Even without its usual occupants the Bells, Joe Martin Field stands tall as Bellingham sports monument.
By Jordan Stone
Joe Martin Stadium has sat on its perch at the center of Bellingham’s Civic Stadium complex since 1964.
It has represented the epicenter of baseball in Whatcom County ever since. From its early days as the home for semi-pro teams to its time as the bustling abode for the Bellingham Mariners, Joe Martin Stadium has seen its share of baseball greats, including Ken Griffey Jr. and Edgar Martinez, come and go.
This year, however, there were no crowds to cheer after a strikeout, no sounds of balls popping into gloves or bats contacting balls.
The Bellingham Bells – the collegiate summer league team that currently plays its home games at Joe Martin Stadium – usually supplies these sounds that have become so familiar for Bellingham’s baseball fans. The Bells were forced to cancel their season amidst a pandemic that caused countless amateur and professional leagues to do the same.
In a summer without its usual occupants to ease the withdrawal of baseball, fans have had the opportunity to reminisce on the history of what many consider to be one of Bellingham’s greatest sports monuments.
Whenever the discussion of Bellingham baseball history is brought up, there is one man at the center of it: Joe Martin.
“He was the guy that if you wanted something done in baseball, you just go to Joe and Joe would take care of it,” Jim Carberry, longtime sportswriter for the Bellingham Herald, said. “When I came here in 1978, if you said, ‘Who’s Mr. Baseball?’ it would have been Joe.”
Martin did a variety of different things to earn this title. His son said that in 1941, he was named player-manager of the semi-pro Bellingham Bells. Marion “Spyder” Webb, former trainer of the Bellingham Mariners, said he cut future MLB All-Star Mel Stottlemyre, a Mabton native, from his squad during the 1950s.
Martin was part of the ownership group that brought minor league baseball to Bellingham in 1973. He served as general manager of the Bellingham Mariners — a rookie league affiliate of the major-league team in Seattle — who played in Bellingham from 1977 to 1994. Martin also owned a sporting goods store in Bellingham before he died of cancer in 1981, Webb said.
Martin was still alive when they named the stadium — previously known as Civic Field — in his honor in 1980.
“I’ve got a photo of him when the mayor was making the announcement,” Martin’s son, Dick Martin recalled. “Tears were coming from my father’s eyes.”
Martin could appear tough to people that didn’t know him. Take it from Webb, who first came to Bellingham in 1979.
Webb, sitting in the yard at his home in Florence, South Carolina, recalled his first memory of Martin.
“I was waiting for Joe Martin to come pick me up,” Webb said. “He showed up, and we got him and his buddy in this old pickup truck. So, I’m asking questions, and Joe goes, ‘Damn. You talk a lot, don’t you?’ I go, ‘Yes, sir. I’m sorry.’”
That wasn’t the Martin that Webb came to know though. He remembered Martin being an ambassador for the game in Bellingham.
“Joe Martin has that stadium named after him for a reason,” Webb said. “Kids would come in [to Martin’s store] and he would sell them a $50 glove for $18. That’s just what he did. That rough, gruff guy that I met on my first ride was some sort of facade.”
That was everything that Martin was about, spreading a love of baseball to as many people as possible. According to the people who knew him best, he didn’t seem to care about making money; he cared about keeping the spirit of the sport alive, Webb said.
“They were just worried about breaking even,” Webb said. “So they could keep having pro baseball there.”
Professional baseball first came to Bellingham in 1973. The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Single-A minor league team played in Joe Martin Stadium until 1976, when the Bellingham Mariners replaced them. The “Baby M’s” stayed until 1994, when they were replaced by the San Francisco Giants’ minor league ball club. The Giants left in 1996, and Bellingham hasn’t had a professional baseball team since, according to the Bells’ website.
Baseball thrived in Bellingham during the Mariners era, Carberry said.
“I don’t know if it was a baseball town,” Carberry said. “When the Bellingham Mariners were here, I do know they were proud of the team and supported it.”
It wasn’t just the fans who loved having the team in Bellingham. It was also the people who worked for the team, Jeff Scott said.
“I don’t have any bad memories,” Jeff Scott, manager for the Bellingham Mariners from 1979-83, said. “Except for the long bus rides.”
The closest city the Bellingham Mariners played in was four hours away. To make matters worse, their bus was notoriously bad, Scott said.
“Our bus, it was a dandy,” Scott recalled, sarcastically. “It was a 1950s something or other, and it had no air conditioning and no toilet.”
Webb remembered that bus fondly too.
“The legend in Bellingham is the bus,” Webb said. “Everybody, when they dress for the bus, they’d have 10 layers on. Our guys knew back then what layering was. And then when we got over the cascades and went in Eastern Washington, everybody was in their boxers and a T-shirt.”
Some of the greatest Seattle Mariners of all time began their careers in Bellingham, such as Edgar Martinez, Omar Vizquel, Mark Langston and Ken Griffey Jr. (who was known simply as Junior.) All of them had to push that bus from time to time, Webb said.
Junior’s arrival in Bellingham in 1987 was met with considerable buzz from fans in town. Not necessarily because they knew how good Junior, who was the No. 1 overall pick in that year’s draft, would end up being. More so because his dad, Ken Griffey Sr., was still playing in the majors, Carberry said.
Junior returned to Bellingham a few years later, and he brought family with him. His brother, Craig Griffey, was on the Baby M’s that season. Junior was there recovering from a broken wrist. His parents came to watch their sons play.
Webb said he watched Junior hit every one of the team’s batting practice balls out of the stadium in one session. Webb had to call the front office back in Seattle to make sure they sent some balls their way, or they wouldn’t have been able to have batting practice.
That baseball family reunion wasn’t the biggest crowd that Webb recalled seeing at Joe Martin Stadium, though.
“Our biggest night was Watford Funeral Home Night,” Webb said. “Our attendance was usually 800-1,100 people, but on Watford Funeral Home Night, there would be 3,000 people there. It was freaking amazing. You just giggle that we’re having a funeral home night and we got 3,000 people.”
The Baby M’s won four league titles as well as losing in the league championship game three times, according to Baseball Reference.
Following one of those titles, Webb said there was a celebration unlike any you would see today.
“They didn’t want us to have a celebration in the football clubhouse and have to clean it up and all that,” Webb said. “It was socially acceptable at that time to have a celebration. So, we had the championship celebration on the field. There was champagne and cold beer flopping around the field, everybody having a large time, and the fans were soaking it up. It was really cool.”
Teams usually celebrate in their clubhouse. For the Baby M’s, their clubhouse was in the football stadium, which was across the parking lot from the baseball facility. It was common for local residents to see a migration of baseball players and hear the clacking of their metal spikes against pavement as they made the trip to and from the field, Scott said.
But the clubhouse wasn’t the only place to see an exodus of players, Scott said. The Wendy’s restaurant across the street from the ballpark would be swarmed with ballplayers looking for a post-batting practice burger.
After the 1994 season, the Baby M’s packed up and moved south to Everett, where they became the Aquasox.
“It broke our sports hearts,” Carberry said. “The Giants came, and we were kind of like ‘Well, hey, this is something.’ But it wasn’t the same”
Webb, who moved south with the team, said he will always look back on his time in Bellingham very fondly.
“There was nothing better in my life than being there in Bellingham and being associated with the family and friends of the Bellingham Mariners,” Webb said. “I would have never made it 35 years in pro baseball without my 16 years in Bellingham.”
Since 1999, the Bells have called Joe Martin stadium home, but they have struggled to connect their history to the present, Bells general manager Stephanie Morrell said.
“I feel like a lot of people remember the history,” Morrell said. “The Bells have been a lot of different things. They were an adult team for a while, a semi-pro team for a while and now they are a college team. That’s always been a struggle for us to find a way to connect the dots.”
Morrell said she is hoping that is about to change.
Dick Martin has displayed a trophy case of his father’s memorabilia in a local baseball facility called Inside Pitch. Inside Pitch moved in June and no longer had room for the memorabilia, Morrell said.
Dick Martin reached out to Morrell to find a way to display the Bellingham baseball time capsule at the stadium.
“It’s going to be an outdoor exhibit, so it’s going to be something we’ll do in June , when we start playing baseball again,” Morrell said. “Dick and I are planning on collaborating. I know it’s important to him to have some input.”
The Bells plan to return to play in 2021, but they have to be ready to get creative to ensure they have a season next summer with COVID-19 concerns still a factor, Morrell said.