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A Brief History of Husky Baseball

It took 118 years for Washington to reach the College World Series. What happened in the first 117?

NCAA Baseball: College World Series-Oregon State vs Wasgington Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

I moved to Seattle for a graduate program exactly 10 years ago. Even in the downtrodden Willingham era, Husky football was the school’s most alluring sport because I came from an undergraduate school with a strong basketball program but almost no football to speak of. Still, in 2008, Husky alum Tim Lincecum was at the peak of his powers for the San Francisco Giants, which gave Husky baseball more intrigue than it otherwise would have had. Sadly, the Diamond Dogs were amidst their third of seven consecutive losing seasons in conference play without any postseason appearances.

While Oregon State built a miniature dynasty and USC continued to churn out major league talent, the Huskies struggled to gain footing. The program showed signs of life under Lindsay Meggs in 2014 and 2016 with 2nd place finishes in the Pac-12 and appearances in the NCAA Regionals. It got even better in 2018 when the Huskies not only made their first Super-Regional in program history, they won it and advanced to the College World Series.

Even without any wins in the CWS, the run reinvigorated fan interest in the program. It also made me realize, 10 years into Seattle residency, how little I knew about the history of Husky baseball. It led me down a rabbit hole all over the internet with the goal of putting together a rough timeline of the program’s history for others who might have also overlooked the team until recently. This summary is not meant to be a definitive chronology, but hopefully it can spark some discussion to further detail the program’s history.

Back, Back, Back

Husky baseball started in 1901. The team’s first three recorded games were all losses at Washington State. They got their first win against Gonzaga,15-14. They avenged their losses to the Cougars by winning two of three when they came to Seattle later in the year. Over the first few years, they cobbled together a schedule with prestigious opponents like Blair Business College, USS Wisconsin, Acme Business College, Spokane HS, and Queen Anne HS. In 1908, they took an excursion to Japan for ten games against Japanese teams.

Historical records of the first couple of decades are scarce. From 1901-1915, they played as an independent. They went 4-6 in their first season and peaked with 14-6 and 16-6 records in 1909-1910. Continuity during this period was nonexistent- nine different coaches led the team and there is no record of the team playing a single game in 1902. Dode Brinker had four separate stints as the manager.

The Huskies started to establish some semblance of stability when they joined the Pacific Coast Conference in 1916. They won the conference in both 1919 and 1922. Longtime coach Tubby Graves took over the team in 1923. Stories about Dorsett Vandeventer “Tubby” Graves could fill many columns on their own. Before he came to the Huskies, Graves played football at both Missouri and Idaho. He later became the head baseball, football, and basketball coach at Alabama. If you’re wondering how he got all those jobs, he was also the Athletic Director. He moved on to Texas A&M, where he once again held all three coaching jobs. After a three year stint loafing as only the football and basketball coach at Montana State, he finally made it to UW in 1923.

Graves stabilized the program in his 24 years. The team won the PCC North seven times in his tenure and went 234-131-4 during that time. At the end of his time as the baseball coach, he became the assistant AD and held that position until 1960. He is also the namesake for Graves Hall, the athletic administration building located between the IMA and Hec Ed on UW’s campus.

The most significant player that Graves coached was Fred Hutchinson. While his name is better known today for the cancer center named after him, he had an outstanding career as a pitcher and manager in the major leagues. He played only briefly for the Huskies before he joined the Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League, winning 25 games as a 19-year old. Hutchinson served in the Navy during World War 2, which cost him four seasons of his Major League prime. Upon his return, he tallied five straight seasons with at least 14 wins for the Tigers. He also made the All-Star team in 1951. He went on to manage the Tigers, Cardinals, and Reds, including a World Series appearances with the Reds in 1961, which helped him get his number retired in Cincinnati. Baseball historians will recall that ’61 was one of history’s great Yankee teams, featuring Roger Maris’s 61 homers, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, and Whitey Ford, so there was no shame coming in second.

Another important player from this era was outfielder Jeff Heath. After he graduated from Garfield HS, Heath excelled at baseball and football for the Huskies in the early ‘30s. He signed with the Cleveland Indians organization in 1936. Heath was known as a power hitter and he made the All-Star Game in both 1941 and 1943. He battled knee and attitude problems that eroded his playing time in his early 30s and forced him out of the majors at 34. Nonetheless, Heath remains the most accomplished major league batter to come out of Washington. He leads all Huskies in hits, homeruns, runs, RBIs, and almost anything else that matters at the Major League level.

Mop-Up Duty

After 24 solid years under Graves, the Huskies had eight coaches over the following 30 years. While a few eked out winning records, this period was much more bad than good. The team managed to win its division in 1952 and 1959 and appeared in the NCAA regional in the latter season. They were not able to build on either success, though, and stuck near the bottom of the division for most of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

One important change during this time was the formation of the conference as we now know it. The PCC disbanded after a football payment scandal in 1959. The Huskies were one of five founding members of the new Athletic Association of Western Universities in 1960. That conference would go on to become the Pac-8, which grew to 10 and then 12 teams. Also during this time, the Huskies moved from Old Graves Field to Graves Field. The updated version opened in the late ‘60s and included seating for up to 1,500 fans. It was located in the northeast corner of UW’s campus, east of University Village.

A bright spot during this time was Sammy White, a catcher who came out of UW in 1949. White played most of his career with the Red Sox in the ‘50s and trails only Heath in games played and hits among former Huskies. Other than his All-Star appearance, White’s most notable achievement came in 1953 when he became the only player in the 20th century to score three runs in one inning.

Jim Colborn also pitched for the Huskies in the late-‘60s, though he transferred to Whittier College before he graduated. Colborn threw a major league no-hitter, won 20 games in a season, and appeared in an All-Star game.

Converting the Save

The revolving door of coaches finally stopped when Bob MacDonald took over the team in 1977. MacDonald won the Pac-10 north in 1981 and established the Huskies as regular participants in the Pac-10 tournament through the late-‘80s. Over 16 seasons, MacDonald won 57% of his games. He left the post to take over at Navy after the 1992 season and gave way to his protégé, Ken Knutson, who would hold the job even longer.

Two of the best infielders to ever come out of UW played for MacDonald. Mike Blowers was an Army brat who was born in West Germany, but relocated to Fort Lewis. He went on to play at Tacoma Community College and then UW for one year. He won the Pac-10 Triple Crown in his lone season before the Montreal Expos drafted him. Blowers spent six of his 10 major league seasons with the Mariners and has provided excellent color commentary for them since 2007. MacDonald also coached Spokane’s Kevin Stocker from ’89-’91. Stocker played eight seasons in the Majors, primarily with the Phillies, who he helped on their way to the ’93 World Series.

When MacDonald left UW, Knutson took over and became the winningest manager in school history. Over 17 years, Knutson won 59% of his games for a total of 584 victories. He led the Huskies to 4 division wins, two Pac-10 titles, and six NCAA Regionals. From MacDonald’s last year in ’92 until ’98, the Huskies finished no worse than second in the Pac-10 North and made the Regionals four times in seven years. They had another run of three consecutive regionals from ’02-’04.

One of the stars of the era was center fielder Chris Magruder. Although Magruder never made much of an impact in the majors, he still holds many of the career records at UW. He is the career leader in runs, triples, steals, and walks, and he holds the single-season records for hits, walks and steals. Other batters like Kyle Larsen, Matt Hague, and Brent Lillibridge stood out during this era and remain etched in Husky record books despite minimal success at the Major League level.

Of course, the most significant player during Knutson’s time as coach was Tim Lincecum. The Freak won the Golden Spikes award as the nation’s top baseball player in 2006. Lincecum holds career records for starts, innings, wins, and strikeouts. He also has the most single-season wins in school history and the top three single-season strikeout totals. Lincecum went on to become a four-time MLB All-Star and the leader in wins, strikeouts, and innings for Husky alumni. He won the ’08 and ’09 Cy Young award as well as World Series rings in ’10, ’12, and ’14. While injuries have sidetracked his career, he is already unquestionably the greatest UW alum in Major League history.

Another landmark in Knutson’s tenure was the move to Husky Ballpark. The stadium was built on its current site and hosted its first game in 1998. FieldTurf replaced AstroTurf in 2005. The capacity of the stadium increased from 1,500 at Graves Field to 2,212 when Husky Ballpark opened.

Unfortunately, the Huskies struggled after Knutson took them to the NCAA regionals in ’04. The team failed to finish higher than fifth in the conference over the next five years and did not make a postseason appearance. The sub-par results led to Knutson’s firing following the 2009 season.

Launch Angle

Following Knutson’s dismissal, UW hired Lindsay Meggs to lead the team through its rebuilding phase. Meggs played at UCLA in the ‘80s and worked his way up the coaching ladder. He won two Division II national titles with Chico State in the ‘90s and later won Missouri Valley Coach of the Year for Indiana State. He took over at UW in ’09 and immediately worked to improve the team’s facilities.

Although the team struggled out of the gate under Meggs, it didn’t take long to establish an upward trajectory. After finishing ninth and tenth in the conference in his first two seasons, the Huskies have finished second or third three times in the last five years. In each of those three years, the team made the NCAA Regionals, including this year’s trip to the school’s first-ever College World Series.

Meggs also spearheaded renovations at Husky Ballpark that included replacing bleachers with permanent seating, increasing the capacity to 2,500 seats, and improving the team’s practice facilities. He won Coach of the Year in the Pac-12 in 2014.

The ’18 run included several notable individual performances. Joe Wainhouse’s prodigious power led to 19 homeruns, the third best single-season total in school history. Joe Demers pitched the first perfect game in school history and finished the season one inning short of the school record for innings pitched.

Despite the positive trend in recent years, the Huskies have long way to go to establish themselves as a baseball powerhouse. For instance, UW still has a losing all-time record in head-to-head matchups against every other team in the current Pac-12 conference. To consolidate the gains they have made in the last few years, the Huskies will have to avoid another yo-yo toward the bottom of the conference and show that they can compete every year. With a proven coach and outstanding facilities in place, the Huskies could be primed to become a true baseball threat for the first time in school history.