Gale “Windy” Wade had been down this road before. He was the center-fielder for the Chicago Cubs to open the 1955 and 1956 seasons. Each time he ended up back in the minors with the Los Angeles Angels. The Cubs wanted to see him play the last two weeks of the ’56 season – sort of a dress rehearsal for next year.
Gale startled the Cubs by announcing he was going north to Alaska, not Chicago. He was answering the call of the wild, not the Cubs. “I’m goin’ bear huntin’. This may be the only chance that I’ll ever get to bear hunt. I’ve made plans.”
The plans called for Gale and Chuck Connors, a baseball player-turned-actor, to hunt for brown bears in Alaska immediately after the Angels played their final game in mid-September. “I look back on it now and the very fact that I refused to report at the end of the ’56 season put me in pretty bad shape. I signed my death
warrant right there.”
Gale went to spring training with the Cubs in ’57 but was traded to the then Brooklyn Dodgers before the season. He never played in the majors again. “As I look back on it, there isn’t enough money in baseball they could’ve paid me for what I enjoyed on my trip.”
The trip had all the stuff of a television adventure show. It started with Connors, who went on to star in The Rifleman, a popular TV western from 1958-1963, backing out at the last minute. Wade already was in Seattle where they were to meet and fly to Anchorage. He pressed on.
On arriving in Anchorage, Gale visited two bars so he could make the connections needed for the big hunt. The bars were located in Spenard near the airport – “the sleaziest part of Anchorage filled with bars, strip joints, liquor stores, and massage parlors,” according to one historical account of the area.
“Back then there were only two paved roads in Anchorage,” Gale said. “And I’m telling you what, there were chuckholes all in them. A two-story building might’ve been the tallest in town.
“The bars stayed open 24 hours a day. I’d never seen such drinkin’ in all my life. They’d set a glass down and the guy behind the bar would just pour that thing full of liquor – bourbon. And the ol’ boys would drink it like it was nuthin’.”
One of the bars, Gale recalled, was the Hitching Post. He walked in, plopped down a suitcase full of hunting gear and another case with his .30-06 rifle. “I come up here to kill me a brownie,” he announced.
The locals knew all about Wade and the ’56 Angels from radio broadcasts of Seattle Rainiers games they listened to regularly. The Rainiers finished second, 16 ½ games behind the Pacific Coast League champions. “First thing I knew, damn, I was a celebrity. Lord have mercy. I had people helping me that really knew what they were doing.”
One of them was a bearded bush pilot. “Looked like he was 60 years old but he was in his 30s.”
The pilot took Gale caribou hunting west of Fairbanks before flying him to Seldovia, a tiny fishing village on the Cook Inlet. “He flew me around and didn’t charge me nuthin’.”
Gale pulled crab pots on a fishing boat for a week in exchange for transport across the Cook Inlet to Square Head Cove, a place where there were no people but plenty of brown bears. He almost didn’t make it there. “We ran into waves that would take the nose of the boat – a 45-footer – straight up and, then, right straight down.”
Gale braced himself in a corner of the cabin. “Have you ever seen it any worse?” he asked the boat’s owner and captain. He hesitated before saying, “Yeah, one time I ran into a storm here off the coast and I ‘wallered’ it out for three days.”
“That’s what he called it – ‘wallering’ it out. Well, that made me feel a little better. At least he lived. And, by golly, we made it across.”
The captain had told Gale he would hunt with him but at the last minute he changed his mind. “You always hunt with somebody else with another gun because a brownie is hard to bring down. But I couldn’t afford a guide. So I said, ‘By God, I’ll do it alone.’”
Gale took a small boat with an outboard motor into Square Head Cove and then, headed off into the brush.
“I was going up this stream – north towards the mountain. The water is ice cold; lots of salmon in there.”
Where there’s salmon, there are usually bears. “I looked and right on the other side was this brownie, catching these salmon. He’d catch one and, then another.”
Gale is an experienced hunter. “You always shoot big game in the shoulders – break them down and, then, you got ‘em.”
The bear was on the other side of the stream, about 60 feet away. Gale dropped down to one knee and started shooting. “He’d just reached down to get another fish and I caught him right in the shoulder where I wanted to. He rose up on his hind feet so I immediately put two more shots into his shoulders while he’s standing. He’s bitin’ at where they were hittin’ in the shoulders – gruntin’ and growlin’. So I pumped a fourth shot into him.”
One bullet was left in his clip. “I always carried an extra clip on my belt. When I jacked that last bullet into the barrel, I looked down to make real sure I dropped the empty cartridge holder out and the other one in.”
When Gale looked up, the bear was glaring at him. He fired again. “I caught him straight in the neck – right under his jaw. And when that bullet hit him, by golly he went down like he was pole axed.”
Gale skinned the approximately 900 pound bear, keeping only its head.
“When I was shooting, I was very calm. And, then, I reached into my pocket for a cigarette. I couldn’t get the dad-gum cigarette out of the pack. My hand went numb. When I got it in my mouth, my thumb wouldn’t work the lighter. It was from fear, no doubt.”
Gale made it safely back to the fishing boat and eventually to Anchorage where he arranged for a woman to send the bear head to Seattle for mounting as a trophy. She never shipped it, keeping the money Gale gave her and apparently selling the bear head. “The only thing that ever really bothered me about the trip was what that woman done to me.”
The following spring Gale reported for duty with the Cubs, now led by Bob Scheffing, manager of the ’56 Angels. “I think Bob Scheffing will give me the best chance I’ve had yet,” Gale said at the time.
Scheffing believed Wade was ready for the majors and publicly voiced his confidence despite a wobbly start in training camp. “He was the same last year with Los Angeles,” he explained to reporters. “Wade didn’t look good in the spring, but he got progressively better as the season wore on and he was a good player.”
In late March, Gale was traded to the Dodgers. He was going back to Los Angeles, now affiliated with the Dodgers, who had already announced they were moving from Brooklyn to L.A. the following year. “I guess Gale is just a minor league ball player,” a disappointed Scheffing said.
Gale proved Scheffing right, spending the rest of his career in the minors. Gale was also right about never getting another chance to hunt brown bear in Alaska. “Like I said, I wouldn’t have traded all the money in baseball for that trip.”
The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.
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