Region has a long, storied baseball history

Danny Summers

I attended the Colorado Springs Sky Sox “Meet the Players Luncheon” on April 1. It was a festive event with past and present club dignitaries on hand, as well as hundreds of loyal fans from the Pikes Peak region.

The place was also packed with members of the media, each looking to get a scoop.

Sky Sox manager Glenallen Hill was the most sought after figure of the day. Hill, who is in his 10th season with the Colorado Rockies organization and second as skipper of the Sky Sox, didn’t make any bold predictions.

“We are going to block and tackle and show up every day and take advantage of the small opportunities to win,” Hill said with a smile. “When I say block and tackle that means playing good defense and manufacturing runs and pitching well.

“The expectations are high for our players to do those things. This year there will be some excitement going on between the lines.”

Hill enjoyed a solid major league career, belting 186 homers while playing for seven teams in 13 seasons. He was a member of the New York Yankees’ 2000 World Series team.

Hill is hoping to lead the Sky Sox to their first playoff appearance since 1997. They have not won a playoff game since 1995, when the organization captured its second Pacific Coast League title.

The Pikes Peak region has a long history of professional and semi-pro baseball teams. The first organized clubs date to the 1870s, not long after General William Jackson Palmer founded the city. By the turn of the 20th century Colorado Springs had its first minor league team.

The Colorado Springs Millionaires played in the Western League from 1901 to 1905. The team actually moved to Pueblo July 15 of 1905 to finish out that season.

In 1912, the Millionaires popped up again with a team in the Rocky Mountain League. But the Millionaires moved to Dawson on June 15. The league disbanded on July 5.

In 1916, the Wichita Wolves of the Western League moved to Colorado Springs on Sept. 10 to finish out the season as the Millionaires. The team was back in Wichita for the 1917 season and played under the names Witches.

Colorado Springs was without professional baseball until 1950 when the original Sky Sox joined the Western League. The team played at Memorial Park and drew 107,264 fans that first season.

The name Sky Sox was chosen through a contest. The winning name was presented by Melvin Barhite, who is 92 years old today and resides in Calhan.

The Sky Sox had a cult-like following in Colorado Springs. An affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, the Sky Sox’s greatest player of the 1950s was catcher Sam Hairston. Other colorful characters were Pat Seerey, Connie Johnson, Ken Landenberger, Joe Kirrene, Ron Cooper, Gene Sheets, Bill Hicks, Stan Johnson, Jim McAnany and Clyde Perry.

The Sky Sox made the playoffs in 1952, 1953 and 1955. In 1958, they had the best record in the Western League but there were no playoffs that season.

The 1958 season also proved to be the final season for the Sky Sox. The Western League ceased to exist.

For the next 30 years the only way fans of our region could watch professional baseball in person was to go to Denver, where the Denver Bears played in old Mile High Stadium.

Professional baseball came back to the Pikes Peak region in 1988, thanks to the vision of two men - Fred Whitacre and Dave Elmore.

At the time, Whitacre was general manager of the Hawaii Islanders. Elmore was the team’s owner and looking to relocate the club state side. Elmore asked Whitacre to scout locations.

“By the time I came here I had visited four other cities, but I just knew this would be perfect,” said Whitacre, 76, who was among those at the Sky Sox luncheon. “This club means a lot to the whole community. When you’re drawing nearly 400,000 people a year like they are now, it shows that people care a lot about this team.”

The new Sky Sox began play in the spring of 1988. Sky Sox Stadium (now called Security Service Field) was not completed in time for the start of that season, so the club played its home games at Spurgeon Field (Memorial Park) in downtown Colorado Springs. Games were high scoring and more than a few players complained about the conditions.

The most memorable of all the wild games at Spurgeon occurred on May 7, 1988. The Sky Sox defeated the Phoenix Firebirds 33-12 in an afternoon affair as the wind was blowing out. The teams combined for 13 home runs.

Phoenix pitcher Ed Lynch, a former major leaguer, was attempting a comeback. He gave up 14 hits and 15 runs in 3 2/3 innings. As the legend goes, Lynch walked to the clubhouse after he was relieved, hung his jersey on his locker, changed his clothes, walked out the door and retired from baseball.

Among the people who played in that game for the Sky Sox was Terry Francona, who later managed the Boston Red Sox to World Series championships in 2004 and 2007.

It appears that the current version of the Sky Sox is here to stay for a while. If you get a chance, perhaps you might like to take in a game.

See you at the ball park.