By David Eskenazi and Steve Rudman
With so many calendar pages having turned since Benjamin Bradbury Cheney’s formative years (1911-20) in the tiny mill town of South Bend, WA., it’s difficult to know exactly who nurtured his philanthropic instincts. It might have been his paternal grandparents, B.F. and Rebecca Cheney, who reared young Ben and his sister Lulu after the death of their mother and sudden abandonment by their father.
Or, it might have been South Bend’s only Catholic priest, Father Victor Couvorette, who set a positive, practical example for the young Cheney that Cheney clearly took to heart in his adult life.
Newspapers stories published after Cheney achieved fame and fortune in the timber industry agree that Father Couverette not only played a key role in encouraging Ben’s love of baseball, but always made certain Ben had the means and opportunity to play.
Too poor to afford his own baseball gear (he didn’t even have the money for streetcar tokens), Cheney received what he needed from Father Couverette, who also sponsored South Bend’s entire teenage team, buying uniforms and equipment for the boys and even making sure they had the necessary fare to get them to games in nearby Raymond.
But more important than how Cheney’s philanthropy developed is simply that it did, and that it manifested itself in so many generous ways, including one that provided thousands of Puget Sound youngsters (and adults) of both sexes the opportunity to develop their athletic skills.
By the time of Cheney’s death in 1971, the News Tribune of Tacoma conservatively estimated that more than 5,000 individuals of all ages had participated in baseball and in a variety of other sports leagues sponsored by the Cheney Lumber Company, founded by Cheney in 1936.
The collective memory of a few hundred of those many thousands can be condensed into a single phrase that even today bonds all who shared the experience:
“ONCE A STUD, ALWAYS A STUD!”
Taking a cue from Father Couverette, Cheney began sponsoring athletic teams for youth, primarily in his adopted Tacoma, in the late 1940s. Cheney ultimately backed baseball teams in Rookie, Pee Wee, Midget, Bantam, Colt, Babe Ruth, Junior, Connie Mack and American Legion divisions so there was always a chance for a youngster to move up to the next level.
But Cheney did considerably more. He underwrote sports leagues and teams in virtually all of the towns in which the Cheney Lumber Company conducted business.
One year, 1959, Cheney supported five juvenile baseball teams in Tacoma, an adult baseball team in Seattle, Pee Wee teams in Greenville and Arcata, CA., four Tacoma youth football leagues in four weight classifications — Rookie, Pee Wee, Bantam and Midget — plus basketball, soccer, hockey and bowling teams for nine-year-olds to adults.
“Ben was the greatest friend of youth that Tacoma ever had,” Doug McArthur, a Tacoma parks and recreation official who also managed the 1956 American Amateur Baseball Congress champion Stanley’s Shoemen, told The News Tribune.
Cheney even sponsored the Cheney Stud Courteers, a basketball troupe which, for a number of years, entertained crowds at high school and college basketball games with Harlem Globetrotters-style half-time shows. The Courteers, whose members ranged in age from 12 to 15, once performed at a Seattle SuperSonics game.
Following World War II, baseball programs flourished in Seattle, Tacoma and Everett on an elite amateur level (notch below semipro), and by the early 1950s several leagues, comprised of five to eight teams each, played 50-to-70 game schedules every summer. The best included the City, Puget Sound, King County and Northwest Valley leagues in King and Snohomish counties and the City and Valley leagues in Pierce County.
For five years, the Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League sponsored an entry in Seattle’s City League called the “Rainier Hi-Stars.” Players ranged in age from 16 to 22 and were recruited largely from Northwest colleges – Washington, Washington State, Seattle U., Western Washington, Pacific Lutheran — and high schools around the state. Most of the young athletes dreamed of one day playing professionally, and many did so after developing their skills in these amateur leagues.
Following the 1953 season, when the Rainier Hi-Stars won 49 of 61 games and captured the “City Amateur Championship,” the Rainiers, citing budget restraints, withdrew their sponsorship, leaving the Hi-Stars without equipment and travel funds for the 1954 season.
The Hi-Stars nearly disbanded. But on April 3, just weeks before the start of the 14-game regular season, they found a benefactor in Ben Cheney, who was persuaded to pick up the team’s sponsorship by Joe Budnick, a curmudgeonly character who had made a career out of mentoring youth in a variety of sports. Cheney made three changes to the team.
He announced that Budnick, once a three-sport star at O’Dea High School who had briefly played football at the University of Washington and basketball at Seattle University, would serve as manager. Second, the former Rainier Hi-Stars would join Seattle’s City League for the 1954 season.
Finally, Cheney said the Hi-Stars would change their name to “Cheney Studs” to reflect the Cheney Lumber Company’s core business, the mass production of Cheney’s innovative, eight-foot building studs that he had introduced in 1945 and which had become the industry standard in American home construction (see Wayback Machine: Ben Cheney, A Tacoma Icon).
Due to their high amateur status at a time when Major League Baseball did not exist on the West Coast, the Studs – as well as a number of regional competitors — soon became familiar on the sports pages of newspapers from the Canadian border to California.
The Seattle Times frequently printed the “Amateur Baseball Standings” on the front page of its sports section and published lengthy stories on what it deemed the marquee games. The Times, and other regional newspapers, also tracked the area’s top amateur-league graduates as they progressed through the professional ranks.
The Studs enjoyed an incredible early burst of success immediately after Cheney began his sponsorship. They qualified for the American Amateur Baseball Congress (AABC) national tournament in 1954, finished second in 1955 and 1959 and won it 1960.
As a endorsement of the strong quality of amateur play in western Washington, the Studs’ major competition for national honors came from their own neighborhood as Stanley’s Shoemen of Tacoma won the AABC tournament in 1956 and Woodworth Contractors, also of Tacoma, took second in 1957.
During those years, the Studs dominated the Seattle’s City League (later the Cascade League), which included the Sullivan Florist All-Stars, Ballard Boosters, Serve-U Market, East Side Athletic Club and a penitentiary team from McNeil Island.
The Puget Sound League featured five teams representing Paine Field, Sand Point Naval Air Station, the Monroe Reformatory, Savoys and Associated Grocery. The Northwest Valley League included Nick’s Indians, Enumclaw, Kirkland Athletics, Pier 91, Black Diamond, Snohomish, South Seattle and Des Moines, and the King County League offered Edmonds, Everett, Hoover Larks, North End Athletic Club, Boys Clubs, Snoqualmie Valley and Lake City Lions.
After playing a 14-game league schedule and up to 50 additional non-league exhibition games, many against state and local colleges such as the UW Jayvees, the top amateur clubs advanced to the City Amateur Championships with the four top in that competition qualifying for the State Amateur Championship, a five-day affair held in Kirkland in 1954.
Outfielder Luther Carr, a four-sport star at Lincoln High of Tacoma and later to find fame as a breakaway runner, receiver and kick returner under John Cherberg, Darrell Royal and Jim Owens at the University of Washington, became the Most Valuable Player at state by hitting a solo home run, a double and three singles in five trips in a 9-4 title-game victory over the host Kirkland Athletics.
That victory sent the Studs to the Western Regional in Watertown, SD., where Bremerton’s Monte Geiger, a University of Washington pitcher, took MVP honors with two wins in five games. By winning the tournament with a 5-2 triumph over Sumner, IA., the Studs qualified for nationals, a huge breakthrough for a Northwest-based team.
At nationals, the Studs lost twice, to Battle Creek, MI., in the opening round, and to Mechanics Uniform Supply of Houston in the loser’s bracket, resulting in elimination. But the Studs had established a blueprint for a 10-year run of success that, in retrospect, was inevitable given the quality of players who wore their uniform.
In addition to attracting numerous players who developed into successful minor leaguers, the Studs had several future major leaguers pass through their ranks. Ron Cey, who spent 17 years with the Dodgers and Cubs and made six National League All-Star teams, played with the Studs in 1966 and 1967 before signing as a professional with Class A Tri-City of the Northwest League in 1968. A year later, he made his major league debut.
Fellow Tacoman Steve Whitaker first played in the Studs organization in 1959 with their American Legion junior team. A year later, he played for the AABC national champion Studs, also spent 1961 with the club, and then turned pro in 1962. Four years of minor league seasoning later, Whitaker made the majors and spent five years with the Yankees, Pilots and Giants.
The Studs’ baseball alumni list also includes, among other notables, Rick Austin, Willie Bloomquist, Craig Caskey, George Grant, Dave Heaverlo, Gene Leek, Lenn Sakata, Joe Staton, and Mike White, son of Seattle Rainiers great Jo Jo White, all of whom played professionally, a few of them in the majors.
Former UW wide receiver Dave Williams, who had an eight-year NFL career, largely with the St. Louis Cardinals, played for the Studs’ Connie Mack team in 1962. Quarterback Marc Wilson (Brigham Young University, Oakland Raiders) played two (1974-75) seasons as a teenager before becoming a full-time football player.
Eddie O’Brien, who starred in basketball at Seattle University and had a five-year major league run with the Pittsburgh Pirates, managed the Studs for five seasons (1961-66). Bob MacDonald (1967-68) and Ken Knutsen (1966 Connie Mack), both of whom who would become head baseball coaches at UW, played in the Studs’ organization in the 1960s, and Northwest golf legend Fred Couples, whose brother Tom toiled as a Stud, served as a batboy in 1969.
San Francisco Giants’ pitcher and two-time Cy Young award winner Tim Lincecum also wore a Studs uniform, spending the summer of 2004 with the club. He won two games in the National Baseball Congress World Series that year.
While several “name” players used the Studs as a steppingstone to pro careers, many more had substantial tenures with the team. For them, this year’s 60th anniversary of the Studs is a celebration of special significance, representing as it does their last associations with organized team sports and something they did entirely for fun (Studs players received no pay). And anniversaries are almost always about fond memories, friendships and shared joy and pain.
George Kritsonis, who pitched for the club from 1954-61, five of their major glory years, had a little bit of both as a Stud.
“I don’t remember a lot of the good things I did, but I seem to remember all the bad things,” said Kritsonis, who grew up in Issaquah, went to high school there, and had never traveled anywhere until he played for the Studs.
He recalls that in 1955, as the Studs were en route to a second-place finish at the AABC nationals, he won the Most Valuable Player award at the Western Regional, which guaranteed the Studs a trip to the national tournament, by starring in the title game in Watertown, SD.
“I won the game (as a pitcher) and hit a home run, and it was probably the only home run I ever hit,” said Kritsonis. “After I got the MVP trophy, I was handed a microphone so I could say something, and I got a (static electric) big shock. I was shocked to win the MVP and then I got shocked for real.”
As Kritsonis said, from a personal point of view, he recalls more bad than good.
“One time I stole second base and slid past it. The guy tagged me out and then the guy hitting next got a single,” said Kritsonis. “But for me, what I remember most was the fun we had when we traveled. We got to go to the regionals and nationals and to California and Canada. I was just a little country boy and I had never been anywhere. So that was quite an experience for me.”
Gary Snyder graduated from Queen Anne High and found his life’s work in coaching (Shorecrest and Shorewood) and serving, for 16 years, as athletic director at Mercer Island High. As a young man, he played a lot of amateur baseball – Hall of Famer Ron Santo was a B & B Hardwood teammate – and had a three-year run with the Studs, including the national championship year of 1960.
“What I remember most are the people I played with,” Snyder said. “We were real tight, especially the year we won the championship. You gotta have heart and we had a lot of heart rooting for each other. I still have a real fondness for each of my teammates. We collectively went to war together.”
One of Snyder’s Studs teammates on the 1960 title team, Phil Swimley, went on to coach baseball for 36 years at UC-Davis, winning 902 games (seventh-best in NCAA history). Another, Norm Pfeiffer, became a renowned architect.
“And then there was Joe Budnick, who was really a good coach. But he was a gruff old guy,” said Snyder. “He was really hard nosed. A lot of guys had trouble playing for him.”
Jim Harney, who played for the Studs from 1954-58, wasn’t one of them, but vividly recalls an incident in which Budnick tried to instill in Harney the importance of keeping his head in the game.
“I was playing shortstop and made a misplay and Joe came out on the field and was yelling at me,” Harney said. “Then I made another misplay on a ball and Joe came out to shortstop, grabbed me by the ear, and pulled me all the way back to the dugout.”
Harney first encountered Budnick as a 12-year-old when Budnick hired him, along with several other youngsters, to shag balls at White Center – “Whoever got the ball got a quarter from Joe,” Harney said – and met him again when Harney attended Seattle Prep. That led to Harney joining the Rainier Hi-Stars, forerunner of the Studs.
“I never had a problem with Joe, maybe because I was young, but he was tough,” said Harney, who later played basketball at Seattle U. with Elgin Baylor. “He ran guys off. I don’t know how many he ran off, but he expected you to be tough. I think he scared a lot of people. I got to know him and he liked me but, boy, could I tell you stories. One thing was that we had a lot of good guys on the team because Joe wouldn’t put up with any turkeys.”
“He smoked cigars, was a little overweight and he was very aggressive,” Luther Carr said of Budnick. “He got right up in your chops whenever you made a mistake. But he was a good man and he knew baseball.”
An outfielder, Carr excelled in four sports. A Lincoln High of Tacoma junior when he first suited up for the Studs, Carr was also an All-State football and baseball player, a starting guard on the school’s basketball team, and an absurdly gifted track athlete, even though he only participated in it as a “lark.” Some lark: With only a half a dozen competitions under his belt, he set a state record in the long jump of 23 feet, 7 inches that stood for years.
While Carr spent just two years with the Studs (1954-55) before joining the University of Washington football program, George Grant, an All-Stater in baseball and basketball at Tacoma’s Stadium High, played his first year with the Studs in 1955.
Then, after becoming a three-year letterman in basketball and baseball at Washington, Grant spent three years (1960-62) in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization and re-joined the Studs in 1966. He played and coached through 1972 and retains fond memories of Ben Cheney.
“Ben was a super guy,” said Grant. “He was the best sponsor around by far and it was not hard to get ballplayers to play for him. He provided everything for us and we didn’t have to put anything in.”
In 1955, when the Studs reached the nationals in Battle Creek, MI., for the second consecutive year, Cheney flew to the tournament, where he became enamored of the large trophies that would be awarded to the winner and runner-up.
“Ben was very interested in these trophies,” said Grant. “So Joe (Budnick) called us into a meeting. Ben had told him that if we took first or second that he would fly us home. We’d taken the train to Battle Creek. We finished second and got to fly home, and it was really a nice treat. I don’t know what that cost Cheney, but he had to make the flight arrangements in a hurry.”
When the Studs won their only AABC championship in 1960, Grant was wending his way through the Pirates’ organization. However, four years earlier, in 1956, while still technically a Stud, he was part of the national AABC title won by Stanley’s Shoemen, a club sponsored by Tacoma shoe store owner and city booster Stan Naccarato.
After Stanley’s Shoemen defeated the Studs in the regionals, denying them a trip to Battle Creek for the national tournament, they needed extra players to accompany them east due to the fact some Shoemen, with job and family responsibilities, couldn’t make the trip. The Shoemen, managed by Doug McArthur, invited Grant, Kritsonis, Geiger and Harney to join the Shoemen.
“Joe Budnick told us that if we went with them we’d never play for the Studs again,” said Grant. “Kritsonis believed that, so he didn’t go.”
Grant, Geirger and Harney all went and helped the Shoemen capture a national title, and Budnick never carried out his threat.
Ultimately, 230 teams under a variety of names, including Cheney Studs, Seattle Studs and Seattle Cheney Studs, and ranging from Pee Wee to elite amateur, performed under Ben Cheney’s banner (the philanthropist also backed the Cheney Studs elite amateur basketball team). Collectively, they won 42 league titles, nine state and regional championships, one national AABC and four CSABA crowns.
“I haven’t seen some of players I played with in more than 50 years,” said Snyder, speaking for dozens of ex-Studs.
Snyder and many others who are proud to boast, “Once A Stud, Always A Stud!” will renew friendships May 19 when the Studs celebrate their 60th anniversary. If the reunion is typical, the size of fish landed will have grown in direct proportion to the number of elapsed years. Most of the former Studs will recall far higher batting averages, considerably lower ERAs and many more wins than actually occurred.
It’s a good bet Ben Cheney’s name will also come up once or twice in the day’s reminiscences. Joe Budnick’s, too.
The Cheney Studs will celebrate their 60th reunion Sunday, May 19 from 2-7 p.m. at the McGavick Conference Center on the Clover Park Tech College campus in Lakewood, WA. The event is open to the public. A $45 ticket includes dinner, a Cheney Studs cap and a 60-page program. For more information, go to www.oldtimerbaseball.com and download a registration flyer from the home page.
Many of the historic images published on Sportspress Northwest are provided by resident Northwest sports history aficionado David Eskenazi. Check out David’s Wayback Machine Archive. David can be reached at (206) 441-1900, or firstname.lastname@example.org