The legend of ‘the Bear’

As Team Town & Country participates in this weekend’s Komen Foundation Race for the Cure in Seattle, and more islanders still walk for the cause of cancer research at Battle Point Park, it seems a good time to share an inspirational tale. As related by island journalism icon Walt Woodward, our story concerns “the Bear,” a Seattle kid who became a baseball legend and whose All Star-caliber Major League career (so expansive, it’s barely alluded to here) made him an American household name. This is what happened at both ends of his baseball life; you might have heard of him yourself.

* * * * *

The boys of summer are dreaming again. They are the young men who yearn to be major league baseball players like Nolan Ryan, the 41-year-old “boy” who still pitches no-hit victories for the Texas Rangers, and Ken Griffey, Jr., the truly young fielding and hitting senstaion of our own Seattle Mariners.

There are 26 major league clubs, each with a “farm” system of lesser teams to develop players... Even in Calgary, the Mariners’ AAA team, the only real incentive is the knowledge that the next move up would be to the “Big” club itself – Seattle. Right now, there are 56 college and high school boys of summer from this state. Forty-one are in uniform with Class A teams; nine have higher hopes in Class AA, but only six are playing AAA ball. So for every player with a real hope of being called up to the “big” team, there are eight or nine who are likely to yearn more than they earn.

Still, some make it. Like Griffey. And like Fred Hutchinson.

I first saw Fred Hutchinson when I, fresh from college in 1934, joined the sports department of the Seattle Times and was assigned to cover any Seattle team that progressed in the American Legion Junior World Series competition. Fred was pitching for a ragtag team from the Franklin High School area. I named them “the Overall Kids” because it wasn’t until later that a sponsor appeared with money for uniforms. Fred had three things going for him as a 15-year-old hurler. He was tall, over 6 feet and growing. He had a hard fastball that generally was in the strike zone. And he had a scowl; he scared his way past many batters. Hey, make that four things going for him: Fred Hutchinson also had courage.

The Overall Kids won in Seattle, the state and the region. So it was that in the little town of Nehigh, Neb., Fred pitched his team into the national American Legion finals. That night, I laughed as Pop Reed, a wise coach, relaxed his players by permitting Fred to feed Pop’s straw hat into a hotel room electric fan. The chambermaid must have hated the mess, and the joviality really didn’t do any good. For the next day, with the termpareture about 100 degrees in the shade (and no shade), Fred tried, but failed, to pitch the Overall Kids to another victory.

Four years later, he was pitching for the Seattle Rainiers, a AAA team in the Pacific Coast League. They still talk about the day that year when Fred, on his 19th, birthday, won his 19th victory before a standing-room-only crowed at Sick’s Seattle Stadium. That year, he was sold to the Detroit Tigers.

The rest is history: manager, Detroit, 1952; Seattle Rainiers, league champion, 1955; manager, St. Louis Cardinals, ‘56-’58; manager, Cincinnati Reds, 1959. With Fred as manager, the Reds won the National League championship in 1961.

He didn’t forget people in his upward climb. I remember taking Milly out of the stands and down to the infield after Cincinnati played in Washington D.C. Sure, Fred remembered the Seattle Times sports reporter from years before; he shook my hand, tipped his cap to Milly, and wished us well. We wished him well.

We should have wished harder. Early in 1964, Fred’s brother, Dr. Bill Hutchinson, had to inform Fred that he had inoperable lung cancer. Big, burly Fred – they called him “the Bear” – didn’t quit or hide. He called a press conference and announced he had cancer but intended to lick it. He steeled himself to enter a hyperbaric chamber, a then-new, untested treatment with high-voltage radiation. Dr. Bill prescribed the treatment in Seattle. It won Fred a little time, but by November 1964, at the age of 45, the Bear was dead.

Some would say that the boy of summer had lost his last game. I would say he won – for all of us. For out of his courageous fight with cancer came the establishment of a great medical facility in Seattle, with Dr. Bill as the director. Known the world over, it is the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

– Walt Woodward, Bainbridge Island Review, June 19, 1991

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