By Denny Weddle, Lieutenant Colonel US Air Force, Retired
Ever thought the local baseball team had a connection to the Military? It did and does and Mr. Don Logan, President of the 51’s and longtime supporter and major advocate for professional baseball in Las Vegas allowed the Veteran Reporter News to hear the “real story” of the 51’s. We found Veterans were a strong part of its history. Mr. Logan has been involved with the club since the early 70’s and has always had a strong commitment to the Las Vegas and the Veteran’s community.
According to him, throughout the “Wranglers”, “Stars” and “51’s” existence, Veterans and serving Military have always been deeply involved in professional baseball in Las Vegas. For instance, Rossi Ralenkotter the CEO of the LVCVA is a baseball fanatic and was involved in the early history of Las Vegas professional baseball; responsible for bringing the Cincinnati Reds here for the major league weekend. His prized possessions are baseballs signed by Johnny Bench and Pete Rose. Mr. Ralenkotter served as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force with the 468th Medical Service Flight. Another veteran who was an ardent supporter and investor in Las Vegas baseball was former North Las Vegas District Attorney Roy Woofter. Roy served in the Army in both France and Germany. Mr. Woofter was a major contributor to all levels of baseball in Las Vegas from the little leagues to the UNLV program. Another Military man involved was Major General R.G. “Zack” Taylor. He was deeply involved with the Las Vegas Stars and provided support for them within the Las Vegas Community from his position at Nellis AFB. General Taylor was wing commander at Nellis from mid 1966 to the end of 1969 and later became the first commander of the U.S. Air Force Tactical Fighter Weapons Center. General Taylor had previously fought in the skies over Europe and became an ace with 6 aerial victories over the Luftwaffe. He fought again in Korea and trained young pilots for Vietnam. After his retirement he continued to be a strong supporter of Las Vegas baseball. Logan also noted almost every Nellis AFB commander has thrown out the first pitch on Veteran’s Appreciation Day. He stated “I’m proud of our commitment to the Veteran’s community in Las Vegas and we are able to offer many special days and activities for its Veterans. “
On January 23, 1947, the citizens of Las Vegas witnessed a strange object in the sky to the northwest. It was very bright and seemed to hover then disappeared in a flash of light. Several days later a group of men dressed in baseball uniforms came trudging out of the desert. They told everyone they were here to play baseball and called themselves the Wranglers and this seemed to fit in well in the western atmosphere of the area. They made their debut in Las Vegas April 14, 1947 and defeated the Reno Silver Sox in their home opener April 25, 1947. However, they evidently had a fairly good concept of the game of baseball because they were able to capture the Sunset League title in their first year and place second the following year. This was the only title a Las Vegas team could capture until the 1986 Las Vegas Stars won the Pacific Coast League crown.
The first games in 1947 were played in the area of what is now Cashman Field and was known then as the Dula Community Center and used for football and rodeos. During the inaugural season the team played exhibition games in Henderson and Boulder City before playing the regular season at Cashman Field which had been previously called Elks Stadium. In 1951, the Sunset League combined with the Arizona-Texas League and the Wranglers played there until 1953 when the league and team folded. They disappeared back to either their mother planet or area 51 to regroup it is told.
They mysteriously reappeared as the Las Vegas Pirates and competed the last half of the 1958 season in Las Vegas. Once again after a dismal season, it was decided they needed to return home to learn more about the game of baseball. They were not heard from until 1983 when a group got fed up with the cold weather, wind and rain in Spokane, Washington and moved to Las Vegas and the team was renamed the Las Vegas Stars; possibly in homage to their intergalactic heritage. During their first 6 years the Stars shone brightly winning 5 division championships and 3 league titles, however they fell on hard times for the next 12 years and failed to muster many wins despite having some awesome talent most of which is now playing for the New York Mets, San Diego Padres and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Adding to the mystery no one could determine where they came from until early in 2001 when it was discovered their home was Mork and Mindy’s planet Ork and they came clean calling themselves the 51’s after the base near Rachel, Nevada where they were supposed to have originally landed. Since then the 51’s have not fared well, rumor has it, because Ork kept calling up all of their better players to a higher league and left them with much depleted talent. Yet they had strong success in 2002 when they were division champions and had winning records four times after. For 18 years the Stars were affiliated with the San Diego Padres of the National League this lasted until 2001 when they signed as the Los Angeles Dodgers AAA affiliate. This rocky relationship survived 8 years when the Dodgers pulled out in 2009 citing the poor condition of Cashman field and lack of plans for a replacement. After that the 51’s, signed with the Toronto Blue Jays, then in 2012 they signed a player development agreement with the New York Mets which ends after the 2018 season concludes. General Manger Chuck Johnson, General Manager, just stated “recently there have been inquiries from more than 6 major league clubs about the possibility of affiliating with Las Vegas.”
Ownership of the Las Vegas baseball club has gone through several changes especially in these past 18 years. The Mandalay Baseball Properties which had taken ownership and sold its interests to Stevens Baseball Group in 2008. Derek Stevens heading the group and owner of the “D” in downtown Las Vegas vowed to keep the team in Las Vegas. His attempt to formulate a name change took too long and minor league baseball denied the effort. In 2013 the club was sold to another group of earthlings who formed a joint venture with the Howard Hughes Corp. and Playball Owners Group which included investors Bart Wear, Steve Mack and Chris Kaemphfer. This group has successfully engaged the LVCVA and are building a new stadium in Summerlin which should be ready for play for the 2019 season. Currently the 51’s are in the process of rebranding the team and have started a public campaign to select a new name. The new stadium situated in downtown Summerlin will seat approximately 10,000 and be a state of the art facility and will be ready for the 2019 season. This is just another strong step in Las Vegas development as a premier sports town. AND, as always, our local baseball team will support our Military and Veterans and all of us Warriors need to support them! Cheers!
Lt Col Denny Weddle USAF (Ret)