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My World: Vaughn Street Park, 1949: Gone, but fondly remembered

TALNEYThey played professional baseball at the old Vaughn Street Park located between Northwest 24th and 25th avenues and Vaughn Street in Portland, a stadium built in the early 1900s that held up to 12,000 fans.

The team was the Portland Beavers even then. I was still in grade school, a newly arrived kid from a small town in Eastern Oregon. I had never seen a professional baseball game in my life. My father took me, and we sat in box seats on the first base line. We ate hotdogs and popcorn and drank soda pop. I hoped for a foul ball to come my way, but never got one. It was 1949. The country was still recovering from the war years. The Korean conflict had not yet begun.

The AAA Pacific Coast League, one level below the majors, consisted mostly of young kids on their way up and old timers on their way down. Tommy Bridges and Ad Liska were pitching. Liska was a submariner. Bridges had been an outstanding major league player and was nearing the end of his baseball career. Joe Brovia was in the outfield along with Luis Marquez from Puerto Rico, and Frankie Austin was at shortstop. Marquez and Austin had integrated the team that year.

Eddie Basinski was at second base. He became my personal hero, as I had learned that he had played first violin in the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra at one time. His nickname was “The Fiddler.” Since I was also studying the violin, I now wanted to play second base, just like Eddie. For some reason, I always thought of him as “Little Eddie Basinski.” I later learned that he was, in fact, over 6 feet tall. In any event, I had apparently wanted him to be “little,” since I was small for my age.

To me, he was — and will always be — “Little Eddie Basinski.”

Mostly, however, I recall Brovia, whose defensive skills were suspect but who had the big bat, hitting towering homers that banged off the roof of the foundry that lay just beyond the stadium past right field. Soon, I joined the “Knot-hole” gang, a club for kids organized by the Beaver management. My friends and I got cheap seats in the right field bleachers, where we could take in all the home games.

We would get there early before the games started so we could watch Rocky Benevento, the venerable groundskeeper, prepare the field, and the players warm up and do their exercises. Sometimes the players would come over to where we were sitting and sign autographs. We envied their uniforms, their gloves, their swagger, the little tricks they did with the baseball as they casually tossed it back and forth. We practiced those moves at home for hours.

Once, big Luke Easter, the famed home-run hitter with the San Diego Padres (then also a Pacific Coast League team), came to town and I recall him hitting the longest, highest homer I had ever seen. It sailed out of the park in a high arc over the center field wall, and I was certain it would never come back to Earth.

Easter was a somewhat tragic figure in professional baseball, as he never got a chance to play in the majors until late in his career, despite the fact that he was a monstrous player. He was 6-feet-4 and weighed 240 pounds, but he was the wrong color. His time had not yet arrived. Like many other great black players, he played out his best days toiling in the minor and Negro leagues.

Satchel Paige, who also once played in Vaughn Street Park, made a brief appearance in the majors, after Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier, but his best days were behind him. Easter made it, too, but belatedly. He was known for his tape-measure homers. A fan once told him he had seen him hit the longest home run of his career, to which Easter replied, “If it came down, it wasn’t my longest.”

I consider it a great privilege to this day that I was able to see him play, although at the time I did not realize why it was that he never made it to the “Bigs” sooner. Other great players who played at the old Vaughn Street Park at one time or another, in addition to Easter and Paige, included Jim Thorpe, Joe Tinker and Ted Williams.

Those games at Vaughn Street are now long gone. The world, including the world of baseball, has moved on. The Portland Beavers no longer even play in Portland, having lost their long-time venue — which is now called Providence Park — with its artificial surface. Vaughn Street Park also is no more, having been razed in 1956.

The team now exists elsewhere as a farm club, largely to feed talent to the majors. Players come and go throughout the season. Veteran stars of the majors are now paid so much they no longer have to drop down to the minors when their careers are winding down. They just retire. So there are only young players on their way up. With the current steroids scandal, it is difficult to have heroes.

But still this time of year, I dream about that team from 1949, those homers clanging off the foundry, Liska’s submarine pitches, seeming to rise up out of the pitcher’s mound like rockets. Even now, 60-plus years later, I feel the atmosphere of that intimate stadium, smell the popcorn, hear the cheers for the home team, the catcalls for the opposing pitcher and the boos for the umps, the crowd chanting “Three Blind Mice” after an adverse call. And there’s “Little Eddie Basinski" (yes, still “little”) drifting around the infield at second base, kneading his glove, holding up fingers to signal the number of outs after successfully turning a double play, the ball being thrown from one infielder to another, around the horn.

And then the seventh-inning stretch. The crowd as one, singing in a lusty voice, “Take me out to the ballgame.” And when I couldn’t make it to a home game or the team was on the road, there was always the soothing voice of Rollie Truitt, the longtime Beaver’s sports announcer, bringing the action to me through the old Philco radio beside my bed.

Perhaps somewhere there’s a kid today who will soon be watching a professional baseball game for the first time with his or her dad. Unfortunately, it won’t be in Portland, at least not anytime soon. But perhaps it will be for that child the start of a store of memories that someday will be as lovingly remembered as I now remember my own. And perhaps there will also be the new Basinskis and Brovias, the Marquezes and Austins. Players worthy again of being heroes to a new generation of kids, just like those of my youth.

For the sake of all those youngsters now and still to come, I hope so. And I hope there just might even be a violin player in the bunch.

Lake Oswego resident Ronald Talney is a retired trial lawyer, writer and poet. In 1985, he wrote the official dedication poem for the statue Portlandia. Look for his column, “My World,” on the second Thursday of every month in The Review.