Over the decades, Whatcom County baseball teams have come and gone. Some, like the Bellingham Bells, have undergone many changes but are still going strong today. Others have faded into the past, left to be re-discovered by fans and historians.
In 1956, the semi-professional Deming Loggers baseball team played for a national championship in Wichita, Kansas. In addition to being a team from a tiny logging community nobody’d ever heard of, the team was unique because more than half its members were related.
Nine brothers from the Zender family—a clan with prodigious ties to both Whatcom County and the logging industry—played for the Loggers in their brief existence from the early to mid-1950s. The story of the Loggers is one of passion, rivalry, and an unlikely run to national recognition.
In the Beginning
Sometime around 1890, German immigrant Peter Zender arrived in Whatcom County and homesteaded about 20 miles east of what’s now Bellingham.
In the ensuing decades, he became a successful farmer and dairyman, and bought land in the Deming area. Zender married and had five children. His three sons—Tony, Henry and Jacob—eventually partnered with their brother-in-law to begin the family’s logging business.
The Zender family expanded prodigiously, with Jacob and his wife producing 11 children—nine boys and two girls. As the boys grew up, they excelled at sports in their high school years. They were especially good at baseball.
Zender sisters Catherine and Mary were an important part of their brothers’ successes: their biggest cheerleaders, cooks, substitute cow-milkers when the boys weren’t available, and helpers at home when the boys were on the road.
Bernie Zender joined the Bellingham Bells as a 16-year-old in 1941, the team’s second season of existence. He also played for the Hydra-Matics—a team in Bellingham’s city league—with older brothers Dick and Pete; their uncle Henry coached the team. In 1942, the four led the team to a championship.
Throughout the 1940s, the three brothers played for both the Bells and various city league teams, and were joined by younger brothers Nick, Jim and Lawrence, known as ‘Red.’ Three of the brothers attracted interest from major league teams in the late 1940s.
Bernie was picked up the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, and spent each of his three professional seasons playing for different farm teams; he hit .302 with 21 home runs in 1948. Dick played for two St. Louis Cardinals farm teams in 1948, and Nick also played for Dodgers’ farm teams in 1948 and 49. None of them received the call up to the majors, though, and all returned home.
Rivals and Loggers
In 1950, a rift developed between the Zenders and the Bellingham Bells. The team’s manager, Joe Martin, allegedly wanted to bench some of the brothers for a trio of college students returning after their college baseball seasons.
Unwilling to accept less playing time, the Zenders defected to the Mount Vernon Milkmaids. Bells fans were outraged, and reportedly heckled the brothers each time the team played the Bells. In 1951, the Milkmaids wound up playing the Bells for a state title. Their game featured several bench clearings and the ejection of the Milkmaids manager. The Bells won 9-3.
By this time, the Zender brothers were all employees of Zee Brothers Logging, their family operation. They worked as high riggers, log truck drivers, loaders and more, often working full days, and then throwing on baseball uniforms for night and weekend games.
In 1952, the company decided to form their own team called the Deming Loggers. Local logging operators donated funds for equipment and uniforms, and Dick Zender became the team’s catcher and manager. Pete, Jake, Dan and John were outfielders, and Bernie manned second base. The team was filled out with other great local talent, and won their very first game in a 4-0 shutout. They ended 1952 with a fourth-place finish in the state tournament.
In 1953, Nick and Red returned from serving in the Korean War and joined the team. Nick was a third baseman, while Red was a pitcher.
Red, now 90, recalls that the team played two to three games a week, usually on Fridays and Saturdays, and occasionally on Tuesday evenings. When the brothers would suit up and take the field, announcers would sometimes call them ‘The Great Zender Brothers.’
“It was a great feeling,” he says of playing with his brothers. “We had fun.”
As they played, both their talent and rivalry with the Bells intensified. In 1954, five Deming batters hit over .300; they finished third in state that year. In 1955, the state tournament came down to the Bells and Loggers, with Bellingham besting Deming 11-5.
In 1956, the Loggers played splendidly, again winding up in the state title game against the Bells. Held at Bellingham’s Battersby Field, the Loggers defeated the Bells 6-4, earning themselves a trip to the national semi-pro tournament held in Wichita, Kansas. The team’s success and brotherly makeup garnered mentions in the Seattle Times and beyond.
The Loggers need to raise money for their trip towards room and board, but travel was less of a concern: The team hoped aboard a modified Greyhound bus previously used to transport loggers.
“We put some really close-to-new tires on it—wheels off of one of our trucks—for the long haul,” Red recalls. “It was a good journey.”
Youngest brother Jim was playing for the team by then, giving the Loggers nine Zender players. They were joined by eight others. Dick’s son Danny was a bat boy, and both the brothers’ father and uncle made the trip, as well.
When they got to Wichita, the Loggers were among the smallest towns represented in the 31-team tournament. But they were about to make big noise.
After opening with a 5-4 victory against Johnstown, New York, Deming endured a 5-4 loss to the Fort Wayne, Indiana Dairymen, a team with four straight national titles between 1947 and 1950. Deming quickly rebounded, logging a 5-1 win against Wichita C.I.O. and a 6-3 victory against Hazlehurst, Mississippi.
The Loggers’ fifth game was a barnburner. Playing against Greeneville, Tennessee, Deming found themselves down 5-0 by the third inning. In the 4th, the team scored five runs to draw even with Greeneville, and things stayed tied until a 7th-inning scoring barrage left Deming down 10-9. In the bottom of the ninth and trailing by two, the Loggers brought in three runs to win the game 12-11.
This led to a semi-final matchup with the Alpine, Texas Cowboys, where Deming unloaded 18 hits on three Alpine pitchers. Zender brothers combined for 8 hits and 6 runs, while Deming starter Ron Akins held Alpine scoreless through three innings and allowed just three hits. After nearly two weeks in Kansas, Deming was moving on to the championship game against Fort Wayne.
In that game, unfortunately, they never had a chance. Deming starter Daryl Burke was pummeled by the Dairymen, and the team trailed 16-0 by the end of the third inning. Despite three pitching changes to stop the bleeding, there was no coming back from the deficit. Held to just four hits (all by Zenders), the Loggers lost 18-1; a mercy rule ended the game after five innings.
Despite the final loss, the team went 6-2 in the tournament, and Dick Zender was selected to the 1956 All-American First Team. Dick batted .357 in 28 at-bats during his seven tournament games, scoring 6 RBIs off 10 hits with one home run. Bernie scored the team’s only other home run of the tournament, while Pete batted .321 with 5 RBIs. Red pitched a total of 7 2/3 innings with three strikeouts.
As a whole, Zenders combined to score over half the team’s total output in hits, runs, and RBIs. The Loggers also took home trophies for sportsmanship and being the farthest-travelled team, and ended the year as the number one-rated town team in the country.
To this day, the Loggers’ second-place finish remains the highest ever by a Pacific Northwest semi-pro team in that tournament, which is known today as the National Baseball Congress World Series.
Into the Pages of History
In 1957, the logging business took up more and more of the Zender family’s time. The Loggers finished third in the state tournament after a semi-final loss to the Bells, and disbanded afterward.
“We just gradually faded into everyday life,” Red says.
Dick, Bernie and Jim re-joined the Bells in 1958, helping them to a state championship and fourth-place finish in Wichita. Bernie remained on the Bells in 1959; the team notched another state title, but a lack of financial backing kept them from Kansas.
In 1962, the Deming Loggers re-organized for one final season, playing in the Dewdney League with the Bells and five Canadian teams. Their results were marginal, and ended with a third-place state finish. The next year, Jim Zender helped the Bells to their seventh-straight state championship game, where they lost to Everett.
As the Zender brothers grew older, they focused on logging and ceded their playing days to their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The Zender name has remained a fixture in high school and recreational baseball teams throughout Whatcom County, just as it has in the logging industry.
Monica Zender, a great-granddaughter of John, is married to Seattle Mariners pitcher Marco Gonzales, and Jacob Eason, a cousin to the Zender family, is a former University of Washington quarterback who was drafted this year by the Indianapolis Colts.
Zee Brothers Logging officially disbanded in 2000. Over the years, the number of Zender brothers has dwindled. Dan, Jake and Nick died between 1981 and 1991, while Bernie, Jim and Pete passed away between 2002 and 2009. In 2014, Dick Zender died at age 91, leaving Red and John, 91, as the remaining brothers of the family’s 1950s baseball legacy, along with sisters Catherine Cox and Mary Williamson.
As Red looks back on his time with his brothers, he cherishes the fond memories of baseball and beyond.
“I miss them all, even to this day,” he says. “They were a swell bunch, working together all those years. We had our squabbles off and on, like any family does, but we got along very good, to be honest. It was good times.”