Mobile homes, mosquito bites, salmon fishing and midnight baseball under the sun. For the Palouse Empire Cougars, summer baseball in Alaska was nothing but good times.
“I remember the Fairbanks ballpark having a bunch of mobile homes right off the side of the ballpark there. We slept two to a room on cots,” Cougars star John Olerud said. “It was a unique experience for sure, but it was so fun to be up there.”
Thirty-five years ago, Washington State’s baseball team packed its bags for the summer and joined the Alaskan semi-pro league under the team name “Palouse Empire Cougars.” Those summers paved the way for the winningest two-year stretch in WSU’s program history. Playing against traveling teams of select college stars, the Cougars coalesced behind the leadership of then-coach Bobo Brayton.
The Palouse Empire Cougars – the brainchild of Brayton, who also loved Alaska’s fishing – played just five years against teams like the Anchorage Glacier Pilots, the North Pole Knicks or the Fairbanks Gold Panners. The Alaska League consisted of the best collegiate players pulled from universities around the country, including future stars like Randy Johnson, Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire. The Palouse Empire roster, however, consisted only of Washington State players.
“The Alaskan league taught us how to play together. We needed that experience playing with the top young competition in the country,” catcher Randy Snyder said. “Yeah, we got our butts kicked. I mean we truly got drubbed that summer. We played around 45 games and we maybe won 10. But we took our lumps and rallied, and after that we kind of understood what it meant to play at a high level.”
But the roster boasted loads of young talent. Future major leaguers like first baseman and pitcher Olerud, Snyder, pitcher Dave Wainhouse and third baseman Rob Nichols filled the dugout. It was this young core of players that would lead the Cougars through that dominant 1988 season.
According to Snyder, their Alaskan summers cultivated the camaraderie and growth that paved the way for their success.
Brayton hatched the plan in 1986 to take the whole team to the Alaska League for summer ball, which no other school in the country was doing. In 1987, the team brought its young stars like Olerud and Nichols.
In a 2006 oral history, Brayton said he started summer leagues to extend the season and get his players more experience.
“It’s hard to get enough baseball in here in a short spring,” said Brayton, who died in 2015.
“That summer baseball, those were great days here,” Brayton said.
This competitive nature Brayton instilled in the team allowed it to compete in Alaska.
During the summers of 1986 and 1987, the Cougars played their first several games in Pullman, traveled to Alaska for a month and played games there before returning to Pullman for the last month of the season. This way, they were still eligible to join the league without taking college kids away from home for three months.
The players have vivid recollections about the sunlight in Alaska. During the month they were there, the sun almost never went down.
“They had a few midnight sun games up there. We’d start playing at midnight without using any lights,” Snyder said. “It was so strange for us, but it was kind of an iconic thing in Alaska.”
Olerud recalls teammates running down to the rivers after games without proper fishing gear, attempting to catch Alaskan salmon but being eaten alive by mosquitoes in the process.
“They were notoriously huge there,” Snyder said. “Anytime I smell bug spray now, I feel like I’m just transported back to Alaska.”
Brayton was especially fond of the fishing opportunities.
“He was an outdoorsman,” Olerud said. “He’d go fishing all night and then come coach our games in the morning, so he didn’t get a lot of sleep up there. He was in his own zone.”
Brayton instilled his competitiveness in the players that allowed them to compete in Alaska.
“He was just a master motivator and the ultimate competitor,” Nichols said.
Following two summers in the Alaskan semi-pros, the Cougars were ready for success in 1988.
“We’d been playing against some of the best talent in the country and had gained so much confidence doing that,” Snyder said. “We were starting to see that we belonged in the upper ranks of college baseball. It was like, ‘OK, let’s get into this season and really do some damage.’ “
Wainhouse, who later played for the Seattle Mariners and four National League teams, recalled it being one of the scariest offensive rosters he’s seen. On their way to a 52-14 season, the Cougars defeated Portland State 17-10, Utah 17-12, and Eastern Washington 13-0 twice.
A crucial piece was Olerud, who won college baseball’s national player of the year award that season. As a hitter, Olerud was unmatched, batting .464 with 24 home runs and 81 runs batted in. All were WSU single-season records .
“The game was just so slow for him, he never seemed to be in a hurry,” Snyder said of Olerud. “He was so discerning as a hitter, it really looked like he was taking batting practice in every at-bat. He was just so automatic. He had those icy veins. Not in an intimidation way, but almost like he just woke up from a nap. It was just that subdued confidence that allowed him to rise above, and he owned everyone because of that.”
Nichols recalls a scouting report on Olerud during their time in Alaska claiming that he never swung and missed a pitch. According to the report, every swing resulted in contact or a foul ball.
“Yeah, we’ve all got our Oly stories. He was simply phenomenal,” Nichols said.
As if that weren’t enough, Olerud was 15-0 with a 2.49 earned-run average and 113 strikeouts on the mound.
WSU went to the regional tournament in 1988 full of confidence.
“I can’t remember going into a game even thinking there was a chance we’d lose,” Nichols said, “Every game we ever lost, I just remember being totally shocked.”
The Cougars opened the tournament with an 8-5 win over fifth-seeded Santa Clara, but disaster struck in the regional semifinals against USC. The Cougars held a 9-7 lead in the bottom of ninth, and Wainhouse, the star closer, was on the mound.
Three decades later, Wainhouse was reluctant to retell the tale.
“I hung a slider with two outs and a two-run lead and Rodney Peete walked it off on a 1-2 count. It was brutal, I was shocked,” Wainhouse said. “But it happens, I guess.”
Snyder recalled having a tough time recovering from the USC loss.
“That was so disappointing,” Snyder said. “Probably even more so than the year before, just because we’d competed so well all year and just destroyed a lot of teams. We had our hand around Omaha and the (College) World Series, and it just slipped away on us.”
The season officially ended after a loss to No. 1 Fresno State, which went on to win the region and take the Cougars’ spot in Omaha. It was the last game in a WSU uniform for Snyder, Wainhouse, Nichols and Olerud.
The team had won the Pac-10 North two years in a row, but just like that, it was all over. Brayton coached 33 seasons for the Cougars, but the 52-win season is something no Cougar baseball team has matched.
“It was a special team, and a special time,” Nichols said. “There was just so much good stuff that happened. So much good to look back on that you just can’t complain about how it turned out.”
The Alaska summer games lasted a few more years, featuring stars such as Aaron Sele. But in 1991, the NCAA determined WSU had an unfair advantage playing in the Alaska League because it was an entire university team.
The Alaska League lives on, but in 1991, the Palouse Empire Cougars went the way of the North Pole Nicks, the Valley Green Giants and the Hawaii Island Movers – gone but for the memory of games played under the midnight sun.
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