By Kalvin Valdillez, Tulalip News
It was the summer of ’69. A special moment in time that many reflect upon as the best days of their lives, including the players of local baseball team, the Chiefs. The team was assembled by Tulalip tribal member, Cy Fryberg, and had an outstanding run that summer, winning in all-Native tournaments hosted at Yakama and Taholah. The Chiefs efforts led them to the final tournament of the summer held in Tacoma, where the stakes were high and the teams from surrounding tribal nations brought their A-game.
“We weren’t the first team with just Tulalip ballplayers, but this was the biggest one,” explained ’69 Chiefs second baseman, Don ‘Penoke’ Hatch. “All the top dogs from right here were recruited. At the time, that was something special. We were ready to face and challenge anyone that came at us, we didn’t care who we were playing.”
The all-star Tulalip team consisted of fifteen tribal members including Leroy Joseph, Marlin Fryberg Sr., Alpheus Jones, Richard Jones, Butchie James, Dean Fryberg Sr., Billy Jones, Skooky Henry, Jerry Jones, Gerald Fryberg, Dale Jones, Myron Fryberg, Penoke and player-coaches Herman Williams and Francy Sheldon.
With Leroy being the youngest on the team at 18, the rest of the players ranged in age from their early twenties to early thirties and brought plenty of experience to the team. Previously, each player spent their young lives playing for different teams like Marysville while growing up. The road to a championship wasn’t easy, however. While at Tacoma for the tournament, the team and their families slept on the floor of Penoke’s sister’s house. This allowed the team to further strengthen their bond while they stayed up late into the night strategizing, among other social activities.
“The first game we played was against Yakama Nation and we won that game,” recalled Penoke. “The following day we played Nisqually and won that one too. After that win, we went onto the championship game against Warm Springs and they were not an easy team to go up against.”
The large amount of playing began to take a toll on the Chiefs’ pitchers and the team needed a strong start to the championship game. Starting pitcher Marlin Fryberg went deep into the innings during their previous match against Nisqually. After trying out a number of players on the mound, the coaches turned to the catcher, Leroy, whose arm was looking strong each time he threw the ball back to the pitchers. Leroy received a quick lesson from his teammates, as he never pitched in a game prior to the championship competition. The Chiefs rallied behind Leroy and locked in. Inning after inning, the team pulled together and made big plays. By the end of the game, the Tulalip Chiefs proudly hoisted a trophy into the air and Leroy was named MVP.
Fast forward fifty years. Penoke stumbled across an old photo of the Chiefs during their 1969 summer baseball tournament tour and was filled with nostalgia. Reaching out to the Tribe, he organized a gathering for the players and their families on the afternoon of November 10, 2019 at the Greg Williams Court.
“It’s been 50 years since that tournament down there on Portland Avenue,” Penoke said. “I thought it was important that we celebrate this and share some good memories. Nobody celebrates these types of accomplishments anymore. I want someone young to see this in the See-Yaht-Sub and say ‘look at what they did 50 years ago’ and be inspired.”
After enjoying lunch, the families were treated to a slideshow presentation which featured narration by Leroy. Laughter ensued as Leroy’s colorful commentary recapped the championship game.
“It’s a big story because we already been to Yakama and won, we already been to Taholah that summer,” said Leroy. “This Tacoma tournament was the biggie. Just being a part of that reminds me of how together we were as friends and family, regardless of the games, we were all Tulalip and that is something I was extremely proud of.”
Coach Herman and several other players took time to express their desire to see the game of baseball flourish within Native communities once again, suggesting ideas such a tribal booster club to get more youth out on the field.
“The relationship from reservation to reservation, there’s little of it left,” agreed Penoke. “We’ve done very little to keep it going. You should’ve seen the strength of the community during hardball season, we all knew each other because each reservation had a lot of good ball players.”
To commemorate the 50th anniversary, each player received stylish red jackets that read ‘1969 Champs’ on the front and a Native, baseball-themed design on the back. Family representatives of those who are no longer with us accepted the jackets on their behalf.
“Best tournament I ever played in as an adult,” said Penoke. “We had a good team and good pitching. This team was successful because we had two veteran coaches in Herman and Francy. I’m 80 years old now and I wanted to honor those players who are still here.”