Montana holds but a handful of connections to Major League Baseball. There's Butte's Rob Johnson, a blue-collar catcher familiar to contemporary fans because he's played for four different teams over the last seven seasons. There are potential future stars, like Missoula's Riley King, who's currently working his way through Kansas City's farm system in hopes of reaching the majors. There's also, of course, the Pioneer League, which has long cultivated big league talent, and spends a few months every summer in Great Falls, Billings, Helena and Missoula. But since professional baseball officially started more than 143 years ago, only 23 players and one manager can say they were born in Montana—and few of them ever spent considerable time here.
While these players and teams help tie the Treasure State to the national pastime, there are 10 names that provide perhaps the most lasting connection between Montana and the game. They're the old-timers who played during baseball's heyday, lived in the state during its formative years and then chose Montana as their final resting place. Of the more than 16,000 who have officially suited up for a Major League game since 1871, these 10 are the only ones buried in Montana.
Who are they? How'd they end up here? Why'd they stay?
Sifting through old bios and box scores, reading obituaries and news clippings, the answers reveal bonafide superstars and spectacular flameouts, community pillars and small-town footnotes. There are storybook stare-downs with Babe Ruth, comical run-ins with Honus Wagner and battles with Cy Young. There are threads to Montana's cornerstone industries, their booms and busts, as well as lasting legacies in the form of dedicated landmarks. There are nicknames like Doc, Dad, Buddy and Big Serb. There are controversies and frauds. Why do these stories matter? For a baseball fan, following the path of these 10 Montanans offers an intimate glimpse into a game that's long captured the nation's imagination. For everyone else, it provides a peek at the history of this place we—and those ballplayers—call home.
In the 1989 movie Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner plays a farmer who tears up his crops to erect a baseball field for a bunch of ghosts, including "Shoeless" Joe Jackson. The film, which is based on W.P. Kinsella's novel Shoeless Joe, involves a road trip where Costner recruits others who are destined to visit his field. One is a former ballplayer named Archibald "Moonlight" Graham, who only played in one professional game and didn't register an official at-bat. Graham, who is based on a real-life Minnesotan, abandoned his baseball career to return home and become his small town's only doctor.
William Wiman Andrus could be considered Montana's version of "Moonlight" Graham. On Sept. 15, 1885, the Canadian-born Andrus dressed for one game with the Providence Grays against the St. Louis Maroons. He played third base, replacing Jerry Denny, an ambidextrous defensive specialist recognized as the last player to go his entire career without using a fielding glove. Andrus went to bat four times that day, but failed to get a hit. He never played again in the Major Leagues. His lifetime batting average is .000.
Better things awaited Andrus once he left baseball. Throughout his playing career—Andrus barnstormed around secondary leagues before and after his one game with Providence—he spent his winters studying medicine at Trinity University in Toronto. He graduated in 1893, and he moved that same year to Billings to pursue his medical career. By October, the ambitious Andrus moved again to open his own practice in Miles City, a bustling trade destination at the confluence of the Tongue and Yellowstone rivers. Miles City had only been founded 16 years earlier by the military as an outpost before the Battle of Little Bighorn, and incorporated just six years before Andrus' arrival.
In addition to serving as the town doctor, Andrus, a Republican, was elected alderman and then mayor, serving five successive terms from 1899 to 1909. He then spent two terms representing Miles City in the state legislature, was named president of the Montana State Medical Association for one year and also served as the surgeon for the Northern Pacific Railway. A biography included in The History of Montana, Volume 3, published in 1913, notes he was also recognized as the official Custer County physician for two terms and the county health officer for three.
"Among the many eminent names to be found in Montana's roll of professional men, none is more worthy of mention than that of William Wiman Andrus," wrote Helen Fitzgerald Sanders in A History of Montana. "... A man of scholarly tastes and able to throw light on almost any subject connected with his [medical] profession, yet drawing from a fund of rich experience and ripened knowledge, Dr. Andrus is also a man of rare sympathy, great kindness of heart and magnetic personality."
The book adds that Andrus often vacationed in his native Canada, "where for a time he is able to lay aside the cares and responsibilities which are the portion of a man of his prominence and abilities."
Andrus died in 1935 at the age of 76 and is buried in the town he basically presided over for most of his adult life. Regarding his various political, medical and athletic pursuits, Andrus was frequently quoted as saying, "Gentlemen, it's a poor horse that can't change directions."
Opportunity attracted Dr. Andrus to the West, and no place promised more opportunity before and after the turn of the century than Montana's boomtowns. Butte, in particular, became the destination for thousands from across the country and around the world looking to be a part of what had become one of the largest cities west of the Mississippi.
Naturally, that influx of people led to a deep pool of athletic talent. For instance, at least five future or former Major Leaguers played in 1900 for Butte's minor league team, the Smoke Eaters. Two of those players are among the 10 now buried in Montana.
James St. Vrain moved to Butte in 1898 at the age of 15 to work at William Clark's Reduction Works mine at the base of Timber Butte. During the summer, the left-hander also pitched for the Smoke Eaters, where he caught the attention of professional baseball scouts.
After a minor league stint in Washington, St. Vrain debuted in the majors for the Chicago Orphans in 1902 at the age of 19, making him the youngest player in the National League that season. (There is some dispute over his real age, but most accounts recognize him as a teenager.) His career didn't last long—less than a season—and was marked mostly by follies. In an often-told story captured most colorfully in the book The Glory of Their Times, the left-handed pitcher, who normally batted right-handed and often struggled to make contact, tried hitting left-handed at the suggestion of his manager.