Baseball In The Mile High City
Many people think that Denver’s history with baseball began with the awarding of the 1991 expansion franchise to the city, a team that would become the Colorado Rockies. Actually, the beginning of baseball in the Mile High City and the state of Colorado can be traced back to 1862. Baseball in Denver, a part of the Images of Baseball series by Arcadia Press, traces the history of the sport from its origins of competitions between neighborhoods and merchants to today’s major league status. The book features a wealth of photos, charts and personal stories in tracing the evolution of baseball in the Centennial state.
The first recorded baseball game in Colorado was held in 1862, with some neighborhoods forming teams for a friendly competition. Soon merchants such as Coors and local banks joined in, fielding teams to compete with other merchants. Even the local military base and labor unions took part in baseball games. As is true with most sports, these friendly competitions became more competitive, as teams began to pay good players to join their team in order to get an upper hand on the competition. After some bidding wars between clubs, the costs of operating a club increased, forcing the owners to begin charging an admission fee for the public to watch the games. Professional baseball had arrived in the Mile High City.
In order to charge an admission fee, ballparks needed to be built to house the crowds and control admittance. Denver saw a building boom of such parks, including Riverfront Park, Broadway Park, Merchants Park and Elitch Gardens Ballpark. One of the key players in this boom of baseball interest was George Tebeau, who began as a player, then moved on to roles as a manager, then an owner. He eventually started the Denver’s, the first team to play in a professional league, the Western League. Tebeau is widely regarded as the “Father of Baseball” in the Mile High City.
By 1879, teams from the Denver area were playing teams from another state. Soon teams from the major leagues did exhibition tours in the state, and in 1891 the Chicago White Sox held their spring training in the Mile High City. Soon the city was seeing visits from such baseball elites as Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, Lou Gehrig, and Bob Feller, as they did barnstorm tours to make extra money during the off season.
This interest in baseball did not go unnoticed by the local newspaper, who started the Denver Post Baseball Tournament in 1915. This tournament brought teams from all over the country to play in the tournament. This was a wildly successful event at the turnstiles and in selling newspapers, as the public was very interested in the results of the games. The tournament would go on for the next 40 years. This tournament was also notable in that it allowed black teams and integrated teams to play in the competition, years before Jackie Robinson made his debut with the Dodgers.
The first “official” baseball team to represent the city in major league baseball was the Denver Bears, who began play in 1955. Over the years they served as the Class A and AAA affiliate for teams including the Yankees, White Sox, Twins, Expos and the Senators. In their later years were known as the Zephyrs, a name they would keep when they moved to New Orleans in 1992, after Denver was awarded a team in the expansion draft.
The Bears played their games from 1948-1992 in a stadium known as Bears Stadium. This venue eventually was renamed as Mile High Stadium. It also became the home of the Denver Broncos of the fledgling AFL football league. The stadium was enlarged to hold the football crowds, making it one of the largest baseball stadiums in the country.
The expansion Colorado Rockies used Mile High Stadium during the first two years while Coors Field was being built. The Rockies attracted huge crowds, as they were the first major league team in the region. In their first two years of play the Rockies had an average attendance of 56,000 per game, a record that figures to stand forever, as ballparks are no longer being built that large.
Baseball in Denver is a great read for any baseball fan. It provides a great look at the origins of baseball in the Rocky Mountain Region. The photographs and charts in the book help to put a face on the many people that pioneered baseball in the region.