The 2009 season marked the 20th consecutive season that your Yakima Bears have played in the Northwest League, and the 11th under the current team ownership. However, this year's team members are just stewards of a long and storied tradition of professional baseball in the Yakima Valley. The following is a brief historical synopsis of pro ball in the Valley.
IN THE BEGINNING (1920-21 & 1937-41)
The first professional team in the Valley was the Yakima Indians, who played in the Pacific Coast International League in 1920 and 1921. The Indians even won the PCIL pennant in 1921. However, the league then folded; leaving Yakima without a team.
That changed in 1937 when Yakima Pippins joined the Western International League. The team played for five seasons, making the playoffs two times. Notable Pippen players were all-star first baseman and local baseball legend Bob Garretson (1937) and pitcher Hub Kittle, who won 20 games in 1939 and had the league's lowest earned run average in 1940. This stint marked Hub's introduction to the Valley, where he eventually became recognized as the godfather of professional baseball.
Although not as well known, Yakima also played host to possibly the Northwest's best black baseball team of the era. From 1936 to 1938, the barnstorming Washington Browns called Yakima their home. In fact, the team's manager, and occasional pitcher, was Willie Foster; a 1996 inductee into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
THE GOLDEN AGE (1946-50)
After a four year hiatus, pro baseball returned to Valley in 1946 with a team in the Western International League. During this period the team played under three different names: the Stars (1946-47), the Packers (1948), and the Bears (1949-50).
Nationally, minor league baseball thrived during the early post-war era, and Yakima was no exception. Playing a 75-game home schedule at Parker Field, the Bears drew a city record 133,917 fans in 1949. They nearly replicated the feat in 1950 while winning the WIL title.
THE MARGINAL YEARS (1951-60)
Again mirroring national trends, the explosion of family entertainment options in the Fifties (including that thing called "television") led to a dramatic reduction in the number of people attending minor league baseball games in Yakima. During this 10-year period, annual attendance at Bears games never exceeded even half the number recorded in 1949. Still, professional baseball in Yakima subsisted, if not thrived, during the decade.
Between 1951 and 1954, the Bears participated in the Western International League. For the 1955 season, the team became a founding member of the newly organized long-season Northwest League. Yakima was managed by Hub Kittle and included slugging all-star outfielder Herm Lewis.
The team won the NWL title in 1955, 1958, 1959 and 1960. Other highlights of the period include (1) the 1958 signing a working agreement with the Milwaukee (then Atlanta) Braves which lasted nine years, (2) future major league all-star Denis Menke's 1960 stint as the Bears' shortstop, and (3) Sporting News Magazine's honoring of GM Hub Kittle as the 1960 Minor League Executive of the Year.
THE TWILIGHT ERA (1961-66)
The overall decline in minor league attendance, including Yakima, accelerated in the Sixties as major league baseball expanded west and nationally televised games became more frequent.
Still, the Bears enjoyed on-field success with NWL pennants in 1963 and 1964. The Braves sent Yakima a number of future all-stars including Rico Carty (1962), Bill Robinson (1964), and Felix Millan (1965). In 1962, the Bears' all-star shortstop was one Walt Hriniak; who became one of the most acclaimed hitting coaches in major league history.
In 1965, the Yakima franchise was renamed the Braves. The NWL itself underwent a very significant change in 1966 when it permanently became a short-season league, scheduling approximately 80 games.
Previously, the NWL played a long-season schedule of about 140 games. Under the 1966 short season format, the Yakima Braves drew only 13,000 fans.
THE LOST YEARS (1967-1989)
After being home to minor league baseball for 21 consecutive seasons, Yakima was without a team in 1967. Parker Field was to remain bereft of a professional team for 23 seasons.
THE REVIVAL (1990-2004)
Before the 1990 season, D.G. Elmore relocated his Los Angeles Dodger affiliated NWL franchise from Salem, Oregon to Yakima. The team adopted the Bears moniker and played its home games at a renovated Parker Field on the campus of Yakima Valley Community College.
In 1992, a local group headed by Dave Connell purchased the team and led an effort to build a new home for the Yakima Bears. That effort culminated with the opening of Yakima County Stadium at State Fair Park for the 1993 NWL season. With a new stadium, the Bears had 86,822 attendees at 38 home games. The season total was the most that a team had drawn since 1950, when 117,790 fans packed Parker Field over 75 home games.
The 1994 season was also memorable for the team. It included an all-star performance by Paul Konerko, who repeated as an all-star as a member of the Chicago White Sox. But 1994 was also the beginning of Bob Romero's 11-year service as general manager of the Bears.
In 1996, the team won its first NWL championship of the new era under the direction of the league all-star manager Joe Vavra. Joe managed the Bears for six seasons before eventually becoming the hitting coach for the Minnesota Twins. One of the heroes of the 1996 pennant winning team was future major league all-star pitcher Ted Lilly. Matt Meyer, a Yakima resident, led the team in batting with a .302 average.
Prior to the 1999 season, the team was sold to Short Season, LLC; a group of experienced minor league baseball operators headed by Mike Ellis. The group included Mike and Laura McMurray, who moved to Yakima to operate the team.
Yakima won its second NWL title of the new era in 2000. During the regular season, Dodger Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda put on a Bears' uniform to manage the team for one game. The Bears' roster that year included second baseman Shane Victorino, who would reach major league fame as a fleet footed outfielder.
As a consequence of changes resulting from the sale of the Los Angeles Dodgers by the O'Malley family, the Bears began the 2001 season with a new major league affiliate, the Arizona Diamondbacks. Among the players sent to Yakima that first year was eventual major league all-star second baseman Dan Uggla.
The next year marked the return of a member of Yakima's first family of baseball to the Valley. Mel Stottlemyre Jr., the son of the former New York Yankee all-star pitcher and Mabton resident of the same name, joined the Bears as the 2002 pitching coach.
The 2003 Yakima Bears proved to be an offensive juggernaut, setting numerous team batting records on their way to a second place finish in the East Division of the NWL. Leading the charge was league MVP Conor Jackson, who was to become the Diamondbacks starting first baseman. In 2003, the Bears also played host to the "one millionth" fan to enjoy professional baseball since its revival in Yakima.
THE NEW AGE (2005 - )
The theme of the 2005 season was change. A new general manager, K.L. Wombacher, took over the reigns of the team and set in motion plans for the first renovation of Yakima County Stadium. The team also enjoyed the largest attendance increase since 1993, due in part to a personal appearance at the ballpark by Seattle Mariner great Edgar Martinez.
In 2006, the Bears installed a state-of-the-art large screen video board at the Stadium. Spurred on by a visit by another Seattle Mariner icon, Jay Buhner, and an NWL MVP performance by outfielder Cyle Hankerd; Yakima fans once again raised the attendance levels at the ballpark.
The 2007 season opened with a $750,000 makeover of Yakima County Stadium; including new lights, a new picnic deck canopy, new concession and field equipment, and a new outfield fence. In response, Yakima fans continued to flock to the ballpark. On ex-Mariner Dan Wilson Night, the Bears set a single game attendance record that contributed to a third straight annual attendance increase.
In 2008 the Bears began the season with center fielder, Collin Cowgill, a 2008 6th round draft pick, who hit 11 home runs in only 20 games. Collin hit three home runs in one game, which led to his promotion to South Bend. Playing in only 20 games out of a possible 76, Collin went on to be the Northwest League's Home Run Champion.
Also in 2008, Bears second baseman, David Cooper, broke a Bears record for walks and managed to get on base without swinging his bat 66 times, which was 24 more walks than the next player in the entire Northwest League.
Yakima has hosted minor league baseball for a total of 47 seasons since the Indians first took the field in 1920. A lot of history has been made, but the best is yet to come.