Helena resident has become the ultimate minor league baseball fan
By Gabriel Furshong
Tickets were just a couple dollars when Mary Gunstone began attending Helena Brewers baseball games in 1985, but she got into her first game for free.
It was Buttrey’s Food and Drug night at the ballpark and employees were given complimentary tickets. Gunstone was a baker at the store and also served as the staff photographer.
She took her camera to that first game, started snapping photos of the players – and never stopped.
In the three decades since, Gunstone has only missed two games: the first for her father’s funeral and the second for her 50th class reunion.
“I told them they should have it at the ballpark, but they didn’t do that for me,” she said, with a touch of regret.
- Learn more about the Helena Brewers’ Kindrick Legion field here
Across the country, there are more than 200 minor league teams associated with Major League Baseball, from Los Angeles, California, to Danville, Virginia, and as the list of cities descends from large to small, there is a reverse correlation between the celebrity of the game and the intimacy of the experience.
Helena lies at the bottom of that list, among the Top 10 smallest markets in all of professional baseball.
Since 1978, Helena has hosted a team in the Pioneer League, an advanced rookie league with eight teams located five rungs down the ladder from the MLB.
Here, 90 percent of the tickets go for less than $8 and game-day availability is never a problem. Attendance in 2012 was just 880 fans per game, a third of the league average.
Gunstone, however, is one fan the Brewers have learned to count on.
Her commitment, especially at this low level of minor league baseball, has not gone unnoticed.
“It seems like every ballpark has some fan or special story about a fan who frequents those games,” said Paul Fetz, Brewers general manager. “But I’ve never in my 25 years in the game encountered a fan who does what she does, the effort she puts forward for these players.”
When Buttrey’s Food and Drug closed in 2008, Gunstone was forced to retire after 37 years with the store. She now spends roughly $3,000 of her pension each year to print a small photo album for every player as a season-ending gift.
Several years ago, she brought two of the albums to a game in a plastic grocery bag for me to see.
Seated in the stands, her toes barely touched the ground. Then, at 71 years old, her short stature and round frame projected a matronly appearance, and her tendency to finish sentences with a self-amused giggle only enhanced the image of a good-natured grandmother.
“The summer I first started I would just take different pictures and give them to (players),” she explained with a quiet laugh. “Well, that didn’t work out too well because some players would get hurt because they didn’t get one, so I decided I’d better give all the players one.”
Each page of the two albums, from the ’89 and ’95 seasons, contained a portrait of a player in the locker room or on the field. On the last pages were portraits of Gunstone herself, standing tall and wearing a proud smile.
“If I’m not here then they ask where I’m at,” she said, looking up from the albums. “I feel like I belong to the team.”
Gunstone shares the joys and heartaches of the seasons with the team, too.
Take for example, the 2013 league championship game.
By mid-September that year, the Brewers had completed an impressive run to a 10th league championship berth in 36 years. They were knotted at one game apiece in a three-game series with the Idaho Falls Chukars, an affiliate of the Kansas City Royals. The deciding game was scheduled for Sept. 16, at Kindrick Legion Field in Helena.
The morning dawned dreary and cold.
Gunstone hadn’t missed a game all season and despite the bad weather, arrived at the park an hour early. By the third or fourth inning, the gravel parking area, wedged between a Coca-Cola distribution center and the third base bleachers, would be filled with the voices of grade-school boys zigzagging between parked cars in pursuit of foul balls.
But an hour before game time, the lot was nearly empty.
Inside the park, a young man in a Brewers jacket and cap was hastily toweling off seats in the front row of the 82-year-old grandstand.
Gunstone sat nearby, perched on a metal folding chair in her usual pre-game spot just above the home dugout, nose-to-nose with the safety netting behind home plate.
As always, she wore a Milwaukee Brewers warm up jacket and a Helena Brewers ball cap, which seemed to float on top of her curly grey hair.
“Every time they win a championship, they’re always out of town,” she said. “And I told them once that I’d like to see it done here.”
Sitting on the edge of her seat, fidgeting with her camera lens, she was the picture of a fretful parent as the players began their warm up tosses.
It was easy to see why her maternal instincts were triggered.
A review of the 35-man roster revealed an average age of 23, and while a major league payday may be in store for a few of them, their chances of playing even one game in the big leagues hovers around 7 percent. For now, they’re just kids making less than minimum wage, wondering whether they’ll need to find a second job in the off-season.
“I’ve lived in Helena all my life and never married so I adopt these kids all summer.” Gunstone said. “This is my family here, the kids I call them.”
It was a few minutes before the first pitch of the deciding game and people were flowing into the park steadily, most with blankets under their arms.
The sun had dipped below the Continental Divide to the west and a low fog engulfed the lights, creating four dewy halos above the outfield grass. The temperature was 48 degrees at first pitch and fans could see their breath as they settled into orange plastic seats, recycled from the Oakland Coliseum and still marked with the green and yellow Athletics logo.
The game started slowly, but a 0-0 tie was broken in the top of the fourth after a Brewers error, a walk, and a three-run homer by the Chukars catcher, Frank Schwindel.
The Chukars tacked on three more runs in the next two innings for a 6-0 lead by the seventh inning stretch.
The game’s announcer began to lead a disheartened crowd in a chorus of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Some fans were singing despite the shutout, but Gunstone sat silently at the end of her row.
“Oh, I’m so sad I could just cry,” she said. “They’re just giving it to them. But I have to support them anyway.”
It took only 20 more minutes for the season to end and even less for 1,500 people to clear out of the tiny ballpark. By the time the trophy was presented to the Chukars manager, there was only a sprinkling of dejected fans left and Gunstone sat among them.
The following spring arrived late after a long winter that dumped heavy snowfall in almost every mountain range across Montana. The gates of Kindrick Legion opened for the first game of the 2014 season on June 16 in a light but steady rain.
Gunstone was already at her post, hovering above the home dugout in a navy blue poncho that covered her head-to-toe. She leaned on the handles of a walker and when she turned I could see plastic tubes resting under her nose, leading to a green oxygen tank at her feet.
“I had two cataract surgeries in March and got pneumonia in April,” she said with a ragged voice. “One doctor sent me to another doctor and finally I said, ‘You’ve gotta get me healthy, baseball season is coming!’ ”
Though her cheeks were sunken, her smile was just as warm as it had been the season before.
At game time, the Brewers picked up where they left off nine months earlier and by the seventh inning stretch, the Missoula Osprey, an Arizona Diamondbacks affiliate, were leading 8-2.
The drizzle had grown into a steady rain and Gunstone had abandoned her folding chair to seek shelter under the roof of the grandstand.
As we sat down for the bottom half of the inning, I noticed a silver ball-and-glove pendant on her cap.
“That was a gift from Tristan’s parents,” she said, removing her hat to see the pendant for herself.
Tristan Archer was a right-handed pitcher who threw 38 innings with the Brewers in 2013. Gunstone met his parents at Kindrick Legion one evening early in the summer. She took pictures of Archer all summer and gave them to him to share with his parents.
Late in the season, a card arrived to the ballpark addressed to the “photographer lady.”
The pendant was tucked inside with a note from Archer’s parents, reading “Thanks for all the photos of Tristan. He sure loves you.”
Archer finished the season with a respectable 3.08 earned run average and was promoted to the Single-A team in Appelton, Wisconsin.
It’s unlikely that Gunstone will ever see him again, but she wore the pendant proudly as she looked out onto a rain-soaked field full of new faces. Out of a 32-man roster, only two men had played in Helena the previous year.
“They don’t know me yet,” she said, chasing the sentence with her characteristic giggle. “But they will.”
Gabriel Furshong is a Helena native who writes from Missoula.
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Ghost Sign Scrutiny: Butte grapples with how restore outside ads
By CLAUDIA RAPKOCH
Many a ghost story has been written about Butte.
The city’s metropolitan past is rich with colorful characters, drama and intrigue. But it was also an urban center where thousands of people lived their lives – and that made it a prime target for advertisers.
Long before interstate highway billboards or other forms of modern media existed, there was only one way to reach potential customers on a daily basis outside of the newspapers. Advertisers made use of the most readily available canvas at the time – buildings.
Companies hired sign painters, called wall dogs, to travel the country and promote their products. These painters were a combination of salesmen, artists, engineers, chemists and daredevils, and Butte’s population made it an obvious place to advertise regional national brands such as Bull Durham Tobacco, Rex Flour, Sweet Caporal Cigarettes and Coca-Cola.
That was long ago.
Today, the remnants of the advertisements painted on walls are called ghost signs.
To read the entire Ghost Sign Scrutiny story, find this issue on newsstands now. To read more about Montana all year, subscribe now.
Rescued mountain lion brothers headed to Ohio
Powell, Ohio, is preparing to welcome two Montana natives to its zoo.
Two rescued mountain lion kittens that were pulled from a wildfire zone several weeks ago are set to be delivered to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium on Wednesday.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Park officials say it’s the best option for the brothers, according to a story by the Helena Independent Record’s Alexander Deedy.
Just 12 to 14 days old when they arrived at the Montana Wildlife Center in Helena, the pair didn’t have any teeth and couldn’t really use their eyes. Now four weeks old, they’ve doubled in size and are starting to exhibit predator traits.
Rhodin said they’ve started to pounce, and one will drag around a blanket he plays with.
Besides inhaling smoke and having water and fire retardant dropped on them, the kittens did not suffer any physical harm during the fire, she said.
The kittens now have clear lungs, bright blue eyes and are perfectly healthy. Rhodin has been feeding them a formula similar to milk from a mother mountain lion.
Throughout the process, FWP has been fielding interest from zoos accredited by the American Zoos Association that wanted to provide a home for the cats.
“If you try to release them before they’re 3 years old, they probably won’t survive,” Rhodin said.
The leading cause of mortality among young mountain lions is getting killed by older males, so without a mother, the two kittens would have no chance of survival in the wild.
Wildland firefighters battling a blaze near Florence rescued the kittens after hearing their cries from underneath a log. The blackened kittens were taken to a rehabilitation center in Helena where they recovered.
Deedy wrote: Once in Ohio, the kittens will be kept together while young, but Rhodin said it is up to the zoo whether to put them in separate exhibits when they are older. She did say she thinks the Columbus Zoo has plans to use the mountain lions as part of its conservation education program.
“There’s really no better place for them to end up,” Tom Palmer said.
‘Montana is Calling’ a beautiful poem about missing Montana
Of all the emails, letters and phone calls we get about Montana Magazine each day, some always stand out. They’re the notes about the allure of Montana and the want of so many to come here, live here one day, or for the natives who’ve moved away, to come back one day.
These notes are always great to read, and many are beautiful and poetic too.
So we thought we’d start sharing some these notes, poems and stories in a section on MontanaMagazine.com called “Love Letters to Montana” (it’s under the More of Montana tab on the home page.)
We’ve put several love letters up and will add more soon.
One of my favorites came from Janet Fulkerson, who found writings by her mother Imogene Z. Hansen after Imogene passed away in 2013.
Imogene lived and raised a family in Helena before poor health forced her to move to Indiana to live with Janet. The photo with this post is of Imogene and her husband Bruce Hansen, and Janet’s sister, Susan Marie.
Her poem, “Montana is Calling,” was written in 2012. The full poem is here and a snipped is listed below. It’s worth a read.
Montana Is Calling
By Imogene Hansen
September 17, 2012
My heart’s in Montana; my heart is not here.
It’s in Big Sky Country so high, wide, and clear.
From the mountains and prairies that I loved to roam
Montana is calling, and I want to go home.
I miss Montana which is far, far from here
where the earth is too flat and the sky seldom clear.
Stained-glass, sun create symphony of light and color inside Cathedral of St. Helena
Even from a distance, it’s easy to recognize the beauty of the Cathedral of St. Helena.
Finished a century ago to stand in Montana’s capitol city of Helena, the Cathedral is a gorgeous building made of Indian limestone. But as writer and photographer Gordon Sullivan told us in the March/April issue, when you step inside the cathedral you’ll be greeted by an incredibly stunning setting thanks to the building’s stained-glass windows.
As the sun moves through the sky, the colorful glass creates a symphony of light and color. It’s a show Sullivan says upstages all the other wonderful elements of beauty inside the cathedral.
It’s no easy task to capture that show with a camera. Sullivan spent hours inside the cathedral to make the images he included in his photo essay in Montana Magazine.
“…for me, as a professional photographer,” Sullivan wrote, “the most outstanding feature revolves around stained-glass light and the sublime tone it casts on marble, polished brass and carved oak. It is the technical challenge this type of light presents and the pleasure of seeing each image suddenly duplicated electronically for others to see.”
What else does Sullivan love about the stained-glass inside the cathedral? He answered some questions for Montana Magazine about his work there.
Do you have a favorite portion of stained glass inside the cathedral?
I guess I have two favorite portions of stained glass inside the cathedral. The first is located on the southeast corner. Here low angle, morning light is particularly interesting. The stained-glass panels featured in this section, from both the higher and lower levels, spread illumination across the interior in colorful bands. It lights up the east facing side of marble pillars and walls and sweeps nicely across the oak pews.
Another of my favorites is the stained-glass panel behind the grated back-alter and crucifix. Here a mixture of brass and stained-glass is vibrant and provides a sense of texture, depth and physical dimension. This panel however is best photographed in low light, allowing just enough illumination of accent color without getting bright enough to wash out detail. Both areas require long exposures, tight metering and a tripod.
What is the best time of day for readers who visit the cathedral to see the splendor of the stained-glass?
The best time of day to visit and witness the splendor of stained-glass light is when the sun’s outside angle is at its greatest, which means early to mid-morning or late afternoon. Morning light enters from the east and in afternoon it comes from the west. The sharper the angle, the better the reflections inside the church and the more possible it will be for the illumination to be contrasted by interior shadows. Best time of year is autumn or early winter.
Another very special “mind blowing” time to visit is the last hour before sunset when the exterior light is low, warm and angled. It is almost unbelievable what goes on inside the cathedral during a vivid sunset. The effect is quick but very impressive.
Tell us about the time it takes to get shots like you did.
Once I set my sights on photographing the stained glass light, I first needed to study the patterns and determine what time of day or year would best demonstrate the effect I was after. This took some time and several dry runs and more or less pointed to times when the outside light was at its greatest angle to the windows. Mid-morning and late afternoon seemed to be prime – especially for the visible bands of light falling on inside attractions like marble pillars, oak pews and high contrast walls.
Working inside the Cathedral of St. Helena requires both patience and planning, simply because a few special shots appear only during certain times during the day and in some cases vanish at a moment’s notice. Some of the shots were planned very carefully while others seemed to appear out of nowhere.
Windy weather topples pine, crushes truck in Lincoln
The wind got the best of this huge pine the other day in Lincoln – that truck was in the wrong place at the wrong time. This photo was taken right on Main Street by our friends Jaime and Lisa Johnson.
Stay safe out there!