Memories fade, but Ben Cheney lives on through stadium
Seattle Times staff reporter
TACOMA — He's a loyal fan who literally has never left his seat in 10 years — day and night, winter and summer, rain and sun, he sits there in Row 1 of Section K, often alone, but always with a look of joy in his eyes, a perpetual smile and a bag of peanuts.
At Saturday night's home-game season opener, the life-sized bronze statue of Ben B. Cheney was once again surrounded by fans, as the Tacoma Rainiers took on the Fresno Grizzlies in the stadium that bears Cheney's name.
These days, though, fewer and fewer fans know much about Cheney, a lifelong baseball fan, successful lumber-company owner and civic leader who used his business savvy and personal fortune to make possible the stadium's opening here 45 years ago, in April 1960.
There is a plaque by the statue that identifies Cheney and says it is "dedicated to the fans who have enjoyed baseball" at the stadium, but few stop to read it.
The fading recollections from fans are understandable, given that anyone under the age of 34 wasn't even born when Cheney died in 1971 at age 66.
"No, I don't know much about him," said fan Kyle Rooney, 15.
He and his buddy, Spencer Seitz, 19, both of Tacoma, had wandered around the stadium looking for a good seat Saturday night; they chose to sit right next to the statue — Cheney in Seat 1, the boys in Seats 2 and 3.
"I assume he was the owner of the stadium or something," said Rooney.
Seitz said, "I know he was from here. But I really don't know anything else."
A baseball kind of daySaturday evening was a splendid day for baseball, the kind Ben Cheney would have thoroughly enjoyed.
The skies were blue after rain, and the innings went along at a leisurely pace, giving everyone time to chat and mingle.
This is old-fashioned baseball — still with a $5 general admission, and wooden seats and outfield light standards that Cheney had shipped up from what then was Seals Stadium in San Francisco.
What did draw the attention of the two teen boys were the little details of the statue.
Cheney sits in a bronze seat, holding a bag of bronze peanuts, with some bronze peanut shells beneath him along with a bronze program guide, the whole thing weighing 500 to 600 pounds.
Paul Michaels of Gig Harbor is the artist who molded the statue out of clay, then had it made into a hollow bronze figure at a foundry.
With the help of the Cheney family, he gave the statue its distinctiveness — a glint in the bronze eyes, a warm-up jacket with a tie on the shirt underneath.
The jacket was a symbol of Cheney's interest in sports; the tie that he knew business very well.
Bob Christopherson, now head groundskeeper at Safeco Field, but who had a similar job at Cheney Stadium for nine years ending in 2000, is philosophical about the fading memories of Cheney.
He said: "Over time, everybody forgets. That's why you put the statute there, so maybe somebody will ask."
On game days, when he'd walk by the statue, often seeing kids on the lap of the bronze Cheney, or maybe rubbing its nose, or adults being a bit curious, Christopherson would try to connect the statue to their lives.
"Do you know who invented the 2-by-4 stud?" he'd ask. That got their attention.
Done in by the curveballCheney grew up in poverty in South Bend, Pacific County, raised by his grandparents after his mother died and father remarried. He loved playing baseball and had dreams of being a pro.
"He couldn't hit the curve ball," said his son, Brad Cheney.
The elder Cheney did play in a commercial Tacoma league, but as he remembered in a Seattle Times story, he got to play "only because I could catch and throw — and always showed up."
Cheney turned his drive into the lumber business, having borrowed money in high school to make his way to Tacoma and work for lumber companies.
In 1936, he started his own mill and came up with a marketing innovation that gave him renown in the industry.
Cheney began marketing 8-foot-long 2-by-4 studs — he even came up with the name "stud" instead of the previously used "shorts" — making it an industry standard.
Before that, a carpenter might get a 12-foot or 16-foot stud, have to shorten it for his needs, and waste the rest.
In the late 1950s, he and other Tacoma civic leaders knew that the San Francisco Giants were looking for a new location in 1960 for their AAA team, then playing at a run-down stadium in the Phoenix area.
The civic leaders decided that Tacoma would be the team's new home.
The city of Tacoma and Pierce County came up with $900,000 to build a stadium.
Cheney then offered to cover $100,000 in any overrun costs, probably paying close to that, said Clay Huntington, 83, of Tacoma, one of the original stadium proponents.
"In 1960 that was a considerable amount of money," he said.
Furthermore, the stadium had to be built by the start of the season in April.
Construction began in January of that year and was completed in 42 working days, said Huntington, an astounding feat — and why the stadium was named after Cheney.
A friendly helloCheney never lost his love for sports. Over the years, he used his riches to sponsor 5,000 kids for his local Cheney Studs teams that played in numerous sports. The Cheney Lumber Company was sold after his death.
His fortune now supports the Ben B. Cheney Foundation, which to this day funds numerous community causes.
Huntington said he still goes to games at the stadium, and he still goes by the statue of his friend.
"I say, 'Hi,'" he said.
And as always, Ben Cheney smiles back in that perpetual joy for the game, even as fewer and fewer fans remember who he was.
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company