July 14, 2008 in Sports

Local baseball icon Aden dies

Legend of former Spokane Indian lives
By The Spokesman-Review
 
File photo

The Spokesman-Review Dwight Aden plays his saxophone as part of a benefit for the Second Harvest Food Bank on May 11, 2007 in downtown Spokane.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

Once upon a time, it was said that Dwight Aden had never dropped a fly ball.

Even though almost never would be more accurate and more than 60 years have passed since he roamed center field for the Spokane Indians, Aden’s reputation outlives him as one of the finest athletes in the city’s professional baseball history.

Aden, 93, died early Sunday morning.

A slender, sure-handed flyhawk, skilled hitter and fleet baserunner, he starred for Spokane’s Western International League teams from 1938 through 1942. He was the business manager in 1946, when the Indians lost nine players in a terrible bus accident. He was a Pacific Coast Conference basketball referee. He enjoyed a long second career as an insurance agent. And his athletic prowess touched the early years of Bloomsday and the anecdotal histories of area golf courses.

Aden was the oldest former Spokane Indians player. Spokane native Charlie Petersen, 94, the only older ex-WIL player, lives in Kennewick.

According to Dwight Aden Jr., Aden suffered a series of minor strokes several weeks ago. After undergoing rehabilitation, he hit the back of his head in a fall outside his home in late June and failed to recover. Before the fall, he had attended Spokane’s opening-night game on June 17 and another four nights later. At the 2007 opener, he had been installed as an original honoree on Avista Stadium’s Rim of Honor.

“So much of his life was tied up with his family. His family was first,” Aden’s son said. “We talk about his faith in the Lord, too – our parents were both involved in Christian activities – but his main focus for most of his life after baseball was his family.”

Dwight B. Aden was born March 1, 1915, in Wilsonville, Ore., where his father owned the general store. When he was 6, a neighbor named Andy Hasselbrink, whose own boy had died, offered to play catch.

“If I could catch without dropping the ball 20 times in a row, I would get an ice cream cone,” Aden recalled in the 1980s. “This went on for several years, and that’s what really got me started in baseball.”

Aden, who was righthanded, broke his right arm twice as a boy, so he taught himself to throw and bat lefthanded. Nonetheless, he went on to star for a fine college team and played professionally for six seasons. He retired following the 1942 season with a .309 career batting average. He also golfed as a southpaw, shooting his age as often as every three or four weeks, particularly at Esmeralda Golf Course in Spokane.

After graduating from West Linn High School, he spent four years at Willamette University, playing ball with six other future pro athletes. Aden graduated from Willamette in 1937 and signed a contract with the Boston Red Sox. He reported to Lewiston, a member of the newly formed WIL. He batted .305 in 84 games. Released at the end of spring training in 1938, he joined the Spokane Hawks at Ferris Field and compiled a .306 mark in 71 games.

In 1939, with the Hawks renamed Indians, Aden emerged as a star. Although he did not hit with power and often bunted for hits, he batted .340, fourth in the league. His 207 hits included a record 19 triples. He scored 111 runs and stole 28 bases. Fans voted him the team’s most popular and most valuable player that season.

His 1940 season was nearly as good. With the Indians fielding a star-studded team that included minor-league legend Smead Jolley, popular Native American outfielder Levi McCormack and 20-game winner Duke Windsor, Aden hit .324. He had 209 hits from a record 646 at-bats. He scored 132 times and, in his fourth pro campaign, hit his first two professional home runs.

He twice led the league in fielding percentage and, in his first five seasons, never finished lower than sixth. Offsetting his weak arm with keen instincts and great speed, he played a shallow center field to good advantage. Nonetheless, a ball he dropped became a storyteller’s staple. Spokane’s Pete Jonas was beating Salem 3-1 at Ferris Field on July 10, 1940, when Aden muffed a routine fly in front of a Ladies Night crowd of 7,300.

“I got up the next morning, figuring to see a headline about the nifty six-hitter I had pegged,” Jonas said in 1986. “Instead, the story was all about Aden buttering the ball.” Jonas, a Davenport optometrist who died in 2005, never let Aden live it down.

Aden, who had played more than 400 games as a professional, said it was the first time he had dropped a fly since junior high.

Over the next two seasons, Aden, who had been building his fire and casualty insurance portfolio, skipped a few road trips and began to take flying lessons at Calkins Airport, near Division and Francis. He batted .291 for Spokane’s 1941 champions and .279 in 1942.

During World War II, he spent three years in the Navy, primarily as a flight instructor. By the time he left the service, the ballclub’s new owner, Sam Collins, whom he had met in Lewiston , talked Aden into becoming his business manager. As a result, it became Aden’s responsibility to summon third baseman Jack Lohrke back to Spokane from Ellensburg, barely an hour before the 1946 accident. Later, he had to identify the victims and notify family members.

As good an athlete as he was, Aden was as widely known for his fine character. Nonetheless, competitive juices flowed freely beneath a soft-spoken exterior.

John Gillis and his wife, Donna, had been friends of Aden and his late wife, Esther, since they met in a Bible study class nearly 40 years ago.

“A few years ago (2003),” Gillis said, “the Indians honored some former players on opening night, and he (Dwight) threw out the first pitch. It was kind of cold. But you don’t know how much he practiced for that. Then, he stood out there so long his arm got cold. He got so mad that his throw had bounced in front of the plate.”

Longtime golfing buddy Charlie Jackson, a retired Realtor who says he played minor-league ball for the St. Louis Cardinals, agreed.

“Even though we only played for quarters and maybe a buck, he’d insist on playing for money. His swing was so smooth and so sweet. I’d tell people, ‘Stand here and watch this.’ ”

Aden, in his 70s and early 80s, regularly outran his age group at Bloomsday.

Jackson recalled Aden, past 80, winning an event or two at senior games near his former winter base in Indio, Calif. He also spoke, with a bit of awe, about their golf.

“We were playing at Esme, about four years ago, maybe five, and we’re on No. 12, that par 3 up on the hill,” Jackson said. “We’re teeing off, and Dwight said ‘I haven’t had a hole-in-one in a long time.’ Then, he just knocked it right in the cup.”

Jackson said they played at least twice a week. “It got to the point this spring, six or seven weeks ago,” Jackson said, “his feet had lost their feeling. He was having a hard time breathing, and I had to help him. He had a catheter on … and he shot his age.”

Their relationship transcended golf.

“Such a perfect gentleman,” Jackson said. “I think there’s only one other man I’ve known in my 77 years that I’ve never heard anything bad about, and I never heard anyone say anything bad about Dwight.”

Aden’s wife, Esther, died in 2001. They had made their home in Spokane since their marriage in 1940. He is survived by two sons, Dwight Jr. and Gordon, and a daughter, Carol Johnson, as well as seven grandchildren and 18 great grandchildren. The family tentatively plans services for Fourth Memorial Church on Monday, July 21.

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