Remembering the 1956 NB Beavers, the team Emile Francis built
By: Dustin Saracini
Those were the words catcher Gale Tuggle used to describe the 1956 North Battleford Beavers who represented team Canada at the Global World Series in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The now 82-year-old, who still has a 23-year-old-athlete-in-his-prime grip for a handshake, grinned from ear to ear when reminiscing on the days playing for the community.
In the early 1950’s, baseball thrived in the city of North Battleford. Abbott Field, dubbed the original field of dreams, was continuously packed with Beaver faithful, with upwards of 5000 fans at each home game.
“We only had 5000 people in North Battleford,” Executive Director of the Sports Museum, Don Hilsendager said, “So the surrounding area just dragged people in … Wednesday afternoon, they always played a home game in North Battleford, and all the businesses shut down.”
“I remember when we used to have exhibition games in Biggar,” Tuggle recalled. “They used to say, ‘New York is big but this is bigger.’”
Hilsendager and Tuggle went on to explain how the game shaped the city in the days where there weren’t many other summer activities. They were celebrities. The citizens of North Battleford flocked and poured into Abbott Field whether it was a regular season game or a tune-up. The children looked up to the players and walked side-by-side with them from the dressing room to the field before game time, an experience one would not soon forget.
“I was a kid who was born and raised here, who went and watched the ball games,” Hilsendager said, remembering what the 1956 team meant to him. “These guys were my idols, that’s how I wanted to play ball, it was because of these guys.” In between games during a double header, the ball players came out to the fans to play catch with the kids. “Talk about a thrill,” Hilsendager said. In 1967, Don’s dream turned into a reality as he got to put on the grey and red jersey and play for North Battleford.
The Beavers were no slouches, either. This was high quality baseball in an incredible league that extended to the United States. The Western Canada League started in 1951, with three teams across the border and 21 teams overall. A handful of players from the WCL moved on to play in the majors. Most notably, there was Ron Perrenoski, who pitched for the Lloydminster Meridians against North Battleford in the final series, who later went on to play for Los Angeles.
The weather was near freezing on that September day as both teams looked to earn themselves a berth in the Global World Series. In the opening game, the Beavers came back from a 6-0 deficit to defeat Lloydminster, 13-9. This was due to Kenny Nelson, who cleared the bases in the third inning with a bases loaded triple.
The Meridians split the series with Perrenoski on the mound in game two, pitching a complete game while narrowly beating North Battleford, 4-3. In true, 1950’s baseball fashion, Perrenoski pitched the third game of the double header, but was tagged by the incredible offence of the Beavers, losing 9-1. Back-to-back home runs from Bob Herron and Jesse Blackman gave North Battleford a 7-0 lead, and they never looked back.
“We were incredible,” Tuggle reminisced, “We had batting averages of .360 against great pitching.”
He was quick to back up his own pitchers, too. Frequently describing the hard throwing Bennie Griggs as one of the best he ever caught. His 95 mph fastball always filling the stadium with the pop of his catcher’s mitt.
Tuggle also illustrated how the culture of baseball changed over the years, and what it was like to play in the mid 1950’s.
“Nowadays, if a catcher is standing at home plate and the runner rounds third base and he runs over the catcher, that’s not allowed,” he said. “In those days [1950’s] my football career basically saved me a lot of times at home plate. Strictly because they are going to take you out.”
Gale had a tremendous career as a linebacker in college and junior college, and has coached for Florida State. He now loves to cross country ski, and coaches the high school just outside of Denver. Tuggle has been teaching and coaching for 39 years since leaving North Battleford.
He brought his hard-nosed style to Wisconsin where the Beavers played in the Global World Series against teams from around the world. Ball clubs from Mexico, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Japan, Holland, Canada and Honolulu graced the field in Milwaukee. The dream season ended just two games into the world series, after being defeated by Hawaii and star pitcher John Sardinha. The tournament eventually became the World Baseball Classic that we see today.
This team wouldn’t have been what it was without manager and recruiter, Emile Francis. For everything he did in hockey and inside the National Hockey League as a player, coach and manager, he equally did for the sport of baseball here in North Battleford. A handful of players came from colleges around the United States, or from different teams in Canada.
Francis did his research, found out how much money players were making, and struck a deal to bring the athletes to North Battleford. Francis also held recruiting dinners from time to time to welcome players into the prestigious Western Canada League who had never heard of it before. He was one of the most intelligent managers when it came to recruiting players and worked his way up through the system by being a trustworthy, honest and approachable man. He later went on to play for the Chicago Blackhawks and New York Rangers as a goalie before managing the Rangers, St. Louis Blues and the Hartford Whalers. He was nicknamed “The Cat” for his quickness in between the pipes.
“Emile’s face had little lines that went horizontal,” Tuggle said. “Where most of us that are wrinkled go whatever which way, all of Emile’s went horizontal, and that was from stitches. He did not play with a mask. He was one of the greatest goalies ever to play without a mask.”
Pictures of Francis can be seen throughout the sports museum in North Battleford. You can find one of him shaking hands with the USA president at the time, Ronald Reagan.
Looking back on the team that won the WCL and travelled to the Global World Series, Tuggle remembers the camaraderie between the players and thinks of his teammates as brothers.
“By the time we played four or five games, that team was probably as close of a family-type team as you can be,” Tuggle said. “I don’t remember ever having any kind of hard feelings anywhere in the ball club … It was just a great bunch of guys.”
In the end, the story wasn’t about the individuals on the Beavers, rather it was what they were able to do on an international level, coming from the small city of North Battleford.