The Boise Hawks turn 30 years old Friday, but their season will get started a day before that, with a Northwest League opener at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Spokane.
It was June 16, 1987, when the Hawks started play and received a big-league welcome: Hank Aaron threw out the first pitch in their first game, which was also in Spokane. That marked the beginning of professional baseball’s return to the Treasure Valley, a result of the Tri-Cities Triplets relocating here and ending baseball’s eight-year absence.
So before the Hawks return for their home opener at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday vs. Eugene, here are some of the top moments from the franchise’s first 30 years.
BREAKING A COLOR BARRIER
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Two months after Al Campanis, the Dodgers’ vice president of player personnel, said on national television that African-Americans might not have “the necessities” to manage a baseball team, Derrel Thomas took the helm of the Boise Hawks.
Thomas and Bend Bucks manager Mel Roberts became the first African-American managers to face each other in a regular season game outside of the Negro Leagues on June 27, 1987, when the Bend Bucks came to Borah High.
The milestone received little attention outside of Boise.
“I don’t think it got enough recognition,” Roberts told MiLB.com in 2006. “This was what ... 1987? And as long as baseball had been integrated, it took that long to happen. It turned out to be very significant, but it’s almost a Trivial Pursuit question now.”
Thomas didn’t last long with the Hawks, who fired him after the club started 9-28. He was one of just six black managers in the minor leagues at the time.
MANAGER OR MASCOT?
After the first-base umpire ejected Boise second baseman Paul Cluff in the sixth inning on June 29, 1989, Hawks manager Mal Fichman came to his defense, earning an ejection himself. But that didn’t keep Fichman off the field.
Fichman spotted the Hawks’ mascot, Humphrey, taking a break on his way back to the clubhouse. He told the regular mascot that his night was done, pulled on the oversized bird costume and returned to the field.
“Now, the mascot was only allowed in the stands, so some people knew right away that something was different because I went on the field,” Fichman told MiLB.com. “The players, at first, didn’t know it was me and I was wandering around close to the dugout in the eighth inning when we had men on first and second. And I went over to the coach who was now managing and I tell him through the mesh to bunt, and some of the players (started to realize) it’s Mal.”
The Northwest League suspended Fichman one game for the stunt, a suspension he served as the color commentator on the Hawks’ radio broadcast on KIZN.
“I thought it was worth it,” Fichman told the Statesman.
MEMORIAL STADIUM OPENS
After playing at Borah High’s Wigle Field for the first two years, the Hawks opened their own stadium on July 16, 1989, and attendance for the first game was 4,839.
The club privately built and funded the $1.7 million stadium ($3.6 million in 2017 dollars) at the county fairgrounds in Garden City. The Hawks signed a 49-year lease with Ada County for the land for $1 a year, all of which it paid up front.
After breaking ground that February, the stadium hosted Hall of Famer and Payette native Harmon Killebrew on Opening Day, and Peter Cetera, the lead singer for the Grammy-winning rock band Chicago, sang the national anthem. In lieu of payment, Cetera took batting practice with the Hawks.
The Hawks set a then-Class A and AA record with 1,802 season tickets sold that season. But interest has waned as the facility has aged.
Memorial Stadium had been the first ballpark built in the Northwest League since Spokane opened what is now Avista Stadium in 1958. But every other team in the league since has either built a new park or made significant upgrades to their stadium.
The latest push for a new Downtown Boise stadium centers around 11 acres on the corner of Americana Boulevard and Shoreline Drive. The Hawks’ owners reached a preliminary deal in March to buy the land from St. Luke’s Health System.
The Hawks have won six league titles, putting together their most dominant stretch when they won three straight from 1993-95. Only Spokane, winner of four straight from 1987-90, can claim a longer title run in Northwest League history.
Boise’s best season in the win-loss column came in 1990, when it went 53-23 (.697) and lost the league championship series to Spokane in three games. Ten future major leaguers played for the Hawks that season, including Garret Anderson and Troy Percival, two key members of the Angels’ 2002 World Series championship team.
The Hawks also won a league title in 1991 as an Angels affiliate, and won titles in 2002 and ’04 as a member of the Cubs organization.
HONORING A LEGEND
The Boise Hawks retired former longtime manager Tom Kotchman’s No. 11 jersey in a ceremony on July 22, 2006.
Kotchman led the Hawks from 1990 until they became a Cubs affiliate in 2001, winning four league titles, reaching seven league championship series and posting a record of 501-334 (.600). He set Northwest League records for wins (501), games managed (835) and playoff victories (11).
“When you’re in one place for 11 years, it’s like a second home, “ Kotchman told the crowd in 2006. “And even though it was only for one night, it was great to come home tonight. This is home for me.”
Kotchman’s No. 11 and Harmen Killebrew’s No. 3 are the only jerseys the Hawks have retired. Killebrew did not play in Boise.
Since Kotchman left, the Hawks have had 10 managers in 17 seasons.
Kotchman, 62, is still in baseball. He’ll begin his fourth season this summer as the manager of the Gulf Coast League Red Sox, entering with a 1,814-1,503 career record and 10 minor league championships. Despite coaching exclusively at the short-season level since 1990, Kotchman ranks fourth in career wins among active minor league managers and 23rd in history.
GOATS GET IN FOR FREE
The Hawks garnered national attention when they hosted “Reverse the Curse” night on Friday, Aug. 13, 2004, to try to help the Cubs end their World Series drought.
The first 1,000 fans through the gates received a Billy Goat Sianis bobblehead doll, referencing William Sianis, who put a curse on the Cubs in 1945 when they wouldn’t let him and his pet goat Murphy into Wrigley Field for Game 4 of the World Series against the Tigers.
The Hawks allowed any goat who showed up to Memorial Stadium free admittance, and 11 came with their owners. An intern dressed up as Steve Bartman to become a target for the dunk tank. Bartman famously interfered with a foul ball during Game 6 of the National League Championship Series the previous fall.
The first try didn’t take, so Boise hosted “Reverse the Curse” nights again in ’06 and ’12. The Cubs won their first World Series in 108 years last fall with six former Hawks on the roster. But by that time, the Hawks were affiliated with the Colorado Rockies.