The Northwest League has groomed a long list of baseball’s greatest stars since the league morphed out of the old Western International League in 1955. The onset of another season of Spokane Indians baseball reminds us of some of the highest highs and lowest lows in Northwest League history.
Seven members of the Baseball Hall of Fame played in the Northwest League, including former Seattle Mariners Ken Griffey Jr. (Bellingham), Rickey Henderson (Boise) and Randy Johnson (Everett for one game on an injury rehab assignment). Tony Gwynn and Ozzie Smith starred for Walla Walla, and Reggie Jackson turned pro with Lewiston. Mike Piazza, the lowest draft pick (62nd round) among players in the Hall of Fame, made his pro debut with the Salem Dodgers. George Brett, part owner of the Spokane Indians and Tri-City Dust Devils, is another Hall of Fame player.
Edgar Martinez may wind up in the Hall of Fame, but no one was predicting stardom for Martinez after he struggled mightily in his first pro season. The ex-Mariner hit just .173 with no homers and five RBIs in 32 games with Bellingham in 1983.
Other NWL alumni who have excelled in the majors include pitchers Zack Greinke (Spokane), Felix Hernandez (Everett), Tim Lincecum (Salem-Keizer), Dave Stewart (Bellingham) and Mark Langston (Bellingham); catchers Sandy Alomar Jr. (Spokane) and Buster Posey (Salem-Keizer); first basemen Chris Davis (Spokane), Paul Konerko (Yakima) and Jason Giambi (Southern Oregon of Medford); second basemen Ian Kinsler (Spokane), Joey Cora (Spokane) and Julio Franco (Central Oregon of Bend); third basemen Ron Cey (Tri-City; Cey later played for Spokane in the Pacific Coast League), Kris Bryant (Boise), Josh Donaldson (Boise) and Matt Williams (Everett); shortstops Omar Vizquel (Bellingham) and Bert Campaneris (Lewiston); outfielders Carlos Beltran (Spokane), Charlie Blackmon (Tri-City), Adam Jones (Everett), Rico Carty (Yakima) and George Foster (Medford); and multiposition players Pedro Guerrero (Bellingham) and Jose Canseco (Medford).
Movie star Kurt Russell was the second baseman on the 1971 NWL All-Star team. Russell, already an established actor at the time, hit .285 with Bend, Oregon, as a 20-year-old rookie pro in the California (now Los Angeles) Angels organization. Russell also played in the NWL for Walla Walla and Portland. A torn rotator cuff shortened his playing career.
Two other NWL players who achieved stardom outside baseball were Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and actor Bill Murray. Wilson hit .230 as a second baseman with Tri-City in 2010, the first of two seasons he spent in the Colorado Rockies organization. Murray took a break from his acting career in 1978 and went 1 for 2 in two games with the Grays Harbor Loggers of Hoquiam, Washington.
Steve Dalkowski, a career minor leaguer who some observers maintain was the hardest thrower in baseball history, pitched for Tri-City in 1961 and 1965. Always incredibly wild, Dalkowski set a Northwest League record when he walked 196 batters (in just 103 innings) in ’61. Dalkowski was a minor-league teammate of Ron Shelton, who wrote and directed the epic minor league baseball movie “Bull Durham.” Shelton loosely based the character of pitcher Nuke LaLoosh (played by Tim Robbins) on Dalkowski.
A man named Cliff Ditto once managed Walla Walla. Talk about a perfect fit.
Thornton Kipper, who pitched in 55 games with the Philadelphia Phillies from 1953-55, set NWL records in 1958 when he recorded 23 wins (against 11 losses), 32 complete games (in 34 starts) and 281 innings pitched for Lewiston. Teams played a 136-game schedule that year.
Joe Nathan and Troy Percival, who both rank in the top 11 in career saves in the major leagues, began their pro careers as position players in the NWL. Nathan hit .232 with a whopping 26 errors in 54 games as a shortstop with Bellingham. Percival hit .203 – all 16 of his hits were singles – in 29 games as a catcher with Boise. Both players moved to the mound after one season.
Eight NWL managers went on to manage in the majors: Bruce Bochy (Spokane), Greg Riddoch (Eugene), John McNamara (Lewiston), Cal Ripken Sr. (Tri-City), Jerry Royster (Yakima), Karl Kuehl (Salem), Tom Trebelhorn (Boise) and Pat Murphy (Tri-City, Eugene). Four men have managed in the NWL after managing in the majors: Riddoch (Eugene again, and Spokane), former Spokane PCL catcher Norm Sherry (Everett), ex-Mariners skipper Bill Plummer (Yakima) and Trebelhorn (Salem-Keizer).
Black managers squared off for the first time in a professional baseball game in North America – other than in the old Negro leagues – in 1987 in the Northwest League. Boise’s Derrell Thomas and Bend’s Mel Roberts made history.
Northwest League batting champions tend to be “banjo hitters.” Singles hitters, that is. Spokane third baseman Dave Staton was anything but that in 1989, when he became the league’s only Triple Crown winner. Staton led the league with a .362 batting average, 17 home runs and 72 RBIs in 70 games. Alas, he played only 46 games in the big leagues, batting .213 with nine home runs and 15 RBIs in 46 games with San Diego in 1993-94.
Lewiston’s Dick Joyce struck out Salem’s first nine batters in his pro debut in 1965. The big left-hander was rushed to the big leagues later that year by the parent Kansas City (now Oakland) Athletics, suffered a shoulder injury in his fifth game and never played again in the majors.
Howie Stalwick, a longtime sports writer for The Spokesman-Review and numerous other newspapers, magazines and online media nationwide, retired in his hometown of Spokane in 2016.