Tyee Books

Kids and Coots at the Yard

George Bowering's ode to Nat Bailey stadium. Plus a baseball loudmouth's dos and don'ts.

By George Bowering 29 Dec 2012 | TheTyee.ca

George Bowering is a prolific B.C. author. Words, Words, Words: Essays and Memoirs is available now.

[Editor's note: For those already experiencing summer nostalgia, this chapter from George Bowering's new collection -- titled "Words, Words, Words: Essays and Memoirs" -- is excerpted with permission.]

In the middle of the night last week I returned to my bed from the usual break, and thought about Johnny Lindell's hat.

All through my school years Johnny Lindell was an outfielder for the New York Yankees, and during the season of my high school graduation he was a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

A lot of ballplayers do something funny to their uniforms or caps. Billy Martin used to make a cross out of straight pins right under the letter or letters on the front of his cap. I never saw another ballplayer do what Johnny Lindell did to modify his ball cap. Until the recent hip hop infestation, all players would bend the peaks of their caps into an arc so as not to look dorky. Johnny Lindell was the only one who would bend the two sides of the peak of his cap into right angles, about three-quarters of an inch from the edge.

So that's what I did with my ball cap. You've seen the way a lot of hockey kids hitched one side of their jerseys so that they got caught up on the shorts in emulation of Wayne Gretzky? Well, Wayne Gretzky was an obvious superstar, the Great One. Johnny Lindell wasn't even an everyday star after he got out of the minor leagues. But even though I detested the Yankees, as any intellectual kid would, I fell for the way Johnny Lindell wore his hat. Somehow, maybe, it meant that he wasn't really a Yankee.

More than any other game, baseball makes a fan think of his boyhood, and in some cases about her girlhood. If you go to a ballgame at Vancouver's Nat Bailey Stadium, for instance, you'll see only about three-quarters of the crowd that's there. The invisible one-quarter is inside a lot of the grey or bald heads from whose ears hang no thin white cords.

We old coots recognize each other everywhere. When I see an old coot at a ball park in minor league Ohio, wearing an old cap, with or without a scorebook on his lap and a pen in hand, I know he's one of us. I've seen him in underpopulated wooden stands behind home plate in Bologna, Italy. In that restaurant capital of the world there is no ball park food. If you want the best hotdog on the globe, go to the baseball field on the hill overlooking Basel, Switzerland.

Canada's game

Baseball is overshadowed by other games in backward countries like Italy and Switzerland. But in Canada it is our national sport, isn't it?

I certainly remember growing up in Oliver, B.C., where it was basketball from November 'til February, and baseball from March 'til October. We had no ice hockey because there was no ice, and no football because there was no money.

The Vancouver newspapers act as if the only sports are hockey and football. I have a standing wager that on July 31 the first page of the Vancouver Sun sports section will be devoted to the Vancouver Canucks, an ice hockey team that seldom plays after the regular season, even in a league in which almost all teams make the playoffs. In the past few decades sports equipment stores have been selling expensive ice hockey gear to the mothers of west coast kids. That's why west coast kids, like those four kids on the five-dollar bill, all shoot right-handed.

We kids in Oliver rarely got to go down to the Coast, but when we did the first place we wanted to visit was the White Spot, to have one of those famous hamburgers with the triple-O sauce that ran up the underside of your forearm.

White Spot was created by the genius son of a circus wheel-of-fortune spinner who had moved to Vancouver from Minnesota. Young Nat Bailey started a hotdog business when he was a teen, and opened his first White Spot drive-in at Granville and 67th in 1928, the year after Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs.

Bailey had been downtown hawking newspapers when he was 12. By the time he was in his fifties he was a Mason, a Rotarian, a Chamber of Commerce gent, and a baseball pioneer. A lot of baseball fans bought Nat's hotdogs and popcorn. When Little League arrived in the fifties the drive-in man was there to get the kids up and running.

Oh, and also in the fifties the man in the famous bow tie bought the Pacific Coast League's AAA Oakland Oaks and renamed them the Vancouver Mounties. He kept them alive at Capilano Stadium, opened in 1951, until they left town in the late sixties.

Bailey died a couple of days after the Pacific Coast League returned to Vancouver in 1978. Now the team would be called the Canadians, and wear shirts that looked a lot like the label on a beer of the same name. That year Cap(ilano) Stadium would have its name changed to Nat Bailey Stadium.

Counterculture ball

Every year someone will remind us that the Nat is "the prettiest little ball park in organized baseball." They say something like that about the city of Vancouver, too. But spoilsports point out that if you took away the mountains and ocean you'd have Welland, Ontario. Yes, and if you took away Little Mountain and its trees that stand just beyond the right field fence, you might as well be in Stade Municipal in Quebec City -- except for the haze of cigarette smoke.

Still, Vancouver does have a pretty area in which to play or watch baseball, even after the hole-digging and chain-fencing and construction around much of Riley Park of a few years ago. The nicest Little League diamond I have ever seen was ripped up to make room for the rich people's winter games a couple of years down the line. Some of the parking lot had to go too. That did not affect me directly -- I have used a secret parking spot nearby for many years. I have been to Class A games all across the continent, and Vancouver's is the only park I have seen charging cash for a parking spot.

But I love being in Nat Bailey. In 1971 I played on this field during the year-ending tournament of the infamous Kosmik League's inaugural season. There was no professional ball team in Vancouver. Nat Bailey was still alive, but he did not come out for our games, as far as I know. By the third day of the tournament the October mud was up to all the catchers' chest protectors. After I had batted in the tying run in the bottom of the ninth, my team, the Granville Grange Zephyrs, was edged in extra innings in the championship game by the slick Teen Angels. The guy who is now the oldest teen disk jockey in the world was playing for them. Luckily for us Zeds, the fans declared us the real winners of the title because in their opinion the Teen Angels were not truly Kosmik -- they had matching t-shirts, and their girlfriends sitting in the stands had been to the hairdresser.

That was a high time for counterculture baseball, but a low point for the stadium. There was no professional ball in town. The left field fence had been taken down to make room for a soccer pitch. Soccer! The stadium had even been consigned to the Vancouver Art Gallery, and weird exhibitions showed up in the outfield and under the stands. Real estate agents with relatives on city council had plans to demolish the place and put up something that would bring in more bucks. Most of its life the building has been living under threat. Even in the past few years there have been people with ice trays for hearts smiling while they dream of bulldozers off Ontario Street. These are the folks who wanted, also in 1971, to replace Christ Church Cathedral at Burrard and Georgia with a square glass office tower.

The last I heard, now that two baseball fans have bought the team, the Nat seems to be safe, though hemmed in a little. The bulldozer people are turning their attention to the demolition of, oh, the CBC, and well, the city's museum.

Kosmik Leagues and art galleries (and now a farmer's market every Saturday in the parking lot on the Ontario side) could never faze the joint. When the Vancouver Mounties were the tenants, you never knew what to expect. The Mounties appeared one Sunday with red uniform jerseys, though they had enough restraint not to adopt RCMP hats. Purists were, as they so often are, alarmed. "They look like a softball team," exclaimed some. "This will never catch on in baseball," said others. "What next, white shoes?" scoffed one worthy. "Not after Labour Day," said his wife. "These guys don't play much after Labour Day," replied her husband.


One July day in 1962, pitcher George Bamberger, the most adored player in the history of Vancouver professional baseball, strolled out to the mound with a radio transmitter concealed in his jersey. Bamby was the smartest hurler in the Pacific Coast League. Did he need advice on how to pitch to the Tacoma Giants? No, manager Jack McKeon just wanted to see what would happen once the league poobahs found out that the Vancouver manager was managing over the airwaves. Sure enough, a rule was added to the PCL charter -- no more Dick Tracy stuff.

1962 was a great year at the the building. The Mounties did finish seventh that year, but so what? The Hollywood Stars had come out to play in shorts and tall socks in 1950, but 12 years later Cap Stadium had visitors from outer space! Late during a cold night in May, with about 600 shivering fans in the Cap, a huge flying saucer swooped over the city and performed a fiery fly-by of Little Mountain. Vancouver Mounties and Portland Beavers raced off the field under the eerie light. The grandstand emptied as fans held tight to their anti-freeze bottles and ran for the trees. After the interplanetary vehicle had departed for the skies of Idaho, a lot of the fans and the majority of the ballplayers returned to the scene, not including Bert Cueto, the Cuban pitcher who had been on the mound for the home team when the aliens arrived. Bad enough, thought Cueto, that you have play in arctic weather, but when the between-innings promotions get out of hand, I'm out of here.

A UFO in the PCL. You could look it up. There ought to be a plaque in the concourse at the Nat.

If you come to the park when the season opens at last, you might not get to see a flying saucer, but chances are that you will see young athletes in red shirts. And if you look in the right direction you might see one of those old coots I was talking about. He's the ghost of my pal Bud Kerr, who was called up a couple of years ago. Bud liked to call himself a baseball historian. He could tell you who played third base for the Northwest League Champion Vancouver Capilanos in 1947. He has his name on a bunch of seats in the grandstand, and people say that he used to sleep at the park. But he went to every game, including all the University of British Columbia games played at the Nat in late winter. Bud was at the very first game played at Capilano Stadium. Heck, he was the only guy I know who was in the stands the last time the Chicago Cubs won the World Series.

If you see his ghost, ask him how cold it was the night the Martians flew over.

Dear readers and commenters, you may notice that comments are not enabled for this story. In what has become a Tyee holiday tradition, we're closing the commenting system for the holidays to allow our hardworking team a brief respite and chance to recharge. Thanks for all the insightful, informative comments in 2012. We look forward with happy anticipation to more of the same in 2013.  [Tyee]

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