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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Inland Northwest’s Best: John Stockton to Tommy Lasorda, these pro sports stars are the pride of the region

By Howie Stalwick For The Spokesman-Review

Seven years ago, I retired from my beloved job as a sports writer. Unfortunately, Spokesman-Review sports editor Ralph Walter didn’t get the memo.

Ever since my would-be retirement, Ralph has badgered me into writing the occasional article for my former employer. Ralph turns to me only when the subject has some sort of historical angle. In other words, when he needs someone older than dirt – um, that would be me – who fell in love with the Inland Northwest sports scene as a little boy and has never stopped loving it.

I cherish childhood memories of future major league baseball stars like Willie Davis, Steve Garvey and Ron Cey plying their trade in Spokane. I watched John Stockton, Ryne Sandberg and Mark Rypien when they were in high school. I covered John Olerud, Adam Morrison and Courtney Vandersloot during their college heydays.

All this prompted Ralph to entrust me with ranking the top three pro, college and high school athletes, coaches and teams (male and female) in Inland Northwest history. Not to mention such other subjects as the region’s best sports venues, nicknames, broadcasters, athletic directors, fans, athletes turned actors, even the best sports writers.

(Editor’s note: Howie did not come anywhere CLOSE to making the latter list!)

Starting today, the rankings will run three straight Sundays. The pros come first, the colleges second, the high schools third. Each article will be accompanied by four additional top-three rankings open to pros and amateurs. The final installment (Aug. 20) includes an honor roll of Inland Northwest natives who did not crack a top-three list but were outstanding contributors to sports in our region.

Let’s have some fun with these rankings! Don’t take ’em too seriously! In the end, it’s just one old man’s opinions, based on months of research, a lifetime of memories and invaluable consultation with coaches, athletic directors, athletes and sports writers.

Note: All rankings refer only to performances with Inland Northwest teams unless otherwise noted. Non-INW natives were eligible for all categories except for high schools or where noted.

From left: Ex-Spokane Indians Al Ferrara, Willie Davis, Nate Oliver, ex-Indians manager Danny Ozark, Lou Johnson and Ron Fairly.  (Spokesman-Review Photo Archives)
From left: Ex-Spokane Indians Al Ferrara, Willie Davis, Nate Oliver, ex-Indians manager Danny Ozark, Lou Johnson and Ron Fairly. (Spokesman-Review Photo Archives)

Pro athletes on Inland Northwest teams

Willie Davis, Spokane Indians baseball. Davis, one of the fastest baseball players of all time, was the Minor League Player of the Year for the 1960 Indians. Just 20 years old, Davis led the Pacific Coast League with a .346 batting average, .556 slugging percentage, 216 hits, 30 stolen bases and 26 triples in 147 games. Six decades later, those 26 triples remain a PCL record, even though some PCL teams played more than 200 games a year back in the day. Davis posted a .381 on-base percentage, hit 12 homers and 43 doubles (when Spokane’s outfield fences were higher and deeper than today), drove in 75 runs and struck out just 44 times in 664 plate appearances. Davis went on to play 18 seasons in the majors. Ths Los Angeles native won two World Series rings, played in two All-Star Games (going 3 for 3 with a homer off Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan) and earned three Gold Gloves for his play in center field.

Honorable mention: Eddie Johnston, 1961-62 Spokane Comets hockey. Not only did Johnston play the entire season in goal without using a backup, he did so without wearing a mask or helmet. We’re talking 86 consecutive games, counting the playoffs. How amazin’ is that? Johnston led the Comets to Game 7 of the best-of-7 Western Hockey League playoff finals before losing to Edmonton. Unlike today’s amateur WHL, which consists primarily of teenage players, Johnston’s WHL was a premier minor pro league when the National Hockey League had just six teams (compared to the present 32). Johnston overcame his exhausting workload in Spokane – not to mention much less efficient equipment than is used nowadays – to rank among the WHL leaders with a 3.39 goals-against average and three shutouts. The following season, the Montreal native began his 16-year NHL career with Boston. Johnston won two Stanley Cups with the Bruins.

Also: Frank Howard, 1959-60 Spokane Indians baseball. The 6-foot-7, 255-pound (at least) Howard crushed some of the hardest-hit balls seen in these parts during two partial seasons with the Indians. The outfielder-first baseman from Columbus, Ohio, batted .332 in 102 games with 20 home runs, a .571 slugging percentage and 71 RBIs in 102 games in 1959 and ’60. Howard was the 1959 Minor League Player of the Year, when he split the year between Double-A Victoria (Texas) and Spokane. Like Willie Davis, Howard enjoyed a long and successful major league career (he hit 382 home runs) after dominating in the minors when there were only 16 teams in the big leagues. The PCL was (and remains) a Triple-A league, the highest level of minor league baseball.

A guard who played high school basketball at Gonzaga Prep, John Stockton, turned into a basketball Hall of Famer, and the NBA’s all-time leader in assists and steals.  (Tribune News Service)
A guard who played high school basketball at Gonzaga Prep, John Stockton, turned into a basketball Hall of Famer, and the NBA’s all-time leader in assists and steals. (Tribune News Service)

Inland Northwest natives in pros sports

John Stockton, Basketball Hall of Famer (Gonzaga University, Gonzaga Prep). Twenty years after he retired from the National Basketball Association, Stockton still leads everyone in NBA history by more than 3,700 assists and nearly 600 steals. Almost as impressive is the fact that Stockton played in every game in 17 of his 19 NBA seasons, all spent with the Utah Jazz. Stockon averaged 13.1 points, 10.5 assists and 2.2 steals per game. He made various all-league and/or all-defensive teams in 11 seasons; played in 10 NBA All-Star Games; led the league in assists per game nine times (in nine consecutive seasons); and twice led the league in steals per game. In 1996, Stockton was named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history, and the crafty point guard won gold medals with the first two U.S. Olympic teams (1992 and 1996) that loaded up with NBA players.

Honorable mention: Ryne Sandberg, Baseball Hall of Famer (North Central High School). The longtime Chicago Cubs second baseman was a model of consistency at the plate, in the field and on the basepaths during his 16-year career in the major leagues. Sandberg hit .290 or better eight times, hit 19 or more home runs eight times, stole 25 or more bases seven times and won nine consecutive Gold Gloves as the best defensive second baseman in the National League. Sandberg’s career slash line (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) was .285/.344/.452. He was the NL’s Most Valuable Player in 1984, when he won a Gold Glove, hit a career-high .314 and led the league with 114 runs and a career-high 19 triples.

Also: Jerry Kramer, Pro Football Hall of Famer (Idaho, Sandpoint HS). Kramer was named to the National Football League’s 50th anniversary all-time team in 1969. Kramer played offensive guard for 11 years – and occasionally added place-kicking duties – on Green Bay Packers teams coached by the legendary Vince Lombardi. Kramer’s teams won five NFL championships, including the first two Super Bowls in 1966 and ’67.

Former Spokane Indians manager Tommy Lasorda.  (Spokesman-Review Photo Archives)
Former Spokane Indians manager Tommy Lasorda. (Spokesman-Review Photo Archives)

Pro coaches/managers

Tommy Lasorda, 1969-71 Spokane Indians baseball manager. You could win a small fortune by wagering that Lasorda managed in Spokane only three years and had just one winning season. Both statements are true, but Lasorda’s larger-than-life personality, the Indians’ remarkable 1970 season and Lasorda’s subsequent Hall of Fame managing career with the Dodgers did wonders for the man’s legacy in the Inland Northwest. Baseball America ranked the 1970 Indians the best minor league club in the second half of the 20th century. The Indians posted a 94-52 record and won the PCL title with a stacked roster led by Minor League Player of the Year Bobby Valentine. The shortstop’s promising career was later derailed by a broken leg, but not before he registered a slash line of .340/.389/.522 to offset 54 errors with the Indians. Valentine’s supporting cast included future major league stars like Steve Garvey, Bill Buckner, Davey Lopes, Doyle Alexander and Charlie Hough.

Honorable mention: Dolph Camilli, 1948 Spokane Indians manager. Camilli’s managing career in Spokane lasted just a few weeks, so we will consider any and all protests about him being ranked so high. That said, the Indians won 45 of their final 57 games, including 27 of the last 31, to win the Western International League with a 102-64 record. The torrid finish ranks with the best in minor league history, and the 102 victories was a record for the WIL, a Class B league that was the forefather of the current Northwest League. Camilli, a former major league star and PCL manager, was hired by the Indians when Buddy Ryan went down with pneumonia.

Also: Bruce Bochy, 1989 Spokane Indians manager. Bochy, a journeyman catcher in the major leagues, quickly established himself as a promising manager when he landed his first managing job with Spokane. Bochy’s knowledge of the game and his personable, easy-going manner calmed nerves among the young players he guided to a division title (41-34) and the Northwest League playoffs championship when the NWL was a short-season Class A league. Despite his lack of managerial experience, Bochy seemed confident from the moment he arrived in Spokane. He introduced himself to a local sports writer by casually stating, “I hope you know you’re talking to the all-time major league home run leader of France.” Indeed, Bochy was born in France when his father was stationed there in the U.S. Army, and no France native has topped Bochy’s 26 homers in nine seasons in the bigs. Bochy, now managing the Texas Rangers, won three World Series as manager of the San Francisco Giants.

Five members of Spokane's 1960 Pacific Coast League baseball champions raised the pennant for the first time ahead of the 1961 season. Left to right: Ramon Conde, Curt Roberts, Manager Preston Gomez, Billy Harris and Ford Young.  (Spokesman-Review Photo Archive)
Five members of Spokane’s 1960 Pacific Coast League baseball champions raised the pennant for the first time ahead of the 1961 season. Left to right: Ramon Conde, Curt Roberts, Manager Preston Gomez, Billy Harris and Ford Young. (Spokesman-Review Photo Archive) Buy this photo

Pro teams

1960 Spokane Indians baseball. What? Not the 1970 Indians, who were named the greatest minor league team in the second half of the 20th century by Baseball America? Let me state my case. The 1960 team (92-61), led by Minor League Player of the Year Willie Davis in center field, won the PCL pennant. The 1970 Indians (94-52), led by Minor League Player of the Year Bobby Valentine at shortstop, also were PCL champions. The 1970 Indians outhit the 1960 crew .299-.288, but the ’60 squad hit 45 more home runs (132-87). The 1970 club had much better pitching (3.31-4.32 earned run averages). Both teams were horrible on defense and led the PCL in errors (Valentine had 54 errors). One key factor to consider: The major leagues consisted of just 16 teams in 1960, compared to 24 in 1970. Eight additional MLB teams added up to 200 players not playing in the minors at any one time, so Triple-A leagues like the PCL obviously took a major hit. The 1960 Indians had two more players (24) reach the majors than the 1970 squad, but the 1960 team was older and had more players who came to Spokane after already seeing significant playing time in the majors. For example, left fielder Ron Fairly played in 118 games for the Dodgers in 1959, then spent most of the 1960 season in Spokane, where he hit .303 with 27 home runs and 100 RBIs. Fairly wound up playing 21 years in the majors.

Honorable mention: 1970 Spokane Indians baseball. Make no mistake, this club was spectacular. Bobby Valentine’s slash line was .340/.389/.522. He offset scored 122 runs, totaled 211 hits (including 14 home runs, 16 triples and 39 doubles), driving in 80 runs and stealing 29 bases. Other players of note: Tom Paciorek (.326, 17 homers, 101 RBIs in 146 games); Bill Buckner (.335, 74 RBIs in 111 games); Bill Russell (.363 in 55 games) and Tommy Hutton (.323 in 90 games). On the mound, Jerry Stephenson (18-5, 2.82) and Mike Strahler (15-5, 2.98) were dominant starters, and closer Charlie Hough (12-8, 1.95, 18 saves) appeared in 49 games.

Also: 1961-62 Spokane Comets hockey. The Comets lost a ton of games and money in their five seasons in the original (pro) Western Hockey League, but this squad was something special. Spokane’s 37-28-5 record, second-place division finish and Game 7 appearance in the best-of-7 playoff finals were all franchise bests. Goaltender Eddie Johnston played all 86 games (including the playoffs) without using a backup; center Max Mekilok led the league with 100 points; linemate Gerry Brisson scored 44 goals; and defensemen Bill Shvetz, Sandy Hucul and Connie Madigan provided intimidating toughness.

Howie Stalwick covered sports for The Spokesman-Review and a long list of other media outlets nationwide (often as a freelancer) for more than four decades. He retired in his hometown of Spokane in 2016. Howie may be contacted at