Bellingham Bells to honor Cliff Gaffney, spark-plug star in '40s and '50s

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 6, 2012 

The Bellingham Bells plan to honor a popular early member of the team who played with speed and zest from 1941 through 1956, with four years off while in the Navy during World War II.

Cliff Gaffney played third base and batted in the lead-off spot, hitting over .300 several times.

"He was quicker than a cat," said Dick Stark, longtime local sports announcer. "They called him the 'pepper pot' because he was always talking."

Still fit and bright at 91, Gaffney will throw out the first pitch when the Bells play the Walla Walla Sweets this Wednesday, Aug. 8, at Joe Martin Field.

"We're excited to have him up here," said Nick Caples, the Bells' general manager.

Gaffney is one of the few surviving Bells players from the team's earliest days. The Bells became Bellingham's new semi-pro team in the Northwest League in 1940, the same year that Gaffney graduated from Bellingham High School, where he starred in both baseball and basketball.

He joined the Bells the following year, then spent four domestic years with the Navy - "I got as far as Hawaii," he told me - before rejoining the team.

Gaffney's recognition by the Bells was the brainchild of Kent Holsather, a friend of Caples' and co-author, with Wes Gannaway, of "Bays to Bells," a history of baseball in Whatcom County.

Born and raised in Bellingham, Gaffney was popular in school, winning election as junior class president and then as student body president. He was especially popular with Zelda, his high school sweetheart to whom he's been married 70 years.

Gaffney stood just 5 feet 8 inches, but he excelled at baseball, and was an all-district forward in basketball while a junior. Once he rejoined the Bells after the war, he settled in as a base-stealing, good-hitting infielder.

"He was a live wire," Stark said. "He was an institution there for years and years."

Gaffney didn't hit a ton of home runs, but he had a knack for whacking some memorable ones. He hit a homer the first game of the season in his first three seasons back from the war. At least two of those homers were on the first pitch.

During Gaffney's years with the Bells the team won at least seven state titles and traveled to the national tournament several times, finishing as high as fourth in 1949.

That was before widespread television, and long before the Seattle Mariners.

"Everybody went to see the Bellingham Bells," Stark said. "You would have several thousand people at the big games."

Gaffney also played against visiting ball teams, including the House of David squad, made up of bearded players who represented a Midwest religious community, and touring black teams with such legends as ageless pitcher Satchel Paige.

"I got a hit off of Satchel," Gaffney said. "He was about 50-something, but he could throw that ball."

A hustler on the hardwood, too, Gaffney played one season as a backup guard for the Bellingham Fircrests, a professional basketball team, during the 1947-48 season. During one memorable game in Canada, Gaffney scrambled for a loose ball with George "Porky" Andrews, the player-coach of the Vancouver Hornets.

By several accounts, Andrews punched Gaffney, which sparked a near-riot with both players and fans fighting. The Fircrests' player-coach Gale Bishop yanked his team from the court shortly before halftime and refused to return. Police escorted the team out of Vancouver, and the league's commissioner later fined the Fircrests $500 for failing to finish the game.

Gaffney's all-out approach may account for the injury that ended his tenure with the Bells during the 1956 season. After seeing a player slide headfirst into base, Gaffney gave it a try and jammed his shoulder.

"After that I couldn't even throw across the diamond," he said. "It was tough."

When not playing sports, Gaffney worked as salesman for Georgia-Pacific, first in Bellingham, then in Seattle and Tacoma. He retired years ago and now lives in Bellevue, where his sports legacy still comes up for discussion, usually when someone else brings up the subject.

"I wasn't too bad of a ballplayer," Gaffney said.


COMING UP

What: Cliff Gaffney recognition night

When: 7:05 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 8, during game between Walla Walla Sweets and the Bellingham Bells.

Where: Joe Martin Field.

Admission: Tickets are $5 to $8 at the gate, online at bellinghambells.com, or at 360-527-1035.

Reach DEAN KAHN at dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2291.

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