There was unparalleled excitement when the Colorado Rockies played their first game in Denver. Decades of anticipation and disappointment had finally been fulfilled with a major league team. Unlike the Denver Bronco football team, which played before thousands of empty seats for much of their first ten years of existence, the Rockies were sold out for the first five years. Colorado – and a forgotten time zone – was simply frantic to get into Mile High Stadium and then Coors Field.
Denver Baseball: The Early Years
Baseball really blossomed in Denver after World War II. The Denver Bears were in the Western League and were owned by Bob Howsam and his brother Lee. Together they built a first-class minor league organization while in the American Association and Pacific Coast League. The Bears were affiliated with numerous major league teams; among them, the New York Yankees, Detroit Tigers, Chicago White Sox, and the Montreal Expos. Howsam left Denver and went on to build the Big Red Machine in Cincinnati, which dominated the National League from 1970-1976 and won five division titles, four league championships and two World Series titles. Howsam’s papers (WH1158) are available in the Western History Collection. His book My Life in Sports details his experiences as a baseball general manager.
Before Howsam, there was baseball at Merchants Park (among other locations). It was located just south of the old Montgomery Ward store that was a south Denver Landmark for decades at the corner of Virginia and South Broadway. Merchants Park was where the barnstorming teams of Babe Ruth, Satchel Page, Bob Feller and others played with their all-star teams to make some extra money after the regular season ended. In those days, players did not receive the obscene amount of money they do now to play a game.
Merchants Park was built of wood and didn’t have enough capacity or space to grow, so they located land at 20th and Decatur, and on October 16, 1947, announced plans to build a new stadium on what had been a city dump. Ironically, ground was broken for Coors Field exactly 45 years later. Bears Stadium opened on August 14, 1948.
A Minor League Problem
Minor league baseball fans were different from the major league fans. We were just as savvy about the playing of the game, the nuances, and the statistics as well as the strategy, but we didn’t want our favorite player to do too well. If they did, they would be called up to the major leagues and we’d have to settle for someone else.
Fans by the thousands would come to Bears Stadium. Sometimes, for important games, 18,000 seats would not be enough. Rather than turn fans away, they would allow the latecomers to stand in the outfield roped off on the warning track.
Don Larsen pitched in Denver two years before throwing the only perfect game in World Series history. Bill Freehan caught here before making his way on to the Detroit Tiger team along with Jake Wood and Mikey Lolich. And who could forget Marvelous Marv Throneberry playing on a Bears team before making his name as a New York Met and appearing in beer commercials?
Tony Larussa and Tommy Lasorda played in Denver on their way to spectacular careers as managers. So, yes, we cheered, we watched and followed players through their major league careers recalling their growth before our eyes as minor league ballplayers.
Altitude? What altitude?
Oddly enough, the “thin air” and pitchers nightmare was not a topic of conversation year after year the way it has become since the Rockies arrived. In 1987, I was watching the Bears/Zephyrs game on television June 3, 1987, when Joey Meyer hit a ball into the upper deck in left field. The ball traveled an estimated 582 feet, the longest homerun in professional baseball history. It was such a memorable drive that they changed the seat color so fans could point to it in awe for years to come. The guy who really got shortchanged though was John Jaha who hit a ball that landed just one row short of where Meyer hit his – but nobody ever seems to mention his homerun.
The Colorado Rockies home opener is Friday, April 10 at 2 p.m.
See you at the ballpark!