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Colorado baseball history, Part 3: The Silver Bullets

Colorado Rockies news and links for Friday, February 4, 2022.

With the lockout holding strong and the start of spring training and possibly the Rockies season opener on March 31 in Los Angeles against the Dodgers in doubt, it’s hard to start previewing 2022 season. So instead of looking ahead, this series will look to the past at the vast and diverse history of baseball in Colorado. Part 1 looked 2022 Hall of Famer Bud Fowler and the shifting color line. Part 2 looked at the Denver Post Tournament and its role in integrating MLB.

1994: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, as Charles Dickens would say.

Colorado was in its second year of being home to the Rockies. The lineup featured the likes of Andrés Galarraga, Dante Bichette, Vinny Castilla, and Eric Young, Sr., along with future MLB managers Walt Weiss and Joe Girardi.

On Aug. 11, the Rockies were 53-64 and third in the NL West standings (yes, it was behind the Dodgers and Giants). The Rockies were improving and were one season away from christening Coors Field and winning the NL Wild Card.

But on Aug. 12, Major League Baseball stopped. MLB wanted salary caps and revenue sharing and the MLBA didn’t. So the players went on strike, leading to 948 games being canceled at the end of 1994 and the start of 1995.

Colorado baseball fans had been given a team, and then they walked out.

Luckily, there was another Colorado baseball team that year: The Colorado Silver Bullets.

A photo of the 1994 Colorado Silver Bullets from a game program.
Joelle Milholm

The Silver Bullets were the first, and remain the only, all-female professional baseball team to be officially recognized by the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues. Dreamed up by former Atlanta Braves executive Bob Hope (no, not that Bob Hope) and funded by a $2.6 million sponsorship ($8 million total by the end) by the Coors Brewing Company, the Silver Bullets played games against all-male pro and semi-pro teams from 1994-1997.

As soon as the team was announced, over 1,300 women from all around the country flocked to try out. Only 55 got invited to spring training, only 49 came, and then only 27 made the team. In their first season, they played 44 games in 27 states and provinces in the U.S. and Canada. They were paid $20,000 for the six-month season. Despite having Colorado stitched across the front of their jerseys, they didn’t have a home field. Instead, they just shared the name of the birthplace of Coors Light, aka, the Silver Bullet.

The Silver Bullets program from when they barnstormed America and played a game against the Colorado Sox at Mile High Stadium on July 3, 1994.
Joelle Milholm

Many of the players were lifelong softball players. Some were former baseball players who were forced into softball when coaches and leagues told them girls can’t play baseball. Now, under Hall of Famer Phil Niekro as their manager, they had to quickly learn or relearn how to play baseball with 90-mph fastballs on deck.

Instead of a softball, with a 12-inch circumference that weighs seven ounces, being pitched in an underhand windmill motion that could be 70 mph and travel 40 feet from the flat pitching rubber to the plate, the hitters were now trying to spot a 9.25-inch circumference baseball that weighs 5.25 ounces and travels 60 and a half feet at 80-90 mph from an elevated mound in an overhand motion. Outfielders were trying to catch fly balls that fly twice as high as softballs. Instead of mastering rise balls, hitters were now trying to identify and hit breaking balls.

“The one conclusion I’ve come to, more than anything, is baseball is a whole different ballgame than softball,” Niekro told the Rocky Mountain News in 1994.

For pitchers, all the same factors made them relearn their motions and grip on the ball. One pitcher, Lisa Martinez, didn’t abandon the underhand windmill. In fact, she used it to throw a no-hitter with eight strikeouts and pitches in that hit 80 mph against the Summerville Yankees, an over-30 amateur team in South Carolina.

On July 3, the Silver Bullets finally got to play in their namesake state. While the Rockies were on a 12-game road trip in St. Louis, Chicago, and Florida, the Silver Bullets took over Mile High Stadium. In front of 33,179 fans, including an 11-year-old me, they played the Colorado Sox, a semi-pro team made up of Colorado collegiate players. The stadium wasn’t prepared for the masses, running out of memorabilia and not staffing enough concessions, which end up with 30-minute lines.

I didn’t care. I was seeing women play baseball. That’s all I ever wanted to do. I grew up playing, but was ushered out as I got older and was told girls should play softball. I wasn’t good enough to break through the gender barrier and then it turned out that I was even worse at softball. I turned to other sports and eventually writing, but never forgot the Silver Bullets. I may not have been good enough, but women could be.

Action shots from the 1994 season highlighted in a game program.
Joelle Milholm

Thanks to the Rocky Mountain News archives in NewsBank (which you can access with a library card, in my case from the Denver Public Library), I have been digging through old articles to refresh my memory on details of the game.

Michele McAnany led off with a single and came around to score, giving Colorado a 1-0 lead in the first inning. They ended up losing 6-1 and finished the year with a 6-38 record. Unsurprisingly, the transition to hitting baseballs instead of softballs led to offensive struggles.

But it wasn’t just that. The opposing teams often stacked their rosters like all-star teams, not wanting to lose. Even more, the Colorado Sox were one of many teams who pitched a new pitcher each inning. While that might have allowed more male players to partake in the novelty, it didn’t give the Silver Bullets a chance to see the same pitcher twice or see a pitcher fatigued, which is what their opponents were getting.

“I’m kind of getting sick of that,” Bullets catcher Elizabeth Burnham told the Rocky Mountain News after the 6-1 loss. “I know everybody wants to pitch against us just to say they did, but they should use the first guy until he gets in trouble like they do in regular games. It gets annoying.”

Defense was a whole other story. The Silver Bullets were great defenders, turning two double plays against the Sox. In Dave Kindred’s book “For the Love of the Game,” he recounts a game in Birmingham, Alabama when outfielder Kim Braatz-Voisard made three assists. After the game, she was approached by a young boy who said, “I saw Michael Jordan play right field, and you’re much better than he is.” Jordan played for the Birmingham Barons, the White Sox Double-AA affiliate, in 1994.

After playing in Denver, the Silver Bullets went on to play in front of 42,082 fans at Candlestick Park, the former windy home of the Giants. They broke barriers and barnstormed the continent through early September.

Silver Bullet baseball cards from the program of the team’s game at Mile High Stadium in 1994.
Joelle Milholm

They kept playing for three more seasons, but attendance started to waiver. A switch to aluminum bats helped spark the offense enough for the Silver Bullets to post a winning season at 23-22 in 1997. Shortly thereafter, Coors dropped its sponsorship and just like that, the Silver Bullets were gone.

Many former Silver Bullets are still around baseball. Angie Mentink is an anchor for Root Sports Northwest and became the first woman to provide color commentary for the Seattle Mariners in 2021. Many others coach. All of them made a difference in the game of baseball and achieved what pitcher Missy Coombes hoped for in 1995: “Basically, the goal of this whole thing is to prove that women, if given the opportunity, can play baseball.”

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Major League Baseball looks to federal mediator to help end sport’s lockout, sources say | ESPN.com

Jeff Passan is reporting that MLB has reached out for help in negotiations. This could be a good sign. After all, the 1994-95 strike came to an end after intervention from the federal government when the National Labor Relations Board complained when MLB was going to use replacement players. Instead, a federal district court judge named Sonia Sotomayor, now a Supreme Court Justice, ruled that the previous CBA would go back in place, ending the strike.

Batting Around: Where will Carlos Correa and Trevor Story sign when the MLB lockout ends? | CBSSports.com

Baseball will come back someday and when it does, Trevor Story will still be looking for a home. Four CBSSports baseball writers all have different predictions as to where that might be.

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