The Love of the Game

How two men helped turn Denver from a minor-league outpost into a major-league city.

April 2007

The local teams plugged along intermittently for the next several decades, but each successive one was forever fighting an uphill financial battle, not unlike the small-market Rockies today. Factors such as geographic isolation and, later, the Great Depression often forced the Denver nines to operate on shoestring budgets or disband entirely. By the time World War II rolled around, with most healthy young men shipping off to fight in Europe and Asia, baseball at all levels suffered a talent drain. (So much so that some major-league executives concocted the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, chronicled in A League of Their Own.) Here in Denver, which had a strong military presence, local baseball options consisted primarily of exhibition games featuring future and former pros who were stationed here.

Flush with the victories over Hitler and Hirohito, the postwar United States was booming again. The Depression was over, jobs were plentiful, reunited families were looking for ways to spend their time and money, and baseball underwent a nationwide revival. Thanks to the efforts of Colorado Senator Edwin Johnson and two others, including future Denver Mayor Bill Nicholson, the Bears were reborn into their old Western League. But playing at the renovated but still rickety Merchants Park was a liability. The combination of spectator discomfort and a so-so team clouded the Bears' future from the outset. Fortunately, help was on the way.

Rebirth of a Notion

In a picture taken in 1950, a grinning, apple-cheeked Bob Howsam works the phones, wheeling and dealing his team from near extinction to local prominence. Now 89 and living in Arizona, Howsam was a visionary who eventually compiled one of the most varied and impressive executive resumes in sports history, but perhaps his greatest inspiration was marrying Senator Johnson's daughter Janet. Howsam had been executive secretary of the Western League, and his connection to the Senator gave him the "in" he needed to reinvigorate the Denver baseball scene. He talked his own brother and father into buying the Bears after the 1947 season, and the family's first order of business was building a new stadium. "The attendance hadn't done well because they were playing in old Merchants Park, a wooden park that had a lot of splinters, to be honest," Howsam says. "We needed a stadium that we felt was a type that would be a pleasure to watch a ballgame in."

Johnson and the Howsams set out to create a park that would become the jewel of the Western League. They purchased a garbage dump near 20th and Federal and excavated the land to create a natural half-bowl. The park opened late in the 1948 season, seating about 18,500 and surrounded by an easily accessible parking lot, a model for future ballparks throughout the minor leagues. Thus began a golden era for baseball in Denver.

TV, Tickets, and Titles

Though the team still struggled at first, baseball was, apart from the occasional rodeo and the ubiquitous outdoor activities, the only game in town. Thanks largely to the allure of the new stadium, the Bears set an all-time minor-league attendance record by drawing more than 463,000 fans in 1949. "Baseball was popular everyplace [after the war]; they were forming leagues all over the place," Howsam says. "People during the war were working in factories, couldn't have the lights on at night, and couldn't get out. Once the war ended, people wanted to get out into the fresh air and do things, which is one of the things that made it so popular in Denver. And we gave them a new stadium where they could go and enjoy it. It was a lovely way to spend an evening during those days." Though the strong attendance prompted newspapers across the country to start calling Denver the minor-league baseball capital of America in the early 1950s, Howsam still had to scramble to put fans in the seats as the decade wore on. He still had a few tricks up his sleeve, first aligning his team with the most powerful and iconic franchise in sports and later hiring a hustling young successor who would help steer the Bears through the next several decades.