On the Road: Great Falls' Hall of Fame historian

Eakland's retirement project brings past to life at Centene Stadium

Jim Eakland has been the driving force behind the Great Falls Voyagers' ballpark "Hall of Fame Room."

By Benjamin Hill / MiLB.com | June 27, 2017 10:00 AM ET

Jim Eakland, Great Falls Voyagers team historian, took his mother's advice to heart.

"She would tell me, 'Jim, when you retire always have something to do the next day. Even if it's just unloading the dishwasher or putting in a load of wash -- it's something that gets you up and then you're up for the day.' So, I thought this would be a good project for me."

Eakland's project -- a deep dive into Great Falls' baseball history -- led to the creation of Centene Stadium's Logan Hurlbert Hall of Fame Room. The modestly sized room, which opened in 2003 on the ballpark's upper level, is a treasure trove of facts, photos and ephemera. Eakland has assembled all manner of information and artifacts, tracing the Montana town's 1892 professional baseball debut all the way through its Pioneer League present. (The Voyagers have been a Chicago White Sox affiliate since 2003.)

Team photos line the walls, vintage jerseys and T-shirts hang from the ceilings, and year-by-year records and roster information are displayed in three-ring binders. Glass cases along the room's perimeter house a wide array of memorabilia, from seat cushions to scoreboard numbers. One such case highlights the crown jewel of the collection: a Chicago White Sox championship ring, distributed to the Voyagers in the wake of their parent club's 2005 World Series victory.

"It's all mine. Everything has been donated to me," said Eakland, 85 years young and decked out in a blue Hawaiian shirt. "Well, everything but the White Sox ring."

Eakland's meticulous curation of Great Falls' "Hall of Fame" is the culmination of a lifelong passion for baseball. He was born in Hollywood, California, and grew up as a fan of the Pacific Coast League's Hollywood Stars franchise. He later played for what he called a "D-Minus" Minor League team, although details are scarce.

"We wore old Dodgers uniforms, and I can't even remember if we had a name," said Eakland. "This is back in 1949. You're talking many years ago."

Eakland came to Montana via his work in the United States Forest Service, eventually settling in Great Falls with his wife, Nancy, and their two sons. He retired in 1991 and was widowed in 1997 after Nancy lost her battle with cancer. One of his sons, Keith, still lives in the area and often assists Eakland with his Hall of Fame room efforts. These efforts have their roots in Eakland's simple, self-assigned retirement project: Identify every player in his collection of Great Falls annual team photos.

"That's what I was focused on," said Eakland. "I had these photographs, but no names attached to the players. Right now, I'm down to 1970, I have about seven players I haven't been able to find. ... But outside of that I've been able to go from 1948 through 2016 and have every player identified.

2017 Road Trip

He continued, "I'd go down to the library, and they had the microfilm reader, and I'd read every sports page. Now the problem was, back in the old days, before 1965, there were 130 games [a season]. That started in April and went through September. And I'm sitting there trying to read every sports page and find names and pictures and get names assigned to pictures. I'm kind of like Sherlock Holmes. You get a lead and you follow it, and sometimes you find something."

A 2003 ballpark renovation and expansion led to the creation of the Logan Hurlbert Hall of Fame Room, named in honor of Great Falls' longtime team president. Eakland, a self-described "pack rat," now had the opportunity to display his collection of Great Falls baseball photos and artifacts. The room opens one hour before every game, at which point Eakland is ready to share his expertise with all visitors and, hopefully, find some new leads to follow.

From 1984 through 2002, Great Falls was affiliated with the Los Angeles Dodgers.  

"[Wednesday] night, a fella who played here in 1970 stopped by. They happened to announce it over the loudspeaker," said Eakland. "I thought, 'Oh, wow, I want to talk to him.' Because 1970, that's the team picture where I'm missing players of. It was David Prest, the most valuable player that year. He's going to try to help me out."

Beyond the odd bit of baseball detective work, Eakland says at this point he's largely in Hall of Fame Room "maintenance mode."

"I try to have something to do every morning. Maybe get down to the library, looking for something. I'm just trying to fill in niches that I still haven't gotten," he said.

And this ties in to his mother's retirement advice from years ago, advice that he has clearly taken to heart.

"I've got to do something," he said. "You can't play golf 365 days a year. You can't go fishing. You can't go hunting. You can't walk on the trails. So, you've got to have something."

Eakland's "something" is clearly a labor of love. And if you're ever at a Great Falls Voyagers game, he'll be happy to share it with you. 

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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