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Baseball Versus the Volcano: The Story of Mount St. Helens, the AAA Spokane Indians, and the Dogged Gonzaga Bulldogs

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40 years ago today, Mount St. Helens let loose the most devastating volcanic eruption in United States history. This is the story of how it affected baseball in the Pacific Northwest.

Mount Saint Helens Erupts
Mount St. Helens erupts, May 18, 1980.
Photo by John Barr/Liaison

On March 20th, 1980 Mount St. Helens woke up.

A 4.1 earthquake on the northwest sector of the mountain triggered massive avalanches on the north side of the mountain and daily news coverage that would not abate for years. The perfectly symmetrical mountain had been napping since 1857. No one alive knew what an active St. Helens was capable of.

The first eruption burst forth on March 27th. The mountain continued to shake and spew small eruptions. At the end of April, a bulge was spotted on the north slope. Geologists and loggers working in the area kept watch as the bulge continued to grow.

Mother and Boy Look at Mount Saint Helens
The view of a pre-1980 Mount St. Helens from Spirit Lake
Photo by �� Josef Scaylea/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Meanwhile, in Seattle, residents enjoyed the University District Street Fair. Across the state in Spokane, the Lilac Festival was underway. Saturday night, May 17th, the clouds that had plagued the city all week cleared as the Lilac Festival Parade began. The next morning, Spokanites woke up to a weather forecast of sunny skies and warmer temperatures. It was a welcome break from the drab weather of late.

The Mariners were wrapping up a road trip in Chicago and about to head home to face the Milwaukee Brewers

*****

The morning of May 18th was clear and sunny throughout the northwest. The clouds that had blocked visibility of Mount St. Helens were gone. The Seattle Times described succinctly what happened next:

“May 18, 10 seconds past 8:32 a.m. A 5.1-magnitude earthquake jarred the mountain. Within seconds of the shock, the great bulge slumped inward and ash boiled violently out of the crater. And then, with a rolling, shaking roar that reached across the mountains and the plains and far out beyond the borders of the state, more than 1,200 feet of the summit dissolved in one of the great explosions in history.”1

*****

Despite the ash in the air and the disruption of flights, the Mariners had no trouble flying back to Seattle after their game in Chicago. They were joined by the Brewers, coming off a series in Minnesota. The Kingdome’s shelter from the elements and the Seattle area’s relatively minimal fallout from the eruption did not affect baseball there in the least.

This was not the case for the Mariners’ AAA team. The Spokane Indians were finishing a 16-game road trip with a series in Vancouver B.C. on May 18th. Spokane had had a dismal start to their season, losing 19 of their first 27 games. On this road trip, their fortunes began to turn around. The day of the eruption, the team won their 3rd straight game, taking 4 of 5 games from Vancouver. They were looking forward to beginning a 15-game homestand against the Ogden A’s. Instead, they found themselves stranded in Seattle.

Mid-day on May 18th, the sunny skies of Spokane began to darken. The ominous cloud of ash and dust moved over the city. Ash fell and automatic street lights turned on. Car engines were damaged and clogged, and air travel was shut down. The opening game of Spokane’s homestand the next day was postponed until the team could get home. It was the first time a baseball game was “volcanoed out.”

Rick Cole Wipes Ash From Car
Rick Cole, director of emergency services in Yakima, wipes ash from a car.

Luckily, they found themselves near their parent ballclub, and the Mariners were happy to extend some hospitality to their stranded brethren. Spokane took advantage of the chance to work out at the Kingdome, brought their laundry along, and joined 5,700 fans to watch the Mariner’s walk-off win against the Brewers on May 19th.

A state of emergency was declared in the Spokane area and everything other than essential travel was banned. The airport was completely closed, and highways were shut down. A Washington State Patrol spokesman in Spokane told The Spokesman-Review that I-90 was shut down, “all the way to the Pacific Ocean.”2 (It was closed between the Idaho state line and North Bend, WA.) Spokane manager Rene Lachemann said from Seattle, “I’d just as soon stay here and not go into that stuff. Back there we couldn’t do anything. At least here we can get something done and work out.”3

Ash covered all of Spokane. The ballpark at the Spokane Fairgrounds was likewise buried beneath the volcanic fallout. Team officials were already worried about missing out on gate receipts and the extra cost of lodging and meals for the players on an extended stay away from home. The cleanup at the ballpark began on Tuesday, May 20th. The team hoped they’d be able to play by Thursday. Discussion began about shifting the series to Ogden, UT since Spokane was shut down. The team was reluctant. After all, they had the original San Diego Chicken scheduled to appear on Saturday.

Philadelphia Phillies
The San Diego Chicken circa 1979. Like a lot of things from the 70s, I guess you had to be there.
Photo by Focus on Sport via Getty Images

General manager Larry Koentopp had an idea to speed up recovery from the ash and sent a plea to the heavens. “I wish the darn thing would just rain like crazy,” he said.4

Ah, famous last words.

*****

Koentopp had deep ties to the Spokane area. He was a graduate of both Gonzaga Prep and Gonzaga University. After spending some time in California, he came back to Gonzaga University and took over as the head baseball coach. He turned the ‘Zags into a nationally competitive team in the 1970s. They earned four appearances in the NCAA tournament and two top-30 rankings. He left in 1977 to head up an investment group that purchased the Spokane Indians.

While Koentopp’s Indians were anxious to get back into Spokane, his Bulldogs were fighting their way out. Gonzaga was set to play in the NCAA Far West Regional against defending national champion Cal State-Fullerton on Friday in Tucson, AZ. With the airport and highways closed, they weren’t sure how they were going to get there.

The NCAA was aware of their quandary, and responded about the way you’d expect. “The NCAA is sympathetic to our problems, but they said to do what we can to get there, or forfeit,” Jim Lawler, head coach, told the Spokane Daily Chronicle.5 Forfeiture would put the team at a huge disadvantage in the double-elimination tournament. Even though Gonzaga was entering as the only unranked team in their regional, they believed they could play well. Just two years before, they had finished second in their regional to the eventual College World Series Champions, Arizona State.

Complicating matters, star pitcher Mike Mahoski was stranded down in Pullman. He had gone down over the weekend to visit a friend and with the ash clogging the air and the highway between Pullman and Spokane closed, he was stuck. Unlike the Gonzaga baseball team, he was able to work out and allegedly joined the Washington State University baseball team in some indoor workouts over his extended weekend. I say allegedly because WSU also responded to the eruption exactly the way you’d expect:

From the May 24, 1980 Spokesman-Review. Go Cougs.

Gonzaga hadn’t played a game since the Wednesday before the eruption, and they had not been able to practice since Sunday. Worries over rust wouldn’t matter if the team could not get out of Spokane.

*****

The ash in Spokane did not magically dissipate. The Indians were forced to move their games to Utah. In return, Ogden would switch a home series to Spokane. The San Diego Chicken did not want to deprive the citizens of Spokane, and agreed to come back in June. The team went to pack up their gear and continue down the road, when their load suddenly lightened.

After their uniforms were washed at the Kingdome, two bags full of the clean laundry were given to broadcaster Paul Olden to bring back to the team’s motel. On the way, he stopped at a “topless tavern” to grab a drink. “I was thirsty and just wanted a beer. I guess I was in the wrong place at the right time,” he explained.6 While inside, his rental car was jimmied and the bags full of uniforms—and it should be noted, the players’ underwear—were taken. The theft was reported to the police, but the team had no choice but to head to Utah sans uniforms or skivvies.

They arrived in Utah on Wednesday the 21st. The Ogden A’s were happy to lend their road uniforms to their unfortunate opponents. The A’s were also happy to beat Spokane while they were down, turning a 4-0 Spokane lead into a 5-4 Ogden win.

Spokane began the series without their scheduled starter. Greg Biercevicz had flown home from Vancouver B.C. before the eruption because he was scheduled to start the next game. Like the Gonzaga Bulldogs, he found himself stranded in Spokane. When road conditions improved, he would hop on a bus to Seattle and fly down to Ogden, bringing some treasured loot. He would be able to transport their home uniforms to them, yes, but more importantly, he would come bearing their paychecks. ”He’s going to be very popular when he gets here,” said manager Rene Lachemann. “There are a few guys a little short right now; like broke.”7

Also in Spokane, Koentopp gave the ballpark cleanup efforts a positive report. The team anticipated being ready to face the Hawaii Islanders the next Sunday, a week after the eruption disrupted their schedule. For a moment, things were looking up. Spokane beat Ogden in the next game to win their 7th in 9 games. The team had new road uniforms on order, just in time for their stolen uniforms to appear in a school yard in Lakewood.

The financial pressures of life on the road were beginning to worry the front office. In addition to lodging and meals, changing their flights was another unanticipated cost. As the ballpark was undergoing its cleanup, the concession facilities were broken into twice and food items and souvenirs were stolen. The cleanup work was more difficult than anticipated and extra help had to be hired in the rush to get the ash cleared by Sunday.

The ballpark at the Fairgrounds (now Avista Stadium), was special to the ownership group. When the team was purchased, they had invested nearly $300,000 in sprucing it up. One of their expenditures was a new, computerized scoreboard. It must have been devastating to discover the scoreboard was now malfunctioning because of all the dust and ash. Koentopp didn’t try to sugar coat the ash-coated mess. “If anything else can go wrong, I guess we’ll find out what it is,” he said.8

*****

Coach Lawler rounded up his Bulldog players and loaded them into two vans headed for the coast (Seattle, in Spokane parlance). Packing extra air filters and engine oil to keep the vans running, he was determined to get his players to Seattle in time for their flight to Tucson. Word was that Highway 2 had opened up, but Lawler wasn’t sure if law enforcement would let them drive all the way through. Getting to Arizona felt essential to him and his team, but the police may not see it the same way.

Somehow, they made it to Seattle and arrived in Tucson on Wednesday night. They would have a chance to get in a team workout on Thursday before they faced Fullerton on Friday. Pitcher Mahoski, stranded in Pullman, made his way to Lewiston, ID and flew to Arizona from there. The ‘Zags landed inside a heat wave. Temperatures in Tucson were expected to exceed 100 degrees in the coming days. After their journey, the team wasn’t going to let that stop them. Assistant coach Ed Thayer conceded that it was indeed quite hot. But, he opted for optimism and leaned into the popular cliche, telling reporters, “It’s a dry heat though so it might not be too bad.”9

The heat and lack of workouts just added to the task ahead of the Bulldogs. The NCAA Far West Regionals was thought to be the toughest tournament outside of the College World Series. In addition to the defending national champions, Gonzaga would face Pac-10 champion Arizona. They’d worked hard to get there and had a solid game plan. Coach Lawler summed up their strategy for the first game against Fullerton succinctly: “Our goal is to keep them off the bases,” he said.10

The starting pitcher for Gonzaga was Tom Gorman. Gorman walked-on the baseball team his freshman year and was part of the 1978 team that had finished second in their regional to the eventual NCAA champions. Leaning on his forkball and off-speed pitches, he pitched to Lawler’s game plan, striking out 7 and scattering 9 hits in a complete game.

In the bottom of the ninth inning the score was tied at 2. Mac Gebbers stepped to the plate to lead off the inning. The junior had also walked-on the Gonzaga baseball team. He had arrived from Wenatchee planning to play both basketball and baseball, but ended up shifting his focus to baseball, and for good reason. The third baseman would end his career in 1982 as the Gonzaga University leader in home runs, doubles, RBI, and at bats. His number 19 was the first number retired by the program.

He had also played on that second place 1978 team. He didn’t want another second place finish. They didn’t fight through the ash to get here for that. He waited for his pitch, then he swung.

The ball sailed out to left-center field, arching over the fence at the 390-foot mark and kept going. Assistant coach Ed Thayer said it “may have traveled 450 feet.”11

The Bulldogs mobbed Gebbers as he crossed home plate. One screamed, “We’re just getting started!”12

After days without practice and a tough journey to the tourney, the Zags were there to play.

*****

In Utah, Spokane ran into more trouble. Although Koentopp reported that the stadium was clean and ready, county officials weren’t sure that the air quality had improved enough for outdoor activities. Koentopp assured reporters that the public’s and players’ safety was a priority. If the county wasn’t comfortable with the game being played, it would be suspended. Once again, Koentopp appealed to the weather for help, saying, “What everybody really needs is a good, hard rain.”13

Precipitation found Spokane in Utah on Saturday the 24th, although not in the form the team probably expected in May. The last game was snowed out. Spokane headed for home the next day, hoping to finally begin their homestand.

Their scheduled opponent was the Hawaii Islanders. The Islanders had a rough travel schedule just by virtue of their location in Honolulu. Even though life was starting to get back to normal a week after the eruption, they had a rough time getting to Spokane. They had been scheduled to play in Portland, but rain wiped out the last couple games of the series. They left Portland on Saturday aboard a bus headed for Spokane. After traveling through Walla Walla and Lewiston, the tired team arrived in Spokane 9 hours later.

Spokane was able to fly back home from Utah. They were happy to be home, but a little unnerved to see everyone in town wearing face masks as protection against inhaling the ash that still floated through the air. Rain was certainly needed for the good of the city’s air quality. Neither team was entirely disappointed when the rain began Saturday night and kept going into Sunday. Both teams were tired from travel and could use the rest. They would simply play a doubleheader tomorrow.

Spokane manager Rene Lachemann could only muse about the strange few weeks he and his team had just lived through. “That was some roadtrip. We started in Hawaii where it was sunny, went to Vancouver where it rained, got to Seattle and the volcano exploded and we couldn’t get home, went to Ogden and it snowed. Now we get home and it’s raining and there are ashes all over the place.”14

*****

For all their tenaciousness, Gonzaga lost the second game of their regional tournament 13-9 on Saturday, May 24th. Facing the Pac-10 champion and regionals host Arizona, the Bulldogs just couldn’t get one past the Wildcats. Gonzaga held the lead until the bottom of the sixth inning when Arizona scored 6 runs to take a 9-4 lead. Erstwhile Pullmanite Mike Mahoski was chased from the game during the 6th inning onslaught. The ‘Zags fought back, but it wasn’t enough against the Arizona powerhouse.

On Sunday, May 25th Gonzaga faced Cal-State Fullerton once again. The loser of this game would be eliminated. The winner would face Arizona in the championship game that evening.

It took 11 innings for Gonzaga to beat Fullerton a second time and knock them out of the tournament. First baseman Rick Witt was the hero of the game, driving in 4 runs. Friday’s starter, Tom Gorman contributed 3 ⅓ innings to vanquish the Titans. Witt scored the winning run of the game on a passed ball in the 11th inning and the ‘Zags won 10-8.

A few hours later, Gonzaga got a second chance to take down Arizona. Gorman started the game, this third appearance in Gonzaga’s fourth game. A complete game on Friday, and 3 ⅓ innings earlier in the day meant he only made it 6 innings before he had to leave Sunday’s finale. Gonzaga’s offense outhit Arizona 13-10, but it wouldn’t be enough to pull out the win. At the end of the game, the score stood 8-5, Arizona.

Maybe it was the lack of practice, maybe Arizona and their home crowd of 10,000 fans was just too much. Gonzaga was disappointed to finish second again. The other players, coaches, fans, and reporters came away impressed with the Bulldogs’ tenacity. Praise for their fight and spirit filled newspaper column inches. They were called the class team of the tournament. They would have rather been the winning team of the tournament.

On Tuesday morning, they boarded a plane back to Spokane. At least their return trip was shorter than their journey to Arizona.

*****

In Spokane, the Indians had to cancel their game on Monday, May 26th due to rain as well. Doubleheaders were scheduled for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Air quality was still a big concern; the rain hadn’t completely washed the particles away. League and team officials talked about wanting to play games, but assured reporters they wouldn’t consider playing if the air wasn’t safe. “If there’s a real health hazard we’re not going to have a game,” Koentopp said. “Nobody would come out to watch anyway. But a lot depends on who you talk to. One person says it’s OK, another may be more cautious”.15

1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens
A mask protects a statue of the state’s namesake from breathing in the volcano ash.
Photo by Calle Hesslefors/ullstein bild via Getty Images

The Islanders tried to get in workouts on the soggy field, wearing masks to protect themselves from the dirty air. Manager Doug Rader was upset at the conditions, calling the field a mess and deploring the air quality. He ranted, “We may as well reschedule for Three-Mile Island, for crying out loud.”16 He proposed either playing the Spokane games at a neutral site or taking his team and flying down to Tucson early for their next series.

Pacific Coast League president Bill Cutler shot down the idea, recognizing that Spokane needed the gate receipts. While acknowledging the problems with the Spokane field, he said, “No doubt there is going to be dust off and on in the air for a long time, but I have to believe the club’s management. The last thing I want to do is jeopardize a player’s health. But, management isn’t going to do that either.”17

For his part, Koentopp stubbornly asserted, “The park is not a mess.”18

The following day both teams were able to get some running and throwing work in at the new indoor rodeo arena at the Fairgrounds. It was all they would get to do as rain, once again, cancelled the games.

Cutler gave the teams permission to play a triple-header on Thursday the 29th. The Islanders declined, so just a double-header was scheduled. The forecast only called for a 10 percent chance of rain. After three straight days, surely the games would be played. Mother Nature had other ideas and dumped nearly half an inch of rain over the field that afternoon

Hawaii left Spokane for sunny Arizona. I imagine they were ecstatic to fly away from the rainy, ashy Lilac City.

*****

The Portland Beavers came into town on Friday, May 30th for a weekend series. Including the games that were moved to Ogden, Spokane had already cancelled or postponed 11 of its scheduled home games because of the Mount St. Helens eruption. Five days of rain had to give way to better weather.

All day the weather remained dry. The field was in shape. County officials gave them the go-ahead for the 7:15 PM game. It was finally going to happen.

At 5:30 PM a thunderstorm rolled through, right on top of the field. After 20 minutes of pouring rain, the skies cleared. The sun was shining at 7:15. The players were ready to go.

The field was a mess. Six straight rainouts. Twelve home games cancelled or postponed. Twelve games worth of lost revenue.

Lachemann said all there was to say, “I don’t believe it. I just don’t believe it.”19

*****

The University of Arizona Wildcats went on to win the College Win Series. Gonzaga had fought hard and finished second to the eventual champions once again. This time, they were rewarded with No. 9 ranking in the final Collegiate Baseball poll of the year. After going 39-15 and winning the Northern Pacific Conference title, it was a mark of accomplishment and their highest ever ranking.

*****

On Saturday May 31st, the skies cleared and baseball was played in Spokane. Like anything that endured six straight days of rain, the Spokane nine were rusty and dropped each game of the double header by marks of 8-0 and 3-0 in seven innings each.

Sunday, June 1st wasn’t any brighter. Two weeks after the big eruption, The Spokesman-Review described the scene: “A gray pall of volcanic grime overhung the Spokane ballpark in Sunday’s chilly twilight, and the Indians’ starting pitcher, Randy Stein, worked the first three innings wearing a face mask.”20 Spokane managed to score two runs, but Portland won 8-2.

The next day was another off-day. The team would head back out on the road, this time to Portland and Albuquerque, hoping to brush the volcanic fallout from their dismal season.

*****

In mid-August the extent of Spokane’s financial problems were revealed. A Utah motel manager had contacted the Spokane U.S. attorney general and the Better Business Bureau complaining that the team still had not paid their bill from May. The Travelodge and Holiday Inn in Ogden, UT had been badgering the team about payment with no response. Koentopp said the team applied for a federal emergency disaster loan. The club had lost more than $100,000 due to the eruption, he said.21 A week later it was revealed that the team had failed to pay their $7,500 annual rent to Spokane County for the ballpark.

The ownership group was not able to recover financially from the Mount St. Helens fallout in Spokane. After the 1982 season, the group saw an opportunity to recoup their losses and moved the AAA franchise to Las Vegas where they became the Stars (the Mariners had switched their AAA affiliation for the 1982 season to the Salt Lake City Gulls). There the team played in a new stadium replete with healthy crowds, and the ownership group found financial stability.

A new ownership group revived the Spokane Indians team name in 1983 as a Class-A short-season affiliate of the San Diego Padres in the Northwest League.

*****

Mount St. Helens continued to let loose smaller eruptions for the next couple years. Although they missed out on the big eruption, the Mariners got a piece of volcanic action on June 12th, 1980. The team was losing 4-1 to the Baltimore Orioles going into the bottom of the ninth inning. The Kingdome PA announcer informed the crowd of just over 10,000 that the mountain had had another small eruption.

As if the scoreboard had flashed “NOISE!”, the crowd erupted in thunderous cheers.22

For all its destruction and for all its lasting impacts, there’s something about a volcano that brings out a wide-eyed, occasionally stupid, wonder in us all.

Mount Saint Helens Blows Her Top
Mount St. Helens
Photo by John Barr/Liaison

Sources:

  1. “Volcano: Day by day, the deadly pressure grew.” The Seattle Times (Seattle, WA), May 25, 1980: 33.
  2. Rose, Robert L. and Bonino, Rick. “St. Helens turns into killer.” The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA), May 19, 1980: 1.
  3. “Koentopp: Praying for rain!” Spokane Daily Chronicle (Spokane, WA), May 20, 1980: 13.
  4. Ibid.
  5. “Gonzaga Bulldogs leashed to Spokane?” Spokane Daily Chronicle (Spokane, WA), May 20, 1980: 13.
  6. “Indians rolling on road, but bad times off field.” Spokane Daily Chronicle (Spokane, WA), May 23, 1980: 13.
  7. “Greg Biercervicz: a ‘wanted’ Spokane Indian.” Spokane Daily Chronicle (Spokane, WA), May 22, 1980: 16.
  8. “Indians rolling on road, but bad times off field.” Spokane Daily Chronicle (Spokane, WA), May 23, 1980: 13.
  9. “Zags arrive — it’s hot.” Spokane Daily Chronicle (Spokane, WA). May 22, 1980: 16.
  10. Goodwin, Dale. “It’s baseball again for Zags.” The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA). May 23, 1980: 21.
  11. “Gebbers’ blast in ninth keys Zags’ upset.” The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA). May 24, 1980: 19.
  12. Adams. Dave. “Gonzaga surprises Cal State-Fullerton.” The Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, AZ). May 24, 1980: 33.
  13. “Indians due home, ‘anticipate playing.’ Spokane Daily Chronicle (Spokane, WA). May 24, 1980: 7.
  14. “Indians schedule 2 if rain stops.” Spokane Daily Chronicle (Spokane, WA). May 26, 1980: 24.
  15. Stewart, Chuck. “Hawaii wants out!” Spokane Daily Chronicle (Spokane, WA). May 27, 1980: 13.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. “Thundershower halts Tribe baseball plans.” Spokane Daily Chronicle (Spokane, WA), May 31, 1980: 6.
  20. Missildine, Harry. “Portland batters, volcanic grime just too much for Indians, Stein.” The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA), June 2n, 1980: 21.
  21. Hibbard, Rita. “Tribe ‘inn’ trouble: Is Tribe in trouble?” The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA), August 15, 1980: 21.
  22. “Mariner fans find something to cheer.” The Seattle Times (Seattle, WA), June 13, 1980: 39.