Hurry back, Timberjack
Former pitcher Jim Kaat speaks at the memorial service for Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew on May 26, 2011 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Gentle suggestion, dear reader: Before plunging into what comes next, warm up in the bullpen by Googling “Timberjack movie song.” (Or click on the link here.)
Or don’t, if you don’t want to have the song bouncing between your ears for the next few days, or weeks, or years.
Maybe you heard that former Major League Baseball pitcher Jim Kaat is headed for Cooperstown. “Kitty” Kaat was a 19-year-old southpaw pitcher from Michigan when he lit up the Pioneer League in 1958 for the Missoula Timberjacks before making it big in the bigs. Now 83, he was elected last weekend to the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the Golden Days Era Committee, which focuses on candidates who played in the 1950s and ’60s. Kaat pitched in those decades, going 1-2 against Sandy Koufax and the Dodgers in the 1965 World Series for the Minnesota Twins. He also won 20 games twice in the ’70s for the White Sox and helped the St. Louis Cardinals to a World Series title in 1982.
Kaat is the first Missoula alum and just the 10th from the Pioneer League to make it to Cooperstown. He joins the likes of George Brett and Trevor Hoffman of Billings, Bobby Cox and Pedro Martinez of Great Falls, Ryne Sandberg of Helena and, significant to this story, the inimitable Bob Uecker of Boise.
The Timberjacks were in Missoula for five seasons, from 1956 to 1960. They got their nickname from an otherwise nondescript motion picture, for which the outdoor scenes were filmed in western Montana in the fall of 1954. At one point the movie jumps from the banks of the Blackfoot River to Glacier Park in mid-scene. “Timberjack’s” world premiere was held in Missoula’s Fox and Roxy theaters in February 1955 after a huge, cold parade down Higgins Avenue. Besides movie stars and a pack train of white mules, the procession included Dan Cushman of Great Falls, who set the book on which the movie was based in Canada. Cushman had a seat of honor in the lead convertible with leading lady Vera Miles.
Besides Miles, the cast assembled by Republic Pictures included Sterling Hayden, David Keith, Adolph Menjou, Chill Wills and renowned songwriter Hoagy Carmichael, he of “Stardust” fame, not to mention “Lazy Bones,” “Georgia On My Mind” and everyone’s piano favorite “Heart and Soul.” (Carmichael actually lived on West Pine Street in Missoula as a boy in 1910 with his father Howard and mother Lida. He said later he hated that year.)
Another co-star of Timberjack was a Shay-type Willamette steam locomotive built in 1923. For 25 years it was used to haul logs down the Big Blackfoot railroad, first by W.A. Clark’s Western Lumber Co., then Anaconda Copper Mining’s lumber division in Bonner. Retired in 1948, the engine was destined for the scrap heap before being resurrected for the movie. Today Engine No. 7 is undergoing another makeover, this time by a determined crew of volunteers at the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula, where it found a home and place of honor in 1989.
The opening credits of Timberjack rolled to the strains of “Hurry Back, Timberjack,” and that’s where Uecker enters the story. More than 20 years ago, Kaat relayed the anecdote to the late Jeff Herman, an editor at the Missoulian who served as the Timberjacks batboy in his childhood. Herman diligently interviewed every former Timberjack he could track down for a novel that didn’t get off the ground. But out of all those notes he fashioned a package of newspaper stories about the ‘Jacks in June of 1999 in the days leading up to the debut season of the Missoula Osprey.
Last year Kaat repeated a version of the story to Bill Speltz, the current Missoulian sports editor, and Speltz revisited it in a column last week after receiving an email from Kaat.
Uecker visited Missoula six times as a catcher for the Boise Braves in 1956 and 1958. The Timberjacks played at Campbell Field on the southeast corner of South Avenue and Higgins, where the University of Montana soccer stadium is today. According to Kaat, Uecker must have memorized “Hurry Back, Timberjack” on those occasions. He said it was played before every game as the home team took the field from a trap door behind home plate.
By now you should be able to sing along:
When you’re all done choppin’ down the poplar and pine, hurry back, hurry back, Timberjack.
There’s a black-haired gal whose lips are sweeter than wine, hurry back, hurry back, Timberjack.
She’s got the ring, she’s got the gown, she owns an acre (?!!?).
It will break her little heart should you forsake her …
Drop that crosscut saw and put your axe in the rack.
Hurry back, hurry back, Timberjack.
It’s not true that Chubby Checker sang a spinoff called “Put Your Axe in the Rack.” But that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have.
Kaat told Herman that while he remembered much about his Missoula experience, including pitching for and being terminally inspired by his catcher-coach, Jack McKeon, he’d all but forgotten about the song during his major-league career. His playing days ended in 1983, and Kaat became a television commentator for the New York Yankees. Uecker was the colorful radio voice for Milwaukee. For years they crossed paths when the Yankees and Brewers both played in the American League.
Uecker made it a point to regularly serenade Kaat with “Hurry Back, Timberjack” when Kaat arrived at County Stadium in Milwaukee.
“Oh, he knows the words,” Kaat said. “When we’d get there, he couldn’t resist doing it. He’d have fun with it.”
Kaat could remind Uecker how he struck him out with bases loaded in the rear-end of a doubleheader between Missoula and Boise on a Friday night in May 1958. It was one of 14 strikeouts for the big lefthander, who led the league that year in wins and K’s. But he probably doesn’t bring it up because Uecker could and probably would fire back with the fact that he hit two home runs off a different Timberjacks pitcher in the first game.
Kaat’s message to Speltz on Sunday was to inform him that he’d like to get McKeon, now 91, to the induction ceremony at Cooperstown next summer. “Trader Jack” was Pioneer League manager of the year in ’58, his third and final season in Missoula, and he must be in the on-deck circle for Hall of Fame honors himself. Surely he remembers the Timberjack song as well. As you may have discovered, it’s hard to forget, whether you want to or not.
Uecker, “Mr. Baseball,” will be 88 by the time the Hall of Fame ceremonies roll around on July 24. He had ‘em rolling in the aisles with his induction speech in 2003. That’s worth a YouTube search in itself. It’s entirely possible Uecker will be back in New York for the 2022 induction ceremonies, and the three old (singing) Timberjacks will be reunited.
Are you thinking what I’m thinking?
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.