In recent days, baseball players for the Colorado Springs Sky Sox came north from spring training in Arizona and began the 2014 season. About the same time, Melvin Barhite returned to his home in Calhan after a winter visit to Phoenix.
But Barhite was not among the fans who flock to training camp to get a glimpse at new prospects and established stars. And when the Sky Sox opened their season Thursday in New Orleans, Barhite was pretty much oblivious to the action despite his unique historical connection to the city’s minor league baseball team.
Barhite, 92, has never been much of a sports fan, said his daughter, Judy Black in Phoenix. However, he loves the Denver Broncos and follows them on TV, said daughter Dixie Pring.
And she said he was always good at naming things like the family’s horses and their “Down to Earth” excavating company.
And that was true 65 years ago when Barhite made banner headlines in the Gazette Telegraph, including having his photo in the paper Jan. 1, 1950, when his nickname was chosen from thousands of entries for the new minor league baseball team in Colorado Springs.
Barhite’s suggestion was among the first entries received at the desk of then Gazette Telegraph sports editor Tom McLaughlin when the contest began Dec. 11, 1949. He expressed surprise when he received the news a few weeks later that he had won the contest and two season tickets for the 1950 season.
“It was so long ago that I sent in my entry that I forgot all about it,” Barhite told the newspaper.
I learned the story after receiving a 65-year-old photo sent to me by my friends at the Pikes Peak Library District. It had been unearthed by history buff David Raith, executive director of U.S. Figure Skating.
The story unfolded as I dug into the archives of The Gazette and the library.
Barhite told the GT he suggested “Sky Sox” to connect the team to its then major league affiliate Chicago White Sox and because the team would be playing “in the sky” — at the highest elevation of any pro U.S. baseball team.
In the story, Barhite also said he and his wife, Florence, were “good baseball fans” and would enjoy the season tickets. But Black said it didn’t turn out that way.
“My dad was so busy working and raising a family and he devoted everything to that,” Black said.
During World War II he was stationed at Fitzsimmons Army Hospital and was trained as a histologist, preparing tissue slides for analysis by pathologists. He and Florence came to Colorado Springs in 1947, five years after they were married, and he worked at the old Glockner Penrose and St. Francis hospitals.
He also started a school of histology, Black said, and worked in a home laboratory preparing slides for hospitals in several stations around the region.
“He worked at the hospital during the day and at home at night,” Black said. “He never had much time for sports.”
Hearing loss makes it difficult to communicate with him. But he told me, through Dixie, he was a fan.
“I went to several games,” Barhite said, noting he threw out the first pitch at a game in 1950.
And though he hasn’t attended many games, he still treasures his link to the Sky Sox.
“Dad still tells people he named the team,” Black said. “He is proud of that.”
He kept readers updated on the influx of entries and a minor controversy over the panel of judges, which included Norma Dodge, a former Gazette Telegraph society editor and widow of former sports editor Stuart Dodge.
He noted some team officials worried the panel of judges might pick a name like the “Burros.” Some questioned why a woman was among the judges.
“I’m fully qualified to help judge a contest concerned with baseball,” Dodge was quoted by McLaughlin. “I do know there are four bases, around which you have to run if you hit the right kind of ball.”
I was also interested to read the names of team officials, including club president H. Chase Stone, a longtime banker and civic leader in the city, as well as Bill MacPhail, the general manager of the new team. The MacPhail family has deep roots in baseball and sports, in general.
MacPhail was then the 29-year-old son of Larry MacPhail, former president of the Brooklyn Dodgers who introduced night baseball in 1935 when he was president of the Cincinnati Reds. And his brother, Lee MacPhail, became president of the American League and was general manager of the New York Yankees.
Bill MacPhail went on to fame as a pioneering television sports executive who rose to president of CBS Sports, where he worked from 1956-73 and introduced instant replay to TV broadcasts during the Army-Navy game in 1963. Even today Bill MacPhail’s nephew, Andy MacPhail, is president of the Baltimore Orioles.
But MacPhail isn’t the only legendary sports figure to live in Colorado Springs.
Ford Frick, the third commissioner of Major League Baseball, also lived here twice. In fact, he worked at the Gazette and the Telegraph before they were merged under one owner.
It was early in the 20th century, according to his biography at baseball-almanac.com. After his graduation from DePauw University in his native Indiana, Frick took a job teaching English at Colorado Springs High School, now Palmer High. He also worked as a freelance writer for the Gazette for two years before leaving.
Frick would after World War I, to open an advertising agency in Colorado Springs and to write a weekly column for the Telegraph. He also wrote for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver. In 1922, Frick joined the sports staff of the New York American then moved to the Evening Journal where he covered the Yankees.
Eventually, he became a ghostwriter for Babe Ruth, then moved to broadcasting and finally became publicity director for Major League Baseball. He became president of the National League in 1934 and then commissioner of baseball in 1951, serving until he retired in 1965. He died in 1978.
Of course, there have been several major league players from Colorado Springs, including Wasson High grad and Hall of Famer Rich “Goose” Gossage. But that’s for another column.
That’s a lot of baseball trivia for this time. I say it’s time to play ball.