*Dates are approximate. Click the circles to learn more.

Play Ball!

Baseball has been a part of Idaho Falls almost as long as the city has existed. Within a few years of 1865, when Matt Taylor built his toll bridge across the Snake River to launch the beginnings of the town, settlers were playing ball on the riverbank.

The city’s first park was created about a mile to the northeast of Taylor’s bridge, and by 1919 baseball was literally “dug in” to the fabric of Idaho Falls. Enthusiasts of the game scratched a baseball diamond in the soil of an old beet field adjacent to the park–and the game was on.

1926 saw the first local professional baseball team on record, with the Idaho Falls Spuds winning the Utah-Idaho League championship for ’26 and ’27. They cellared in ’28, though, when the prohibitive costs of travel in the mountainous region rendered the team and the league financially impractical.

For the next dozen years, there were plenty of baseball games played at the field, but there was no professional action in town. All of that changed in 1940, though, when local supporters raised funds to erect covered grandstands at what had become known as “Highland Park” to attract a 1939 Pioneer League startup team, the Lewiston Indians. Moving to Idaho Falls for the 1940 season, the team became the Russets–an affiliate of the New York Yankees. But for 1943-1945, when Pioneer League play was suspended in support of the war effort, Idaho Falls has fielded a professional baseball team every year since.

Highland Park

It was the first city park, the first site for a dance pavilion in town, and the first permanent structure built especially for professional baseball in Idaho Falls. Highland Park became a central gathering place for families wanting to have some fun, and it won a special place in the hearts of local citizens. When fire destroyed the old wooden structure in 1975, baseball supporters moved quickly to replace it with a “modern concrete facility.” The new structure was ready for opening day in 1976. During the Highland Park era, team affiliation made the rounds of professional teams. The New York Yankees, Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants, Detroit Tigers, Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago White Sox, and California Angels all placed teams in Idaho Falls at various times. And the baseball-loving citizens of the area claimed players like Woody Main, Smoky Singleton, Billy Martin, Frank Gabler, Cuno Barragan, and Donn Clendenon as their own.

McDermott Field

On July 7, 1977, the stadium was renamed in honor of “Mr. Baseball,” E.F. McDermott, publisher of the Idaho Falls newspaper and a diehard supporter of professional baseball in the community. The team continued their affiliation with the California Angels until 1982 season, when they changed uniforms to become the Idaho Falls A’s (Oakland). The Atlanta Braves claimed McDermott Field from 1986-1999, and the San Diego Padres called it home from 2000-2003. Then the Kansas City Royals came to town and the team became known as the Chukars, an affiliation that stands. Many of the McDermott Field players went on to make a name for themselves in the Big Leagues. Idaho Falls cheered players like Jose Canseco, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler. And through the excitement of championship years and the despair of in-the-cellar years, the residents of the Idaho Falls area continued to support their team. Attendance figures stayed strong and baseball played on.

Melaleuca Field

The team’s owner, Dave Elmore, came to town for the opening game of the 2005 season – and he was appalled by what he saw. Almost 30 years of use had taken its toll on the facility, convincing Elmore it was time for an upgrade. He met with the mayor and civic leaders to chart a path for financing the project. For their part, the city launched a fundraising campaign, and given the supportive atmosphere for baseball in Idaho Falls, their effort seemed a sure success. A sharp rise in anticipated construction costs, however, caught them short. With a due date quickly approaching and the budget still half a million dollars short, the committee turned to a local businessman and CEO of Melaleuca, Inc.,Frank VanderSloot. Seeing minor league baseball as “an affordable family activity we are fortunate to have in this town,” VanderSloot then donated $600,000 to the effort – and Idaho Falls stepped up to a brand new facility. Once again, the construction was completed in the off-season so the team would not have to miss a single game. Melaleuca Field was dedicated on June 22, 2007.

All told, Idaho Falls has fielded a team consecutively since 1940 (but for the suspension of league play during WWII), giving it the longest continual record of any team in the Pioneer League. Seating has gone from wooden benches to a modern stadium seating more than 3,751 fans, and announcers, like beloved local personalities Jim Garchow and Mel Richardson, have broadcast the games live to the enthusiastic crowds. Today’s visitors to the ballpark can enjoy the game from a luxury suite, a box seat or a hot tub down the right field line. You can even follow the action and join in the conversation on Twitter.

Only one thing remains the same: Idaho Falls loves baseball. Some things never change.

History October 9, 2012