Greg Hansen: Tucson baseball by any name is going, going, gone

2013-08-29T09:15:00Z 2013-11-11T14:29:13Z Greg Hansen: Tucson baseball by any name is going, going, goneGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

In the Tucson book of baseball, the Mission Bells begat the Lizards who begat the Cowboys who begat the Toros who begat the Sidewinders who begat the Padres.

If nothing else, we have led the Arizona-Texas League, the Arizona-Mexican League and the Pacific Coast League in begats.

Tucson was awarded minor-league teams in 1931, 1937, 1947, 1969 and 2011. We lost ’em in 1933, 1942, 1959 and 2008, and we’ll lose another one after tonight’s Padres-Reno game at Kino Stadium.

In the end, Tucson’s indifference to minor-league baseball overcame the eagerness that launched the Mission Bells on April 7, 1931.

“Affairs of business, politics and government mean next to nothing today all because the youthful Tucson Missions start their pennant quest at the Municipal park at 3:30 o’clock,” the Star reported that day. “A mammoth parade and festivities at the ballpark have been planned.”

It was a Tuesday. Mayor G.K. Smith declared a “half-day off’’ to celebrate the arrival of the Arizona-Texas League, Class D baseball, a mighty step up from the semipro Arizona State League.

More than 300 people and 75 vehicles joined the parade to what is now Hi Corbett Field, led by the American Legion Fife and Drum Corps. A crowd estimated at 1,000 sneaked away from work and school to attend.

In a sports sense, Tucson was on map.

The first year of organized (pro) baseball was such a success that the Tucson Baseball Commission created a behavioral code — “foul language, intoxicants and other actions against the peace and dignity of the public is prohibited” — and added to its growing sophistication as a baseball city by pledging to install lights and forge an affiliation with the powerful San Francisco Seals in 1932.

The Old Pueblo Baseball Club, operated with a hands-on touch by Hi Corbett, changed its name to the Lizards (many referred to them as the “Stick Lizards”), and on the day the ballpark was finally fitted with lights — June 10, 1932 — the Lizards dispatched 20-year-old outfielder Vince DiMaggio, Joe’s brother, to ride on the back of a truck through the business district.

Using a megaphone, DiMaggio alternately sang and shouted that tickets were available for the historic night game.

At the outset of America’s Great Depression, the club apologized for using premium prices. “We hope fans will not object to the 75-cent admission,” it said. “We’re trying to offset the cost of the lights.”

Even then, 1932, and for the next 81 years, the theme had been established. It would be a Money Game as much as a baseball game.

The Tucson Padres are vacating the premises because someone in El Paso paid $20 million to acquire them. Five years ago, someone paid $14 million to move the Sidewinders to Reno.

On that June night in 1932, Lizards manager Mickey Shader absorbed the crowd of about 1,000 and told the Star that the “blazing bulbs,” the lights, “should make baseball in Tucson a financial success.”

The team dissolved three months later.

The future of baseball in Tucson would be just as unsteady, lurching from decade to decade, always struggling, fighting the summer heat.

The Tucson Cowboys were created in 1937 and except for World War II and in 1951, played Class D and Class C baseball against foes such as the Mexicali Eagles, Nogales Yanquis and Cananea Mineros.

Then, as now, it was always a scrap to make a buck.

Through the ’50s, sporting goods proprietor Don Jameson was the Cowboys’ player-coach (he hit .335 in 1952), taking on every conceivable responsibility. He cleaned the bleachers after games, bought the territorial rights to pro baseball in Tucson and negotiated a deal in which he owned ballpark concession rights.

By ’58, the club averaged fewer than 300 fans per game. Jameson tried to put together a deal to buy the Pacific Coast League’s Sacramento franchise but couldn’t generate enough support.

Even then, in 1958, the Tucson Cowboys asked no more than 75 cents per ticket; most of the few die-hards sat in the faraway bleachers for 15 cents.

Similarly, the Padres, who operated for three years after relocating from Portland, Ore., are the 16th of 16 PCL teams, averaging a bit more than 2,700 per home game. No other team averages fewer than 4,300.

Champions? We’ve had a few: 1953, 1991, 1993, 2006.

After Jameson coached the 90-49 Cowboys to the ’53 Arizona-Texas League title, fans spilled onto the field. The ragtag team, one that often traveled to road games in three station wagons rather than on a bus, celebrated not with champagne but with some cold beer.

Amid the joy, fans embraced the players and soon organized a fundraiser. By the time the lights were dimmed, the 16 players split the money; they each got $155.

Tonight the lights will go dark again. The party is over.

Contact columnist Greg Hansen at 573-4362 or ghansen@azstarnet.com. On Twitter: @ghansen711

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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