How Professional Baseball Survived the Cut in Idaho Falls, Idaho

Idaho Falls was a baseball-loving town, almost from the get-go.

Once Matt Taylor’s toll bridge was in place to provide freight-packers, soldiers, and other travelers a safe place to cross the formidable Snake River, and once the first few buildings were in place, foreshadowing the soon-to-come county seat, settlers were searching through their wagons for the requisite gear to get a ball game going.

On Sunday afternoon, in turn-of-the-century Idaho Falls, it was commonplace to hear the call of  “Batter up!” ringing out alongside the river.

Rube Grimm, manager of the Rocky Mountain Bell office, worked up the first organized baseball team in 1902, and by 1926 Idaho Falls was home to a professional baseball team. They came out winning, too, with the Idaho Spuds capturing the Utah-Idaho League championship that first year and again in 1927.

Melaleuca Field at Night
Opening Game – Melaleuca Field – 2007

Idaho Falls has been a baseball town for a long, long time.

Given the remote location, though, that first effort to promote professional baseball in Eastern Idaho folded after three years. Transportation costs in the mountainous Wild West made it financially impractical for the team, or even the league, to continue.

That didn’t stop the locals from throwing strikes and hitting homeruns in a former sugar beet field, dubbed Highland Park, but it would be twelve years before professional baseball once again thrilled the crowds in Idaho Falls.

Once the fever took hold again, though, but for a hiatus so the boys could do their duty for Uncle Sam during World War II, Idaho Falls has hosted a team every year since 1940 for the Pioneer League—making it one of the longest continually running minor league ballparks in the country.

And, in case you are thinking Idaho Falls is too far away from the big cities to attract any real talent, consider this: Both Billy Martin and Jose Canseco saw their first professional play in Idaho Falls—and the list of those who passed through town on their way to the Big Leagues is an impressive sight. Let’s see, George Kottaras, Carney Lansford, Rodrigo Lopez, Floyd Rayford, Pedro Swann, Billy Butler, and Donn Clendenon, to name a few. Add 150 more names and you still wouldn’t have gone through them all.

Don’t forget: Idaho Falls is a baseball town.

How could little Idaho Falls raise enough money to keep the franchise?

There’s only been one real threat to the team since 1940, and it came from the same sore spot that took them down in 1928: Finances.

The wooden grandstand at Highland Park was destroyed by fire at the end of the 1975 season; so local supporters went to work and erected a concrete structure in time for opening day, 1976. Now renamed “McDermott Field,” to honor an avid supporter of local baseball and publisher of the Post Register newspaper, the facility served well for three decades. But the franchise owner, Dave Elmore, came to town in 2005 and was disgusted by what he found. The ballpark needed to be replaced, and Elmore wasted no time letting the Mayor and local baseball advocates know his teams didn’t play in dilapidated parks.

The city fired up a fundraising program, estimating their part of the cost of a new structure, along with upgrades, to be in excess of $3 million dollars. Pulling from reserve funds, they kicked in $2 million dollars, challenging the community to come up with the rest by September 30, 2006.

Civic leaders took up the task, and their Step Up To the Plate campaign certainly did raise funds, but the deadline was fast-approaching and they were still almost half a million short.

Then along came Melaleuca, The Wellness Company

Frank VanderSloot

Frank L VanderSloot, CEO of Melaleuca, Inc., an international health and wellness products company headquartered in the city, observed that professional baseball was “An affordable family activity we are fortunate to have in Idaho Falls.”

So, when the fundraising committee came to him to help preserve the team, Frank said, “It deserves to be not only preserved, but promoted.” With that, he kicked in a donation of $600,000 to put the campaign way over the top and saved the day.

Let the team play on

And that, my friend, is how the town that has hosted teams for the Yankees, Angels, A’s, Braves and Padres came to be known as “Melaleuca Field,” present home of the Kansas City Chukars.

If you want to find out more about the team and the ballpark—or are ready to reserve your ticket to the next star-launching game, you can get all of that right here on the site. It’s the prime location for Idaho Falls Chukars trivia, tickets, schedules, team rosters, field history, tips on where to stay, and where to eat in Idaho Falls—everything you can think of and more.

Baseball, you see, is still alive and well in Idaho Falls.

Melaleuca February 14, 2013