Editor's Note: This story is part of a weekly summer series recycling of "Curt's Replays" column by longtime IR sports writer Curt Synness. The article on the 1978 Helena Phillies was first published on June 17, 2003.
Twenty-six years ago, the 1978 Helena Phillies were the first minor league team in the Capital City since the early 1900s, and their roster included two guys who went on to become MVPs in the major leagues.
Ryne Sandberg (who was from Spokane, Washington) received the award with the Chicago Cubs in 1984, while George Bell turned the trick for the Toronto Blue Jays in 1987. And Ron Iverson thinks that it may the only time two players from the same Rookie team later earned big league MVPs.
In December of 1977, Iverson, a local athlete, coach, sports promoter, entrepreneur and fan, received a call from Carson Aasen, KBLL Radio’s manager. Aasen said that the Philadelphia Phillies farm director, Dalls Green, and his assistant, Howell Bedell, were interested in bringing minor league baseball to town.
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Bedell then flew to Helena, and met with Iverson, Aasen and Osco manager (and former minor leaguer) Joe Sparkman at the Colonial Inn.
It was determined in order to bring minor league baseball here, the organization would have to incorporate and collect $20,000 from investors, which was accomplished – 20 backers at $1,000 apiece. Some of the original founders of the Helena Phillies were Iverson, Aasen, Sparkman, John Lagerquist, Dr. Don Bishop, Neil Heisey, Al McCarthy, Ron Leland and Jim George.
Philadelphia provided the equipment, including the batting cage, which Iverson thinks is still in use.
“Our obligation was to update Kindrick Legion Field,” Iverson related. They built the original clubhouse in right field foul territory, with an office and a concession stand; and then constructed the dugout bleachers.
There were six teams in the Pioneer League – Lethbridge, Calgary, Medicine Hat, Idaho Falls, Billings and Great Falls. The Phillies would make seven, so the league needed to pick up one more team for an even eight.
“In early January, Butte Tech’s Swede Kennison and Bill Epperly said that Butte would be interested in a team,” recounted Iverson. “The League meeting took place on Super Bowl Sunday at a Great Falls hotel. At halftime, I called Epperly at the Met Tavern in Butte.
“I held up the phone, and the league directors could hear him yell, ‘Everybody in favor of Butte coming into the Pioneer League yell aye!’ Then everyone in the bar shouted ‘AYE!!’ And that’s how the Butte Copper Kings got into the Pioneer League.”
For the opening game at Kindrick Legion, a parachutist landed on the field prior to the first pitches, thrown by Governor Tom Judge and Mayor Kathleen Ramey. Approximately 2,200 fans witnessed the Helena Phillies beat the Billings Mustangs, 9-7.
Incidentally, Sandberg’s first name was misspelled “Ryan” in that first program.
Two of the highlight promotions of the year were visits by Max Patkin, the Clown Prince of Baseball, and Cleveland Indian legend Bob Feller.
But possibly the most entertaining spectacle that season were the three cannons in foul territory, which blasted during the National Anthem or whenever a Phillie hit a homer. The cannon backfired once, blowing a hole in the fence, and another time the “cannoneer” got too close, setting his shirt sleeve on fire and then “ran down the left field line in a blaze.”
Iverson recalled fond memories of sitting in the bleachers and sipping beer with Ryne Sandberg’s dad. The senior Sandberg, coincidentally was friends with another famous athlete’s father – John Stockton’s dad, also from Spokane.
John Lagerquist, who was the P.A. announcer in 1979, remembered the arrival of George Bell from the Dominican Republic for the second half of the ’78 season. Only back then, he was still known as Jorge’ Bell.
“He only spoke two or three words of English,” Lagerquist said. “I might have been the first one to call him George.”
Helena finished that initial season with a 30-38 record. The IR listed the top players as Wilfred Culmer, Bob (now better known as Rob) Dernier, Wally Goff, Ed Hearn, Earl Neal, Anthony McGill, Ryne Sandberg, Phil Teston and Randy Greer. Hearn, the 6-foot-4, 210 pound catcher, was selected team MVP.
In the Pioneer League All-Star balloting, Earl Neal was the lone player from the Capital City chosen for the team. Ryne Sandberg, then a shortstop, and Bob Dernier, at third, were both outvoted.
Team publicist Jon Jackson prophetically wrote, “While everyone else has been marveling at Earl Neal’s home runs and Wally Goff’s strikeouts, I have been impressed with Ryne Sandberg’s hitting and fielding.” And although Bell only played half the season, Jackson added, “Keep your eye on Jorge’ Bell’s throw from right field.”
Incredibly, four guys from that ’78 club went on to play in the bigs – Sandberg, Bell, Dernier and Hearn – which is unheard of for a Class A rookie team.
Iverson, an insurance agent for the past 30 years and a published author, resigned from his Phillies position after that initial season. Lagerquist remained for three years before moving on (he is currently an IR ad salesman), and Steve Jones has been involved with Carroll College athletics for many years.
Ryne Sandberg was inducted in the MLB Hall of Fame in 2005