MY TWO SUMMERS IN VULCAN
Notes from an Imported Baseball Player
(Left - Greg Seastrom in a Lethbridge Miners' uniform as part of an all-star team which won top money at the Lethbridge Tournament in 1955. Seastrom went on to a distinguished career in education and, now retired, continues to be a positive force with his work in community service.)
In the summer of 1955 I traveled from Fresno, California, to Vulcan by bus for my first of two seasons playing for the Vulcan Elks. Two summers in Western Canada broadened my experience and gave me an appreciation of Alberta and Albertans. In fact, it was an experience that influenced who I am.
For us imports, living in Vulcan was a trip back in time to a place that was simpler and more fundamental. The appearance of the town reminded us of the towns of the Old West in the movies we watched as little kids. Center Street climbed up from the CPR station into the center of town. It was surfaced with gravel and humped in the middle, sloping to deep gutters. The weather-beaten cars were parked at an angle, and people had a big step to the sidewalk. The shops and restaurants were mostly wood frame with false fronts, which was the most visible feature that reminded us of the western movies. The only thing missing was horses. The streets were lined with frame houses, some with white picket fences and well-kept yards, representative of small-town North America in the early twentieth century. Jack Altman and I felt at home in Vulcan, and occasionally talked of moving there, at least until we thought of winter. We both had lived in Hawaii before going to Fresno State College.
In 1955 the pavement ended quite a few miles from Vulcan. As we approached the town, grinding along the gravel, the first thing we’d see was Vulcan’s most prominent landmark, a row of grain elevators, thirteen, as I remember. I’d been told Vulcan was the largest primary wheat shipping center somewhere: Western Canada, Canada, or the world? They were all painted barn red, even the Alberta Wheat Pool, which was the largest and first in the row. Down the row, almost to the end, was the Pioneer elevator, where we did odd jobs during my second year. “Swede” Robertson, the Pioneer agent, hired some of us to do the dirty jobs he didn’t want to do, so I learned how to clean the boot, cooper the box cars, and shovel wheat pouring from a chute to prevent clogging.
The Elks ballpark was next to the high school. The outfield was enclosed by snow fence, and behind the plate there were ragged wooden stands with an announcer’s box behind. Fans parked their cars and pickups around the fence and expressed themselves by honking horns. The field was unleveled and lumpy, with patches of grass here and there instead of the carpet we had been used to. During the season I broke my foot, not knowing whether it was from stepping on a rock or in a hole. Marty Norman, our shortstop, would come out during the week and pick up pebbles between second and third bases. The conditions didn’t discourage us because we loved playing baseball, and it was the first time anyone paid us to do it.
I was paid $200 a month and provided a free room. Every two weeks we would report to the bank to receive a single $100 bill. I lived in a room in the home of Mike Miller, a Vulcan hail insurance agent. The first year I had an upstairs room alone across the hall from a couple of nurses, with whom I shared a bathroom without a shower. The second year I shared a bed with Pat Gillick in another upstairs room at Mike’s, probably the closest I’ve been to greatness. Jack Altman lived with Art Fitzpatrick, and the others had a room in the Canadian Legion building. Arrangements were made for us with a local family for a dollar-a-meal noon-time dinner. Jack and I ate our dinners with Hank Hughes, a mechanic, and his wife, who prepared ample and delicious meals. In the evenings we’d hang out at the New Club Cafe, to eat supper and listen to the jukebox. Whenever I hear Eddy Arnold’s “Cattle Call,” I think of Vulcan. Once when I went to pay for a meal, I was told that it had already been taken care of by a Vulcan fan. I appreciated that.
The Vulcan Elks were a mix of the best local players and we imports, who were recommended to team director Floyd Atkinson by our coach at Fresno State, Pete Beiden.
The two best local players were outfielder Benny Dann and first baseman Don Jantzie. Benny was a much better hitter than I, and I think Don was, too. Jim Pruden, an itinerant Native-Canadian, spent his summers in Vulcan to play third base and wherever else he was needed. Peter Scott, a Calgarian, joined us for our Sunday doubleheaders to play third base. Other Vulcan veterans who played sometimes were Wally Franks and Clayton Clarkson. We also had some promising young players. Mike Jantzie was our regular second baseman, Fred Burley and Orie Gordichuck were valuable utility players, and Brian Loucks was a backup catcher. The team manager in 1955 was Ken Loucks, the Pioneer Wheat Company’s agent, and in 1956 we were managed by Frank Hess, who in 1921 and 1922 had played professionally for Brantford in the class B Michigan-Ontario League.
In 1955 we imports were Jack Altman, pitcher; Marty Norman, shortstop; Jerry Burcher, pitcher; Dick Bugg, catcher; and me, center fielder and pitcher. In 1956 Jerry and I returned, joined by catcher Augie Scornienchi; pitchers Billy Joe Davidson and Pat Gillick; and shortstop Don Birkle.
1955 was a memorable season for the Vulcan Elks. After the 1954 season some teams of the Foothills-Wheatbelt League withdrew to form their own league because they were neither willing nor able to import players to keep up with the teams that did, so in 1955 only four teams comprised the league: the Granum White Sox, the Lethbridge Miners, the Picture Butte Indians, and the Vulcan Elks. George Wesley in Granum had signed many of the good players in the area and had begun importing from elsewhere. The Miners had enough good players in Lethbridge to form a competitive team, and the Picture Butte Indians imported a number of players from Hawaii who were attending California colleges. This was great for Jack and me, who had played against most of them in our high school years.
It was a great season. Playing as a team, getting great pitching from Jack Altman and Jerry Burcher and consistent hitting from the rest of us, especially Marty Norman, Benny Dann, Richard Bugg and Don Jantzie, we edged out Granum for the league title. That year a league all-star team, without Granum, who entered their own team, played in the Lethbridge Rotary Tournament. Some highly regarded American semi-pro teams were eliminated early in the tournament, then in the championship game the Southern Alberta All-Stars, made up of players from Lethbridge, Picture Butte, and Vulcan, beat the Granum White Sox for the title in an all-Southern-Alberta (and imported ringers) contest. Playing in that tournament was a real highlight for me.
For us it was a new social environment to which we had to adapt. As California kids we were used to a faster pace of life, but I’d say we adjusted quite well. For entertainment we’d see every movie (only two a week) at the Vulcan theater, play pool and snooker at the pool hall on Center Street, swim in the municipal pool, hang out in the New Club Cafe and on the sidewalks. This was just before they built the golf course, which was unfortunate. We enjoyed Saturday evenings when folks from all the farms in the area congregated in town for shopping and relaxation. Marty Norman, our philosopher, would hold court on the corner, sharing his wisdom with the local folk. Some of us spent a lot of time reading and listening to our records. We had a lot of time because we played only one weekday game and a double-header on Sunday.
We were young men beginning to “feel our oats,” so women and drinking were on our minds. We figured there were about seven available girls in town, and we kinda took turns. We had to compete with another group of young, unmarried men, the seismologists for the oil companies. My self-esteem took a blow when one of the girls stood me up for an oil man. As for drinking, although the places we could find to drink were limited, we found that drinking, especially beer, was a part of the Western- Canadian culture. The drinking age was lower than in California, and the beer more potent. The two places we could find beer, both Calgary and Lethbridge labels, were the hotel and the Canadian Legion Building. The only shower available to us was at the far end of the social hall in the basement of the Legion Building, so in order to shower after practice or a game, we had to pass by large round tables of drinking men. Often we’d be invited to sit and share a drink. The men at a table took turns ordering rounds, and the ordering got a little ahead of the drinking, so the table tops were coved with longneck bottles, some empty and some full. We’d have to stand up and rummage through the bottles to find a full one. Many a night we were a bit drunk by the time we reached the shower. Especially after winning a ballgame.
CPR ran two diesel, Budd-car trains daily through Vulcan, one southbound and one northbound, so we were able to attend the Calgary Stampede, another highlight of my experience. I really enjoyed the chuck wagon races. Those years Vulcan had a team that vied for the championship. One evening in Vulcan, I recall walking down a deserted street, able to hear the broadcast of the race emanating from every radio in the neighborhood.
I was a bit innocent at the time, having lived a protected life with family and at college, so coming to Vulcan brought me a dose of reality. My first appearance with the team, the day after my long bus trip, I went hitless in a double-header in Granum, striking out a number of times. The following week as I was sipping a beer at the Legion, George Seaman, the town painter, approached me and let me know with a slurring voice and whiskey breath, that I was no good and ought to go back to California. I had never been spoken to like this, and it made me realize this was a serious business for Vulcanites, who were betting on our games. I heard from teammates that fans had slipped them $20 bills (never me) after a good performance, but when we failed, they let us know they expected more. The people of Western Canada, who were eking out an existence under severe conditions, expected nothing less than full effort and wins from us.
In two summers and one winter I got to know many Albertans, whom I liked and respected, and I am better for that. As I said, I learned much about hard work helping Swede Robertson in the elevator. I spent a week on Reg Stein’s farm, which was miles from town, living with the family and helping repair grain storage silos. I sat with family and hands around the dinner table at midday listening to stories of their struggle. I saw a farm’s whole yearly income lost in twenty minutes of hail. I covered myself with mud and ruined a pair of shoes, as I tried to shoulder a car out of thick mud on the road between Champion and Vulcan.
At Christmas of 1955 and 1956 Jack and I drove to Vulcan to spend a week. I learned how the world looks all white and what minus 30°F feels like. I pushed a car out of a snow bank, rather than mud, at 10:00 PM on 23 north of Vulcan. Jack and I traveled with the Vulcan hockey team to a game at Claresholm, traveling through dark on the gravel road to Nanton, the snow piled beside the shoulder higher than the car. The occupants (players, fans, and the referee provided by Vulcan) passed around a bottle of home brew. This included the driver, who was peering through an opening about six or seven inches in diameter on the frozen windshield. Vulcan won a fight-filled game, but under protest. While the Vulcan players were undressing, a delegation from Claresholm came to the locker room to protest that the Vulcan referee, George Seaman mentioned above, was officiating under the influence.
On that winter visit I had the opportunity to meet Glen Gorbous, who was home for the winter at the beginning of his career in Major League Baseball. Of course we had heard about Glen, whose father owned the Vulcan furniture store, and knew how good he was. He was a congenial, gracious man, and a fierce competitor, which we could see on the ice in Claresholm. I’d bet his contract didn’t permit playing hockey in the off season, but rivalries between the small towns of Alberta were serious, as we had learned, and sitting out would be dishonorable. Glen played. I’ve always been impressed that Glen came back to Vulcan to take over the family business when he retired.
I have returned a to Vulcan a couple of times through the years, but haven’t found too many people I knew. However, the last time I visited, Jack Altman and I had lunch with Benny Dann and Don Jantzie at the Vulcan Golf Course, and we had a wonderful time catching up and remembering the old days. Don and Benny have passed on since.
I have lived in four places in my life; the Eastern Seaboard, Honolulu, the San Joaquin Valley, and Vulcan. My time in Vulcan was short, but my experiences there were as important as those anywhere else in my growth. I’ll always be grateful for that.
Greg Seastrom, 2013