Faces of the Far West League

Time to share some FWL-related images I’ve gathered.  Unless otherwise noted, these are courtesy of the collection of Dave Eskenazi of Seattle, who has an amazing collection of baseball memorabilia from the Pacific Northwest and was generous enough to share some of it with me.

Lou Vezilich played the last two of his 15 minor league seasons in the Far West League and managed three FWL teams during that time.  In 1949 he managed two teams that both folded during the season.  He started as the skipper of Vallejo, only to see that team go under on July 31; he then took over at Santa Rosa, as the Cats’ fourth manager of the season, only to have that franchise pull the plug four days later.  Vezilich finished the season as a player-only in the Class C California League, but in his 89 FWL games he batted .406 to edge Redding’s Ray Perry for the batting title by two points.  In 1950 he returned to the league as player-manager at Eugene (the photo at right is taken from a Eugene program that year) and batted .348.

Vezilich never reached the majors but racked up 2173 hits in his minor league career.  His best season was in 1937, when he helped Sacramento win the Pacific Coast League pennant with a .317 batting average and team-leading totals in hits (223), runs (120), triples (14) and steals (31).  In 1945 he led the Pacific Coast League with 110 RBI for San Diego.

After World War II he dropped to the low minors and put up some big numbers.  In 1947 he knocked in 141 runs in 133 games at Fresno in the Class C California League with a .364 batting average; teammate Richard Cole was honored as the batting champion with a .383 average, but in only 83 games.  Nobody who played more games than Cole had a higher average than Vezilich.  In 1948 Vezilich led the Class C Florida International League with a .356 average for the Tampa Smokers.

A native of Oakland, Vezilich lived out his life in the Bay Area and had a successful career as an insurance agent, dying in 2007 at age 95 (he had shaved two years off his age during his playing days, The Minor League Register shows his birthyear as 1914 but he was actually born in 1912).  You will also find his name spelled as Vezelich in some newspaper stories, and you’ll notice from the cutline in the photo above that’s how it was spelled in the Eugene program.  Vezilich was one of the Pacific Coast League veterans interviewed for the late Dick Robbins’ classic oral history of the PCL, The Grand Minor League.

Ray Perry was the premier player of the FWL in all four of its seasons.  He led the league in home runs, runs batted in and walks all four years and also holds the league’s single-season records for runs (162 in 1950), total bases (339 in 1950) and batting average (.411 in 1948).  Perry also managed the Browns all four seasons while serving an active role in the front office.  Early on, he was team president; in 1951 he was a member of the board of directors.  The photo at right is from a 1951 Redding program that is part of my personal collection.

Like Vezilich, Perry never played in the major leagues, but finished his minor league career with a .323 batting average and 348 home runs.  Just 31 years old at the end of the FWL’s final season (he fudged his age by one year during his playing days), he continued as a player-manager through the 1958 season, managed two more years in the minors after that, then worked as a scout until his death in a car crash in Fremont, California, in 1973 at age 53.  Perry was immortalized for baseball historians when Bill James wrote about his career at length in his Historical Baseball Abstract.

Hub Kittle (about whom more can be found here) took over as pitcher-manager of the Klamath Falls Gems in 1949, posting a 7-2 mound record, then led the Gems to the FWL regular season pennant in 1950, helped by his own 10-0 mark, all in relief.  The photo at left is from a 1950 Gems program.  Kittle managed 20 seasons in the minors and spent four more as a minor league general manager.

Hub never reached the big leagues as a player, although he did spend a little time in the Pacific Coast League before and during World War II.  But he did serve as a coach in the majors and is best remembered today as Whitey Herzog’s pitching coach with the 1982 National League champion St. Louis Cardinals.  Replaced as pitching coach in 1984, when he was 67, Kittle remained with the Cardinals as a minor league pitching instructor until he was 80, then did some occasional instruction with Seattle Mariners pitchers on a volunteer basis until shortly before his death in 2004 at age 86.

Below are two photos Dave Eskenazi has in his collection that are undated.  Kittle is in the center of the top photo, but we don’t know who anyone else is; I’d love to find out who’s holding the birthday cake and especially who has the accordion (!)*.  In the lower photo, presumably from the same day, that’s Kittle crouching to light the candles.

* UPDATE:  I found out who’s holding the birthday cake and who has the accordion–check it out.

Danny Reagan (left) was a catcher who broke into baseball in 1937 and played only three seasons in the minors…until after World War II, when he spent three years as a player-manager.  In 1948 he led Santa Rosa to the league playoff championship. The franchise folded after the season, the parent Pittsburgh Pirates withdrew from the Far West League, and Reagan hooked up with the unaffiliated Medford Nuggets for 1949.  That team finished last in the FWL, but Reagan did his part on the field, batting a career-high .348.  The photo here is taken from a 1949 Nuggets program.

That marked Reagan’s last season as either a player or manager, and right now all I now about his life afterward was that he spent some time working as a scout for the Phillies.  In that role he signed future major league pitchers Dave Baldwin and Gary Kroll.  (Baldwin told me in an e-mail most of his dealings with the Phillies were with Walter Laskowski and said he had met Reagan just once before signing.)

If you read the text about Reagan in the photo above, you’ll see reference to him going “on up to the Washington Senators,” and he’s wearing what may be a Senators uniform in the photo.  I have no idea what that’s about, his playing record shows him never playing above Class C and never playing with a team affiliated with the Senators.

Bob Rittenberg played third base for Klamath Falls as an 18-year-old first-year pro in 1950 and is pictured at right on the cover of a team program.  According to a brief story in that program, Rittenberg was signed by Phillies scout Danny Reagan, the same fellow pictured above!  So Reagan must have made the transition from player-manager to scout during the 1949-50 offseason.  The story says Reagan spotted Rittenberg in a sandlot game and “attached a fancy bonus to his contract.”  A graduate of Fairfax High School in Los Angeles, Rittenberg played 138 of the Gems’ 140 games as they won the regular-season pennant.  He batted .293 (the team average was .299) with 99 walks and was second to Redding’s Ray Perry among the league’s regular third basemen in fielding percentage.

Rittenberg spent just two more seasons in the minors, his performance declining each year, then in 1953 played for the Winnipeg Royals in the semi-pro Mandak League (the photo at left is from Jay-Dell Mah’s superb site about Western Canada baseball, AtThePlate.com).  I have absolutely no idea what came of Bob after that.  Perhaps I’ll find out as a result of this post.  Which reminds me, if you ever have anything to add about information I post or anything to do with the FWL, be sure to contact me, I’d love to hear from you.

We’ll wrap up this post with a couple of team photos from Dave Eskenazi’s collection.  Medford had a team in the Far West League in each of its four seasons, but they had three different nicknames.  They started as a wholly-owned affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers and played as the Medford Dodgers in 1948.  Then they were sold to local interests, played the 1949 season as the Nuggets and switched to the Rogues for 1950 and ’51.  (The Rogue River flows through southwestern Oregon and passes just a few miles from Medford.)

Here are the 1949 Nuggets:

And now the 1950 Rogues:

My next post will feature covers and advertisements from the Far West League programs I’ve seen.

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One thought on “Faces of the Far West League

  1. Kevin Keating

    This is awesome! I’ve been looking for info on Southern Oregon minor league baseball teams and I finally found one. Would love to see some stuff from Medford Giants. Don’t know what league.

    Reply

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