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A brief history of the Williamsport Bills

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The only baseball team to retire a player's number for throwing a potato.

After a decade-long dry spell, Indians baseball was on its way back to Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

Back in 1976, Cleveland adopted the Williamsport Tomahawks for a solitary, disastrous season. They sank to the bottom of the Eastern League with a 48-91 record, and soon vacated the city after disputes over beer sales and field maintenance between Tomahawks' ownership and the municipal government were deemed irreconcilable.

In 1987, the Indians brought minor league ball back to Williamsport in the form of the Double-A Williamsport Bills. Despite their best attempts, it appeared that the Bills were also destined for chronic failure in the Eastern League. After two years under the Indians' direction, they finished no higher than third-to-last in the league standings. By 1989, Cleveland had shipped their prospects to Ohio, where they usurped the Vermont Mariners and became the Canton-Akron Indians. In their stead, the Pittsfield Cubs assumed the Bills' moniker and picked up a new affiliation with the Seattle Mariners.

If Williamsport had missed a steady baseball presence in the city, they didn't show it. During the Mariners' first full year in Pennsylvania, only 66,767 fans turned up for home games, less than 500 per game in a ballpark with a 4,200-person capacity. Seattle trotted out first round draft picks Tino Martinez and Pat Lennon, as well as trade acquisitions Dana Ridenour and Brad Brusky, in hopes of retaining an audience and a winning record.

Through the first half of the Mariners' inaugural 1989 season in Williamsport, the Bills appeared to hold their own. Tino Martinez led the team with 13 home runs and 64 RBI, earning the Bills' sole nomination in the Eastern League All-Stars game. In June, RHP Dave Burba and LHP Keith Helton held the Albany-Colonie Yankees to six hits in a 3-0 shutout to salvage the remains of a doubleheader. It was the fifth win of Burba's season and the seventh save for Helton.

By season's end, however, the team had dropped to seventh place in the eight-team league, only three wins above the last-place, 60-76 New Britain Red Sox. Burba and Helton's six-hitter was one of only nine shutouts posted by the Bills' staff, the fewest by any Eastern League club. To add insult to injury, the Albany-Colonie Yankees recovered in fine form and finished the season with a 92-48 record, resting a full 29 games above the Bills.

The Bills entered 1990 with the high hopes of a club that had little to lose. While they lost both Tino Martinez and Rich DeLucia to the Triple-A Calgary Cannons, outfielders Dave Brundage and Pat Lennon did their best to compensate for a struggling offense. By midseason, Brundage was carrying a .330 average and 30 walks, while Lennon had muscled four home runs and 11 RBI in 10 games since his Double-A call-up. Behind the plate, 24-year-old catcher Chris Howard earned accolades for the best defensive catcher in the Eastern League -- according to the Seattle Times' Rich Johnson, manager Rich Morales said that Howard "had more saves [...] than an NHL goalie." Howard also established himself in the batter's box, leading the Bills with 19 doubles and placing second with 49 RBI and five home runs.

As Lennon, Brundage, and Howard propelled the Bills' efforts at the plate, right-hander Mike Gardiner bolstered Williamsport's pitching staff. Through August, the 24-year-old led Eastern League pitchers with a 1.75 ERA and 139 strikeouts. With 27 walks to his name, Gardiner was voted the pitcher with the best control by a cadre of league managers, and finished his time in Williamsport at the top of the leaderboards with a 1.90 ERA, 149 strikeouts, and 29 walks among Eastern League starters. Predictably, Gardiner was among those selected by the Mariners when rosters expanded in September, becoming the latest in a long line to ditch the confines of Bowman Field.

With the roster all but depleted of the Mariners' best Double-A performers, the Bills began to fall apart. Lennon suffered a pinched nerve in his neck, then broke his hand a week later while sliding into second base. The team collectively finished last in shutouts (8) and saves (26), and manufactured the fewest RBI (413) and doubles (174) to boot. There was little consolation to be found in the stands, where just 76,779 fans turned up for home games, averaging fewer than 600 people per game. The final nail in the coffin was driven in by the Albany-Colonie Yankees, who led the league again with a 79-60 record, 18.5 games ahead of the second-to-last Bills. Only the Reading Phillies were worse off, failing to clinch even 60 of 137 games.

By 1991, the Mariners were relieved of their Double-A obligation to Williamsport. They signed a working agreement with the Jacksonville Suns and relinquished the Bills into the waiting arms of the New York Mets. It would be the last year of Eastern League ball that transpired in Williamsport -- after another seventh-place, 60-win finish, even the Mets packed up and left the state.

Williamsport trivia

  • Notable Bills: Rich DeLucia and Tino Martinez.
  • Long before the Bills graced the rickety outpost of Bowman Field, Little League baseball was born in the backyards of Williamsport. Legend has it that local lumberyard clerk Carl Stotz was having a catch with his two nephews when he tripped over the stump of a lilac bush. It was as if a light bulb had suddenly switched on. After puzzling over the details on the back porch, Stotz asked his nephews if they would like to play on a regular team, one with "uniforms, a new ball for every game, and bats you could really swing." The following summer, in 1939, Stotz rounded up enough local sponsors and players to outfit three teams. Fittingly, one was nicknamed the Lundy Lumber.
  • The Bills' finest moment came two seasons before the Mariners moved in. On August 31, 1987, Indians' backstop Dave Bresnahan prepared to catch a runner who was waiting on third base. Between at-bats, the catcher told the home plate umpire that there was a loose string on his glove, and walked over to the bench to grab a new mitt. Unbeknownst to all but Bresnahan, the glove concealed a shaved white potato. On the next pitch, Bresnahan caught the ball in his mitt, then fired the potato to third base. When the runner came barreling down the basepath, Bresnahan tagged him out with the ball. Momentarily puzzled, the umpire called the runner safe, then chided Bresnahan for spoiling the integrity of the game. Following the game, the 25-year-old was promptly fired by the Indians' director of player development, and later received a $50 fine and a league ban from the Eastern League president. In far better humor than the Indians' personnel, Bills' GM Rick Mundean retired Bresnahan's number 59 and hung it on the outfield fence, explaining to the Palm Beach Post that while "he made a travesty of the game [...] Dave did something that is the essence of baseball; he had fun with it." At the retirement ceremony the following year, 3,500 fans were charged a dollar and a potato for admission to the park.