What a labyrinth life can be, often like being lost in a house of mirrors, weaving your way around obscure and fragile obstacles -- never knowing what lies ahead. Something was amiss. Van Roth had kept his unsettled past and thoughts to himself and had avoided trouble for nearly three years. Fans around the league only knew him as a quiet ballplayer from the States who had married a local girl from Dauphin. Even wife Jude knew little about his stormy past; knew nothing of his philosophy nor his existential life. He only showed Canada the side he wished her to see. Everything else was left unsaid and kept under his cap. California was taboo.
Late April, 1974--More than three hundred student and faculty members jammed the poolside bleachers at the University of Manitoba Aquatics Centre, nearly three times that of a normal University swim meet. Word quickly spread throughout the Physical Education department that Johnny Davis, a member of the Bison swim team, was about to square off against an American, Davie Van Roth, in the fifty freestyle. The event, competitive swimming, was the last stage of Swimming 1A -- a required course with a passing mark needed to obtain a Bachelor of Science degree in Physical Education. Classmates were paired off for one last event which was considered a final exam and a determining factor for oneʼs final grade. The students had two weeks to prepare for a race of their choice. Davis was already in swim-shape as he was a member of the Bisonʼ one-hundred-meter medley team and competed in other events.
Van Roth was in shape, but not exactly top swimming shape. He had recently turned in a term paper for his Physiology of Exercise class: “The Relationship Between Exercise and Resting Heart Rate,” where he himself was the guinea pig. The dissertation logged a daily pulse taken each morning, five minutes after rising, and compared those resting heart rates with increased daily exercise over the course of several months. The exercises increased gradually in quantity and intensity throughout the winter months. A daily routine of stretching and general calisthenics began at seven oʼclock each morning followed by five, forty-pound supersets with a four-hundred-meter sprint between each set on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday mornings included an hour of weight lifting followed by ten, fifty-meter wind sprints. Each day, after classes, activities included an hour of competitive racket ball and an hour of one-on-one basketball. The days ended with five miles of cross country skiing. Van Rothʼs resting heart rate was 52 in early January. That spring, on April 29, 1974, it was 41.
“The crowd was shouting encouragement but not for me. The sounds slowly faded as I went into my Zen calm-before-the-storm routine--total relaxation with a decreased heart rate. It felt peaceful as I tuned out, all the while focused and in anticipation of the starting gun. In a split second, I was off the platform and on top of the water in a hurry. I was quicker, faster, and more powerful than Johnny Davis but he was smoother, almost effortless with near-perfect technique. I was in the best shape of my life and powered my way through the water. There was no time for a second breath and reached the end of the pool with a gasp. Twenty-three seconds flat. There were no cheers nor congratulations; only boos as I leaped out the pool. I didnʼt care. Johnny Davis finished a full length behind. It felt like Iʼd just hit a game-ending homer.” (Van Roth, Davie. Recollections & Journals of a Ballplayer. April, 1974. pp. 90)
Several years earlier, he had studied Buddhism and most likely knew about the art of Zazen, a process whereby the mind is freed of all thought-forms, no matter how sacred or elevating, and brought to a state of absolute emptiness. The entire nervous system is relaxed and soothed, inner tensions eliminated, and the tone of all organs strengthened. After practicing Zazen for one to two years, there can be a release of psychophysical tension with greater body-mind stability through lowered heart rate, pulse, respiration, and metabolism. On the top shelf of his library, among the Bertrand Russell books, a bright red binding stood out, shining like a beacon in the night -- The Way of Zen by Alan Watts.
Davie Van Roth had a big advantage over the rest of his classmates except for Johnny Davis. While growing up in Northern California, he and older brother Bobby would swim nearly every day during the summer months. The exception was game-day as swimming was prohibited when ballgames were scheduled. They would walk the levees till reaching a train trestle that spanned the Yuba River, dive in from about twenty feet, then race to a sandbar, about a hundred yards away. They would then swim upstream, against the current, until reaching Marysvilleʼs historic Buddhist Temple. From there, they would walk across town to an Olympic-size Municipal swimming pool where they would meet up with some of their buddies or anyone else who wanted to race.
“My brother was by far the fastest among any of us. He reminded me of Johnny Weissmuller in those old Tarzan movies by leaving a wake behind him, like a hundred-mile-an-hour speed boat. Bobby tried out for the Marysville High School swim team but got cut even though he could out-swim any of his teammates. I donʼt know what bothered the coach most; my brotherʼs mangled leg from polio or the fact that he hailed from Olivehurst-Linda.” (Ibid.)
I had a fairly good idea what Van Roth was thinking during the spring of 1974 after looking over his journal entries of that time. His intentions were to leave the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor of Science degree in Physical Education and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy. He envisioned becoming a PE teacher and coaching high school basketball. There was no prep-school baseball in Canada those days. A degree in philosophy would be useless, except for personal enrichment and to balance his mind-body dualism. He had no intentions of becoming a college professor. Philosophy was merely a precious hobby.
His emotions were mixed that spring as he trudged through the slushy thaw on his way to the school parking lot. He had just completed his fifth year of college and had left the University of Manitoba administration building where his final grades were posted -- a D in Swimming 1A. The previous year, a slipped disc followed by an abdominal strain led to an F in Gymnastics, another course requiring a passing grade to get a degree in Physical Education. He used swimming and a rigorous exercise program to rehabilitate himself and understood the failing grade in Gymnastics but the D in swimming really pissed him off. Trouble began on the very first day when he showed up appearing somewhat like Mark Spitz with his thick black mustachio, olive-toned Mediterranean complexion, and tall sculptured physique while fitted in a blue and white speedo.
Get the hell out of here and donʼt come back till youʼre wearing the Manitoba Bison brown and gold! were the first words barked by first-year swimming instructor Jim Johnson. Van Roth returned wearing the required colors and easily completed all the necessary work in the crawl, breaststroke, backstroke, butterfly, freestyle, drown proofing, and competitive swimming. He thought maybe theyʼd recruit him for the swim team, which he would have gladly accepted, and return the following semester to enter their teaching program and repeat gymnastics. Fuck that! he thought. There would be no return. Instead, he and wife Jude packed their bags and headed for Brandon, Manitoba where they rented a house and Van Roth enrolled in Brandon Universityʼs Education Department. The local Brandon Sun reported that he would be suiting up with the local Cloverleafs that summer.
Nearly all Canadian towns and cities are noted for their hockey, certainly not baseball. The exception would be the tiny farming community located near the Saskatchewan border in southwestern Manitoba known as Binscarth. The main man behind the success of Binscarth baseball was manager Bob Wasslen, the charismatic skipper who had a knack for reeling in some of the best talent from the MSBL and the Winnipeg area. The bait was cash, that and the fact that his Orioles were among the best semi-pro baseball teams in all of Canada.
During the 1960s and early ʻ70s, the Senior B Binscarth Orioles competed in the Northwest Baseball League along with the Angusville Cardinals, Neepawa Cubs, Grandview Lakers, and two teams from Saskatchewan -- the McCauley (Moosomin) Blazers and a team from Spy Hill. In 1972, the Orioles were the first of several Northwest League teams that jumped to the MSBL as expansion teams. In their inaugural season, the Binscarth Orioles stunned the rest of the MSBL by setting a new league record for winning percentage (.800) by finishing at 16-4. After getting shutout 3-0 on opening day by Dauphinʼs Davie Van Roth, the Orioles started a hot streak by winning sixteen of their next nineteen games. They would go on to capture the playoffs and win their first of three Manitoba Provincial crowns, finishing 35-7 overall. It was stated in the papers that Binscarth had snuck up on the rest of the league, but further review shows that the Orioles had been playing forty to fifty games a year; nearly twice as many as their MSBL counterparts, and against some of Saskatchewanʼs top teams in tournament play.
In 1971, the Orioles finished the season at 45-12 after winning the Northwest League and the Manitoba Senior B championship for the third year in a row. Pitcher Garth Neville posted a career-best 19-1 record and struck out 176 batters in 124 innings while giving up just 23 runs. Four Orioles were selected to represent Manitoba in the upcoming Canadian Nationals, however, the games were cancelled due to the lack of a sponsor. Later that year, Neville was added to Canadaʼs National team where he beat Panama 4-1 and Italy 3-1 during the World Series of Amateur Baseball held in Managua, Nicaragua. The Italians had topped the United States in an earlier contest. Neville finished as runners-up to Brandon Wheat King hockey star Ron Chipperfield as Manitobaʼs Male Athlete of the year.
If ever there was a sure thing, reported Brandon Sun sportswriter Bill Davidson regarding the Binscarth Orioles before the start of their third season in Manitobaʼs top league, the Manitoba Senior Baseball League. On paper, the 1974 Orioles could have been considered the class of all semi-pro baseball in Canada, especially the pitching staff put together by manager Bob Wasslen. Ex-pro Les Lisowski returned, who a year earlier, led the Orioles to an MSBL West Division title with his 8-1 record and Pitcher of the Year award.
Also listed on the Oʼs pitching staff was Wisconsinʼs Bruce Bremer. While pitching for the Virden Oilers the previous season, Bremer led the MSBL in strikeouts by fanning 107 batters in 72 innings pitched. Bremer, from Lowell, Wisconsin, once struck out 23 batters in a seven-inning high school game when two batters reached base on third-strike passed balls. The fireballing lefty was All-Conference and All-District three years while attending Minot State University and was the NAIAʼs NDCAC MVP in 1972 when he went 9-0 while striking out a school-record 104 batters in 84 innings pitched. He still holds MSUʼs all-time record for wins with 22. Shortly after his last season at Minot State, Bremer pitched five games for the Minot Merchants of the Manitoba Senior Baseball League where he struck out an incredible 86 batters in just 47 innings pitched. He went 5-0 including a league-opening 10-0 shutout over the Riverside Canucks. His 19 strikeouts were third-best in league history trailing Van Rothʼs 20 in 1970 and Jim Huffʼs 21 in 1969. At midseason, Bremer left the Canucks and suited up with the Yorkton Cardinals of the South Saskatchewan Baseball League where he took home the league pitching trophy after posting a 7-1 mark including a 5-0 whitewashing of the Regina Red Sox while striking out 23 -- a new SSBL record for strikeouts in a game. Last year, Bremer was a pickup by the Orioles for their entry in the prestigious Kamloops International Baseball Tournament where he shutout Sunnyside, Washington 2-0 and posted 22 strikeouts.
Hometown hero and National Team pitcher Garth Neville struck out 71 batters in 56 innings while going 4-3 the previous season. He would be the O's #4 starter. Other Oriole returnees included the Gies brothers, Donny and Dale. Dale was the MSBLʼs batting champion a year ago with his .404 average, led the league in hits with 36, and was among the league leaders in doubles, homers, and RBIʼs. First baseman Ron Low, who hit .381 a few years earlier in 1972 (leaguesʼ second-best), was the teamʼs spiritual leader and anchored the cleanup spot. During the winter, he tended goal for the NHLʼs Washington Capitols. Former Redbird and returning right fielder Herb Andres hit .313 in 1972 before spending the 1973 season in the Detroit Tigers organization with the Anderson Tigers of the Western Carolinas League and the Bristol Tigers of the Appalachian League where he combined to hit .275.
The Orioles didnʼt need another starting pitcher. They already had signed three of the top semi-pro pitchers in all of Canada. What they needed was someone to fill the number three spot in the batting order between the Gies brothers and Ron Low, and a shortstop to replace the departed Barry Jamieson, the All-Star who hit .370 in 1972, fourth-best in the league. They got a better one. They got a shortstop that was faster to the ball with more range; a shortstop with a better arm and quicker at turning the double play; a shortstop who hit .360 in 1972 and .353 last year while Jamieson slipped to .291. They got last yearʼs Canadian National Championship Tournament MVP. They got the 1970 MSBL Pitcher of the Year who just a few months earlier had set or broke 20 school records while attending college in Northern California. The Orioles got the complete all-around ballplayer. As stated in the Brandon Sun -- some experienced observers attest, is the class of the league; the complete player . . . pitcher, fielder, and hitter. Again, in another publication -- When heʼs not tossing shutouts or hitting the ball at the .350 clip, heʼs playing acrobatic shortstop. The Binscarth Orioles landed “Sure Shot” Van Roth, the sure-handed all-around player-coach who last year led the Dauphin Redbirds to their only pennant and best record in the MSBL. Perhaps Van Roth should have been suiting up for the Asheville Orioles of the AA Southern League instead of the semi-pro Binscarth Orioles of the Canadian leagues.
Ross Stone had agreed to return to Dauphin for the 1974 season. Van Roth had not. Stoney was back in Saskatchewan preparing for the new school year when Dauphinʼs late-season fiasco took place. As far as he was concerned, the Redbirds were on their way to a championship and odds are that he never even heard about the debacle. Van Roth lived it. A Brandon Sun reporter stated that Van Roth was sick and tired of Dauphinʼs not being able to field a team. Twice, it had cost them a shot at a championship and the Redbirds might not even field a team in 1974. The reporter also stated that Van Roth would be suiting up with the Cloverleafs, especially now that he was living in Brandon and would be attending Brandon University in the fall. I just love this ballpark, stated Van Roth a year earlier in an interview after shutting out the West All-Stars 7-0 in Brandon during a Provincial qualifying tournament. I could play here every day. Kinsmen Stadium was reminiscent of Marysvilleʼs Bryant Park with her tall, forest green fences that enclosed the ballpark as were many of the top-notch ballparks built during the mid-twentieth century in North America a la Bostonʼs Fenway Park. Jude landed a full-time job with Brandon Universityʼs Administration Department. It all made sense. Right? Wrong. Enter the Binscarth Orioles and their offer to double Van Rothʼs salary. As Brandon assistant manager and National team member Bob Thompson put it in a preseason interview: We simply got outbid. Thatʼs baseball. Itʼs as simple as that.
Some Dauphin locals viewed Van Roth as a traitor and his signing with Binscarth an act of treason. Redbird executive Del Anderson even suggested that legal action be taken against the Binscarth Orioles for tampering. They should have notified Dauphin officials before offering Van Roth a contract even though there were no league bylaws regarding meddling. Players switching teams in the MSBL was quite common. Gary Keating was a Brandon Cloverleaf before becoming a Redbird. Don Smith, from Hamiota, was a Red Sox catcher before accepting a job with Autopac and suiting up for the Redbirds. Jimmy Arroyo went from the Virden Oilers to the McCauley Blazers and would be spending the 1974 season with Hamiota; however, none of these players were game-changers. None had the impact on a team that Van Roth possessed -- the ability and track record of taking a last-place team to first ... or from first to last in his absence. There were no league rules limiting free agency. Players were free to roam to where ever the job and or the money was best.
Binscarth was gearing up for another shot at the Alaska Goldpanners and outbid the Brandon Cloverleafs for the services of Davie Van Roth while Dauphin never made a counteroffer. The Oʼs now had four of the top semi-pro pitchers in all of Canada along with a lineup full of potential .300 hitters.
Projected Opening Day Lineup:
Don Gies, LF, .282
Dale Gies, CF, .404
Davie Van Roth, P/SS, .353 (5-2) (Dauphin Redbirds)
Ron Low, 1B, .293
Herb Andres, RF, .275 (Bristol Tigers of the Appalachian League) Reggie Parton, OF/SS, .306
Ron Falloon, 3B, .240
Glen Hodgson, 2B, .208; Larry Kearns, .318
Les Lisowski, P, .313 (8-1)
Bruce Bremer, P, .270 (4-5) (Virdon Oilers) Garth Neville, P .175 (4-3)
If ever there was a sure thing was the 1974 Binscarth Orioles; however, a not-so-funny chain of events took place on their way to the hall of fame. Bruce Bremer never donned a Binscarth uniform for the 1974 season as it was too crowded at the top of the pitching ladder. Team captain Ron Low missed part of the season while nursing an injury suffered while goaltending for the Washington Capitals during the winter, and after just a few weeks into the season, Davie Van Roth landed in prison. Say it ainʼt so, Joe.
Bisons & Orioles