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Looking Back on a Pioneer Trail

Bungling Eagles of 1985, the first and only independent baseball team in Idaho Falls prior to this year, established a forgettable franchise record fo

Published online: Mar 12, 2021
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As Idaho Falls enters its ninth decade of professional baseball in the Pioneer League, 2021 will be its second year as an independent team—the first coming in 1985 between Major League Baseball affiliations with the Oakland A’s and Atlanta Braves. 

A nostalgic perspective stems from my role as a starting pitcher on the ’85 Idaho Falls Eagles, my first season in professional baseball. Local fans were wonderfully cheerful and pleasant, and players enjoyed participating in the Fourth of July Parade, but our ball club did not exactly make the city proud.  

We wish this year’s independent Idaho Falls Chukars well, and hope they will be nothing like the ’85 Eagles, who finished with the worst record in the long and storied history of Idaho Falls professional baseball, which began in 1940. The Eagles suffered through three 10-game losing streaks and ended with a 19-49 record, completing the 70-game season two games short because of rainouts that were never made up, including a homemade “wet grounds” cancellation after some players soaked parts of the infield, home plate and pitching mound by letting water run out of a hose. 

It was a Sunday, and players got wind of the fact that attendance was low on the Sabbath in a city with a large Mormon population, about 90% at the time. It barely sprinkled early in the morning, but players were tired of losing and wanted a night off. A few took matters into their own hands and team president John McDermott’s face told the story in the clubhouse when he was informed about how the puddles arrived with such light precipitation several hours earlier. 

Three years later in the movie Bull Durham, Hollywood and Kevin Costner depicted a band of minor leaguers benefiting from their “rainout” on the silver screen. I was stunned watching it for the first time, thinking that’s almost exactly what happened in Idaho Falls. “You want a rainout? Bet you $100 I can get you a rainout,” Crash Davis (Costner) quips in the 1988 baseball movie classic as the veteran catcher and members of the Durham Bulls turn on water sprinklers and frolic through mud with headfirst slides, triggering a man-made rainout. 

In another famous scene, Bulls pitcher Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) planted himself next to Davis on a bus, and Davis spelled out the proper clichés to say during press interviews after LaLoosh blared out how winning is so much better than losing. The moment hit close to home, because losing became synonymous with the Idaho Falls Eagles. Newly signed players replaced cut (or released) players at an alarming rate, and guys were always looking over their shoulder, wondering if they would be next to get the ax.

The Idaho Falls Eagles were a rag-tag group of misfits. A semi pro team from Southern California, the Orange County A’s, had planned to play in Idaho Falls that summer as an independent team in the Pioneer League. But the team owner bolted in early June because of business disagreements with Idaho Falls Baseball Club, Inc., leaving players stranded without management or a team. 

The Milwaukee Brewers stepped in and appointed organization scout Reuben Rodriguez as manager, operating as an independent team in a cooperation agreement with the Brewers, who paid their organizational players while everyone else signed an independent contract. Rodriguez was familiar with Idaho Falls, having managed the Angels’ farm team in Idaho Falls from 1978 to 1980. The ’85 team was loaded with Southern California players, a handful remaining from the Orange County A’s. The Whittier, Calif.-based Rodriguez needed to fill roster spots and I was one of the lucky ones to get a call after a four-year collegiate career. 

I was blessed to experience a measure of success on the mound, tying for the Pioneer League lead in complete games with eight, finishing among the league leaders in ERA and innings pitched. With a 5-8 record, however, I was also pinned with tying for the league lead in losses, which merely means I pitched more than anyone on the staff, eating up more than 90 innings on a squad that set a franchise record for futility.

The Eagles, however, had character, from Rodriguez on down, or at least “characters.” Since pitchers have more time on their hands than position players, they tend to be involved in clowning around. Case in point: Idaho Falls relief pitcher Ben Townsend, our bullpen’s “personality” and sidearm style right-hander with durability and a good sinker. 

In addition to appearing in 25 games, the gruff, tobacco-chewing Townsend, with his Fu Manchu mustache and chaw juice dribbling down, was noted for his comic relief. A central figure in the Sunday night “rainout” because of mysteriously wet grounds – a “pipe broke,” he said – the curvy Townsend once fooled a photographer, posing as a left-handed hitter on picture day, and purposely got ejected from a game because his arm was tired and he didn’t want to pitch, but was afraid Rodriguez would call on him anyway to come out of the bullpen. “Watch this,” Townsend said in the dugout, preparing to get tossed. Max Patkin, the “Clown Prince of Baseball,” annually entertained Pioneer League crowds, but Townsend’s antics kept us in stitches on and off the field. 

Amid challenging times in the win-loss category, even the local Kiwanis Club expressed its displeasure with the team’s lack of success, sending us a Hallmark card, which read: “It’s hard to soar with the Eagles when you fly with turkeys.” By year’s end, a Wall of Shame was established in the Idaho Falls clubhouse, the so-called greeting card prominently displayed. We figured Kiwanis Club members were attempting to inspire us to play harder, maybe win a game. But the losing continued and the

card found its rightful spot. 

The Wall of Shame was the perfect tombstone for a team that couldn’t win 20 games in a 70-game season. Our catcher, Rob Canepa, saved a broken bat with which he singled off a Great Falls Dodgers pitcher whose fastball was regularly clocked at 94 mph. The bat hung on the Wall of Shame with a sign: “1,000 (batting average): 1 for 1 off 94 mph fastball.” 

As MLB spring training hits full stride in March and Idaho Falls prepares for the 2021 campaign as an independent team, it will appear to be a seamless transition for fans as the local team maintains the same nickname, the Chukars, at the same ballpark, Melaleuca Field. But there will be no major league affiliation. Idaho Falls served as a rookie league affiliate for the Kansas City Royals from 2004 through 2019. 

All of minor league baseball was cancelled in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, and moving forward Major League Baseball will no longer field rookie and short-season Class A levels. The Pioneer League has been a fixture in minor league baseball since 1939, and all eight of its members are losing their affiliations with MLB organizations beginning in 2021. One of the biggest differences will be Pioneer League teams having to pay players’ salaries. The Pioneer League will be a “Partner League” with MLB, but with no affiliations. 

In addition to the A’s, Braves, Angels and Royals, Idaho Falls has been a major league affiliate for the Padres, White Sox, Yankees, Pirates, Tigers, Brooklyn Dodgers (1948) and New York baseball Giants (1949 to 1951). Aside from 1985 and a three-year stretch during World War II, Idaho Falls has been affiliated every year with a major league organization. There have been several team nicknames, the aforementioned affiliate nicknames, as well as the Eagles, Russets (1940-1942, 1946-1961) and Gems (’92). The team has been called the Chukars since 2004. 

Here’s hoping the 2021 summertime baseball entertainment in Idaho Falls will soar much higher than the one-time independent Eagles of ’85. 

Richard Dunn is a freelance writer and author of two books, “14 Weeks” and “One Pitch Wonder.”

Click here to read more of our March issue.


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