The Salem Senators will be one of the four teams in the new Mavericks Independent Baseball League that will play at Volcanoes Stadium in the summer. The historical name harkens back to 1940 when the original Senators brought professional baseball to Salem in grand fashion.
The Senators were the last of the four names picked for the new league, and Salem-Keizer CEO Mickey Walker was on the Indy Ball Report podcast and felt the state capital, just down the road from the ballpark, would stand out among other larger cities in the area.
“We had a couple of different options to go with and ended up choosing the Salem Senators, because of their history in the Salem-Keizer area. It’s kind of something that people from around here associate with, and going with the Salem Senators felt like it identified with the local community.”
The New Salem Senators Logo, Photo Courtesy of the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes.
George Waters announced that he would build a venue in “which the city would be proud of.” Waters had just purchased the Bellingham Chinooks franchise and relocated it to the city. He then picked an 11-acre spot of land and broke ground on September 22, 1939.
Waters had been in town since 1891 and made a name for himself as a wholesale tobacco dealer and proprietor in town. He had co-owned an amateur baseball club in 1891 that, despite his efforts, was not financially successful, losing $1,500. Little did he know that he would have to wait almost half a century for his next opportunity to run a baseball operation.
He bankrolled the $60,000 ballpark and spared no expenses on making it a first-class venue for both players and fans. The aisles were a little wider than other facilities, the lights were of major league caliber, and player comfort extended from the field to the locker rooms. The ballpark also provided ample space for parking cars.
“It will be one the classiest fields in the northwest and have a maximum capacity of 10,000 fans,” proclaimed Waters, who predicted attendance numbers of 100,000 for the season.
In reality, the facility held 5,600 between the grandstand and the two bleacher sections, based on the city building inspector. It would be 330 feet to left field, 382 feet to center field, and 370 to left field. Home Plate was 45 feet from the grandstand. There would be wide praise given to the new ballpark from both home and visiting fans.
Waters Field Entrance, File Photo, The Capitol Journal
The knothole section was constructed for kids and provided free admission for all kids to the games. A total of 500 kids under the age of 15 signed pledge cards to attend games. When league officials warned Waters that he could lose significant money, he said that he would personally pay for every boy and girl to enter the game. He wasn’t interested in making a profit with his new venture and would be satisfied with breaking even on the season.
“If people like the club, that’s all I care about. I like my town. I’ve been in business for 48 years, and I think I owe the town something.”
On May 1, 1940, the first minor league baseball was held at what was known as Waters Park in front of a record crowd of 4,865–the largest crowd at a sporting event in Salem. The Senators scored five runs in the ninth to edge the Yakima Pippins 11-10 in the home opener.
Through the first 23 games, the club attracted close to 25,000 in total attendance for an average of 1,080 persons. This did not include the 5,071 paid attendance for a double-header the night before the report. The numbers were not as predicted, at first, but were good enough for the team to finish second behind Spokane in attendance numbers at season’s end.
The Senators played average baseball for most of the season but were surprisingly still able to earn the last playoff spot in the league during the last two nights of the season. However, the Solons dropped a twin-bill to Yakima to knock them three games behind Vancouver in the standings.
At season’s end, Capital-Journal sports columnist Fred Zimmerman wrote the following, “Whether professional baseball is a financial success… George E. Waters has provided Salem and the vicinity with some first-class entertainment.
Sadly, Waters would succumb to a heart attack on October 19, and perhaps he had a premonition, a few months before, when the community honored him at his ballpark. The 70-year-old businessman was deeply moved and at the initial team banquet, stated that he did not expect to live long and was glad to do something for Salem.
Ownership would fall into the hands of his wife, Margaret Waters and after a three-year hiatus for World War II, sold it to the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League. It has been reported that Ms. Waters contemplated closing up shop due to having little interest in the sport and insisted that her husband’s involvement with the ball club was too much for his health.
However, she operated as the Solons president, being one of the first women in the sport to hold such a title and keep it in operation during World War II. She would sell the team and the ballpark to Portland Beavers GM Bill Klepper for a reduced price of $30,000, more than half of the ballpark’s $65,000 construction in 1946.
Salem Knothole Gang, File Photo, The Capitol Journal
The only stipulation was that the ballpark would retain the Waters Field name as long as she was alive. This would come into play when she was on her sickbed, and there were rumors that the stadium’s name would be changed. Shortly before she died in 1964, she stated, “Please don’t change the name–not until after I’m gone.”
The two years after the war, crowds packed Waters Field. A record 102,956 walked through the turnstiles in 1946, and another impressive 98,247 came back the following year. However, the dip in attendance was a harbinger for numbers to come as 1949 attendance dipped to 67,495 on the season.
This prompted the Beavers to either move the club to another city or abandon it completely. Portland’s new GM Bill Mulligan stated in the newspaper that there was only a “slim chance” of survival for baseball in Salem. One rumor had the club relocating to New Westminster, British Columbia.
Salem Senators Looking Sharp, File Photo, The Capitol Journal
After the 1950 campaign, the Beavers threatened to move the Solons out of town due to low attendance numbers. A group of 832 stockholders called the Salem Senators, Inc. purchased the team from the Beavers for $20,000 to keep the ball club in town.
The sale included the team, ballpark, accessories, equipment, and 14 players. Donald A. Young, manager of the ball club’s board of directors made many efforts to keep the team afloat during the rest of the truculent decade.
The club was still having attendance concerns in 1951 and was in financial trouble midway through the season and needed to attract 1,800-2,000 fans a game to stay afloat. Young predicted that 62,500 would have to turn out for the final 33 games to turn a profit.
The group managed to make it through the turbulent 1954 Western International League that saw three teams drop out during the season. The “Save the Senators” campaign raised enough money to keep the team afloat which saw 4,124 for a July game against Tri-City that also included a pre-game parade that stretched for six blocks. The festivities included two bands, a color guard, a fire engine, a Shrine marching band, and a police escort that snarled traffic in downtown Salem.
Salem Outfield View, File Photo, The Capitol Journal
The Senators remained afloat during the truculent decade and would lose an average of $10,000 by the time the city condemned the ballpark after a series of inspections in 1965. A large number of rotting beams underneath the stands and repairs might be too high. This resulted in the parent club, Los Angeles Dodgers, closing up shop after the season.
After Al Lightner made one last visit to the ballpark, he wrote about it in his daily column for the Statesman on July 21, 1966. He describes the ballpark that featured dugouts peering over acres of waste, debris scattered all over the place, broken glass, rotten wood smell, and team offices vandalized. There are tall, swaying, brown weeds and overgrown grass on the playing field.
“Been sick in the stomach region lately? If not, and you care to try, all you need to do is have a peek at what now resides within the taken walls of Walter Field. It’s almost too hard for anyone to believe if he has any knowledge at all of the effort and energy once applied to the plant, items which four years ago earned it the distinction of being one of the finest parks in all lower minor league baseball. There is no evidence of it now.“
The unused ballpark would be sold to Candalaria Investment Company for $89,000 in May of 1966 after directors decided to quit fielding a team. The sale had hoped to keep the initial stockholders out of debt. As Statesmen Sports Editor, Al Lightner wrote, “Professional baseball in Salem had been dying a slow death for years.”
Waters Field Grandstand on Fire, File Photo, The Capitol Journal
If baseball was dying a slow death, then the ballpark went quickly as it was set ablaze on the night of November 11, 1966. The fire could be seen for miles and the grandstand was engulfed in flames while the bleacher sections suffered little damage. The abandoned park was wide open allowing trespassers free access.
The damage could have been much worse, but the electricity had been shut off for quite some time. This also resulted in many believing the blaze was the work of arson, but there was never a suspect charged. Quickly, what was left was cleaned up and promptly carted away to reveal an empty parking lot, void of any activity.
Waters Field Fire, File Photo, The Capitol Journal
The fire ended all activity at Waters Field, although it was unlikely that anything would continue before the blaze. The site would be picked for a U.S. Post Office in 1975, and a specialized logo with a baseball theme was picked to honor the erstwhile structure.
George Waters would have been deeply saddened by the destruction of his ballpark. He probably looked at it as his legacy to the city and to provide a playground for baseball and other events. Sadly, it has been gone much longer than it was in operation, but the Senators’ name will be revived once again this summer at another ballpark.
I am sure Waters would be happy about that.