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Some history of baseball in Arizona

Over the past 150+ years, baseball has been part of Arizona life. It hasn’t all been about the Diamondbacks...

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Gadsden Park, Yuma: Civilian Conservation Corps enrollees engaged in a baseball game, September 1939
National Archives and Records Administration [Public domain]

As we head towards Fox Sports Arizona’s first Baseball Day Arizona, which will be taking place on Saturday, thought it might be interesting to look back at the history of the game in our state. Though I use the word “some” in the title, rather than “a” or “the”, because it proved remarkably difficult to track down information about pre-Diamondbacks baseball in Arizona. From what I could find, there’s no single website or even story that talked about the subject in its entirety. So what follows is more of an eclectic buffet, pulling together elements out of various places into a platter of appetizers, from various eras and locations across the state.

1872: Earliest recorded mentions of baseball in Arizona

The first references to the sport came when it was still a territory, not long after the end of the Civil War. Researcher and author John Tenney says it was the military - present to protect settlers from the native population - who brought the game here. In his book, the earliest reference found was the April 27, 1872 edition of the Daily Miner, which mentions troops at Fort Whipple and Camp Hualpai forming a baseball club. Those clubs would later challenge Prescott’s town team, the Champions, for the first Territory championship. The earliest game recorded took place on December 26, 1872 at Camp Grant, described in a subsequent letter to the Miner: “In the forenoon, an exciting game of base ball took place.”

1892: “Flame” Delhi born in Harqua Hala

Even though his career was brief - a single game for the White Sox while still a teenager in 1912 - Lee William “Flame” Delhi was the first major-league player born in the state. His birthplace served the Harquahala gold mine, located to the West of Phoenix. The Delhi family moved to California when he was young, and he became the best pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels of the PCL, from where the White Sox signed him. After his major-league career, he returned to Arizona and pitched for the Ray Copper Mines team, in exchange for engineering tuition. Delhi found far greater success in that field than on the baseball one, eventually becoming vice president of Western Pipe and Steel. He died in 1966.

1904: First college baseball season in Tucson

The University of Arizona had its first campaign that year - albeit a brief one, playing just seven games and going 6-1. Up in Phoenix, Arizona State University adopted baseball as a varsity sport in 1959, though they had been fielding a team for decades. For instance, records show them playing the U of A in 1924, with Cliff “Chick” Morefield throwing a no-hitter for the Wildcats in a 5-0 win. Beginning with Hank Leiber in 1933, both colleges have sent many players to the majors, including Hall of Famers Trevor Hoffman (U of A), Reggie Jackson (ASU) and Jim Palmer (ASU). The Wildcats have won four national college titles and the Sun Devils five.

Jshook072 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

1909: Warren Ballpark, Bisbee opens

This was originally built by the Calumet and Arizona Mining Company for employees and their families, at a time when Bisbee was close to the biggest city between St. Louis and the West Coast. Claimed to be the oldest continuously used baseball venue in the country, it’s named after local man George Warren, the model for the prospector who appears on Arizona’s Great Seal. In 1913, the New York Giants played there as part of their World Tour, and in 1917, 1,300 striking miners were held there during the infamous Bisbee Deportation. Hall of Famers Honus Wagner and Connie Mack managed the Pittsburgh Pirates and Philadelphia Athletics against each other in an exhibition game there in 1940.

1915: Professional baseball begins

The first pro ball game involving local teams took place in Tucson on April 26, when the home team, the Old Pueblos, beat the Phoenix Senators 10-2, despite their catcher being fined five dollars for arguing balls and strikes, according to the game report. Along with the Douglas Miners, they were part of the Rio Grande Association. but the Douglas franchise folded less than a month into the season. The league itself barely survived into July before also going down, and more than a decade would pass before the next attempt, the Arizona State League. That ran from 1928-30: teams were initially out of Bisbee and Miami, as well as Phoenix and Tucson, with Globe and Mesa joining subsequently.

1929: First spring training camp

A number of major-league teams had played games in Arizona earlier, as they headed back West from training in California. But the Tigers were the first team officially to set up camp here, playing the Pirates and Cubs at Phoenix Riverside Park. The latter game, won 11-10 by the Tigers, was described as having “everything in it that the most violent fan could desire”! However, the next season Detroit moved to Tampa, and it was not until after the war, in 1947, that any teams returned, when the Cleveland Indians (at Hi Corbett Field in Tucson) and San Francisco Giants (at Phoenix Muni) set up shop here. The Cubs became the Cactus League’s third member five years later.

1943: Inaugural game at Zenimura Field, Gila River Internment Camp

One of the more shameful incidents in World War II is the forced internment of Japanese-Americans, mostly US citizens. At its peak, the Gila River camp was the fourth-largest city in the state. But after Kenichi Zenimura arrived there, he organized the construction of a baseball park using whatever material could be found: the lines were flour, and the bases, bags of rice. 32 teams from camp inmates were formed, and they also played opponents from outside. That included inflicting the first defeat of the season on the three-time high school state champions, the Tucson Badgers, when they visited. The field is now an olive orchard, but the home plate, made of wood, is now part of the Hall of Fame.

1947: Pink Pony opens

The Pink Pony was a legendary Scottsdale restaurant, much patronized by baseball people in spring and just a couple of blocks from the ballpark. Filled with memorabilia, such as the home-plate from the original stadium, the original location was the first restaurant in Old Town Scottsdale. Sportswriter Roger Angell once called the Pink Pony, ‘‘the best baseball restaurant in the land,” and it was feted in a famous 1986 story in Sports Illustrated. However, it closed in 2009 and multiple subsequent attempts to resurrect it failed. The other legendary spring training haunt, Don and Charlie’s, shut up shop this week, bringing to an end its 38-year run in Scottsdale.

1958: Phoenix Giants founded

The year after they started, following the folding of the Arizona-Mexico League, the Giants were the only pro sports team in Arizona. After two seasons, San Francisco’s Triple-A affiliated relocated to Tacoma. But they returned in 1966, and remained until the arrival of the Diamondbacks, changing their name to the Firebirds in 1986. They played through the summer, even on the notorious day the temperature reached 122F; Bob Brenly, once a prospect here, said he would lose 8-10 lbs in a game. The team played at Phoenix Muni and Scottsdale Stadium, and even tried having an above-ground pool, years before the one at Chase Field. They also once had a game called due to excessive grasshoppers.

1973: Tucson reaches LLWS final

The first of two trips by Tucson to the final game in the Little League World Series, they won 12 straight games in single-elimination, running through the state, regional and national championships. At the LLWS, they powered through their first two games, beating New York 4-0 and then Michigan 8-1. But they ran up against the proverbial buzz-saw in the final, losing 12-0 to a team from Taiwan and being no-hit. The team included Ed Vosberg, who pitched 10 years in the majors, including four games for the D-backs in 1999; he threw a one-hitter in the semi-final. Tucson got a rematch in 1986, the same two teams facing off in the final; unfortunately, the result was exactly the same, the Arizona side going down 12-0.

#TBT to the 1973 #LLWS – Chinese Taipei vs. Tucson, Ariz. See more Little League World Series highlights at the World of Little League!

Posted by Little League on Thursday, June 25, 2015

1992: Arizona Fall League founded

The Arizona Fall League came about as teams sought a more controlled - and, indeed, more convenient! - alternative to prospects spending the winter in leagues overseas. Longtime D-backs executive, then the Orioles’ GM, Roland Hemond was perhaps the league’s chief architect. Since then it has become what’s often referred to as “baseball’s best-kept secret” or “a hidden baseball gem.” Even now, tickets cost less than ten bucks, and you get to see some of the game’s top prospects in a relaxed setting. Well, generally relaxed: in 1994, Michael Jordan was part of the Scottsdale Scorpions roster, and the resulting AFL attendance records which followed him, have yet to be broken.

More information

Lineup for Baseball Day Arizona

  • 12 a.m. Rockies at D-backs from 4/1/98 (first D-backs regular season telecast on FOX Sports Arizona)
  • 3 a.m. Padres at D-backs (replay of Friday’’s game)
  • 6 a.m. Diamondbacks Live Postgame (re-air)
  • 6:30 a.m. Braves at D-backs from April 26, 2001 (Luis Gonzalez 13th homer in April)
  • 9:30 a.m. Baseball Day Arizona Pregame
  • 10 a.m. Baseball Day Arizona: Corona del Sol vs. Desert Vista
  • 12:30 p.m. Baseball Day Arizona Live
  • 1 p.m. Baseball Day Arizona: Arizona vs. Grand Canyon softball
  • 3 p.m. Baseball Day Arizona Live
  • 4:30 p.m. Diamondbacks Live Pregame
  • 5 p.m. Padres at D-backs
  • 8 p.m. Diamondbacks Live Postgame
  • 8:30 p.m. Baseball Day Arizona Recap
  • 9:30 p.m. Diamondbacks Live Postgame
  • 10 p.m. Padres at D-backs (replay)