Thursday, June 16, 2011

Veteran southpaw warms up to mark history

The exterior of Nat Bailey Stadium in Vancouver is decorated by reproductions of the brilliant baseball paintings of local artist Jennifer Ettinger.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
June 16, 2011


Bill Whyte is 83 now, the left arm with which he once earned a paycheque no longer in top form.

He has been out tossing baseballs to get the arm back in shape.

As a young man, he earned his keep pitching for the Vancouver Capilanos, a team named after a beer brewed by a brewery named for a local tribe. They played in a wooden ball park torn down to make way for an on-ramp to the Granville Street Bridge.

Mr. Whyte won the last game ever played in the old bandbox, helping his cause by stroking a long single to tie the game in the ninth inning.

A week later, he stood on the sod of a new concrete ball park built in the lee of Little Mountain. It carried the same name as the old park — Capilano Stadium — although the official moniker these days is Scotiabank Field at Nat Bailey Stadium. Fans call it The Nat.

The park turned 60 this week, a landmark birthday to be celebrated on Friday when the summer game returns to Vancouver. The home team Canadians will hand out refrigerator-magnet schedules before the game and launch fireworks afterwards.

Bill Whyte depicted on a rare card.
Such extravagances were unknown when Mr. Whyte, a butcher’s son, earned $350 per month back in 1951. The Capilanos were managed by Bob Brown, a potato-nosed veteran of the Spanish-American War. He was such a skinflint he had urchins scavenge foul balls landing outside the wooden stadium. He’d let them in for free if they surrendered a ball.

The handful of surviving players who called the original Capilano Stadium home do not remember it as a bucolic playground.

“It was a firetrap,” Mr. Whyte said from his home in Nanaimo. “It caught on fire a number of times.

“They sold full peanuts in the shell. The shells would get jammed between the boards. With all the smokers, it would catch on fire periodically.”

Bob Brown had cleared the land by placing dynamite beside stumps on the edge of a cliff overlooking the mills and factories on False Creek. The diamond was shoehorned into a city block. Home plate could be found just beyond the corner of West Fifth Avenue and Hemlock Street. Left field extended all the way to Birch, an expanse so deep that Mr. Brown employed a goat to keep the grass trim. The right-field wall was too close to home plate, so a tall fence was topped by a chicken-wire screen. Beyond that, neighbours perched on roofs for a free view of the game, an unexploited revenue source that no doubt frustrated Mr. Brown.

They played field lacrosse and even professional football in the field in 1941, but it was mostly home to baseball, including the ferocious rivalries of the senior amateur leagues. The first night baseball game in Canada was played under the lights at the park in 1931. Three years later, a barnstorming troupe of ball players, including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, stopped off in Vancouver on their way to Japan. They played an exhibition in the pouring rain, Ruth stroking a foul ball so deep it was reported to be on its way to Marpole.

The old park was in a decrepit state by the time Mr. Whyte, a fireplug-sized lefthander, joined the roster. Players warmly greeted the midseason move to a new facility.

In the first game at what is now The Nat, on June 15, 1951, about 8,000 fans shoe-horned into the 7,500-seat stadium. An overflow crowd watched from a nearby grassy hillside. A military colour guard, Mounties in red serge, a pipe band and majorettes were part of the hoopla. The honour of throwing out the ceremonial first pitch went to Vancouver mayor Fred Hume, who was teased by Mr. Brown. “We’ve got about 10 minutes for this event and it’s a good thing,” he quipped. “It’ll take the mayor that long to get one across.”

That might explain why Mr. Whyte has been working on his pitching.

On Friday, he will be asked to throw out the ceremonial first pitch to open the season and to mark the ball park’s birthday.

He worked as the first-base coach in that inaugural game, spent a few years in baseball’s low minors, earned accolades as a stellar rugby fly-half, became a teacher and, later, a principal at Churchill and Kitsilano high schools.

What kind of pitch will he throw to open the game?

“A fastball," he said, before correcting himself. “A looping fastball.”

He should be in good form. After all, he is pitching on nearly 60-years’ rest.

No comments: