Updated: Jul 4, 2020
Pictured here is what is probably the most valuable and coveted baseball card with a West Kootenay connection.
In 1897, Kaslo, Rossland, and Spokane were part of a professional baseball circuit known by several names, but generally called the Kootenay Washington League.
Nelson was supposed to be part of the loop as well, but dropped out for lack of a suitable field. Trail and Sandon were both considered as replacements, but neither city fielded a team.
The league’s most noteworthy player was Kaslo pitcher-manager George (Chief) Borchers, a Sacramento native with Major League experience who was a key figure in early Pacific Northwest baseball. Spokane historian Jim Price described him as a “hard-drinking, hell-raising young right-hander.”
In 1888, at age 19, Borchers pitched 10 games for the Chicago White Stockings of the National League. After bouncing around the minors, he returned to the majors briefly in 1895 to throw two-thirds of an inning for the Louisville Colonels, surrendering one hit, three walks, two runs, and a wild pitch in an 11-0 loss.
His personal life was similarly chaotic: in between his big league stints, he was arrested several times for being drunk and disorderly.
There’s a very good three-part biography of Borchers at baseballhistorydaily.com — although the author didn’t know about his brief stint in Kaslo, writing “Borchers was out of organized baseball in 1897 and it’s unclear what he was doing and where he was doing it.”
However, Alan O’Connor, author of the 2007 book Gold on the Diamond: Sacramento’s Great Baseball Players, 1886 to 1976, correctly wrote that “in 1897 he was a player and manager of a semi-professional league team in Kaslo, British Columbia, a mining town.”
Borchers spent the 1896 season in Portland, where he was said to have “boycotted strong drink.” The first indication he was coming to West Kootenay was an item in the Victoria Daily Times of Feb. 25, 1897: “Rossland is to have a baseball team. George Borchers, who pitched for Portland during the short life of the Pacific Northwest league, will fill the box.”
Another report out of Pennsylvania in March had him signing to play in Birmingham, England.
But by the time the Kootenay-Washington league was actually founded in April, he had been hired in Kaslo to manage, pitch, and play first base. The Nelson Tribune of April 17, 1897 reported he was among Kaslo’s representatives at the league’s founding meeting in that city.
Six days later the Trail Creek News mentioned his arrival in Spokane (where he’d played in 1891-92) to buy uniforms, while a contract was let to prepare the grounds and buildings for the Kaslo field (about where the school field is today).
Borchers boasted mildly to Kaslo’s newspaper, The Kootenaian, about his team’s
competitiveness, even before he knew who his players would be.
April 16, 1897: George Borchers, a ball player of some renown, who has charge of the work of forming a team, is hard at work. He says Kaslo will be able to hold up her end of the league.
April 23, 1897: Geo. Borchers of Kaslo says this team can play anything in America, but prefers Spokane and Nelson.
May 7, 1897: Manager Borchers of the team is actively engaged in the work of signing his men and organizing. Though he is not yet ready to announce the personnel of the club it is certain to be a strong one. Mr. Borchers is a veteran ball player and evidently knows his business. He says Kaslo will have an excellent chance in the league series.
May 14, 1897: Manager Borcher said this morning: “Five members of our team will arrive this evening and practice will commence tomorrow on the beach, and continue it until the ball grounds are completed.”
Ultimately, other Kaslo players included pitcher Howard Nash and third baseman Ed (Trilby) Rankin, both formerly of the Portland Monograms, and shortstop Owney Patton, who had a long minor league career all over the US.
Borchers was also interested in entering his team in a tournament in California, but was denied entry, as the tournament was limited to California teams.
When he wasn’t running the ball club, Borchers (pictured here in an undated photo from Wikipedia) had a news stand and tobacco shop in Kaslo.
The Kootenaian, put up a “handsome silver cup, standing 22 inches high” for the league championship, with an eagle and beaver engraved on it to symbolize the US and Canada.
Opening day saw Spokane beat host Kaslo 17-15 in a match played before 1,000 to 1,800 people, depending on the estimate — virtually the city’s entire population. Spokane won its first seven games, while Kaslo and Rossland went winless.
In assessing Kaslo’s line-up, the Spokane Chronicle of June 4, 1897 wrote: “George Borchers, manager of the team, will be in the game hereafter, and as a pitcher is quite apt to bring his boys to the top. George is an ex-national leaguer and at one time was a terror to heavy batsmen.”
Two days later on his home field, Borchers had his finest game for Kaslo: he struck out 16 Rossland batters in an 11-3 win.
By mid-July, Kaslo and Spokane were neck-in-neck in the standings, with win-loss records of 12-8 and 11-7 respectively, while Rossland lagged far behind at 5-13. At that point, two Rossland players allegedly threw a game against Spokane, although their motive wasn’t clear. If there was some sort of betting scheme, it was not reported. Amid recriminations, Rossland folded with more than half of its 44-game schedule remaining, and the league followed suit.
Kaslo and Spokane argued over who deserved the Kootenaian Cup. Publisher and cup trustee David W. King insisted it be returned to Kaslo from Spokane, where it had been on display. However, it vanished. (In the 1920s and ‘30s, a trophy was awarded at the Kaslo golf club called the Kootenaian Cup, but I don’t know if it was any relation.)
Afterward, the British Columbia News of July 23, 1897 reported:
Capt. Borchers of the Kaslo champions has been besieged with telegrams from Spokane recently to play the Spokane team some more. He finally consented to four exhibition games at Spokane provided Spokane would post the necessary guarantee of expenses …
Those games were never played. After noting Kaslo’s team was preparing to disband and several players were taking jobs elsewhere, the paper added that others planned to remain in town, “Capt. Borchers continuing to conduct his news stand.”
However, the News of Oct. 15, 1897 announced “W.J. Saunders has purchased the news stand of George Borchers, former captain of the Kaslo baseball team. Mr. and Mrs. Borchers have removed to Portland.” (That’s the only indication Mrs. Borchers was also in Kaslo.)
By January 1898, Borchers returned home to Sacramento where he entered Smudge, his St. Bernard, in the California State Poultry and Kennel Club show. Oddly, Borchers still gave his address as Kaslo. He returned to play in the California League that year. The rest of his chequered career is well documented in the basebasellhistorydaily.com biography mentioned above.
Borchers is also noteworthy because he was depicted on a cigarette card issued in 1888 by S.F. Hess & Co. while playing in the California league. Any card from this beautifully-coloured set will usually fetch a hefty price, and Borchers’ are no exception.
I know of three that have sold in recent years.
• In the spring of 2018, Robert Edward Auctions sold a newly-discovered example with a back layer missing, or “skinned,” for $660 US.
• In May 2016, Heritage Auctions sold an example regarded as in only fair condition, seen here, for $1,314 US.
• In April 2018, an ungraded example that looked to be in good condition sold on eBay for $2,250 US.
Borchers also appeared — along with superstar Cap Anson — on an 1888 team photo of the Chicago ball club that was reproduced as a cabinet card. Goldin Auctions auctioned off a rare copy in November 2017. Bidding started at $3,500 US and finally reached $33,600.
Borchers died in Sacramento in 1938. His grave was one of the stops of the Old City Cemetery’s Beer and Baseball walking tour, last held in 2017.