed, and the outfield fence was moved in 15 feet to create more effective power alleys.

      “As big as this ballpark plays today, I can’t imagine how it played back in the day,” Dunn says. “I have old players coming up to me at the baseball winter meetings telling me ‘If you’d moved those fences in when I was playing there I’d have been in the big leagues a few years earlier!’”

      Along with the renovations, the new management also set about making the park more family-friendly.

      “When we first took over the franchise,” Dunn recalls, “it was more like a saloon than a baseball stadium. We wanted to have families, to make it safe and affordable, a place where people can bring their kids and have them play in the play area while mom and dad can have a beer and watch the game. We try to do a lot with the kids now, so in 25 years they'll be wanting to come to the ballpark with their family.”

      In 2010, the team’s affilation switched to the Blue Jays, making it an all-Canadian operation (and the last major league-affiliated team in Canada). Four league championships soon followed (in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2017) along with a rapidly increasing fan base and attendance. In 2015, a new bleacher section was added along the third-base side, along with an outfield section named “The Hey Y’all Porch”, creating an additional 750 seats.

      The 2017 Canadians—winners of the Northwest League Championship.
      Mark Steffens

      Despite all the upgrades, Nat Bailey has retained its old-time charm, and even revels in it. The connection to a storied past is part of the park’s appeal, And Dunn knows it.

      “There have been quite a few changes over the years here at the Nat,” he says, “but we do make sure that it doesn’t lose its feel. I mean, this place is a historic ballpark and it needs to feel like a historic ballpark. I'm real proud to think that we've kept that top-of-mind, and that we've been pretty successful with the improvements we've made. It's a tough balance—we don't want it to ever feel like any place other than Nat Bailey.”

      Nat Bailey stadium in 2019.
      Doug Sarti