A Farewell to the Northwest League

From the Vancouver Province, June 14, 1951.

It was a matter of great fanfare when, in June of 1951, Sick’s Capilano Stadium had its grand opening in Vancouver. Replacing the old Athletic Park, full-page spreads in local papers boasted of the stadium design (an exact replica of Sick’s Stadium in Seattle, which would briefly be the home of the Pilots); the electric scoreboard; the location, a green space underneath the hill known as Little Mountain, which was considered to be in the exact center of Vancouver; and the amenities for fans, which included hotplates for hot dogs and aspirin available for any headaches — “ideal for when the team is losing,” as the Vancouver Province noted.

The stadium was named for the team, the Vancouver Capilanos, who played in the Western International League. The league’s history, as was the case for most leagues in the Northwest, was chaotic, marked by false starts and stops. And, it turned out, the chaos would continue. The Western International League, in 1955, became the Northwest League; the Capilanos made way for a Pacific Coast League team, the Mounties, in 1956. When the Mounties folded after the 1967 season, having sustained losses of over $90,000 in their final year, Capilano Stadium spent a decade without a professional baseball team. When the PCL returned to Vancouver in 1978, in the form of the Canadians, the stadium was renamed in honor of local restaurateur Nat Bailey, who, as the story goes, got his start in the stands of the old Athletic Park, hocking peanuts and chocolates to fans, a megaphone projecting his voice up through the bleachers. And when the PCL left Vancouver again after 1999, the stadium — and the team that played in it — came full circle, beginning the new millennium as a part of the league that began, in 1922, as the Western International League.

The Vancouver Canadians, as we enter 2021, still exist. Professional baseball in Vancouver has gone through peaks and valleys, but, in the last decade, seemed to be riding a peak. Renovations to Nat Bailey, a fruitful partnership with the Blue Jays, and a series of championships made the team one of the most successful franchises in the minor leagues. And then, of course, 2020 hit; the pandemic put minor league baseball on hold, and MLB began to make hard moves towards a radical restructuring of the minor leagues. The Canadians, as far as teams went, seemed relatively safe, but it was clear that things would not be the same moving forward.

As of last week, the Northwest League no longer exists. The Canadians, having signed a 10-year deal with the Blue Jays, are now, officially, a professional development team for the big-league club. They will play in the “High-A West Division,” against many of the same teams that populated the NWL, though not all. Their thrilling 2017 NWL championship win will be their last. Along with all these changes, the Canadians face a uniquely difficult situation among minor-league teams: like their parent club, they will be affected by the ongoing restrictions on travel between Canada and the United States. It is unknown, at this point, where exactly they will play their home opener in May — but it seems unlikely to be at the Nat.

It has often seemed unlikely to people, but Vancouver has long been a baseball town. The line of professional teams alone can be traced back to the beginning of the 20th century, with teams like the Beavers and the short-lived Horse Doctors; for much of the century, amateur and semi-professional leagues were popular and successful. At the center of much of the history of professional baseball was a man named Bob Brown, a former minor leaguer and shoe store owner who, in 1910, bought a majority stake in the Beavers, allegedly for $500. Brown was a critical force in the initial formation of the Western International League in 1922; it was largely thanks to his efforts that Capilano Stadium got built, that Vancouver finally got the Triple-A baseball team to rival Seattle’s that many had so long desired. When he died in 1962, at the age of 85, his legacy was cemented.

To this day, the legends of the leagues and teams past, the apocrypha about characters like Brown, live on. Many of them have to do with the rain. That was always the peculiar curse of baseball in the Northwest, the reason why the cities here would never hit the big time: not only the difficulties posed by the weather on the field, the players, the infrastructure, but the strange temperament of the people who lived in this temperate rainforest. There are stories, in the old papers, about fans sitting out in the stands in the downpour, soggy, frowning, but undeterred; about Brown, standing out there, shaking hands with everyone who crossed through the gates — a gesture of thanks for braving the weather. About Ruth and Gehrig, in their barnstorming days, slogging around in the dark downpour, just like everyone who’s ever gotten up to go to work in a Vancouver winter — Ruth, shouting at the 6,000 fans in the stands, “Well, if you fans can sit in it, we can play in it!” About Nat Bailey, there rain or shine, his voice rising above the drumming of the water, letting fans know that there were still peanuts for sale.

That’s the history of the Northwest League in Vancouver, a history similar to so many other minor-league towns, and a history entirely unique to this place. Searching through this history opens the door to even more discovery about the way baseball was played here. An ad beside a story in a 1902 paper about a “married vs. singles” baseball game in the BC railway town of Midway specifies “NO CHINESE EMPLOYED” — a reminder of this region’s history of vicious anti-Asian exclusion, even as Asian workers were exploited to build much of the province’s infrastructure. In 1914 — just a few years after Brown bought the Beavers, seven years after a racist mob attacked Chinese and Japanese neighborhoods — the Vancouver Asahi baseball team formed, quickly becoming the most internationally successful team in the history of Vancouver, before the shameful displacement and internment of Japanese-Canadians by the Canadian government ended their run. And in the late ’30s and ’40s, you can read about the successful barnstorming tours up north by Negro League teams like the Kansas City Monarchs, the games attended by thousands — about the short-lived dream of a Negro League in the Pacific Northwest, before the Negro Leagues declined and ultimately dissolved. All of this history can be traced, straight back, from the Northwest League and the Vancouver Canadians of 2020. I can walk from my home to the places where these stories took place; I can hold the newspapers where the legends were created in my hands.

The Canadians, unlike other teams, are not at risk of imminent disappearance. Someday — hopefully, someday soon — there will be baseball played again at the Nat, and I will be there, filling out my messy scorecard, hands full of overpriced popcorn. But the fate of baseball here is, more than ever before, dependent on the legitimacy conferred by MLB. The narrative, now, is MLB’s narrative. Though the teams the Canadians play will largely be the same, they are not the Northwest League anymore, with the specific history invoked by name and place. They are not part of the very same league my dad watched as a kid in the 50s. They are a piece of a division, a small part of a larger, flatter scheme. And while no one is going to bulldoze Nat Bailey and its little baseball museum, while the history is very much still out there to be found, and baseball will still be played in Vancouver — it’s hard not to feel like something is being lost.

RJ is the dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.

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David Piper
3 years ago

I grew up going to Eugene Emeralds games. I now live about 10 miles north of Keizer. Salem-Keizer got the axe in the minor league realignment (for as successful as that franchise was on the field, it was not a great stadium or experience), but it was close. In Eugene, it felt like something was lost when the team moved from the venerable Civic Stadium (RIP) to the University of Oregon’s PK Park, although the move to a more modern stadium was probably necessary for the franchise’s survival.

It’s a weird time for baseball in the Northwest. Portland has been without baseball for well over a decade now. Salem-Keizer and Boise just lost their teams, and longtime baseball towns like Bend, Yakima, and Medford have been without teams for quite awhile. Also, the Mariners are just the worst.

The upshot, I suppose, is more games in the spring. But it is definitely different. It’s the kind of Northwest League.