After the 1982 season, the San Diego Padres severed their ties with their Northwest League affiliate based in Walla Walla, Washington. The former Walla Walla Padres franchise played one unaffiliated season in the Northwest League in 1983. What was the team called? Some say it was the Walla Walla Bears. Some say it was the Blue Mountain Bears. Some say it was the Walla Walla Blue Mountain Bears. Let’s review the evidence.
Evidence of “Walla Walla Bears”
I’ve started to notice a phenomenon in minor league history that I call the “Wiki-BRef-Encyclopedia” chain. A team is called something on Wikipedia, and naturally, you cross-reference it. Wikipedia usually uses Baseball Reference as their source, and I strongly suspect that B-Ref’s source is often the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball. So if all those sources are drawing from the same well, any errors are omnipresent. But sometimes there will be a disturbance in the force. A team name will change on Wikipedia or you’ll stumble across an old article or piece of memorabilia that doesn’t jibe with the sources. And sometimes (like in the case of the Idaho Falls Eagles) the main source turns out to be (likely) incorrect. Perhaps that is the case with Walla Walla?
EXHIBIT A: Wikipedia
EXHIBIT B: Baseball Reference
EXHIBIT C: Encyclopedia
Evidence of “Blue Mountain Bears”
EXHIBIT A: Walla Walla Sweets blog post from 2009
The first head-scratcher for me came a few years ago when I stumbled upon a blog post about Walla Walla baseball history. Zachary Fraser, the author, interviewed Bob Bavasi, the guy who bought the Walla Walla franchise and moved them to Everett, Washington after the 1983 season. Fraser refers to the team as the “independent Blue Mountain Bears of Walla Walla.” In lieu of other evidence, I’m going to assume that the nickname/place-name reversal is incidental, and that Fraser is essentially calling the team the Blue Mountain Bears. This is a geographic place-name that references the Blue Mountains, a fairly large range that abuts Walla Walla. By the way, here’s a great except from that interview:
“When I got out of college in 1976 I worked for the San Diego Padres. One of my jobs was working on the rookie league spring training. We had the club in Walla Walla during that time. I remember picking up Ozzie Smith at the airport when he got there and dropping him at his host family. At the time who would have known what a star he’d become.
The Padres sent a terrific manager there for many years, whose name was also perfect for the name of the town. Cliff Ditto.
By the time Margaret and I bought the club at the end of the 1983 season it was an independent team. The uniform colors were light blue, navy blue, and red.
We never played there. We moved it to Everett shortly after we bought it with an affiliation with San Francisco.”
EXHIBIT B: Article from Union-Bulletin (July 28, 1983)
This 1983 article from Walla Walla’s Union-Bulletin (written by Don Davis) has a few clues. The picture caption says “Blue Mountain pitcher” as if that were the place name. The headline (and article) uses “Bears” as the nickname. Lastly, the first sentence of the article says “Walla Walla’s Blue Mountain Bears…” That’s pretty strong evidence!
EXHIBIT C: Schedule logo
One of my greatest ever triumphs in acquiring minor league memorabilia came one day when my ebay auto-alert for “Walla Walla Blue Mountain Bears” bore fruit. I couldn’t believe my eyes when a schedule for the team was listed at a very affordable price. Naturally, I bought it and have taken some detailed photos of what appears to be the team’s official logo–a very tiny printed graphic on the schedule. What does the logo say? Just “Blue Mountain Bears.”
Now, this logo could be a pairing of place-name (Blue Mountain) with nickname (Bears), and the different fonts would lend credence to this notion. However, it could be that the entire nickname is “Blue Mountain Bears” and the logo just omits the place name. On that note…
Evidence of “Walla Walla Blue Mountain Bears”
Could a team really have a long, unwieldy, wacky name like this? I mean, these are the minor leagues. Heck, these days, there’s a team called the “Rocket City Trash Pandas.” There isn’t much evidence of this, but there are a few articles from the time that use the full designator.
EXHIBIT A: Skip Nichols newspaper article
This clipping (newspaper source unknown) repeatedly refers to the team as the “Walla Walla Blue Mountain Bears.” Just confusion about a team with a confusing name, i.e. Blue Mountain Bears? Hard to say.
EXHIBIT B: Another newspaper clipping
This clipping (dug from old archives) also calls the team the Walla Walla Blue Mountain Bears.
This one isn’t totally clear-cut. It’s important to remember that even as recently as the 1980s, teams didn’t always have “official” names, and even different employees of the team may have called the team by different names in that one wild summer of ’83. There is decent evidence holding up all three arguments, but if you haven’t guessed yet, I’m leaning toward one of them.
In my mind, they are the Blue Mountain Bears. Regional place names were not as common in sports in the early eighties as they are now, but I think this team went with a place name that was perhaps designed to appeal to the broad geographic region rather than just Walla Walla. For the nickname, I think they chose “Bears,” likely as an homage to the previous Walla Walla-based minor league teams called the Bears. Pending further evidence, I will call the the team the Blue Mountain Bears, who happened to play in Walla Walla, Washington. But the true answer is not fully known, and this will remain an unsolved mystery until further notice.
Either way, there is a lot about this team that interests me. A consummate weird team, the Blue Mountain Bears were an independent one-year wonder that used a regional place name, slugging it out in the Northwest League, barely able to pay their staff and attracting only a handful of fans. They wore uniforms that were light blue, dark blue, and red. They had caps with a cursive capital B, presumably for Bears. Or was the B for Blue Mountain?
UPDATE: SOLVED MYSTERY!
A reader named Brian sent along this newspaper clipping:
That’s as much of a smoking gun as we’re going to get. I was pretty convinced this was the case already (see above) but this solidifies it. Brian is working on an article about the team and I can’t wait to read it. Blue Mountain Bears forever!