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It blew up: Eugene embraces Exploding Whales 

A deep dive into an identity with Oregon roots and global appeal
June 7, 2023

EUGENE, ORE – On March 23, when the Eugene Emeralds announced their Exploding Whales alternate identity, they figured it would create some regional buzz. Those expectations were immediately blown out of the water. The Emeralds, High-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, sold out their first batch of Exploding Whales

EUGENE, ORE – On March 23, when the Eugene Emeralds announced their Exploding Whales alternate identity, they figured it would create some regional buzz. Those expectations were immediately blown out of the water.

The Emeralds, High-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, sold out their first batch of Exploding Whales merchandise in 90 seconds, to customers from all over the world. Media interest was correspondingly intense, with outlets nationwide providing positive (if incredulous) coverage. Local fans immediately took to it, and their infatuation only increased after getting to see the Exploding Whales actually take the field.

This writer attended the second of (at least) four Exploding Whales games, on May 6, in which Eugene detonated the Spokane Indians, 4-2 on the strength of a pair of Grant McCray home runs. (McCray said prior to the game that he didn’t like the Exploding Whale uniforms, but this subsequent power outburst may have changed his opinion.) Throughout the evening, Eugene front office members joked that they should make Exploding Whales the team’s full-time identity. At this rate, maybe that’ll one day come to pass.

To understand the response the Emeralds have received to their Exploding Whales identity, one must first understand the exploding whale itself. On November 12, 1970, a sperm whale -- 45 feet long and weighing nearly eight tons -- washed ashore in the town of Florence, Ore. (located approximately 70 miles west of Eugene). The Oregon Department of Transportation, in consultation with the U.S. Navy, decided that the best course of action would be to -- yes -- blow it up. That way, it would end up in a seemingly infinite number of infinitesimal pieces, which shorebirds could then consume at their leisure.

Previous attempts at this method of whale removal were determined to have been insufficiently explosive, which resulted in an overcorrection. A half ton of dynamite was utilized, resulting in a blast that sent chunks of blubber soaring into the stratosphere. Men, women and children ran for cover as the whale bits rained down upon them, their quirky day at the beach suddenly transformed into mad dash for survival. No one was hurt, but one man’s brand-new car, parked in a nearby lot, was completely obliterated (more on that in a bit).

This was a memorable turn of events, to be sure, but the reason it resonates more than half a century later – to the extent that a Minor League team is now playing as the Exploding Whales -- is due to reporter Paul Linnman and his cameraman, Doug Brazil. They were dispatched by their employer, Portland ABC affiliate KATU, to cover the whale demolition. The resulting news report, newly remastered in 2020, has since been viewed untold millions of times. The hard-to-believe footage, combined with Linnman’s dry wit, inspired puns and propensity for propulsive alliteration, combined to create what some have called the world’s first viral video.

Linnman was a special guest at the May 6 Exploding Whales game at Eugene’s PK Park, throwing out a first pitch and then mingling with fans on the concourse.

“What’s going through my mind is that not a day has passed in 50 years where somebody hasn’t talked to me about the whale,” he said. “And there were a number of years I didn’t want to talk about it, I was sick of it. But after a while somebody said, ‘Hey, most of us won’t be remembered for anything. You’ll be remembered for something. Get used to it. So now I live with it.”

For the record, Linnman said the Emeralds playing as the Exploding Whales was the second-best thing that ever happened to him as a result of the whale. The first? Visiting Italy three times to speak to a graduate business school that used his book – “The Exploding Whale: And Other Remarkable Stories From the Evening News” -- as a text in their international problem solving curriculum.

His question for the assembled students: What’s a better solution than blowing up a whale?

Journalist Paul Linnman prepares to throw out a first pitch prior to May 6's Exploding Whales game.

How, and why, did the Emeralds decide to play as the Exploding Whales? General manager Allan Benavides said that, like a lot of Minor League ideas, “It all started with a keg.”

“Just drinking beers, something that we’d talked about for a long time. Our [first] alternate identity that we really took on was Monarcas in 2018,” he said, referring to Eugene’s entry in Minor League Baseball’s Copa de la Diversión program. “We didn’t take a fun stance with that. There’s a lot of meaning behind it, especially me being Latino, I really took it seriously. So our next one, we wanted it to be fun.”

Danny Cowley, the Emeralds graphic designer from 2012-2022, brought the identity to life. COVID had just hit, and he was, in his words, “just trying to save my job, trying to come up with as many creative ideas as possible, just draw them out. And I decided to draw the Exploding Whales logo.”

Former Emeralds graphic designer Danny Cowley, who created the Exploding Whales logo.

In 2023, after several seasons of COVID-related uncertainty as well as a shift from Class-A Short Season to High-A as part of a larger reorganization of Minor League Baseball, the Emeralds decided it was time to make the Exploding Whales a reality. Benavides said that “once it became real, I became pretty nervous.”

“I told my staff, ‘Listen, we can’t just announce this Exploding Whale thing,’” he recalled. “We’ve got to get the city [of Florence] involved, we’ve got to get the [Native American] tribes and we’ve got to get Oregon State involved. Because there was also a concern from environmentalists. Are we just making fun of this? We reached out to the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State. They’re doing research on whale migration and beachings and how climate change is affecting it.”

Widescale community support was secured, and educational and philanthropic elements added. Years after those initial beer-fueled brainstorming sessions, the Exploding Whales were born. The identity was announced on March 23 at 10 a.m., when Benavides was in an off-site meeting. When he returned to PK Park, he found a chaotic scene.

“I didn’t like the look on people’s faces. It was frantic, the phones were ringing, and they’re like ‘This is crazy!’” he said. “That’s the first response I got: It’s crazy. Okay, good or bad? And they’re like, great!

“It literally blew up. I hate to use that pun, you know?”

Allan Benavides, general manger of the Eugene Emeralds, and his son, Christian.

When the Exploding Whales blew up, so did Anne Culhane’s inbox. Her job title is Emeralds director of community relations, but most of her relating to the community these days has been via merchandise requests.

“It swallowed my life,” said Culhane, stopping short of comparing herself to a modern-day Jonah. “Probably more than half of my day is answering the same email. I was kind of on autopilot. ‘Due to the high demand of Exploding Whales merchandise...’”

There wasn't enough merch to go around, in other words, online or within the Emeralds’ team store (which is less “store” than it is “modified shipping container”). Culhane was speaking outside of that store shortly after May 6’s ballgame concluded, having spent the previous four hours immersed in Exploding Whale commerce.

“It’s really fun when people say ‘Oh, my family was there [at the beach when the whale exploded], or ‘Oh, I heard about this in my science class or ‘My teacher used to tell us this story,’” she said. “People find connections to it and reach out and want to share their stories.”

On May 6, Paul Linnman wasn’t the only person in attendance with a direct connection to Florence’s exploding whale. Brothers John and Dan Umenhofer could be found on the PK Park concourse, sharing memories of their dad, Walter. On that fateful day in 1970, a five-foot chunk of whale blubber destroyed Walter’s brand-new Oldsmobile. This, of course, remains a favorite family story.

Walter Umenhofer, who died in 2016, was an executive for Kingsford Charcoal. He was in the Florence area because Kingsford was seeking to build a new plant.

“It was supposed to be a quiet meeting,” said John. “And it turned out to be the worst-kept secret in the history of Oregon.”

Walter was an Army veteran, a member of the 82nd Airborne who had worked extensively with explosives. When he arrived at the beach to see the whale demolition and found out that 20 cases of dynamite had been allotted for the job, he approached the Oregon DOT engineer overseeing the job, George Thornton, and argued that it was way too much. To no avail, obviously.

“My dad went twice the distance of the crowd that they roped off, and when they lit it off, my dad told us that even he underestimated this blast,” said John. “I mean, it was a small nuclear explosion. They all got covered. One of the biggest chunks went over his head and came down on his brand-new car. Yeah, just flattened it…He had just bought this car from Dunham Oldsmobile, where there slogan was ‘A whale of a deal’ with a sperm whale on the side. So this connection was just unbelievable.”

All’s well that ends well. The state of Oregon footed the bill for a new car, and Walter had a great story to tell for the rest of his days.

“My dad laughed about it his whole life and just thought it was funny,” concluded John.

John (left) and Dan Umenhofer, sons of Walter Umenhofer, whose car was destroyed by a chunk of falling whale blubber.

The story of the exploding whale was more conflicted for George Thornton, who passed away in 2014. He was the man in charge of the operation and comes off as the butt of the joke in Linnman’s enduring news report. Nonetheless, members of his family were in attendance for May 6’s Exploding Whales game. For them, it was an opportunity for reconciliation and celebration.

Thornton’s grandson, Jason Lusk, said that his grandfather was always reticent to talk about the whale, and that “I only got maybe one or two things out of him over the years.”

“He was an awesome grandpa and he was brilliant,” continued Lusk. “One of the things that really struck me about him was that he was always trying to learn something new every day. Never, ever stopped learning. And that’s something he tried to instill into his kids and grandkids, just a curiosity for what’s out there.”

Lusk acknowledged that, were his grandpa still alive, neither he nor his family would have been at the game.

“It’s our legacy now to do what we’re going to do with it,” he said. “And, you know, I choose to celebrate it rather than cower behind it. ... It’s part of Oregonian lore and I’m a native Oregonian. It’s just part of us.”

Jason Lusk, grandson of engineer George Thornton.

The whale is part of the Emeralds now as well, and going forward Benavides said the question is “How do we expand the brand?” One way to expand would be to stage an on field reenactment of the whale explosion, similar to what the summer-collegiate Portland Pickles did last season. Benavides said this stunt would work best in a new ballpark, as they share PK Park with the University of Oregon and don’t want to sully the playing field with simulated whale detritus.

“At some point, we have to explode something,” said Benavides. “I mean, how do you have an Exploding Whale brand and not have anything to explode?”

For guidance in this endeavor, consider the closing words of Linnman’s iconic broadcast as he speculated upon the future of whale carcass removal.

“Those in charge will remember not only what to do, they’ll certainly remember what not to do.”