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Northwest star Vanni dies at 89

Edo Vanni, Northwest minor league baseball’s most memorable showman and one of its finest players, has died at the age of 89.

The feisty former outfielder, who authored some of his finest seasons and nuttiest pranks while playing for the Spokane Indians, died Monday in a Bellevue care center. Services have been scheduled for Saturday at 11 a.m. in Seattle’s St. Catherine of Siena Church. Vanni was the last of the original Seattle Rainiers.

On the field, he hit for average, ran the bases with abandon and, with some frequency, raised a ruckus. Off it, he was a sharp dresser who became a shrewd businessman and, in time, a devoted and opinionated fan of the Seattle Mariners. For the last few decades of his life, he was lionized as Western Washington’s best-known baseball personality.

Vanni, a left-handed-hitting leadoff man, played pro ball for 15 seasons. Later, he coached, managed and eventually served as general manager for Seattle’s final Pacific Coast League teams. In 1969, he was the director of group sales and promotions for the ill-fated, major league Seattle Pilots.

Born April 2, 1918, in Black Diamond, a coal-mining town in southeast King County, Vanni rose to prominence as a football and baseball player at Seattle’s Queen Anne High, where his schoolmates included eight other future ballplayers and Hank Ketcham, the cartoonist who created Dennis the Menace.

Vanni signed to play both sports at the University of Washington. After he starred as a quarterback and place-kicker for UW’s 1937 freshman football team, his father took seriously ill. So Vanni left school and signed with the city’s PCL baseball team, receiving 4,000 shares of Rainier Brewing Company stock as a bonus. As a rookie, he shared right field with another future Spokane star, Levi McCormack.

New owner Emil Sick renamed the team Rainiers and built a new ballpark. When Sick’s Stadium opened on June 15, 1938, Vanni had Seattle’s first hit. Then he stole the first base and scored the first run. By season’s end, he had batted .301 in 107 games. He hit .325 in 1939, ninth in the PCL, and took third with a .333 mark in 1940. A broken leg forced him to sit out most of the 1941 season.

After four years in the U.S. Navy, Vanni played two more seasons before joining Spokane’s Western International League entry in 1948. In the lower classification, he was a rousing success. He batted .324 with 230 hits, scored 136 runs, stole a league-record 76 bases and struck out 24 times in 703 at-bats. The Indians rallied to win the pennant with 27 victories in their final 31 games.

Vanni delighted fans by baiting umpires, staging vigorous arguments and waving his red bandana. In later years, as a player-manager, he often charged from the third-base coaching box to slide feet-first into home plate and spray the umpire with dirt.

“He was the most memorable manager in the WIL,” said Spokane resident Jack Arkills, who grew up watching Vanni and the Indians. “He’d get up nose to nose with the umpire, kick dirt on him and maybe be asking him, ‘How’s your family?’ The ump would wave his arms and the crowds would go crazy. People would come out just to see him.”

As he did for the rest of his career, Vanni held a contract that made him a free agent at the end of the season. He spent 1949 with Yakima, where he batted .356. He began 1950 with Victoria. Suspended after a scrap with manager Marty Krug, he rejoined Spokane at midseason. In 1951, the Indians won the pennant again. Vanni hit .332.

On May 18, at Sanders Field in Kennewick, he backed to the right-field fence, hoping to catch Clint Cameron’s high fly ball. But the ball skimmed the fence, ricocheted off Vanni’s head and cleared the barrier for a ground-rule two-base hit. Vanni, who may have been faking, was carried off the field on a stretcher.

When the inning ended, center fielder Eddie Murphy sprinted into the clubhouse to check on Vanni. “Way to use your head,” Murphy said, finding his good friend sitting on a bench. “Right,” mumbled Vanni. “I held him to a double.”

Vanni later managed, as well as played, at Vancouver, Tri-City and Wenatchee. One winter in Wenatchee, he sold season tickets by going door to door on snowshoes. During one game, he wrestled a bear. Another time, he danced with a pig.

Vanni hit .307 in 569 Coast League games, and his .326 average for nine Western International League seasons is believed to be that defunct league’s second-best career mark. He stands second in career stolen bases, sixth in runs scored and fifth in triples.

“He was a memorable guy and really put on a show,” said Seattle baseball historian David Eskenazi. “He was such a showman that it’s easy for some people to forget that he could really play, too.”

Vanni is survived by Margaret, his wife of 60 years, as well as a son, a daughter and three grandchildren.