Derks Field and the Salt Lake Trappers

by HANNA VAN WAGONER

From 1985 to 1992, the Salt Lake Trappers were an independent Pioneer League minor league baseball team based in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Trappers played in the Single A, Short Season league. The highest and most prestigious classification of minor league baseball is Triple A. It is the classification just below major league level. All Triple A teams have ties to major league clubs, and soon-to-be major league stars as well as aging former major leaguers are among the players. In comparison, the Trappers were an independent rookie league team, unaffiliated with any major league franchise. That meant that the Trappers had no access to any professional players who were signed with any major or minor league team. Other Single A teams had high draft picks and access to players from Triple A, Double A and even the major league team. Short season A began it season around Fathers Day and finished on Labor Day weekend. [citation needed]

The home field for the Trappers was at Derks Field, located at the present-day site of Spring Mobile Ballpark. The Derks Field stadium held 10,000 spectators and opened in 1946. It was named after Salt Lake Tribune sports editor John C. Derks. When first constructed in 1915, the stadium was given the name Community Park; it retained this title and its distinctive facade fora little over twodecades, until it burned to the ground on the night of September 24, 1946, as throngs of spectators gathered to observe the consuming inferno. All this happened just four evenings after the local team finished the Pioneer League Playoffs. [citation needed]

Baseball was hugely popular and there was no thought of missing a season. Construction of the new ballpark, Derks Field, began in early February 1947 andwas completed just in time for the Salt Lake Bees’ home opener on May 23rd. (Deseret News, May 30, 1947) Forty years later it would be the scene of one of the greatest feats in professional baseball.

Despite its overwhelming handicap in acquiring and signing players, this Trappers team was best known for winning 29 consecutive games in 1987, marking an all-time professional baseball win streak record. Unexpected and unprecedented, when the Trappers celebrated by beating the Pocatello Giants 13-3 they accomplished an amazing feat matched by no other team in the 117-year history of organized professional baseball: 29 consecutive victories. Not only was this a history making moment but the history had been made by  a team of overlooked athletes that no other team in baseball wanted. They were individually undrafted and unsigned by any major or minor league team. [citation needed]

Sports Illustrated reporter John Garrity wrote, “The previous record had been shared by two teams on the fence line of baseball memory; the 1902 Corsicana Oilers of the Texas League and the 1921 Baltimore Orioles of the International League. The major league record of 26 straight belongs to John McGraw’s 1916 New York Giants.”

This Trappers team was even recognized by The New York Times in July 27, 1987, which reported that the major league record for consecutive victories was 26, achieved by the New York Giants in 1916. That record was finally beaten by the Salt Lake Trappers; with 29 straight wins the Trappers were finally known to the baseball world. After the win, Cooperstown, New York, where the Baseball Hall of Fame is located was expecting something to add into the Hall’s collection to mark this record-breaking moment from the Salt Lake Trappers. The Trappers contributed a ball signed by the team. But the signatures on the baseball framed in the Hall of Fame do not begin to explain the wide range of personalities this team created into one winning phenomenon. [citation needed]

These players were only making around $500 a month; however, they were a team that easily drew an audience to their mixture of grit, glamour and fame. The actor/comedian Bill Murray was a part owner. His appearance at Derks was always a crowd-pleasing event. He might coach first base for half an inning or take over announcing duties. The shortstop, Jimmy Ferguson, was a part-time model, known as the team’s spark plug. The Trappers’ manager, Jim Gilligan quipped, “He’s only hitting .400, but what the heck, as long as he’s playing a good shortstop.” Their first baseman was a self-appointed celebrity who said, “Remember the college guy who hit a home run that didn’t count because he touched a teammate before he crossed the plate and it got several lines in Sports Illustrated? … That was me.”

It was a David versus Goliath drama, played out over a few weeks in the Summer of 1987 in a remote mountain valley. But it became the story of a baseball season that ended in Cooperstown. That would have made John C. Derks happy.

Hanna Van Wagoner is a mass communication major at The University of Utah. She plans to graduate in May 2013 and attend law school in the fall of 2013.

Sources

John Garrity, “Streak City: With 28 straight victories Salt Lake’s Trappers made baseball history,” Sports Illustrated, August 3, 1987.

Mark Van Wagoner, “Salt Lake Trappers’ championship still celebrated,” Deseret News, September 13, 2011.

United Press International, “Salt Lake Trappers Win Pioneer League Pennant,” Los Angeles Times, September 4, 1987.

Salt Lake City Trappers,” Bullpen, Baseball-reference.com.

Larry Gerlach, “Streaking into History: The 1987 Salt Lake Trappers,” Nine: A Journal of Baseball History and             Culture 13 (Fall 2004): 10-27.

“Derks Field Leaves Fond Memories,” Deseret News, April 21, 1993.

“Trappers Stopped at 29,” The New York Times, July 28, 1987.

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